SURROUND SOUND LISTENING

I've been exploring the Wonderland world of multiple-channel "surround sound," which can produce superb sound if used properly. However there is much confusion in the industry—and among listeners as well—as to just what it is and how it works. The purpose of this article is not to go into great detail with technical facts about each system, it is simply to try to define and explain the three major new formats so the consumer will have a better idea of what it's all abou—and what is needed to experience it.

Let it be said that the new systems can provide a super high quality of sound reproduction in both regular stereo and multi-channel surround sound. We've come a long way since 1983 when the CD first appeared. However, even then audiophiles were aware that the then-new format, although apparently an improvement over LPs, left something to be desired. In spite of CD's ability to produce very good sound with a total absence of any kind of surface or background noise, the sampling rate and bit rate were limited which restricted the sound quality. Now, almost two decades later, there has been a huge improvement in the art of recording, not only in making digital master recordings, but developing new formats to convey this high-tech excellence into the home for audiophiles.  We must remember that in the digital recording process sounds (music) are converted into numbers—billions and billions of them. The more accurately these "numbers" can be processed, the better the final sound will be.  

Now we have Super Audio Compact Disk (hereafter referred to as SACD, and DVD Audio (hereafter in this article referred to as DVDA), both technologies able to convey the remarkable quality of master recordings with stunning fidelity. With development of the Direct Stream Digital (DSD) recording technology, which is used in making about a fourth of today's master recordings, it's possible to get an amazing 2,822,400 samples per second, providing a wide dynamic range, up to 120 db across the entire audible range. Often the process is used to transfer older recordings to the new formats resulting in greater fidelity to sound of the original.  

WHAT IS 'SURROUND' SOUND?

"Surround Sound" refers to multi-channels of sound, minimally four, that are located around the listener, both in front and back.  There is no norm in the industry as to how many channels there should be. The generally accepted version is 5.1 surround sound, which means two front speakers, a center speaker between them, and two side/rear speakers. There actually is a sixth speaker; this is the subwoofer and is identified as .1. As low frequencies generally are non-directional, the subwoofer can be anywhere in the listening room—some experimentation may be necessary to determine where it is most effective. The subwoofer channel is sometimes identified as LFE (low frequency effects), often used in movies when there are loud, explosive sounds. Confusing? Yes, indeed! A major element in surround sound is the dispersion pattern of speakers involved. If speakers are highly directional, the surround sound will be most effective at a spot equidistant from them; if the speakers disperse sound more broadly, the choice listening area is increased. David Chesky of Chesky Records feels 6.0 is far superior to 5.1, stating "6.0 was designed for music recordings and is all about recreating concert hall acoustics in your listening room..." Chesky feels eventually there will be 7.1, or more channels for surround sound. For more on this go to the Chesky website (www.chesky.com).

SURROUND SOUND IS NOT NEW

There have been experiments in surround sound for decades. Even back in the early '30's Bell Labs experimented with recording/broadcasting in stereophonic sound with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Less than a decade later that same conductor and orchestra recorded the multichannel soundtrack for Walt Disney's Fantasia. In the '50s before development of the stereo LP, Emory Cook (famous early stereo pioneer), issued stereo recordings on LP with a two-headed pickup arm playing parallel separate tracks. There also were experiments in quadraphonic (four-channel) sound, but while some quad LPs were issued there was little equipment on which to play them. Now, with more sophisticated hardware and software, it is possible to have genuine multi-channel surround sound. Some of the recordings being released now in the new formats were recorded in quad in the '70s. For years there have been preamplifiers and control units  (sometimes inappropriately called "receivers") that enable the listener to enhance sound on an original recording, be it mono or stereo.  A major part of my equipment is the Sunfire Theater Grand Processor II which is the master control for the entire system. With it I can play a regular stereo recording and, with the push of a button, sound also is heard from the two rear channels, the center channel, and the subwoofers.  Variable delays can be programmed, with awesome effect, producing a remarkably effective "surround sound."  This process certainly enhances stereo and does provide a satisfying "surround sound" - albeit electronically induced.  However, if one wishes to hear true discrete surround sound (totally separate channels) it's necessary to have the following:

       1) PREAMP/CONTROL UNITthat can accommodate six channels (front left/right, side left/right, center speaker, subwoofer)

       2) AMPLIFIERS for each channel with adjustable level controls

       3) FIVE SEPARATE SPEAKERS, two in the front, two on the sides/back, one in the middle between the front speakers, and a SUBWOOFER Of course the better the quality of the speakers, the better the sound. The two front left/right are the most important and should be of the highest quality. It also should be clarified that the two channels on the side can be referred to as either "left and right side," or "left and right rear" - they are the same speakers in the same position - simply sometimes identified differently.

