WHAT IS THE ORIGINAL MEANING OF THE WORD “STEREO”?

– By Misha Kucherenko, Etalon Sound’s Marketing Director

 Throughout the years I’ve been asking my numerous colleagues in High End Audio the same question over and over again: “What is the original meaning of the word “stereo”?”

Instead of an answer,  I would get a puzzled look: “??!…What do you mean, hm, oh, yes, the word “stereo”, right”?

I would repeat my question: “What does the word “stereo” mean? Yes”.

For all these years nobody, I repeat, nobody, including the manufacturers, their distributors, their dealers, audio journalists (!), and, eventually, the customers (how would they know?!) has been able to provide me with a correct answer. It’s simply unbelievable, really!

Everyone surveyed would either demonstrate a state of complete confusion, or, that would be the most common, would provide me with a very typical answer: “Mono is one (channel of reproduction), then “stereo”, seems, is two, right?”

Wrong. In Greek the word “stereo” means “solid, firm” (all are familiar with the word “stereotype”, aren’t they? By the way, I don’t even mention the word StereoPravda, where “Pravda” is the “Truth” in Russian).

The reason why Western Electric chosen this word in 1927 for its new “talkies” movie theaters, and Alan Blumlein used the same word when he received the corresponding patent in 1931 for pure audio application,  is because they wanted to use it to describe a special technique for reproducing a sound field with solid aural images (by using two loudspeakers in the Blumlein’s case).

From this original meaning of the word “stereo” (to name a set of procedures for the recording and the playback), I presume, a logical conclusion is following: this fundamental quality of stereo systems to focus solid sound images should be used as the main criterion when evaluating a sonic quality of an audio component or a system. The same way as when evaluating a quality of a car, by definition, the first criterion is how the car rides on a road.

Without this awareness of the fundamental meaning of the process, the whole audio chain of manufacturing and distribution – from the design phase, through the evaluation phase, and up to the installation and the usage phase – has to deal with the subject matter in a bad want of a focus (sic!).

As a relevant example I’d like to mention my recent visit to the factory of my old acquaintance John Grado, a well-known phono cartridges and headphones manufacturer, in Brooklyn, NY.

After half and hour of chit-chat with him, his International sales guy John Chen and two visiting Australians, who distribute their product there, the host suggested to listen to a couple of his new headphone prototypes – one was an “open” design, and the other was a “closed” one.

After the auditioning John asked us to present our verdicts.

My opinion was that the “open” ones’ presentation was significantly brighter and “silkier”, the “closed” ones were darker in presentation and, well, sorry for my pun, just “more closed”. But that was not all I wanted to say…

In the mean time, the Australians, whose distribution portfolio spans what we, in the High End Audio, would call “mid-fi” products, were definite in their preference for the “open” design.

By the way, John Grado in no way commented on this experiment, it seemed to me at the moment that he, himself, was not sure about the sonic advantages of each prototype (we are not considering practical aspects here).

After the Australians expressed their opinions I asked two Johns my “survey” question: “What is the meaning of the word ”stereo”?”

In response to their predictable confusion I told them an old joke about why the Soviet Union fell apart.

The joke goes like this.

Due to the secrecy rules and regulations, a CIA officer doesn’t know what his colleagues are working on in the next office, an MI-6 officer doesn’t know what his co-workers deal with at the next table, but a KGB officer doesn’t even know what he’s working on.”

The same in audio: constantly using a word without being fully aware of its meaning we lost our vision, that is, as the saying goes, we “lost the sight of the wood looking at the separate trees”.

Then I went on with a serious comment. If we would evaluate John’s new prototypes with a “pleasantness to the ear” criterion, then the Australians were, possibly, right: with all the confusion in soundstage presentation, the “open” “cans” were giving a, definitely, more distinct presentation of musical details.

But if, to evaluate the prototypes, we would use a criterion of how “solid” the sound images were presented in the sound field, that is if we were asked to evaluate the stereo effect for the two prototypes presented, that is in relation to how well the two acoustic radiators, like in a Home audio system, working in tandem, how they do not only fill the two ears with some synchronous sonic information, but also in relation to how well each channel’s information is correlated to the other one, then the “closed” headphones significantly better focused sound images. Even in spite of the darker presentation and less obvious musical details (but that, in my opinion can be dealt with if the prototypes would spent a little bit more time on a design bench). As they better correspond to the fundamental criterion of stereo, therefore, the “closed” cans demonstrated more correct, in other words, overall better, operation.

Due to this better correspondence to the fundamental definition of what constitutes the stereo effect, the “closed” prototypes better reproduced additional, correlated between the two channels, sound stage effects, which add to the playback an additional layer of musically meaningful information.

This verdict of mine does not, of course, mean that the whole design principle of “open” vs “closed” cans has got a set of limitations you can not deal with. It’s all about the balance of “pro-s“ and “con-s” in a particular design. Good definition of the “open” Grado prototype cans does have an attractive quality in it, but their poor stereo effect, which is the foundation of the definition of what constitutes the stereo process, should be treated as much more serious offence. And vice versa, “the darkness” of the closed “cans” IS their significant disadvantage, but their superior stereo effect should be taken as the indication of correct direction where the further development should be steered at.

It should be noted that 84 years later Blumlein’s fundamental stereo process doesn’t have a serious alternative, it’s still the same “stereo” like it has been for all these years, and is still being predominantly used everywhere to record and play music.

My verdict over the Grado prototypes comparison simply means that while evaluating the quality of audio components or systems, the set of criterions, in other words, a set of “laws”, should not contradict the fundamental Stereo Sound Constitution.

Otherwise, like in the above case of the permanently lost KGB, we should allow it to be abolished.

Then the only question left is: “To abolish this long term Constitution for what?!”.

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