Thursday, July 31, 2014

Is Binaural The Best Domestic Two-Channel Stereo Format?

Despite of the under-narrated history of this particular audio recording and reproduction method, is binaural the best domestic two-channel stereophonic audio format? 

By: Ringo Bones

Despite the recent advancement of various audio digital signal processing methods now widely available online in App form that can even convert the lowly MP3 audio – whose digital music data rate is one-tenth that of 16-bit 44.1KHz Redbook spec digital audio - to sound as good as mid 1990s entry level CD audio like Bob Burwen’s Burwen Bobcat and other similar schemes, it seems that no gifted audio engineer has ever devised a digital signal processing / DSP scheme that converts plain two-channel domestic stereo – that may sound remarkably good via a pair of speakers - into binaural that doesn’t sound as if the studio recorded two-channel stereo music is playing inside and in the middle your head. Given that binaural recordings had been widely available – probably since John Sunier of The Binaural Source set up shop to sell binaural recordings in CD, LP, prerecorded cassette and open-reel tape form and can also be bought online via – for some time now, it seems that - since around 1995 – binaural audio seems to have languished in obscurity in mainstream hi-fi circles. Especially today where the “headphone-bound” Apple i-Pod is the now de rigueur way for everyone use in listening to recorded music.  

To the uninitiated, binaural literary means sound for two ears. Or in technical terms, a two-channel (left and right) sound recording and reproduction method in which each ear of the listener hears only one channel – and implies the use of headphones. Normal human hearing is binaural in nature; each ear hears from a slightly different distance and direction. Even though most people are largely unconscious of this difference, it gives the depth and reality to sound as does dual seeing does to the stereoscopic / binocular nature of normal human vision. 

So why not just use two speakers? Dual speakers can help around the sound by giving the illusion that it comes from two directions but in actual practice, true binaural recordings sound “lousy” when listened to via left and right speaker set up the same reason why conventional two-channel stereo recordings sound as if the musician / band sound as if they are playing inside the middle of your head when listened to via headphones.
Believe it or not, binaural sound has been around since reasonably realistic sounding headphones and transcription (recording) discs more advanced than the first ones invented by Thomas Edison had been around. True binaural sound – especially ones recorded via the dummy head method where the two left and right microphones were placed where the human ears are supposed to be had been making audiophiles jump for joy since that time. During the 1933 – 1934 Chicago World’s Fair, an exhibition by a company called Cook Binaural are attracting hordes of early audio enthusiasts after the word spread of early listeners swore that a binaural recorded haircut recording recorded on an early electrical transcription disc – using a dummy head recording method while a wig placed on it was cut by scissors – sound as if the listeners are getting an actual haircut while sitting in a barber’s chair!  In truth, binaural audio seems to pre-date the advent of everything that has become the infrastructure of what we now call as hi-fi sound – even the Zenith-General Electric VHF FM stereo radio system that has been approved by the US Federal Communications Commission back in June 1, 1961. 

During the 1950s, before the advent of modern Fast-Fourier Transform based electrocardiogram machines, medical students in the United States were trained to listen to binaural open-reel tape recordings of heart sounds after medical schools at the time found out that it provided a vast improvement over medical diagnosis via plain-vanilla stethoscope listening. Besides affording a permanent record, these binaural open-reel tape recordings is said to permit – at the time – a more accurate analysis of heart irregularities.  
Even though almost any audio enthusiast during the Golden Age of Stereo can “roll their own” binaural recordings using existing domestic open reel tape technology of the time, the wonderful virtues of binaural seems to be the most under-narrated in the annals of high-fidelity sound. But after around 60 years of domestication / home use, the largely specialized binaural market is mainly aimed at serious headphone listening / earphone / in-ear headphone listening based audiophiles. Should current stereo headphone platforms – like the Apple i-Pod – be so now equipped with a stereo to binaural digital signal processing / DSP system?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Did Stereophonic Sound Originally Consist Of Three Channels?

It may come as a shock to two-channel stereo purist but did you know that the original standard for stereophonic sound originally called for three – as in left, center and right – channels? 

By: Ringo Bones 

If you have “audio-buddies” old enough to have lived through the Golden Age of Stereo and has a deep-seated animosity against multi-channel, and especially, surround-sound, chances are he (sadly it is overwhelmingly always a he) may and could hate you for weeks if you tell him that the original standard being called for commercial stereophonic sound for domestic applications originally called for three channels – as in left, center and right channels of audio. But are there still “surviving” examples of three-channel stereo recordings? 

To the still unfortunate few audiophiles still not in the know, the greatest Jazz recording of all time – as in Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue – was originally mastered in three-channel stereo. And even though Kind of Blue was originally released for “domestic use” in those now venerable Six-Eye mono Columbia LPs, many inquisitive audiophiles that had lived through the Golden Age of Stereo has since found out that music originally mastered on three-channel stereo format onto open-reel magnetic tapes seems to sound the best whenever they are transferred – as in mixed down - to either mono or two-channel stereo vinyl LPs. 

Even though the two-channel stereo format is quite adequate in our domestic listening rooms where the “soundstage” is seldom greater than 20 feet in width, those audiophiles fortunate enough to possess true three-channel stereo recordings had found out that these work best in larger than average listening rooms than those typically found at the home. This is due to the fact that sound travels at a finite speed and much slower than that in comparison to the speed of light. This results in practice the phenomena on why the two-channel stereophonic sweet-spot doesn’t scale in large auditoriums. To their “horror” the two-channel stereo sweet-spot in large auditoriums is about the same that heard in a 25-feet wide listening room!!! Fortunately for these ├╝ber-rich audiophiles with Wembley Stadium sized listening rooms the three-channel stereo format of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue has been released in three-channel stereo Super-Audio-CDs and has been relatively widely available since 2003.