AUDIO TO THE MAX The quest for high-fidelity audio began in the home, expanded to the car, spread into the cinema, blossomed into houses of worship and


The quest for high-fidelity audio began in the home, expanded to the car, spread into the cinema, blossomed into houses of worship and returned to the living room in the guise of home theater. But the movement is alive and very much on the rise.

New release formats have traditionally fueled consumer awareness of — and expectations for — high-quality playback systems. Mono LP records begat “hi-fi” enthusiasts in the 1950s, but it was the acceptance of the stereo LP that really pushed home stereo from a passing fad into a full-blown industry in the ’60s. In the ’70s, improvements in tape technology launched the car stereo market, while the birth of Dolby Stereo films in 1975 brought LCRS capabilities to the local bijou. By the 1980s, churchgoers — accustomed to hearing concert audio — began demanding high-end, high-SPL music reinforcement systems in houses of worship, a far cry from the old “two-line radiators and a 3-input P.A. head” that had been the standard setup in most churches. The debut of DVD-Video has created a major resurgence in the residential/home theater market, with increasing numbers of consumers investing in systems that rival the quality of Hollywood screening rooms.

Having enjoyed a taste of what audio could be, consumers have developed a more than passing interest in sound quality. This penchant for better sound, meanwhile, has produced a spillover effect in nonentertainment industries. The retail environment has turned into big-time showbiz, with outlets such as The Nike Store and the Disney and Warner Bros. franchises leading the way.

New theater complexes such as Sony Metreon in San Francisco are also getting into the action, transforming straightforward establishments into entertainment destinations that lure the customer with kiosks, light shows, video walls and impressive sound systems. No more AEI- or Muzak-style music feeds; the new buzz phrase is “business music systems,” high-fidelity foreground/background installations, complete with subwoofers to supplement the ceiling/wall speaker arrays.

Meanwhile, what used to pass as simple, full-range, 8-inch ceiling speakers just don't cut it when consumers (read: customers) want hyperfidelity. With this in mind, audio manufacturers have been offering an assortment of new designs, ranging from high-power coaxials and discrete-component, two- and three-way systems — all designed to fit in the space once occupied by the lowly ceiling speaker. Add in a couple in-wall, in-ceiling or freestanding subs, and a distributed sound system can ROCK — while keeping installation time (and costs!) under control.

This month, as NSCA comes to Orlando (a well-known haven for certain theme parks), Mix looks at special venue audio — those spaces where audio can equal or exceed the visuals in terms of visceral impact. Whether part of a theme park attraction, interactive museum display or full-motion thrill ride with 180° wraparound screen, audio development for such applications combines the very different worlds of sound design with customized playback systems and takes them to the limit. These situations often present the designer with the ability to specify any playback format, such as having 10, 20 or 30 output channels anywhere in the venue.

Mixing to stereo or 5.1 seems pretty tame in comparison…