As a lifelong audiophile who has owned more different stereo equipment in my time than your average three noders, I am qualified to comment on the writups above. There is a bit of truth in both, but neither is correct.

St3o is quite incorrect when he says a good two channel system is better than a 5.1 system of equivalent quality. More speakers and a subwoofer offer significant theoretical advantages, that with the right software can really come alive. Please notice the two qualifications listed above, equivalent quality and proper software. In them lies the rub.

The first issue is one of budget. I invested around $5000 dollars into the system that was recently stolen. It was a two channel system. I will spend more on its eventual replacement. You can hear the difference. But that's also a lot of money. In order to maintain similar quality in a 5.1 system expect that my bill would rise to around $10K. That's a lot more money. It's easily possible to spend more. My father and I spent one evening auditioning a system that retailed for $160K. It didn't even have an FM tuner. The sound . .. . Wow. However, my house didn't cost that much. I indulge myself on a budget.

Linda! is correct in stating that five point one systems offer improvements in presenting spatial relationships in sound. Audiophiles call that imaging. But those improvements come at a price. In order to gain the imaging advantages of 5.1 on a fixed budget I would have to sacrifice sound quality in a number of areas: clarity, frequency response, and most particularly bass extension. A good two-channel system is better at imaging than most people know. For example, with my old system if you listened to the Weather Report album Sweetnighter you could count the rocks in Dom um Ramao's chucalho and hear them change direction as he shook it. Folks, that's imaging. If a good system can do that, the advantages of 5.1 are too small to sacrifice the other qualities of an equally priced two channel system.

Particularly when the software to take full advantage of 5.1 is rare. Most recorded music today was recorded and mixed down in stereo. After all, when was the last time anyone asked you to sit with the orchestra? Recordings would have to be remixed for 5.1, and that takes real skill. If anyone remembers the quadraphonic era you will recall that most disks mixed in quadraphonic used the extra channels for goofy ping-pong effects. They sounded cool when you were stoned, but added nothing, and often subtracted from the real musical experience. So new 5.1 recordings may offer no advantage over 192Khz audio only or analog stereo tracks.

The software problem is the second reason Linda!s observations do not apply in the real world of music listening. If the software doesn't take advantage of the medium properly, all technological advantages are nullified. As of today, there is little 5.1 music coming out, and new titles are being released at a trickle. Sure, the first Pearl Jam album will get a good remix. It sold millions. So will much Miles Davis. But if you're a fan of Red Rodney, Toy Matinee or Miranda Sex Garden you're probably out of luck.

The real reason 5.1 was created had nothing to do with music. It was about watching movies. If you're watching Jurassic Park you get more benefit from hearing the t-rex from a rear speaker than a Dave Brubeck piano solo. The industry discovered that ordinary foiks were willing to spend big bucks on their home theater systems. Home theater has a higher wife acceptance factor-- [ almost all audiophiles are men ] than an expensive stereo because film is seen by many as a more legitimate money sink than pure sound.

Personally, I use my two channel system for both. True, I don't have ultimate spatial presentation. But I can't afford two systems. My stereo sounds cleaner and I can buy more bass extension for the same money {Most 5.1 "subwoofers" are not true subwoofers}. The disadvantages disappear when I play the Cowboy Junkies, Patricia Barber or the Cleveland Orchestra. If the movie is music oriented-- say Amadeus or Fantasia-- then my two channels will kick 5.1 butt any day.

Please note that bass extension is NOT "more bass", which many mistake for 'boom"--- the upper midbass hump preferred in dance clubs. True subwoofers should be dead flat at 20Hz or below. Most "subwoofers" sold on the consumer market are merely woofer modules for satellite speakers with little or no bass of their own. To add to Mordax's legitimate observations, I will move toward 5.1 eventually, using smaller satellite speakers and amps as money appears. It's like this, if you can afford to do 5.1 right go for it. But it's better to do 2 channel right than half-ass 5.1. Doing 5.1 right starts at about $5K. Less than that and you're probably better off going 2 channel.

Wendy Carlos has an excellent, and long, essay of the surround sound issue posted on her website at: