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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 January, 2004, 09:51 GMT
Sound future for home cinema
By Ian Hardy
BBC ClickOnline North American correspondent

There was a time when stereo sound was considered cutting edge.

High-end audio and TV set
Some flat panel TVs come with a high-end audio package
But since then the movie and music industries have been developing numerous formats in an attempt to liven the listening experience, most notably with 5.1 surround sound.

The move from mono to 5.1 sound systems in the living room can be traced through the cinema.

"Movies in the 1950s were battling television," said Steven Guttenburg of Home Theatre Magazine, "everyone was saying who needs to go to the movies, we can watch movies at home for free.

"So the movie industry said what can we do to distinguish ourselves from television? They had colour, they had a wider picture and they had surround sound."

Ray Dolby, most famous for reducing hiss on cassette tapes, is considered the father of modern day surround sound.

But the first type of technology which helped bring that cinema experience to the home was called Dolby Pro Logic.

"This enabled us to decode from a two-channel carrier - an ordinary stereo carrier - a left, a centre and a right channel, and one mono rear surround speaker," explained Craig Eggers of Dolby Laboratories.

"Of course the centre channel is the most critical split channel in the home theatre environment because that's where your dialogue comes from, 60-70% of what you hear actually comes out of that speaker.

Bittersweet sounds

Then came the DVD. The announcement of a new medium in 1995 put cinema on a collision course with the living room.

Flat-panel displays
People get so excited about what they're seeing visually that they forget about the audio experience
Mark Tuffy, THX
This digital format, capable of storing good quality video and many channels of clean crisp audio, became the global medium for movie watching in the home, and there was a huge back catalogue of movies readily available for transfer.

The cinema experience is easily replicated through 6 channels of audio, called 5.1. The setup involves five speakers - left, centre, right, left surround, and right surround - with the .1 referring to a bass channel or sub woofer.

But the rapid adoption of 5.1 surround sound at home has been bittersweet for the audio industry.

Consumers spend thousands of dollars on a flat panel display but often buy the cheapest, most inferior speaker package available, almost as an afterthought.

"What's happened is that there's been such an advance recently in video technology that you can have this huge screen compared to what you used to have before," said Mark Tuffy of THX.

"People get so excited about what they're seeing visually that they forget about the audio experience."

George Lucas claimed that audio makes up 50% of the impact of a movie, but some audiophiles say listening is a skill that was lost long ago thanks to a blizzard of sound that now follows us through everyday life.

Low priority

Manufacturers are trying to overcome this problem with something called tactile audio, putting speakers in chairs that vibrate along with the movie so you hear and feel very crash and bang.

5.1 sound system
Sound sculptures: Movies are driving the 5.1 wave
There is further evidence of consumer indifference to high quality surround sound. Today's music fans have been downloading and listening to MP3 files by the millions.

High quality alternatives like DVD Audio and Super Audio CD are in a battle for recognition, but after four years remain almost invisible in the marketplace.

"It's a format war," said Craig Hodges of Philips. "Everybody's out to prove that one's better than the other.

"DVD Audio has the name but it still has the problems of compatibility, you've got to have a DVD Audio player to play it back."

Movies rather than music are driving the 5.1 wave. But there are new developments such as headphones that duplicate surround sound, and computer sound cards that take game playing to the next level, creating totally immersive environments that heighten sensations.

5.1 is slowly creeping into TV shows and there are adaptations of the 5.1 experience, called 6.1 and 7.1, which add speakers to the setup.

But for the vast majority, it seems as though sound is a low priority, merely something that goes in one ear and out the other.




SEE ALSO:
Microsoft's software targets TVs
08 Jan 04  |  Technology


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