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SRS Labs Circle Surround II

When I first walked into the SRS Labs demo room, I couldn’t get anyone’s attention because the event staff from SRS and RoseTel (their partners) had formed a neat circle around a campfire that was Tomlinson Holman. Unable to compete, I sat in on a few minutes of the director’s cut of ‘Pearl Harbor’ As with the Circle Surround II sneak preview demo given to SMR reporters at Surround Pro 2001, the speakers were laid out three in the front and three behind. Left to right imaging was excellent, both in front and behind me; however, front to back pans seemed to jump rather than transition smoothly along the sides.

Click for a Larger Image

Alan Kraemer, SRS’s Executive Vice President of Technology and Business Development, finally took pity on me and motioned to the hallway where we discussed the company’s latest technologies. Naturally, the first thing he mentioned was Circle Surround II, which he compared to rival Dolby Pro Logic II. “We have 5 patents for logic steering techniques, without which they can’t have the stability and separation we have with CS II, especially in the rear channels.” He added “…plus we have a surround-back channel. 6.1 instead of 5.1, way better!” I asked if there had been any recent market penetration for Circle Surround. “Absolutely!” Kraemer replied, “ESPN is live-encoding their football and basketball games in Circle Surround. Shows like ‘Fraiser’ and ‘Becker’ are also CS encoded. We’re concentrating on sports broadcasting, but we’re getting some television specials and holiday programming too.” He also mentioned that their latest technology could be had for less than $300 as Kenwood’s current line of receivers were shipping with CS II. Other SRS technologies discussed included: TruSurround, a virtualizer that “…creates surround with just two speakers”; TruBass, their low frequency enhancer; WOW, the 3-D virtualizer found on most PCs; and HEADPHONE, which attempts to externalize in-the-head sound. Like these products, Circle Surround and CS II matrix decoders can be used on any mono or stereo sources; however, they’re at their best when used with encoded material.

I promised Kraemer that I’d come back for a demo when the room was free. But before leaving I told him that CS II’s three surround channels might sound even more impressive if the left and right surround speakers were moved to the sides of the room and the surround-back channel was reproduced through two rear speakers. This would allow for stable imaging to the sides and rear of the listening position. “We use the ITU standard for speaker placement and then we drop a single centre speaker between the surrounds, which seems to work pretty well” he remarked.

An hour later I caught Tom Holman wandering the hallways so I raced back to SRS, where I had the demo room all to myself. Upon seeing me again, Kraemer said “Hey, y’know we might end up trying out that speaker configuration you mentioned earlier.” “Oh really?” I beamed. “Yeah,” he replied “Tom Holman suggested the same thing so we figured it was worth considering.” So much for my powers of persuasion! Click for a Larger Image

Side imaging issues aside, the CS II demos sounded quite spectacular. The AIR 6 Series cat-5 based speaker system by Dynaudio Acoustics and TC Electronics was being used, where individual channels could be turned OFF and ON or redirected to any speaker, allowing Kraemer to demonstrate what was happening in certain channels of the matrix decoder. The ‘Pearl Harbor’ demo involved taking the discrete multi-channel signal and folding it into two channels using a Circle Surround encoder, then recovering the multi-channel mix using a CS II decoder. The front speakers were turned off to demonstrate how well CS II’s three surrounds tracked the on-screen action. As exciting as the demo was, judging accuracy to the original discrete mix was not possible since I couldn’t hear what was going into the encoder. The next demo contained some of the ESPN broadcast material mentioned above. Kraemer shut off the centre speaker and asked me to listen for dialog leakage. There was virtually none! Nice, but the fact that we were listening to material specifically encoded for CS decoding, made the clean centre channel extraction less impressive than it would have otherwise been.

Unfortunately, they didn’t demo any un-encoded material except to an old mono Frank Sinatra recording. Apparently, their rep in India (coincidentally also named Sanjay) had been bugging them for a mono to 5.1 virtualizer. “Seems they have just tons of mono material” Kraemer said, a little surprised. I confirmed that very few Hindi movies were in stereo; most modern ones were 5.1 while older movies were mono. So SRS went about designing a mono to 5.1 virtualizer to be part of their CS II matrix decoder. The Sinatra demo placed the singer’s vocals front and centre, with the music spread across the front, wrapping subtly around to the sides. As soon as Kraemer shut off the centre channel, Sinatra’s vocals could suddenly be heard from every speaker. SRS Technology Director Todd Baker commented “We use precedence to keep you from hearing the same sound from all the speakers, especially behind you. No delays, just constant phase filtering and adjusted volumes. Basically the Hass effect.” Sure enough, as soon as the centre channel was audible the vocals seemed to vanish from the surrounds.

After the demos I asked them how they tweak their matrix decoders. “We try as much torture material as we can get our hands on” remarked Baker. “People send us e-mails telling us to try this recording or that. They even send us music over the ‘net if we can’t find a certain song. We also kept an eye on on-line bulletin boards to see what people were saying about Circle Surround; what they liked about it, where they thought it was misbehaving. Of course, we didn’t tell them we were spying on them” he laughed “…but they did kinda help us design Circle Surround II.” []

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Show report last updated: 2nd February 2003.


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