Mono, Stereo, Digital: The Three Ages of Man

Caveat: This article is written by a non-audiophile. I own and listen to several thousand recordings through about $2500 worth of a rather motley assortment of audio components. Though very well informed musically, and a disciplined listener, Audiophilia remains for me a storied land. Various desultory discussions with Larry Archibald and John Atkinson, some going back almost two years, about the possibly refreshing, certainly outré (for these pages) outlook of a certified Audio Ignoramus, have finally borne astringent fruit in this diversion of an article.

As a child growing up in an electrified culture, the equations white/black, good/bad, daily reified by the B&W family television set, were paralleled by a similar stricture in the adjacent sense of hearing: monaural sound (footnote 1). Here, as in TV, was a point source of stimuli, a tight beam of sound heard end-on, as it were, the act of listening consisting of microsecond-thin cross-sections of a uniform column of music. For those few "hi-fi nuts," as we used to call them, who installed multiple(-mono) speakers, the point-source or beam-end became either a uniform, monolithic wall, or an ambience through which one moved: a suffusion. Again, to borrow a visual simile, this last was not like expanding from 35mm to 70mm film or Cinerama—changes in image proportion—but merely like blowing up a snapshot to an 8x10.

Of course, for the vast majority of listeners, "mono" was invented simultaneously with "stereo"; as far as most owners of record-players were concerned, there was only low-fidelity and high-fidelity sound. Just as the burgeoning digital technology has suddenly given the name "analog" to the medium we, our parents, and grandparents grew up with, so any important new technology frames and surrounds its antecedents.

This makes it impossible to go back and hear as we once heard. What used to be the whole of recorded sound is now just one type of recorded sound; it now does what it never did before: imply, by its very existence, all alternatives to itself. Before stereo, listening to mono meant merely that one chose to listen to recorded music. Now, it means one has chosen to listen to recorded music monaurally; that is, one has chosen one of several ways of listening to music.

These points may seem so obvious as to be self-evident. But it is in just such well-lighted places, so apparently obvious as to require no acknowledgement at all, let alone redundant discussion, that important truths can be hidden in plain sight.

I have not listened to monaural sound in over 20 years, but in some ways I still miss it. (How much of this is due to simple nostalgia I have no idea—I finished high school about the same time my family bought their first stereo system, and undoubtedly made assumptions about "maturing" from mono to stereo.) There is no doubt in my mind that the listening I did then was "deeper," in an almost literal sense: as if examining a transparent core-sample end-on, a tube filled with layers of sound and texture. This sort of auditory "staring" does not actively encourage analytical listening; instruments, voices, and textures are not spread out conveniently over a stereo soundstage to be isolated at will, either by directed listening or a balance control. The sound is one enjambed unit, apprehended holographically at first, but parsable only at a much higher pitch of intent.

In mono, then, music is absorbed holistically; acoustically, one does not "choose" which areas of the sound to listen to, as in stereo. Stereo listening is somewhat similar to sitting in the first few rows of a movie theater, and constructing one's own movie by moving one's eyes to certain areas of the screen, and not others (I do this all the time; it makes movie-going a very engaged experience). The analogy breaks down because, unlike the severe directional constraints of vision, which the Western mind constructs as a linear exercise, hearing is omnidirectional; one can choose not to listen to certain sounds, but one cannot choose not to hear them except by covering one's ears, thereby shutting out all sound. Conversely, we pay for the luxury of stereoscopic vision by not being able to see omnidirectionally. Perhaps only teachers have eyes in the backs of their heads; each of us, however, has an ear on each side.

In my early days of mono listening, then, my experience ran as follows: directly from that single speaker, a beam of condensed musical energy hit me squarely in the breast. I say "breast" because I don't actually mean the literal, physiological "chest"; the archaicism is apt because I describe an emotional reality here: the gestalt of listening. Of course, the sound entered my ears, was conducted as electrical impulses to my brain, etc. But as my heart—again, the poetic, not the cardiac, muscle—was the organ of reaction, I simply read out the mechanical middlemen.

This "beaming" made for some fascinating and powerful effects. As mono's aural "window" on music is little more than a high-resolution peephole, the deep-focus, aperipheral sound turns an orchestra into a single complex instrument, a many-limbed, single-bodied unit. (To say that this has nothing to do with live orchestral sound at once belabors, and is beside, the point. This is a discussion of different ways we listen to recorded music.) The sound funnels out of nowhere into the listening room, like the voice of God.

The terms I have so far circumlocuted in this piece are "religious" and "mystical"; the former is further corrupted daily, and the latter is more often than not used as a pejorative. But they are apt here: if religious and spiritual archetypes are, by definition, those which cannot be analyzed, dismantled, reduced to component atoms, then mono can at least be called a relatively mystical way of listening. Aural archetypes—potent combinations of sound, rhythm, and harmony—are directly implanted in the mind, and are all the more powerful and self-contained because of their unbroken, hieroglyphic unity. A tough nut to crack.

In point-source mono, an orchestra, like a point, has no dimensions; it is as big or as small as we—or our gain controls—imagine it to be. In stereo, an orchestra is as wide as the distance between the speakers, give or take a few feet. Regardless of how wide this might actually be in individual circumstances, my point is that its very measureability, its finitude, reduces it to human proportions, subjects it to real-world dimensionality. Point-source mono, not subject to such limits, thus transcends judgments based on them. There is only one direction to pay heed to when listening to single-source sound; choice is not a factor.

Perhaps, after all, this would seem uniquely mystical only to someone brought up in a monotheistic culture addicted to linear, climactic myths of progress. Had Native Americans, the Chinese, or East Indians invented electronic technologies for recording music, how might they have differed from ours? Or would such machinery have been a priority at all?

In his Oh! What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me!, anthropologist Edmund Carpenter's "media log" of contemporary neolithic cultures' first encounters with modern electronic media, the author tells again and again of how television and photographic images, and tape-recorded voices, were at first not recognized as anything at all by these various peoples. Again and again, they had to be instructed in pattern recognition, until hitherto abstract aural and visual doodlings were suddenly given habitations and names—in this case, their own.

Footnote 1: When this article was written, the terms "monaural" and "monophonic" were used interchangeably in Stereophile. However, in the intervening 15 years, the magazine has settled on "monophonic," meaning "one channel." "Monaural" literally means "one-eared," so, as humans still listen to mono recordings with two ears, it is not appropriate to use the word to refer to single-channel recordings and playback equipment.—John Atkinson