Its very curious how time can alter your perspective on things.
An audiophile recording which once knocked your socks off back in the day might sound lame today with 20/20 hindsight. Adventurous music that blew your mind in '69 (or '79 or '89 or '99 depending upon your age bracket) now sounds remarkably tame with your more experienced ears. Music you once loved now might make you cower in shame now that you have moved on to more advanced sounds (unless, of course you are like me and you wear your Archies' T-shirt proudly!)
So, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I pursued a deeper look back into an old favorite from the nascent days of 5.1 surround sound: The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. When this came out in 2003, I really liked it and in particular loved the bonus outtakes and session tracks (the "Unreleased Backgrounds" version of "Don't Talk" is one of my favorite super quick demos to show novice listeners what Surround Sound is roughly about. Its very immediate). But I admit that back then I was somewhat new to the world of surround sound and was soon to learn just how amazing the format could sound given the right combination of dynamic well recorded music and adventurous mixing technique.
Recently, in the world of social media, I read some grumbles from certain music and audiophile types (particularly on the very active music groups within Facebook) about how awful the old DVD Audio version of Pet Sounds sounded in its 96 kHz, 24-bit 5.1 surround sound mix. Many still liked it for the 192 kHz, 24-bit presentation of the Mono and Stereo mixes. But they were harshing on (if you will) the 5.1 mix saying it sounded fairly wonky (for lack of a better phrase).
Now, I admit that I hadn't been willing to splurge for the recent Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Box Set -- which contains a new Blu-ray Disc version of the 5.1 mix -- for numerous reasons. Mostly because I already had most of what was on the set and was up until now fairly content with the DVD Audio version of the surround mix.
Intrigued however, I wrote to the folks at Universal Music which owns the Capitol Records era Beach Boys recordings and explained the scenario. They kindly sent me a reference Blu-ray Disc from the new set to explore, compare and contrast and possibly review here on Audiophilereview.com.
The good news is that while much of the disc is the same, there is a noticeable difference in the sound on the Blu-ray Disc version of the surround sound mix. It sounds a bit warmer, a bit fuller, with less of the angular, periodically harsh digital edges that are apparent to me now, comparatively.
Again, 20/20 hindsight...
I do not have any sort of scientific reason for this difference, which has been the stuff of much speculation from what I've been able to ascertain from the Interwebs. I've read some suggestions that it was a mastering problem plaguing the DVD Audio Disc version. Perhaps some odd manufacturing anomaly impacted that portion of the music files contained on the disc. Some have suggested that front and rear channels were switched on some tracks (which is harder for me to grok since everything sounds sort of big stereo throughout, but...well... we each have our perspectives that are valid! More on that in a moment....)
Whatever caused the problem on the DVD Audio Disc is ultimately irrelevant at this point -- it is history! The DVD Audio format failed to make a significant impact in the market so for most people, the Blu-ray Disc version will be the most feasible option to consider if they are interested in hearing the 5.1 surround sound mix (as well as getting the album in high resolution 192 kHz, 24-bit fidelity for the Mono and Stereo versions.
There are some other differences and details worth noting.
I can hear now that the mix indeed really isn't quite 5.1 surround ... its sort of like 4.1 as there is not much information -- if any -- coming out of the center channel. The DVD Audio Disc was like this too but the overall surround sound-field sounds are more enjoyable and full bodied on the new Blu ray Disc.
Some people seem to have had trouble with the surround mix back in the day as it wasn't particularly discrete. Listening with fresh ears, I hear and understand what they are talking about. I mean, its super nice to hear the music all full and round coming out of the four speakers.
It sounds pretty big when you first start listening...
As a "discrete" experience, however, it does lack .... muchness (if you will). I have to assume that technical reasons forced the mix be kept in this sort of big multi-speaker stereo mode.
Perhaps it was the nature of the way this music was recorded -- in large band, live sessions -- where it might be near impossible to pull out individual instruments, without using heavy computer technology to isolate tracks. Perhaps at best they might be able to pull out sections of instruments such as strings or horns which might have been overdubbed separately.
It is also possible that pulling apart the instrumentation too much into a discrete 5.1 mix might make the music fall apart. This is one of the reasons, as I understand it, why The Rolling Stones have not put out their classic albums in surround sound -- so much of the vibe of the band's recorded sound came from that locked-in feeling of the rhythm section being tightly woven together in the mix.