February 28, 2005 10:00 AM PST

Is surround sound the future, or another Betamax?

SAUSALITO, Calif.--In a tiny private recording studio on the shore of San Francisco Bay, Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison is systematically giving his old band's work new sonic life.

Newly digitized versions of the band's recordings glow on a pair of computer monitors--a guitar track here; vocals, bass drum and keyboard there. He and a pair of engineers are recreating the original records as closely as possible, and then remixing the albums into surround sound, commonly known as 5.1, designed for a six-speaker home theater setup.

An engineer puts on their new mix of "The Great Curve." Drums beat subtly but insistently from behind the listener, while David Byrne's voice sings directly in front. A guitar solo whips suddenly between the rear corners--all acoustic effects that Harrison says can help revitalize the listening experience.


What's new:
More albums are increasingly being mixed for 5.1 home theater systems, but some producers say consumers won't bite.

Bottom line:
Backers of this new kind of sound experience hope that it could help drive demand for higher-quality recordings, boosting sales the same way that the switch from vinyl records to CDs did in the 1980s.

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"When I play this for people, I see them getting the same kind of joy they got out of buying a record in the late '60s and '70s," Harrison said. "To me, music seems kind of a commodity today. It's lost a sense of happening at a time and a place."

Harrison's new mix may be an audiophile's project, but it's aimed at equipment that is increasingly a part of ordinary home audio and video systems. Some in the record business hope that this new kind of sound experience could help drive demand for higher-quality recordings, boosting sales the same way that the switch from vinyl records to CDs did in the 1980s.

Record labels have been trying to sell high-definition recordings--the audio equivalent of HDTV (high-definition television)--for several years, but with little success. The market has been hampered by the presence of two incompatible formats: Sony's Super Audio CD (SACD), and DVD audio (DVD-A). Analysts say the conflict has kept many consumers wary of upgrading, fearful of picking a soon-obsolete technology.

"To me, music seems kind of a commodity today. It's lost a sense of happening at a time and a place."
--Jerry Harrison, keyboardist, Talking Heads

Industry sales figures from Nielsen SoundScan show that the top-selling DVD-A album, "The Best of Seal 1991-2004," sold fewer than 500 copies last week. By contrast, it takes at least 6,000 copies a week to make the lowest rung of Billboard Magazine's top 200 list.

"One of the reasons that album sales were supposed to have declined over the past few years was that consumers think music costs too much," said Geoff Mayfield, a senior analyst at Billboard. "I'm not sure that introducing formats that cost even more is necessarily going to help."

However, a saving grace may have come in the new form of

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The article barely mentions SACD. It has gained a foothold in the classical and jazz markets as the defacto audiophile disc.
DVD-A is dead. Witness the Seal sales. Dual Disc is dead on arrival also.
SACD needs better support from the music industry, but it has potential.
And BTW, it is an AWESOME product. The sound is amazing. Far superior to cd.
Posted by jojopuppyfish (1 comment )
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I couldn't agree more. Good SACD are noticable better sounding than good standard CDs even on relatively low quality playback hardware. (there are poorly recorded/poorly engineered examples of both)In my experience, on true Hi-Fi equipment SACD is good enought to reverse the old $/quality equation of vinyl to CD: that it took a $5,000 CD Player/decoder to equal the sound of a good, clean LP on a $1000 turntable/cartridge. A great LP on a silly expensive system may still sound the best but only a few people will ever spend $10,000+ on a music system to hear it. SACD is as convenient as any other CD and the SACD catalogs are growing. DVD-A has been an unfortunate diversion.
Posted by MCK68 (7 comments )
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I'm not sure...
... that I would agree with you about the 'great superiority' of
SACD. I've spent too many years listening to audiophiles trying
to blow smoke about one product or another when a difference,
if it could exist, was far below the capabilities of human

You like SACD's? Fine, and be happy. Are they better than CD's?
Unprovable. Anything can be better than a bad CD. A good CD
doesn't leave much room for real improvement. And unless you
are in an exceptinal audio environment, the pointis moot. On an
iPod, in a car, or with any other sort of portable audio, MP3
quality is more than adequate.

