Multi-channel Sound Was Designed for the Middle Seat


Multi-Channel Sound and the Middle Seat

I don’t see movies in theaters often, but when I do, I want a good seat to experience the multi-channel sound system. This means getting there 30 minutes early to get a seat along the center line of the theater, usually about half-way back. This provides the best stereo image and mix of the surround channels. Theaters are all about multi-channel sound, but you need to be in the best place to experience it.

Lessons from the “Ancients”

Ironically, multi-channel sound is not a modern invention. It’s creation can be traced back to the early 20th century, specifically the era of “making movies talk.” Bell Labs conducted exhaustive experiments at the time to determine the best way to emulate the live listening experience for someone sitting in a theater. This research resulted in a 3 channel playback system – Left, Center, Right. Each reproduced a unique mix of the sound sources, pulling the observer’s attention to any point on the stage. The rise of home theater in the 1990’s brought the theater experience into the living room, and production studios produced “surround sound” sound tracks for their films. While most home theater receivers allow the center channel program material to be mixed equally to the left and right loudspeakers (this produces the proper localization for someone sitting equidistant from them), the Left-Center-Right system is still the best way to experience a movie. The rear channels provide sound effects and create the sensation of spaciousness, but the dialog is carried by the front channels (mostly the center channel), so that the sound appears to be coming from the moving lips on the screen.

One Man’s Treasure…

Last week we were in south Florida for a short vacation, and decided to see a movie. It was an impulsive decision and we walked into the theater without my requisite 30-minute lead time. Middle Seat Listener GraphicI was certain that the “sweet spot” was already taken. To my amazement, the center seats were the only seats left. The aisles were completely lined with senior citizens, there for the matinee. I approached an elderly lady at the end of the aisle, and said “Excuse me, but can we get through?” She replied, “Sure. It’s a shame that someone has to take those middle seats!”

So, while the middle seat may be a curse on an airplane, it’s the best spot in a movie theater. Just don’t tell the seniors.  pb