But how common is this? A "reasonable" estimate is that "in lower-priced systems like HTIBs, it could be a quarter to a third who don't take advantage of the surround speakers or use them in a bad way," Baron says. "We think it's fairly widespread, particularly among individuals with their first system. They're tempted to add better audio to their flat-panel purchase, but they're frustrated at the hoops our industry forces us to jump through with installation and setup."
Baron's estimate might actually be conservative, according to Micah Collins. Collins is the director of product management at Avnera, a start-up specialty chip maker that's developed a high performance wireless audio system now being licensed by various manufacturers and retailers. Among their customers is Best Buy, the nation's largest consumer electronics specialty chain, which asked Avnera to design a wireless surround-speaker kit under the RocketFish house brand. Avnera initially approached the retailer pitching its wireless headphone solutions, but Best Buy's private-label group had bigger fish to fry. "It was immediate," says Collins. "They didn't even want to talk about headphones or headsets - the first thing was, 'Can you give me a kit for rear surround speakers?'"
Since Best Buy is on the front lines with consumers, Collins adds, they were well aware of the seriousness of the problem. "They find that between 40% and 50% of the people who buy an HTIB don't even hook up the rear speakers. So they thought, if we can somehow enable them, they can get the full value of the system they're using."
Surrounding The Issue
To understand why people pay for speakers that then go wasted, you have to step outside the mind of the audio/video enthusiast (who not only hang surround speakers on the side or back of their room, but will bury the wires behind the wall, if only to keep domestic peace).
With more and more flat-panel HDTVs flying off shelves, an increasing number of everyday consumers have also been stepping up their audio experiences (likely to be even truer going forward now that the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war has been settled). They're far more focused on the aesthetics of how surround speakers look in their rooms, the logistics of speakers placement (hopefully not on the floor), and how they'll hide long runs of speaker wire to the back of the room. Short of installing in-wall wires and speakers, there's no elegant solution.
Add to this an intimidation factor that prevents many non-technical consumers from exploring or understanding onscreen menus and remote controls. "We have surveys where half the people who bought a component audio system or HTIB are not sure they've hooked it up right even after they've gone through a set-up procedure," says Polk's Baron. "They're not sure about what they've done and whether they're getting the best performance from their system."
With all these barriers, manufacturers knew they had to do something. So they've taken two decidedly different approaches.
First there's the soundbar camp - backed by proponents like Polk and Yamaha - who believe the answer's an all-in-one multichannel speaker conveniently positioned up front, and which uses virtual surround technology to throw surround-channel information toward the back or sides of the room. Enough manufacturers have jumped into this fray last year that Sound & Vision recently rounded up seven models and put them through their paces.
But soundbars come with caveats, too. Even the best soundbar can't fully recreate the experience of a discrete multichannel sound system with properly placed and adjusted speakers. And some can be as complex to set up as any component system. Bulletproof simplicity is one reason Polk, at CES 2008, debuted the SurroundBar 360° DVD Theater, a soundbar coupled with a console containing an upconverting DVD player, virtual surround processor, and amplifier. With everything integrated and automated, Baron says, you can't mis-wire the player using analog connections instead of digital, or mis-set the processor to play back Dolby Pro Logic when you should really be listening to the Dolby Digital track for best sound quality.
As an alternative, wireless rear surround setups replace the long wire run from the front to the back of the room with a radio connection. This too, though, comes with its own costs: Consumers must still feel comfortable hooking up a transmitter module to the main system, then find appropriate locations at the back of the room for both the speakers and a receiver/amplifier module that plugs into an AC outlet (which still requires a short wire run to the speakers). Plus, wireless audio links can be susceptible to noise from other wireless appliances in the house.
Still, the approach has been successful enough that Panasonic has made wireless rear surrounds standard on all but its entry-level system. And Avnera says the RocketFish transmitter/receiver kit ($100), said to be unusual for delivering robust, CD-quality sound, has well exceeded expectations at Best Buy.
When all is said and heard, however, wiping out surroundaphobia won't happen with technology alone. In the end, the most important medicine for battling this epidemic is probably consumer education. Without effective communication through the media and from stores, this is a problem most shoppers won't know they have till they get their systems home. And until retailers more effectively and consistently demonstrate the full home theater experience, most people will keep tossing the surrounds back in the box, completely oblivious to what they'll be missing.
Copyright © 2013 Bonnier Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.