Stereo fascination

December 1, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

When I was growing up my father’s home-built stereo system—the envy of our neighbors and relatives—was monophonic. To fill our living room with sound there were two sets of parallel-wired speakers built into the left and right sides of the room. The lowest frequencies were handled by a subwoofer he had built into a commandeered hall closet.

We were in monophonic heaven.

Then, in the early 1960s, just before I was hijacked by the US government to serve my time in the Army, stereo arrived. My father was anxious to try it out.

In those days, moving from monophonic to stereo was a pretty big deal: a new phono cartridge and at a minimum, a second channel for the preamp, and the amplifier were required. *(By the late 1950s and early 1960s there were a few stereo-specific amps and preamps available but for most HiFi aficionados like my father, this new stereo thing was an unknown. Possibly a gimmick. Easier to cobble together something just to see what all the fuss was about).

Following an entire weekend of setting up the extra equipment which—to the horror of my mother—wound up strewn across the living room floor, we were ready to hear what all the fuss of stereo was about. That’s when my Dad pulled out the only stereo album he had managed to find at the local record store. Instead of music, it was an entire recording of stereo sound effects including my favorite, a locomotive traveling from left to right across our living room.

That single demo was amazing. Instead of what we were used to, a wall of monophonic sound filling the room, suddenly there was another element. Dimensionality.

To me, the addition of stereo was of the same magnitude as the next revolution, color television.

Heady times.

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44 comments on “Stereo fascination”

  1. I have no idea exactly where I was, or what was going on, when JFK was shot.
    I got my first transistor radio when Armstrong took his first steps on the surface of the moon (that was still in black & white)
    Going from black & white to colour TV was an amazing experience for a kid hitting puberty.
    It wasn’t until I was 33yo that I experienced real 3D soundstaging from a bunch of black,
    oblong boxes & that was more amazing than coloured TV.

  2. It is well known that the EMI engineer Alan Blumlein did much of the early work on stereo, which he then patented. His initial motivation was realising that, with the new talking movies, only one person could talk at a time, and mono sound did not locate the voice to the person seen speaking in the fim. This was back in 1931, his first demo film was trains at Hayes station (near the EMI laboratories in West London) and they even did a stereo recording with the leading conductor of the time, Sir Thomas Beecham, at their Abbey Road studios.

    I have no idea why stereo recording did not take off quicker, in the late 1950s in the US and the late 1960s in the UK. My suspicion is twofold (a) you don’t need stereo sound to enjoy music, and (b) people didn’t have or weren’t prepared to spend the money on the new equipment, or have a father like Paul who could build one.

    I suppose it’s the same with most new formats, there has to be an absolute and convincing need for media producers and consumers to spend money to adopt them. 16/44 was adopted in the early 1980s and all challengers have fallen by the wayside, save for the need for compressed digital formats.

    Colour TV was, in my view, an infinitely more significant development, especially for fans of snooker (that’s a BBC joke). Colour film was used commercially since the late 1930s (Gone With The Wind), but B&W prevailed, I suspect as much due to cost of production and cinemas needing new projection equipment. Film Noir (Bogart etc.) was mostly shot at night, it was cheaper on studio time, and does not work in colour. Once colour TV came out, B&W pretty much disappeared.

    1. Why should have stereo taken off much quicker when most turntables (often integrated in a radio console) were not prepared to play stereo records and obviously only a few stereo records were available? And as you said: absolutely no need for stereo when enjoying music. And these early stereo demo records only focused on strange effects and ping-pong stereo. Thus maybe a solution only for radio dramas or operas where you get voices from different directions wandering around. I never heard of musicians of a string quartet or of a big orchestra wandering around. Is there any music requiring depth of a sound image??? And the biggest disadvantage of stereo: head in the vice/a tiny sweet spot! Single person households were not very common in those days! 😉 I experienced the first 3D sound images with binaural recordings made for headphones listening.

      1. A half-decent audio system can split out the tonal contrast of a string quartet. Opera rarely has singers singing over each other. Ping-pong sound just seems like an archaic trick, that sometimes was a mono recording mixed across two channels.

        As most vinyl users will know, in the late 1950s and 1960s many recordings were released in mono and stereo pressings as people slowly transitioned to stereo audio systems. The Beatles spent far longer working on their mono mix than the stereo mix, because the vast majority were still listening in mono, probably why the mono pressings are still more popular.

        It seems a simple cost-benefit decision, and for decades there was no cost-benefit to stereo over mono, and stereo did not lead people to throw away their mono pressings, whereas I doubt anyone ever kept their B&W TV.

        HDCD, SACD, DSD, DAT and all the others may have been marginally better than 16/44 PCM, but they all failed the consumer cost-benefit test. Clearly there was no certainty that stereo would succeed, and it took decades. As they say, the customer is always right.

