Enjoy the Music.com
The Absolute Sound
Issue 241   March 2014
Another Side of The Coin
Editorial By Robert Harley


TAS Issue 241 March 2014  My editorial in the last issue ("Dodging a Bullet") touched off some impassioned reader response. The essay posited that the iPod rescued music after it had been hijacked by the home-theater boom of the late 1990s. I suggested that audio had become a subset of home theater, relegated to second-class status by lossy compression systems, sonically degrading interface formats designed primarily for video, and the relative dilution of quality in 5.1 or 7.1 channels of amplification and loudspeakers. The iPod, I argued, brought music back to its two-channel roots for an entire generation of listeners and paved the way for the quality-oriented renaissance we're seeing today.

The most eloquent dissent comes from reader Carl Weber of Philadelphia. He wrote:

"In your recent editorial, ‘Dodging the Bullet,’ you have narrowed the very definition of high-end audio along lines that exclude and denigrate a viable alternative, that being high-resolution, discretely recorded multichannel sound reproduction. The piece trashes multichannel audio and the possibility that great music can even emerge from a combined audio/video system. Thousands of high-resolution multichannel recordings have been released on SACD, as well as increasing numbers on Blu-ray as both music-only and audio/video discs. By dwelling on the limitations and problems of multichannel years ago when it was immature, you have ignored what is has become today, which is something quite capable of the highest of high-end reproduction."

"I do not advocate that any old, low-end AVR-based multichannel system will outperform any stereo. But your editorial poses an interesting question for people putting together a quality system with sensible budget constraints. Will their musical satisfaction be maximized by 'buying up' to costlier stereo equipment, with diminishing returns at higher prices being inevitable? Or, will the entertainment value of their systems be best in multichannel, given its sonic advantages, particularly spatially, and also incorporating high-quality video playback. Multichannel/home-theater systems also quite often contain advanced and effective features largely ignored in stereo-only gear, such as built-in DSP room equalization and digital-domain bass-management/subwoofer integration."

"Your editorial argues that the iPod has rescued the high end from a fate worse than death by saving stereo reproduction from multichannel and from the clutches of the home-theater Philistines. Whether or not this will remain true as the iPod generation matures is speculative. Though that generation now listens on its iPods, it is also much more oriented toward video media than previous generations of audiophiles. Time, not your crystal ball or mine, will ultimately tell. In any case, I do not think that the high end will be saved ultimately by divide-and-conquer, by lopping off and declaring unworthy certain niches deemed by many demanding listeners to be of very sonic high quality."

Mr. Weber makes a valid point, namely that the editorial was one-sided and unfair to multichannel audio and the possibilities for high-quality reproduction through a theater-based system. My intent was not to denigrate multichannel audio, or picture with sound. When done right, a high-end multichannel music system can, I believe, exceed the performance of a two-channel system. The most dramatic example for me was comparing, in my listening room at length, Peter McGrath's mastertapes in two-channel and four-channel playback. Moreover, there is much compelling musical content on Blu-ray Disc with its high-definition video and uncompressed high-res audio — check out the Legends of Jazz Showcase sampler, for just one example. I greatly enjoy films and musical performances through the multichannel theater system in my home.

The home-theater boom also had many positive effects on the high-end audio industry. Home theater created a new market for the industry's products, encouraged correct speaker placement, and caused the general public to consider and appreciate, usually for the first time, the spatial aspects of reproduced sound.

What I decried in my piece was the way in which audio became subjugated to the demands of video, the overwhelming complexity of theater systems that erected a barrier between listeners and their music, and the outlook that a pure music system was passé. My complaint was not against any specific technology but against the mass market's abandonment of the belief in music's primacy — a trend reversed by the iPod.

There's a great divide between the mass-market scenario I described and the high-quality approach championed by Mr. Weber. Multichannel audio and picture with sound are fundamentally great technologies — provided that they are inspired by communicating artistic expression rather than existing merely as vehicles for selling a commodity in greater quantity.



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