Time at home – enforced or not – gives an opportunity to really listen to your music library
By Jim Bray
A special Technofile rant.
Music lovers suffering the socially distant blues have an interesting and rewarding musical experience available that they may not even know is there. And it could really up your enjoyment ante, depending of course on your taste, technology, and budget.
I'm referring to the average home theatre today, whether stereo, 5.1, 7.1 or Atmos-compatible. Even entry-level home theatres today can offer spectacular audio quality, as you may have noticed the last time you played an action movie with Big Sound. And this newer technology even gives you a chance to experience audio formats that came along a long time ago, had their swing at the marketplace, and died.
Yes, it's like Jurassic Park for audio – except there's little chance of the music turning on the owners. So far…
I'm speaking especially of four channel, quadraphonic sound, which made a big splash in the 1970's but died out far too early, in my never humble opinion. Why did it die? There are many reasons worthy of speculation, but I believe it was all based on money.
And what a surprise that is! Money, because the electronics manufacturers and software (music) companies weren't making enough of it. And that, I believe, is because of competing, incompatible formats (remember the VHS vs. beta war that came later?), plus the high cost and comparatively low power of the equipment. Add to that a lack of inventory compared with regular two channel audio releases and you have the perfect storm of bad news for quad fans.
When it comes to the hardware, for example, back in the day I owned the "second from the top of the line" Sansui (a once-fine Japanese brand that has all but disappeared) quadraphonic receiver, the QRX-3500. I don't remember what I paid for it, but I believe my wife is still upset some 40-something years later. And that didn't include the cost of the four speakers (second from the top Sansuis – about $350 CAD apiece back then), plus turntable and reel-to-reel tape deck, plus cabling and wiring – and of course the cost of the software, some of which were albums I had bought in stereo already but wanted to re-experience in quad.
Power, as mentioned, was a big consideration. I owned "high power" speakers rated at the time as handling 100 watts into eight ohms, but my four-channel receiver only put out 15 – so the speakers basically loafed and were never challenged. When I finally dumped the QRX for a stereo receiver, I immediately went up to 80 watts output, and the difference was outstanding immediately. I lost half the channels, but upped the audio ante considerably. My speakers seemed a lot happier, too.
I mourned the demise of quadraphonic sound for decades – until the advent of the surround sound home theatre. That innovation not only allowed for the return – and growth - of multi-channel audio, it also helped open the door to good ol' fashioned stereo sound, but with high resolution audio that promised even better sound.
Alas, the high-resolution audio formats haven't really taken off like they should, either, but you might be amazed at what is actually available in both stereo and surround. I did a search on Amazon's Canadian site for SACD (the acronym for the Sony-developed high resolution Super Audio CD's) and it brought up over 20,000 releases, from classic rock and jazz and classical, etc., to new titles as well.
Ditto for the Panasonic-developed DVD-Audio, which competes head-to-head with SACD. My Amazon search revealed over 100,000 titles available.
In the case of either format, Sturgeon's Law ("90 per cent of anything is crap") must surely apply, though one person's crap can be another person's feast. For example, I probably wouldn't spend time listening to an audiophile recording of "Fulton Sheen Complete Audio Library (DVD Audio)" (a title I noticed on Amazon) but I have owned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in DVD Audio for many years (and boy, does it sound great!). To each his/her/its own.
Norway's 2L is a label that calls itself "the Nordic Sound" and they have a broad variety of Blu-ray audio discs (which offer even higher audio potential than SACD and DVD-A), as well as SACD and high-resolution digital files. I've auditioned several of these and, while I'm not a fan of some of the music they offer, I've always been blown away by the audio quality.
There are also companies that specialize in retailing only high-resolution titles. Technics Tracks tried this for a while, and they released what I consider (so far) to be the definitive stereo version of The Who's masterpiece Quadrophenia. Alas, they appear to be gone now so I'll have to take my digital FLAC files of the album and make sure they're backed up.
Meanwhile, if you want the closest you can get to that, check out sites like HD Tracks. They have Quadrophenia (and several other Who albums) in high res, and an amazing variety of other artists and albums, a selection that spans most genres.
These aren't all surround titles, but they should sound excellent nonetheless – other than the "garbage in, garbage out" potential (if the source is crap, the end product probably will be, too).
Revisiting surround sound, I've noted many times in my decades of music listening that there are many albums that would (well, should…) benefit greatly from being remixed into surround sound – albums that were released in stereo originally. I have several of these, running the gamut from Hotel California and The Captain and Me and Brothers in Arms (the latter of which sounds bloody spectacular in 5.1, though all three sound great). These particular ones feature excellent surround mixes, but for the purists they also have the original stereo mixes, with the audio upped to high resolution. The best of both worlds!
I also have a 4.0 (no subwoofer or centre channel track, just the original quadrophonic mix, unaltered) version of the Moody Blues' "Every Good Boy deserves Favour" and it's a very rewarding listening experience. Other albums I always thought would be great in quadrophonic have also been released that way – or at least in 5.1, which is fine – and they include such lush productions as Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" (I have the 5.1 SACD and it sounds fantastic), Tommy, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (which is also one of the loudest mixes I have – and I don't mean that as a complaint!).
I also have a Blu-ray audio of Quadrophenia and, while I think the Technics Tracks stereo version sounds better than the original stereo version that's on the Blu-ray, they've remixed the album into 5.1, giving it the "quadraphonic treatment" I always thought it was crying out for.
Of course, this raises other issues. Quadrophenia's 5.1 remix, on one hand, is annoying in that they didn't consult with me about what sound should be coming from which speaker and therefore the mix isn't as good as it could have been if, for example, Roger Daltrey's voice came out of the centre front channel (as if he were on stage) instead of as a kind of ghost image hanging in the air in the middle of the room.
On the other hand, wait until you hear how the extra channels open up the sound! I know this album like the back of my hand and I was amazed at being able to hear things that before were lost in the mix – instruments, licks, effects, etc. – but were now revealed in all their glory. Dark Side of the Moon is like this as well, as is Queen's "A Night at the Opera".
Another great surround experience is Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Brain Salad Surgery," which I have on DVD-A. When the album first came out, I still had my quadrophonic setup and it would do a pretty good job of simulating quadraphonic sound from the stereo album (thank you, Sansui!) – especially at the album's end when Emerson's synthesizer panned from left to right (the Sansui fudged it as moving right around the room). The DVD-A disc, however, zips it around the four main channels properly and it's a wonderful experience.
Obviously, your mileage may vary when it comes to genre, artist, song, etc.. The point of this piece is just to let you know that there's a lot of music out there that might not only let you enjoy your audio equipment even more than you may already, and that a lot of it might have you almost feeling as if you're listening to some of this stuff for the first time.
Of course, then you might find yourself on that merry-go-round of having to replace your library again!
Copyright 2021 Jim Bray