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Surround Sound Secrecy

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Put your hands up. You’re surrounded.” That classic line from a thousand westerns and mystery flicks has taken on new meaning in the past several years.

The phrase is still in the movie business, but nowadays, the hands going up are those of baffled home theater consumers facing an ever-changing array of choices in the category of multichannel equipment.

We’ve progressed from 5.1 surround-two front speakers, a center speaker, two rear speakers (the five part) and a subwoofer (the .1, for special effects and other very low tones)-through 6.1, and now we’re hovering at 7.1, in which there are two speakers in the rear and one on each side wall. But even four or five years ago, talk of a 10.2 surround system was already being tossed around as if it were a given.

But how many ears do we have-10.2? And how many people can find space for 12 speakers in their living rooms? Most are struggling to figure out how to deal with six.

Many in the know insist that those extra channels of audio can really make movies more vibrant, more believable. But if you’re not convinced and want a simple, “old-fashioned” 5.1 receiver, you may be out of luck.

“Some manufacturers don’t even offer 5.1 any longer,” says an industry insider who, though he says nothing out of line, prefers to speak anonymously for fear of being, well, surrounded by his peers. “But check this out. A 7.1 receiver can be configured to run a 5.1 surround system in one room, and the remaining two channels can be devoted to a stereo system in another room, or zone. It’s like getting two receivers for the price of one. You can even run two different sources at the same time, like a DVD movie in one room and a separate CD player in another.”

OK, that was easy, but there’s more. Surround modes also enter into the picture. These are algorithms and other voodoo and hoodoo that sit on chips in the processor section of your receiver that do the surround, well, processing. The processing includes decoding the digital audio signal to create the surround sensation, either from discrete “channels” of audio, or a synthesized multichannel effect from mono, stereo or a lower level of surround. The processor then directs those multiple channels to the appropriate front, center, rear, sub, center-rear, overhead, sides, rear sides, back sides or whatever other speakers you might have hooked up in your system. 10.2, remember?

These processing schemes evolved from Dolby Digital and DTS to Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Matrix to Dolby Pro Logic IIx and DTS ES Discrete 6.1-basically from A to W. Next year, it may be something entirely new, X, Y and Z. Now, all of these upgrades in codecs-surround format encoding and decoding technologies-are actually a good thing. They reward consumers with an even better multichannel movie experience, offering better integration of front, center and rear speakers, a more natural illusion of “being there.” But they are difficult as hell to keep up with.

“Consumers, even industry folks, do find the new formats confusing,” says our anxious anonymous source. “The changes can be overwhelming. But these improvements are cool because they can allow older surround formats, or even stereo programs, to be expanded into a 7.1 performance.”

New formats can mean more channels of audio, but does more always mean better?

“Some of the original codecs didn’t even offer full-frequency rear channel sound,” he (or she) asserts, “but current codecs reproduce the entire frequency range in the rear speakers, and that is certainly a sonic improvement. From what I can hear for myself, the new formats are sounding better and better. The introduction of Pro Logic IIx is definitely an upward move to my ears. You get better realism and more seamless blending of all channels.”

But as these newer and better ways to play back your discs are introduced, how do you stay current?

“Receiver manufacturers have to keep up with changing formats,” says our mystery person. “To stay on top, some are offering completely painless updates to their existing receivers via their company Web sites where they make software/firmware upgrades accessible to consumers. If your receiver is so endowed, you simply patch your computer into the receiver via the RS232 port, connect through the Web site, and the upgrade installs automatically, and the receiver then has the most current codecs available for that model.”

But when asked if we will soon have to start thinking in terms of 10.2, our insider says an unequivocal, “I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine. One thing is for sure, 12 speakers will be tough to implement in most living rooms.”

But even getting six speakers right in the more typical 5.1 rigs can be tricky at best and downright difficult for many consumers. Adjusting the parameters-including volume, tonal balance, phasing, distance, time delay-to work together properly requires patience, care and good ears.

Luckily, many manufacturers have recognized these stumbling blocks to proper speaker balancing, and in the past couple of years have added features to their receivers, that make set-up far easier for even the most technologically disadvantaged music and cinema lover. Initially the set-up aids consisted only of automatic speaker level adjustments, which eliminated much of the pain from this otherwise tedious process.

