MCS Review On-Line Reprints

In Defense of Four-Channel Sound

by Harry Maynard

Reprinted from MCS Review, Vol.4, No.1, Summer 1982.  Article first appeared in the Spring 1975 issue of Stereo.  We reprinted it by permission of the publisher.  All rights reserved.

Because it represents only l5% of total sales, four-channel sound is under attack in some industry circles -— particularly among those who expected that its sales would have by now replaced the sales of stereo equipment.  To see that these expectations were unrealistic one has only to look at the development of stereo itself.  Many people have forgotten, if they ever knew, that it took about twenty years for stereo to reach its present state of acceptance.  Yet one keeps running into the persistent myth that stereo caught on overnight.

The fact is, only two years ago over 5O% of the more than 3,000 FM stations in the U.S. could not even broadcast a stereo signal.  Today in Europe it is estimated that less than half of all the record players in use can play a record in the stereo mode.  Stereo was commercially introduced (on tape) in 1954; four years later there were only 650 stereo recordings, all on open-reel tape, itself never a highly popular or mass format.

In the late Fifties, when the first stereo discs appeared, I interviewed leaders in the recording, broadcasting, and hi-fi industries.  Most of these authorities were not very optimistic about stereo’s commercial future.  Many of those who believed in stereo’s future felt that it would be restricted to the super hi-fi buff, who could afford the expense of scrapping his existing equipment, and buying an extra amplifier, a speaker, a new cartridge, and any other equipment necessary for stereo reproduction.  And a system of stereo broadcasting to be approved by the F.C.C. was several years away.

Time magazine, in its September 26, 1969, issue, commented on four-channel sound in a way that echoed the attitude of many towards stereo in the late Fifties.  Under the title, “And now, Quadrisonic,” Time said: “Oh no, not again!  The hi-fi industry, which periodically brings out new devices to make music listeners dissatisfied, is about to unwrap another surprise.  After spending twelve years convincing the record-buying public that two ears are better than one, high-fidelity manufacturers have now embarked on a drive to prove that four ears are twice as good -- at least.”

This is cute writing, but poor journalism.  The facts tell a different kind of story.  Multi-channel sound is a concept almost as old as the phonograph itself.  As early as 1892, Alexander Graham Bell was extolling the virtues of binaural reproduction, and the sense of the realism that it offered in reproducing the 360-degree sound field of normal listening.  Surround sound, in one form or another, continued to interest the audio-minded for generations and was demonstrated from time to time.  Many experimenters, even before the advent of stereo and certainly since its introduction, have set up multi-channel systems to see how added reproducers would enhance the sonic presentation.  Multi-channel sound became very public knowledge with the release of such popular Hollywood offerings as “Fantasia” (the original soundtrack had seven channels), Cinerama, and Cinemascope.  The millions who saw “The Robe” over twenty years ago, and later the film version of “From Here to Eternity”, were actually listening to reproduced sound that had more channels than the four of today’s quadriphonic techniques.  Seen in this perspective, four-channel sound thus becomes an evolutionary search in a century-old search for better sound recording and reproduction.

Adding four-channel capabilities to a halfway decent stereo system does not make anything obsolete, nor does it involve the complex Rube Goldberg adaptions that some of us went through in the early days of changing from mono to stereo.  And stereo, in my opinion, did not offer the dramatic increment in subjective listening quality over mono that four—channel does over stereo.  But more on this later.

The limits of most people’s experience are the limits of their world.  Many people have been unimpressed by quad, because they have heard it improperly demonstrated or they have misconceptions about it.

The biggest misconception about quad that I have run into is that it is somehow a profound misrepresentation of our normal listening experience.  The argument usually runs that quadriphonic sound is an attempt (it can be) to gerrymander reality, to shift and rearrange it, and to befuddle the normal parameters of the live listening experience.

There is the further misconception that most of the sound we hear in a live listening experience such as the concert hall comes from up front.  Putting sound on the sides and in the rear, as quad does, fails to mirror accurately the way we hear a live musical event.

