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Multi-Channel-Music 101 -- Receivers: Formats, Features and D.S.P.'s

by His Majesty

    Well boys and girls, here I am back hard at work on Tim's computer, for mine sucks. We discussed a little bit about bringing the concert experience into your home in my last online segment. As I promised, I would provide tips for choosing a multi-channel receiver.

    If you wonder why I say multi-channel receiver, I do so for two reasons. 1) When I say surround sound, most fools think I am only talking about movies but in fact, the greatest joy in audio is high resolution multi-channel music. 2) Stereo is dead, it died with the phonograph. The C.D. format should have killed it, but the gutless bastards at Denon, Sony, and Phillips had read the disastrous reports of the death of quad due to "Joe Sixpack's" unwillingness to part with his two-channel audio receiver.

    And while they knew that C.D. could be multi-channel, they elected to make it two-channel so the cheap crowd wouldn't have to replace their 10 year old Sansui receiver. This was 19 years ago when there wasn't crap to watch on television. However shortly thereafter, VHS rental and cable television came into play and "J.Sp.'s" attention diverted from his sound system to his video entertainment; thus began the dog-days of good home audio systems.

    Slowly over the next 10 years, the good stereo receiver, large concert quality speakers, high-end turntable, two hundred dollar stylus, etc, morphed into the $150 all-in-one AIWA shelf-system. In short, as "J.Sp.'s" parents had once socially gathered around high quality audio systems, their gatherings are now often, sadly, arranged around the idiot box; and the audio system for "Joe Sixpack" became relegated to the backside of the family room. (See AIWA shelf-system.)

    However about 10 years ago, "movie sound" began to make its entre into "J.Sp.'s" environment with the introduction of "Dolby Surround", which began the industry's slow turn into multi-channel audio. "Dolby Surround" was a format that simulated multi-channel recording from a two-channel stereo recording. This quickly morphed into "Dolby Pro-Logic Surround", which inspired the average consumer to bring good audio back into the home to supplement their video experience.

    Low and behold, this was the approximate same time that Yamaha engineers discovered that Americans were stupidly running stereo receivers with A&B speakers simultaneously in the same room at the same time. Imagine going to a Who concert, having them perform on stage in front of you, while at the same time The Jam was performing the exact same song at the exact same time behind you. (Or if you had four of the same speakers, The Who and their clones performing on two stages from front and rear.) NOT THE WAY YOU AND I LIKE TO LISTEN TO CONCERTS, IS IT JOEY?

    The Yamaha engineers thought "wouldn't it be better if we could recreate the ambient reflective patterns or the acoustic map of a particular venue in which one might hear this performance?" Thus was born D.S.P.'s (digital soundfield processing), which are advanced algorithms that simulate the feel of the concert hall, studio, or stadium in which one might hear music.

    The timing of the entre of both Dolby Pro-Logic and D.S.P.'s began the move to multi-channel receivers. Now because most of our source material is digital and not limited to two-channel, audio engineers have begun recording movies and music for the "multi-channel experience".

    Imagine if you will, I place 50% of Mick Jagger's voice in the left channel speaker and 50% of his voice in the right channel speaker. That popinjay raconteur sings from dead center of the two speakers. Now if you sit 10 feet back of those two speakers, and you have two more speakers behind you and a multi-channel receiver; and the audio engineer that mixed down Jagger's latest album made a multi-channel recording where he placed 50% of Jagger's voice on the left speaker, 35% of his voice on the right speaker, and 15% of his voice on the right "rear" speaker, Jagger would sing from a point in space just in front of you, while Brian Jones' guitar was present in 70% of the left speaker and 30% from the right speaker which places him five feet behind and three feet to the left of Jagger. Would this not sound real?

    Then, welcome to the world of multi-channel audio. To accomplish this, you need five voice-matched speakers and a multi-channel receiver (or pre-amp/amp combination). As for multi-channel receivers, here are some brand recommendations: Denon * Yamaha * Sony - ES * Marantz * Onkyo

    Within these brands, we are looking for a good mix of quailty-of-sound, balls, multi-channel formats, "simulated" multi-channel formats (D.S.P.'s), and features (such as number of input/outputs, digital input/outputs, remote control flexibility, ease of use, etc).

