Surrounded in Manhattan Letters

Letters in Response appeared in October 2001 (Vol.24 No.10):

I agree with Mr. Tellig

Editor: I agree with Mr. Tellig: I don't require my audio machinery to convince me that I'm "there." The venue is playback of recorded music in my listening room, which is its own raison d'être. I'm quite satisfied with both the limitations and the wonders of stereo. So, to any and all industry advocates of drums-left-rear: get out of my face and ear with that stuff, please!—Steve Bartelt, sdbart@uniontel.net

Sam's right

Editor: I just read Sam Tellig's thoughts on multichannel sound in the August Stereophile and I couldn't agree more. I don't even like it in the movies—I find it very distracting. And as for music, I'd much rather listen as though I were sitting in the audience and not in the middle of the musicians.

Two channels—that's all I need. I hope 5.1 goes the way of quadraphonic sound.—Steve Fields, Menlo Park, CA, steve@lorac.com

Stick to your guns, Sam

Editor: I just read Sam's August report on HE2001. I am thrilled that he stuck to his stereo guns. I'm drawn to the hi-fi hobby by a desire to more fully experience music in its sublime, human glory. Surround sound is nothing but a vulgar display of visceral pleasure.

I grow weary reading the 5.1 mantra: "Surround is terrific, if it's done right." Can we count on Big Business to give us 5.1 channels of "done right"? I say not. So that leaves us with nothing but faddish sound effects. Long-term satisfaction? No way, pal.

Please continue to resist surround sound. It will do me—and, I assume, any like-minded individual—absolutely no good. If believing in such things makes me or you a Luddite in some other eye, then so be it. I, for one, know that my mind's eye will be deeply gratified by the expression of humanity that stereo gives me.—Jay Moran, moran@mtco.com

Surprised by Sam

Editor: Over the years, the argument that analog is superior to digital because it is more "involving" has popped up many times in Stereophile; the assumption has always been that "involving" is good. It was, therefore, surprising to read Sam Tellig ("Sam's Space," August 2001) arguing that surround sound is inferior to stereo because surround sound is more involving and more true to life. His exact words were: "What bothered me [about quadraphonic sound]...was that I felt...more immersed in the music than I really cared to be, at home, on a regular basis, listening hour after hour....If I want surround, I'll go to the concert hall."

Another argument Tellig used was that "I also don't want surround-sound taking control of our living room—or my listening room, which doubles as a library." This same argument was used against stereo and—before there was stereo, when good electronics were tubed and large and when good speakers ranged from large to enormous—against high fidelity. (I remember a conversation: Wife One: "How can you put up with all this junk in your living room?" Wife Two: "Well, at least I know he's here, playing music, and not out somewhere else, playing around.")

Another consideration Tellig raised was, "Who knows what's next if multichannel takes hold—subwoofers built into the floor?" Well, as a matter of fact, a number of those were installed at one time. If memory serves, they were called "bass couplers" and were installed in the basement, between the floor joists of the listening room, and vented into the listening room. I don't know how accurate a signal they delivered, but there is no denying that they made the floor shake. On the other hand, some of the cleanest bass I ever heard was delivered by woofers installed in brick-and-concrete exponential horns built on the outside of the house and vented into the living room through holes in the walls.

To support his stand against surround sound, Tellig says, "Ken Kessler, for one, is aghast at the prospect that recording engineers will remaster his favorite two-channel rock recordings—moving the drummer over here, the bass player over there, completely rearranging the spatial characteristics of the original recording and making a mockery of what the musicians, perhaps now dead, intended. 'Move the drummer over to the left rear, Fred. Bring the vocalist forward a few feet'"

But the procedure that Kessler deplores was probably done in creating the original stereo mix. Almost all popular records are created by mixing down a number of mono tracks to two pseudo-stereo tracks, placing instruments wherever the producers want them. There is also "sweetening," which involves dubbing in instruments and/or vocalists who were not present at the original recording. The same artistic judgments that will be used in creating surround-sound recordings have been used for stereo recordings for many decades.

Tellig: "But what will they do to two-channel classical recordings? Re-create ambience? Use reverb for the rear channels?" Well, possibly. But isn't that what they have done to both classical and pop recordings since the advent of tape? I remember an incident in which original tapes that were too "dry" were played back in the basement of a synagogue and recorded on another tape, with the basement acoustics added to the original recording; the resultant album (a harpsichord recording, I believe) was much admired for its hi-fi sound. (At one time, there was a famous stairwell at the Columbia studio that was reserved for use as an echo chamber for adding reverb to pop recordings.)

