A Grand Multichannel
For those of us committed to multichannel music, the doom-and-gloom attitude that comes from some
quarters of the audiophile community can be pretty frustrating. It's de rigueur for these types to refer
to SACD, for example, as a "commercial failure" — a big surprise to classical music surround-sound
enthusiasts who find they now have more than 1600 titles available to them. A
"commercial failure?" Compared to what? The latest Clint Black CD? Of course SACD is a "niche product." But so is classical music itself, when
you get right down to it. So ate jazz and the more challenging stripes of rock. Are low-powered
triode amplifiers and $2500 moving-coil phono cartridges "commercial failures" because they
aren't jumping off the shelves at Circuit City? They, too, are products aimed at a select group of consumers with a highly developed interest in
both music and good sound.
In this issue we inaugurate a new feature reporting on the finest multichannel recordings
[Multichannel Marvels. The Best in Surround Sound Music]. It's certainly not that TAS has
neglected SACD and DVD-Audio releases in the past. We've had write-ups of these discs
in every issue for six years running now, and will continue to cover high-resolution software
in our regular music section. But Editor-In-Chief Robert Harley has received many requests for more multichannel
music reviews, and this column will substantially augment our coverage with a quarterly roundup of the
crème de Ia crème, sonically and musically, of the latest surround-sound
When the naysayers dismiss the future of the newer digital formats —
and the picture is greatly enriched by the arrival of Blu-ray and HD DVD as potential
music carriers — they are trading on an unspoken (and unfounded) neurosis among many traditional audiophiles. Their fear is
that creating a multichannel playback system will involve not just untold expense, but also the tearing down of the two-channel systems they have so carefully tailored, over years,
to their rooms and musical tastes. But although, like me, they could end up with a system that looks very different
than what they had before, it's not at all necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater to get some meaningful
experience with multichannel.
Here's a Grand Experiment. Approximate the new retail value of your current two-channel system and divide by ten.
If your rig is worth $40,000, your budget for this project is $4000 for three additional loudspeakers, a surround-sound receiver, speaker stands (you'll probably be getting
smallish monitors for the center and rear channels) and cables. Consider used equipment. Note that this budget
doesn't include the digital disc player. You may already own an SACD player with multichannel analog outputs and, if
not, you can always continue to use such a machine for stereo playback of CDs and SACDs, even if you deem the
Experiment a failure.
For the speakers, less expensive models of the same brand as your existing main pair are ideal, but not mandatory.
Unless you will be using this system for video, you probably don't want a horizontally-oriented center speaker designed
for use in front of a screen but, rather, another speaker like the rear surrounds. You may have to buy two pairs and
leave one speaker in the box unused. Don't worry. Either the Experiment's a bust and you sell everything, or you'll
be someday upgrading (and will sell it all, anyway.) Spend a third of the budget on the receiver, approximating the
power rating of whatever it is that's driving your usual main speakers.
Take a Saturday afternoon to set it all up. Invest $45 in a Radio Shack SPL meter and carefully dial in the speaker
levels from the listening position using the receiver's menus. It is true that, for a surround session, it will be necessary to
do some cable switching with your main stereo speakers, but this is a minor inconvenience. You're an audiophile, right?
Then listen. You'll likely be astounded that, even with the new "lesser" equipment polluting your exalted reference
gear, you are experiencing a spatiality you've rarely (or never) heard before with stereo, as well as better dynamics
and detail. You may find yourself drawn into the music as never before, transported to specific venues and real
Take a few months to be sure, listening to a wide variety of multichannel recordings in all genres. There's a good
chance you'll be a surround-sound convert and then — let the upgrades begin!
-- Andrew Quint