Surround Sound – Tue 19 May 2020

Dolby Digital Plus ironically offers a 5.1 Surround Sound Demo on YouTube
that you can never actually hear through that medium. You’ll have to use your imagination – you’re lucky to get even left and right stereo channels over the Internet.

One of the curious things inherent to growing older is watching technology’s increasingly quick procession from breakthrough, to industry standard, to passé and obsolescence, and then – to vintage.

Realising that in the audio realm the major defining factors in this journey lie not really in the realm of the technological, but rather in connective, storage and other protocols I have a soft spot for what is now affectionately known as ‘vintage audio’, much of which works perfectly well if you invest in a small arsenal of adapters, cables and other measures to allow various devices and recordings to work together. One such piece of castoff technology recently to join my always-evolving home office/studio patchwork of components is a Harmon Kardon AVR5 amplifier/receiver, once on the leading transitional edge of the decline of the home stereo system in favour of the juggernaut of home theatre.

Never being one with a lot of time or money to dispose of on audio trends and advances I mostly missed the ‘Surround Sound’ phenomenon that quietly spanned the audiophile era, from Disney’s Fantasia that pioneered the technique in 1940 (where it is still best known, in movie theatres) to the early compositional experiments of the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, to the standards emerging from Dolby Laboratories the late 1970s and the gradual fusion of them all into the mainstream for home theatre and even lowly personal computer speakers. Thus it has recently been interesting for me to explore transitional technology like the AVR5, which provided an approach to the broad array of current and historical media which variously follow or completely ignore surround protocols.

Without getting into the tech-talk, it strikes me that the impulse to recreate the most ‘real’ (or otherwise enhanced) home art consumption has become a bit short-circuited lately. Not only have we seen the storage of audio information move exclusively digital in increasingly compression-oriented formats; we have also resoundingly, even pre-pandemic, moved to the Internet as our delivery system of choice, resigning us to the irony of our latest industry standards all but sweeping away the hi-fi advances of the preceding decades. Nor is this loss of definition limited to the audio realm, as even more memory-hungry video too has had to abide within finite bandwidth, storage and transmission parameters. VHS giving way to DVD? DVD to Blu-Ray? PVRs and media servers with massive hard drives to store and provide our media? All gone or going, in the name of hardware-light and lower-quality on-demand streaming.

As COVID-19 has robbed us, at least temporarily, of what is still within memory the gold standard, the live experience and reception of works of art, one wonders about a renaissance in the interest in the home listening/viewing environment. It is early to predict what our return to concert halls, art galleries, even movie theatres will look like, just as it is becoming difficult to imagine a new face for health-secure public transit in our energy-conscious times, so it seems reasonable that something (like some say of electric bikes in the latter case) will compensate.

Sound comes at us not just from left and right, but from all sides at all times. But the curated surround sound of contemporary movie sound design, that encoded from Decca-tree and otherwise quadro-to hexa-phonic audio recording arrays, and especially those intriguing electronic mixes somehow dreamed up by my AVR5 to make up for the size, sound absorption and other issues facing listening in my home office are not in the end about audio realism, but they are certainly about experience. I am gradually moving past my sense of loss of the treasure – both experience and livelihood – of real, live music, and conceding that for as long as my art lives in a box, I want technology held to better standards to redeem the sacrifice.

I also hope that technology will come out the better for the experience, just as I hope I will.

-CD

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