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Close Encounters of the 5.1 Kind

Why buy a whole surround system when you've already got a stereo? By Frank Moldstad

Richard Dreyfuss in ''Close Encounters''
In Steven Spielbergs Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss is driven by unknown forces to build a huge earthern mound in his living room as his despairing family looks on. I can relate Ive spent the past couple of months researching, buying and assembling a surround sound system in my living room, driven by forces I don't understand. Can I blame the aliens?

Unlike Richard Dreyfuss, whose screen wife Teri Garr finally packs up and leaves, my family has been relatively supportive, although they wonder why we cant do what normal people do -- buy a packaged surround system at Circuit City or Best Buy. But that just wouldnt work for me I seem to be one of the few people on the planet who wants a surround system for DVD-Audio and SACD as well as home theater. And a mass merchant package that serves up a midrange stew with bits of blubbery bass floating in it isnt what Im after. I want to hear music that sounds like instruments playing and people singing. Not only that, I want that music to sound as the recording, mixing and mastering engineers intended.


Before this 5.1 infatuation, I was content with my 2.1 stereo (L-R speakers and a subwoofer). Plus, my audio project studio is also equipped with a  2.1 setup. In a sad commentary on the success of audio surround so far, no one has ever asked me to record a surround project for them.

Basie SACD demo at Cello Studios
So why the sudden urge to build a surround system? Its really not that sudden. During the past couple of years, Ive heard some stunning surround recordings at trade shows, demos and press conferences. One that particularly stands out is a demo held at LAs Cello Studios by Genex Audio last year, featuring new recordings of the Count Basie Orchestra by engineer Mike Pappas. Recorded in the SACD format using Genexs Direct Stream Digital (DSD) hard disk recorders, the 5.1 array made you feel that you were sitting in the saxophone section. I think everyone at the studio that night decided they had to get into surround sound, if they werent already.

But deciding to get into it and doing it are two different things. I wanted to build on the existing components of my stereo to create a 5.1 system. All well and good, except the existing systems Meridian amp and B.A.T. preamp are two-channel units. The speaker maker, Dunlavey, is out of business, and even if it wasnt, I couldnt afford to buy three more Dunlaveys for the center channel and L-R rear channels. (I was driven by aliens to buy the speakers six years ago; the esoteric amps were sold to me at cost by a now-deceased friend in the home theater installation business, who was aghast that I would power the Dunlaveys with my Sony amp from college.) One bright spot: my Hsu subwoofer would work just fine.

So I appealed to the specialty audio dealer where I bought the Dunlavey speakers. I think most of his customers are doctors, lawyers and trust fund millionaires. As he tallied the options ?to equal the quality level you have now, the total edged past $20,000. Even if I had that kind of money lying around, Id rather use it  as a down payment on a Mercedes like the one he drives.

Dispirited, I went to the magazine section in Borders book store and picked up the latest issues of Home Theater, Widescreen Review, Stereophile and Stereophiles Ultimate AV. These slick magazines are full of glossy ads, equipment reviews and profiles of amazing home installations. After reading a review of a $350,000 monoblock amplifier in Stereophile (the Wavac Audio Lab SH-833, for anyone whos interested), I decided that maybe I was in over my head. There were other components written up in the magazines for $1,500 or less, but it still would cost close to $10,000 for a 5.1 amp, 5.1 preamp, five matching speakers and a universal DVD-A/SACD player.

It crossed my mind that perhaps I should just be satisfied with with a great-sounding stereo. But that was only a passing thought. I still had the surround bug, even if it meant crawling back to Circuit City for the $499 packaged system.

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Related Keywords:surround system, DVD-Audio, SACD, 2.1 stereo, 5.1, upgrading stereo to surround, Marantz SR5400,

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