Now, in some more-advanced receivers, this simplification process has gone a few steps further. With the addition of a small microphone, the receiver goes through a thorough procedure, playing audible signals along the way, and, measuring those audible signals via the mike. The receiver analyzes the results and then adjusts, not only the proper volume setting of each speaker, but also the equalization of each to take into account the individual acoustic anomalies in the playback room. Suddenly the system is customized for that room and no other. The sound improves dramatically, allowing music and movies to bloom as never before-all at the touch of a button, more or less, without jumping through a bunch of techno-hoops.

“Making this stuff easy for the consumer to set up is very important. It should be intuitive,” says our Deep Throat. “Fortunately, these new set-up devices can be very good and very easy to use. The more advanced products, which equalize the peaks and dips in a room can be amazingly effective in improving sonic realism. But even auto-speaker level calibration alone is really helpful in getting the correct balance between as many as seven speakers and a sub. One thing is for sure, if a system is not properly calibrated, consumers might not be getting the full potential of the equipment they already own-not realizing the maximum from their investment.”

Another step toward an inevitable future is the growing number of A/V receivers utilizing some form of digital amplifier instead of traditional transistor or solid-state designs. This typically allows for much greater power to be produced from a much smaller, more efficient unit, and, as a result, one that produces less heat than more typical transistor amps. Also, this allows the audio signal to remain in the digital domain from its initial pickup from the surface of the disc until just before it is sent from the amplifier to the speaker. Many consider this to be an advantage, allowing for a quieter, less noisy signal.

“The move toward high-quality digital amps began two or three years ago,” says our anonymous insider. “Digital amps used to have a stigma attached to them because some were etchy sounding and not always pleasant to listen to. They were mainly used in inexpensive car stereos and some subwoofers. But now the audiophile element is there, and they are gaining much wider acceptance.”

Even ultra-audiophile designers like Jeff Rowland, and tube die-hards like Audio Research and Bel Canto Design are incorporating digital technologies into their newest amps, so clearly these concepts are valid and capable of exceptional sound, though none of these particular firms currently offers an A/V receiver. (For some impressions on Rowland and Bel Canto digital amps, see the November 2004 Audio/Video Files, archived at JazzTimes.com.)

There must be at least 150 different A/V receivers on the market, though it seems closer to 150 million when you start shopping. All are not created equal, but most offer many of the same general features that may or may not include 7.1 processing incorporating all, or most, of the current codecs and sometimes proprietary surround formats; seven amplifiers; multizone configurations; multiple audio/video inputs and outputs including S-video and component video inputs and outputs; video processing and switching; and many offer some form of automatic speaker calibration and/or equalization. Video up-conversion is another nice feature to have that can convert the video from older, lower resolution, sources like VHS tapes, to a higher resolution video format so component video outputs, which more faithfully transmit a high resolution video signal, can be used for all video sources.

In the market for a receiver? Here are just a few to consider:

Denon has been a respected name among music lovers since the days when its direct-drive turntables were introduced in the 1970s. Still highly regarded, it has continued to produce well-designed and solidly constructed components, including some very advanced DVD players, and a nice lineup of receivers. The AVR-3805 ($1,199) and AVR-2805 ($899) offer auto calibration and EQ, but the mike is not included with the 3805 and must be purchased separately. The 3805 is rated at 120 watts per channel, offers three-zone, three-source configurations and a wonderful remote, while the 2805 weighs in at 100 watts per channel and offers two-zone, two-source capability. Both include video up-conversion, heavy-duty power transformers and, of course, evidence Denon’s renowned quality.

