Why stereo?

November 22, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

In an age where multi-channel receivers and equipment can be easily had, why do we stay with only two speakers?

Some of us have been around long enough to remember the days of Quadraphonic sound.

As its name implies, Quadraphonic sound utilized 4-channels of audio typically encoded on LP vinyl in a matrix system based on the work of musician and mathematician, Peter Scheiber. His basic formula utilized 90° phase-shift circuitry to enable enhanced 4-2-4 matrix systems to be developed, of which the two main leaders were Columbia’s SQ and Sansui’s QS Systems. (Scheiber eventually sued the Dolby Corporation for theft of his intellectual property).

The three most popular quadraphonic LP formats in the 1970s were SQ (Stereo Quadraphonic), QS (Regular Matrix) and CD-4 (Compatible Discrete 4) / Quadradisc.

These 4-channel systems enjoyed a brief flash of acceptance and then died out, never to be heard from again until the advent of home theater.

Seems people weren’t all that interested in populating their living room with more than two speakers for the playing of music.

Though some of the most involving and emotionally satisfying musical presentations I have ever heard were multi-channel in nature, I still am in love with two-channel audio.

It might have been nice at one point in the development of home audio systems to have had buy-in from the world that rooms should be filled with speakers and recordings should all have many tracks.

That’s not what happened and I for one am pleased with what we have.

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51 comments on “Why stereo?”

  1. Even if a recording would fulfill highest fidelity requirements stereo reproduction will theoretically only fulfill these highest standards for sound fidelity in crosstalk cancellation mode in an anechoic chamber. Mixing of a stereo recording is thus an art playing with sound effects and the phantom image effect in order to get an acceptable sound – far from the original sound heard in the concert hall. Quadrophonic Sound and today’s multi-channel recordings and reproduction have to fulfill even much higher requirements ( wave field theory requires for instance an infinite number of loudspeakers). Thus in the end it is all about clever sound effects fooling the brain and requiring additional effect-sound loudspeakers – the most powerful sound-effect generated by massive subwoofers.

  2. No one wants a room full of boxes.

    My music room has a 2-channel stereo system and a 6-speaker immersive system in the ceiling. Each unit is set as left, right or mono. It works because the sound quality is excellent and it is wireless. The problem with wireless systems has been data transfer often limited to bluetooth, although this system uses Airplay or uPnP up to 24/192.

    I tried another array of 6 speakers for home cinema using the TV’s built in bluetooth and it sounded terrible. I then bought an Apple TV device and played everything via that and the sound is fantastic.

    There has been research going on with spatial sound for ages. It’s just a matter of getting the technology right. HD quality spatial stereo is certainly a lot of fun.

  3. Incidentally, the Theatro Colon in Buenos Aires in the picture is a rare venue as it is one of the world’s best opera houses and also considered on the world’s best concert venues as well. The 19th century European design results in very good sound anywhere in the auditorium, which is one of the basic limitations of stereo.

  4. Fun fact:
    ‘Stereo’ means ‘more than one channel’.
    Hence we say ‘two channel stereo’ & not just ‘stereo’ when we mean ‘two channel’.
    This means that we can have four channel stereo or five channel stereo or seven channel stereo, or twenty-two channel stereo…like ‘Soundmind’ does 😀

    What I can’t have in home audio ‘boxes’ scattered around my living-room, I make up for with other box-like structures like occasional (side) tables, a coffee table, a sofa, a dining table, a bookshelf, an IKEA – EKTROP (footstool) & a rectangular shoe rack.

    If you seriously want 5.1 in your room then stick the drivers ‘in-wall’.
    However, if you futz around long enough with a two channel/loudspeaker home-audio system, you can achieve a wonderful illusion called 3D holographic soundstaging with pinpoint imaging that should keep you aurally enthralled for decades.

  5. I’m happy with what we have as well, Paul. For me, that is choice. 🙂
    Stereo, mono, quadrophonic and 5.1 are all amazing when treated correctly. I am grateful to have had amazing experiences of all of them.
    Stereo for me stands to be the most immersive and realistic because primarily I’m a headphone guy, so it goes without saying. Outward listening would have to be 5.1 mainly because my speaker set up is made for it.
    Quadrophonic doesn’t get talked about very much and I guess I can understand why. I have maybe 7 quadrophonic recordings. My favorites are Pink Floyd’s Darkside of the Moon and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. Very cool and so much fun to listen and get into.

    Happy Monday friends. 🙂

    1. After so many years of being a music lover and audiophile I never heard of Floyd E. Toole so I decided to give him a Google and found a video of him being interviewed. At 83 years of age this man had me mesmerized because the way he spoke was so well balanced so thank you for bringing up his name. I’m going to try to follow his publications but more important look for more videos because I got such a good feeling about his nature. He felt like a kindred spirit.

