Why I Ditched Surround Sound

I’ve been a surround sound user since the mid-nineties in the Pro Logic days. I’ve installed many 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 digital surround sound setups back in my days working for an installation company. But in our new house I’ve decided to abandon surround sound and go with a simplified high end left, right, and subwoofer (2.1) setup instead.

Our home’s TV habits consist almost entirely of streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO, and iTunes movies and TV shows on our Apple TV. We listen to a lot of music. We are not big sportsball fans. When we moved we donated most of my collection of over a hundred old DVDs, and we have purchased very few Blu-Ray movies. Streaming is the future, and while I do notice the higher quality image and audio that Blu-Ray offers, the convenience and lower cost of on-demand streaming is a very worthwhile tradeoff for me.

There is very little content that actually offers digital surround sound in the type of content we are watching. And when watching a movie that did have 5.1 surround sound in our old house, I found myself having to fiddle with the receiver’s surround settings and volume levels all the time. I had some fairly expensive speakers with a good Onkyo receiver, and dialog was often hard to hear — even after spending lots of time “optimizing” the speaker levels and balance. I found myself “mixing” the movie to turn it up for dialog and then back down for loud explosive action scenes.

Now we have really nice PSB bookshelf speakers along with a nice small stereo TEAC amp and my old Velodyne powered sub — all of which are years old and discontinued but still work and sound great. Music sounds absolutely amazing, and the only adjustment I have to make during movies is volume. Speech is much more clear on these high end speakers and I don’t really miss the bullets and helicopters flying behind my head.

And what I really don’t miss are the satellite and center channel speakers mounted in weird unsightly places in our living room. Figuring out how to best place those speakers in a regular living room was almost always a challenge, not to mention getting the speaker wire run to them without being seen. Yes, I could install in-wall speakers, but the sound quality is terrible for the cost, and installing them is a huge ordeal.

I’ve decided that “3D” surround sound is much like 3D video — it’s very gimmicky, can be distracting, and is not worth the extra effort to “enjoy.” When I want an immersive audio and visual experience I’ll head to my local movie theater.

What it comes down to for me is that all of that extra effort in installation and unsightly speakers in every corner of the room with wires everywhere is not worth it when compared to a really nice pair of bookshelf speakers and a good powered subwoofer connected to a nice amp. And for the cost of professional surround sound installation you can get a top-of-the-line stereo+sub setup.

Whole house audio is another thing that I think is overrated. You spend a ton of money for speakers in every room, and you have to deal with complicated hardware with clunky software to make it work. Guess what? My stereo system in my living room that points towards my kitchen can be heard in almost every room in my house when I crank it up. And it sounds better than if I had in-ceiling speakers or some fancy small wireless box. And with Airplay through my Apple TV I can still control things remotely from my iPhone, iPad, or laptop.

IF I WERE STARTING FROM SCRATCH TODAY, THIS IS WHAT I WOULD GET FOR MAY MAIN SYSTEM:

PSB Imagine XB Bookshelf Speakers
 OR
Focal Chorus 706 Bookshelf Speakers

Teac AI-301DA-BK Integrated Amplifier

Velodyne Impact 12 Subwoofer

Remember, you can always add the sub later if you can’t afford to drop that much cash on a system at once.

And if you think this is a lot of money, compare it to what you’re willing to spend on your TV. This high fidelity audio setup is still cheaper than a nice 55" 4K OLED TV!

I also own the much more affordable and highly recommended Pioneer SP-BS22-LR Andrew Jones Designed Bookshelf Loudspeakers. For the money they do sound pretty good. But they don’t come close to my PSB’s. And my old Onkyo receiver does not sound as good as my TEAC amp either. The higher end components are more accurate, have less distortion, have no noise (hiss or buzz), and sound “full” without being harsh or boomy. You definitely get what you pay for.

So if sound is something you care about, and you find it worthwhile to invest in along with your TV, why wouldn’t you spent about as much on a high end audio system as you do on your high end TV? And consider the benefits of simplicity and clarity over gimmicky surround sound — especially when you consider how the gimmicks often distract from the visual art form and storytelling itself… I don’t regret ditching surround sound for higher quality stereo at all. Less is definitely more when it comes to home audio.