Best 5.1 Surround Sound Music Tracks

Okay, you got me. I freely admit before all my fellow music lovers and audiophiles alike that I had a very specific ulterior motive when I noted in a recent Remaster Class column that the title track to Yes' September 1972 magnum opus Close to the Edge was my "second-favorite 5.1 mix." Following my primary intention of encouraging listeners to marvel at the fully enveloping scope of that song's truly amazing surround sound mix, I figured the next thing anyone reading said comment might wonder would be along the lines of, "Yeah, cool cool cool, that's great and all—but what's No. 1?"

Indeed, some of you have since reached out to me directly and/or emailed S&V inquiring about what specific song in surround sound occupies that hallowed top spot, not to mention suggesting I put together a longer list of my favorite 5.1 demo tracks while I'm at it. So, with the full-channel blessing of S&V EIC Al Griffin, I've gone ahead and compiled just such a list. (I aim to please in 360 degrees, after all.)

Ultimately, I decided to go with my top 15.1 surround sound demo tracks, which are presented here in reverse order starting at No. 16—that's the .1 in 15.1, of course! The one caveat I instituted for this list was that I would limit it to just one top track per artist, with the corollary being that I'd also include a pair of "second takes" from every listed artist at the end of each summary, with the overall winner getting a double-dose of said second takes as part of the reward for being the top 5.1 dog. Add them all up, in fact, and you'll find there are a cool 50 tracks in all to whet your surround sound whistles, if you choose to delve even further into these fine, fine artists' respective 5.1 oeuvres.

In my opinion, these are the 16 definitive tracks that best represent the truly immersive, joyful, awe-inspiring experience surround sound is meant to deliver. However many of them you choose to sample for yourself, know that these are the kind of 5.1 mixes that will reach inside your head and burrow directly into your soul. To say I've personally spent a cumulative 5.1 months' amount of time listening to all these particular 5.1 tracks over the years might actually be an understatement (but let's not read too deep into that concept).

Feel free to agree and/or disagree accordingly in the comments section below. And if you want me to share even more of my favorite surround sound demo tracks beyond the scope of this list, please let us know, because there are plenty more of them to be found in my perpetual 5.1 rotation, believe you me.

Alright, alright, enough with the extended preamble—let's get on with the 5.1 show!


16. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers: "First Flash of Freedom." Mojo
(24-bit/48kHz DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Blu-ray. Reprise, 2010.)

Longtime TP co-producer/engineer Ryan Ulyate maximizes the balance of atmosphere and dynamics quite beautifully in this most ethereal Mojo track from June 2010. Tom Petty's dreamy reading of the song's full title phase rules all channels twice within 45 seconds of each other early on, but my favorite moment occurs when the rest of the band drops out entirely and lead guitarist Mike Campbell's fierce, echo-laced solo wails away in the left front and rear quadrants before second guitarist Scott Thurston joins him for some Allman Brothers-esque harmonic interplay across the board.

Second takes: a) "I Should Have Known It." Mojo (drummer Steve Ferrone puts on a ferocious snare and cymbal clinic, bolstered by yet another beyond-fiery Campbell solo); b) "Red River." Hypnotic Eye. 24/48 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Blu-ray. Reprise, 2012 (Petty's fuzz bass absolutely owns the sub channel; also note the semi-subtle block-percussion accents after each line of every verse).


15. Elton John: "Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding." Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
(24/96 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Blu-ray. UMC/Mercury/Rocket, 2014/1973.)

Greg Penny, who oversaw Elton John's extensive SACD catalog offerings in the early 2000s, hit the apex with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road's 11-minute two-part opening track, which is even more pronounced on the 2014 higher-grade High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray version. The volume dynamics of the ARP synthesizer intro played by engineer David Hentschel rise and fall like a sonic tsunami for a full 5:52 before Sir Elton even gets around to singing his very first word.

