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Thread: Approaching surround sound. Where to start? What to avoid.

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    Default Approaching surround sound. Where to start? What to avoid.

    I want to try to take some of the mystery out of this and offer suggestions for simple nuts and bolts home systems. It looks hard to navigate through some of the modern systems I see out there. Half of them look like complete bs.


    Let's start with amps and speakers. This hasn't really changed.
    You need to power speakers with amplifiers. (Powered speakers are literally normal speakers with the amps built into the boxes.)

    The meat of a surround mix is in the quad channels. So a 4.0 quad system is a legitimate start to a system. 5.1 program can be directed to a quad speaker array. Otherwise 5.1 is nice. Most music mixes out there don't go beyond 5.1 FYI.

    So you need 4 or 5 speakers now and 4 or 5 channels of amps. (Then a 6th bass speaker and amp for the .1)

    A note here about 5.1 surround and a common misconception:
    5.1 is 5 full range channels (just like stereo is 2) plus an additional bass fx channel.
    5.1 is NOT high frequency only speakers with all the bass in a subwoofer! Such a speaker array IS an efficient common setup but understand that the feed to it needs to be modified (usually called speaker management or bass management). In this example you remove the bass content from the 5 main channels and add it to the bass fx channel.

    Alright, so you need amps and speakers. 4 minimum (which could be simply 2 stereo amps and two sets of similar as possible if not identical speakers)

    Getting the audio to the amps/speakers is the complicated part... or can be.

    This modern option is pretty slick:
    Thunderbolt output on the computer to HDMI input on an HDMI equipped surround receiver.
    Plug the 6 (for 5.1) speakers into the surround receiver. Thunderbolt to HDMI cable to the computer. Just hit play on a media player with a FLAC file.

    Can be slick... until you discover the expensive receiver you bought has audio input disabled on the HDMI inputs or 17 other scenarios!

    This always works:
    Audio interface (firewire, USB, thunderbolt, or pci connecting)
    You plug it into your computer (whatever vintage). Audio output jacks on the back to whatever amplifier/speaker setup you have.
    Simple.
    Then we're back to hitting play on a media player with a FLAC file.

    Audio interface. Not just for recording musicians. Some of you already have these for digitizing tapes.

    The hardware disc players... It's kind of a jungle out there. So many devices with restrictions. Oppo looks like one of the best companies for avoiding the format war business. The hardware looks attractive because the computer might look complex. It's really the opposite though.

    Well, I'll start there.
    Last edited by jimfisheye; 2018-02-12 at 09:15 PM.

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    Thanks for your input (is there a sad joke there?)

    Look forward to the next installment!

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    What is Thunderbolt?

    In the past I used an s/pdif cable for surround sound output from my computer. My computer also has a DVI output and if I connect a DVI to HDMI converter to it then I also get audio from the HDMI cable. Dunno if that supports multi channel audio, but if it does then you don't need "Thunderbolt".
    Last edited by meneerjansen; 2018-02-13 at 03:29 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by meneerjansen View Post
    What is Thunderbolt?

    In the past I used an s/pdif cable for surround sound output from my computer. My computer also has a DVI output and if I connect a DVI to HDMI converter to it then I also get audio from the HDMI cable. Dunno if that supports multi channel audio, but if it does then you don't need "Thunderbolt".
    Let me try to explain.

    SPDIF is not a computer data connection, but a digital audio connection. You would have actually been using the built-in audio interface on your computer mother board and sending a digital output to a digital input on a receiver using a SPDIF cable.

    Note that the SPDIF digital is a 2 channel signal path. It can also be re-purposed for encoded lossy surround sound. That's what those dts and dolby formats do - let you use existing 2 channel "containers" for lossy surround. The sound quality on that is great for movie sound fx but gets pretty blury/muddy for dense music mixes. Also there is a range of different quality levels depending on what version/level of dts or dolby codec is used. Surround sound can be flashy at first with the motion and 3d elements but we're going for fidelity first for serious music listening here. Cheap or stepped on sound loses its charm pretty quickly when the motion element starts to wear off. The lossy stuff really doesn't cut it for music listening. Mp3 badness for lo res stereo audio is transparent and subtle compared to the lossy dolby or dts stuff for surround BTW.