      2. What capable playback delivers are doorways, or windows, to the music event that was captured; the only difference with stereo is that there is more distinct lateral placing of the sound elements – which may or may not be interesting in its own right. There are enough spatial clues in decent reproduction for a fully “dimensional” presentation to be thrown up, whether mono or stereo; and that illusion will be rock solid no matter where one is in the room – the behaviour of that tiny sweet spot is only evident when the quality is not high enough to sustain the projection further afield.

        One particularly curious characteristic of well done true mono through stereo speakers is that the soundstage “follows you” as you go from side to side. Which means, for example, that you can be to the left of the left speaker, and will perceive the musicians performing also left of, and beyond, that left speaker – quite bizarre to experience for the first time.

        1. Are you referring to near-field listening or far-field listening when “ignoring” the sweet spot as key-element in a stereo set-up? Isn’t far-field listening inherently associated with so many reflections from room boundaries that pure stereo is never achieved? I am pretty sure that the majority of albums are mixed under near-field listening conditions! 😉

          1. I don’t think in near-field or far-field terms when listening – either the sound is right, or it’s wrong. If it’s right then where I happen to be in the room is irrelevant, because the illusion thrown up is rock solid; I happen to be on one side of a pair of speakers which subjectively are doing nothing, and from the vertical plane through those speakers, to as far back as the recorded acoustic has depth, lies the musical event. Yes, the room you’re in will react to that sound energy energy projected into it from the playback, but IME it has minimal impact on what you perceive – if you have an extremely unusual room then it will most likely will be noticeable, but the effect should be exactly as if you had real musicians on that “soundstage” doing their thing; of course, if a person has trouble listening to acoustically live music in less than ideal conditions, then the same would apply to recording playback – and so then organising how you listen more carefully would be necessary.

    2. I remember hearing stories from our grandparents when we were lil tykes and after the story ended we’d ask: “Was that in the black and white days?”

      I guess we are the only generation to associate and recall old happenings as being in black & white.

      1. Ted Lowe, bless him, the Murray Walker of the green baize. I don’t know who made the greater contribution to the BBC, Murray of Spike, or who made me laugh more.

  3. Great memories that are still a reality for many. 🙂

    I grew up in the age of boom box (ghetto blasters) and cassette tapes, so it definitely feels like a long journey of progress in my audio domain.

  4. I really enjoyed the story Paul. Nothing surpasses the experience of actually being present at great moments in History. You were at a pinnacle change in the world of Audio. Fascinating indeed. THANKS!!

  5. I was brought up in a largeish terraced house, the front room being about 15′ * 18′ (I can’t remember whether the 18′ included the front window bay, but by uk standards a fairly large room). The house next door that adjoined the front room had a couple of old ladies (biddies) and they must have been deaf, or never used that lounge because either side of the chimney breast adjoining next door the alcoves had 3 * 12″ bass units (mainly Goodmans and some Vitavox) sealed against the adjoining wall. I don’t really remember when it was mono but I remember the Leak valve amps sitting on the floor with crossover components (massive flat capacitors) and when stereo the high frequencies were handled by 3 Goodmans Axiom 80s each side (I still have the Axiom 80s, full range 20 to 20k, about 9.5″ with a central high frequency horn and cantilever suspension. When used as full range they must be in a suitable enclosure and will take 6watts each).

  6. Regarding EMI in Hayes, I worked there in the ’70s on the EMI CAT Bodyscanner software (I was on the picture display side). There was a staff shop and I have many LPs with labels on, most records were about £2.35 at the time. I bought a copy of Dark Side Of The Moon and was most unhappy with the surface noise. The record department was about three miles away so I took the record there and the guy swapped it for another copy. When I got it home and played it I thought it sounded very strange – it was an SQ version. Luckily I had a Denon quadrophonic decoder (still have it in the loft) so could decode the SQ.

  7. Kind of cool being of the generation that remembers starting out with their dad’s home built highly modified mono system in the early sixties. The stereo sound effect albums were novel, and a great way to show off the newly acquired system set-ups.

    It wasn’t long after that some FM stations became late night B side rock stations and the staple of providing decent sound and new music to a whole generation.

    Maybe part of the reason so many audiophiles are now fast approaching becoming chrome domes or seasoned citizens is because of that early exposure and relative newness of the phrase ‘stereo sound’. A whole entertainment industry is now built around it.

    We haven’t made huge advances in the concepts of moving musical air since then. A few refinements, and now digital source formats are all that come to mind.

    One could make a case the societal fascination for stereo sound has worn off. It’s commonplace now. A few still marvel at and relish the concept though. Most see stereo equipment as a tool to enjoy their chosen music.