Second takes: a) "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (blistering all-channel electric guitar assault courtesy of Davey Johnston); b) "Rocket Man." Honky Château. SACD DSD. Island/Rocket, 2004/1972 (a truly cosmic blend of slide, piano, synth, and vocal harmonies galore).


14. The Flaming Lips: "Do You Realize??" Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
(24/96 Advanced Resolution DVD-Audio. Warner Bros., 2003/2002.)

Visionary producer David Fridmann mindmelds with head Lipsmen Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd to create the most adventurous, channel-challenging mixes in the entire soundfield. Most every instrument on "Realize??" takes a clockwise, 360-degree adventure through every channel—including Coyne's dreamily celestial lead vocal, which only centers itself for a chorus break that acts more like an inverted verse. In essence, The Lips have created the aural equivalent of one of the song's quintessential narrative lines: "We're floating in space." Fridmann and The Flaming Lips consistently treat 5.1 as its own artform, and this is their most fully realized canvas.

Second takes: a) "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song." At War With the Mystics. 24/88.2 Dolby Digital DVD-Audio. Warner Bros., 2006 (harmonies ping-pong through the channels like The Beach Boys on acid); b) "Race for the Prize." The Soft Bulletin. 24/96 Advanced Resolution DVD-Audio. Warner Bros., 2005/1999 (Coyne flanks right before re-centering his gravity, then goes back again).


13. King Crimson: "Elephant Talk." Discipline
(24/96 MLP Lossless 5.1 Surround DVD-Audio. Inner Knot/DG, 2011/1981.)

Undisputed 5.1 guru Steven Wilson masterminded most of KC's surround-centric catalog revisitations, and this Discipline track is a stellar example of his innate understanding of how guitarist/co-founder Robert Fripp's keen, analytic mind works in all directions. Not only that, but "Elephant Talk," guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew's sonic syntax lesson from A to E is a veritable feast for repeated listening. On one pass, focus on Tony Levin's burbling bass lines wholly owning the sub channel, then spend another on how Fripp's angular guitar lines shrewdly counter Belew's onomatopoeic leads (including the literally elephantine caterwauls that occasionally skitter across the channels). After that, note the timing for when Belew's sneering "back talk" vocals hit the rear channels, and get in one more go for how drummer Bill Bruford's clever, understated playing holds down the fort with all the choreographed chaos going on around him. (Incidentally, the Blu-ray version of Discipline is part of KC's hard-to-find 2016 On (and Off) The Road 1981-1984 19-disc box set, but the separate 2011 DVD-A release will suffice any of your animalistic 5.1 needs.)

Second takes: a) "I Talk to the Wind." In the Court of the Crimson King. 24/96 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Blu-ray. Inner Knot/Island, 2019/1969 (delicate, wispy mesh of woodwind/keyboard maven Ian McDonald's layered flute and Greg Lake's gracefully blended vocals); b) "Red," Red. 24/96 MLP Lossless 5.1 Surround DVD-Audio. Inner Knot/DG, 2009/1974 (turmoil and resolution in full Frippertronics style, with Bruford hammering hard in all quadrants).


12. Queen: "Bohemian Rhapsody." A Night at the Opera
(24/96 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Blu-ray. Hollywood/Island/Elektra, 2014/1975.)

A true multitrack benchmark when it first met all our ears back in November 1975, "Bo Rhap" (as it's abbreviated in some quarters) is the abject pinnacle of vocal layering on tape. While there was some controversy surrounding (pun intended) the initial Elliot Scheiner/Roy Thomas Baker/Brian May 5.1 mixes released during the early-2000s DVD-Audio era, this Blu-ray (with "additional audio restoration" courtesy of Kris Fredriksson) is your best option for marveling at Freddie Mercury's sheer operatic vocal mastery no matter what channel he appears in, as well as May's innovative fingertapped guitar solos and drummer Roger Taylor's all-channel-resonating gong-hit denoument. Mamma mia—listening to this one sends shivers down my spine, every time.