    I'll expand on all the kludgey dts and dolby "workarounds" for surround sound later but my advice is to avoid them altogether and keep it simple and lossless. (Lossless is actually magnitudes simpler here.) FLAC file on the computer. Data cable (USB/firewire/TB) to an audio interface or HDMI receiver. Hit play and lossless surround sound comes out the speakers.

    Modern era computer data connections:
    PCI bus (pci card slots)
    USB (1, 2.0, 3.0)
    Firewire (400, 800)
    Thunderbolt (1, 2, 3)
    USB-C (This is the new funny connector that isn't compatible with anything old. It's actually used for both thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.0 moving forward. One connector to rule all and all that.)

    What I was trying to describe is using a computer DATA connection to an audio box. The "audio box" comes in the form of a HDMI equipped surround receiver (which most of you have seen) or what's called an audio interface (used in studios and by recording musicians). Some of you already have interfaces for transferring tapes (you needed the inputs).

    There are some nice receivers available. It turns out that those audio interfaces aimed at recording musicians offer more bang for the buck. Better DA converters and better audio connections than most receivers and they're usually not so inflated in price as a nice surround receiver.
    Consider this:
    Musicians tend to care a bit more about audio quality. You can't sell us snake oil like the average consumer here. We aren't interested in blinking lights that don't tell us anything on devices either. And we're poor!
    There are many audio interfaces available (they come in all different channel counts for inputs and outputs - you're interested in a box with six channels of outputs for 5.1 surround) and they are aimed at delivering professional sound quality for minimum investment.

    Now you can pay more for the higher end of things too (like Prism or Apogee). If you do, you'll have higher quality than is even available in a home surround receiver.

    The next thing I need to expand on is taking inventory and then shopping.
    Notice how many of these different components are bundled together in 'combo' devices!
    That means you need careful planning to build a system. So what happens if you started before realizing that and painted yourself into a corner as it were with stuff that doesn't work together?
    Even just simple speakers requires planning now. They sell raw speakers (passive speakers "normal" speakers) and they sell speakers with amps built in to the boxes (powered speakers). Then they sell amplifiers (receivers).
    It would be a blunder to buy powered speakers and then go out and buy a receiver! See how that works?

    This expands into the rest of the system. The device that converts the digital data back to analog audio for example (the DA converter) is one of the most expensive items in a receiver or audio interface. You SURE don't want to just be buying multiple of such an expensive thing - and you also want the best quality converters you can afford because this is directly the bit responsible for fidelity (before the amps and speakers). You SURE wouldn't want to obliviously come home with 3 of them! (Like buying a receiver and then a standalone DVD player and then a standalone CD player would literally see you doing!)

    So there needs to be a discussion along the lines of:
    Already got this and this? Then buy that. (Don't buy this other.)
    Someone else already has that and that? Then buy this.


    Crap. My intention was to try to simplify things and the above is way too long!
    Keep asking questions!
    Last edited by jimfisheye; 2018-02-13 at 04:39 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jimfisheye View Post
    [...] FLAC file on the computer. Data cable (USB/firewire/TB) to an audio interface or HDMI receiver. Hit play and lossless surround sound comes out the speakers.
    I don't know of any receivers that accept USB in. Only HDMI. On Y! there is a lot of talk about Oppo receivers/amplifiers. I can find 2 Oppo products that I can buy where I live: they are Blu-ray players (one of which costs € 1800 = $ 2220!!!). I read that they can be used without a receiver but then they need a "power amplifier" which are not for sale where I live.

    Quote Originally Posted by jimfisheye View Post
    Crap. My intention was to try to simplify things and the above is way too long!
    Keep asking questions!
    Ha ha. I think that, audio quality wise, we're in two completely different Universes. Let me tell you, and others, what I had in the past and now have. It, unfortunately, is by no means "high quality" Hi-Fi. But, like you, I hate those crappy stupid "solutions" that Sony and others offer as stereo to multi-channel audio.