Well, I don’t like disputing such self-righteous argumentation, but it’s a fact that the world we live in is a 360-degree sound field, and as good as two-channel stereo is, it remains relatively limited, in a sense a gimmick.  It gives us only a wall of sound.  The live sound we normally hear is not directiy radiated.  In a concert hall, for example, up to 90% of the sound may be indirectly radiated.  Naturally the proportion of directly- to indirectly—radiated sound varies with the size and acoustic character of the listening environment.  But it is an exceptional listening situation where much more than half of the sound we hear is directly radiated.  The indirect sound is mixed with the direct sound and all of it is heard by our two ears.  Obviously our aural perception of living reality does not require that we have four ears -- and by the same token, neither does an ability to appreciate four-channel sound.

Recording engineers have known for years that stereo recordings could be made to give a better simulation of a 360-degree sound field by adding reverb, either artifically or naturally by introducing into a recording the kind of information that normally exists at the sides and rear of a normal listening environment.  For their part, sound enthusiasts have perennially experimented with adding extra speakers to monophonic systems and later to stereo systems in an effort to enhance the “ambience” of music reproductions, to “open more windows on the invisible wall between performers and audience,” and so on.  One of the virtues of a good matrix decoder is that it grabs this ambience and puts it back in the rear where it was in the first place (if the reverb or ambience was recorded naturally).

To me the long-term future of quad is not in doubt because the people who have actually bought and lived with quad, give it an extraordinary vote of approval.  To be clear here, I'm not talking about people who may have been superficially or unfortunately (for their musical tastes) exposed to poor quad sound at hi—fi shows or dealer demonstrations, et al.

Having two radio programs, “Men of Hi-Fi” and “Sound Advice”, I was able to locate 500 people who admittedly may not be the ideal probability sample representing all demographic groups, but who have actually bought and lived with four-channel sound.

Here is their verdict on quad. Ninety-five percent tell me they would not want to go back to stereo listening.  Most of them now do all their listening -- even to stereo recordings -- in the quadriphonic mode.  Furthermore, half of these respondents said that four-channel listening is a 100% improvement over stereo listening; 15% call it a 75% improvement; 20% feel it a 50% improvement; 10% say it is a 25% improvement.  About 5% said that four-channel was an insignificant improvement or a step backward.

I also have interviewed shoppers in hi-fi stores in five widely different geographical areas, and have found that many of these people believe four-channel sound will make their existing libraries of two-channel recordings obsolete.  What makes this misconception so unfortunate for the acceptance of four-channel sound is that studies show that the typical owner of hi-fi equipment invests three to five times more in recordings than in the equipment to play them.

For myself, the first reason for buying a four-channel system -- and particularly one with a good matrix decoder (one with logic options) -- is to enhance my long accumulated library of stereo recordings.  This is no small consideration when you realize that the U.S. public has invested $15 billions over the last twenty years in stereo recordings.  And don’t forget all that free music available on stereo FM radio.

I must criticize the proponents of the various four-channel systems for not making this very clear to the potential buyer of four-channel equipment.  My study on 500 quad buyers included the question: “What has been your single biggest discovery and satisfaction in living with four-channel sound?”  Over 50% of the respondents said that it was the enhancement of their existing library of stereo recordings and FM broadcastíng when played through some form of matrix decoder or synthesizer.  I might add, of course, that the better the matrix decoder -- the more channel separation it offers -- the better the audible enhancement.

I find the position -- assumed by many -- that the industry should adopt either discrete or matrix four-channel systems absurd and ecologically unsupportable.  We need both systems because our existing record libraries need options that will enable us to bridge the past through the present to the future.  No matter how fast four-channel sound catches on with the public, the bulk of recorded music and broadcast sound available to the public will be in stereo for years to come.  Even granting that discrete four-channel sound (especially on open-reel tape) offers “state of the art” in four-channel listening, I still feel we need matrix systems too.  For this reason, the ideological warfare between the proponents of matrix and discrete approaches not only seems pointless but no doubt has confused mamy potential buyers and led them to believe that a single system will eventually win out.

