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:

  1. 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 emerge.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:
  4. 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.