Second takes: a) "Dragon Attack." The Game. 24/96 DTS 5.1 Surround DVD-Audio. DTS/Hollywood/Elektra, 2003/1980 (bassist Roger Deacon's sturdy low-end rumble and May's gritty guitar crunch are hard to vanquish); b) "Another One Bites the Dust." The Game (Deacon's iconic bass line plus Taylor's super-dry kickdrum and snare plus harmonizer swirls galore plus crisply layered handclaps equal another one that's gonna getcha too, hey!).


11. Dire Straits: "Ride Across the River." Brothers in Arms
(24/96 Advanced Resolution 5.1 DualDisc DVD. Warner Bros., 2005/1985.)

Chuck Ainlay knows surround, and he knows all the ins and outs of Brothers in Arms, the May 1985 album considered to be the DDD template of the then-burgeoning CD era. Right from the outset, "Ride Across the River" puts you in the muggy swamp with wide-panned nature sounds in an Amazonian jungle vibe, by way of National Geographic. Bandleader/co-producer Mark Knopfler's signature gnarly guitar lines warble and wah continually across all the river channels, punctuated with a cauldron full of keyboard/synth stabs, firecracker percussion, serve-and-volley cymbal work, and sweet supplemental horns from the Brecker Brothers. This "deep and wide" calling-card track is but one reason why this 5.1 mix—which is also available on SACD—won the Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album in 2006.

Second takes: a) "Money for Nothing." Brothers in Arms (the ever-building cacophonic, volume-swelling keyboard/guitar/frenzied drum intro parts the sonic sea for Knopfler's blistering guitar gambit right down the middle); b) "The Man's Too Strong." Brothers in Arms (Knopfler's 1937 National Resonator acoustic guitar jabs and, well, resonates deep repeatedly after each chorus, accented mightily by intertwined thundering piano and thumping bass during the back half and outro).


10. Styx: "Red Storm." The Mission
(24/96 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Blu-ray. UMe, 2018/2017.)

The first foray into the studio surround arena from prog-leaning classic-rock stalwarts Styx blasts off into the stratosphere in a big way. It's the perfect all-encompassing complement to an all-analog concept album storyline about the triumphs and travails centered around a tight-knit crew's mission to Mars, with "Red Storm" delineating the crux of the man vs. space conflict. Surround producers Will Evankovich and Jim Scott have clearly studied the tenets of the Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson 5.1 canon, as evidenced by the meteor-storm-navigating solo section's pummeling post-prog tag-team riffage between guitarists Tommy Shaw and James "JY" Young. World-class drummer Todd Sucherman's time-signature-shift mastery in the buildup to said solo section is truly beyond mind-bending, to say the least, and the all-channel vocal blends (both Shaw's lead and the ensuing five-part harmonies for all 6:04 of the track) make you feel like you're floating in the capsule right alongside the crew/band. Two words best describe Styx's stunning maiden 5.1 voyage: Mission accomplished.

Second takes: a) "Locomotive." The Mission (Floydian synth intro welcomes us all back to the space machine, interspersed with CSN-tight harmonies on the bridge plus Shaw's acoustic acumen); b) "Khedive." The Mission (keyboardist Lawrence Gowan's instrumental tour de force majeure, buttressed by a Queenlike stacked guitar-army attack).


Puffer Belly's picture

Just a correction that the Genesis surround discs were released as DVD-V (not DVD-A) in the USA, and SACD in the rest of the world. The DVDs are lossy (24/96 DTS) and the SACDs are lossless (DSD64).

Mike Mettler's picture
Thanks for the Genesis notes. I thought of mentioning DVD-V in the provided parenthetical info, but erred on the side of semantics, truth be told. My technical bad, per se.

