Surround for the Masses ?

Surround for the masses ?

So, who needs more than the 4 corners of their living room, and  the screen straight ahead of them, ‘covered’ by pseudo-point-source speakers ?

You might think the answer to that is easy, and i’d agree, but i’d go further and say that few people even need that many sound sources, given that they’re listening in an environment, and from a standpoint, that can’t possibly allow anything like MULTI-DIRECTIONAL sound to reach their head & ears with anything like the ‘distinctness’ and clarity required to make any surround system work.

Then why and how are so many ‘surround’ systems sold as a matter of course now when only a few years ago ‘home cinema’  was proving a hard sell in average-house-is-tiny UK ?

Well, because like many other ‘home entertainment’ and ‘personal entertainment’ items, what was previously constructed and sold as complex electronic technology is now just ‘technology’ , and almost the whole range of electronic consumer goods has now been ‘comoditised’.

This was perhaps the dream of some manufacturers way back in the 1970s, when no doubt some would have liked the ‘stereo’ or ‘hifi’ to have become as standard an item in the home as washing machine and fridge were by then.  And i myself remember the ubiquity of the ‘transistor’ ( a typical wrong-naming that particular irked me, as a young electronics tinkerer and fan ) back in those years, when portable radios came close to being as widespread and run-of-the-mill an item as MP3 players are now.

But this time it’s different, as the result of both different market techniques and lower-cost of manufacturing ( outside the UK ) has made what would previously have been ‘enthusiast’ electronic items, saved up for and given pride of place in the ‘lounge’ , into something that the typical individual or family buy almost as a living-room ‘accessory’ …one that entails as much, or rather less, thought and wallet-strain as choosing the curtains.

Certainly the item that tends to now be the ‘focus’ of most or all of the ‘home entertainment’ sources ( including gaming consoles ) , the television, is now bought in this same casual manner as the ‘transistor’ used to be, and has itself developed previously un-thought of capabilities to display TV channels from several possible sources, as well as in some cases be a recorder too.

All of which actually re-distorts the equations of relative spending, since it was not so long ago that the typical home cinema sound system buyer was someone who already had a reasonable Hi-Fi system and perhaps slightly larger than average TV ( but not a mega-screen projection model ) and had no intention of buying a bigger screen to go with the ‘upgrade’ to surround sound.

Therefore, and this was the case with my systems over several years, the surround-sound experience was THE thing time and money was spent on, and always enhanced my viewing experience despite the pictures being shown still on a relatively modest-sized screen.

However once the price of LCD and Plasma TVs started coming down – around the same time as the maximum possible and average screen sizes went up, it became far easier for people to upgrade from an ‘old’ CRT TV to a new ‘flatscreen’ TV, not only making that change in screen-technology but also moving up several notches in screen size as well, almost incidentally.

A wave of ‘upgrading’ that has been not least driven by the move to DTT across Europe, and people using the ‘excuse’ of not wanting to use ( or continue with ) a seperate STB for viewing ‘Digital’ channels, has justified them buying a big, flat, DTT/DSAT/Internet  equipped TV.

But where has this left the sound ?

Unsurprisingly most of these bigger sets are accompanied by some sort of naff pseudo-surround ‘effect’ that magically only uses the 2 inbuilt ( and as ever since the 1960s, seriously compromised )  TV built-in speakers.

Undoubtedly too I will admit that, given that the makers of ‘flat’ TVs have even less cross sectional depth in which to place conventional speakers than even the later plastic-cased tube TVs had, they have succeeded, using new speaker technologies, in fitting the average set with sound quality that can often be better than that of the elliptical-cone-speaker equipped sets of the previous generation, but not THAT much better….

…. they still sound awful and harsh when compared even to that same TVs line output routed to ‘proper’ Stereo front speakers.

So consequently we now get the depressing growth in sales of ‘Soundbars’, produced by big names who should know better than to claim these are somehow ‘complete’ surround solutions for watching Movies on your 50″ screen.

Meanwhile the systems that still make an attempt to ACTUALLY surround you with sound sources, which i had thought were a good complement to the newer larger 3D/4K/HDR TVs, are already becoming harder to find on sale in the ‘usual’ chains that sell the TVs, with the budget systems rarer than some rather expensive ones that rival the price of a REAL set of discrete decoder, amps and speakers.

This was disappointing to me as i looked for a budget system under £300 for my brother to go with his new 4K Samsung 55″ TV, although admittedly it shouldn’t prove a problem to me when i buy such a screen as i already have a discrete surround system or would budget for a more expensive package one.

One wonders what confusion and under-provision of audio reproduction systems is going to prevail in a year or so when manufacturers start claiming their new ranges can handle ‘3D sound’ …..