Space...the Final Frontier Letters

Setup is the key
I agree with JGH that surround systems can have the potential to outperform most high-end stereo systems. (Interestingly, JA, perhaps unintentionally, almost succeeded in ruining JGH's objectives.)

Like many audiophiles, I enjoy stereo sound, especially when it is carefully set up using recordings such as Chesky JD37 and JD68, and QSound CDs. However, when surround-sound components are judiciously put together, [the sound] is frequently more realistic and superior to stereo.

The trick here is to apply the same attention as you would on a stereo setup to every surround component; ie, matching each other and positioning speakers in the right areas to achieve the most natural balance. Dynamic contrasts, imaging, and believable soundstaging are the goals here. It will take much more time to set up than a normal stereo.
---N.G. Eddie, Victoria, Australia

Bravo, bravo, bravo!
The purpose of this letter is to raise my voice to the highest decibel level that's safe in support of J. Gordon Holt's arguments in the March 1994 issue. Bravo, bravo, bravo! JGH has once again shown leadership at a time when it is sorely lacking. To put things in perspective, I became convinced of the superiority of this approach to sound reproduction in the mid-1970s when I purchased an Audio Pulse Model One. Ultimately, the unit was so noisy that I stopped using it, but I haven't stopped hoping for a better implementation of the concept.

For several years now, I have become increasingly alarmed by the closed-mindedness and rigidity that has taken over the high-end press. With respect to the issue of surround-sound vs stereo, Stereophile exhibits a clear editorial negativity toward surround-sound. (See JA's comments in the Vol.17 No.3 "As We See It," and footnote 11 on p.75---which, by the way, ignores the great monetary and time expense needed to get the most out of two-channel listening.)

I am convinced that there is no general consensus among audiophiles about what is most important in sound reproduction. Unfortunately, I haven't seen this debate taking place in Stereophile's pages. Over the last several years, your writers have become more and more alike in their opinions. The individuals currently on staff who I think would be good candidates to carry on this debate---Peter W. Mitchell and JGH---are apparently not in a position to do so. This is an area where a change in editorial perspective would be helpful.

It's fine for individuals to dislike particular products and suggest ways in which they could be better; in fact, I think that Stereophile should play that important role. But the concept of this technology should not be ignored or diminished...I think it is misguided for Stereophile to take sides with respect to the form that musical reproduction equipment should take---especially in this case, where the [stereo] position is becoming a reactionary one. There is no question that surround-sound is the future---it's quickly moving into homes through Home Theater technology. [Stereophile faces] the choice either of being in the forefront of the development of this technology, or of sticking its head in the sand and letting the world pass it by. I find it ironic that Stereo Review is more open-minded.
---Gary Croner, Berkeley, CA

Back to mono!
I admit it. I'm a monophile, not a stereophile. As Holt said in his surround-sound article, I'm one of those who has judged stereo to be unmusical. But has the world passed me by? Am I stuck in the '50s, or even the '30s? Do I only play 78s with a cactus or steel needle?

Hell no. I'm totally digital, not totally nuts.

I've done the stereo thing with Thiels, Quads, Sound-Lab A-2Xes, B&K, VTL, Atma-Sphere, the CAT preamp, and the PC Wire-of-the-Month Club. Yep, the soundstage was in front of, above, and behind the speakers, and outside the speaker edges, too. The imaging was great, but not pinpoint. But I've never heard live music that was pinpoint, either.

So I had the musicians' addresses. So what? So they didn't sound real.

Then I started listening to buses, birds, people talking, noises, washing machines---you know, life. Live music included. I discovered that everything, even reflections, is in mono, or lots of different monos at the same time. The only thing that wasn't in mono was my stereo. Hmmmmm?

I guess this means that my ears hear in stereo, but that the sounds aren't in stereo. When I hear a live solo violinist, it's one source, mono. There aren't two solo violinists with me creating an equilateral triangle so I can "image" a solo violinist. Same thing for an orchestra. So mono has all the articulation, harmonic richness, subtle ambient cues of real life. Because it is real life.

But Holt thinks that all these nuances and more are masked in mono. Maybe in his version of mono. And if there is masking in mono, why doesn't it happen in mono amps? In his surround-sound article, what Holt described as mono was "stereo mono," or how to get the worst of both worlds. If you use his version of Y-adapters to create mono, it'll sound as bad as Holt says.

