Beyond 5.1? Inventor of THX Hopes So


Tom Holman with a 10.2 surround-sound system in the Immersive Sound Laboratory of USC’s Integrated Media Systems Center.

Forget about 7.1; Tomlinson Holman, the inventor of THX, has loftier goals.

Oct. 11, 2007 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Tomlinson Holman is best known as the guy who gave us the THX audio standard used in commercial cinemas and home theaters. THX was developed when Holman worked with Star Wars director George Lucas at Lucasfilm and was created to reproduce sound as the film director intended it to be heard. Holman hasn’t stopped looking for better ways to reproduce audio, though. He now runs THMLabs, which sells professional audio equipment. In addition, he is a professor of film sound at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, the chief scientist with auto equalization company Audyssey, and in his spare time promotes a 10.2 surround-sound system—which, yes, is supposed to be twice as good as 5.1.

Holman’s 10.2 system actually consists of 14 channels (16 with channels for the hearing and visually impaired). To get there, take a standard 5.1 surround-sound setup with three front speakers, two surround speakers and a subwoofer (the .1). Then add wide left and right front channels, upper left and right front channels, two more surrounds, a back surround (like those used in a 6.1 system) and another subwoofer.

Holman demonstrated the 10.2 system at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show, where it met with raves. But it still hasn’t caught on. Is this legendary sound innovator deterred? Not when we talked with him.

What’s the point of 10.2?
The thought is that it would be the top member of the [surround-sound] hierarchy. Our 10.2 is a platform for scaling from one environment to another, but also as the source for 7.1, 5.1 and even stereo reproduction. There are three sensations [in sound]: frequency range, dynamic range and spatial capability. Frequency and dynamic range are already satisfied, so the only direction for us to go in is having more channels. And you want the capability of performing with a picture and without.

What do the additional channels provide?
The left and right wides produce the first reflections in concert halls. The high channels are where you get the first reflections from the ceiling, and your perception of localization is good coming from above at an angle rather than overhead. The center back channel is pretty much accepted. Another thing we do is add dipoles at the same location as the surrounds [for both directional and diffusive surround channels.]

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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