It should further be noted that Genesis gets a solid A grade for providing top-shelf video content on each of their 5.1 releases in terms of filmed commentary/analysis from all bandmembers, occasional of-era live performances, and of-era videoclips (even if the video quality for much of the latter isn't quite the best, which keeps them from getting an A-plus distinction here).

On a semi-related note, if a DVD-A release offers visualized menus/screens and other movable visual elements per se, are they actually DVD-Vs? Asking for a friend...

Puffer Belly's picture

DVDs have two folders, AUDIO_TS and VIDEO_TS. A DVD-V player will access the VIDEO_TS folder and a DVD-A player will access the AUDIO_TS folder. AUDIO_TS has audio encoded with lossless MLP (and I think LPCM is allowed), and VIDEO_TS has audio encoded as Dolby Digital, DTS, and/or lossless LPCM. Both can have video content. See Wikipedia for more details, but those are the basic differences.

John Sciacca's picture
Hey, Mike! Great to read your deep music knowledge as always! Wondering your thoughts on some of the new Atmos-mixed albums and how you feel they compare to a traditional 5.1 mix? Specifically have you heard REM's "Automatic for the People" or Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" in Atmos? Love to hear your thoughts and if you think that might be something that we see replacing 5.1 to elevate (pun intended) surround music to the next generation. Thanks!
Mike Mettler's picture
Hey John -- great to hear from you, my friend! While I do have the Atmos version of Automatic for the People in hand (and have a note to get Kind of Blue Atmos ASAP!), I have yet to hear it in all its Atmos glory. You?

That said, I have heard the Atmos versions of Sgt. Pepper and Roger Waters' live The Wall, both of which set new surround standards on their own.

It's a good Q as to whether Atmos will replace 5.1, but it's still TBD, imo, until more content is available. Hmm, maybe I should ask SW what he thinks about Atmos the next time we talk...

trkarp's picture

This messed up my day - as in my 'work from home' office is only a few feet from my home theatre and I spent more time listening that working.

Many of these terrific choices are on my list too. The Yeah, Yeah, Yeah Song, High Hopes & Rocket Man are some of my go-to's as well. I even gave a listen to my very rarely played copies of Mojo & Hypnotic Eye with new appreciation.

For me, I would add Thick As A Brick (Jethro Tull), Benighted (Opeth) and Saturate Me (Riverside).

Mike Mettler's picture
Sorry/not sorry re messing up your "work from home" day -- but thanks for the comments! It really is something to visit/revisit all these 5.1 gems, isn't it?

I have a hard time narrowing down my favorite Jethro Tull 5.1 moment(s), but, as semi-alluded to in a previous response, I have a feeling they'll be on my next Top 5.1 list. Ditto with Riverside -- but shhh, don't tell...

PaulF14566's picture

Eagles Hotel California DVD-Audio is one of the best recorded 5.1 surround albums. Besides being great musically throughout it is reference quality sound. Another honorable mention is Yes Live in Amsterdam on DVD-Audio.

Mike Mettler's picture
Hotel California is indeed fabulous in 5.1 -- most especially "The Last Resort," which I delve into a bit further in this review:
clement's picture

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and well-presented choices! You really sparked some good conversation, which seemed very much to be one of your purposes. The most evident purpose, though, seems to be to share your very clear joy of surround sound! I certainly hope you consider another fifty . . . or is that 15.1? Have you ever visited I think you would really enjoy the community of like-minded multichannel music lovers! Stay Surrounded, Comrade!

Mike Mettler's picture
Thank you for saying so on all fronts -- and, yes indeed, the more we hear from passionate and enthusiastic people like you, the more I'm inclined to jump onto compiling the next 15.1-cum-50 list. (Paging EIC Griffin...)