Anyhow, the article's point was 5.1 audio for HDTV, and its spill
over into regular audio. SACD could be 5.1 if it survives. So
could DVD-A. And even tho my ears have heard too many loud
noises for too many years, I'll still vote for 5.1 for superior audio
presentation. It's as big a jump over stereo and stereo was over
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
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Too confusing for consumers
That the industry has "analoged" DVD-A and SACD so that it now takes 6 interconnects from player to receiver as well as the lack of good bass control on the receiver for such a setup, they have reduced this market to audiophile diehards. The music industry has shot themselves in the foot by not allowing a simple toslink interconnect for this source material.

audiophile diehards are also the only people that will sit in one spot to listen to a recording. 5.1 becomes pretty meaningless for the person that is moving around getting other things accomplished while listening to music.

The market for this idea came and went. It is time to cut losses and come up with another idea.
Posted by (2 comments )
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Cure One Out Of Control Problem First
There's a major problem which needs to be addressed.
The record labels are all in a ridiculous "loudness race" these days. During the mastering process, they crank up the volume to obscene levels and then compress the living daylights out of the signal. The result is a clipped, drastically squashed sound file. You can hear the pathetic results on just about any decent sound system. The dynamics are all gone. There's just a clipped, distorted wall of mush.
Take those master recordings and put them on SACD or DVD-Audio, and you get 6 channel, pristine mush as opposed to 2-channel muddy mush.
Run the results through a typical broadcast chain, and it gets even worse: the processing equipment just gives up, and what comes out of the speakers is often an abomination.
Rip a 1970s-era CD. Then rip just about any modern day CD, and compare the waveforms side by side in your favorite audio editing application. You'll (literally) see what I'm talking about.
And no, I'm not a so-called audiophile, although I do appreciate good audio.
Search on "loudness race" and you'll see that I'm not hallucinating about this.
Posted by CBS Orchestra (10 comments )
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Amazing how perceptive the industry can be and yet resistant to fixing their own problems...

First off, the format wars. Duh! Nobody wants to be another betamax loser. Don't these guys learn anything? Before you offer new technology to the public, you MUST decide on a single format and commit to it on both a hardware and content level. And believe me, offering "exclusive" content in a given format does nothing but **** off consumers. We're witnessing this in the online MP3 market now. I'm not signing up for 4 different onlines services to get all the songs from the bands I like. I will however be pissed at the industry and the bands for expecting me to do this... for all of about 30 seconds until I go online and procure a "pirate" copy of the song.
Second - rebuying. OK, buying copies of music I already owned on tape and vinyl in CD format sucked, but there was some compelling reasons (better quality, no degradation from repeated playback, simplicity of programming and skipping around, etc...) and I did it. But how many times does the industry really expect me to "refresh" my collection of the Talking Heads catalog? And why is it that the new format always costs significantly more that the old format? Get real guys, I know even you realize that most of what you're releasing these days is crap, but trying to re-sell me the same old music over and over is not the solution to the problem.
Third -MP3. Well, I know the industry hates this format, and ironically it is lower quality than CD... but haven't they figured out is a convience thing? We put up with the lower quality because we like the ability to server our music how we want, where we want. Burnable CDs were a hit for the same reason. But offering us "legal" MP3s for the same cost as a packaged CD purchased in a brick and mortar store is way beyond reasonable. MP3s are the home grown mix tapes of the present. We should be able to purchase CD, SACD, DVD-A or whatever and make our own MP3s for our own use. That's the only reasonable use for MP3.

OK, I did not address the problem the industry has with freely traded music online. But MP3 isn't the issue. As bandwidth increases the public will begin trading 5.1 music rather than MP3s, which only succeded because at the time it was the most manageable format and size for swapping. I haven't offered the industry all the answers for their woes... but that, quite frankly is their job and if they would stop spending all their energy on trying to wring every last cent out of the paying public, they would come up with some very good solutions of their own. They did an excellent job with the CD format, but that's the last good thing they've done. Since then, all they've done is work very hard at screwing their own customers... to the extent of sueing 12 year old girls for thousands of dollars. Find me another industry that's taken that stance against their own customers and come out ahead.
Posted by skeptik (590 comments )
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