Is 5.1 Really This Bad?

I've not paid much attention to multichannel, because I'm not much of a vidiot and because two speakers is all I'm likely to get (or so I've been told). But I was in a (low-end) store with a nice comfy surround-sound room today, and sat down to watch a few minutes of what I gather was The Phanton Menace. There were plenty of sound effects going on all around me, but I noticed that they had very little to do with what was going on on the screen. Even when they did, there were obvious discontinuities: A vehicle would drive off the screen to the right, and its sound would seem to disppear, then reappear in the right speaker.

Needless to say, I was less than impressed. Is this wretchedness typical of what one hears on a movie soundtrack in a home theater? Does 5.1 require a sort of suspension of disbelief, where we teach ourselves to ignore the discontinuities because the whole thing sounds cool? Or is this just a particularly bad DVD?

Speaker setup appeared questionable: The fronts were place well wide of a very wide screen, and one of the rears was partially obscured by an overstuffed leather chair.

I'd be the first to concede the inherent limitations of two-channel reproduction. But after this experience, I'm feeling rather better about those limitations.
It's all in the execution. I have seen (or rather heard)some really good 5.1. And I have heard some that is positively dreadful.
Me too. I spent two years assembling an extremely fine 2 ch music system, and there's NO WAY that's going to be transmogrified into a HT...besides, that's the MUSIC room with Steinway and assorted African percussion ornaments.
The family room's TV DID get treated to 5.1 this summer, however. I decided upon a Spendor front trio as I didn't want to forego good FM music. getting surrounds that sounded good ON THE WALL (+boundary support) was not as easy as expectsde. Even venerable JM Labs and PSB beefy surrounds got WAY too chesty and sloggy when pushed up against a wall. So I settled on Boston Acoustics VR-MX surrounds, and spoke with their designer as I picked them up at the factory (a friend is a designer there). He was particularly proud of how that speaker came out, and indeed verified that it's bass was specifically tailored for boundary support's effect on 2pi-4pi radiatoion correction.
These surrounds don't perfectly match the incredibly seamless Spendor trio (S3/1p and SC3 center...all 89 dB/w), but they're damned close. A great Boston PV1000 sub brings up the bottom for HT tricks, and a fine and cheap NAD 751 receiver with a terrific 2ch/5.1 synthesis matrix (EARS) proves surprisingly good at creating 5.1 from regular TV.
Add some Canare S11 speaker cable and their ICs and I assembled a quite wonderful HT system for under $3k. Now it doesn't AT ALL approach my EMC-1/AlephP/Aleph2/ParsifalEncoresvia SPM ref system in many ways, but for HT and background FM its pretty terrific. the Plateau V23 stands ($200) and new Panasonic 36" Tau TV ($1500) of course help.
The ref 2ch system has PHENOMENAL resolution, dynamics, musicality, and as I sit in the nearfield an incredibly deep soundstage. The HT system's soundstage is quite two-dimensional, but indeed wide and seamless, with occasional, entertaining 3D from the rear surrounds. Fun for football games, as the EARS sends the crowd around me while those goofy guys do the play-by on Monday night.
Try to remember what the 5.1 is best for and you'll be able to engineer a system that's appropriate for its strengths...and that's NOT reference level music!
Good luck sorting out your priorities, rooms, and entertainment options.
I have always found that a good book and a little imagination surpasses 5.1 on all scales.
HOw many times have we all heard AWEFUL SOUNDING 2 channel systems!?! Just because you sat down infront of one of those some time, doesn't mean ALL 2 channel set up's suck!.
Case rested...
Careful, Bomarc, you're beginning to sound like me.:^)
I recently visited an audio dealer who has been selling the best in 2-channel for 25 years. He has 6 serious listening rooms. I was shocked to discover that ALL but one of his listening rooms is now HT. He had some pretty serious 2-channel speakers inserted as HT fronts.

My thought in response to your question is this: what you heard may be the best that many people have heard out of a sound reproduction system.
IMHO, more often than not.
Hey all,

This might have been a case of bad equipment/room set up. God knows I've heard my share of HT systems, some good and others not so good. I love HT for what it is for me. I never have to stand in line to see a movie, no obnoxious people, except for me. And, whenever I want, I can stop the movie for any reason and come back to it whenever. And last but not least, I think my system sounds better than 95% of the movie theaters in NY. Unfortunately, I have to combine both 2ch and HT but I think I do it well and I will address the shortcomings as finances and my wife allow. Have a happy holiday season everybody......John
I have been playing around with it on my system a little bit lately, I have dvd audio and sacd multichannel. So far I do not think most of the stuff I have sounds very good. I can not blame that on my system in anyway so far,it seems to be disc related because I do have a couple that sound very good. I hope they get a better handle on how to record them. I can say that the very few I have liked sound better than any two channel recording I have played on my system. They could be on to something here if they do it right but I don't have much faith in the record companys so we will see.
Thanks for the comments so far. I don't think poor equipment explains what I heard. Poor speaker placement might have been a factor, however. Granted, I might have just stumbled on a bad example.
Think about how much we tweek our 2ch speaker set-ups. We spike um, we toe um, we tilt um. We move the damn things all over the place trying to eek out the tightest focus and the largest soundstage. Setting up good surround sound is the same, but even more complicated. You have speaker and sub placement, then you have this complicated pre-amp processor or receiver. Even if the speakers are well placed, an impropper set-up on the processor can mess everything up. Unless you have some real high-end stuff, most home theater gear is mid-fi equivalent, so don't expect to be blown away. Many movie soundtracks are poorly edited or have over produced effects. Find a good reference disc to audition with. I tweek home theater systems with reference audio discs to dial in the front speakers. About 80% of movie soundtracks are music, so if you get that right, the dialog, bullets and explosions should be pretty damn close.
Well said, Steuspeed.
See: "Stereo or Home Theatre?" in misc. audio.
Bomarc, i think your negative experience has more to do with the fact that you probably invested alot of time and money into a fine sounding 2channel system and feel threatend by a 'low-end' (i hate that term) multi channel setup that had certain qualities you don't have at home. It's only natural to dismiss something new or inexpensive as being bad, but listening experiences are subjective. Keep an open mind, and don't let your audiophilia nervosa get in the way of a good time. Multi channel music and movies has lots to offer!
Well, Perk, I must admit that even before this experience I wasn't planning to go out and invest in a 5.1 system anytime soon. But I recognize the inherent superiority of multichannel over 2-channel reproduction, if done right. And this was a lot farther from "done right" than I ever expected it to be. I really expected my reaction to be, "Ok, this is cool, but I can live without it."