       4) SACD PLAYER

       5) DVD AUDIO PLAYER  

NOTE: THERE ARE SOME 'SURROUND SOUND' UNITS THAT FOR CONVENIENCE CONTAIN ALL OF THE ABOVE (EXCEPT FOR THE SPEAKERS) IN ONE UNIT.

SPEAKER PLACEMENT  

Speaker placement is very important in surround sound.  Also important is where you listen in relation to the speakers; this is the recommended setup for a 5.1 system:

Placement of the sixth speaker (subwoofer) is important. Even though low frequencies supposedly are non-directional, it stands to reason that the subwoofer will be more effective if you experiment with the unit's positioning in the listening area. If it is in the wrong spot, you could lose much of the low frequency sounds so important in music.

Of course if you are closer to some speakers than others, sound will not be well-balanced—although it still can be mightily impressive. This is one of the few negatives about surround sound—the best listening spot, sometimes called the "hot spot," can be rather small.

Some surround systems recommend somewhat different speaker placement than above - and more speakers including one placed rather high. In this article we are dealing primarily with the 5.1 system..

SURROUND SOUND -- ANALOG OR DIGITAL?

All in the home surround systems are designed for analog discrete surround channels instead of digital. The digital information is there but it must be converted into analog; playback hardware has very sophisticated processes to accomplish this.  And there is no question that recording companies and equipment manufacturers don't want the public to have this digital information for surround channels, apparently feeling availability of digital surround information will encourage more cloning and illegal copying. Multi-channel outputs on DVDA and SACD players are analog - and that's the only way you can get the surround discreet information—using coaxial or optical outputs from playback equipment will not give you the surround channels, just two channel stereo. Now there's surely nothing wrong with analog sound—but it's unfortunate the surround experience couldn't all be digital. There is a problem with bass management; for more on this see an informative article on Audioholics.com. This site looks at the entire surround sound situation informatively—and critically.

THE FORMATS - SACD / DVDA / DTS

The three primary formats are not compatible athough some manufacturers produce playback units that will accommodate all. Two industry giant conglomerates are pushing the two best-known surround sound disk formats. The Sony/Philips group supports SACD, while EMI/Teldec back DVDA. Although occasionally a company will issue a recording in both formats, generally it's going to be one or the other. It's rather like the early days with Beta vs. VHS in video, and LP vs. 45s for recordings. Columbia (now Sony) invented the LP but RCA (now BMG) stubbornly endorsed the ill-fated 45 rpm disks until the superiority of the LP proved so obvious RCA had no choice but to capitulate. This is not to say there will be a similar battle—and decisive defeat—between today's two major formats. There is every possibility both formats will survive—both being of very high quality. However, for that to happen record companies would need to issue a majority of their recordings in both formats, which is unlikely and surely would add to consumer confusion. The third format is Digital Theater Surround (DTS), which has been used for some years for theaters, broadcast and video, sometimes called DTS Digital Surround. DTS which has the ability to provide all of the clarity and dynamics of the original master recording. DTS is used primarily with DVD Video (Jurassic Park was the first big-scale movie to use it). Videos encoded with DTS are so identified and there is great interest in the format with more titles appearing constantly. There is a small catalog of DTS 5.1 music disks.  These offer quality equal to or even superior to DVDA or SACD with totally discreet 5.1 channels.There is a separate feature on this site:  Dolby Digital vs. Digital Surround/Theater Sound, written by audio authority Howard Ferstler.  To read it, click HERE.

Needless to say, all three formats offer super-high quality audio in multiple channels.

                                                      SACD                         

SACD - The "Super Audio Compact Disk" is an audio format although it is possible to add visuals on an extra track. It is the same size as a regular CD. Most can be played only on an SACD player. (Exception:  if an SACD is identified as a "Hybrid" it will contain the program playable on a regular CD player (there is a separate layer of information for regular two-track stereo) but you will not get the super high quality stereo information of the SACD. SACD, with its high sampling rate, is capable of audio quality far superior to regular CDs. It also can carry 5.1 discreet audio signals for "surround sound" although that surround sound might, in some cases, be just 3-channels (with no use of the side/rear channels) instead of 5.1.  SACD has been around since 2000.  Here is the official explanation of it, taken from the booklet that accompanies many SACDs:

As stated above, SACDs labeled "hybrid"—will play on regular CD players—there is a separate layer of information for regular two-track CD stereo but you will not get the super high quality stereo signal of the SACD stereo version on the same disk. Most SACD players automatically select the surround channels, although you can program them to play whichever layers/programs you wish.

