The years have not been kind to high-end surround sound. Only a relatively few audiophiles now invest in serious surround systems, and only a few companies keep issuing serious surround-sound recordings. The potential promise of surround music DVD-As and SACDs that once helped lead to the creation of The Perfect Vision has largely been forgotten. DVD-A has long been effectively dead; Sony, SACD’s original sponsor, has ended its support of SACD; and high-end streaming is far more focused on issues like MQA and high-resolution recordings than on five- or seven-channel music.
To the extent that new surround recordings exist, they now seem to consist largely of SACDs from a few leading U.S. audiophile recording firms like Reference Recordings and a number of European firms that have helped keep SACD alive after Sony largely abandoned it, and that are now beginning to experiment with other methods of surround recording. AIX is the only really active source of high-quality PCM and Blu-ray surround music I know of in the U.S.
As a result, surround sound consists largely of video soundtracks, and has led to the creation of something approaching an alternative high end. Serious videophiles now add height channels to their center, side, and rear channels and subwoofers, effectively creating “9+1” and “11+1” systems and shaping those systems around a separate track in high-end electronics. It is also a track where about a third of the audiophiles I know have the AV equivalent of a “second system,” but few actually use it to listen to music. Even fewer invest anything like the money in the audio parts of their video system that they invest in their high-end stereos.
The tiny fraction of such audiophiles that do use their “second system” to listen to surround music do so largely because they invested in SACD and DVD-A surround recordings in the past. None that I know have made a serious effort to move on to streaming surround music, using truly demanding audio components for every part of their surround system, although it is clear that such pioneers exist. (Nativedsd.com offers many high-res surround titles. —RH)
What I’m suggesting in this article is that it may be fun to join them, particularly if you already have a really good AV system. Most audiophiles already have the AV components that provide the “second system” needed to experiment with surround sound at a reasonable level of performance, and many already have a source of surround music in their existing collection of SACDs. At worst, experimenting will reveal some of the strengths and weaknesses of even the best two-channel systems. At best, it may provide some insights into a promising future path towards the absolute sound at a time when digital streaming and high-end audio do turn to surround music.
Soundtracks Versus Real Surround Music
Let me stress that I am not talking about the kind of surround sound and music provided by video and movie soundtracks. This mix of music and sound effects is fine for drama, but not for serous music listening. I love sound effects and music when I’m watching a video or movie through my own “second system.” Who can possibly not enjoy yet another attempt to portray the sound of alien attacks on Los Angeles and the White House. However, I’ve never shared HP’s ability to take soundtrack music seriously, or listen to “movie music” unless it is played back as part of the dialogue, sound effects, and images it was composed to support.
I’ve also found that when I do turn the screen and image off, and listen seriously to the sound of actual soundtracks, the musical surround effects are erratic and almost never attempt to portray a real-world musical experience. The music generally sounds assembled without any great concern for anything approaching a realistic soundstage; the sound effects are generally more directional than the music; and sometimes the music is the same on every channel and not in surround sound at all.
There some exceptions such as Gladiator, in which parts of the soundtrack are truly enjoyable as music. The more you listen to soundtracks, however, the more you detect the fact that each is engineered and recorded to at least slightly different standards, and you have to guess at all the finer details of setup. Moreover, the methods used in producing and mixing a given soundtrack vary sharply, and the particular version of Dolby, DTS, etc. used in the encoding alters the nuances of the sound.
Yes, there are test and set-up discs, but even if you chose one, the actual soundtracks do not seem to have any common standard for the blend of the bass channel, or for the mix and level of side- and rear-channel energies. This situation might be different if each video disc, station, or streamer provided reference tones to set levels, if discs had some diagrams to show recommended speaker locations, and if more attention were paid to creating soundtracks designed for home listening rather than for movie theaters. Don’t hold your breath.
Real Surround Music
The story is very different, however, in the case of actual surround-music recordings, and here I’ve found that it is worth using your “second system” to make a serious effort to listen beyond the limits of stereo. Good as stereo can be, and good as the stereo soundstage can sometimes be, in spite of the limits of using only two forward speakers, it is worth hearing what those limits are and understanding what adding a center channel and side channels can do. Just as listening to live music is an essential part of understanding what the absolute sound really is, so is experiencing the alternatives to stereo. The comparison may not persuade you that surround is better, but it is likely to teach you a lot about both the strengths and weaknesses of even the best stereo system.
You also have a number of listening options, and older audiophiles may well have a stash of surround recordings. Some—particularly the more recent classical surround SACDs—try to present a natural concert hall soundstage. Others provide live recordings from an immersive perspective rather than as assembled sound.