    In the 80's, as a teenager, I used to have a cheap stereo amplifier and the old b.i.g. speaker-boxes from my dad. The are "3-way" (bass speaker, middle tone speaker and a tweeter). My dad built those himself (from a book). Wooden casing and all. So I do not know the brand of the speakers and/or the filter. But the components are matched (says the book w/ the instructions). Then my mom and dad bought me 2 Mission speakers because they pitied me for having to do w/ self-made 2nd hand speakers. As it turns out those weren't much better then the old ones. But I still use 'm to this day: the 4 of them ain't bad! Anyway, because I owned 4 speakers, I wanted to listen to the quad mixes from Pink Floyd, which I already idolate as a teenager. Hated 80s music, growing up in the 80s. Turned out that a second amplifier and a special needle for my record player wasn't enough to listen to Quad. And the (used) Quad LP's were stupendously expensive in the 80s. So exit multi-channel in the 80s for me.

    Then came the 90s. I found myself, as a single man w/ a reasonably good job, having enough money on my hands to buy one of those early surround receivers (one supporting that early compressed DTS and Dolby Digital that you described). I was an avid computer user and I never bought an SACD player nor a DVD player. Used my PC and a PCI dig. audio over s/pdif compatible sound card for that. I let my amp do the decoding and I let the PC pass the dig. audio through to the receiver (over s/pdif). Unfortunately I never got to the point of buying better matched 5 speakers. Especially the center speaker was expensive in those early days: it needed to be magnetically shielded to not mess w/ the colour of the TV above it. Remember TV's w/ a tube in them? I do.

    Never realized until a year or 2 ago that the DTS and DD stream on a DVD (and what you can pass through over s/pdif) was compressed! So I never bothered to upgrade my audio equipment.

    Anyway, now-a-days I find myself having not enough money to buy 5 speakers (or 5 speakers w/ a subwoofer) because I found out the the 4 speakers that I own are so "good" that I need to dig deep, very deep, into my wallet to get something better. And recently I bought a JBL center speaker at a 2nd hand store. It was lying there without the accompanying other 4 speakers. It costed only a few bucks (15 I think). I took it home and I thought: if it sounds worse than the the stereo Mission speakers that I have I'll throw it away or give it to my nephews. However, it sounded acceptable to me so I kept it under my LCD TV. Now I finally have 5 speakers and since they are all speakers of the type "large" I do not necessarily need the .1 speaker meant for the LFE (low frequency effect). Receivers let you redirect the LFE to your speakers if you have speakers of the type "large".

    Recently a friend of mine bought a really good setup (receiver, 4K TV, the lot) and his old receiver was lying around and I could have it. So only now I have an amplifier that accepts 8 channel (L)PCM in over HDMI as opposed to s/pdif (Sony/Philips digital interface, meant for CD). And only recently I've come to learn that DTS is not DTS and Dolby D. is not Dolby D. anymore: there is that compressed format from DVD and then there are about 10.000 other ridiculous "standards" w/ 8 speakers and what have you not. I find them all to be "silly" in the Monty Python sense of the word. Nice thing of my new 8 channel PCM receiver is that this enables me to connect an SACD (or rather: Blu-ray player that supports SACD) player to it. The BD/SACD player "recognizes" it if your receiver cannot decode DSD (= the digital format of an SACD) and then decodes the stream to 6 channel (= 5.1) LPCM. Finally I can hear Jeff Wayne's "The War of the Worlds" in all its 5 channel glory (unlike the Floyds of London he didn't reissue his 5.1 mix on Blu-ray). If you can call listening to my speaker/amplifier setup "glory" at all, which you most definitely wouldn't, ha ha.

