Why You Should Buy Four-Channel Now (Jul. 1973)

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By Harry Maynard

Don't buy a four-channel system now, or adapt your current stereo to play four channel because it's new, or just to impress your friends. Buy a four-channel system now because per dollar invested it will give you far better sound than the equivalent invested in adding niceties to your two channel system. Stated simply, $500 or $1,000 invested in a four-channel system playing even your two-channel stereo records will give you better sound than the equivalent investment in stereo sound.

There are certain things a stereo system can't do. It can't properly distribute bass around a 360 degree perimeter, and it can't significantly enhance your existing investment in stereo recordings. Studies show that if you are typical, you have considerably more invested in software (recordings) than you have in hardware. There is also FM radio-FM means free music.

FM is also the listening booth for most people who purchase stereo recordings. Most FM stations have record libraries running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, at your command to decode in the four-channel mode.

U.S. consumers like you have already invested over nine and a half billion dollars in stereo recordings since 1954. With any one of the better matrix four-channel decoders with, of course, two extra speakers and another stereo amplifier, this huge recorded repertoire is at your service for enhancement. Sure, you'll also have the ability to play the growing number of four-channel recordings.

But if history is any measure, the transition from stereo to quadraphonic sound will take years. The bulk of all recorded repertoire for many years will be in stereo and often what you will want in recorded sound will only be available in stereo. Some great historical performances will never be recorded in quadraphonic sound.

Some great stereo performances that sound dead or inadequate in stereo can, with a good 4-chan. system, be brought back to life to a considerable degree. There is a lot of enjoyment to be mined from your existing recording collection when played in the four channel mode.

Here are some non-expert, authentic reactions on this point addressed to my radio program, "Men of Hi Fi." "After much hesitation and deliberation, I finally purchased an inexpensive third speaker and hooked up the Dynaco system. The result--a new world of stereophonic enjoyment has been opened up for me.

The results are nothing less than astounding. Listening to old records is a new experience as if they were being played for the first time. The third speaker has increased my enjoyment by 100 percent. Fantastic!" Or, "I spent many delightful hours rediscovering my record collection." Hundreds of letters addressed to my show have similar words and reactions from those using the simplest decoders to the most sophisticated matrixed decoders such as the Sony 2020, or the decoder included in the Lafayette LR 4000. Ninety-nine percent of the letters indicate that they now keep their rear speakers on most of the time, even listening to two channel material. Listen-"I have not been able to live with the rear speakers off since I installed the decoder . . . the presence is phenomenal. The Mormon Tabernacle has been airlifted to my basement." Your reaction now may be, but these are novitiates in audio. So what does Julian Hirsch, a dean of audio equipment evaluation of Hirsch-Houck Labs, say? "On almost any kind of stereo material, the EV-4 added a sense of spaciousness that we found most pleasing. In a sense, it was not unlike the Dynaco which adds this quality to many programs.

It was interesting to find that there frequently was a definite front/rear separation in ordinary stereo programs, often with a hint of separation between the rear speakers as well. In fact, some normal stereo records sounded at least as good as some of the encoded records!" This four-channel decoding of stereo records is more than a serendipitous bonus. As Hirsch goes on to say, "We are enjoying playing some of our old forgotten stereo discs and discovering a new dimension of sound hidden in the grooves. Four-channel playback generates a sense of involvement with sound which is so easy to accept that after awhile one may be unaware of its existence. On many occasions we switched off the rear speakers and the contrast was striking. It can only be compared to turning off most of the lights in a well-lit room, after one has become adjusted to a high ambient light level." Finally, like many leading audio critics, Julian says what so many listeners have written to me on my radio show, "We had been highly skeptical of early claims that four-channel sound was as much of an improvement over two channels as the latter was over mono. At this point we are ready to eat crow. Going back to mono is an intolerable prospect for a real stereo addict." For knowledgeable people in audio it's been an open secret that many stereo records have been matrixed for years. Even the so-called discrete CD-4 records are matrixed in the recording process and, incidentally, decode nicely with a matrix decoder. When you encode a four-channel recording, you are primarily making more calculated, and sometimes more satisfactory and efficient use of the two-sided groove wall of a stereo disc by more organized use of rear phase material.

I have often found that the latest generation of matrixed decoders, with their front-to-back logic and full wave matching logic, on a stereo record significantly improve front-to-back separation and give more precise localization of voice and instrument, as well as increase separation, which was precisely what they were intended to do with an especially encoded four-channel record.

Now the purist will complain at this point that what we are hearing out of the rear speakers was never intended by the artist, record producer, and recording engineer. True. Perhaps if I were mixing this stereo record for four-channel listening, and this includes some especially encoded four-channel recordings, I might not have placed the instruments as they are placed or aimed for the total effect of this recording. But generally, the effect is definitely more pleasurable, and of course I can always turn off the rear speakers if I find it really offensive to my sensibilities.

But I have found as hundreds of my listeners have that I keep my rear speakers on 99 percent of the time.

