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Bring Back Mono!
Article by Jeff Rabin, The Ecumenical Audiophile


Van Gough

  If in polite company you should happen to even mention that you are considering buying a motorcycle, people always jump in with their stories about their friends of friends' experiences. Don't buy a bike, my best friend's buddy is in a hospital for the rest of his life with no feeling below his neck. Bikes are death machines. Don't do it. Think of your family. My favorite one goes like this:

A guy is going out to meet up with his friends for a late night ride. On the way to meet them, and because he is a little early, he thought he would have a bit of fun at their expense. Seeing them approach riding parallel, he thinks that if he passes directly between their headlights, he would give them the scare of their life. Instead, he gives himself the scare that ends his life.

 

You know how the story goes. It was not his friends approaching him. It was a truck and he smashes himself up right on the windshield like a bug. Sometimes, stereo can be like this with for me and I feel like that motorcyclist: bug splatter on the windshield of stereo. And I think to myself, why limit myself to stereo and stereo recordings when mono recordings listened to on a good mono system can be so good? For as any motorcyclist will tell you, under the right conditions, two wheels can be much better than four.

A personal credo of mine is that the practice of Hi Fi should not be about worshipping at the altar of Hi-Fi excellences, such as imaging, balance, bass extension, dynamics, low-level resolution, or sensitivity, although they are all equally wonderful in their way. And I also dismiss the, to me anyway, implausible idea of perfectly recreating a past acoustical event in the comfort of my lounge, though I still believe it is a goal worth aiming for even if it cannot be achieved.

By confining yourself to stereo and recordings that only sound good in stereo is, I think, to miss out on a whole range of highly enjoyable listening opportunities, whether it's old 78s of Charlie Patton, Churchill's war time speeches, a radio play, or even a sport's game. It is like the audiophile who confined himself only to DVD-Audio recorded in 5.1 surround sound. That would be absurd. He or she would deprive themselves of the chance to listen to Harry Smith's Anthology of Early American Folk Music, Billie Holiday, or Luisa Tetrazzini.

And I do have a stereo (Tannoy, Leak, Ear, Goldring and Garrard) that I love to listen to. So I think, above all, we must keep in my mind the host of this site's exhortation to 'Enjoy the Music,' regardless of the format, though I would change this to 'Enjoy the Sounds' or even, to 'Enjoy the damn Hobby.' After all, there is enough in this life not to enjoy.

But the reason for this writing is because I believe that mono recordings sound better on a mono rig than they do on a stereo with their two speakers, two channels of amplification, two sets of cables, and loudspeakers in two locations reproducing identical content in slightly different ways. In addition, a stereo loudspeaker (or speakers) designed to image may not be the best transducer for listening to material without an image. In fact, the 'image' that they will inevitably overlay owing to the minute dissimilarity of the wave-fronts they are propagating will in fact take away from the quality of the sound.

Now I am not the first to point out the joys of mono in recent months. Listener recently wrote about mono as did hi fi+. Stereophile even reviewed a number of high priced mono phono cartridges, giving them all the thumbs up for listening to mono recordings. All these rags took quite different looks at mono, basically citing the indisputably great catalog of mono recordings out there, but no article even mooted the idea of listening to mono on a mono system and this, I think, is a shame.

But I would also point out the spate of glowing reviews of the Tivoli Model 1 Radio in just about every magazine going. And I think in these glowing reviews is a clue as to why the high end approach of listening to mono through a stereo is not always the right way to go. There are horses for courses and a Linn Lyra on the front end of a megabuck stereo is not the horse for listening to Blind Willie Johnson's John the Revelator:

Well, who's that a-writing? John The Revelator
Who's that a-writing? John The Revelator 
Who's that a-writing? John The Revelator 
A book of the seven seals.

Tell me what's John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
What's John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
What's John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
A book of the seven seals.

Father, who art worthy, (undecipherable) and holy
Bound up for some, Son of our God
Daughter of Zion, Judas the Lion
He redeemed us, and He bought us with his blood.

 

How else to explain the excitement behind a $100 table radio, very decent as it is, if it did not capture something that high end stereo sometimes misses: sheer listenability. My point is that to listen to mono well, mono is best played on a mono-setup with one loudspeaker, hopefully with a wide dispersion pattern such as, ideally, a fifties corner horn like a Tannoy GRF as seen below.

