Can I hear footsteps behind me?: Surround sound can bring villains right into your living-room, says Steve Homer

WHEN Helen Mirren appears on our television screens tomorrow in Prime Suspect 2, some viewers will hear a little extra. The series is one of a handful of programmes made for British television recorded in Dolby Surround Sound, a system designed for the cinema that is increasingly finding its way into people's homes.

According to Dolby, this is only the fourth British-made Surround Sound television production. All have been produced by Granada. Dolby developed Surround Sound for cinemas in the Seventies. It consists of a left, right and centre speaker at the front and at least 10 speakers behind the audience.

What is so clever about the Dolby system is that the information for the additional speakers is carried in the normal stereo

recording.

This has had one unexpected benefit: any film recorded in Dolby Stereo, which includes the Surround Sound encoding, will decode when the soundtrack is received in stereo. That means that all the 'Dolby Stereo' videos in your local video shop and - if you live in an area served by stereo television - all stereo films broadcast to your home, can be decoded into Surround Sound.

What difference does this make in your living-room? The most obvious type of effects can be heard at the beginning of the first episode of Prime Suspect 2. The rain is falling, a body has been discovered, police cars are arriving from all directions.

With Dolby Surround Sound, you hear the rain falling around you, cars pass behind you and people shout from all directions. But the real beauty is that the system restores some of the film's 'depth'. When the hero or heroine walks through the woods, you can hear the leaves rustling almost imperceptibly. When they walks along a dark and dangerous alleyway, you hear the echo of their footfalls from all directions. Even in the quietest of scenes, small, atmospheric noises are picked up.

So far, home surround sound systems have been slow to take off. Dolby says about 8 million systems have been sold worldwide, about half in North America. Sales of equipment have reached 2 million a year, and with decoder chips costing about dollars 5, it is a cost- effective addition for television, video and hi-fi manufacturers.

The problem has been a traditional chicken and egg situation - broadcasters do not want to make surround sound broadcasts because there are too few viewers with surround sound equipment and the consumer electronics companies do not want to market the equipment because there is no programming. But in the United Kingdom, VHS Hollywood movie videos and stereo transmission of movies on television have helped make the UK the fastest growing market for surround sound in Europe. Even so, television production is still a rarity.

'It's amazing that other companies have been so slow off the mark,' says Craig McNeil, the production executive who was in control of Prime Suspect 2. 'People go out and hire films in Dolby Surround Sound, why shouldn't they get the same off terrestrial television?

'If you go into any hi-fi shop, you will see they are all selling surround-sound hi-fi systems. Toshiba even does a television with surround sound speakers. They wouldn't do that unless there was a market.'

But Mr McNeil says Granada is also looking to the future. High- budget, quality programmes such as Prime Suspect, have a long shelf life. He believes that surround- sound is likely to become commonplace within a few years.

Creating a surround sound version added less than pounds 5,000 to the overall budget of about pounds 1.8m, so it was a good investment.

Other broadcasters are interested in surround sound, but none has yet committed themselves. As the Dolby Surround Sound broadcaster's hardware only costs pounds 1,300, that is surprising. For the BBC, surround-sound presents a particularly difficult problem. With Nicam stereo, the system now used for stereo television transmission, only officially launched in August 1991, it is loath to confuse the market.

Is it worth spending your money on surround sound? For me, at least, the answer is yes. I have been using a Kenwood mini system for the past month and am hooked. With competition growing, prices are bound to fall. Many quite basic midi and mini hi-fi systems now come with surround sound as standard. Or you can buy a separate decoder for between pounds 200 and pounds 300 and use it with your existing hi-fi system. The biggest expense is the additional speakers.

'We've been talking about video, television and hi-fi coming together for years. At last people can see and hear movies in their homes as producers and directors expected them to,' says Bob Tomalski, technical editor of What Video? magazine. 'It adds another dimension to watching movies.'

A centre speaker to sit on top of the television will cost at least pounds 90, and two smaller surround speakers to position behind the viewers will cost at least pounds 100, Mr Tomalski says.

Given its popularity in the United States, surround sound is bound to grow in the next few years. Already some compact discs are being produced in surround sound, and the first computer game using the system has been released.

But Dolby Surround Sound is certainly not the end of the story. The company has developed a way of putting digital sound on to cinema films. Batman Returns was the first movie to use the system, but only a handful of cinemas worldwide, including the Empire Leicester Square, in London, were equipped to make use of it. Already another 12 films have been released using the system. The problem for Dolby is to find a way to add the digital quality signal on to VHS tapes and broadcast programmes.

'Prime Suspect 2' is on ITV tomorrow and Wednesday at 9pm.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?