5.1 In The Slow Lane, But Gaining Ground

By Amy Gilroy On Aug 19 2002 - 6:00am

While immensely popular in the home, 5.1 audio surround sound remains in its infancy in the car market. Some retailers and suppliers are hopeful, however, that a number of new developments will help push the segment forward next year.

Until now 5.1 surround in the car has been hampered by the problem of installing a center channel speaker in an overcrowded dashboard. The lack of prerecorded software and a lack of consumer education about the technology have also deterred sales, suppliers said.

Suppliers estimate that approximately 5 percent of car DVD player installations include 5.1 audio. Looking at CEA figures from January to May, roughly 3,000 5.1 processors and DVD receivers with built-in 5.1 surround sold to stores, out of 55,000 DVD products.

Kenwood reports a 10 percent attachment rate for the add-on Kenwood Excelon KDS-P901 $400 processor and Eclipse said its 39011 processor has sold just a hair below expectations. Pioneer says that of its two A/V receivers, the unit that is 5.1 capable accounts for 15 percent of sales.

According to Panasonic national marketing manager Rob Lopez, "Fifty percent of the mobile video products that we have sold incorporate some form of multichannel sound, but whether or not the consumer is buying the product for that purpose, or not, is not known."

The center channel has been a drawback to sales because installing the speaker often requires cutting a hole for a 5-inch driver that is two inches deep in a dashboard already filled with critical electronics.

But some suppliers say that may change. Clarion and Panasonic are working on technology that could render installation a simple affair, they claim. Jeff Abrams, Clarion's technical marketing manager, said the company will offer a product for sale in January 2003 that "will be one of the most unique solutions. It will be very easy to install and we think it will solve the center-channel problem."

Lopez said Panasonic's factory is working on a solution "that would be unconventional and would allow a center channel without major modification."

"We're in the development stage," he said, hinting that it could involve a flat-panel speaker.

In addition, more new cars are coming out with built-in center-channel speakers, including vehicles from Volvo, Mazda and Mercedes, suppliers said.

Alpine product promotion manager Todd Van Zandt explained that the custom installation of today could become a matter of a drop-in speaker in the dash, once the car companies widely offer center-channel speakers. This held true — in reverse — in the early '80s when cars came with a speaker in the dash but no speakers in the door or rear deck. "Then they started to put in left and right front speakers and rear speakers. Before that, everything was custom," he explained.

It should be noted that traditional speaker companies such as JBL and Boston Acoustics say the center-channel solution is not that simple.

Boston Acoustics automotive product manager Aaron Linn said that it is very difficult to create a speaker which sounds good and also looks like it belongs in the dash, as many of today's dashboards are rounded. In addition, he said, the center channel should be about the same size as the right and left front speakers.

"We've found if it's too close to you it doesn't sound proper. So our challenge is to find something that will sit on the top of the dash, and it needs to be flat, small and make enough bass where it doesn't sound thin." Linn said the company is working on a center-channel speaker for the car but does not yet offer one.

Both retailers and suppliers, however, say 5.1 audio is gaining momentum for a number of reasons, including the release of a new spate of 5.1 audio products this summer and fall and the launch of Dolby Pro Logic II, which takes any two-channel source and converts it to multichannel sound.

Dolby Pro Logic II is seen as a bridge technology to discrete 5.1 audio reproduction as it eliminates the need for special software so consumers can enjoy their current CDs in 5.1 surround. Currently no more than 300 titles are available with 5.1 encoding.

Clarion and Rockford Fosgate currently offer Dolby Pro Logic II products. Alpine plans to release a unit this fall. Pioneer said it will deliver a unit with Pro Logic II next year and Panasonic said it is also eyeing the technology.

Dolby says that it expects every supplier offering 5.1 surround in the car will also include Dolby Pro Logic II by next year, according to Martin Lindsay, director of business development for automotive entertainment.

Clarion's Abrams agrees 2003 will see a big step forward in 5.1 due to advances in center-channel technology and growing consumer awareness.

Consumer education will be a key factor in 5.1 audio's success, just as it was in the home market, said several suppliers. "Unless you listen to it, it's hard to explain why you should spend that extra money," Abrams said, noting that the dealers who are able to demonstrate surround sound are best able to sell it.

Among the new 5.1 surround products are Panasonic's CQ-VAD9200U — a DIN-sized 7-inch, 16:9, fully motorized LCD with AM/FM/CD/DVD and MP3 in a single chassis. The unit has a built-in TV tuner and diversity antenna system and it includes a feature called Video Capture, which allows users to download an image to the unit for use as a screen saver. The 9200 also comes with DTS and has a built-in 30 watt center-channel amplifier. It is CD-R and CD-RW compatible and has a suggested retail price of $2,499. Panasonic released a similar version without the 5.1 surround and center-channel amp, called the CQ-VAD7200U, at $2,199, that is outselling the 9200 three-to-one, according to the company.

Alpine will release this fall the PXA-H700 processor with Dolby Digital, DTS and Dolby Pro Logic II. It offers 31 bands of graphic equalization for each of the five main channels and a 10-band graphic equalizer for the subwoofer channel, for a total of 165 bands. It has time correction for 8 channels for setting up a sound stage and built-in digital crossovers for all 8 channels.

Eclipse just began shipping the AV8132, the company's first DVD with built-in 5.1 audio. The unit is an AM/FM/CD/DVD with MP3 and offers Haas DSP processing. It also plays back CD-R and CD-RW discs and has a suggested retail price of $2,600.

Clarion is shipping an AM/FM/CD with Dolby Pro Logic II called the DXZ925 at $699 as well as an outboard DVH-920 processor with Dolby Digital, DTS and Pro Logic II at a $550 suggested retail price. Both have built-in digital time alignment and one-third octave parametric equalizer.

Pioneer shipped in May a DEQP7000 5.1 audio processor with Dolby Digital and DTS for use with its DVHP7000 DVD transport. The processor has built in MOSFET 50 watt by 5 power and 5-volt output for six discrete channels. It has built-in equalization and contains a 6 channel DAC and 6 channel DSP. It will also allow 4.1 channel mix-downs. The suggested retail price for the DEQP7000 is $450.

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