The chapters I’ve referenced make a great introduction to surround sound for newcomers to our hobby, in that they are vivid, artful, and make it easy to hear differences between various grades of equipment. Once you hear “The Echo Game” and “Assassination Attempt” on a good surround rig, there’s just no going back to ordinary “TV speakers.”
4. Letters From Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood’s film Letters From Iwo Jima is part of a bookend-like set of movies, with its counterpart being Flags of Our Fathers. Both films tell the story of America’s WWII invasion of the Japanese island Iwo Jima, with Flags taking the American point of view and Letters presenting the Japanese side of the story. Unlike some war movies crafted by American directors, this one does not demonize the Japanese, nor does it minimize the profound differences between Japanese and American cultures. Instead, the film shows the Japanese defenders’ frailties, strengths, idiosyncrasies, and profound humanity (and, yes, even nobility) as they vow to fight to the death in what many sense is already a lost cause.
Recommended Chapters (untitled for this film): Chapters 11, 14, 15, and 16.
• The grim reality of the Japanese situation is driven home by a vivid scene where we see Japanese troops huddled in tunnels and caves dug far below ground level, with the men cringing and driven almost to the cracking point by a seemingly endless U.S. naval barrage. The surround effects in the scene are terrific, so that listeners can hear shells exploding overhead, some from afar and others from almost directly overhead (with concussive effects that will shake your listening room floor). To emphasize the gravity of the situation, you can even hear small bits of grit and debris raining down from the ceilings of the cave when shells land too close by. From a sonic standpoint, the scene is a little too realistic for comfort.
• But no less effective are the film’s quieter, dialogue-driven moments. A great example can be found in the scene where we find two Japanese enlisted men trying to grapple with the fact that most of the members of their squad have just killed themselves rather face defeat. This leaves the characters in a life or death argument, trying to decide whether or not to join their comrades in committing suicide. Saigo, the film’s chief protagonist, argues that it is better to follow orders, to escape, and to live to serve the Emperor another day, while Shimizu, who is more of a traditionalist, argues that suicide is the only honorable way out. You can not only hear but also feel the edginess and all-or-nothing desperation in their voices, echoing in the interior of a cave that has become a tomb.
Surround sound just doesn’t get much better than this.
5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The opening chapters of Peter Weir’s epic about naval warfare during Britain’s war with Napoleon’s France are acknowledged surround sound classics. As those who know the film can attest, the four chapters unfold in what seems almost like the cinematic equivalent of a symphonic suite (picture, for example, something along the lines of Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite).
Recommended Chapters: “The HMS Surprise”, “A Shape In The Fog”, “Under Attack”, “Lucky Jack’s Gambit”.
• In “HMS Surprise”, which introduces Captain Jack Aubrey’s beloved 28-gun frigate, we see—and hear—life aboard ship as we follow the sailor charged with the night watch as he makes his rounds. Note the subtle surround effects revealing a gentle breeze in the sails and rigging above, the almost subliminal rustle of the hull passing through water, and the soft creaking of timbers and deck planks as the ship rolls softly on gentle swells. On a good surround system, you should experience the eerily realistic illusion of sounds coming not only from beside but also from above the listening position.
• In “A Shape in The Fog” we see life aboard the ship at daybreak, replete with the sounds of hands working the decks, climbing rigging, and so forth. But then, in a nearby fogbank, a mysterious, unidentifiable sound is heard. As the crew investigates, the officer of the watch, Mr. Hollom, sees through his spyglass a fleeting, vague “shape in the fog” that appears—for just a split second—to be another square-rigged ship. Hollom, who lacks self-confidence and thus is indecisive, doesn’t know what to do, so that a younger midshipman finally steps in, shouting, “We shall beat to quarters!” (i.e., prepare for possible battle). In response, the well-drilled crewmembers rush to clear the decks, prepare the guns, and ready the ship for action, as Captain Aubrey comes on deck to see what has occasioned the action. Aubrey listens to Hollom’s fumbling explanation, studies the fogbank carefully, and begins to turn away when a sound—is it a distant shout from an opposing ship’s crew or just a shift in the tone of the wind?—makes him look back, just in time to see flashes of cannon fire coming from within the fogbank. Aubrey has just enough time to order his crew to “Get down!” before cannonballs come crashing into the Surprise.