Silent But Deadly

There is a quiet epidemic lurking among us - a disease so awful and destructive that it can kill the thrill and excitement that define home theater. It's the consumer electronics industry's dirty little secret: an ugly mold that festers behind closed media-room doors, eating away at the power and majesty of the best movie soundtracks. Experts agree it's fairly widespread, afflicting from a quarter to as much as half the U.S. home theater population. And yet, most victims fail to even recognize how badly they suffer with this malaise.

We're talking about a very real but little-discussed phenomenon in which purchasers of surround-sound gear fail to use (or at least properly set up) their rear-surround speakers.

The result is that many who purchase home-theater-in-a-box systems in the hope of achieving audio quality rivaling the top-notch video of their high-def displays never get to enjoy the immersive experience of today's multichannel digital soundtracks. In some cases, it's just classic fear: Faced with an extra pair of speakers to set up and tune, less-technical consumers simply throw up their hands and cry uncle. But more often than not, lack of expertise combines with logistics and aesthetic issues that make purchasers simply unwilling or unable to place speakers at the back of their rooms. Call it "surroundaphobia."

How Bad is Bad?

Just how prevalent is this condition? Specific numbers were tough to find. But research conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association and CE manufacturers hints that consumers generally have serious surround-speaker issues:

• In a 2005 CEA study of the audio market, 23% of consumers cited their objection to running exposed wires to five or more speakers as one of their reasons for not owning a home theater. (Not surprisingly, 74% of consumers want systems with as few wires and connections as possible.)

• When home theater owners in the CEA study were asked what criteria they'd most like to improve in their systems, 34% cited "visibility of wires," ranking it first on the list along with "size of screen" and "size of room."

• A study conducted by Polk Audio in 2006 to gauge interest among audio consumers in wireless speaker technology found that the most preferred role for wireless speakers was as "home theater surround/rear speakers" - beating out wireless multi-room speakers for a second zone and even wireless subwoofers.

• In another survey conducted by Polk among buyers of its SurroundBar one-piece multichannel speaker systems, customers most often cited "solution for difficult room configuration" and "all-in-one convenience" as their primary reasons for purchase. But when asked what other reasons motivated them to buy, the top-ranked responses (aside from brand) were "all-in-one convenience" (cited by 50% of respondents), "less clutter" (50%), "less wires" (47%) and "design/appearance" (47%).

• Surroundaphobia may logically be thought to occur mostly among home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) buyers, but it's apparently suffered even among more sophisticated A/V receiver shoppers. An older 2003 CEA survey found that 12% of surround-sound receiver owners had three or fewer speakers connected to their system, suggesting that the rear channels were simply going unused.

Market watchers say that less formal after-sale research, focus group studies, and retail activity support the notion of a common problem. Panasonic, an early proponent of wireless rear-surround speakers in its HTIBs, developed that feature after conducting in-home follow-up studies to gauge how consumers interact with their products. "We got a real good glimpse of how people install their home theater systems and use them," says Paul Sabo, Panasonic's national marketing manager for audio. "We found that they were able to easily hook up the front and center speakers because they're near the display, and even the sub, too. But there are real logistical reasons for not running those wires across the room. So we were seeing surround speakers piled on top of the main speakers at the front of the room, or being left in the box entirely."

"Absolutely," concurs Al Baron, the Polk product line manager who helped develop that company's line of soundbars when few other manufacturers were interested. "Very often, consumers hook up the rear-channel speakers, but they put them next to the front channels. People want what they paid for, so they say 'I want to hear these things.' But they also say, 'No way am I running wires to the back of the room.'"