If a person’s primary reason for buying hi-fi equipment is to listen to music and to reproduce other auditory performances, the greater the flexibility of the playback system, the better its ability to handle existing recordings where a substantial investment has already been made.  My advice then is to buy the equipment that does the best job on both discrete and matrixed sound.  Fortunately, much of the latest quadriphonic equipment includes both playing options, or is easily adapted for either.

As regards broadcasting, it may be years before the F.C.C. approves a form of discrete four-channel broadcasting.  In the meantime, there’s nothing to prevent an FM station from sending out matrixed quad sound, and, for this reason if for no other, owning a good matrix decoder makes sense.  At the same time we are getting more and better quad tapes (encoded or fully discrete), and CD-4 discs, so those who want the complete world of four-channel sound have to consider both modes of playback.

Few consumers are aware of the inertia and conservatism of the larger commercial organizations in the sound business, or, for that matter, of any large—scale comercial enterprises.  Forture magazine (July 1974) put it well: “There is, however, a formidable obstacle to the introduction of a new product: the ironclad requirement that any proposed product has to have a demonstrable margin of superiority over its prospective competitors.”

For those people who have lived with four-channel sound, this requirement, based on my research and personal experience, seems to have been met.  Even that irreverent, debunking newsletter called Moneysworth had this to say on quadriphonics: “Four-channel sound really is as great as all the equipment manufacturers insist, although there is no single, final approach to it that will satisfy everybody.”

I’ll grant that you may not like many four-channel recordings; you may feel the record producers have taken too many liberties with the new “surround-sound” techniques.  I for one enjoy many of them for the new perspective they provide on familiar music.

Quad in general has the ability to introduce more diversity and range to the home listening experience.  Vis-a-vis stereo, it is far less room—bound, whether your tastes are classical, popular, or rock.

My 500 respondents were about equally divided on whether quad did more for classical music or for other forms of music.  But when you receive hundreds of letters, mostly in favor of something, you have to assume that your own enthusiasm is not just a private hangup.  Dig this comment: “I hate you and I like you. I hate you because you’ve caused me to spend a fortune on hi-fi equipnent and I like you because you íntroduced me to the wonderful world of four-channel sound.”

A final criticism of four-channel sourd -- even by those who admit that it sounds good -- is: “I’ll buy it when it is perfected.”  Nothing is ever perfected.  It will evolve and get better.  I bought a color television set in 1960 before most people did.  The set still works well, and has given me thousands of hours of good viewing.  Sure the color television set I bought last year is better, but I would regret the many years of not having had the first set.

Four-channel sound basically does for audio what color did for TV: it adds an enormous increase in information for the ear.  It wipes out that huge spatial distortion of stereo.

If you want to prove this to yourself, find a friend who is into quad, and who has a halfway decent rig, and ask him if you can bring your favorite stereo records to hear on his system.

A hi-fi store with a small, intimate four-channel listening room will also do for this experience -- if you can find one.  So far, not too many stores have good listening rooms for quad, or even for stereo.  Many dealers feel that quad is still too new, and stereo already has been accepted and needs no serious demonstrating.  Most of my panel of quad owners said that it was hearing four-channel sound in a friend's home that decíded their buying it.  Many respondents talked about the disappointing and unconvincing demonstrations they had heard at stores and even at hi-fi shows.  Typical comments were: “unimpressive,” “too many people competing with the sound,” “hard to judge the merits of the four-channel system.”  The most frequent complaint was that they had not liked the demonstration material.

So hear four-channel at the home of a friend, preferably someone with musical tastes similar to your own.  Let him demonstrate what happens to the sound when the rear-channel speakers are turned off after you have become fully acclimated to listening to them all in the four-channel mode.  Let him play some of his own favorite four-channel releases.  Note that the four-channel sound you hear in a friend’s place will probably be fairly similar to what you can expect to hear if you install quad sound in your own home.

To paraphrase an old saying -- one good listen under the right conditions is worth a thousand words.

The defense rests.

Last updated: May 24, 2015

MCS Review On-Line Reprints