    Quote Originally Posted by jimfisheye View Post
    So there needs to be a discussion along the lines of:
    Already got this and this? Then buy that. (Don't buy this other.)
    Someone else already has that and that? Then buy this.
    Anyway, to make a long story short (my 2 cents): I've got a simple multi-channel Sony receiver. I can recommend it because it's the cheapest way to listen to 'ye olde Quad mixes from Pink Floyd (I don't like the modern 5.1 mixes because the instruments aren't so discretely separated on those). Keep in mind, however, that that is not the proper "super high quality" way. What I can absolutely discourage is to use the stupendously "upscale to more channels" trickery. What I mean is:
    • Dolby Surround EX/Pro Logic I/II/IIc (= stereo to multi channel)
    • DTS-ES
    • And the worse of the worst: Sony's own "Cinema Studio EX/Digital Cinema Sound (DCS)" (= another way to deform your audio)

    Those "convert A into B" tricks should be forbidden! If you want high quality sound: ask @Jimfisheye here what he's got. Rosco here is also a man who knows his digital stuff very well! But if you want it quick 'n' dirty and if you're (very) low on money than I can recommend buying some extra speakers and a (2nd hand) multi-channel receiver w/ lots of HDMI inputs. Don't buy one that does not have HDMI. You'll love DSotM in Quad!!!


    P.S. Could someone explain what all those DTS and Dolby D. standards are and when one listens to them (Pink Floyd or only in the movies?)

    P.S. I play video and audio via my Raspberry Pi media center w/ Kodi running on it. Via HDMI.
    Last edited by meneerjansen; 2018-02-14 at 10:39 PM.

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    I only use Dolby Atmos, Tru-HD, DTS-HD and DTS:X for movies, mostly, unless it was music specifically mixed for DTS-HD for example. They are a lossless formats so they are really not a problem. Atmos and X are the newest object based formats where sounds are treated as objects and can give a better surround experience. You can also incorporate many more speakers as well. I have a 9.1 setup, your standard 5.1 layout plus heights above my front L & R and then rear height speakers, it would technically be considered a 5.1.4 setup if I'm not mistaken, the 4 designating height or overhead speakers. It's all very nice for movies IMO. DTS Neural X and Dolby Surround are where the tricks come in more as they can upmix stereo and above to whatever speaker combination you have, to a nice effect too I might add. This is till mainly applies to movies and stuff for me, not music. For music I use straight stereo, or all channels stereo. Using multichannel input on my receiver will just send whatever channels are in the mix to the appropriate speakers, like 2.0, 4.0, 5.1. This is how I listen to all of Jim's great Quad releases.

    I'm sure Jim will come along and explain this better but I hope maybe I contributed a little.
    Last edited by buffalofloyd; 2018-02-14 at 06:29 PM.
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    Just to take a quick step back before jumping into more detail and explanations...

    There are a number of different ways to connect a system and way too many different styles of equipment to navigate that don't all just connect to each other in a standard way. The equipment choices have a shocking range of prices. For the extreme examples, you can on the one hand put together a system that is extreme high end for hundreds of dollars using some modern options. On the other, you can drop thousands of dollars on absolute crap that doesn't even play your downloaded or disc based music at full or even half quality sometimes. Some of said crap is the result of format wars and the stuff is intentionally disabled from being fully functional. So I have these goals:

    - Suggest high bang for the buck options for anyone starting from ground zero.

    - Suggest ways to use your existing gear to get better results.

    - Help figure out what direction to go and what to buy to combine with gear you already own to get the most bang for the buck.

    Digital audio (10110100001101101100010...) -> Digital to analog converter -> Amps -> Speakers

    It should be just simple.

    Two big problems:
    - Combo equipment. Now you have to pay attention to what bits are in what boxes. You need all the right parts but you don't want to buy multiples of an expensive part you'll never use.

    - Format wars and copy protection gone wild. You might be inclined to argue that the lossy stuff sounds just fine to you. (On a forum that hates mp3?! Even though lossy surround is magnitudes worse than mp3? Hmmm...) But are you really OK with buying stuff that is this expensive and you'll put up with something programmed to reject playing content you own at full quality when the electronics in it you paid for are fully functional and ready to go? That's the problem. Avoiding everything to do with the Dolby or dts formats is the happiness and light path.
    Last edited by jimfisheye; 2018-02-14 at 06:58 PM.

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    This comes under the "what to avoid" category. Avoid surround speaker setups that use smaller speakers for the rear L and R channels than the front L and R speakers, especially for music. It is best to use four identical, full range speakers. I would also go as far to say that an identical 5th speaker is often better to use for the center channel than most of the boxy sounding center channel speakers out there.

