Where's the Surround-Sound Music Downloads?

Do you remember the SACD? The Super-Audio CD that was released in 1999 by Sony & Phillips Electronics? It allowed longer play time than a standard CD and most importantly it could support multiple audio channels - surround sound. Why didn't it catch on?

Is it time that we as creators started taking advantage of the booming sales for home-theatre surround sound films? The Blu-Ray can also help share the augmented audio experience.

I remember the first time that I listened to music mixed in 5.1 when studying audio engineering at university. Wow! This is the future I thought, but it never really happened. I don't think this will ever happen now, the CD although still popular, is an out-dated format.

Perhaps it is time for surround-sound streaming and downloads? Let's investigate....


As Apple’s iTunes recently surpassed 25 Billion digital song sales in little under 10 years (Apple Insider, 2014); a question arises to whether, in an age of digital downloads, advances in technology and the availability of cheap consumer electronics, that a new method of distributing surround sound music is due; the age of the 5.1 surround sound digital download? It certainly appears the digital market will predictably continue to grow and if historic trends continue, the market certainly appears to exist to exhibit the mainstream 5.1 digital download.

The method of music and sound reproduction has always been of one that is consistently researched and evaluated in both technical and more recently, artistic terms, from the early pioneering development of stereo by Alan Blumlein (Alexander, 2001) and Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasound’, to modern research and development of multi-channel systems such as Ambisonics and Dolby TrueHD. It is thus, in addition to the continual growth of consumer expectations, that has proven can lead to the inception and development of innovative playback systems for music enjoyment, multi-channel or otherwise. It is true to say that most modern multi-channel audio formats in current mainstream, are reserved for film and theatrical sound design and has limited current application in contemporary music.

It is not just research in antiquity that demonstrates that this argument stands as an issue within contemporary music; the constant evolution of listening devices such as iPods, the modern obsession with Beats headphones and experiential listening experiments such as 4DSound, exhibited at the Amsterdam Dance Festival 2014 (4Sound, 2014), show the importance of the issue, both artistically and technologically, it is an extension of aural sensory perception. When observed both quantatively and qualiitively, reproduction has grown to be as important, if not more so, than the music itself; as it is this reproduction that facilitates music to transcend boundaries, to cross cultures, oceans and almost instantaneously be shared across the globe.

This essay aims to investigate whether a 5.1 surround sound digital download would be valid, or actually wanted in modern society. Technical practicalities, social and economic factors will be considered, to offer informed conclusions and suggestions made for further research.

Historic Interpretations

To understand more about the sociological factors of previous systems and discover whether they are generally accepted to be a success or a failure and importantly, by what criteria? Previous and existing systems must be analysed in a variety of respects: commercially, artistically and technologically.

There are 2 notable multi-channel home formats that share similarities with this investigated system, but conversely, they have also many differences, some of which may have contributed to the lack of mainstream commercial success of both formats. Super Audio Compact Disk (SACD), introduced in 1999, aimed to bring studio-quality 5.1 recordings to the home consumer market, and even with high profile releases such as Pink Floyd’s; Dark Side of The Moon and host of other seminal albums in back catalogue, still failed to break into the mainstream market and has been the reserve of audiophile enthusiasts since. Jack Schofield indicates in a 2007 Guardian newspaper article, that the ”confusing array” of DVD and CD music formats are ill-received and brands them a commercial failure (Schofield, 2007). On the contrary and supportive with the argument for the digital 5.1 download, the article concludes that CD’s are in rapid decline and predicted, “…one quarter of all music sales worldwide to be digital by 2010”. In the UK, by 2012, digital music sales actually accounted for 55.5% (BPI, 2012) of music sold.

Moreover, during the twelve-month period of 2013, music streaming services became the fastest growing sector of the UK music industry, an increase of 41% over 2012 (BPI, 2014), also illustrating the potential scope of market for multi-channel digital streaming from websites such as Spotify and YouTube. There are several existing providers of high-quality music streaming, both historical releases such as Michael Jackson’s, ‘Bad’ in addition to new releases, many of these are 192kHz/24bit FLAC or WAV streams, but again there is only a handful of 5.1 releases. Home audio manufacturer, Bowers & Wilkins provides one of the larger selections of new and back catalogue material in 5.1, as well as an interesting subscription model, which gives the subscriber 2 studio quality albums in both download and streaming form, from Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio for a small cost of £33.95 a year (Bowers-Wilkins, 2015).

