Surround-sound systems

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Top quality digital audio from Blu-ray is best heard through a high fidelity surround-sound system. Forget Home Cinema – this is better!


The AV receiver lies at the heart of any surround-sound system. Today's receivers are very complex and offer a bewildering array of options, yet they are a great way to listen to music, having some little appreciated advantages. Here's an easy guide to hi-fidelity, surround-sound style.

Surround sound gets very complicated and - yes - all those loudspeakers can be intrusive, but it also has some intriguing advantages over stereo. A surprising one is that stereo CDs, can be processed successfully into surround sound and some sound better like this. Why? A lot of the frontal muddle (out of  phase info) is extracted and sent to the rear loudspeakers, tidying up the sound.


Then of course, you get the full benefit of surround-sound from SACD and DVD (Video and Audio), and also Blu-ray. Blu-ray music concerts are commonly recorded in high resolution digital audio (24/48 and 24/96) and now Blu-ray music discs are appearing (see 2L of Norway) with top resolution 24/192 digital recordings. A modern AV receiver will handle all these, as well as Dolby and DTS sound tracks of all varieties.

john-mayer-blu-ray-3 2l-1

John Mayer live in high definition ( 24/96) surround-sound and Trondheim Soloists in top quality 24/192.



This is a brief overview of  surround sound systems, the practical difficulties, the jargon, drawbacks and - especially - the benefits. Of course, being a hi-fi magazine, the issue of sound quality is what we will concentrate on.


Surround-sound’s primary purpose was to reproduce DVD video soundtracks and its layout derives from cinema sound systems. A standard domestic 5.1 system has a loudspeaker at front centre (C), which in a cinema handles dialogue. It is supported by front left (Fl) and right (Fr) loudspeakers that construct a frontal sound stage. At rear are two, often small, Surround loudspeakers, usually identified as Surround left (Sl) and Surround right (Sr). Then there’s the (self powered) subwoofer, fed from a sixth low frequency effects channel (LFE), which accounts for the 0.1 part of 5.1, as it is in octave terms one tenth of the audio spectrum.


The recommended layout for 5.1 surround-sound.


This basic specification is commonly expanded to 7.1 where the Surround channels are supplemented by two Back channels, often pictured a pair of small, full range ‘speakers on a shelf. Nowadays most receivers have seven amplifiers on board to accommodate 7.1. However, as 7.1 means having no fewer than four rear loudspeakers, plus cables of course, for small benefit, just about all 7.1 receivers can be reconfigured to run 5.1, with front loudspeakers bi-amped - the audiophile choice - or two loudspeakers in another room. At present  movie soundtracks and most surround-sound music discs (SACD and DVD-A) are 5.1 format by the way; the rear channels being synthesised from 5.1, meaning they are fake. Initially, its best to keep it simple and install a 5.1 system. Whether true discrete 7.1 surround-sound will ever arrive no one knows, but receivers with HDMI linking can handle it.



A typical 7.1 surround-sound layout.


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