And yes, I have visited and interacted with the community -- lotsa great folks over there!

t_m's picture

Wonderful article and some great comments too. Some of the tracks that I've used (Title-Artist-Album) - Comments welcome :
1) Ambergris_March-Bjork-Drawing_Restraint_9 : The bells are key to getting it sound right
2) Yesterday-Boyz_II_Men-DTS_Multichannel_Demo_CD_(Vol_1) : each voice is distinct; if speakers are not done right it just doesn't come together.
3) Biko-Peter_Gabriel-The_Best : The reverb is key to getting it just right.
4) Oxygène_2-Jean_Michel_Jarre-Aero : As indicated in another post, getting seamless transitions across speakers is key to this track.The Aero version is the best.
5) El_Barrio-Unk-Harman_Kardon_Logic_7_(The_Sounds_Of_New_York) : Consistency across all channels
6) Heavy_Metals-Ian_Anderson-Homo_Erraticus : Center channel with male voice
7) Pavement_Cracks-Annie_Lennox-Bare : That voice

Mike Mettler's picture
Many thanks! A few notes... 1) I do love much of Bjork's surround output, which I'll have to wade through further for my next list. We've noted 4) Jarre in a previous exchange, but I'd like to get further clarification of the album names and origins/formats of your specific source material for 3) Gabriel and 7) Annie Lennox, as I'm not aware of authorized audio-centric surround mixes for either of those releases...
insman1132's picture

What?? You couldn't find a single classical album that is great surround?? Really??

Mike Mettler's picture
Oh, believe me, there are scores of fantastic classical releases in 5.1, but they deserve a separate assessment all on their own, not interspersed randomly within a pop/rock/prog-oriented list I had trouble narrowing down in the first place.
NUJazz's picture

I agree with you. There are a lot of classical 5.1 tracks which provide an audiophile orgasm, just to mention one of those:
Magnificat – Nidarosdomens jentekor & TrondheimSolistene -"Fecit potentiam"

3ddavey13's picture

Just wanted to thank you Mike for making me aware of these surround releases. Thanks to you I was able get all 5 Yes blurays at reasonable prices, as well as all the Jethro Tull stuff (except for Thick As A Brick. I had to set settle for the stereo download from hdtracks. But I did manage to get my favorite - Benefit) Some great surround SACDs which haven't been mentioned are George Harrison Live in Japan, Roger Waters In The Flesh, Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here, Layla, and The Who Live At The Royal Albert Hall. If I had to choose a favorite surround release it would be the Atom Heart Mother album from Pink Floyd's The Early Years. It's a shame they didn't do the entire Meddle album. As for Atmos I've only experienced The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and Abbey Road. While I hope this is the wave of the future I can't say that I relish having to buy my music over again.

Mike Mettler's picture
Thanks for the comments, Dave! Glad you got all the Yes Panegyric Blu-ray 5.1 releases in hand. There are also DVD-A 5.1 mixes for latter-era Yes albums like November 1997's Open Your Eyes and September 2001's Magnification -- both definitely interesting to some degree (see/hear the latter album's "In the Presence Of"), but not quite on par with Steven Wilson's definitive work on Yes' prime creative era.

That said, I wouldn't mind hearing SW tackle July 1977's Going for the One, if only to hear how he'd handle "Awaken" (which someone else also mentioned earlier in this comments thread).

Trevor Rabin and I once discussed the possibility of him doing a 5.1 mix for November 1983's 90125 -- and I'm certainly all for that, especially to hear what he would do with "Changes," one of the tracks both he and I agreed would be fantastic in 5.1.

As for latter-era Yes, I'd be down with getting 5.1 for the studio tracks on both volumes of 1996/97's Keys to Ascension and September 1999's The Ladder. Maybe someday on all counts, but who knows at this point. . .

Interesting choices on the SACD front from your POV as well. Speaking of the man behind In the Flesh, I will say that something from Roger Waters' Amused to Death BD is most definitely in the running to be on my next Top 5.1 tracks list, having barely missed the cut for the first one. It's the kind of mix that begs immediate reassessment of an album unjustly overlooked at the time of its initial release (in this case, September 1992).

