Satellite Goes Surround

Shown above is the special microphone configuration Neural Audio came up with so XM can capture all the channels for a surround sound broadcast of a live performance from a single position.

Maybe I'm just someone who's easily impressed, but the whole idea of sending audio and video data tens of thousands of miles into space to hit satellites that then send the data back to earth amazes the heck out of me. Recently, a DirecTV engineer told me how, at unbelievable cost, they designed and built earth stations, satellites, and receivers, and then in 1993 launched the satellites into space. Only once all the pieces were in place could they turn on a TV to see if it was receiving a signal. Yes, when the signal appeared, they were just a little relieved.

On the music side of satellite delivery, I'm a big fan of XM and Sirius. Every time I tune into each service's 130-plus channels, I'm technologically impressed, and as happy as a music lover in a record store. That both services are in stereo has never really bothered me because, while I love surround sound, I figured it would be asking way too much to have surround radio.

So I was simultaneously both surprised and suspicious when XM announced HD Surround, a way to broadcast multichannel mixes over satellite radio. My first thought: "Wow! Great!" My second thought: "I hope it sounds good." My third thought: "I hope it doesn't somehow degrade the other, non-surround channels."

XM is the first radio company of any kind to broadcast discrete surround - that is, mixes with sounds assigned to each speaker in a 5.1-channel setup, as opposed to a mix done using something like Dolby Pro Logic II, where the mix is created "on the fly" from a stereo recording. Almost everything on the light-classical XM Pops and free-form Fine Tuning music channels (Channels 113 and 76, respectively) is now in surround. Fine Tuning and XM Pops were chosen because there are more multichannel recordings available in those genres than in other kinds of music. Whenever you hear surround there, it's the real deal, never stereo jacked up with fake surround.