If you do still have DVD-As and AV equipment that will play them, I’d suggest re-listening to them, and particularly to the ones with natural soundstages rather than immersive ones. Some labels, particularly Tacet, did a really good job of demonstrating the kind of surround sound you might hear in a live performance. I’m far less willing to recommend relistening to the DTS surround-music recordings that came out at the time when DVD-A and SACD were emerging. Far too many combined second or third-rate music with odd soundstage perspectives and some seemed to be more assembled music than live recordings. If there are some great ones, please write to us and let us know.
The easiest and best path—if your AV system will play SACD—is to listen to SACD surround recordings. These are recordings that are still broadly available and where some new issues still keep coming, that often are discounted or sold as used, and that many audiophiles already own. There are plenty of really excellent surround SACDs available from sources like Bis, Channel Classics, Et’Cetera, Harmonia Mundi, Pentatone, Reference Recordings, RCA, and 2L. All of these labels issue SACD classical surround recordings with natural hall sound. Many non-classical SACDS are not recorded in anything approaching natural surround sound, but some really natural rock, pop, country and jazz SACD surround recordings are still available. Once again, write TAS with suggestions. Some day we might even issue a top fifty surround-music list.
One particularly interesting SACD experience comes from listening to the classic RCA Living Stereo three-channel SACD recordings. There are great warhorse performances on these discs, like the Reiner/Chicago Scheherazade (RCA8276-66377-2), and they are of particular interest because stereo was originally developed as a three-speaker system. These three-channel recordings still provide an important surround experiences, and make a case for center-channel speakers.
It is the natural 5.0 and 5.1 channel SACD recordings, however, that really open up the sound, provide a different view of the soundstage, and often provide a warmer and more natural timbre in the surround-sound mode than on their stereo soundtrack. Some of my favorite SACD full-surround discs come from Reference Recordings, which has long been a source of state-of-the-art stereo. Reference Recordings has been doing surround SACDs since 2010, as well as a wide range of PCM stereo recordings, and if you already have these SACDs, you may well have a group of really good and realistic surround recording with a natural audience setting.
One example is the Stern/Kansas City recording of Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 (Reference Recordings RR-136). It is just one of a number of recent orchestral 5.1 surround recordings, but it is a sonic spectacular that shows you how much how surround sound can open up extremely dense and complex orchestral music and more effectively deal with dynamic extremes. There is also a Honeck/Pittsburgh recording of Strauss Suites from The Rosenkavalier and Elektra (Reference Recordings FR-722) that is less demanding in terms of its sheer mass of sound but is also a far more normal piece of music and equally good as a demonstration of surround sound.
You can be confident of good music and good surround sound, however, with any Reference Recordings disc you buy. Moreover, I have found this to be true of almost all of the European SACD disc brands I listed earlier—at least with classical music. They all approach surround music slightly differently. They also tend to be relatively small audiophile labels that are largely labors of love in a business where far too many major labels go for the money.
As for PCM recordings, as well as other form of surround music, AIX is an American firm that has pioneered a lot of advanced work in surround sound. Most highlight immersive surround, but do so with realistic recording of an actual immersive experience and often have both immersive and natural hall tracks. The AIX recordings will work with the growing number of AV receivers, players, and preamps that don’t play SACD, and AIX offers a good assortment of different types of music. It also has two good demo discs to try. The AIX DVD Audio Disc has both an audio and a video side, test tones that allow you to compare stereo with MLP, Dolby and DTS 5.1 surround, and 9kHz/24-bit and 192kHz/24-bit tracks. AIX also has an Ultra HD-Audio 2017 sampler recorded with Dolby 5.1 with both a stage and audience perspective, as well as a 96kHz/24-bit stereo mix—roughly three hours’ worth of music if you listen to all of the mixes.
If you are into electronic music, there is also a JTK (AIX 85060) immersive recording with the same mix of Dolby 5.1 True HD options. I also have to single out one of my favorites: An all-Mozart AIX Blu-ray with clarinet and horn quintets and a string quartet. It too has stage and audience surround and stereo, and has a live video of the young musicians doing the performance—something that truly makes the music come alive.