SACD format was important technologically, for developing a new method of encoding sound digitally, Direct Stream Digital (DSD). This system far outperforms CD quality audio (44.1kHz/16bit) and higher quality than 192kHz/24bit Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), due to DSD’s absence of aliasing, improved dithering and ultra-high sampling rate of 2.8224MHz (Reefman, Nuijten, p.6). It would however, be highly unsuitable for a 5.1 digital download; the large size (22.4Mbit/s) governed by the quality value and limited occurrence in anything but pro-audio.

The DTS Music Disk was also conceived during the exponential growth of digital devices in the 1990s. DTS is also the multi-channel format that is used in virtually all DVD releases and the DTS Music Disk is essentially a DVD which plays backs the audio but no video. The disk format can be played with CD and DVD players that are not DTS compatible as long as a DTS enabled receiver is connected with the digital outputs, as the format uses the PCM to encode a digital bit-stream (DTS, 2015).

Evaluatively, it seems the DTS file format has the potential to be the delivery vehicle of the 5.1 download. Its manageable file size and relative high quality, when compared to the widely used MP3 lossy file format, ensures that its continued success as an industry standard format. From a consumer standpoint, the DTS file format is very common and most homes will already have a DTS decoder, either through a home cinema system, games console or computer.

Modern Consumption of Music

What the evolution of music playback technology has really done for society is to empower individuals with options about how they experience their music. This is a particularly important point. The range of opinions and systems encountered in research demonstrates the potential for the digital download market to continue to grow, and maybe eventually relegate the CD to a similar status to the niche, but stable, market of vinyl records.

Quoting from a popular audiophile website ‘ComputerAudiophile’; "When I first realized the potential of computer audio, when I first heard and experienced both the sonic improvements and the incredible convenience of remote-controlled file-based music playback, I was dreaming of the day when this paradigm would allow me to listen to ALL my music, both 2 channel and multichannel. I have a significant amount of time and energy invested into my multichannel music signal path." (Ted_B, 2013). This certainly supports the argument in both artistic and technological desire, but considering the source of the article, the author is already bias and on the whole cannot offer clear indications whether wider society has the desire for 5.1 digital downloads.

Considering the 5.1 download culturally and as an artistic medium, it certainly has the potential to enrich the experience of music and ultimately, augment sonic reality in peoples’ homes. After all, anything that adds to the richness of human culture and brings moments of happiness to peoples’ lives must be a valid and worthwhile endeavour.

So What?

In an age where society accepts people walking in complete obliviousness from visual devices and music blaring from headphones, it is hard to argue that the quality of the music that we experience has decreased. This is the antithesis of what would be expected if the large proportion of society really cared about the quality of the music they consume. One particular example of this is the headphones included with iPods and other cheap ear bud sets. These headphones far from recreate the music accurately and will impart their poor design, frequency response and general harshness to detrimental effect and only supports that on the whole, music encoding quality is not high on the general consumer’s list of priorities. To such an extent, that it appears there is a large general ignorance to the knowledge of the existence of different audio qualities and recent views of many popular forums, quote that a 320kbps MP3 is “...CD quality…” (NoiseAddicts, 2009, Hi-Fi 2012), which only serves to demonstrate that music is accessed by individuals and groups in such a variety of ways and ultimately, suggesting that there many small niche markets that continue to survive out of the view of the mainstream music consumer.

It could certainly be argued that the recent popularity of Beats by Dre. headphones indicate that there is a shift in perception to what higher quality sound reproduction may sound like and a desire to achieve this. Although, they are an improvement over cheaper in-ear models, they are still far accentuated in the low-frequency region, which can be linked the importance of bass in contemporary music genres such as RnB, Pop and DubStep and again chaining the perception of what music should sound like.

Practical Considerations

The largest barrier of commercial acceptance of a proposed 5.1 digital download is the necessity to have access to a 5.1 home surround set-up and also purchase a 5.1 USB soundcard, which although relatively cheap (Amazon, £30), will possibly serve as another barrier to rise of the 5.1 surround download. Although, this could be circumnavigated by new download providers giving away units in conjunction with a subscription to their service.

