Surround Sound Goes Wireless

Virtually all major-league sports on television are now broadcast in native 5.1 surround sound. However, the vast majority of viewers continue to consume these shows in stereo, at best. The gulf between these two extremes can be partly explained by the relative complexity involved in setting up multiple speakers in a surround array accurately in the home and by the esthetic noise caused by wires that have to reach the rear of the room. That’s a discrepancy that WiSA — the Wireless Speaker & Audio Association — is setting out to reduce in the new year.

A number of the three-year-old organization’s two dozen members exhibited new wireless surround audio systems at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which closes today. Several will offer 24-bit/96-kHz uncompressed multichannel sound in the 5.1- to 5.8-GHz frequency range. That part of the spectrum is sparsely populated and used mainly by consumer WiFi routers, reducing the potential impact of RF interference, and its short effective range is well-suited for living-room–size spaces.

But, besides eliminating unsightly wires, this next generation of consumer wireless multichannel audio systems will use smartphone and tablet apps that take the guesswork out of positioning speakers in surround fields. Users will be able to drag-and-drop signals to each speaker, and the system’s onboard DSP will calculate signal routing and delays to ensure that imaging and relative levels are correct.

“Historically, the challenge for 5.1 in the home has been the complexity of setting the system up correctly,” says WiSA Director Jim Venable. “The solution will be the use of apps that can do much of the work and create a much better user experience for surround.”

He credits broadcast sports for helping give surround sound the penetration it has already achieved among consumers: sports-audio mixes create a template for what surround audio should sound like on consumer television sets. However, he adds, the overall soundscape of multichannel audio on television isn’t as predictable, with mixes from different sources — commercials, older content mixed with new — creating an uneven listening proposition. He believes that the automated positioning of surround speakers via apps will at least provide a consistent monitoring environment for viewers. Part of WiSA’s mission he says, is to help create standards for delivering multichannel audio content to homes.

“It’s not unlike how it was in the olden days, the real olden days, when we started broadcasting in color,” he says. “Each of the three networks at the time used a slightly different approach. It took a while for it to become a consistent experience in the home. That’s where we are now with surround sound for television. The consumer hears the subwoofer and thinks they have it right, but there’s more to it than that.”

Venable says the frequency range and app-based automatic system configuration will also position broadcast surround in the home for the next round of multichannel platforms, such as 7.1, 7.2 (which the WiSA standard now supports), 11.2, and the 22-channel concept being promoted by Dolby’s ATMOS system. WiSA’s suite of demo rooms at CES also featured a new HDMI adapter that can turn the television set itself into a 5.1 transmitter for wireless surround systems.

“The technology has been in place for surround sound on television for some years,” he says. “Now the technology is getting there on the consumer end to make experiencing surround sound predictable, simple, and affordable.”

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