The Sweet Sound of Surround

Now that I have a better living room, I find myself listening to a lot more music and watching more DVDs than before. Of course, I was listening to music before, but usually on headphones, as there just wasn’t the incentive to sit back and let it vibrate around the room. The current lack of internet at home also means I’m on the PC a lot less than back in the ‘kan (Sakura Kan, my old dwelling-place)
My speaker are designed for use with a PC, with only ‘front and rear’ connections- so I had to work out some innovative ways to connect them to the DVD player’s analogue-out, which actually isn’t too shabby. I was also pretty desperate to hear my SACDs in surround, not to mention the aforementioned ‘PULSE’ Dvd. A short trip to Bic camera and a conversation with the fortunately very knowledgable attendant sorted that out in a jiffy.
Hearing the SACDs this way is quite amazing, you can really sense the swelling and receeding movements of the orchestra, building up and flowing around you. You feel enveloped in the music, not really conscious of where it’s coming from, just feeling it all around you. Stereo, except maybe on an exceptional system or good headphones, just isn’t the same. Until I get better speakers, though, I’m sacrificing a certain amount of detail, especially in the higher ranges, which is what brings me to my point- What is the best kind of audio-upgrade for someone like me to get? I want my guests and me to enjoy a believable soundstage in the living-room, so that live recordings aren’t just ‘good’, but ‘amazing’, so that films feel real rather than just ‘something to watch’. Yet, I also have a budget to think of, like anyone else who isn’t a multiple billionaire. So it’s time to look around…
"The first thing is to work out what you need", they say. Well, for me, I want clear and convincing, yet also movingly deep reproduction. I also want it in surround- not just from things encoded that way, but for everything, as there’s no point in wasting speakers by leaving them idle. also, most of my stuff is only stereo, but I want to hear it like the more recent recordings.
So, I had a look around at the options, all the various ‘virtual surround’ modes out there (most of which come with the amp and sound very cheesy) and came to the conclusion that the best way to get this surround-sound is ‘Dolby Prologic II’ or ‘IIx’. I didn’t try the different options, I just took the satisfied audiophiles I found by Googling’s word for it that this really is the most natural way! Now, a lot of audiophiles are happy just with stereo, which is one reason why SACDs haven’t really caught on as such. Yet, there’s no reason to assume that this is how music is supposed to be enjoyed.


For one thing, stereo was originally designed to have three speakers, but the lack of bandwidth (usable space for encoding) on records prevented it. Not only that; in the seventies many recordings were quadrophonic- that is, with four channels of sound- even if these recordings were rarely made avaliable to the public due to the aformentiontioned bandwidth issues, along with the scarcity of surround set-ups. There’s also often more than two musicians playing, which means that for the mixer it is actually harder to somehow squeeze it into two channels. So music itself is neither stereo, 4 channel, 5.1 or the latest 7.1 surround- but an argument could be made the last is, in theory, closest to the truth! Either way, it means I want a system with both a full set of speakers and a way to decode not just the usual DD and DTS from films (I’ll let the player deal with the SACDs for now), but also to make my stereo sources surround… so something with that good old Dolby Prologic II(x) codec.
So, now that I’ve worked out that I want surround, I need to find out how to get it- Which means generally speakers, an amplifier and a reciever. Well, I’ll skip getting seperate decoders and amplifiers, let alone a pre-amp (!) and just get a decent reciever to do the all-in-one. I’ll also take a short-cut with speakers and get a good, matched set, so I don’t have to worry about getting those that go well together, or with feeling stuck with a cr*ppy set that scream to be upgraded. I’ve got that already- well, they’re fantastic for their size, I’m happy with them for movies, partly as I don’t think my neighbours could stand for anything much louder, but when I compare them to my headphones, I find they just can’t produce all those notes, the subtle sounds that make the difference between a well-tuned instrument and a synthesiser. This especially goes for the so-called ‘mid-range’ sounds, the ones you sort of take for granted over the years, as it’s all we’ve been hearing from speakers, but a lot of these new-fangled bass n’ treble systems seem to think they can get away with leaving out. You end up with a sound that’s impressive but also somewhat hollow- and what’s the point of listening to you favourite bands or orchestrasw like that? Good speakers are just as hard to design now as ever, even with all the minaturisation going on, so you still get what you pay for.
So now I know what I want- thanks to Google and some other friends- and it’s a delicate question of working out how much to budget and where to get it. Too cheap and some time down the road I’ll be looking at my gear, wanting to do the same again (know the feeling?), possibly spending more by doing so twice; each time without the feeling of full satisfaction. Too much and I’ll be crying when I next look at my bank-balance and it comes to get the other things my lifestyle seems to need. Upgradeitis is a terrible disease to catch! I think I’ll keep it in check by just looking, for now…

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