Fraunhofer turns 5.1 Surround streaming dreams into reality

Televised sports established the 5.1 surround audio format as the emerging standard for broadcast-sports sound. This year, as sports moves more deeply into the streaming domain, fans who have grown accustomed to surround sound on televisions might miss it on Internet distribution channels. Fraunhofer, the German technology think tank that brought us the MP3 format, says it can make sure that 5.1 — or at least something like it (see below) — can be extended to the streaming realm for sports on all types of mobile devices, including cellphones.

Fraunhofer’s MPEG Surround codec underscores Fraunhofer’s claim to have substantially penetrated the consumer Internet-AV-receiver market with a TI-supplied chip, Matthias Rose, head of marketing & communications, audio & multimedia, says the institute is currently in discussions with broadcast-content owners about implementing MPEG Surround for video content. Although declining to name specific broadcasters, he says those announcements are expected before the end of the year.

The hardware to help implement that comes in the form of Orban’s Opticodec-PC streaming encoders, which have integrated Fraunhofer’s MPEG Surround and HE-AAC multichannel audio formats, the result of a partnership the companies forged last year to bring high-performance surround audio streaming into Internet content-distribution channels.

According to Rose, surround audio can be streamed at transfer rates as low as 64 kbps. Surround audio is downmixed to stereo; an accompanying metadata track determines whether the receiver can reproduce multichannel sound; if not, the audio stream passes through as stereo.

However, MPEG Surround does not generate a low-frequency–effects (LFE) channel, so it’s not specifically 5.1.

Rose says that, although music distribution will be an early adopter of multichannel streamed audio — he believes streaming has the potential to get the market traction that physical multitrack music formats, such as DVD-A and SACD, did not — television sports, where multichannel sound has become the norm, will not be far behind.

“Sports viewers have become used to surround sound for matches and games; they’ve come to expect it,” he says. “Devices with MPEG Surround offer the ability to extend that to streaming to mobile devices, including iPads and mobile phones.”

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