Open source software that supports the playback of the DTS format is very common (VLC, Windows Media Player etc.), in addition to the prolific use of DTS decoders in the vast majority of home audio/visual electronics. It appears that the fundamental barrier to the acceptance and consumer use is not technical, but the consumers’ perceived value of 5.1 download, but as with most perceptions, can be changed.

Is it too ambiguous to believe that in the future, music will be enjoyed ubiquitously in multi-channel format? Is it possible that music streaming websites will stream in 5.1? And stereo become the new mono?

Musical Considerations

This format will lend itself to some genres of music in particular. Classical music has retained a large market share in the SACD market, and unsurprisingly so, due to its wide range of instruments, structural acoustical modelling and natural reverberance. 16bit CD quality audio has only a theoretical dynamic range of 96dB (6dB per bit); where as the DSD of the SACD is 120dB (Reefman, Nuijten, p.6) enabling a highly accurate reproduction.

Furthermore, the 5.1 digital download certainly has the capability to augment sonic reality in existing downloaded music, as has been shown by the Bowers-Wilkins model of creating a partnership with a well-know studio and the London Symphony Orchestra, which gives the format an existing market, but can actually trigger the evolution of art music and genres that are most viably improved by the format. Technologic development in music has always been a driving factor in the creation and development of genres, such as the introduction of the piano by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700 (Summers, O’Rourke-Jones, p.142) and subsequent popularity of piano sonatas and more recently, the guitar amplifier in jazz music in the 1930’s which lead to the development of the electric guitar by Les Paul and Rickenbacker, and the many electrified genres that followed.

Economic Factors

The interactions of the various micro-job markets in the recording and music industries is complex and simply creating more albums and music in 5.1, would not necessarily be sustainable. During the early stages of the format, there would be a gap in investment, jobs and ultimately, faith. Only when the 5.1 has been shown to be a profitable commercial model, would studios begin to create 5.1 mixes and contribute to the popularity and success of the format.


There certainly are factors of this design that are empathetic to the way in which music is consumed in the 21st century, foremost, the intended digital format delivery and availability of playback systems.

Considering the DTS format allows for stereo fold-down, which enables normal 2-channel configuration, if a 5.1 set-up is not available leads to the conclusion that if the music industry as whole were to use DTS as the preferred digital format, then this could be nothing but successful, as you are getting the original stereo mix and the 5.1 all in one file, from the consumers’ point of view, the only change would be the file size and possible the cost.

The success of this product is inextricably linked to the intensity of interest from the general public and indications from previous format successes; it will be a difficult concept to market when it seems the majority of current society has no interest in quality of the music that they consume. The most likely route to commercial success would be for the music industry itself, to adapt the DTS (or similar) format as a standard and offer this as part of any normal download in iTunes, for instance. Previous discussion has concluded that the economic implications of creating this as a standard listening format that is included with all music purchases, much like the SACD hybrid; may haave the potential to create more jobs in the music industry, as long as supported by purchases.

Considering the bombardment of technology, devices, trends, fashions and advertisements; it would not be at all surprising if the digital 5.1 download never catches on, or perhaps survives with just a cult following, much like the SACD.

It would be interesting to observe how the 5.1 digital download and streaming service could, rather than contend with existing SACD and DTS Music Disk formats; become the digital partner of these formats. Evidence supports that there is, and most likely, will continue to be a niche market and digital downloads to serve these markets may assist in the growth and popularity of the high-resolution listening experience. Modern digital society has grown the capability to use more advanced technology from day-to-day and technological barriers are reduced through our continue exposure to new technologies.

In final conclusion, it is certain that music is valid in all forms but the question is, whether society is enough in valid agreement for the 5.1 download to be commercially successful?

Would you like your studio recordings mixed in 7.1 or 5.1? Get in touch with FusionAudioPost.com to find out how!

Bye for Now



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Fig 1. (Data taken from:) The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, (2014), Digital Music Report 2014 <http://www.ifpi.org/downloads/Digital-Music-Report-2014.pdf>


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