Home Theater vs Two-Channel Purism

For all its excesses, high-quality audio is filled with purists. Some are committed to single-ended amplifiers, some to all-analog circuitry, to crossoverless speakers, or to recordings made with only two microphones. Purists seek simplicity in their quest for good sound. But how simple is it to scrub contacts, adjust tonearms, or meticulously clean discs before nearly every listening session? Maybe committed purists should just be committed.

Now there are two-channel purists. Erstwhile Stereophile writer Robert Harley claims to be one because he's "suspicious of combining music playback with video and surround-sound audio" (Fi, September '98, p.57). Stereophile's founder J. Gordon Holt, on the other hand, embraces surround-sound. He sees two-channel purism as mere prejudice—the belief that "surround-sound is for movies and stereo is for music." Why, J. Gordon asks, should we be wedded to this dichotomy? "After all, real sounds happen in three-dimensional space, and music sounds much more realistic when that space is reproduced in 3-D instead of through a sonic picture window" (Stereophile, August '98, p.111).

For me, HI-FI '98 made this question more pointed. The buzz at the Show about the latest possibilities in 96kHz digital audio, and prospects for packing five separate channels of audio on a disc, was just...palpable. It extended from one side of the hotel to the other. Nothing is settled, of course. Some of the technologies and formats are hardly more than vaporware, and a format war is a possibility. But there's a real chance that 5-channel audio will become du jour. Instead of being surrounded by the explosions and mayhem of Contact or The Fifth Element, our listening chairs may be in the middle of a virtual concert hall or recording studio.

JGH's argument makes sense, but something about 5-channel audio has always turned me off (and it's not hazy memories of awful quadraphonic systems from my youth). Surround-sound is fine as audio icing on the video cake, but my idea of high-end audio is firmly wrapped around two speakers. Maybe I'm just a toasterphile like Michael Fremer, who recently sang praises for his vintage Sunbeam toaster and other "old things" ("Analog Corner," July '98, p.45). Actually, my own passion is electric juicers from the 1960s and '70s. But I digress.

Whatever the reason, those rooms at the Los Angeles Show featuring a picture window between two speakers were more appealing than those putting the listener in a three-dimensional cage of five. It wasn't just that the two-channel displays were less crowded, or that they were playing music instead of wall-shaking scenes from Hollywood thrillers. It was something else, but I couldn't put my finger on it. After my trip to HI-FI '98, I became a two-channel purist in search of a reason.

Two weeks later I was in Boulder, Colorado. Amid all the trendy galleries and boutiques, I wandered into an audio salon with a good deal on a pair of Totem Tabù speakers. I had been impressed by their big brother, the Mani-2, at the Show, so in Boulder I auditioned the Tabùs on a whim. I wasn't even in the market for new speakers, but, after much hemming and hawing, I bought them.

Then I had a guilt attack. Unless you're a sheik or a Microsoft insider, you know the feeling. (And if you don't, your spouse does.) I'll spend an hour at the mall comparison-shopping in order to save 10 bucks on a pair of shoes—and then turn around and drop thousands on equipment to improve my "record player" (as my superego puts it). To appease my conscience, I continued my wanderings determined not to spend any more money. I didn't even slow down as I walked past Ben & Jerry's ice-cream parlor, despite the impulses cascading through my brain stem.

I wound up at a nearby museum for contemporary art. It was the perfect place to go—no speakers or amps for sale. Unfortunately, the art wasn't very good. A gaping hole in a wall wasn't a sign of renovations in progress, it was "art." How about an 8' cube with a ladder propped on each side? A string of multicolored shopping carts? A line of jelly jars on a shelf, each containing some icky, slimy something or other, backlit with all the colors of the rainbow? Color me bored.

According to They Might Be Giants, "The truth is where the sculptor's chisel chipped away the lie" ("The Statue Got Me High," Apollo 18, Elektra 61257-2). They would have been bored too. There wasn't any truth in this museum, because no chisels or paintbrushes were in evidence. Instead of re-creating or representing the objects that so fascinated them, these artists just put them on display in all of their three-dimensional reality (and perhaps an unlikely coat of paint).

As I browsed, my reservations about surround-sound started to take shape. The dealer at the audio salon had mentioned a customer who bought four Tabùs for a surround-sound system. Why bother, I thought? I fell in love with them because, like good minimonitors, they threw a deep, wide soundstage that seemed fully three-dimensional—a strength different from what I was used to with my big Martin-Logan electrostats. Obviously, the Tabùs were constructed to do something that wooden boxes with domes and cones don't normally do—namely, to play music accurately and somehow disappear in a 3-D soundstage. Totem's Vincent Bruzzese, I realized, is more of an artist than the official "artists" responsible for the piles of junk that filled that museum. He turned wood, metal, and wire into something extraordinary. They turned jelly jars and shopping carts into jelly jars and shopping carts.

