Surrounded in Manhattan Page 3

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."

Ken's favorite rock recordings—ruined. I'm not so worried myself, because the surround-sound bandwagoneers will likely ignore Ukulele Ike, Bing Crosby, and Perry Como.

But what will they do to two-channel classical recordings? Re-create ambience? Use reverb for the rear channels? The mind boggles. This could be the greatest sonic fiasco since the era of fake stereo!

Me? I hope the engineers go to town! The results could be so disastrous that they squelch surround just as surely as their counterparts helped kill off quadraphony 25 years ago. Have at it, boys!

By the way, in all of this, did anyone ask us—did anyone ask you—if you cared to be surrounded in the first place? Or, in their usual fashion, are the industry folks telling you that you need surround?

Why would you want surround? To play your music louder? To go deaf faster? Whose need is this—yours or theirs? Is the real aim to sell you the same recordings all over again, to obsolete your present two-channel system to sell you more stuff? This can't be driven by the love of music, can it?

A few days after the demo, I talked by phone with Wendell Diller, marketing manager of Magnepan.

"Two-channel stereo is stagnant," he lamented.

Hmmm. I didn't see any sign of stereo's demise at HE 2001. Quite the contrary. I saw the public discovering quality stereo, and I felt real good about it. I've talked with several exhibitors since the Show, and they back me up. One dealer-exhibitor said his phone has been ringing off the hook ever since the Show, and it's all for two-channel stereo.

Wendell told me about a forthcoming Magneplanar speaker that will lie flat against the wall when not in use. When you need them, pull them out and the speakers will extend, like ears, from the side or rear walls—flapping their wings, no doubt.

It seems like a clever idea, actually. Better to have hinged Maggies on the wall than most speakers I've heard that are designed for in-wall installation. Wendell said he looks forward to a motorized version. "Okay, folks, better duck—the speakers are coming out!"

"How about a speaker that retracts from the ceiling—or would this wall-flapper do the trick? Bob Woods would love it!"

"I thought they turned the ceiling speaker off!"

"Nope, Wendell. Not while I was there. They turned it on some of the time. Not that I could hear any difference."

Wendell's such a good-natured Minnesotan. And I don't blame the Maggies one bit for the sound, because I've heard these speakers sound superb—two at a time. The culprit, I think, was surround. And too small a room.

Remember those Audio Physic Spark III speakers I reviewed last month, with the phenomenal soundstage? What would a center speaker add? Or surround speakers? They could only subtract. Ditto for the pair of Quad 988 speakers in my listening room now. Having three of them would be like having three eyes or three ears—or, as in the memorable Monty Python sketch, being the man with three bums...

I've nothing against surround-sound for home theater, if that's your ticket. I had home theater 20 years before it was called home theater: big screen, good sound—stereo, no surround. I own a huge film library on laserdisc and DVD. And I readily "adopted" the DVD format for movies, because it's good, and cheaper than LD was.

Funny, though, I've never taken even to cinema surround—at home or at the movies. I can name only a few great movies that I consider to have been enhanced by surround sound, including Fantasia and Saving Private Ryan.

I remember when I visited a writer for a home-theater magazine. What did he want to show me on his system? Casper! This reminds me of those audiophiles who are into hi-fi just for the sound, not for the music. Just so with some videophiles, who are into their equipment's performance more than for the movies themselves.

Such was my experience with quadraphony in the 1970s that I just don't want surround for music listening.

"Luddite!"

That was Chip Stern's reaction at the "Ask the Editors" session at the Show when I took off on a similar tirade.

"Adopter!"

Too bad there was only one "Ask the Editors" session for Stereophile editors. I mean, our magazine established the Show—we should get two sessions! I was just getting warmed up, ready to breathe fire. And we had to turn people away. (If you were one of them, my apologies.)

It was great fun, though, signing autographs afterward. Who, me? A celebrity? I guess so, even if just for a day.

I think we should change the name of the Show—oops, the "event." We could call it "Stereophile's Home Entertainment 2002," in which case it could be abbreviated to "SHE 2002."

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