Beyond 5.1? Inventor of THX Hopes So
Forget about 7.1; Tomlinson Holman, the inventor of THX, has loftier goals.
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Tom Holman with a 10.2 surround-sound system in the Immersive Sound Laboratory of USC’s Integrated Media Systems Center.
October 11, 2007 by Steven Castle

So what’s the hold up?
These things take a long time. 5.1 was named in 1987, but it was around in 1979. We can encourage people that 10.2 is a superset of 5.1. And it’s written into the Digital Cinema Initiative standard.

Is the holdup a matter of not having the media with 10.2 tracks?
The problem is playing it back. I talked to the HD DVD and Blu-ray folks when those came out, but they weren’t ready for [10.2]. I know you can put two 5.1 streams on there, so there’s enough space, but it all depends on how you can extract that and decode it into the format. I actually carry 10.2 demos on an iPod with FireWire. (Though the iPod can’t play 10.2 itself.) Apple’s QuickTime standard does include 10.2.

When do you think 10.2 will take off?
When some manufacturer steps up to the plate with demonstration material that shows off the medium. Some of the receivers have 10 channels on board; it’s just a matter of rewiring them to do the right thing. And with metadata, you can optimize the playback for all kinds of systems. So those who have 5.1, 7.1, even two channels would all have the optimum mix.

But I’m less worried about delivery than about the whole notion. Audiophiles said when mono went to stereo that people would spend half as much on each speaker, but stereo sold to people because it worked.

Is 10.2 a surround-music medium?
The 10.2 is definitely more interesting as a sound-only experience. We’ve had musicians in there who have said that’s the most realistic sound they’ve heard.

There is something profoundly different about watching a movie and listening to music. With music, it’s much more likely that you’ll listen to something over and over. Part of it is due to auditory streaming. The first time through, you listen to the melody, the second time you listen to the words, and the third time you listen to the counterpoint.

But multichannel music hasn’t caught on.
One of the reasons surround music in its current iteration flunked in the marketplace is that producing plans were made for the people producing it. The pop music side produced music in which you were sitting on stage in the middle of the band. But in a poll, an overwhelming number of people said they’d rather have the best seat in the house than be on the stage, and overwhelmingly the music industry put out mixes that sat people in the middle of the band. And many people, especially women, do not like sounds coming from behind them.

What innovations do you see in home electronics today?
I’ve been surprised at how much better the pictures have gotten in the last five years. There are still defects, but that’s a lot rarer. The sound side hasn’t moved forward much. Auto room EQ has been going on in the theaters for years, and just now is coming to homes. What I fear is getting the products to perform correctly with interoperability. That’s becoming the biggest job, and I’m afraid picture and sound quality is not at the top of the list any more.

For more information about speakers check out our Best Speakers of 2007 and Speaker Q&A with Snell’s Bob Graffy.

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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