Friday, January 28, 2011

The Long Surround Migration

This week I completed a long-held goal for my studio, which was to enable surround sound listening. The path to this goal was unfortunately fraught with a couple of hidden perils, compounded by my piecemeal upgrade to various home audio installations of differing manufacturers and capabilities. I document them here as a cautionary tale.

The first piece of equipment was a Sony Multi-Channel Receiver, the STR-DG910, ready for 7.1 output, nicely equipped, I thought at the time. I installed this in my new studio when we first moved here in 2006, already contemplating surround sound for audio. Then, a year later, the CD player in our living room died, approximately three days after the warranty expired. Labels like Montreal's Empreintes Digitales were starting to release DVD Audio albums, and many classical labels use Super Audio CD. As it happens, Marantz makes a universal player, the DV7001, which would handle both. So I bought one of them and transferred my existing five-CD changer to replace the dead one.

Now, we've seen competing standards over the years — beta vs. VHS for example. Here's another one: DVD Audio vs. SACD. The original SACD specs (which I understand have been modified in a later version) prohibited the digital transfer of raw audio information, which led Marantz to engineeer their player to send the audio information on analog outputs, one for each channel plus one for the subwoofer. For whatever reason, Sony expected multichannel input on the HDMI or digital coax. Although the Marantz had these outputs, to quote their manual, "All DVD-Audio and all Super Audio CD audio are output only through the analog outputs" (my emphasis). So, several hundred dollars and much gnashing of teeth and various bulletin board inquiries later, still only stereo capability. I picked up a couple of discs in each format as test cases. I was pleased to find that Empreintes Digitales puts 320kbps mp3s in data partitions on their DVD-A discs, so I listened to them on the computer and the iPod.

Life goes on. In Arizona, the summer heat withers any wood on the outside of a house, window frames for example. Our house, about ten years old when we bought it, has two windows on the west face, and no amount of stain, or later paint, would hold for more than a season, and the wooden window frames were falling apart. So we decided to replace them. One of them is in a bedroom that we use for our TV, so we decided to remodel the whole theater room, upgrade the old 27-inch tube to a flat screen LED, complete with surround sound. Earmarks are a wonderful thing, it turns out, as a Marantz SR5005 Receiver and an extra set of surround speakers found their way into the budget, targeted for my studio, while the new theater took the Sony. We got everything at Best Buy and hired the Geek Squad to install it, including attaching the TV and Blu-Ray players to the internet for streaming Netflix. So the Geek Squad installed my surround system as well. All hooked up, ready to test, toss on the DVD-A for Jóhann Jóhannsson's beautiful piece for ensemble Virthulegu Forsetar, lots of brass and electronics, easy on the ears for the uninitiated. Gorgeous! Magnifique! Glorious Surround Sound! Then Stockhausen's Stimmung on SACD. Hit a few buttons on the remote, then it works! Check! Thanks guys, very happy, bye bye! Now get out so I can put on Robert Normandeau!

And here was gotcha number two. No matter what I tried, Robert Normandeau's DVD-A Puzzles would only play in stereo, front left and right only. Despondency. Long day, try again tomorrow. The next day, I called Marantz tech support. Sorry, if it plays anything in surround sound, the problem's in the DVD. Okay, I have another ED DVD-A, Pete Stollery's Un son peut en cacher un autre. Stereo. WTF? Well, let's look at the Normandeau in the computer — and up comes a menu and the DVD Player application. Hmmm. I have a home audio system, a receiver, a SACD/DVD player, and AirTunes to play iTunes. What's missing? Video. Indeed. Confirmed with a little portable TV. Now that I could see what I was doing, it was easy to find my way to Normandeau's multichannel output. Joy in Mudville! On to the Stollery! Stereo. But the menu's different, and as it turns out, there isn't surround sound on the Stollery disc, just a higher bitrate stereo. And Empreintes Digitales does provide this information on their site, in the DVD Audio spec box on the right hand side of the album detail page. I just never paid attention before. But the upshot is, either I attach a cheap, small TV monitor, or learn the magic set of key sequences on the remote to navigate through the menus. I don't think it ever occurred to designers of DVD-A discs that there wouldn't be a video capability on the target systems.

All ends extremely well, though, largely because all of my regular CDs play through the surround speakers. This is especially good, otherwise all this expense would benefit less than a tenth of a percent of my CDs. And their share has been diminishing in the overall music collection because of all the downloads. But to hear them through the surround speakers is truly amazing, it fills the room with sound in a way I've never heard before. But barring exploration of further system settings, it's only for music from the Marantz player, which means that the quality of sound for music from my computer is greatly diminished in comparison. I look forward to hearing so many of my CDs again with the enhanced sound, and I can already see that it will change my listening pattern back to favoring the CDs, saving the digital audio for other occasions that favor portability and availability over sound quality.

1 comment:

missingsequences said...

Hm, I've read quite a few of your entries and didn't realize you were also in AZ (I'm up in Tempe). I recently got a Music Hall CD player and a couple Alpha PSB speakers and yeah, even FLAC through a 24 bit soundcard pales in comparison quality-wise. Sounds so nice! So I'm migrating back to CDs for home listening, although I've been listening to a lot of cassettes lately as well. It's a format I always liked a lot for certain things that require a warm sound and don't have a lot of extreme dynamics, so it's nice that material is being released on tape again. seems like people are releasing things on whatever media suits the music best now rather than just defaulting to the most popular media. I guess it's a benefit of physical media being a niche market for collectors now...