There are some good Blu-ray surround-music discs that you can play on any AV system that will play Blu-ray discs, and it is worth googling “Blu Ray music” to see if any offerings suit your taste. AIX has an assortment of immersive Blu-ray classical, jazz, and popular recordings that are easy to buy on its website and are of consistently high sound quality. There are also Tacet Blu-ray recordings, like one of pianist Markus Schirmer performing Ravel’s Mirrors and Mussourgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and another of Matthias Jung and the Saxon Vocal Ensemble performing Mendelssohn’s Complete Songs for Mixed Choir.
In general, however, I’ve found that many non-AIX Blu-ray recordings are hard to get, that some offer no particular advantages in sound quality over SACD or even good CDs, and that others are over-priced and being sold as collector’s items rather than as music. SACD and PCM surround recordings are easier to get, offer a much wider variety, and sound at least as good.
Somewhat to my shame, I can’t speak to the merits of the various streaming versions of surround music, although they should be as good as any discs. I stream almost all of my more recent stereo records, but I have attempted to set up my AV system for streaming multichannel, and my friends who have made the attempt remain technology-challenged. Once again, an area where reader comment or other TAS reviewers may be able to make a contribution.
Tweaking Your Second System
You can’t play the game (music) without the toys (electronics and speakers). As is always the case with audio, the better the “second system,” the better the sound. I’ve found, however, that a number of receivers—particularly from Marantz—provide surprisingly good surround sound when properly set up. Much also depends on your DVD player. I bought the Oppo UPD 205 Blu-ray player that I reviewed in the January 2018 issue of TAS. It can play virtually any surround-disc format, and it is a relatively moderately priced way of getting a really good surround-music player with excellent video performance. You may also have an older disc player, and many that don’t meet the highest current levels of audio performance will do a good job of revealing the surround character of SACDs, older DVD-As, DTS surround recordings, and PCM surround recordings from AIX.
Admittedly, there are problems in using even a highly sophisticated AV system for surround-music purposes. You don’t have to listen to a wide variety of SACD and other surround recordings to realize that there is no clear standard for the use or non-use of the 5.1 subwoofer, for setting the relative levels of the side speakers or for the placement of the side speakers, for placing a center-channel speaker that is usually radically different from the main left and right channel speakers, and/or for determining the intended surround listening position. Don’t rely too much on set-up discs, instructions, and automatic set-up features. There are no real-world standards that apply to all surround-music recordings, and each component manufacturer/recording company seems to have approached things at least a bit differently.
At the same time, you can get fairly decent surround music by using the same settings you use for your AV system. Tweaking setting levels, adjusting speaker locations, and re-running any room-correction system can help a lot. The one caution I’d give is that all of the surround-music recordings I’ve heard to date are three-channel (RCA), five-channel (5.0), or five channel plus subwoofer (5.1). These recordings still normally sound good through 7.1 and more complex systems, but this is not how they are intended to be played. In most cases, it is a good idea to turn the extra channels off. Fortunately, almost all AV systems make it easy to switch off everything but the 5.1 elements of the system and to tweak levels of the active channels a bit by ear.
Most surround recordings also seem to work best with full-range side speakers that are carefully located to provide a realistic musical experience, rather than diffusive wall-mount or ceiling speakers, although the differences are scarcely critical if you are listening to concert hall rather than immersive surround sound. Blending the bass from the front, center, and side channels into the subwoofer—which is common in AV systems—also produces mixed results and most surround music sounds better with full-range speakers or with the subwoofer crossover set as low as the other speakers permit.
Again, forget about trying to rely on non-existent set-up standards. Actually listen, and adjust accordingly. Also be aware that every AV unit I’ve tried tends to have more distinctive “voicing” than its stereo equivalents. In spite of the standards involved, the specific form of Dolby, DTS, and other surround-processing used in a given AV receiver or preamp also seems to at least slightly “voice” or alter the sound, including the timbre. None of these problems are critical, however, in revealing how surround recording alters the nature of the listening experience. Moreover, one positive note is that once the speakers are properly placed, AV preamps and receivers with some form of room correction work relatively well with surround music if you then adjust the levels to be musically realistic.
You won’t get the clarity, life, deep bass, other features of your primary stereo system if you use less good or mid-fi components in your second system. I can almost guarantee, however, that you’ll hear a different and interesting approach to audio and recorded music. In a properly adjusted system, the frontal soundstage will be more stable and detailed. If the recording emphasizes hall effects, rather than immersive sound, you’ll hear more depth, and get more of a live or concert hall feel. Dynamics open up in space, and live recordings seem more realistic in terms of crowd detail. It will still be more of a fun experiment than some kind of aesthetic epiphany, but what the hell! Fun isn’t all bad, and who knows? You might just find yourself taking surround sound really seriously.