Another name that’s been around for many decades is Harman Kardon. The company has a full menu of excellent A/V receivers offering a wide range of features and qualities. The Harman Kardon AVR 635 7.1 receiver ($1,299) is a high-current, highly capable unit that features HK’s new EzSet/EQ, which not only automates speaker output settings but also corrects for room acoustics with a parametric equalizer (mike included). It also offers advanced bass management, video up-conversion and 75 watts per channel. Included in its DPR (Digital Path Receiver) series of digital amp-based receivers, HK’s DPR 1005 ($1,499) is a modern marvel-extremely compact, and very efficient electronically, converting more of its electrical power into music than typical receivers, resulting in lower power consumption and far less heat. Expect 70 watts per channel from a sleek, compact package, and flexible multizone and multisource capabilities.

Yamaha likewise offers several different lines of receivers. The RX-V line is its most sophisticated, yet is still surprisingly affordable. They feature YPAO (Yamaha Parametric Room Acoustic Optimizer), which balances speaker volume levels and evens out the tonal balance of each speaker using a sophisticated parametric equalization system-and the mike is included with each. The RX-V1500 is 120 watts and $849, and the V2500 hits 130 watts for $1099, with a few more bells and whistles that offer increased flexibility.

I often rave about Rotel gear because of its fantastic performance for a fantastic price. Rotel’s RSDX-02 ($1,499) is an all-in-one unit which includes a 50-watt per channel receiver (this one is 5.1) with a built-in progressive scan DVD player. If you are tight on space, this is an especially attractive solution. Their RSX-1056 A/V receiver ($1,299) is a 7.1-capable receiver that offers Rotel’s typical robust build quality. Unlike most of the others mentioned here, it includes only five channels of amplification, so if you decide to go to 7.1 you’ll need to add an additional two-channel amp, but the upfront processing circuitry is there already, so the upgrade is simple.

Sporting a time-honored record of building some of the best in the biz, Marantz doesn’t falter a bit with its latest batch of well-engineered A/V receivers. The R8500 ($1,599) and SR7500 ($1,099) are fine heirs to Marantz’s throne in the audio kingdom. They are THX-Select certified components and offer Marantz Room Acoustic Calibration (MRAC), which utilizes Marantz’s proprietary automatic equalization algorithm to analyze and calibrate optimum sonic results for any size or shape room, fine tuning speaker level, phase, size and frequency response-again, the mike is included. Marantz designs its legendary audio quality into these units, both of which also offer video up-converting and a sophisticated learning remote control. Incidentally, the R8500 is a sexy beast indeed, sporting gold-plated connectors and an all-copper chassis as well as a rigid housing designed to help eliminate distortion-inducing external vibrations.

Also worth investigation are the receivers in the Arcam and NAD lines, two other big-bang-for-the-buck companies. The Arcam DiVA AVR250 7.1 Receiver ($1699), and NAD’s T743 ($699), T753 ($999), T763 ($1,399) and T773 ($1,799) all offer great performance and up-to-date technology at their respective price points.

Once you get your new toy home, you might want to heed a few words of wisdom offered by our masked insider, intended to help you get as much enjoyment as possible from your surround system:

“Pay attention to speaker set-up. Try to get them placed as symmetrically as possible. The room’s acoustics have a huge effect on the sound of any system. For example, speakers placed too far into corners can create bass that is very boomy and unnatural. There is plenty of opportunity for tweaking speaker placement.

“To further customize your system to fit your listening habits and tastes, some receivers allow you to set individual sonic parameters for each program source, like increasing the subwoofer level on CD playback, and maybe increasing the center channel for movies to help highlight dialog. These settings remain in memory and are called up each time you switch from CD to DVD and so on.

“And use common sense when placing the receiver itself. Allow room for plenty of ventilation around equipment and don’t bundle the legions of audio and video interconnects streaming out of the back of the receiver or you can possibly create some serious interference, especially in the video signal. Let them hang free. This can make a shocking difference.

“Speaking of video picture degradation, if you are going to run HD video programming through the receiver, make sure the receiver has wide bandwidth HD-compatible component video inputs or you will degrade your video signal significantly.”

Adding a potent surround-sound receiver to your home theater or music system is like a shot of adrenaline. It simply rocks and rolls. With a little research and an understanding of what is what in this wacky A/V universe, it can be as painless and effortless as picking out your favorite candy bar-and just as sweet and just as tasty. At that point your chocolate-stained hands will go up in exaltation instead of frustration.

Originally Published