Is 5.1 Surround Sound Dead?

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Sunday, April 19, 2009
OK, calm down. No, I don't think 5.1 is dead, or even dying. But I do think it is fading away -- and fading fast.  In a few years I believe the traditional multi-speaker surround sound system will become very much like turntables and vacuum tube amplifiers. Something, in other words, reserved for serious/fanatic movie fans who are willing to pay a high price for an exotic product.

Five years ago a major retailer conducted a survey and found that over 40% of the people who bought surround sound systems either didn't hook up the rear speakers or -- get this -- lined them up in the front of the room! I have been in the homes of otherwise intelligent, normal people who have five speakers lined up on the front wall by their TV. They just couldn't be bothered with placing the speakers in the rear, then snaking wires to the front. And what's most interesting is that none of these people seem to be suffering very much. When was the last time you heard someone say, "boy I sure miss having speakers in back of me?"

Which brings me to my "painter story." Seven years ago we had our living room repainted, and the painters had to disconnect the entire home theater system and cover it with tarps. A day or so after they reconnected everything, I realized there was nothing coming out of the rear speakers. So I decided to wait to see how long it took for any of my family members or friends to notice. After over a month of no-rear-speaker-sound, I disconnected the things and put them in the attic. They never did look right on top of a Stickley bookcase.

Industry statistics back me up. Every year there are fewer 5.1 surround sound systems sold. Part of this is what I call "MP3-dumbing-down." Everybody seems to be willing to settle for less fidelity these days. And trust me, the speakers built into LCD TVs are as low as fidelity gets.

Now here's the sales pitch. "All-in-one" or "sound bar" surround sound systems like the ones made by ZVOX are gaining in popularity as fast as multi-speaker systems are falling in popularity. That's because they deliver 95%+ of what people are looking for in a home theater system -- without all the expense, the complication, the speaker boxes and the wires.  For $200 to $600 you can get a high quality system with room-filling three-dimensional sound, crystal-clear vocal clarity and great bass. And that's exactly what most people want in a home theater -- not a bunch of speaker boxes and miles of wire.


Curt said...

I used to miss the "surround" effect of the rear speakers after I was unable to reinstall them (Bose)after a move. That's when I reasearched the sound bar concept and ended up with the ZVOX 415. Later I added a subwoofer and now, the overall sound quality and directional sound is fantastic. Really should have purchased the 425 in the beginning. Thanks.

Donald Schwab said...

These findings are not surprising. Similarly over the years regarding video, I have found a high percentage (not scientifically measured, but somewhere about 50%, of friends that had connected DVD players or TV set-top boxes to TVs with a lowly form of cable. Composite RCA when S-Video was available; Composite or S-Video when Component Video could be used; and any of those three on a group of those units with HDMI capability.

The worse case was the new Plasma which was hooked to the cable setop box with RG-59 coax and F-connectors -- pure junk.

In each case on my next visit I usually brought the appropriate cables and plugged them in. The compliments flowed -- "What did you do, the picture is much better".

I figured I earned my supper. On the other hand, just like those who don't want real surround, these people probably could be pleased with an old Zenith 15" tube TV and analog cable -- if those Zeniths had a big enough screen!

Now I am not by analogy minimizing the desireability of Zvox and other All-in-one systems. Many folks don't care about fidelity, therefore the MP3 phenom. For myself, I've a 7.1 system (B&W) and a 5.0 system (PSB in bedroom, no subwoofer wanted), as well as a fine sounding Zvox portable in my kitchen for the 19" LCD and travel.

Ralph Lee said...

I believe your article on surround sound to be correct. Surround sound is for the audiophile not the MP3/Ipod masses who do not hear the difference. I believe surround will still live on in the commercial theater sound systems and for the few listeners who really perceive fine audio performance.

Ann Johann said...


Kate said...

We actually have designed a better remote and they are in production. In the meantime, if you have a programmable remote you may be able to get it to control the ZVOX...let us know if you need the remote codes. Thanks for your patience!

BarryD99 said...

Is 5.1 dead? No, I have it in my home theater and it is unbelievable. I have have Zvox in two other rooms and they are great for what they do, but they don't compare to 5.1. Just because 40% of the people who buy 5.1 don't know how to hook it up or appreciate it, that doesn't make it's dead.

Roger T said...

Kate - I just bought a zvox mini, and have the remote with just the 3 buttons, mute volume + and volume -. Is there a newer one? Also could I get a remote code so that I can attempt to program my universal remote?

stan said...

I think there's another reason that 5.1 will die. People who are serious about sound quality know that you can get better sound from 2 channel stereo. beautiful imaging gives a sense of space that is not contrived by having speakers all around.

Lyman said...

OK, so I am a typical suburban dad... maybe a little geekier than most.

For me, surround is a tool, just like any other tool for enjoying audio.

My receiver has Dolby IIx, which usually does a decent job of extracting surround from stereo sources - okay for listening to rock CDs or the radio with a little added excitement.

For Classical, I usually turn the receiver to plain stereo to enjoy that concert feel. And turn down the subwoofer (which the kids have probably boosted for gaming).

I watch a lot of Sci-fi and action movies with the boys, and the surround really shines there. We have a large window on the back wall, and it frequently sounds like the effects are coming in from the street. We notice surround a lot. I think we would miss it if we did not have it. I know I would.

Maybe I care a little more about sound and sound formats, but I am glad for 5.1. Its the biggest improvement since I discovered stereo (vs. mono) on my dad's KLH Model Sixes playing Linda Ronstadt on his DUAL turntable.

bbalex htct150 said...

I've just bought one! It's great!
PErfect and smooth sound quality!

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