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Old 08-11-2007, 10:45 PM   #1
Rory Buszka
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Default Could multichannel (surround) sound on the PC be dying?

One thing has become apparent to me within about the last year or so: multichannel audio on the PC has bit the dust...hard. With fastidious big-name loudspeaker manufacturers like Klipsch heading for the door, and major up-and-comers like Razer choosing to go the 2.1 route with their high-end offerings, it's becoming clear where the market is headed. Even manufacturers like Altec Lansing are confining their multichannel product development efforts to budget- and mid-priced products instead of the high end, and we haven't seen a new multichannel speaker product from Logitech in quite a while (2005). Could this movement spell the end of high-end multichannel sound on the desktop? And what could be driving this shift?

When Microsoft released Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005, it was envisioned that the desktop PC might eclipse the television and traditional home theater as the new media hub of the household. We were treated to photos of people cheerfully pointing the Media Center remote control at a PC across the room - a PC equipped with a widescreen monitor, a DVD burner, a TV tuner card, and...a high end multichannel powered speaker system. So what happened?

What happened was this: the availability of the simple yet powerful Media Center software created the perfect storm for the arrival of a new convergence between home theater and PC technology, the Home Theater PC (HTPC). Instead of the PC replacing the home theater as Microsoft had envisioned, users simply connected their PC to their large flat-screen HDTV and their existing home theater gear (usually comprised of a receiver, five to seven bookshelf or floorstanding speakers, and a powerful subwoofer). DVI and HDMI input on many HD-resolution televisions made it possible to go beyond the typical widescreen PC monitor. Microsoft predicted a technology convergence, but it gravitated toward the larger screen instead of the smaller one. As a result, the market for high-end multichannel sound systems on the desktop has diminished, as enthusiasts pursue HTPCs instead of Media Center PCs.

That's not to say that PCs don't have anything to do with multichannel sound -- a competent multichannel audio chipset is a must for virtually any home theater PC, or at the very least a good stereo one. But when it comes to putting that audio into the air as sound, many HTPC users prefer to invest in larger audio systems, or at the very least a home-theater-in-a-box (HTiB) system, rather than outfit their home theater with a smaller powered speaker system. Indeed, Altec Lansing's high-end multichannel audio efforts are actually targeted toward the home theater, with their new PT7031 and PT8051 'sound bar' speakers that use DSP algorithms to simulate an expansive surround sound field. (Techgage is actively pursuing the possibility of reviewing one of these products.)

More recently, some of the HTPC market has been taken up by newer "Media Center Extenders", which are either set-top boxes or video game consoles set up to stream content over a network from your PC. While a Media Center PC may serve the content for these systems, the client is still connected to a TV, and a large home theater system where high-fidelity audio is concerned. So there's still no help for the multichannel PC speaker system.

So we come to the conclusion that, naturally, as consumer interest in surround sound on the desktop wanes, so too does the market for such products. Multichannel sound may be fading away from the desktop, but you don't have to abandon convincing surround effects on the PC, however, since many newer sound cards feature DSP settings that allow a simple stereo 2.1-channel system to simulate the presence of rear speakers without actually running wires to a pair of physical rear speakers. It appears instead that customers are more interested in high-fidelity two-channel speaker systems on the desktop than in surround sound. What is evidenced by Razer's decision to go with a 2.1-channel configuration for their upcoming $349 Mako speakers is that consumers are more interested in having a pair of very high-quality speakers instead of five speakers of middling quality for the same price. It seems that the 5.1-channel surround sound format on the desktop is fading away in favor of higher-quality audio systems in the home theater, but this trend is indicative of a greater overall emphasis on audio quality.

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Old 08-12-2007, 06:56 AM   #2
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I think someone forgot about gamers in this report.
I DO have Media Center, but rarely use it.
I have the surround system connected to the room where the plasma is located. I don't game on the plasma but watch movies and songs with media player.

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Old 08-12-2007, 07:07 AM   #3
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Personally I think the problem with high end speakers is that they're not something that you replace with every refresh cycle. The manufacturers don't seem to realize that though so they think that interest has waned simply because people aren't going to buy a new set of >$300 speakers every year when the old set sound perfectly fine.
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Old 08-12-2007, 12:51 PM   #4
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I agree. I've had my Z680's for 2+ years and there is no reason I feel a newer set has anything to offer in the way of upgrading. Klipsch's high end stuff bit the dust because of a very poor design with the amplifier and the fact that the Ultra's amp bit the dust at an alarming rate for such a pricey system. I also believe there is only a very very small market for 5.1 speakers as well since most people just want sound and are not looking for high fidelity, plus the fact that good 5.1 Home Theater stereo systems that are not just for the PC have become very inexpensive. I for one would definitely replace my PC dedicated 5.1's with another set of PC dedicated 5.1's if the failed.
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Old 08-12-2007, 02:57 PM   #5
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Yep, I've had my Z560's since 2003 and they're still kicking ass and taking names. I don't foresee getting rid of them unless I win the lottery or get a huge raise.
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Old 08-12-2007, 03:17 PM   #6
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The real thing I've been noticing is that there haven't been any 'new' 5.1-channel products put out, at all. When it comes to the high end stuff, the development is still on the 2.1-channel front. Klipsch had their problems (mainly due to the long-term effects of vibration, as I understood it), but the 5.1-channel systems that have been released in the past year or so have been mid-price models, nothing on the same level as existing Logitech or past Klipsch products.
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Old 08-12-2007, 04:04 PM   #7
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Now that you said it and I looked around, the only new 5.1 high end stuff that is PC dedicated is the Edifier 5.1's (which are pretty nice might I add). Klipsch's real problem was internally mounting a 500W+ amp inside the subwoofer with nowhere to dissipate the heat. They simply failed, even when not being pushed hard. I had the Promedia 2.1's before I got the Z680's and they did sound awesome. The price was what stopped me from getting their 5.1's, and after reading the hundreds of complains of early failure I don't regret my choice. BUT, those Edifier's are definitely the same level as the top end Klipsch and Logitech units. I was gonna include a link to them, but I just figured out that they are now special order only as well.......
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