    I have had a few surround setups at home and in my office over the years that used smaller rear speakers. When I finally changed to a matched set, the difference was like night and day. No more messing with the rear speaker levels and EQ to get certain surround and quad mixes to sound 'right'.

    For surround music in my office I use a 5.1 system of all KEF Q100 speakers with an old RCA powered 60w subwoofer for music. HDMI straight from my Mac to an old Yamaha 5.1 amplifier. Sound is awesome.

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    There are gonna be so many opinions and people with different budgets. I personally use these as my desktop speakers just for stereo, and I think they sound great to me. Not reference monitors of course but for the average Joe and the price, they are good. They make a version of these that are powered too. They also make a center channel. You could get a decent 5.0 speaker set for right around $250. Nothing fancy but will sound nice for not a lot of money. Obviously not ideal for very loud playing of music or movies but in a pinch, they are good speakers.

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00E7...rch&th=1&psc=1

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00HH...rch&th=1&psc=1

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00NX...keywords=micca

    The Pioneer Andrew Jones stuff has gotten good reviews as well, now he designs speakers for ELAC too if I'm not mistaken. These are more budget oriented but are supposed to sound great considering the price.

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B008N...rch&th=1&psc=1

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B008N...EkL&ref=plSrch

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B008N...tpL&ref=plSrch

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B008N...pioneer+andrew

    Just some food for thought if anyone is curious about some speakers. Prices can get really stupid with speakers. My personal opinion is to choose the best receiver you can afford (with HDMI at least) then move to speakers.
    Last edited by buffalofloyd; 2018-02-14 at 11:31 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kit Rae View Post
    This comes under the "what to avoid" category. Avoid surround speaker setups that use smaller speakers for the rear L and R channels than the front L and R speakers, especially for music. It is best to use four identical, full range speakers. I would also go as far to say that an identical 5th speaker is often better to use for the center channel than most of the boxy sounding center channel speakers out there.

    I have had a few surround setups at home and in my office over the years that used smaller rear speakers. When I finally changed to a matched set, the difference was like night and day. No more messing with the rear speaker levels and EQ to get certain surround and quad mixes to sound 'right'.

    For surround music in my office I use a 5.1 system of all KEF Q100 speakers with an old RCA powered 60w subwoofer for music. HDMI straight from my Mac to an old Yamaha 5.1 amplifier. Sound is awesome.
    Spot on with the speakers!

    Now you can make an efficient speaker array with tops for highs and mids and all bass speaker managed to a single sub. But if you don't understand it and calibrate everything properly it will sound horrendous! You still want identical speakers (or closely matched). Better to treat speakers the same as you always have and get decent stuff. It's obvious (to many of us anyway) what to do for a stereo system. Buy/beg/borrow the best speakers you can. Treat the surround system the same way and understand that all 4 or 5 main channels are full range just like a stereo is with two. If you go too small and cheap on the surround system it will just sound gimmicky or novelty and your stereo system will still be the "big system". That's no good.

    The cheap gimmicky stuff is just barely together enough to cough out the fx in the back for crude movie surround mixes and that mutated center speaker business is a cheap speaker for voice range. And while you can get away with a lot of cheapness with movie soundtracks, you will hear and appreciate some of the higher end of what's out there with a more proper system.

    My rule of thumb for speakers is a 6" woofer (bass driver) minimum to squeeze full range sound out of. Not 5". No it won't be almost as good. Anything less than 6" will be absolutely bass limited and you WILL need a subwoofer and have to calibrate a speaker managed system. Or you will be listening to a limited range system. Full range stereo sounds more exciting and immersive than a limited range surround system. Save your money for real speakers or hunt for used deals.

    Yep the thunderbolt to HDMI cable from computer to receiver is really slick.
    I mention to pay attention to the tech details if you're shopping for that because there are receivers out there with HDMI inputs that only pass video. And there are Windows computers out there with HDMI ports that only pass video out. And before 2010 that port was called "display port" and only did that. So it would suck to go buying one to go with the other and then find that out after.
    Last edited by jimfisheye; 2018-02-14 at 11:46 PM.

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