The Randyman's picture

Great list! Makes me wish I had a better 5.1 system, but I love the music, and appreciate your guidance! If it's alright with you, I'm planning to use this list as the foundation for the radio show I host each Saturday. Thanks for the recommendations!

The Randyman's picture

Not only serious music, but serious lyrics as well! Of course the sound quality of the show does not come close to what the 5.1 experience must be like, but it did make for one awesome show. Thanks for the inspiration and I may have to put my own 5.1 system to the test and acquire some of these gems!
The Flaming Lips … Do You Realize
Elton John … Rocket Man
Styx … Radio Silence
Porcupine Tree … Time Flies
Rush … Vital Signs
Genesis … Watcher Of The Skies
The Moody Blues … Question
Steven Wilson … Pariah (Feat. Ninet Tayeb)
Yes … Yours Is No Disgrace
King Crimson … Elephant Talk
Dire Straits … The Man's Too Strong
The Jimi Hendrix Experience … Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Pink Floyd … High Hopes
The Beatles … A Day In The Life
Queen … Dragon Attack
Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers … First Flash Of Freedom

Mike Mettler's picture
Hey Randy -- quite honored to see this list you put together for your radio-cloud show! Hope you got some great feedback about it too!
3ddavey13's picture

I'd be interested in more Yes especially live stuff. I have both Magnification on DVD-A and Amused To Death on bd. I started hunting down DVD-A and SACD discs when they first started to appear. I bought just about anything rock-related. Some of my 'interesting' 5.1s are British Are Coming (Brit hits from the '60s), Humble Pie at the Whiskey A-Go-Go, The Best Of Atomic Rooster, Deep Purple with Malcolm Arnold conducting The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and ELP Live From the Front Row. I also have the first DVD-A of Brain Salad Surgery. After reading your S&V article I tried to find the newer Sony released surround mix but all I've been able to find is a 2CD/1DVD stereo version from Manticore.
Getting off the subject a bit, I wanted to mention that the bluray from the 5 disc 40th Anniversary of The Last Waltz does not include a dts-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It has the same audio options as the standard bluray (5.1 PCM and Dolby Digital) even though it's listed in the book.
Getting even further off the subject, I'm hoping someone can identify this receiver. Back in the early days of quad (early '70s) a friend had a name-brand Japanese 4-speaker receiver that had a joystick built in to front. When moved around the music would gyrate from one speaker to the next. I don't know if it was a true quadraphonic receiver because he didn't own a quad turntable. This was my first introduction to surround sound and I thought it was pretty cool. I'm just curious if anyone knows anything about it.

Mike Mettler's picture
Wholly agreed re getting more Yes in 5.1, as we've noted in other related threads here. I may be able to get an update on that front fairly soon directly from the source, so to speak, so stay tuned for that...
Patbarr's picture

Yes 3D Davey, I recall that Sansui had a joystick although I never owned one.

One of my favorite 5.1 releases is America's "Homecoming" album. It's an Elliot mix that was originally on DVD-Audio (with the "swirly" logo that says "Advanced Resolution"), but I believe Audio Fidelity later released it as an SACD. Nick Davis' remix of Genesis' "Trespass" is a real revelation in 5.1 or stereo.

For new re-releases on SACD, take a look at the website for duttonvocalion in the UK. Prices are good and I grabbed "Best of the Guess Who vol. 2" which sounds good in a '70's quadriphonic way.

Mike Mettler's picture
Very much agreed re the merits of America's Homecoming in 5.1 -- and you are indeed correct re that one also having a latter-day Audio Fidelity release. (And, yep, I have both versions, of course.) Have you also heard the Audio Fidelity SACD quad version of their 1975 Hearts album?

I too have picked up a few of those Vocalion Guess Who 5.1 titles, and am awaiting another one's arrival from overseas before I do a multidisc GW-in-surround listening session.

fionass's picture

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