DOES SURROUND SOUND HAVE A FUTURE?
In the 1970s, surround sound in the home had a good start, then it abruptly died off. Will the same thing happen
again in the 21st Century? It will, unless something is done to remove the same problem that plagued surround sound
in the '70s.
Surround sound suffered setbacks in 1976 that killed interest in it for many years. "Quad," as it was called
then, was equated with "fraud" for several reasons. One of them was that some of the systems in use then
failed to live up to promised performance. Another was the collection of pseudo-quad systems that were sold to
produce a surround effect unrelated to the recording. Here are the real reasons surround sound lost popularity:
- Lack of a Standard:
The surround industry divided up into little camps of incompatible competing systems. Patent royalties and
market share were more important to record companies than system quality was. The main contending groups were RM,
SQ, UMX, and CD-4, all competing phonograph record systems. Most people did not buy, waiting for a standard to
- Misreading the Market:
4-channel reel-to-reel tape recorder sales exceeded all expectations. They were so good that manufacturers
wondered why other surround sound products didn't sell as well. They speculated that matrix surround systems
weren't good enough, and pushed for discrete systems. This was the main reason RCA backed the CD-4 system, the
only discrete phonograph record. In reality, most of the 4-channel decks were bought by musicians wanting to
create multitrack recording studios. These decks were never used for surround sound.
- Major Market Forces Chose the Wrong Systems:
The best phonograph systems were already covered by patents when the big record companies came into the
picture. They devised their own surround systems to avoid paying royalties on these patents. Here is what happened:
- RM: This system was developed first, independently by Peter Scheiber, Electro-Voice, and Sansui. It's simple,
easy to implement, and the best for classical music with hall ambiance. But no major record manufacturer other
than ABC - Dunhill adopted it. Dolby Surround is based on RM. But because Vox produced many classical albums in
QS, More records were made in QS than any other early 70s system. If Dolby Surround is included, it is still
- SQ: This was a matrix developed by CBS - Columbia records. It favors left-right separation over front-back
separation. It's OK for pop records, but is poor with classical music's hall ambience. SQ had the second largest
- UMX: This system was an RM modified for mono compatibility. It worked, but front sounds moved left and back
sounds moved right in normal stereo. No major record company used it, but BBC used a UMX - RM compromise,
called Matrix H.
- CD-4: RCA Victor pushed this totally discrete system hard. Atlantic - Atco used it too. It was absolutely
the worst surround system. Radio frequency carriers were superimposed on the stereo channels. They hold the
difference between the channel's front and back parts. The system suffers from these problems:
- Standard stereo pickups destroyed the carriers. The result was a hiss known as "sandpaper quad."
- It didn't work well when 4 or more records were stacked on a record changer.
- CD-4 was recorded at lower levels than stereo, reducing signal-to-noise ratios.
- Dust specks that made loud crashes on CD-4 records were inaudible in stereo.
- The records wore out quickly.
- The demodulator cut out on warped records.
- Tuning the record to a musical instrument made the demodulator cut out.
- Public Disillusionment
After hearing the dismal results of SQ and CD-4, the public thought all "quad" was bad, and totally ignored it.
If RM had been able to get a major record company, things might have been different.
The Dolby Stereo MP matrix was made for film use, and thrived because it became a standard. Most soundtrack albums
made after 1977 are in Dolby Stereo, but they are not labeled as being encoded in any surround system. This standard
has endured in film, video, video tape, and soundtrack albums for 19 years. Music is now released in Dolby Surround.
This standard is now threatened, because several digital systems are attempting to displace it. They are AC-3, DTS,
and Sony DDS. Philips MPEG-2 is compatible in that it carries a Dolby Surround signal in its encoding, but it also is
a new system that threatens to make Dolby Surround no longer the standard.
The main causes of lack of standardization are patents, copyrights, and royalties. These must be eliminated forever.
These throwbacks to the days when a master worked for years to produce a single work of art have no place in modern
technology. Advertizing, not sales, should be the major source of revenue for any music and video products.
Patents, copyrights, and royalties are the reasons we have no standards today. And it is getting worse. The recording
and movie companies want to make the recordings people bought obsolete, so they have to buy them again. This is wrongdoing!
As soon as there is no standard, the sales will drop off again, and surround sound will be lost once more. I have
lost the LP record as a standard, I have lost NTSC television as a standard, and now it looks as if Dolby Surround is
going to be lost too. I would rather have the standard than the "improvements" the producers want.