[SoundStage!]Max dB with Doug Blackburn
Back Issue Article
November 1999

What Does Multichannel Sound Mean for Two-Channel Audiophiles? Is The Answer Present in Our History?

All of us two-channel folk are going to have to make some serious decisions in the not-too-distant future. These decisions will not be unlike those made by our audio ancestors going back to the dawn of commercially recorded music.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, Edison cylinder machines flourished and were the gold standard in machines to play music in your home. But there was a serious upstart threat: the flat 78rpm record, initially recorded only on one side due to the difficulties of putting a groove on both sides. Both formats coexisted and sold in roughly equivalent numbers until Victor and a few other record companies did something unprecedented -- they hired established performers and contracted them to their record labels. This began their domination of the recorded-music market.

Edison cylinders began their decline around 1907 and were out of production in the 1920s. They were replaced by Edison’s flat "Diamond Disk," which played with a diamond needle and spun at 80rpm. Edison’s Diamond Disk machines were clearly superior sonically, but Edison thought buying big-name performers was a dumb idea. He felt that his machines were the stars and that Edison’s generic performances were adequate to sell his machines. The public proved him wrong to the point of demanding third-party add-ons for Edison Diamond Disk machines that would play Caruso and other famous artists of the day on Victor 78s, but play them on the superior-sounding Edison Diamond Disk machines. Never mind that when you removed Edison’s diamond reproducer and replaced it with a 78rpm reproducer employing a common steel needle, the Edison machines sounded about the same as Victor or Brunswick machines. By the mid-‘20s, Edison was all but completely out of the record-player-manufacturing business and Victor was flourishing.

In the late 1920s, electronic recording began taking over from acoustic recording and the first home record players began to appear, which amplified an electrical signal derived from records rather than going directly to acoustic playback. People who spent some serious money on acoustic 78rpm record players had to decide whether to jump on the electronic 78 playback bandwagon or stick with their acoustic systems. Some of the late acoustic machines were impressive -- six-foot-long cast-iron folded horns for superior bass reproduction, low-mass aluminum diaphragms replacing the traditional mica diaphragms, electric motors spinning the records, even fancy changing mechanisms that would flip the record or perhaps play multiple records without manual intervention. Victor saw the electronic writing on the wall and romanced the fledgling RCA Corp, a then-new manufacturer of the latest fad sweeping the country: radios, including radio parts and radio tubes. The RCA Victor Company went on to dominate the radio and electrical phonograph market for some years. Radio actually almost killed the phonograph market. But as radio became commonplace, people realized the playing of records was equal to or better than radio because you had control of what you listened to.

In the late 1940s, radio was threatened by TV for the first time. People who grew up with radio swore that they’d stay with radio forever. Not many did stick with radio though. Within a few years, there were actually things people wanted to watch appearing on TV. Even the last of the hardcore radio fans admitted that TV was kind of cool.

Shortly after the dawn of TV was the dawn of stereo recording. In the late 1950s, stereo playback equipment became widely available to consumers. Hi-fi hobbyists were rabidly divided among the mono stalwarts and the stereo upstarts. Guess who won? The LP and the 45 caused the disappearance of the 78. The cassette caused the disappearance of the 8-track. The CD caused the disappearance of the LP. VHS caused the disappearance of Beta.

Can anyone out there guess where multichannel audio is going to go within the next half-dozen years or so? And in that same time frame, can anyone guess where two-channel audio will go?

I just can’t help believing that anyone holding dearly to stereo in the face of properly done surround sound is going to end up very much like the curmudgeonly folk who tried to keep mono going forever. In ten years, it is very likely that stereo systems will be about as common as mono systems were in the 1970s.

As I see it, you have two choices: dig in your heels and resist resist resist until you no longer have the energy to resist, or figure out how to do surround sound right and reap the rewards of the next leap forward in home-reproduced sound. I don’t want to be stereo’s Grim Reaper, but the handwriting is on the wall. It is getting hard to find a store that sells "stereos" anymore, even when you go to high-end stores. The vast majority are now well on their way to being exclusively multichannel oriented. In fact, in many high-end stores today, there are no stereo demo rooms. You might still be able to buy a stereo system there, but they won’t be likely to have the components in stock unless they happen to be the same ones they sell for multichannel systems. Yes, I know there are still exceptions to this rule, but there aren’t many exceptions now and their numbers continue to dwindle, just as mono shops were forced to go stereo or disappear.

How does a stereo guy cope with the impending doom caused by surround sound? Embrace it, of course! Study it, experiment with it, then make it yours. No, you don’t have to abandon stereo playback. You can get spine-tingling stereo and surround in the same room and system if you just pay attention to what you are doing. Why, you can even get great music and movies in the same room with the same system if you are willing to do it right.

The very best thing about having movies going in the "audio room" is that my wife will come in and sit and watch entire two-hour movies on the same couch with me in "my room." Prior to doing home theater in there, it could be months between her visits to my inner sanctum. For some of you, that’s probably your objective -- solitary time. That’s fine, but I still get solitary time to listen to music whenever I want. But now I get to have my honey snuggling on the couch with me two or three nights every weekend to watch movies.

Because my wife likes movies on our home theater even better than seeing a movie in a theater, spending money to improve the home theater is now seen as a joint purchase. When I was doing the solo stereo thing, my purchases always needed to be offset by an equal-to-or-greater-than purchase on her part for something she wanted -- "to even up the books," so to speak. Home theater can actually help you balance the family budget!

The slow disappearance of stereo is as inevitable as death and taxes. Cars will start to have discrete four- or six-channel capability in factory audio systems very soon and within four years, discrete four- or six-channel sound in cars will be as common as CD players are in cars today. Audio equipment manufacturers are already in a "make surround-ready/-capable/-equipped equipment or die" mode.

I’ve been a stereo guy ever since the early 1960s. I love stereo. I hate to see the equipment and the market change for selfishly nostalgic reasons. But I have a burning desire to move on. Lord knows that after 35+ years of stereo, you get to a point where there are just not many new thrills to experience. Old thrills are fine I suppose, but riding the same roller coaster every time, for instance, would get to be less and less of a thrill over the years. Great-performing surround for movies and music puts a whole new bag of thrills at your disposal and can, if you want it to, turn your solitary existence in "the audio room" into a family get-together in the home theater.

I’ll continue to write about two-channel audio when there are things worth writing about, and I will be carrying my philosophy of getting the most out of a system into the surround/theater arena more and more often in the future. The revolution is upon us, and I for one look on it as a freshening of a hobby that has been getting too cliquey and inbred. Two-channel purists are doomed to the scrap heap of history along with fans of cylinder records, acoustic phonographs, old time radio, black-and-white TV, 78s, LPs, 8-tracks, Beta, and mono. Sure those things are fun. I have almost all of them in my home today. People are captivated by hearing Edison cylinders, Edison Diamond Disks, Caruso on Victor 78s played on a Victor phonograph, old radios, 78s of titles like Carl Perkins’ "Blue Suede Shoes," mono equipment from the ‘50s. But it’s pretty hard to sit for two hours and amuse guests with these old-tech products when fine modern surround movies can be watched in the next room. So look for more and more from me on where we’re going and less and less on where we’ve been.

...Doug Blackburn


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