DVD AUDIO                                             

There are three types of DVD:  DVD-V (video), DVD-A (audio) and DVD-Rom (for computers).  Each requires the right kind of equipment to play it, but almost any DVD-Rom reader will have DVD-V playback software, and all recent DVD-A players have DVD-V capability. When a piece of DVD-A software claims that it is playable on any DVD player, it is stretching the truth. The high density, lossless compressed information is not played back—the disk includes a Dolby Digital or DTS version of the program in the DVD-V titleset area of the disk which can be accessed by a DVD-Rom or DVD-V player.

DVD-A has been designed to be played on a DVD player, the same kind as found in many home systems. Apparently companies behind this format feel it is a "sure thing" with the general public as so many homes already have a DVD player for movies—and DVDA disks will play on a regular DVD player—although not all DVD players can read DVDA. When that is the case, the music program will be heard but it will be the high quality two-track version rather than the multichannel. Some professionals in the audio world feel the DVDA format offers a more accurate reproduction of master recordings than SACDs—but I imagine the difference to most listeners will be minimal if even noticeable. A problem for some might be that their music listening area is not their home theater area; they would have to find some way to get audio signals to the music listening area. DVDA disks play with the "business" side up, not down. In order to program what you wish to hear you must use a TV monitor and remote control. This is the official explanation of contents taken from an EMI DVDA jewel box jacket: 

       "This DVD-Audio disc is compatible with DVD-audio and DVD-video players.  It contains two audio versions of the music:  six-channel surround sound and high-resolution stereo.(Actually it contains four audio versions, one in each resolution mentioned). The 5.1 surround sound mix uses the full range of the five channels, with an additional low-frequency channel, to offer unparalleled fidelity both to the sound of the performance and the acoustic in which it was recorded.  The stereo mix follows the balance of the compact disc, but in a higher resolution, 24-bit/44.KHz format, yielding wider dynamic range and clarity of image." 

       "Side A contains "DVD-Video-compatible Dolby Digital AC3-encoded 5.1 Surround Sound & 24-bit Linear PCM Stereo."  (NOTE:  AC3 is a compressed signal, Linear PCM Stereo [LPCM] is uncompressed digital audio "the format used on CDs and most studio masters.")
        "Side B contains: "DVD-Audio-compatible MLP-encoded 5.1 Surround Sound & 24-bit Stereo."  (NOTE:  MLP [Meredian Lossless Packing] is "a high quality digital format for DVD Audio with the compression ratio of about 2:1 supporting a 192kHz sampling rate and 24-bit resolution, allowing the PCM signal to be recreated without loss.")

Most DVDA disks do not contain clear information as to exactly what is on the disk, i.e. track information and playing times.  One might think that a DVDA disk would have a listing of everything it contains, in playing order, with access information and playing times - but this seldom is the case.  Some DVDA disks  have a video of the performance while others have just an on-screen listing of what is being played - and some do not even have that!  It would seem logical that all involved in production of DVDA disks would agree on some basic information that would be included on all disks - but this has yet to happen.

Unfortunately, identification information printed on DVDA disks is so small you almost need a magnifying glass to read it.  There is a video element essential in order to play the disk, at least on the equipment I'm using.  After inserting the DVD disk, you must program what you want to hear and the only way this can be done is via a TV monitor using a remote control (some of the actions can be controlled on the front of the DVD Audio player, but not all; there are some DVD Audio Players that include a screen that can be used for setup so a TV monitor isn't required).  Usually you must program the format you wish to hear; if you don't program  for surround sound, usually you won't play it in that format.  

                           HOW DO SACD AND DVDA  PLAY?

Playing a SACD disk is very simple.  Just put it in your SACD player and in all likelihood it will automatically play the multichannel program. If you wish to play the SACD two-channel stereo version, or the regular CD version, just push the appropriate button.  Make certain you have your preamp/control unit input set to whatever you choose to hear.