However, authentic ambience tracks do exist for many stereo recordings made over the past 30 years. For example, many Vox recordings of American orchestras, some EMI/Angel recordings, St. Louis records made for RCA/BMG, and probably Vanguard recordings.

In another discussion, involving cinema surround, Tellig included the following: "I personally believe that surround sound is mainly about sound effects." This is the same argument once used against motion-picture stereo sound, when stereo was denounced as a gimmick intended only to astound the gullible. Going back even further, motion-picture sound itself was resisted by many. Until as late as the 1950s, I heard arguments that the silent film was a perfect medium that had been destroyed, rather than complemented, by sound. (And, by the way, "Long Ago and Far Away," which Tellig credits to George and Ira Gershwin on p.37, is by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin.)

I have other disagreements with Tellig, but I want to move on to another article in the same issue (p.49): "Stereo vs 5.l: Is More More...Or Less?" In this article, it was Steve Guttenberg's turn to oppose surround sound: "spreading your budget...over 5.1 channels instead of two always diminishes the quality of the components." Stereo advocates should remember that this same objection was raised against two-channel sound. "Why would I want two mediocre channels rather than one excellent one?"

Guttenberg argues that setting up multichannel systems in the optimal configuration is "impossible in the overwhelming majority of real-world rooms." The same holds true for stereo systems, as anyone can verify: Set the preamp on mono, run a frequency sweep, and see if the signals stay centered between the speakers. It just ain't gonna happen; the tones meander back and force across the room as frequency changes. But we don't reject stereo because a perfect setup is impossible; we position and tweak and use sound treatment to get the best possible stereo, and then we live with the results. We will do the same with multichannel sound. It will be a sad day when we achieve perfect sound and have no more improvements to make.

Guttenberg's statement that "Stereo can provide all the information we need about the ambience of the recording venue" is misleading. Ambience can be captured on a stereo recording, but it is captured as distortion. Dirt is matter out of place—hair in the ice cream, ice cream in the hair. When ambient information such as acoustical sound is bent back into the front channels, it is matter out of place—dirt—which is, in sound reproduction, distortion. Multichannel sound allows us to move ambient information from the front channels, where it is dirt, to the sides and rear, where it belongs.

Guttenberg's apparent lack of experience with multichannel sound shows in his statement that "since the geniuses who design the hardware haven't yet figured out a way to give us something as mundane and obvious as a front/rear balance knob, the rear speakers are always too loud or too soft." To the contrary, not only have the geniuses provided balance knobs, some of them have even built in signal generators so that users can, with the aid of a sound meter, balance all five speakers.

Such examples as these demonstrate why I believe that the positions expressed by Tellig and Guttenberg in these articles can most charitably be described as "ill-advised." They reflect no credit on either man. Their willingness to put themselves in such an unfortunate position is explained by the following statement by Tellig (p.31): "we 'stereophiles' (small s) are going to need all the strength we can muster to ward off the surround-sound threat."

Why would they need to do this? I could respect Tellig and Guttenberg if they had said, in effect, "I don't like surround sound and here is why." However, what they did say was, in effect, "Surround sound is heresy, it must be destroyed, and we will use any weapons we have against it."

In 1971, I converted my system to surround sound via a simple Hafler hookup. In the following 30 years, I went from Hafler to SQ decoder to Audionics Space and Image Composer to the Lexicon that is in use at this time. I use this system (which includes five MartinLogan speakers—two main, one center, two sides—and a Velodyne woofer) for all my listening, no matter whether the source is mono, stereo, multichannel, CD, FM, VHS, or DVD-Video. It is, of course, not perfect. But despite the several flaws my system has, the surround sound it provides is, to me, preferable to stereo or mono.

Both Tellig and Guttenberg referred to the failure of quad. Quad sound did not fail. It was deliberately destroyed by stereophiles, dealers, and hi-fi journals, who would not even permit it to coexist with stereo, which it could have done quite easily. Instead, they worked hard to exterminate it. Now it is showing signs of life once again, but in improved form, and the opposition is forming up. Why?

High fidelity began as an avocation. Over the years it has metamorphosed into a religion, complete with sects, schisms, holy writ (What! All those reviews of expensive equipment! Too many reviews of cheap equipment! Automobile ads in our scriptures! Ads for dirty magazines! We have been defiled! Cancel! Cancel!, Cancel!), and heresies. Surround sound is one such heresy, which true believers must destroy.

Let it go, fellas. If you hate surround sound, that's okay. If you hate surround sound and set out to destroy it, even if you have to ignore fact, history, reality, and truth to do so, that's wrong. Coexisting with surround sound won't destroy you; unreasoning fear will.—Paul A. Alter, Wilkinsburg, PA, palter@juno.com

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