    1. Then again no sense in talking stereo home audio sound when one of your new mono blocks stopped working. I’m a day behind in the posting subjects …. I have to go back to mono now… (¬ ͟ʖ¬)

    2. Ha, ‘chrome dome’, there’s a phrase I haven’t heard in a while, I didn’t appreciate it traveled. We had a chap at work, an ex footballer, who we nicknamed chrome dome. He didn’t like it but when you’re young with a thick head of long hair it was funny. Now, as I approach a similar status it’s less so.

      Sorry to hear about your amp, hope you get it sorted soon.

  8. I was on my way to the Friday piano lesson when JFK was shot; it was cancelled. So back home to listen to the HiFi. My father was seriously into audio in the late 40’s & 50’s, and built his own copy of the Klipschorn. I remember him trying various horns for the mids & highs – all different kinds, multi-cellular, long EV horns, etc. He finally settled on some version of an Electrovoice mid and the famous T35 tweeter. We had mono all the way into the 70’s when I finally left for my own place. The system was pretty amazing – Weathers FM cartridge and arm, Rek-o-kut turntable, and Altec 350a power amp. The Weathers preamp would ‘condition’ the cartridge signal and provide enough gain to run into the 350a. I later worked for various hifi stores in the Reading PA area, like Barby Electronics, and the Listening Booth. Would love to recreate that system to determine my memory of it. Records sounded amazing and full of life.

  9. About that same time i was using an old Pilot 15w tube mono amp and an old turntable i rescued from the trash, I was using a Lloyd am/fm radio portable transistor radio as a tuner. To a young teen it was great but I was always being told to turn the damn thing down.

    My first job out of HS was working for a the Sheraton Boston hotel fixing their 1000 tv’s and setting up audio for meetings and conventions. They had racks of Altec tube amps and a large patch bay to control what went where. The main ballroom gad a huge Altec tube amp that used a pair of 807’s and had to take up two feet of rack space.

    I remember one day WBZ was going to run a simulcast over their AM and FM stations where they would feed a stereo signal into the two transmitters which were miles away from each other. So i put my Hallicrafters “portable” radio tuned to FM on top of the fridge and with the AM radio on the kitchen table I demonstrated what stereo sounded like to my mother while she was making lunch. After that it was Katie bar the door, I jumped into audiophilia with both feet.

    Six months later I was down at Ft Jackson at the behest of my friends and neighbors. If i recall you ended up in Germany while i ended up in Korea working for AFKN on a very remote microwave site. No officers or senior NCO’s up there, six of us and I was the highest ranking as a SP5, so it was about as military as the MASH TV series was.

  10. Funny you mentioned that first stereo test record. My father had the same demo record. I believe he still has it. It came from my uncles TV and Radio store back in the 50’s I believe. I remember the locomotive.
    I believe it was from RCA.

    1. Stereo text records with locomotives.

      There is a story there.
      A fellow (Brad Miller) who loved steam carted round a portable tape recorder to capture the steam trains as they approached and passed.

      In 1977 Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs was formed. No relation unfortunately

      He issued recordings under the name “Mobile Fidelity,” I have some issued on CD.
      I love pranking people “…What’s that!!”

  11. I was born in 1953 and my dad owned a TV and appliance store. I lived through the introduction of stereo and color TV too. Your post brings back many memories. I remember going with him on service calls any replacing faulty tubes. Special memories for sure.

  12. It’s interesting how so many of our early Stereo experiences are similar. I wrote about mine back in issue #150 of Copper Magazine. But for me, it wasn’t a ping pong ball. Somewhere, I had gotten my paws on a soundtrack of an auto race. The fascination here was listening to the cars crossing the sound stage from one side to the other. Of course if needed to be played loud and only when the parents were’t around.

  13. Since Paul and I are very close in age it should not come as a surprise that I have similar memories. Here in the US both stereo and color TV were first available in the 1950’s, but did not become more common until the he early 1960’s. It wasn’t until then that color TV became affordable and there were more color TV programs broadcasted ( cable was still not widespread so people got their TV OTA ). I was in HS when I heard my first stereo record. It was not the train, it was the bowling ball gong down the alley and crashing into the pins. In the case of color TV, I remember people starring the color bar test pattern on color TV sets for sale at that time.

    Personally, I did have color TV until the late 1970’s. My wife and I were both grad students and saved for about two years to buy a 19″ Sony Trinitron TV. When other grad students found out our apartment became a more popular spot for grad student gatherings. I think the Sony lasted 20 years before it stopped working.

  14. Paul, a basic question: if your dad’s system was monophonic, why do you call it a stereo system?

    Regarding the adaptation of stereo, while it was introduced earlier, as mentioned by others, it was not available as a common commodity until after the first stereo LP was released at the end of 1957. Following that was the real push to convert mono systems to stereo.

