Bye Bye, Quadrifi?

"As We See It" in the Stereophile issue dated Summer 1968 (actually published in 1970) noted the idealistic, glowing claims about how four-channel sound could put you right in the concert hail, but urged readers to wait before buying, to see whether quadrisound would indeed bring higher fidelity. We predicted it wouldn't—that whatever the potential of quadrisound (footnote 1), it would not be used to increase fidelity, but rather to play ring-around-the-rosy with music.

For that display of cynicism we were roundly scolded by many readers and a few manufacturers, some of whom accused us of being too hidebound and reactionary to accept anything new, others of whom chided us for being so negative and pessimistic about a bright new prospect for higher-than-ever-fidelity in the home. Well, we were being cynical, it is true, but our dire prediction about quadrisound had its basis, not in pessimism, but in history. Let us, as the politicos say, look at the record.

No one is quite sure when the term "high fidelity" was first applied to sound reproduction, but there is evidence that advertisements for the very first home-type phonographs likened their sound to that of "the original musical sounds." That could have been attributed to a combination of naivete and commercial puffery, but there was no mistake that "the real thing" had already become the standard for judging reproduced sound, even though the audio engineers, and probably the phonograph manufacturers too, realized that there were still formidable, technical obstacles between the promise and the realization of true concert-hall fidelity.

Electrical recording and playback were the first real breakthrough here, and the Long-Playing record was the second. But as the tools of the trade improved to the point where it was becoming possible to reproduce realistic sound, albeit in one channel, something unforeseen happened. The record makers discovered that, while buyers admired the idea of concert-hall realism, few of them attended live concerts often enough to have even the foggiest notion of what "the real thing" actually sounded like. Offered a choice, they usually opted for what most-closely approached their preconceived notion of "hi-fi."

So, while continuing to trumpet the "fidelity" of each new advance in audio technology, record makers quietly diverted their own efforts from the traditional goal of realism to the production of something that sounded "good" to the average record buyer.

Stereo suffered the same fate. It was, justifiably, heralded as a true breakthrough in fidelity, and all the descriptive literature spoke of how it made possible the reproduction of the natural space and depth of the concert-hall stage. The reality of most stereo recording was, and is, that the orchestra is recorded spread out on the floor of the concert hall (or not in the concert hall at all), each group of instruments is picked up monophonically via individual single mikes, the "concert-hall reverberation" is artificial and often added at a later time, and since all instruments, are about the same distance from their mikes, there is no illusion of depth at all.

When four-channel sound came along, we acknowledged its potential for enhancing concert-hall realism, by providing the rear-coming ambience which tells our ears (in a hall) that we are indeed in a very large listening environment. We just didn't believe that four-channel would really be used to enhance realism, hence our skepticism about it. Now, it seems our "cynicism" was justified. A news release from Columbia, whose four-channel "SQ" matrixing system appears at this juncture to be the industry standard, included an "SQ Handbook" in which CBS Labs' vice president Benjamin Bauer writes, among other things: "Four-channel sound restores the concert-hall ambience." That, after all, was what every proponent of quadrisound had in mind when they touted its "enhanced realism." We wonder, then, how Mr. Bauer and all the other people who foresaw quadrisound as a breakthrough in realism felt about another enclosure in that same press release—a reprint from Billboard of an article that started: "Full program information on all four channels, rather than the addition of rear-channel ambience, has been adopted by Columbia Records as its basic approach to quadrisonics in new classical recordings." It seems that Columbia's bigwigs decided that the mere addition of concert-hall spaciousness to classical recordings would be "too subtle" for Mr. Average-Clod Buyer. And that is just what we predicted would happen to ambient quadrisound.

Of course, Columbia isn't the entire record industry. Some firms may continue to record classics properly, although we are not encouraged by Vanguard's announcement that they are following Columbia's "lead." And if even most of the major record companies ditch rear-channel ambience, we can kiss concert-hall realism goodbye.

Sound from all directions will doubtless open new vistas of musical creativity, and may even spur a revival of drama for the ears alone, where imagination is unfettered by the confines of a 27" diagonal screen. Rock groups will love it, and so will the "composers" of electronic "serious music." But the concertgoer who invests in the hardware and special recordings for four-channel sound in the proffered hope of finally being "transported into the concert hall" is going to be very disappointed.

Footnote 1: In 1972 the nomenclature for surround-sound recording and playback was very much in a state of flux, hence the use of the terms "quadrifi," "quadrisound, and "quadrisonics" in this historic piece. But by 1976, the industry had settled on "quadraphony."—John Atkinson