It’s the soundstage, stupid…

Two questions I’m often asked are ‘What got you into hi-fi?’ and ‘What got you into music?’.

First one’s easy: over-indulgent grandparents who bough my sister and I first early transistor radios, then Philips cassette recorders – so handy for recording off the radio – and finally briefcase-sized folding record players, so we always had music in our bedrooms even from a very early age. That led to the salvaging of a jumble sale radiogram into a turntable, a receiver and a pair of speakers, with boxes for them all made in woodwork classes and electronics revived with a total lack of awareness of the lethal voltages in valve amps, and an enthusiasm was born.

And what got me into music? Well, I sang in choirs from a fairly young age – coming from a churchgoing family, it was kind of the done thing – but it was really school music lessons, and specifically a schools radio programme giving a track by track build-up of The Who’s Pinball Wizard, that really got me hooked.

HRx120_SAfter that, I was easy prey for Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which did exactly the job it was designed for – allowing someone new to orchestral music to make sense of what all the instruments were called, and what they did in terms of tonality and so on.

If I remember, it was accompanied in our lessons not by the original film for which it had been written, but by a film-strip showing what each section of the orchestra looked liked and where it sat. And listening to the music being played through the halfway decent audio system the school had, it was possible to place the instruments in the sound in front of you.

In fact, one of our music teachers used to encourage us to listen to the piece with our eyes closed, and point to where each part of the orchestra was. Hey, it was in the days before video recorders, let alone computers and interactive music technology workshops, so we had to make our own entertainment.

The result of all this is that a) I still love the Young Person’s Guide…, and discovering the Kansas City Symphony recording on Reference Recordings a year or so back was an absolute joy; b) I could easily sit through Peter Grimes at any opportunity, always finding something new in the scoring and the performances (though the Decca original, conducted by Britten himself, is my favourite); and c) I am a firm fan of any recording with a lifelike soundstage.

So it is with some annoyance that I notice ‘soundstage’ seems to be the next term to be adopted for derision by those who consider themselves audio objectivists or activists or something. I’m with them when it comes to ‘inky black acoustic backdrops’, ‘veils being lifted’ or ‘windows cleaned’ – such phraseology is a hangover from the distant past of hi-fi reviewerspeak, although I am sure if you Google hard enough you’ll find me just as guilty as some back then. It was established practice, yer honour…

But as I may have mentioned(!) in my Naim SUPERNAIT 2 review, the current sniggering behind the old woodwork shed at anyone daring to mention the concept of ‘soundstaging’ shows that those sniggering don’t just have minimal knowledge of what stereo recording is all about – they also don’t know what they’re missing.

It’s a common fallacy that ‘stereo’ means two-channel, simply because the word has gone into common parlance as referring to a system used for playing music through two speakers. Not so: as even someone who did as appallingly as I at ancient languages knows, ‘stereo’ has precisely nothing to do with two channels. Stereos in Greek simply means ‘firm’ or ‘solid’, and when you bolt it together with ‘phōnē’ (for sound, or voice), it means the creation of the illusion that sound is coming from real locations relative to the listener, just like in real life.

The term dates back to the 1920s, and of course stereophonics don’t have to mean two channels: a quadrophonic or multichannel sound can be stereophonic if done right, and indeed before the adoption of the two-channel system, recordings had been made using a three-channel left/centre/right system, designed to give a more ‘stereos’ effect in front of the listener.

The magic of stereo
Anyway, two-channel is what was settled on, and in the hands of a skilled recording engineer a two-channel recording, played back through amplification and speakers able to deliver it as cleanly as possible, can do some magical things. It can make a singer or soloist sound like he or she is out in front of the band or orchestra or whatever; it can clearly locate performers or whole orchestra sections not just across the spread of sound between the speakers, but out beyond the speakers to the left and right; and it can appear to knock out the wall behind your speakers, and open up an acoustic much larger than your eyes tell you is possible inside your room.

In saying sound from two speakers can do all this, am I falling for an illusion? Is my brain playing tricks on me? Well, the answer to both questions is ‘yes’, but then that’s just the illusion stereo is designed to pull off, just as sending successive slightly different images to each eye can create the impression of solid objects looming out of your TV screen at you. Solid objects, stereoscopy – see what I mean?

What’s more, by setting the speakers up incorrectly, or having electronics with insufficient resolution to reveal what the recording engineer was trying to achieve, you’re really missing out.

So before you have another good snigger at the suggestion of some magical ‘soundstage’, ask yourself whether you’re hearing sound coming from your two speakers – if you are, I’m afraid you’re really doing it wrong. You’re not listening to stereo, you’re listening to two channels.

And believe you me, the first time you fire up an orchestral recording and hear the entire band spread out in front of you in real ‘close your eyes and you can see them’ stereo, you’re in for a treat.

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