Tuesday Mar 26

Xitel SOUNDAround: Faking it

I didn't ask the Xitel folks to send me one, but a test sample of their new SOUNDaround accessory was waiting for me at the front door a couple of weeks ago.  The SOUNDaround is the latest in a succession of similar products that I've been exposed to over the past 20 years or so.  Their common goal is to produce an impression of surround sound with the user's two-channel system.

So far, none of them has worked very effectively, and that includes the SOUNDaround.  Many of them, again including the SOUNDaround, used technology licenses from SRS Labs.

I patched the SOUNDaround into my system between the DVD player and the preamp inputs.  I set the speaker type selector switch on the back to Large. I chose Spider-Man as a good cinematic test and started up the DVD.  I left the SOUNDaround unit in Bypass mode to get a baseline impression first.

The movie started and I was surprised to hear a fairly insubstantial sound from my system.  There wasn't as much bass as I believed there should be.  When I switched the SOUNDaround into Stereo mode, the SRS TruBass kicked in and I heard good thumping bass effects.  More on this later.

I then tried the SRS Dialog Clarity function.  That simply tilted the common (center) signal frequency response upward, adding a screechy character.  I cut that off right away.

Then I selected the SRS TruSurround XT setting and heard nothing that gave even a hint of a surround experience.  Switching to a CD with one with Dolby Pro-Logic encoding and test signals confirmed the lack of surround effect.

Pro-Logic?  Isn't this the Dolby Digital age?  Yes, it is, but the SOUNDaround system doesn't get a digital signal.  It gets two analog channels and works them over with some sort of matrixing.  Since Pro-Logic was (and remains) the de facto standard for 4-2-4 conversions, it's the best thing I could imagine for checking out the SOUNDaround's bona fides.

Of course, Xitel makes plenty of mention of 5.1 all over the SOUNDaround package and paperwork, sneakily implying that there's a connection between what's inside the box and the actual Dolby Digital approach to surround sound without saying so specifically.  There's not.

As I repacked the SOUNDaround, I noticed that a lot of the associated puffery presents it as a device for doing wonderful audio enhancement for video gamers and for people who currently hear cinema sound through the speakers built into a stereo-capable TV set.  So with the idea of being totally fair-minded, I passed the SOUNDaround along to my son DK for a trial as a game-related product, saying nothing about my negative impression of it as part of a music and video system.

DK has a perfectly respectable audio-video system: one of the better Onkyo AV receiver models and a nicely assembled Cambridge Soundworks speaker setup (passive satellite-subwoofer surround system, whoomped up with one of their powered subwoofers for the effects channel).

He also has a video gaming setup in another room. That setup uses a $30 pair of Altec Lansing powered computer speakers, presumably just what the SOUNDaround would neatly enhance.

I got his call a couple of days later. His reaction was, if anything, less favorable than mine.  He also tried the SOUNDaround first in Bypass mode (his idea, not mine).  He too was surprised at how insubstantial his compact but adequate Altecs suddenly sounded. Kicking in the TruBass definitely goosed up the bass.  He heard no perceptible surround sound effect.

There was a certain vexation for DK upon noting how thin his gaming speakers sounded and how much the TruBass helped cure this apparent defect.  He was about ready to go shopping, if not for a SOUNDaround, at least for an improved set of powered speakers.

The revelation came after DK packed up the SOUNDaround:  "I unhooked it and my speakers sounded just fine."  The word "scam" entered discussion at that point.  DK (and a buddy who participated in the whole process) felt that the SOUNDaround's Bypass mode was probably anti-tweaked to have a deleterious effect on the original sound and thus impress unwary users with the apparent, but ultimately spurious, effectiveness of the TruBass processing.

I regretted not giving another listen to Spider-Man immediately after disconnecting the SOUNDaround from my own system.  But I will report that none of the other listening I've done since then disclosed any thinness in the bass.  It's something I'd never sensed before anyway, so I wasn't surprised. (The systems are rated as 3 db down at 32 Hz, by the way.)

But I'm going to reject the scam idea and fall back on one of my rules of life: "Don't ascribe to malice anything that can be adequately accounted for by stupidity."

My guess is that the SOUNDaround Bypass doesn't only bypass but rather sends the signal through some sort of unintentionally crapped up circuit that degrades low frequency response.  A chintzy connector, switch, and wire combination would be enough do the job.  I'll further guess that this accident fooled the Xitel folks who presumably auditioned the product before foisting it on the public.

Don't let it fool you.