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Surround sound smackdown: What’s wrong with just plain stereo?


Linda Ronstadt must not seem like her head’s in a bucket.

Reneé Fleming need to not look like she wandered to the back again of the orchestra.

David Gilmour’s guitar ought to not audio wimpy.

But dependent on how your vehicle stereo is set, they could all be like that.

Most automobiles these days give identify-manufacturer sound programs, usually as an update. It is a craze which is expanded from mass-customer manufacturers like Sony or Bose to much more esoteric audiophile options we uncovered recently that venerable English speaker maker KEF is pairing with venerable English automaker Lotus. The partnership that acquired everyone’s interest is Jeep and hello-fi legend McIntosh, with the outstanding outcome you’d count on.

Automobile audio units now pump out hundreds of watts as a result of a dozen or more speakers. (The new BMW 7 Sequence B&W set up has 36 of them!) So why, then, does car audio in some cases seem … kind of meh?

It could be simply because you have “surround sound” switched on.

I initially recognized this decades in the past when I owned a 2014 Toyota Highlander. Songs by its JBL Entune technique sounded mushy. Deep in the menus was a surround seem checkbox. Uncheck that, and a veil was lifted.

Until finally finding that hidden placing, I hadn’t recognized the motor vehicle experienced encompass audio. And you might not be conscious, both.

Let’s just take a minute below to explain that what’s staying known as “surround sound,” or in some instances “3D” seem, is not the same as the 5.1 or 7.1 encompass of your dwelling theater. Film soundtracks are in fact recorded in encompass, and your house A/V receiver can replicate that. But tunes, with unusual exceptions, is recorded in stereo.

Encompass seem in a motor vehicle is some thing distinct. It is signal processing — in which a stereo recording is not reproduced in two channels out of two speakers (or still left-correct sets of woofers-tweeters-midrange) as the recording artists and engineers experienced supposed. 


A a lot more immersive seem is the intent.

The difficulty is, signal processing can compromise clarity. Voices get subtle, shifted away from a distinct focal position on the dashboard. 


Why? Automakers and audio engineers believed they experienced complications that essential addressing. When listening to a household stereo, you sit in a sweet place going through two speakers, and they stereophonically generate an “image,” aka the soundstage, that replicates what your two ears would understand if you were being attending a dwell effectiveness. (At dwelling, you can also use that other songs-enhancing device, a glass of wine.) In a car or truck, even so, no 1 can sit in the sweet place. Hardly ever head that even at residence not all people can sit in the one correct ideal chair.

One more challenge: A motor vehicle interior is a little, sealed area with a bizarre blend of challenging surfaces like windows and soft surfaces like occupants and seats.

So, employing signal processing, engineers try out to enhance the listening knowledge in the course of the cabin — even to make a “concert hall” really feel. (A person system is touted as replicating the “electricity” of a stadium live performance. Now, when did you at any time listen to excellent audio in a stadium?)

Anyway, a additional immersive audio is the intent. The difficulties is, sign processing can compromise clarity. 

I not too long ago used a pair of hours toggling between encompass and stereo on a Harman/Kardon procedure in a 2021 Volvo XC60. It’s a 600-watt, 14-speaker, $800 up grade from just one of the most important audio businesses. (Harman is owned by Samsung and in transform owns JBL, Infinity, Mark Levinson, Revel and lots of other makes.) So, it is a good middle-current market system for a listening examination. (Volvo’s prime-line procedure is from Bowers & Wilkins.)

I streamed lossless tracks by means of dwelling WiFi while wired into Apple CarPlay. Bass, treble and midrange sliders were being established to the neutral center location. Encompass was normally turned up significant given that that is what we’re tests. I sat in the driver’s seat — the chair which is normally occupied, so in my look at which is the place songs should sound ideal. Granted, surround sound could be most well-liked if you’re sitting down in back.

Ronstadt, in more mature recordings by means of encompass, was muted and echo-y. “Long Extensive Time” was significantly less heartbreaking. The opening of “Hurts So Bad” was much less personal, and the cries of “No! No!” less raw. Her afterwards recordings at Skywalker Ranch or with Nelson Riddle, however, had been interesting in encompass, seeming additional spacious with reverb.


The purest compound in the universe is Dolly Parton’s voice. For whichever cause, encompass seem could do her no hurt.


