Psychoacoustics have fascinated us since the first time we listened to a great two channel HiFi system, we closed our eyes and could almost picture the vocals coming from the center of the room, a spot where there were no speakers to be found. So when we first heard the idea of front rendered surround sound, we might've been a little more open to the idea than others. A simple way to explain front rendered surround sound is you take multi-channel audio and process it for two speakers in a way that tricks the brain into thinking there are more than two speakers. It's kind of like a ventriloquist who can throw their voice to make it appear as if it was coming from a dummy, rather than their own mouth. So no tricking the brain in this way is not new, but applying it in the home theater is much more recent. And besides, if you think about it, all surround sound is simulated and works by tricking the brain -- you didn't think there were actually bullets flying around your room did you?
We wanted to try this technology in as many ways as we could, but what we learned was that SRS's version is only featured in sound bars and TVs -- other manufacturers do have their own flavors though. And since one speaker in our test theater is more expensive than most sound bars, and bigger than many HDTVs, it wasn't an easy thing to test comparatively. So what we did was to instead compare it to just the speakers built into TVs and sound bars, without the feature enabled. No, we don't think TV speakers or sound bars are the best way to add audio to your home theater system, but we do recognize that most people don't have the means, room, or even the desire for a big surround sound system (or they do and don't use it because of the added complexity of needing more than one remote, etc.)
An HDTV featuring SRS TheaterSound
The first test we did was with a new Samsung UN40C7000 LED back-lit LCD TV. This is a very stylish HDTV which means the speakers are so small you can't find 'em. The problem of course is that small speakers have almost no bass, but enabling TheaterSound seemingly extends the reach of the little speakers beyond the sides of the TV. So instead of all the audio coming from one place, it does make the sound appear as if the speakers were off to the sides. The sound does not wrap around you and to be honest doesn't really live up to the "theater sound" that the name implies. To top it off there is a very specific sweet spot of about 4-6 feet directly in front of the TV, and the volume has to be turned 3/4th of the way up to really get appreciate the affect; which pushes the speakers beyond where we'd like. Now to be fair there is only so much you can do with small TV speakers and while this might be ok for a bedroom -- you know, if the TV was at the foot of the bed -- it really wouldn't satisfy anyone who considers themselves a home theater enthusiasts. All that being said, we do prefer the sound with TheaterSound on because it sounds noticeably better. This particular TV also features modes for watching at night or for the hearing impaired and we actually found these features very useful in the bedroom setting as well.
Vizio VSB210 with TruSurround HD
If you haven't figured it out already, sound bars are the latest rage and for good reason; there simply isn't an easier way to get decent sound out of a simple system than adding a sound bar (what can be easier than just placing a speaker in front of a TV?) The Vizio VSB210 really gives you a better idea of what SRS technology can do. There is no mistaking this sound bar for the speakers in an HDTV and enabling TruSurround HD brings a noticeable improvement. We needed a little help with this one so we took it to our guinea pig's house since they're a big movie fan who is accustomed to watching content with TV speakers. This is a more typical scenario than most home theater fans would admit since there are plenty of reasons why people can't install a proper surround sound system. The improvement the Vizio sound bar provided over the 50-inch plasmas' internal speakers was substantial and while like the Samsung TV, you never felt like any sound was coming from behind you, your initial impression is that enabling TruSurround HD gives the sound more "depth." We did a few blind tests where we paused the movie and enabled or disabled TruSurround and were able to identify if it was enabled accurately every single time. So after watching a few of our favorite well mixed movie scenes via Blu-ray, we asked our guinea pig how much more he'd pay for the feature and answered "nothing." Not a glowing endorsement, but then we asked, "if there were two sound bars at the same price and one featured TruSurround and one didn't, which would you choose?" The quick reply was "the one with."
In the end we're disappointed we couldn't try the technology on our main pair of front home theater speakers, but we did come away with an appreciation of what it can do. We don't think our sample equipment compares to what we're used to and at no time during any of our tests did we feel like sound was coming from behind us. But all that being said, we do believe both version of SRS' front rendered surround sound technologies achieve what they set out to. So while we appreciate the technology and believe it has a place in the audio industry, we don't think it has a place in our home theater and we remain open to trying the technology on a higher caliber two-channel system.