    1. m3 lover,
      ‘Stereo’ simply means more than one point source, so if it’s mono, but coming from more than one loudspeaker, then it’s still considered to be stereo.
      (Some would refer to it as ‘double mono’)
      Personally, I think that’s wrong, it should be the number of channels & not just the number of loudspeakers, but then I don’t make the rules 😉

      1. FR, I’ve been in this hobby for nearly 60 years and never saw that definition.

        Stereo has always meant two channels of information, typically left and right. Any excess in number of speakers has nothing to do with it. What about movie theaters where two or more speakers were utilized prior to the mid-’50s when true stereo became readily available? Would you say they offered stereo sound in the ’30s and ’40s?

        So who made the “rules” about number of speakers? That seems silly!

        1. m3 lover,
          As it was explained to me, many years ago, ‘stereo’ simply means more than one loudspeaker, it could be two, it could be three, it could be twenty…that’s stereo.
          As I said in my initial reply to you that I also think that it should refer to channels & not just point sources, ie. loudspeakers.
          This is why we used to (should) say “2 channel stereo”…but then we got lazy & shortened it to just “stereo”, so now everyone thinks that ‘stereo’ is only 2 channels.
          Like I said, ‘I don’t make the rules’…& the rules do, & can, get bent 😉

          1. Noun
            stereo (countable and uncountable, plural stereos)

            A system of recording or reproducing sound that uses two channels, each playing a portion of the original sound in such a way as to create the illusion of locating the sound at a particular position, each offset from the other, thereby more accurately imitating the location of the original sound when the recorded or reproduced sound is heard.

            Originally derived from “Stereoscope” where two images would combine to create a 3 dimensional image.

            Monaural/Monophonic – 1
            Stereo – 2
            Quad – 4
            3,5,7,9,11 – that’s home theater stuff.
            Monaulic? That’s a whole different thing. Do NOT look that up.

            1. Hiya JP,
              Yeah, I see that now, but I also found a definition somewhere on Google last night that supports what I was told…if I can find it again I’ll post it.

  15. In college in the 1970s nearly all my photography was using a Minolta 35mm camera and color slide film. An expensive hobby for a college student in those days, requiring careful thought in composing scenes to avoid throwaway shots. I recalled my fascination as a kid looking into a ViewMaster, which presented photographic images mounted on disks using pairs of small slides, each image being taken from a vantage point slightly offset horizontally from the other corresponding image, recreating the stereo view seen by the two human eyes. I had also enjoyed the antique stereo viewers that had two slightly different printed photo prints mounted side-by-side. It dawned on me that I could make my own much-higher-quality stereo images using 35mm color slide film. I took many such images indoors and outdoors using only my hand-held camera. I mounted each slide pair on homemade cardboard mounts, and viewed them through a 1950s Radex binocular slide viewer that I discovered in an old sailor’s bag in my aunt’s attic. My stereoscopic images are wonderful. I took images of friends and myself. Looking though the viewer it is like you are seeing yourself and others alive, as you and they appeared back then. Landscapes and city scenes appear so realistic that you feel you can walk or fly into the scene. Having experienced this kind of high quality stereo photography, I can never be totally satisfied with two-dimensional photography. For example, a mono photo of a forest looks flat and confusing compared to a stereo photo in which you see depth and space around the tree trunks and leaves. That is why we are often disappointed with mono photos we take. They never look like what our eyes saw in real life. Same with mono and stereo music reproduction. They are not the same experience.

  16. Ah the good ole days.
    Mom had the wood furniture cabinet full console AM/FM stackable record player, with internal record storage (I can still hear that arc shaped brass hinge noise & click lock as you opened the wooden top and the lid-to-cabinet sound as it closed).
    Dad had our first Philco Ford tube color TV – when the picture got wonky, he’d cuss & grumble, get up, saunter over and execute a good firm open handed SMECK to the side of the TV. And then of course random adjust the rabbit ear antennae just for a manly “THERE! I fixed it” measure…

    “Disney’s on in 20 minutes – go warm up the TV!!!”

    Room setup to achieve soundstage with those 60s console stereos? Rather challenging.
    I actually did try it one day, but the strain of trying to move that gargantuan heavy console made me poop my diapers. And cry.
    Ah, early life lessons.
    To this day, the sound of Tchaikovsky still doth make me involuntarily press my knees together and pucker up a wee bit.

    1. Oooh – I know – pick me!
      I have an old vintage Uher tape recorder…. quite similar..

      A magnificently engineered rig – the internal circuit boards and mechanisms unscrew and lift away on hinges WITH clips to hold them up – thus allowing access to belts and gears. Brilliant. (For anyone who has ever changed belts on older tape machines… some are almost complete tear-downs just to re-belt the damn things.)

  17. My earliest recollection of Stereo was my uncle’s Fisher XP-101C with one goodmans 12″ speaker and one celestion12″. He then got fisher XP-7s with a Garrard 301 and and SME 9″with a Shure M55E.

    Sounded just great to us then. I still love the old Fishers and have the 500C and X-202C

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