    2. Make that “Anyone who doesn’t love surround sound hasn’t heard surround done properly”. If the levels of each channel or delay is not set correctly then surround sound is useless. When set perfectly it shines.

    1. David Hafler was an innovator in the audio industry who in my opinion does not get enough attention in the history of audio design. His Dynaco designs should be proof enough of his standing.

  6. Good morning Paul!
    Here’s something to think about.
    But first, I will tell you strait up, that I don’t know this about Mack systems.
    But before I tell you this about Real Tech Audio in Windows, I will tell you about an article that I read in Sound And Vision some time ago.
    There was an interview that Kin C. Paulmen done with a recording artist.
    They talked about making Quadraphonic recordings in the twenty first century.
    What he done, is put a pare of speakers up in the front of the room, and a pare of speakers in the back of the room.
    But I wonder what kind of a recording/mixing council he and his band were using?
    But he went on to say, that he done it all in DSD, and made an SACD out of the hole intire album.
    This was an article I read 6 years ago.
    As soon as I find it, I will post it.
    Now to Real Tech Audio.
    My guess is, you have to have a multichannel sound card and two sets of stereo speakers plus a subwoofer for your Windows PC.
    But in the settings of Real Tech Audio, you have 2.1, 4.1, 5.1, and 7.1.
    Go figure this one!
    But just for once, I would like to see what Quadraphonic sound, sounds like with today’s music.
    And most important of all, what does it sound like in DSD?

  7. The other problem we had with Quad at the time was people quickly learned the monetary investment needed to get the same sonic quality to match a 2-channel stereo was twice that of the stereo because of the second set of speakers and amps. So, if $$$ stayed constant, you could get a mediocre quad or a much better sounding 2 channel, so many of us opted for the latter.

    1. Exactly! Whatever the virtues of Quadraphonic, it just lost on the metric of “sound quality per dollar.” This was in the Camelot era when you could actually go to a quality retail dealer and hear quad vs. stereo. (Sigh.) Quadraphonic sounded great, but for same dollars a stereo system with better speakers just sounded better.

  8. Hi Paul
    I had to grin, reading your quad comments. Working at the NY Record Plant Studios in the early 1970s, they had huge quad Westlake monitors in every control room. Listening to some of those quad vinyl records would leave me scratching my head… Then I would go back to my Remote truck (with the same Westlake stereo monitors) and mix live shows, everything from giant outdoor rock shows to intimate jazz clubs. To me, the “surround” was the carefully miced audience and ambience of the venue. That was an essential part of the music mix.
    Listen to a good vinyl record of The Modern Jazz Quartet’s (MJQ) Last Concert or the recent re-issue of Bruce Springsteen at the “No Nukes” concert.
    Stereo was just fine for me. Still is….
    David W Hewitt
    Enjoy the Music, however you listen.

  9. After reading several of the comments that have posted so far today, regardless of each of our preferences we tend to agree with Paul and the other two channel devotes. When a two channel system is set up properly, the sound recreation is quite compelling and certainly enough for me.There are also people who love 5.1 and I’m sure it lives up to expectations but we each have our own limits as to what we want to accomplish in our enjoyment of music.

    I believe there is a song called “You go your way and I’ll go mine“. I love the title as a philosophy of life.

  10. This brings back memories of my ol’ Series One and Series Two Phase Linear 4000 Autocorrelators.

    Modern multi-channel home theater and two-channel audio are not mutually exclusive, as many would lead one to believe. In fact, the modern multi-channel systems start with the primary two-channel requirements and performance. I enjoy wonderful two-channel presentations as well as having the ability to also embrace and enjoy venues that go well past two-channel.

    It personally saddens me Paul, that you fight so hard to exclude those designs that you or your company don’t produce, (like multi-channel) and I’m not trying to be insulting or disrespectful, but I find those who cannot embrace where the market has been going for decades now, unable to adapt and produce equipment that stays up with the times. It forces prospective customers to other providers of audio equipment. Take it from someone who’s company failed to give up their staunch position of status quo from decades past as the market provided solutions that kept up with the times. And one of the most respected audio lines for more than half a century, had to close it doors due to low market share and declining sales.

    The market, or better said the source materials folks want to listen to and embrace is the target, not the exclusion in lieu of a given position like we don’t do multi-channel. It’s here to stay.

    1. “you fight so hard to exclude”…Huh?
      I’d say that there is just a lack of interest in multi-channel
      rather than ‘fighting to exclude’…big difference.

  11. For reasons that I cannot completely explain, I have never been a fan of surround sound. I do not even like it at the movies were it is supposedly professionally installed. My home video system sound is 2.1.

    1. Not a fan of the sound systems in movie theaters either. It has to be Star Wars, Indiana Jones, you know that kind of movie for me to feel the visceral excitement of what I am seeing. Otherwise Movie theater sound system leaves me cold and wanting to get out of the theater before the movie ends.