Playing a DVDA is much more complicated.  When I played the EMI DVDA of Mahler's Symphony 10, after inserting the disk it was necessary to wait until the screen copyright was displayed. A remote control with up and down arrows and an "Enter" button must be used to do the programming. When you push the latter, another screen appears that reads "DVD Video." Why this is there I cannot understand. There is no video program other than screens with disk contents and listings used to select what you wish to hear. After pushing Enter again, the next screen lists all five movements of the work (no timings are given), whereupon one must scroll down to the bottom where on one line it says  "Audio," on the next, "Play."  When you click on "Audio" followed by Enter on the remote you get yet another screen with a choice of "Surround" or "Stereo." If you want surround sound you must select it by scrolling down to it, then click on Enter, after which you return to the previous screen where you must  scroll up to Play and push Enter again. If you go to the top of the list before you push Enter, you'll hear the entire work; you could begin playing with any movement, depending on where you have the little arrow. I haven't been able to figure out how to skip a track with the remote, but it can be done with the front controls on the unit; it also is possible to fast forward/backward with reasonably fast speed using the front controls. It's obvious all of this is unnecessarily involved simply to play a recording. 

Is it worth the effort? ABSOLUTELY! Both SACDs and DVDAs can produce vivid sound and provide a thrilling multi-dimensional listening experience. But let us hope the industry will work together to stabilize and clarify formats, procedures and presentation.

                                     FORMAT/LOGO  IDENTIFICATION

Here are some of the major logos you'll find on the new SACD and DVDA disks, and what they mean. Some disks have four or five logos.  Yes, indeed, it can be very confusing!

The most familiar logo of all, imprinted on all disks since the beginning of CDs. It sometimes still is used on some of new formats as well.

This means that this is a Super Audio CD.  It could be multichannel or hybrid.  You'll have to look for other logos to clarify just what information the CD contains.

This is a DVD Audio disk that can be played on a regular DVD player or a DVD Audio player.  In either case a TV screen is necessary to do programming. If the disk is played in a generic typical DVD player (not a DVD Audio unit) it will not be possible to access the super audio, only the standard Dolby Digital version.

Every SACD identified as Hybrid Multichannel contains 3 versions of the same program:  (1) Direct Stream Digital multichannel surround sound, (2) Direct Stream Digital two-channel stereo and (3) PCM stereo which can be played on a regular CD player.

SACDs with this logo do not contain multichannel information.  The two-channel stereo program can be played on a regular CD player.

Stereo Multi-ch means "Multichannel forward/stereo."  The disk contains multichannel mixes as well as a two-channel stereo mix.  The multichannel mix usually is 5.1, yet it could be 4 or even just 3 channels.

This means the SACD has only one layer which contains multichannel information and it can be played only on a SACD player.

This SACD has only one layer which contains two-channel stereo information and it can be played only on a SACD player. It is not a multi-channel recording.

DSD (Direct Stream Digital) is an advanced method of making recordings and processing CDs.  The logo means the process was used at some level on the disk, either in the original recording or processing to CD - and sometimes both.

The Dolby Digital encoding format was devised many years ago and often is used in big-screen theaters as well as home theater and sound systems.  There are several different kinds of Dolby encoding, including Dolby Surround.

DVD Video means the disk has a video program as well as the audio program which usually is multichannel.

Digital DTS Surround means the original recording was made using the DTS system, that the recording was processed with DTS, or possibly both.

DVD Audio Music Disc is self-explanatory except that it also contains video information that is essential for programming.

Virtual Reality Recording is a technique devised by Delos Records for recording up to four stereo program pairs to be mixed into discrete surround sound.  The final product can be issued in any format. 

In addition to DSD, VR2 and DTS  there is another recording system. "Prof" Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings has developed what is called HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital).  This works quite effectively when played via Dolby Surround. With a unit that can decode HDCD you will hear more resolution, imaging and spatial information than heard on the two-channel stereo version. Just playing these recordings with Dolby Surround will produce a fine effect.

The terms Super Audio CD/SACD, Direct Stream Digital/DSD and their logos are trademarks of Sony and Philips.

As of this March 2002 Sony/Columbia had issued more than 50 SACDs, all with the identification SS XXXXX, and all contain high-quality two-channel stereo information—but some are 5.1 multi-channel, with five discrete channels (plus the subwoofer channel). The only way you can tell if a Sony (or Sony-associated label) SACD is multi-channel is to look for the Stereo Multi-Channel logo (see above) on the jewel case. The logo is roughly 1/3 inch high, not easy to see. An announcement of multi-channels also is printed on the cardboard "box" that usually  packages the jewel case. One would think there would be a separate number prefix for multi-channel recordings (SMC XXXXX ?) making them easy to identify.  Many Sony SACDs are not "hybrid" discs and can be played only with an SACD player, but many of their later releases are compatible with non-SACD players.