 


Source: Kiewa Valley

Note how the sound is designed to fill the room, rather than produce a single plane of sound to be complimented by its mate to create a two dimensional soundstage. Now I don't have a Tannoy Corner Horn, though I do have the driver and crossover to go in it, but I have built up a number of quite inexpensive mono setups that I enjoy listening to on a regular basis. (Editor Steve sez: i grew up enjoying music with both a pair of Tannoy 12" Gold Monitors for stereo, and a single 15" Tannoy GRF corner horn. Both were made in 1969.)

My oldest and most hair shirt mono system is an HMV Model 101 Gramophone. In a flea market I was even lucky enough to come across an original 1905 acoustically recorded Caruso, which at the time sold for the princely sum of $4.50. We also have an original copy of Glenn Miller's Pennsylvania 65000. When played back on the relatively modern HMV (1927) there is such a palpable sense of 'thereness' as not to be imagined. Everyone who has had a listen agrees. But what is also not to be imagined is the listener fatigue that quickly sets in. It is not a listenable system.

Partly this is a matter of the grit embedded in the matrix of the record to wear out the needle faster than the needle wears out the side, but it is also because of the extreme gain needed to, once again, fill the room with sound. Thankfully, Lee de Forest with the invention of the vacuum tube fixed this for us. But if you should play an electrically recorded 78 recorded after 1927 on a Gramophone designed only to play acoustic recordings recorded before 1927, the damn thing is so loud as to have you running for socks to plug the horn's mouth. Nonetheless, the thereness is still there. There is, as 78 wags have said, more there, there.

Nimbus Records in the UK to capture this thereness onto CD even went so far as to custom build a gramophone in a Welsh castle that combined a Technics SL15 turntable with a 20 foot horn and a custom built reproducer. I am not sure I would ever be able to get away with this at my house, but I am tempted to try it.

 


Source: Nimbus Records

So why do acoustic gramophones produce such a sense of 'thereness'? I am not sure, but think it may have to do with the complete absence of any electrical amplification in the recording and reproduction chain. But even though the windup has a way of bringing me closer to Caruso than I can get any other way, no one would ever mistake the sound emanating from the horn as if Enrico was in the room with me.

Another mono rig of mine is an old late fifties Grundig Majestic table model. It even has some decent hi-fi cred and has a phono input and a tape loop to boot. Employing a single EL34 in triode configuration and full range drivers, it also has that single ended, crossover-less sound so beloved by some. The radio's designers unconstrained by the demands of stereo, and even Hi Fidelity for that matter, built the best sounding radio for the then emergent FM broadcasts that they could, but even included an AM short-wave section to die for. (Something those behind the Kloss Model 1 neglected entirely.)

The first thing these unnamed Grundig designers did (and while this is Hi Fi anathema today, but is very important for mono) is design the radio to have a wide, room filling speaker dispersion pattern. Little speakers on either side of the cabinet were even added to create 'ambience.' Also, whether it is an artifact of the technology, the age of the radio, or the designer's intentions the frequency response, slightly rolled off on top with a prominent mid band hum a la an LS35/A, while far from flat, is perfectly sculpted for low level listening. (I suspect that these tricks were not lost on Kloss either.) The result is a glorious, non-fatiguing sound that is not in any way short of detail or low-level resolution. It is the very opposite of the hair shirt HMV. Rock out it won't, but I still use the Grundig almost every day for low level listening.

At the time that mono was in its heyday, the consumer electronics industry was attracting some of the best talent around. Up until quite recently, much of the emerging talent (aside from the dedicated few who continue to make this industry so vibrant) was attracted to the computer industry. With the current downturn in IT, we may even see a return of talent and interest to audio.

I have other mono setups too, including what must be one of the first receivers in the form of a mono Harmon Kardon Sonata attached to a TDL transmission line who lost her mate during a loudness war with the neighbors. I also have a pair of Leak TL12+s, with a single matching Point 1 pre-amp, one of which I plan to hive off when my Corner Horn ship comes in. But my recommendation to you, dear reader, is to dust off a vintage mono block and an orphaned speaker whose mate may have succumbed to a short or pick up and old valve table radio and give mono on a mono rig a chance. The worst you can do is 'Enjoy the Music.'

And I will be buying myself another motorcycle in the Spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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