      1. I think it depends on who’s producing the recording. Certainly the DSD standard allows for 1 or more discrete channels to be captured and stored.

        Provide the right artisans to produce the recordings, the right gear, the right listening space and you will end up with amazing soundscapes for any number of channels.

  12. I would rather put all my budget into a very high quality 2-channel system rather than skimp on the quality of a multi-channel setup. A very high quality 2-channel system properly setup in a room with controlled reflective surfaces sounds better and gives all the soundstage and immersive quality that most listeners need for a “you are there” experience.

    For my digital pipe organ I have the option of having up to 128 separate channels. I’ve tried twelve-channel setups (6 stereo channels, each with left and right channels) plus two subwoofers. A mixdown to only two channels is totally convincing, and actually sounds better because my very best audio components are assigned to those two channels. My room is large and there is enough wall reflectivity to enhance the stereophonic hall effect.

    For those who want to be on a stage surrounded by instruments or inside the organ pipe chamber, then multi-channel surround speakers is the way to go, but most listeners are happy to be at some distance in front of the stage. 2-channel is sufficient for that.

  13. I’m very happy with my stereo system that is embedded in a multi-channel system (7.4.1) so I understand the commitment to two channel. But there’s more to be said about multi-channel:
    1. Tens of thousands of rooms have multiple speakers. They are “home theaters” but are also multi-channel music systems. A focus on what these systems can do for music is clearly one way to preserve the high rez community. And create demand for equipment. I recently up-graded my surround and height channels with six Stellar M700 amplifiers.
    2. Multi-channel processing has moved way beyond what was possible in the 70’s. Auro-3D and the latest versions of DTS have overcome the limitations of earlier technologies. Some of what was recoded in the 70’s to be issued in quad is available on SACD. There was nothing wrong with what was on these tapes–the problem was trying to cram these signals with imperfect technology onto vinyl.
    3. SACD was designed to be multi-channel. You can easily hear what multi-channel offers by playing any hybrid disk first in SACD Stereo and then in multi-channel. The differences are not subtle. It’s no coincidence that Reference Recordings now issues many of its recordings in multi-channel SACD.
    4. Interested in hearing the best multi-channel? Try the San Francisco Mahler series. Or any Auro-3D from Sono Luminus (especially “From Whence We Came” by Ensemble Gallilei discussed in one of the first Copper Magazines). Or the Bernie Dressel big band recordings. Or the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Beethoven 5th and 7th. Or the Dallas Wind John Williams disk on Reference Recordings that makes Mercury’s 1812 cannons sound like cap pistols..

    1. There are many cases when mono sounds better than stereo – mostly involving mixed FAKE stereo (panned reductions from multi-track masters with artificial reverb).

      Most audiophiles are so “broken-in” to mixed mono multi-tracks that it is like water to fishes.

      The 1958 mono recording of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” is one of the best recordings I have ever heard.

  14. So… you audition a system, the singer is directly in front of you, you are awesomely impressed that your ears have taken in these two speakers and your brain has conjured up this perfect center stage, AND… then a center channel is revealed to you. NOW you feel duped and disappointed… explain THIS mentality..? . A center channel – meh. Your brain CREATING a center channel – IMPRESSIVE!

    I recall once demoing to a friend my system and pointing out the satisfying Maggie center image, and how this as achieved by labored trial & error speaker placement and toeing and how they need to be right out into the room. The gal simply looks at me and says “Well why don’t you just get a center channel and save all that room?”
    “But… well…. you see…. I….. you can’t….. it’s all about the….”
    She then requested a song (I’d never heard of), I cued it up on Tidal, she got up OUT of the calculated positioned listening chair and began dancing around the soundroom!!!
    “Wha? But you gotta sit… there’s no danci…. careful…watch the… speaker cabl…don’t wave your hands near the delicate ribbon twee…”

    “Hey cool – the sound comes out of the back too! La ba ba La la dee do dah” {joyfully dancing circles around speakers – something I now just call ‘doing the 3.7i’}

    All the years of learning, gear collecting, setup, tweaking and I was in NO way prepared for this rather twisted yet oh so simple point of view… Other people interpret your soundroom differently than you do.

    I was gonna offer her a dram of Ardbeg but I was afraid she’d request some 7-up…!

    1. JF,
      Awesome!
      I’ve still got a pair of the originals made by ‘Alpine Electronics’ back in 1995.
      Same 4 ohms & 50watts max input.
      Stunning impact; but especially when you’re wearing cans.

