5.1 surround? 7.1 surround? Bah! 10.2!!!!

I’ve heard the future of audio, and it is 10.2!

We’ve all by now heard of 5.1 channel surround, and the greater percentage of home theater sound systems are capable of playing that format. Most of today’s home theater receivers are capable of 7.1 channel surround, though very few films are mixed with 7.1 channels. But what I heard goes beyond 5.1, beyond 7.1, to 10.2 channels.

Before you groan thinking “I can’t put 3 front speakers where I want them, how am I ever going to place 12?”, we have to go through a little analysis.

The logic goes: everyone can hear the improvement that stereo has over a single speaker mono. Similarly, the improvement between 2 channel stereo and 5.1 channel surround is also unmistakable. If you follow that line of progression, you’ll notice that every time the channel count is doubled, the improvement is unmistakable. So, the next logical step past 5.1 is 10.2 channels…not 7.1, which would be an incremental step.

The Sound

The goal of all surround sound systems, from early 4 channel (Quad) systems to present day 7.1 channels is to wrap the listener in an immersive soundscape. It could be for ambience sound support of picture, or it could be used to provide a new perspective, such as a “front row” position at a concert, or a prized seat within the band itself, a position simply impossible to purchase a seat for. To a considerable extent, 5.1 channel systems do that, and create a sound space that wraps the listener in 360 degrees of sound…in a horizontal plane. So long as the speakers are mostly aligned for that horizontal 360 degree wrap, the sound field will be a thing of its own, a creation of a sound field, not the re-creation of an acoustic space.

The System

Enter 10.2 channel surround. Research has shown that the more precise the directional content of sound is, the more we perceive it as “real”. What that means is, if you want a sonic image in a particular location, you need a speaker there. Early research into what became “stereo” seemed to indicate that for a 360 degree sphere of sound, you need a 360 degree sphere of thousands of speakers. Lacking that ability, compromises could be made that achieve most of the effect with far fewer speakers. 10.2 is the next logical step. Rather than limit the sound field to a basically horizontal plane, it adds the element of elevation with two high front speakers, and adds two forward side channels between the listener and the L and R speakers, and adds a single rear speaker directly behind you, along with a second subwoofer channel.

That’s how 10.2 differs over 5.1, but what about 7.1? Here’s a comparison:

5.1 7.1 10.2
Left/Center/Right yes yes yes
L-surr/R-surr yes yes yes
L-rear/R-rear no yes no
L-side/R-side no no yes
L-high/R-high no no yes
LFE-1/LFE-2 no no yes

Now, before you look at the chart and say “Look! 7.1 offers something 10.2 doesn’t!”, look closely. No, 10.2 does not have a Left and Right Rear, but keep in mind that Lr/Rr systems cannot reliably place a sound directly behind you. To do that they depend on a phantom image between two speakers, which only will exist if you are equidistant between two speakers playing exactly the same sound. That phantom image is fragile. Remember stereo? If you don’t keep your head locked on the center-line between L and R, you won’t have that firm center image of a vocalist. That means stereo has a small “sweet spot”. Placing a center speaker between L and R creates a solid center, regardless of listening position. The rear speaker in 10.2 does exactly that, but behind you. The function of Lr/Rr from 7.1 is maintained by placing sound between Ls and Rear, for example. From a surround standpoint, 10.2 works like 7.1, but with a palpable rear image. That “no” in the Lr/Rr 10.2 column could really be a “yes”.

What about two subs? Didn’t you think subwoofers were omni-directional? Turns out, that’s only true to a degree. Having two LFE channels adds dimensionality to bass while preserving the advantage of multiple subwoofers from an acoustic standpoint.

So, that’s what it is. Impressed? Want to actually hear 10.2? You will have to take a little trip to San Antonio, TX. There’s where you’ll find Bjorn’s (just Bjorn’s) (http://www.bjorns.com) and their Ultimate Home Theater Experience demo room, with the only 10.2 system in a retail space. And it’s a very special room and system, designed personally by Tomlinson Holman (inventor of THX, and the one who named 5.1 channel surround), and calibrated by him. In fact, he supplies the demo material, complete with his own personal introduction. The demo includes a marching band, orchestra (from both the audience perspective, and from a perspective within the orchestra) and a demonstration of the systems ability to reproduce the acoustic space of a large hall. One orchestral segment is the final few minutes of Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony…an presentation so involving, so immersive, that it brought us to tears…quite literally. The final segment is a very fun 10.2 mix of a Herbie Hancock piece, with lots of electronic pings, fast multichannel pans, all to a lively bit of jazz. For storing the 10.2 material, there was a computer with Firewire audio interfaces, and a bit of software for playback.

There is no video to go with 10.2 at this time. In fact, the material available in 10.2 is limited to the demo selections, and possibly others from Holman’s TMH Labs, the sole supplier of 10.2 at this moment. Of course, the new Blu-ray Disc has all the capacity needed for HD picture and 10.2 channels of audio in PCM or DTS (which supposedly can support up to 2,000 channels!). There’s a bit of a problem getting 10.2 out of a player right now, but providing a bit-stream output is a start.

So, you want one, right? So do I! And, quite honestly, if you don’t mind waiting for more music, or even better, have the budget to commission 10.2 recordings, Platinum Home Theaters would be more than happy to build a system for you…right now. We’ll also be happy to arrange for and produce those recording sessions for you. Of course, when we say budget, it’s not for the squeamish. But if you REALLY want immersive audio, this is THE way to get it.

There is simply no way to describe the experience of 10.2 in words. I know, because I’ve been trying to for several years. You just need to pop for a weekend in San Antonio. Bjorn’s is a short cab ride from the airport, and downtown San Antonio is only about 10 minutes away from the store, with its picturesque River Walk, dinner cruises around the narrow canals, restaurants with live jazz, and world class hotels. Make a weekend of it…but the highlight, I promise you, will be 10.2.

Stand by…10.2 will get here. It’s already had a start of the best part of a decade. We just need to wait for those other 5.1 and 7.1 slow-pokes to get out of the way!