PRICES/COMMENTS

Most SACDs are premium-priced with a list from $19 to $25 regardless of number of channels and/or age of the recording.  Doubtless there is a greater cost involved in producing SACDs; I've been told mastering is more expensive and up until Spring of 2002 SACDs  had to be manufactured in Germany because no U.S. factories were equipped to produce them. Now, in 2004, all that has changed.Most major labels charge about $19 for an SACD. There also is a problem of CD content. Many SACDs, particularly Sony's, have limited playing time (Bruno Walter's Brahms Fourth, from 1960, about 42 minutes, is an example).  As SACDs have the same playing-time capability as regular CDs (up to 80 minutes), it is inexcusable to issue a CD—particularly at premium price—with limited playing time, even more so when it is an old recording. 

DVDA disks initially were premium price, listing from $25 to $30, although Naxos has issued severalr with a list of $14.99. DVDA disks often are packaged in a rather clumsy large jewel box.  As mentioned earlier, printing on DVD labels sometimes is difficult to read:  in some cases printing is very small, in the center circle of the disk (same as a video DVD) and it isn't easy to tell side A from side B.

THE RECORDINGS - HOW DO THEY SOUND?

The best SACDs and DVDAs sound
SPECTACULAR!!!!!

More than 200 multi-channel recordings are reviewed on this site.  For a list of these, click HERE.  There is a separate feature with reviews for DVDA, although all of these are included as well in the basic multi-channel index.

 

 There is no question the new formats provide a definite improvement in sound quality—just as there also is no question manufacturers hope to reap huge profits from the sale of software (recordings) and hardware (equipment and players for it).  How helpful it would be for consumers if record companies would agree on general formats and identifications so there would be no question exactly what each disk contains and how it can be played.  Jeff Mee, a  professional independent record producer/engineer working on the West Coast, who was very helpful in some technical aspects of this article, said:  "I feel very strongly that surround is a big step forward in audio, and I am excited to have it and a higher resolution of playback available to consumers so they can truly appreciate the work that we professionals and the musicians we record do to enhance the final product.  Listening to music should be an immersive experience, and I think that these new technologies enhance that in a way that nothing has since stereo." 

UPDATE: FEBRUARY 2005: Yet another surround/disk system has been announced: DUALDISC. This is a double-sided disk that contains a CD program on one side, a DVD format on the other which offers the same program as the CD side plus surround sound and multimedia features including music videos, documentary footage, photo galleries, web links and other features. More than 50 titles were released late in November 2004 and apparently have been well-received by the general public. All of the major labels (Sony, EMI, Universal Music Group—which includes Decca/London, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon, and Warner Music Group) are involved in this project. Initial releases have been primarily non-classical. Just how this will affect release of classical recordings on SACD and DVD Audio is not known at this time.

 

Equipment used for these reviews/comments:  The speakers are all JM Labs, two Utopias for the front left/right, the Center Utopia, two Micro Utopias for the rear left/right, and the Sub Utopia II subwoofer. Also used is the Sunfire True Subwoofer along with their Theater Grand Processor III.  The main amplifier is Sunfire's Cinema Signature Series II, along with the SonyXA777ES CD player and Rotel RDV 1080 DVD Audio player.  For more information on the Sunfire equipment, go to their website. Using their Theater Grand Processor it is possible to replicate, in a very realistic fashion, surround sound from stereo recordings.


The author's front speakers for surround sound, JM Labs
 Utopias, Center Utopia and Sub Utopia II. 

R.E.B. (March 2002/revised February 2004)

This site will continue to discuss new SACD and multichannel releases.  If you have any comments/suggestions please write: bob@classicalcdreview.com   If you are a collector of classical recordings, be sure to check out this site: http://www.classicalcdreview.com

LINKS TO OTHER SURROUND SOUND INFORMATION:
http://www.ambisonic.net
http://www.dolby.com/tech/m.ot.0006.FilmIndFAQ.html
http://www.surroundassociates.com/fqmain.html
http://www.members.aol.com/_ht_a/JbainS!/
http://hometheater.about.com/library/weekly/aa022400.htm
http://audioholics.com
http://www.superaudio-cd.com/ (complete listings of available SACDs)
http://www.interprod5.imgusa.com/son-403/ (Sony's official SACD site)
http://www.dtsonline.com/
http://www.chesky.com/