The Playlist: Surround-Sound Audio Albums

About five years ago, I interviewed a husband-and-wife duo called Dubtribe Sound System, which composed and spun an ethereal sort of house music that was popular in the 1990s. During this interview, Sunshine (the husband) was musing about creating an album in surround sound. I hadn't really heard of surround-sound music albums, so I dismissed what he said as too-forward thinking. And so it went for a long time.

However, I recently received a surround-sound music album called DE9: Transitions, released by another forward-thinking artist, Richie Hawtin. Also known as Plastikman, Hawtin is the DJ that other DJs revere. I put the DVD in the DVD player, sat in the middle of our household's home-theater setup, and listened. It sounded great--subdued beats and rhythms swirling around me expertly.

Despite that DVD, I still haven't heard too much about surround-sound audio albums. There is no lack of places to play them: luxury cars, satellite-radio players, home theaters. The same people snapping up Lord of the Rings DVD box sets and home-theater equipment are still happily buying standard music CDs. The reason, I think, is a chicken-and-egg argument surrounding the way technology and people's buying preferences affect each other.

The majority of surround-sound albums come in one of two formats: SACD or DualDisc. (There is another format called DVDA, or DVD Audio, but it's hard to find.)

SACD, or Super Audio CD, was created by Sony and Philips Electronics and launched in 1999. SACD is a type of CD that contains very-high-quality audio that sounds great. It can contain true 5.1-channel audio, but isn't required to.

According to Sony BMG, SACD is most popular for jazz and classical-music fans. "The classical consumer and jazz consumers are a slightly older demographic," says Leslie C. Cohen, senior vice president of new formats and business development at Sony BMG Music Entertainment. "They have higher demands in terms of quality."

They also have more money, which you'll need to fully take advantage of SACD. The SACDs themselves aren't expensive, costing only one or two dollars more than standard audio CDs. It's the player. To take advantage of the high-resolution audio, you have to listen to an SACD on an SACD-supported player. A quick scan of DVD players that support SACD audio ran from $300 to $600. The newer format of SACD will also play in a standard CD player but only at CD quality.

Many think SACD is on the way out, to be replaced by DualDisc, which officially launched in February 2005. DualDiscs contain CD audio on one side and DVD audio content--which can be created in 5.1 surround sound--on the other side, so both standard CD and DVD players support them. Sony BMG says that for the titles it releases on both CD and DualDisc, 30 percent to 50 percent of sales are on DualDisc. Artists include more-mainstream picks such as Jennifer Lopez and Dave Matthews.

John Trickett is CEO of 5.1 Entertainment Group, which is a production and publishing company that produces albums exclusively on DualDisc. According to him, the reason people are buying DualDisc isn't the great audio quality.

"Most consumers don't care about having higher-resolution audio," says Trickett, which is an odd comment from a man who produces only that. "What we learned from DualDisc and SACD--both are great-sounding formats--is that a very small segment really cares about better sound. People are quite happy with CD sound. It's all about the content."

That content is the extras such as videos, interviews, and outtakes--the special features that you'd find on a movie DVD. In fact, when 5.1 Entertainment Group records new artists for its Immergent and Silverline record labels, it takes high-definition video of recording and song-writing sessions right from the get-go. "You can get the surround sound and an array of bonus features that really do add the value to the consumer," says Trickett.

One telling sign of market demand is Immergent Records' Beyond Warped Live Performance series. This series of DualDiscs contains high-definition audio and video of primarily pop and punk bands that played in the Vans Warped Tour. Garage-band punk isn't naturally conducive to super-high-quality audio the way classical or jazz would be; however, the listeners of garage-band punk--teens and people in their 20s--have come to expect extras packed onto their movies, and now their music. So, it would appear that marketing bonuses are carrying the high-quality audio and not the other way around. The reason is another audio technology: MP3. Its popularity has trained most to listen to lower-than-CD-quality audio and like it. "Now that super-high-quality audio is readily available--and, thanks to desktop audio software like Digidesign Pro Tools and Apple Logic Pro, is getting cheaper to make--most people don't even really want it.

I hope that we, as a group, can learn to crave surround-sound music albums the way we crave HD movies and TV shows. The technology is there, but unless the public asks for it, there's no impetus for the record labels to consider it anything more than value-added content.