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5.1 Surround Sound Music Needs a Jumpstart

It's Time to Move Toward a Standard for Radio

Guy Wire Says It’s Time to Move Toward a Standard for Radio

The time for 5.1 surround sound has arrived for radio. At NAB this year you’ll hear it touted as a killer app for HD. Consumers have been snatching up 5.1 DVD movies in buckets for their home theatre installations and like what they hear. I’ve had it in the family room for two years and even my non-technical wife is saying “wow” when I least expect it. Real surround sound is a winner when conveyed with creative and appropriate production techniques.

The satellite services are producing 5.1 surround sound content. XM and Sirius have launched 5.1 offerings on at least one of their channels for testing. While a few new-model cars are being equipped for 5.1, most receivers and car sound systems still need to be updated for satellite subscribers to be able to enjoy the real 5.1 experience. But so far, traditional radio has almost nothing to show in this arena.


Multichannel and surround sound is an old idea that has appeared in various incarnations of recorded audio and video over the past 45 years. My old sparring partner, Skip Pizzi, has traced its evolution in a recent series of RW articles, providing a wealth of historical background and insight into the technology.

Surround sound never was widely embraced as a consumer product until the movie industry settled on the Dolby Digital 5.1 format, now used for most DVDs. The music recording industry can produce 5.1 content for distribution via new audio formats like DVD-A and SACD, but so far they aren’t showing much interest in the burgeoning 5.1 market.

The rollout is very slow with limited new titles and almost no existing titles being published. Most record companies seem reluctant to remaster existing recordings to 5.1. In some cases, they are legally restrained from doing so. It’s much easier to create 5.1 content from scratch with new releases.


I think they’re missing a golden opportunity here to revitalize their troubled enterprise. Hit songs of the past in all genres and eras are enduring fixtures in our memories. An enhanced entertainment product and experience was created for the consumer when Ted Turner colorized and re-released old black-and-white movie classics. If it’s done right, there is no reason that creating new versions of classic hits in 5.1 would not enjoy a sales renaissance for fans everywhere.

The incentive to produce new 5.1 content is also constrained because older surround sound matrix schemes, phase manipulation and other processing techniques allow plain old unencoded stereo to sound “spacious” or “pseudo-surround” in a lot of consumer playback equipment already out there. This confuses the consumer’s understanding of what real multichannel surround sound is and can achieve. Too many think they already have it or have heard it on multiple speakers, but sadly, they haven’t heard the real thing. The phony surround systems don’t work very well and have no doubt poisoned the well for some consumers.

While the music industry struggles to release new content in 5.1, the radio industry has its own problems harnessing the opportunity. Not too many radio production folks have any idea how to produce realistic and appropriate surround sound material. There’s a lot more to the art form than just playing musical ping-pong from channel to channel with different voices and instruments. A 5.1 learning curve lies ahead for most.


The larger problem is all about standards. Without a clear industry-wide technical standard, stations are not compelled to implement the necessary production and transmission infrastructure to deliver HD 5.1. Unless radio stations encode and receivers decode the same 5.1 format, nobody will hear it. There are at least five contending entities in this contest, all with their own techniques and designs.

Dolby Labs and SRS Labs both have established bases of existing surround sound playback systems in the marketplace that decode their modified matrix formats. Franhofer/Telos and Coding Technologies/Orban are each proposing new high-performing parametric discrete systems. Neural Audio Labs and Harris appear to have the most easily manipulated and transmitted discrete method using their watermark technique. All produce impressive surround-sound results, but to my ears the discrete systems produce more consistent and faithful spatial accuracy.

The satellite services can pick what they want since they completely control both ends of their proprietary systems to captive subscribers. XM is using Neural while Sirius has chosen SRS Circle Surround. Ibiquity on the other hand is playing the 5.1 application to HD tentatively. So far, they’ve taken the easy way out and defaulted to a marketplace decision, letting broadcasters choose what transmission method they want since HD will convey any of the methods in its bitstream.


This approach is akin to the FCC’s marketplace decision on AM stereo. As a collective industry, have we not learned anything from that painful misadventure? While it might be true that receivers can be built with multiple decoder configurations allowing broadcasters to pick the encoding scheme they like, the AM stereo experience proved unequivocally that this is a messy and woefully inefficient way to deliver new technology in a consumer electronic device.

Broadcasters, receiver manufacturers and the public all want and deserve a single surround sound standard to reduce confusion and allow mass production of compatible, simple-to-use equipment.

If 5.1 is going to earn its stripes as a bona fide killer app for HD radio, it deserves the best-performing and easiest-to-implement technology. It’s time for Ibiquity, the NRSC and CEA to tackle this issue together and develop a fair and equitable method to evaluate and choose the best system. It’s out there for the taking, if only nasty politics and lawsuits don’t get in the way.

After a single standard is in place, content providers can forge ahead quickly, knowing that producing real 5.1 material for both the consumer and the broadcast markets will likely pay off. You can see the train coming, guys. It’s time to get busy and get ready to climb aboard.

RW welcomes other points of view. Write to us at [email protected].