Let some of my listeners describe their reactions: "It adds a great deal of excitement to music, which for myself, stereo did not," or, "During the listening (I) shut off the two rear speakers for a little while. No one in his right mind could fail to notice the difference. Then (I) put all four speakers on again. The sound seems flat and dead by comparison. With four channel sound we are living in a new world that Toscanini, Caruso, yes and even Paganini, would have loved. Let's appreciate the beautiful sound we now can enjoy (from stereo discs) until the F.C.C. decides that discrete is better." For me, the last sentence of this letter indicates why the discrete-matrixed debate is for all practical purposes not as meaningful a debate as it appears, and has tended to muddy the water of today's enjoyment. I believe that both systems will exist side by side for years, but that is the subject of another piece. Suffice it to say that the matrixed four-channel disc is the natural evolution of the stereo disc. Any good four-channel system needs four-channel matrix decoding facilities to enhance two-channel stereo records, because stereo records for now and for the near future constitute the bulk of recorded repertoire available to the public. It took fifteen years for the mono/stereo shift. It will take years for the stereo/quad shift. Yes, I know four-channel recordings have got off to a much faster start than stereo did, in a far shorter time period.

Right now, I'll even grant the discrete camp that I find discrete tapes and discrete discs sound better than the best of the matrix system commercially available. But I've heard the laboratory prototype decoders of the two main matrix camps, Q.S. (Sansui) and S.Q. ( Columbia), and I've been impressed (with no encoding changes) with their tremendous improvements in separation and other criteria. I can't tell the difference between the master four-channel tapes and the matrix decoded material. These prototype models will be converted to IC chips by late 1973 and 1974.

Most informed observers of the four-channel scene agree that we won't have an F.C.C. approved form of four-channel discrete broadcasting for several years. It's taken fifteen years of stereo broadcasting just to get one-third of America's FM stations to go stereo, partly because of the cost involved. Four channel will require an equivalent or bigger investment by radio stations. Since by now the reader has obviously gotten the point that I believe the enhancement effect alone on stereo records is sufficient reason for setting up for four-channel listening. From where I sit, the proponents of discrete four-channel sound should have invented matrixed four channel sound until discrete four channel can be broadcast. Matrix four-channel sound is the natural bridge from the stereo age into the quadraphonic age.

One thing I'm sure of-four-channel sound is not a put-on. If anything, it's been too long in arriving in the commercial market place (subject for another article). It's certainly here to stay with retailers such as Lafayette, the nation's second largest hi fi component dealer, reporting that 60 percent of their total component hi fi sales is in four-channel equipment, and other dealers reporting a real upsurge in sales in four-channel recordings and equipment.

But if four channel has a natural resistance point, much research by this reporter shows that resistance point and fear is OBSOLESCENCE of both the consumer investments in software (recordings) and in hardware.

People hate to hear that the recordings and equipment they have carefully acquired, grown to love, and invested much money in, now have to be thrown out. It you don't believe this, stand and overhear the hundreds of conversations I've heard, or read the mail addressed to my radio program.

For example, here's a letter addressed to Jim Gabbert, one of four channel's pioneer broadcasters, the head of the National Association of FM Broadcasters engineering committee and editor of its newsletter, FM Engineering, "Well I see it (four-channel) is on its way in all its glory. Equipment manufacturers are drooling like mad dogs on the Fourth of July, while their greedy little heads whirl at the thought of those dollars rolling in from stupid suckers who will buy anything if it costs money. I refer to your report on quadrasonic, quadraphonic quadrout, quadrafool, quadraputon, surround sound as described in your newsletter." "I can just see it now-broadcast antennas, new transmitters, new control consoles, new cartridges, new home hi fi systems, complete with infinite baffle speakers built into all walls of every house (which calls for new houses). It staggers the imagination when one considers how easily Yankee ingenuity has made all present audio equipment (from which incidentally manufacturers made their fat little profit) OBSOLETE!" For AUDIO'S readers I don't think it's necessary to refute this letter in detail. Many readers could, I'm sure, do a better job than I, knowing that most of your investment in quad if you already have a good stereo system, is add-on equipment, i.e. another stereo rear amp, and two rear speakers, plus whatever level of matrix decoder you desire. Nothing is made obsolete.

Most decoders or four-channel systems (of audio component quality) now being offered to the public have auxiliary four-channel inputs which can be used to play four-channel tapes, four-channel tape cartridges, and even add a demodulator (price $100) to play the new CD-4 records.

To sum up, don't forget what a four-channel system will do for those unforgettable stereo records you own, or may still buy. Martin Mayer, Esquire's audio-record critic, a recent convert to four-channel sound, suggests as I do that with all the shouting about what's new about four-channel, "the advantages of four-channel sources even on ordinary stereo material is much greater than one could imagine without trying it. The experience of Janos Starker playing "Bach Cello Suites" (a two-channel recording)

through four cornered omnidirectional speakers was a great musical moment in my house, because it was indistinguishable from what one would hear if the artist were playing in the room.

The sound of the live cello in a room does not seem to come from a point source or from the front wall. The whole room plays ... the whole room resonates. No area is louder than the other so far as you can tell." I remind you that Mayer's reaction is to a two-channel recording played quadra-phonically.

Mayer's experience is not atypical for those who have lived with four-channel stereo. It's confirmed by thousands of my radio listeners and lecture audiences who have told me essentially the same thing. So if you want to double the sonic value of many of the recordings you already own, and step up your psychic income, invest in four-channel now. There is a lot of four-channel gold in them thar two-channel stereo recordings that cannot be mined with your existing two-channel stereo equipment, no matter how much you spend. For the added investment needed to convert your two-channel system to four-channel, you'll get a lot more sonic value than the equivalent investment in two-channel niceties.


(adapted from Audio magazine, Jul. 1973)

Also see:

Compatible Quadra-Direction Discrete Stereo System--Part 1 (Jan. 1974)

SQ Update--1973 (Jul. 1973)

The Evolution of Four-Channel Equipment (Jul. 1973)

Status: The CD-4 System (Jul. 1973)

Quadraphonic Headphones (Jun. 1973)

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