Mainstream consumers got their first real look at surround sound in the 1970s with quadraphonic systems that took audiophilia to a new era but never really caught on with the masses. Dolby Pro Logic in the 1980s significantly laid the groundwork for over two decades of boom times in the home theater market. 5.1 discrete surround sound had less and less compression in the form of Dolby Digital (AC3) and DTS fueled the popularity of DVD-Video all through the 1990s. In the mid-2000s 7.1 surround sound, complete with its side channel surround speakers, eked its way into the feature-laden receiver market and consumers sighed. HDMI never worked correctly and 7.1 only added more complications but over time most home theater enthusiasts couldn’t live without 1080p video and literally uncompressed 5.1 and or 7.1 surround sound in the form of DTS-HD Master Audio and/or Dolby TrueHD – so they upgraded again. Today, the latest and greatest receivers are promoting 9.2 channels of surround sound including height channels as well as stereo subwoofers. In the midst of a nasty recession, consumers and reviewers alike are asking – when is enough enough when it comes to surround sound?
Dealers love new features in receivers. I am not saying they love HDMI because they don’t, but if it worked it would have been what the computer industry likes to call “the killer application.” When it comes to 9.2 surround sound – new receivers have more of a good thing to sell to consumers. Consumers get more for their receiver dollar. They ultimately buy more speakers. Customers have more ways to realize the potential of Blu-ray in most home theater environments. This, for AV retailers, is something very compelling to sell even if consumers are getting a little wary of the upgrade path.
Read more about 9.2 performance on Page 2.
Consumers were confused to the core back in the 1990s when the AV powers-that-be decided to come out with 5.1 surround, as it wasn’t really clear what a “point one” channel was. After more than a decade of advertising, promotion and education – everyone who loves home theater and movies knows what 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound is. However at 9.2 speakers, the question consumers are asking is – do I really need this? The short and honest answer is “not necessarily all at once.” Most uncompressed surround sound tracks in Dolby TrueHD and/or DTS Master audio are in 5.1 or sometimes 7.1 surround. The extra front height channels and other subwoofers are matrix surround sound channels that add to the experience. The key idea for consumers is that they should build systems that are rock solid around their 5.1 speaker system even if their receivers are 7.1 or 9.2 channel capable. The idea of an upgrade path drove growth in the audiophile market from the 1970s through the early 1990s and it is important in the world of home theater today. If there is room and budget, side channel speakers make for a very nice upgrade that is pretty affordable. Remember to pre-wire for such an upgrade when your theater goes in. Before I would do front height channels for 9.2 surround – I would add a second subwoofer to a 7.1 system (I guess that makes it 7.2) as in most rooms an additional subwoofer can make far more impact – especially when there is auto-EQ systems built into your receiver.
The power of a second sub can physically and audibly rock your world. The “Nth” level of performance can come from height channels and makes for an extreme upgrade. Today’s in-ceiling speakers from the likes of Nobile Fidelity, Paradigm and many others come to mind as an unobtrusive way to add even more fantastic levels of high end polish to an already cutting edge home theater system. Just don’t get caught up in the number of speakers in a surround system to the detriment of the core 5.1 system, including speakers, processor amps and source components. There is always time to add more tricks to your system when money, time and logistics allow.
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Please read our other related articles, Building a Reference Grade Media Room on a Budget – Part One and 5 Ways To Save Audiophilia From The Snobs That Want The Hobby Dead. You can also find more information on receivers by visiting our AV Receiver section.