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Beatnik’s Journey Into Mono and Stereo

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Word got out that not only am I a vinyl lover, I listen to a lot of mono, too. I haven’t gotten into 78s, but I do have a second tonearm and a true mono moving-coil EMT cartridge mounted with its own Auditorium 23 transformer, so I guess I am pretty serious about mono. The question some ask is why, but the answer to that is quite simple. There is simply a lot of music I like that is only available on mono, but there is more to it than that. That more is what I want to talk about today.

First, I should mention that most people have never really heard what mono recordings can sound like. Why, because they have mostly heard worn out, noisy mono recordings played back with a stereo cartridge. Thus, the sound was sort of phasey and likely full of ticks, pops, and other noises. If that same recording were to be played back with a true mono cartridge, it likely would’ve sounded big, bold, and much quieter. The reason for this is if you have a cartridge that is designed from the ground up as a mono cartridge, then the coils or magnets will be placed and designed in such a way to only pick up the signals from the horizontal plane. It seems that a lot of the physical damage to records occur in the vertical part of the grove for obvious reason. Thus, by not even picking up or amplifying this information, you eliminate a lot of the noise from mono records that you hear when played back through a stereo cartridge. This allows you to hear a more substantial and more focused sound than when the same recording is played back on a stereo cartridge, even one as good as my Benz Micro TR. Stereo cartridges have a way of making monaural recordings sound small and wispy. If you are like what I used to be, you just thought that’s the way mono recordings sound and thus avoided them.

Now, back to the “more to it than that” part of the story. Truth is, there is something right about the way mono recordings sound. Mike Zivkovic of Teresonic Speakers refers to it as Jack’s “MonoMagic” when he’s over at my place listening. Now, I don’t think it’s the “one-channel part of it” that’s the key. One of the reason’s I say this is because I prefer to listen to mono recordings over two speakers. I should admit, though, that I have never heard a really good system set up for just one channel. I have often wondered how a mono system, set up with one Shindo Latour speaker, placed a couple of feet out from the corner and firing into the center of the room might sound; I suspect quite wonderfully. Another reason I don’t think it’s just about the one channel, is that I do not find that mono sounds more right than all stereo recordings. Most of the early Mercury, London, RCA, Blue Note, and other early stereo recordings sound just as right. Of course, that’s assuming they weren’t panned hard right and left.

I’ve recently read a column by Harry Pearson and a review written a couple of years ago by Steven Rochlin, and in both articles they suggest that certain pieces of equipment are getting so good that sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re reviewing the equipment or the recording. Well, I don’t want to go down that road right now, but it set me to think about how much the recording affects the sound we hear. So, I thought I, the Beatnik, should write a few columns about it. This one’s about stereo and mono recordings. The next one will be about soundstaging.

So what does all this have to do with why mono recordings sound so right? You’ve probably already guessed what I’m thinking by now. If you’re thinking that for most, if not all, mono recordings used only one microphone, you’re right. I’ll admit it again when it comes to audio and most things in life, I’m a firm believer in the KISS (keep it simple stupid) philosophy, so I think the fact that mono recordings used the very simplest of microphone techniques might explain why they sound so right. I feel that way because the stereo recordings that sound so right to me also use simple microphone techniques.

Now the simple microphone techniques probably aren’t the only reason that mono recordings sound so right. I can think of a few others.

First, there’s the fact that the whole mono record cutting process is simple right down to the lathes. Then, we shouldn’t underestimate the simpler playback process. There is only one channel of music to track in the grove and its deep in the center not on the sides, so it is easier to track. Then, of course, if you are using a true mono playback cartridge, it is built and operates simpler than a stereo cartridge. Lastly, it seems to me that maybe even our brains have to work in a simpler way to process a mono recording; but as you’ve probably already figured, I’m not a brain specialist.

You might be asking, does all this mean that the old Beatnik has given up on stereo? Of course not; I may be quirky, but I’m not crazy. Truth is I would say that around 75% of my listening is to stereo recordings. I also admit that I spent about 50% more on my stereo cartridge than my mono one. In addition, as I’ve already talked about, a lot of the music I love is on stereo recordings from the late fifties and sixties, and they sound nearly, if not just as right, as mono recordings. As an added benefit they also produce what we refer to as a soundstage. There is actually an even greater reason for listening to stereo recordings; that where most of the music I listen to is found. You do need to know as much as I love equipment, I love music even more.

Since I mentioned soundstage in the previous paragraph, I think I should say that it is a mistake to think mono recordings have no soundstage at all. It’s not the same, and of course, it’s not nearly as wide and not quite as deep, but still it’s there. The instruments are closer together but very distinguishable from each other. It’s not at all unusual for someone to be listening with me and when I ask them, “what do you think of mono sound?” They say, “O, come on that’s not mono.” You would think they would just assume it’s a stereo recording without a great soundstage, but they usually say, “it sounded so good I hadn’t even thought about it.” I don’t know about you, but I think that speaks volumes.

I know I’m not a recording engineer or any other kind of specialist. No, I’m just the old audio “Beatnik” who had delusions that make me think you might be interested in what I think. I do hope this makes you think about what it is that allows a recording to sound like music in your room and maybe to give mono a chance. By the way, if you don’t play vinyl, but have a SACD player and you like jazz, there are lots of wonderful mono recordings to discover. Hecky, you won’t even need to buy a mono cartridge to enjoy them.

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