Surround Sound

Growing up there wasn’t much music in the house. My parents had a low-end phonograph that was never used except to occasionally play Sing Along With Mitch or the Irish Rovers’ Unicorn album. Still, as the 70s progressed the lure of album-oriented rock eventually consumed my brother and me, and we both turned to the forlorn phonograph player in the corner of our family room for musical solace.

Like countless other kids, we decided the best way to listen was to put the speakers facing each other in the middle of the floor and then lie between them. We called it the Cone of Sound, after the “cone of silence” on the Get Smart TV show. It was my first experience with immersive audio, and the closest I would come to headphones until I got a Walkman in the early 80s.

One of the first records I bought at the local drug store was Emerson, Lake, & Palmer’s Pictures At An Exhibition. I already loved the Fragile album by Yes, and someone must have told me that ELP was the next logical step. I took it home and put it on the turntable and lay between the speakers, and my impressionable young mind was permanently blown. Despite the phonograph’s low fidelity, for decades afterwards that Cone of Sound represented the pinnacle of musical listening for me: the sound was immediate and enveloping, but without the claustrophobic closeness I sometimes feel with headphones. I didn’t realize it then, but those hours of listening would set the stage, many years later, for my current obsession with surround sound audio.

In the years between then and now I became a musician, sound designer, and audio engineer. I worked in top studios, with drool-worthy equipment, spoiled by the best audio gear money could buy (Studer, SSL, Neve, Westlake, Neumann, etc. etc.). When, after 10 years in music, I left that field in order to follow my true calling of writing, my interest in high-fidelity audio waned, and like most people I adopted compressed, poor quality MP3 files as an acceptable (and convenient) listening format.

That all changed in late 2014. I saw a post somewhere that Steven Wilson (whose work with Porcupine Tree I greatly admired) had Close to the Edge [Blu-ray]“>remixed Yes’ Close to the Edge album–an album that was, and still remains for me, the greatest single musical achievement of the rock era. In my opinion Yes did something during their peak years (and espcially on CTTE) that is unequaled in rock history: they not only took all the lessons and innovations of the Beatles great masterpieces like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life,” but actually transcended, expanded, and improved upon them. (I realize those might be fighting words but again, that’s just my opinion).

What especially interested me about the Wilson remix–above and beyond the fact that I might be able to hear even more detail in those frantic opening passages, or ethereal “I Get Up, I Get Down” midsection–was the included 5.1 remix. At the time my audio system consisted of a cheap 2.1 multimedia speaker set that I plugged into my laptop. Since I had a few extra bucks in the bank at the time, I bought the blu-ray version of Close to the Edge and invested in an inexpensive Vizio 5.1 system so I could hear it properly. I joked to my wife that it was the most expensive CD I’d ever bought–I justified it by thinking that, at the very least, our movie nights would benefit from the beefed-up audio the Vizio would provide.

What happened next was the most profound musical listening experience I’d had since those innocent childhood days lying on the family room rug with “The Great Gates of Kiev” bathing my impressionable ears. Once again, something clicked deep inside my head that this was the way music was meant to be heard.

Since then, my offhand impulse to investigate a classic album in a new way has grown into a full-time hobby and obsession. Over the past 18 months I’ve bought about 75 high-resolution multichannel discs in different formats: SACD, DVD-Audio and Blu-Ray. I quickly outgrew the Vizio and started building a proper system (and more about that another time). I find myself reading white papers on the effects of hypersonic frequencies on certain brain waves, or flame wars about the superiority of one format over another. PCM or DSD? If you have an opinion on the matter, congratulations–you’re a true audio nerd like me.

I’m at the point now where all this excitement and newfound knowledge has to go somewhere, so I thought I would occasionally chime in on my experiences here. I’ll probably use this as a forum to discuss individual surround sound discs, as well as new technologies or interesting equipment. If you happen to stumble upon this page because you’ve been searching for surround sound information, welcome to the club. You might as well make yourself comfortable, because if surround sound affects you like it did me, you won’t be going anywhere for a while.

2 thoughts on “Surround Sound

  1. Just starting the journey into 5.1 Yes music. Not yet bought either the music or the gear. Was wondering if the Fidelio B5 by Philips would be worth buying for the purpose – I know it’s not proper 5.1 but it doubles (as you originally tried) as TV cinema system. Do you think this would be a sensible purchase or will end up disappointed that it doesn’t deliver the experience that Steven Wilson remixes should?

  2. Hi, sorry I didn’t see your question until now. It’s hard to say but I suspect that once you hear what 5.1 can really do, you’ll probably want something better. Have you listened to systems at a retail shop? That can help decide how much you need. Anyway, I hope you found what you’re looking for.

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