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Evolution or Revolution?

In recent times I have been playing with advanced digital components like the SigTech room equalizer. I've also witnessed the arrival of DVD and high-quality multi-channel sound, including interesing demos of surround classical and rock music. This all makes we wonder where we are heading with high-end music reproduction...

Do you remember the aim of a music system? Isn't it to bring the illusion of attending a life performance to the living room? Do we attain that aim? We don't. Listen to one single piano note in real life, even from a crappy piano and pushed though a rock PA, and then compare to a piano replayed on your stereo music system. It doesn't even come close. Maybe there's something missing in stereo...

Suppose we went back to 1960, before man set foot on the moon, before the lads of U2 were born (though, if I'm not mistaken, Wolfgang was already dead), and before the record companies and movie producers bulged with greed. 1960: the beginning of the stereo era. Suppose we assembled then a good hifi system, e.g. a Garrard 401 with SME 3012 arm and Ortofon SPU cartridge, Marantz 7 and 8 amplification, and a pair of original Quad ESLs. What would be hear? We would hear, to our present tastes, excellent reproduction of music. In fact, this system would sound better than many a more expensive system does nowadays.

So what has happened since those illustrious days? Evolution. Only the stepwise refinement of things that already existed. Even digital recording, and later playback, was not a revolution. It was the simple one-for-one replacement of only a few aspects of the signal chain with something else, with its own new set of problems. But basically, nothing changed. And basically, the aim of domestic sound reproduction remained as unreachable as ever. Regardless of the noble efforts of tweakers and cable manufacturers who went at great lengths selling audiophiles $3000/m wiring, and regardless of the advancements made by geniuses who first standardized a crappy interface for digital signal transport, and who subsequently invented expensive black boxes to aleviate some of that interface's problems. Stereos stuck to producing just a wall of sound, as if Phil Spector invented the whole idea. But really realistic sound? Forget it.

And if our systems don't sound like the real thing, then they can't be accurate, can they? The limited amount of accuracy present in today's best high-end stereo systems is accuracy concentrated (wasted?) in point optimisations, accuracy dedicated to a few details of stereo, rather than applied to the whole concept of sound production. Stereo is flawed. Stereo can't bring two or three dimensional sound (you believed in heigth and depth? Forget it. Most of it are artefacts). Hell, stereo can't even preserve an accurate tonal balance, due to comb filter effects originating from the two non-coincident speaker channels interfering with the cranium. At its best, stereo can be like a good tricked black-and-white photograph: evoking emotions. At its worst, it can be much worse than a good and precise, yet feelingless, colour photograph.

Maybe it is time for a serious paradigm shift, time to employ modern technologies where they matter the most. Time to look at the whole process, identify major weak spots, and cure them once and for all. That's accuracy.

Now which problems are there? We have to capture a whole soundfield of a musical performance. Then we have to replay it in a living room, without influence from the room's acoustics. And we have to do this in an economically and ergonomically acceptable way.

Capturing the sound field is easy (well, not really). Multichannel does this, and multichannel Ambisonics - yes, that old and wrongly maligned technology - does it even better. But what will it do to the music?

At the Ramada '97 I heard Bowie's Catpeople replayed over Andrea von Salin's AVS 4-channel system. Of course the resulting soundstage was artificial, but it did sound exciting and even suited this particular track: while I did not get the idea I was attending a performance, I got the weird and surrealistic feeling that I was within the song. And yet, I wonder if we really would want to hear the likes of Jimi or Iggy periphonically in our living rooms. Or is this just the nagging of a youngster growing old without he himself knowing it?

Who knows? Even more, who cares? For it is easy to comprehend that in the early days of multi-channel music gratuitous ping-pong effects will indeed abound (as Glenn Zelniker already said in his interview), but it is also to be expected that after a short while, surround music will create its own aesthetic values in the pop world, while it is obvious already that surround in 'real' music, i.e. acoustically recorder music performed in a real hall, like classic, jazz, and perhaps small-scale folk (remember "The Trinity Sessions"?) will benefit immediately from the new scale of fidelity. Sure, the whole music industry wil have to convert, but after all progress is what makes the world spin around and around. Or did you expect to stick to plain vanilla two channel stereo until the year 3000?

No, the real problems of surround music are elsewhere: Do we really want to fill our living rooms with loudspeakers? Is there any market future for a high-end multichannel system?

These are harder questions. Speaking for myself, the prospect of having to catter for five up to eight speakers of Quad ESL calibre in our small (3.5 x 8m) living room is daunting. Without doubt, a great many people will agree with me here. After all, not everyone is wealthy and lucky enough to be able to afford a dedicated listening hall like Alastair Robertson Aikman's!
Moreover, placing eight speakers is one thing, placing eight speakers at the correct position relative to the listening chair is another one!

So if high-end multichannel is to be embraced by more than a few people, the paradigm should provide realistic solutions for the above real problems.

Luckily there's always the future, and even the near future looks promising: we won't have to wait that long for our cures. The advent of cheap raw computer processing and of totally new speaker technologies like NXT's wall-hung flat panels carries in it the solution to all of our problems. For starters, signal processing can be used to adapt the sound signals to the actual layout of living room and the positions of speakers and listener in it. So instead of the system dictating you and your environment, you now tell the system about the place it is in. Further, room acoustics can be almost completely eliminated by DSP filtering (expect a test of the SigTech digital room equalizer real soon in TNT!), and less-than-ideal speakers - we are thinking now again of cheap panel speakers - can be compensated nicely just as well. Our hifi now starts to look like a prop of Lawnmower Man (not that I ever saw that film), but it can sound like the real thing. Hell, maybe it will evolve beyond speakers (now that's a solution), we all wearing wireless headsets that pump the soundfield into our ears.

Whatever the future will bring, aural virtual reality in the living room can be. And for sure it will be a far cry from current conservative high-end practice. Yet, why is it then that a good two-channel vinyl-based system will always have its own kind of charm...

© Copyright 1998 Werner Ogiers / TNT-Audio

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