Radio announcers, like these on an NPR newscast, acquired reverb also, as if standing in an vacant live performance corridor as an alternative of a broadcast booth. Kind of a strange outcome.

Operatic voices like Jessye Norman or Reneé Fleming, even though however potent, lost a several megawatts. Nina Simone and Ann Wilson, much too. Sensitive vocals like Shawn Colvin’s turned thinner. Voices get subtle, shifted absent from a apparent focal stage on the dashboard. 

A famed story goes that when German engineers were being producing the MP3 structure, they performed Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” thousands of instances as a benchmark track, making an attempt to capture the nuances of her a capella. (Vega, also famously, advised them they hadn’t.) So, I experimented with that track for kicks. In encompass, she nearly vanished.

There ended up exceptions: The purest material in the universe is Dolly Parton’s voice. For whichever rationale, encompass seem could do her no hurt.

Male voices like Johnny Hard cash missing a minimal presence but not significantly. Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” was almost a reduction in encompass because it took about 10% off the intensity stage. You want it darker, play it in stereo.

And you wouldn’t imagine just about anything could blunt a David Gilmour guitar solo. But some of the chunk was dropped.

Orchestral new music obtained fullness in encompass, but below far too instrumental solos dropped existence, and ensemble acquired muddy: In the fourth motion of “Pines of Rome,” it was challenging to distinguish among the bass instruments’ ominous rumblings. (Same goes for the orchestration in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”) Nevertheless, Respighi’s antiphonal brass area identified as the Roman military to war from the back again seat, so that was neat.

I did a wide sampling of tracks, and compiled viewpoints in the list under. This of study course is all pretty subjective.

Contemporary recordings may perhaps be having signal processing into account. Bass looks to get rid of some punch in encompass the bass on Jon Baptiste’s Grammy-profitable “We Are” was frustrating in stereo, greater balanced in surround. Other latest recordings like Kacey Musgrave’s and Orville Peck’s appear to consider advantage of surround’s reverb characteristics.

So what’s the winner right here? Really, it differs from recording to recording. Surround sound is once in a while a neat trick. Of course I prefer the simplicity and clarity of stereo. But your vehicle, your music, do your very own take a look at. You have only acquired two ears, while, so fantastic previous stereo might be really hard to beat.

Tracks that sounded best in stereo:

  • Jessye Norman, Richard Strauss, “Four Previous Tunes.”
  • Renee Fleming, Strauss “Four Past Tracks,” Samuel Barber “Knoxville: Summer season 1915.”
  • Ottorino Respighi, “Pines of Rome”
  • Maurice Ravel, “La Valse”
  • Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 1, “Titan.”
  • Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2
  • Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb,” “Wish You Ended up Below,” “Pigs (Three Various Kinds),” “Have a Cigar,” “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2”
  • Linda Ronstadt, “Hurts So Lousy,” “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Long Lengthy Time”
  • Shawn Colvin, “Shotgun Down the Avalanche”
  • Nina Simone, “Wild Is the Wind,” “Don’t Enable Me Be Misunderstood”
  • Suzanne Vega, “Tom’s Diner”
  • Karrin Allyson, “Goodbye”
  • FKJ and Santana, “Greener”
  • Brandi Carlile, “Broken Horses,” “The Story”
  • Fleetwood Mac, “Rhiannon,” “Goals”
  • Coronary heart, “Dog and Butterfly,” “Stairway to Heaven”
  • Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”
  • Nick Cave and the Undesirable Seeds, “Red Ideal Hand,” “Into My Arms”
  • Steely Dan, “Deacon Blues,” “My Aged College” 

Tracks that sounded about as fantastic or potentially far better in encompass:

  • Dolly Parton, “Jolene,” “Little Sparrow,” “The Seeker”
  • Johnny Income, “Hurt,” “Redemption”
  • Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker,” “Suzanne”
  • Orville Peck, “Dead of Night”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Star-Crossed,” “Justified”
  • Linda Ronstadt, “’Round Midnight,” “Cry Like a Rainstorm”
  • Tracy Chapman, “Mountains of Things,” “Across the Lines”
  • Jon Baptiste: “We Are”
  • Daft Punk, “Get Fortunate,” “Lose You to Dance”


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