MCS Review On-Line Reprints

What's So Special About Surround Sound?

by Larry Clifton

Reprinted from MCS Review, Vol.5, No.4, Spring 1984.

Enthusiasm about quadraphonics, multi-channel sound, surround sound — whatever you prefer to call it — is not a phenomenon non-enthusiasts readily understand.  My first experience with this goes back to the die-hard "stereophonists" (my own term meant to suggest their bull-headedness, pronounced ster-e-ÔF-n-ists) who kidded (only half jokingly) that quadraphonics was foolish unless you had ears in the back of your head.  They also pointed out, rightly so, that to enjoy four-channel sound required positioning yourself somewhere in the middle of the speaker array; what they overlooked, of course, was that stereo, to be properly heard, also requires some care in choosing your listening spot.  So what explains this paradox — why hadn't they just settled for good quality mono?

Status, primarily, I think, but this was not originally so.  Those who converted their sound systems from mono's "point of sound" to stereo's "wall of sound" in the early and mid-1950s were similarly mocked by monoists (again, my term).  They endured, of course, and won converts through the decade and a half required for stereo to supplant mono.  They endured primarily because they were listening carefully and closely to the music, and what they heard was a revelation.

The resistance to stereo then and the resistance we've seen to surround sound during the past decade came largely from people who are satisfied with sound that comes from somewhere "out there", even if they demand that it be of "hi-fi" quality.  And they are the great majority of music listeners, even those who own moderately or more expensive audio units (at least $500, say).  In fact, the most fervent stereo defenders I've known had a couple of grand or more invested in their systems and usually called themselves "purists", as if two-channel sound had been divinely anointed.  Even so, few spent much, if any, time listening critically from a location at which they could appreciate the stereo image.  For nearly every one, they owned "stereos" (instead of settling for mono) to keep up with or show off for others.  I can hear them now:  "Isn't that great sound!  Just listen to the bass."  Quad, much more than stereo, would force them to sit down and pay close attention, and they were not about to suffer that.

I am willing to bet that nearly every stereo pioneer jumped into the quad fray at the very beginning.  "Quad", and now surround/multi-channel sound, was bound to appeal to those who pay close attention to musical details.  These include tone, pace and harmony, among others of course, but, in addition, surround recording allows a performance to be captured in a way that can imbue it with dimensions of intimacy or grandeur or texture or emotional excitement of which even stereo is incapable.  It is a revelation.

You and I have known this intuitively for years.  To see our endurance begin to persuade others is especially satisfying.

Reprinted from MCS Review, Vol.5, No.4, Spring 1984.
Copyright © 1984, 2000 by Laurence A. Clifton

Last updated: April 9, 2006

MCS Review On-Line Reprints