Today’s kids who grew up on the Apple i-Pod may balk at the thought, but are monophonic sound recordings still be considered hi-fi?
By: Ringo Bones
Though not as exciting as finding an authentic Daguerreotype photograph or even a Tintype photograph of Dr. Jose Rizal having a very heated chess mach with Friedrich Nietzsche, back in the hi-fi boom of the Clinton Economic Expansion era of the 1990s, there are no shortage of jokes about audiophiles who still clung on to the idea that mono is still better than stereo, a case in point are those hilarious cartoons In The Absolute Sound by Golliver and Gaughn involving someone named Mr. Mono who runs the Intergalactic Headquarters of the Singular Ear, but given that there are rather gorgeous sounding recordings made before the advent of two-channel stereo, should we audiophiles be all to dismiss any form of monophonic sound – no matter how tonally gorgeous – as not hi-fi? After all, it wasn’t until well into 1958 that two-channel stereophonic sound in the home became a reality; and why shouldn't really great sounding - as in realistically spooky sounding - monophonic recordings be dismissed as bona fide audiophile demonstration discs?
I still remember Stereophile magazine’s Michael Fremer’s review of the Sutherland PH-2000 Phono Preamplifier while playing a mono recording of Louis Prima’s The Wildest Show At Tahoe in which he quipped “Who needs six channels of shit when you can have one channel that sounds like this?” almost mirrors my reaction when I finally can afford my own proper hi-fi rig around the middle of the 1990s and was curious enough to test out monophonic recordings. My 1980s era heavy metal cassette collection whose ping-pong left –right, left-right bouncing of those distorted excruciatingly loud electric guitars may seem exciting on a boom-box can quickly become tiresome in a proper hi-fi rig, especially with more recent (as in from the late 1980s) fully stereophonic recordings having a less than stellar sound quality.
And it’s important to forget that quite a number of recordings with a musicological importance – not just ones known for their sound quality – were recorded in mono. Elvis Presley’s more intriguing works before he conscripted by the US Army and shipped off to the Rhineland and the Sudetenland (are there any Elvis in the Rhineland and Elvis in the Sudetenland bootleg albums out there?) are all recoded in mono. And let’s not forget those “big mono” Jazz recording made during the late 1940s and early 1950s – Miles Davis Bags’ Groove is a perfect example – in which the sound comes right between the left and right speakers and seems to have a very expansive sound-stage despite it being a monophonic recording. Ina good hi-fi rig, one has to listen very hard to identify a good “big mono” recording. An audio-buddy of mine had been listening Miles Davis Bags’ Groove for 18 months back in the 1990s before he finally knew the truth that it is a monophonic recording. No audiophile in his or her right mind will ever dismiss Miles Davis Bags' Groove - either the vinyl LP or the JVC XRCD pressing - as a bona fide audiophile demo disc. In short, it seems that sound quality – as in how close it seems it is to the live musical event – is the main determining factor in determining if the recording is truly high fidelity, though one’s personal taste and opinion tends to matter also like I think Count Basie’s best works are recorded in mono.