You can't have too much of a good thing
... can you?
by Mark Fleischmann
March 2000 -- OK, I admit it. I have been a churl, a skeptic, a stick-in-the-mud, a hardened reactionary when the subject turns to Surround EX 6.1, which adds a rear-center-surround channel to the till-now-standard 5.1-channel array. Recently I posted this denunciation of 6.1 on the message board under the heading "Why I Consider Surround EX Useless":
1) Even its defenders say the effect is subtle. Subtle effects can be worth having, but anything that requires you to buy new speakers, lay new cable, dump your existing surround receiver or pre/pro, or live with a vastly more complicated system configuration (with EX add-ons, more amps, etc.) should be more than subtle -- for all that aggravation, it should be dramatic.
2) The rear-center-surround channel EX adds is based on matrixing. It is not a discrete (separate) channel in itself. Matrixing -- in other words, deriving a new channel from existing ones -- is something we thought we left behind when we went from analog Dolby Pro-Logic to Dolby Digital. (Pro-Logic derives the front-center and rear-surround channels from the front left and right.) Now it's baaaack.
3) Since Pro-Logic arrived in the late '80s, 5.1-speaker surround has been the one fixed point in an ever-changing surround world, bristling with new formats like Dolby Digital, DTS, DVD-Audio, SACD, etc. Battles between new formats, may rage, some surviving, some dying on the vine (like DTS). But we always thought 5.1 channels of sound would be a reliable standard ... till EX arrived to screw things up. This can only cause confusion among consumers and slow the acceptance of home surround sound in general. And for what? A *subtle* improvement. Is it really worth it?
4) EX was intended as an improvement for movie theaters, whose size makes an additional rear-center channel very helpful. (If you've ever sat at the side and gotten a blast of, say, Armageddon's thunderous, clattering surround effects in one ear, you'll know what I mean.) However, its quick crossover to home theaters is upgrade fever at its most mindless. In all but the largest home theaters, I question whether the extra coverage is adequate compensation for all the trouble (see #1).
5) That Dolby has delegating the licensing of EX to THX is revealing in itself. I suspect Dolby either thought EX would appeal only to a high-end (i.e. big-room) HT consumer, or was just embarrassed at undermining its own Dolby Digital standard.
6) There are things I don't like about Dolby Digital either. The data rate is too low. It's not the warmest or most fine-grained of surround formats. But EX does nothing to address any of that -- it simply creates a new format, and a sloppy hybrid at that (see #2), with all the disadvantages of Dolby Digital 5.1 plus some new ones.
In conclusion, EX is the Divx of surround technologies. It simply undermines an existing standard to create a new capability whose usefulness is questionable or, at best, minimal.
However ... having said all that, I'm now willing not only to accept the notion of 6.1 surround, but to consider proposals for even more radical expansions of surround technology. To wit:
Surround 10.2: EX isn't the only new wrinkle in surround sound. R. Tomlinson Holman of TMH Labs -- surround seer and father of the THX theater and home certification programs -- advocates a doubling of the 5.1-channel array to 10.2 channels, with each speaker near the floor partnered with a mate near the ceiling. This literally would give surround sound a new dimension in the vertical plane. Having not heard it yet, I would be foolish to pass judgment on it.
Surround 12.2: But why stop there? After all, if there's a crying need for both Holman's proposed vertical dimensionality and the rear coverage expansion of 6.1, the next logical step would be to combine them -- doubling each of 6.1's main channels to 12.2, including the rear-center-surround channel. The two subs would go in the front corners, powered-tower-style. Surely this is the best of all possible worlds!
Surround 12.4: Um, wait. If the popularity of powered towers has raised the *.1 bar to *.2, surely the rear of the room could use some bass enhancement as well. Acousticians say low bass is nondirectional -- but what about midbass and upper bass? Best put powered towers or subs in all four corners. Hold onto your hats -- front-to-back starship pans will rumble as never before.
Surround 16.4: Stop right there. Aren't we missing something? Recent top-line receivers like the Denon AVR-5700 have included both side and rear channels, reflecting a dichotomy in surround aesthetics for cinema vs. music. The consensus is that surround channels for movies work best at the sides of the room, while those for music work best at the back. Therefore the Denon receiver includes two sets of rear-surround outputs, for both the sides and back. Shouldn't the 12.4-channel system thus include two additional pairs of speakers to achieve both side and rear coverage? Now we're up to 16.4 and surely our love can't go no higher.
Surround 24.4: But wait, there's more -- the ultimate combo of EX and TMH wisdom. If you really want your overall vertical imaging to have the vividness of your rear-center-surround-equipped horizontal imaging, you'll have to place an additional speaker between each floor and ceiling speaker, exactly halfway up the wall. Having eliminated the "hole in the middle" problem from the horizontal plane, having a trio in each speaker position would eliminate it from the vertical plane.
Surround 30.4: In the distant future, surround theorists will recall how Sony Dynamic Digital Sound, a theatrical format, used not three but five speakers across the front soundstage. (Having heard SDDS in moviehouses, I can affirm its effectiveness.) Of course, in adapting Surround 24.4 to this scheme, we'd need to add not two channels but two trios of channels, adding up to 30.4.
Surround 48.4: And having increased the three trios of speakers across the front to five trios, we have to fill in along the sides and in the back, further expanding room coverage.
Surround *.* Eventually, surround speakers will cover every square inch of the walls of a home theater, and possibly much of the seating area as well. To bring the video up to par with the audio, some enthusiasts will also adopt wraparound 360-degree perforated screens like those seen at the 1964 World's Fair, while more EX-treme surround buffs will dispense with video displays altogether -- to make room for more subwoofers, of course. And in adapting the Surround *.* format to personal use, on-the-go cinema buffs will trade in their surround goggles for suits that cover every square inch of the human body with tiny speakers. Why watch a movie in your home or let a songbird horn in on your jogging routine when you can experience the latest, the greatest, the ultimate in surround sound?
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