  15. I remember when I first fired up the apogee duetta 2’s in my new dedicated room and my wife was wondering how the singer’s voice was coming out of my krell amp centered between the speakers

  16. Strictly a practical issue. Too many speakers – too much gear. In terms of sound quality stereo cannot hold a candle to good surround sound. Of course, then there is the issue of lack of content. But bottom line is the reason surround sound never took of in audio has nothing to do with inherent limitations of format.

    Try this. Upgrade a $10K stereo to a $25K stereo – SQ improvement is marginal. Spend $15K to upgrade the same 2.0 system to 5.1. SQ improvement is transformative. Trust me – I have done all this. There is no comparison.

    1. I take it this is your opinion. You seem to be speaking as if you have hard facts behind your statements. Everyone has their own opinion and I respect yours. I just don’t agree with you. That’s my opinion and my opinion only.

      1. Maybe. There are no facts in audio. I can say conclusively that listening to an audiophile 2 channel and multi channel channel recording of the same material in my very high end MCH audio room there is no comparison. No one ever entering my room would dispute this, and neither would you if you had a chance to listen.

        1. Why not just enjoy yourself and stop trying to prove a point. We each have our own likes and dislikes. I’ve been buying selling and trading audio equipment for 60 years and at this point there is no need for me to get into a discussion as to what I like and how are you enjoying music without having to worry about the type of system that you have versus my system. We each have our own opinions and we should just enjoy what we have. This isn’t a competition

  17. My memory must be foggy but then i was about 10 years old when quad was in its prime and my father had a 8’track quad system in his 68 Plymouth (by Muntz?). From what I remember there were issues proprietorship. The company that had the patent on quad made it expensive for others to join in and this caused problems. If others have more to add about this please clear things up for me but this is what I remember hearing, then and over the years.

  18. Why can’t consumers get access to the multitrack recordings, and play them at home, with each speaker dedicated to each audio track ?

    And each speaker is placed in your room based on location of musician.

    Wouldn’t that sound amazing ?

    What Dolby and DTS do are simulating or reusing the left and right channels, so its not the same, right ?

    1. I have built that system. I have so far built four violin speakers, two viola speakers, two cello speakers, eight different contrabass speakers for electric and acoustic contrabasses, bass drums, synthesizer bass, etc.; two acoustic guitar speakers, four electric guitar speakers (which also double for electronic instruments like Theremin, Ondes and modular synthesizers), a piano speaker, two percussion speakers with extended high frequency (40KHz) for brushes, cymbals, bells, gongs, triangle, celeste, crotales; and some other experimental designs.

      All speaker designs are tradeoffs, but dedicating the design to one standardized instrument means you can more accurately express the timbral, temporal, transient, dynamic, and SPATIAL parameters. In particular, matching the polar radiation pattern (how the sound source fills a 3D volume) is unique, and requires approximating the acoustic size and shape of the respective instruments. One size can’t fit all!

      These are all modular, with separate treble and woofer cabinets, and tri-amped so the speakers can be further optimized for the piece and orchestration using DSP crossovers. Of course, I need racks to fit the 4 dozen channels of amplification – but these are high efficiency (96-98dB/m/W) so the tweeter and mid channels are relatively small (60-75WPC).

      This system design eliminates inter-modulation between tracks; minimizes Doppler distortion; eliminates crossover component distortions and interaction between crossover and driver impedance; and maximizes damping factor, acceleration, and jerk (the third derivative of distance with respect to time).

      How does it sound? Good enough that I can pass the speakers as acoustic instruments to conservatory trained musicians, a trick that does not work with any prior art, consumer or pro. It is not that they sound EXACTLY the same, but they sound much more like acoustic instruments than they sound like any other speakers in history, a quantum leap closer to reality.

      The system sounds good enough that I can record speakers in amplified concerts as if they were instruments, with a near coincident mic pair in the room. Here is a concert recording of two cello speakers and one viola speaker, Jessica Meyer in her debut as a composer on viola and live electronics:

      http://www.dropbox.com/sh/b8f0b6k53w9wx36/AADN_CdKpmlpJWJLts54rAira?dl=0

      DSF version:

      http://www.dropbox.com/sh/o4wdjucn1hterff/AACNzdbsmjF8Wg_OL_bSA8vIa?dl=0

      1. I’m sorry to have to say this but this music sounds horrid to my ears. The more you demo the worse the sound. Reminds me of the first CD player that I heard in 1984. I had to run out of Lyric HiFi with my hands over my ears.

      2. @acuvox Wow, thats amazing.
        A dedicated speaker to a specific instrument, possibly without a crossover is ideal.
        And you arrange the speakers in their respective locations of an orchestra ?
        Do you still have this system setup ? Any pics / videos ?
        Where did you get the multitrack recordings to playback ?
        Thank you

  19. Don’t confuse quadrophonic with well mixed surround sound. Quad is a gimmick with instruments coming from all corners. In surround sound, the surround channels provide “ambiance”.

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