So if you're gonna combine left and right channels, do it with a tube (or other device) mixing circuit---one that isolates the channels from each other so they don't cancel anything out. As a result, all the sounds will have more natural body, rich harmonics, and textures since they are from a single source. Just like in reality.

And playing mono on two speakers isn't mono. That'll still give you all those phasey-blurry stereo effects which come from unmatched drivers, crossovers, amps, phase splitters, transformers, preamps, and rooms. Not to mention the biggest obstacle of all: your head. Literally.

Of course, putting two channels into one is a distortion of stereo, making it almost a point source. The way I see it, though, I'm taking two wrongs and making them right. How can that sound good? Well, most stereophiles who come by and listen remark that they are surprised that they don't miss the stereo effects. Mmmm. Maybe only DNA should be recombinant. Not music.
---Bruce Nilson, Teaneck, NJ

Tested in the home, for presence!
J. Gordon Holt's March article disparaging two-channel stereo---"Space...the Final Frontier"---was an embarrassment---of riches! Much to admire, much to digest, and much, too, to contest, as the editor himself noted in numerous yet respectful sidebars and footnotes.

Mainly, however, I must differ with Gordon. All multi-channel schemes I'm aware of (with the notable exception of Cogent) massively intrude upon the phase domain, thereby corrupting our sense of acoustic polarity. Incorrect polarity, blunting the transient impact, always makes reproduced music sound unreal, although one may not notice the difference on many loudspeakers.

Apart from that fact lies another basic notion: Totally overlooked in the discussion was the question, "Where do we prefer to be when the music plays?" Gordon's desideratum, indeed almost everyone's today, seems to be "reproduction of the acoustical space that...assures our ears that, at last, they are in the concert hall." Another possibility exists, however, and always has, although it's being presently ignored: Equally valid, and even more enjoyable, is the illusion of having the performers there with us in our very own homes.

In 1982, I entitled an experimental project "In the Presence of the Performer." The proposal called for simulation in video and audio of a piano duet in my 1000-square-feet, typical 18th-century music chamber. Though it never came to full fruition, a partial version was presented elsewhere to some local press acclaim. What the audience heard, assuming they read the program notes, was an updated return to the phonographic style of the '20s and '30s, when RCA, Columbia, and Edison (!) were loudly touting artists-in-residence. I enjoy original pressings from that era for their vividness and lively performances, and because 78s surpassingly convey true instrumental tone, especially of voice, piano, and brass. Played on a wide-range, high-end system with all the trimmings, they bring an eerily convincing image of musicians into the home. And in mono, yet!

Like any polarity, there are only two ways about it: Should we encounter the performers in their space or ours? This hidden dichotomy accounts for much heated disagreement in audio, perhaps without our being fully aware of the choice.
---Clark Johnsen. The Listening Studio, Boston, MA

John Atkinson did a splendid job of correcting questionable items in J. Gordon Holt's "Space...the Final Frontier" article (Vol.17 No.3, p.60). But important oddities remain.

Holt wrote about loudspeakers that "favor" different kinds of music: some "excel" in soundstage presentation, while others "give a more convincing portrayal of the instruments themselves." But these are descriptions of inadequately designed or incorrectly used loudspeakers. As they become more linear and more level in response, loudspeakers also become more even-handed with differing sounds. A truly smooth, flat speaker will not discriminate at all, but will seem realistic with all sorts of tunes. Of course, we do not yet have such a speaker; but the ones we do have are improving at a commendable rate.

The degree of compromise in audio engineering is, perhaps, underrated by much of the audiophile community. Stereo, for example, is inferior to monophonic sound in that two sources never seem as focused as one. This permanent degree of confusion is only one of the penalties paid for deserting single-channel systems. A room filled with audio clutter is another.

Most important, I think, is that the principle determinant of naturalness in reproducing sound probably has more to do with the strictest accuracy of frequency response than with the number of channels. A speaker that adhered to !X1dB limits and had a perceived level response (not necessarily the same as a measured level response) would yield, I think, the greatest single advance toward a better illusion.
---Lewis Coopersmith, Philadelphia, PA

Due respect?
The "exceptions" JA took with J. Gordon Holt's opinions [in "Space...the Final Frontier"] may come across slightly different than he thought. He was trying to present a balanced view, but the tone was more like, "That's poppycock, and here's the real story..." The editor may have the luxury of The Last Word, but I, and faithful readers whom I know, regret the context that Holt is thereby put into. He is, after all, the founder of Stereophile, and would ordinarily be paid due respect.
---Jim Payne, Absolute Sound, South Charleston, WV