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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
July 2004

"Stereo is Dead" is Dead

Do you know Roz Chast's work? She has published many cartoons in The New Yorker, and her distinctive style is something that people either love or just don't get. I think her cartoons are brilliant social satire and laugh-out-loud absurd at the same time. One that sticks in my head shows the unicycle, with its single wheel, evolving to the many-wheeled "impossicycle." The point is that the excess of modern life is more than retched. It's ridiculous.

Here in audioland, the evidence in defense of Roz Chast is increasing. Telarc, whose catalog shows great support of multichannel music, made an interesting announcement a couple of weeks ago. For release in July are three SACDs from "Telarc's early and prestigious catalog," including works by Saint-SaŽns, Holst, Barber, Handel and Vaughan Williams. What's noteworthy about these upcoming SACDs is that they will be stereo hybrid recordings, not multichannel. Another three such SACDs are planned for November release.

A month or so before this announcement, I received two stereo SACDs from Fantasy Jazz of Riverside/Prestige/New Jazz back-catalog recordings. The two discs, Wynton Kelly's Kelly Blue [Riverside RSA-1142-6] and Eric Dolphy's Out There [New Jazz NJSA-8252-6], sounded so good that I immediately ran out and bought a half-dozen other Fantasy Jazz stereo SACDs, including a couple of recordings that I have on JVC XRCD. The sound of the SACD/XRCD duplicates (Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet [Prestige PRSA-7129-6] and Bill Evans's Portrait in Jazz [Riverside RISA-1162-6]) is very similar, with the SACD being slightly more clear and lively and the XRCD slightly more rich. Either way, buyers win, and well-done stereo proves its worth.

From the very beginning, I've been enjoying SACDs and DVD-As in stereo only, and even though I have a good deal of the hardware and software needed for multichannel playback, I've avoided using it -- so many SACDs are terrific in stereo. I won't argue here that multichannel music is a waste of money -- done well, it's satisfying in ways that two-channel sound is not -- nor will I put down home theater. However, it is clear that multichannel music did not signal the end of stereo sound. Five years after the advent of SACD and DVD-A, neither format has established itself firmly and audiophiles of all persuasions are still listening to CDs -- and vinyl -- with two, not five, speakers. The idea that stereo will ever be replaced completely, even with the existence of a very viable alternative, is growing more unlikely.

Take, for instance, the bulk of the demonstrations at audio shows. Yes, there are a good many home-theater and multichannel-music demos, but stereo setups still outnumber these, often by three or four times. Then there is the steady stream of new CD players, many of which sound better than even the best models from a decade ago. CD sound has continued to improve, even as SACD/CD and universal A/V players have hit the market. Audio companies are the canaries in the coal mine -- it's in their best interest to design and manufacture what people will buy -- and it's clear that the CD is still a big part of their plans.

Further evidence. One of the most popular reviews I've written was of the Esoteric DV-50 universal A/V player, but interestingly, most of the questions I received about the DV-50 addressed its stereo use, with a good many buyers ignoring the unit's multichannel and video capabilities. Esoteric's second generation of high-end multi-format players includes one unit that eschews DVD playback completely in order to maximize audio playback, especially from its two main outputs.

Once again, I am not trying to bury multichannel music or home theater here, only attempting to give stereo its due. Clearly, stereo reproduction is not going anywhere. Some change is good -- riding a unicycle is a skill that few people master, but you never forget how to ride a bicycle. More isn't necessarily better; better is better.

...Marc Mickelson

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