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A Sound Education

22 Bazillion ⚫ 2 Gazillion


"I like to be surrounded by splendid things."
Freddie Mercury

1.0, 2.0, 4.0, 5.1, 7.1, 10.2, 11.1, 22.2 – the numbers get bigger and bigger, like monsters stomping toward us. Oh no, we're surrounded! And it's a good thing!

Ever since recordings progressed from one channel (mono) into two (stereo), audio producers have been trying to create the ultimate immersive sound experience. The natural way is to add more channels, hence more speakers. But that usually comes at a cost, usually on the listener's end. If you have a surround system in your house, do you remember how much more expensive it was than a traditional stereo? Sure, you can go to a theater or theme park with a bazillion speakers for your listening pleasure. To get that same exhilarating experience at home you'll have to pay up.

Most television surround broadcasts are in 5.1, which is really six channels: a front stereo pair, a center dialog channel, a back stereo pair, and a subwoofer (the "point one"). DVDs, Bluerays, games, and some music releases use this format. Speaker placement is somewhat critical, but I've heard systems with haphazardly-placed rear speakers that are still effective. In the early days of surround, engineers mostly used the rear channels for precisely located content, like sound effects and ambience. Now, engineers try to evenly spread environmental sounds and music around the four primary speakers to immerse the listener. It's not perfect because the rear speakers are usually smaller, have reduced fidelity, and there are pronounced gaps between front and rear speakers.

OK, let's add a couple of more speakers, space them more evenly around us, and call it 7.1 surround. Most movie theaters, Bluerays, and some games are now in 7.1. Engineers are able to immerse the listener better with fewer gaps than in 5.1. Most new home theater systems come in this variety.

So far, all the speakers are line-of-sight...err...line-of-ears. What about height? 10.2 surround adds four more front speakers, two of which are over the others at a 45-degree angle. One more rear channel and subwoofer are added. The 11.1 and 11.2 systems are similar in that they create height by adding overhead speakers. These formats were designed for cinemas and are now creeping in to high-end home theaters.

And then we have this new beast – 22.2. Like Godzilla, this monster surround system hails from Japan. NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network, unleashed the new system a decade ago and have incorporated it into their new Ultra HD Television broadcast standard (UHDT transmits 4K and 8K video). What exactly is 22.2? It's three layers of sound utilizing front, side, back, and overhead speakers. With 22.2, engineers will have to learn how to place sounds in a three-dimensional space. Researchers have noted that early programs are using the three distinct layers similarly to the earliest days of stereo and 5.1, by placing specific sounds in specific locations:

Upper layer
- Reverberation and ambience
- Sound localized above, such as loudspeakers in gymnasiums, airplanes, and fireworks shows

Middle layer
- The anchor layer of the basic sound field, including surround environments

Lower layer
- Sounds of water such as the sea, rivers, and drops of water
- Sound on the ground in scenes with bird’s-eye views

Though still in its infancy, it will probably become the next standard because as of 2016, 6 million 4K TV sets have been sold, and there are already more than forty 4K TV channels worldwide. Is 22.2 surround sound just a fanciful idea? Apparently not, as major heavy weight broadcasting organizations around the world are testing and standardizing its incorporation into their new UHDT schemes.

The big question though, is "Will I ever have one in my home?" Probably not, unless I hit the lottery. I don't think the average home theater will for some time either because sound systems are really just another piece of furniture. Correctly installing a surround system is already a big commitment, I can't imagine having to deal with 24 speakers. Besides, I've rearranged my living room a few times in the last five years, and I'm not about to also move 24 speakers. My guess is that the format will just filter cinema movies down to those lucky enough to have 22.4 in their home. Remember how excited we were that DVDs would have multi-angle camera views, soundtracks in twenty-two languages, and multiple story lines? Didn't happen. Too much work. Like moving furniture.

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