    Let us group sound quality and balls into the same short discussion. What quality-of-sound and how much impact are you looking for? No matter how much I "red-line" the Yugo, it ain't a Porsche. So, talk to your salespeople at your better retailer's about what quality level and how much balls you want to get from your system. They should be able to guide you to one of the brands listed above (and MAYBE some others).

    As for multi-channel formats, there are really four: 1) Dolby Digital 5.1 (don't worry about 6.1 or 7.1 for now, that's another article); 2) DTS (Digital Theater Systems) 5.1 (or 6.1, o.k. so this one's kinda real but then again, next article); 3) DVD - Audio (high resolution potential replacement for C.D.); and 4) SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc). There are many concerts that are recorded in Dolby Digital, which while having at its disposal better potential sound, uses strong compression. This provides multi-channel playback, but is not the highest sound quality.

    DTS is a better compression codec (scheme), therefore, it is favored by many recording engineers. Both this and the Dolby Digital format can be decoded by today's most basic multi-channel receivers. So don't let this impress your uneducated bum. DVD-Audio is only available from a DVD player that specifically has a DVD-Audio decoder built in; whereas, Dolby Digital and DTS can come off of any standard DVD player (or in the case of DTS, also from C.D. players with a digital out).

    DVD-Audio must be decoded within, specifically, a DVD-Audio player and sent out as 6 analogue audio channels to a multi-channel receiver. SACD can either come from a DVD player with an SACD decoder or a C.D. player that is SACD capable, which hooks into a multi-channel receiver the same way as a DVD-Audio player.

    As for D.S.P.'s, there are many to choose from, none of which are as rewarding as the multi-channel formats mentioned above. However, there are a few worth looking for: Dolby Pro-Logic II (which has been adapted for music as well as movies); DTS Neo; and Logic 7. Beyond these, there are program selections on some receivers that simulate venues by extrapolating "surround sound" from two-channel recordings such as "rock concert", "concert hall", "stadium", "jazz club", etc, which are best represented by Yamaha and few others.

    As for features, look upon these as the cruise control, electric windows, sunroof, etc. of the multi-channel receiver. They might make it more pleasant, but that doesn't make the Yugo perform like the Porsche. Let me list a few, take `em or leave `em.

    Pre-programed/learning remote control: you want it to work all of your other crap? Make sure your receiver has a good one.

    On screen display: do you want to be able to operate your system easier? Get it.

    Lots `o digital and analogue inputs/outputs: do you want to hook up a lot of different crap? Then get `em.

    Do you want to be able to run music to another part of your abode (or adobe)? Then get multi-room/multi-source and you will have the ability to send a different sound to anther part of your humble home.

    There are many other features that may or may not be important to you like the rear seat vanity light in your Yugo (see salesperson for details). In closing, hopefully you will be picking performance as a leading characteristic, but often receivers are sold like your reading down a check-list of features. Given that they will last often between 15 and 20 years, please choose carefully as your furnace may not last as long (and certainly will not provide as much entertainment).

    There is a countless amount of multi-channel music recordings available in Dolby Digital, DTS, DVD-Audio, and SACD. Please enjoy all of the above and support formats that are not based upon 20 year old technology (like C.D.s). But understand, that these receivers (with their D.S.P.'s) are capable of breathing new life into your two-channel audio recordings.

    DVD-Audio and SACD do not support parallel video programs, but rather use the extra storage space on their respective discs to provide the highest resolution multi-channel playback experience. In order to take advantage of these wonderful formats, you must have a matched speaker system, which is what I will discuss in the next online installment. In the meantime, I will continue to promote multi-channel music as it will hopefully allow me to sell you more speakers. After all, I am a spineless, commission-driven dweeb and really only want to soak you for more money spent on something that provides you with no improvement in sound quality; ha ha.

    I remain, Your Majesty, King of my own home concert venue.

Home Hardware Consulting Column #1

His Majesty - the Cyber Home Entertainment Advisor

MJS HomeHardwareConsultant

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