Two-channel audio is like a painter's canvas. Instead of three dimensions, it has only two, stretching from left to right and from front to back. Just as a good painter can make an image seem lifelike and three-dimensional, a good stereo system (with good recordings) can similarly make performances jump from two dimensions to three. I'm a genuine stereophile because systems that accomplish this difficult feat never fail to amaze me. Each step in the playback chain makes this goal elusive because there are only two channels of information storage, two channels of amplification, and two speakers. It's two-dimensional, all the way down the line. This is hardly breaking news, but it shows that audiophiles who endlessly adjust speakers, room treatments, or cables are not necessarily tweaking for tweaking's sake or obsessing over some vague ideal of "good sound." Such fidgeting can help solve a real problem of audio engineering and psychoacoustics: how to get the illusion of three dimensions from only two.

When they're good, all forms of art overcome such problems or limitations. I recently saw a performance by the Blue Man Group in which three blue-skinned performers orchestrated lights and played homemade musical instruments, one of which—a large assemblage of telescoping tubes that could be lengthened and shortened—worked like a trombone. It was made of PVC tubing, the kind you see sitting around—silently—in the background on This Old House; the kind that usually carries wastewater or sewage away from your kitchen or bathroom. One blue man held it up, another drummed on it (setting up standing waves inside), and the third pushed and tugged to change its length and pitch. The sound was thick and sonorous, like a distant foghorn playing a melody. What struck me was hearing this beautiful, soothing sound from such an unlikely source. The blue men turned a base, ordinary material into something quite the opposite.

Why is Elvis Costello a living god? Precisely because he takes the old and utterly predictable medium of the popular song (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse...), infuses it with wit and intelligence, and comes up with songs that are hardly boring or routine. I've listened to Imperial Bedroom (Rykodisc RCD 20278) for over 15 years, but I'm still captivated by listening to Elvis glide so effortlessly over the popular songwriter's hurdle: how to do something interesting within such a rigid, confining formula.

Put it the other way around. Suppose the Blue Men played their foghorn sounds by pressing keys on a synthesizer, or suppose Elvis penned his thoughts and emotions in an essay. Even if the resulting sounds and feelings were identical, they wouldn't convey the drama and surprise of a creation that emerges from an ordinary but unlikely medium. Like the artists at the museum, Elvis and the Blue Men would be skipping the hard part. They'd be cheating.

That's what I don't like about surround-sound. When the goal is to squeeze three sonic dimensions out of two speakers, putting two more speakers behind the listening chair is just a sledgehammer approach to solving a difficult problem. It reminds me of Inspector Clouseau's violent run-ins with Kato, his houseboy in the Pink Panther movies. If, instead of defending himself kick for kick against this black belt, Clouseau just pulled out a gun and fired, something would be missing. He'd reach his goal, but not in a very impressive way.

Surround-sound audio shoots stereo in the same way. All the skill and finesse required to make a two-dimensional medium produce an illusion of spatial depth would fall by the wayside. The goal, after all, would no longer be an illusion, for sound would be literally coming from all around the listener.

There's nothing wrong with J. Gordon's logic. It just doesn't take into account that, for me at least, the way the result is achieved is as important as the result itself. I simply get a kick from hearing a lifelike musical event emerge from only two boxes—two boxes, moreover, that seem strangely disconnected from the soundstage they create. My Tabùs often look like a pair of surprised robots, tweeters wide open, who happened to wander onto a concert stage. But they're really magicians that throw images and musical emotions around the far end of my living room. And they do it without smoke and mirrors, without strings, and without extra speakers perched behind the listening chair. They don't cheat.

Dismiss me if you will. But my case for the merits of good old stereo is not the whole point. More important is how the future of audio is realized, regardless of whether the format-to-be uses two channels or 20. A friend of mine, a historian of technology, theorizes about "the technological juggernaut," a sociological phenomenon in which consumers are eager to support whatever new technologies become available because they regard them as inevitable, necessary, and—without question—all for the better. I hear the juggernaut at work when people ask me about what "they" are up to: "When are 'they' coming out with 5-channel audio on DVD?" "I hear 'they' will replace conventional amplifiers with digital amplifiers." Whoever "they" are, they seem to be in control of the steering wheel.

But we're in control too. True, the development of new formats and production tools costs millions. Sony, Philips, and the other players vying for market share in this new arena will play a large role. But they don't sell products in a vacuum. Had lots of people decided to buy DCC (Digital Compact Cassette) machines, for instance, that format could have prospered. But it died. Had consumers refused to buy all those crappy P-mount turntables that flooded the markets of the early 1980s (and the garage sales of the '90s), CD might not have gained such a toehold a few years later.

In large part, the fate of two-channel audio will be determined by consumer behavior. All I ask is that we behave deliberately. If you like 5-channel audio better than stereo, then buy all the speakers and amps and cables and (someday) 5-channel recordings that your 4-chambered heart desires. But do it because you honestly like it, not because it's what Sony or Philips or whomever wants you to do. And if, after the novelty wears off, it's not quite as much fun as the old days of stereo, you can join us purists and dump your 5-channel equipment in some contemporary art gallery. Just spray-paint it a funny color, or chop it up and put it in jelly jars.