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When Madonna danced on my car

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

When Madonna danced on my car: Impressions of the first QSound CDs

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

Real stereo is like love. You may not know what it is, but once you've tried it, you can't live without it.

And like love, true stereo sound is hard to find. Some of the fanciest audio systems have it, but most of us plod through life with the stereo equivalent of "like" instead of "love." Our hi-fi systems sound good, but they usually don't sound real.

This dilemma may be coming to an end in my audio life. But whether my feelings are true love or just infatuation remains to be seen—and heard.

I do know one thing, however. Just like a 14-year-old at the prom, I'm ready for love, and that's one reason I'm excited over my discovery.

It took a long time to get here. Stereo has been around in one form or another since the ‘50s, but most of the time it's been more of a dream than a reality.

That's because the sounds that come from speakers usually come just from the speakers themselves. When we listen to something "live," however, sounds come from all directions. They fill the room. They come from the walls and the ceiling and the floor.

Good speakers can fool our ears some of the time, but they can't fool our minds very often. If I imagine hard enough, I can listen to Mick Jagger or the Boston Pops and feel that they are in the room with me, but once I stop trying to convince myself, Mick and the others end up back in the loudspeakers.

The folks who design hi-fi gear thought they had a solution to this back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when they came up with four-channel sound. I put together a four-channel audio system—a "quad" system, in the jargon of 25 years ago—and listened to it for a few months. I bought special four-channel recordings, both records and tapes.

What I heard was interesting, but it wasn't convincing.

Usually, the musical sounds came from the left speaker or the right speaker or the left rear speaker or the right rear speaker. Sometimes, if I sat in just the right place, they came from the center.

That was a little scary, since that's right where I was sitting. I knew four-channel sound was not for me one day when I heard a Dixieland band tooting right beside my chair. The trombonist would have knocked me over if he had really been there.

But now I have heard something that turns stereo into something more. It's called QSound, and it seems too good to be true. According to Danny Lowe and John Lees, the men who invented it, QSound is an electronic process done at the studio that turns two-channel digital recordings into multichannel compact discs.

As far as my ears can tell, everything they say is true. When I heard my first QSound CD, I could hardly believe my ears. I put the disc—"The Soul Cages" by Sting—in my player and sat back, expecting a few sonic tricks.

But what I heard instead was an audio carnival. Guitars and drums and voices came from the other side of the wall, from above the ceiling, even from outside the window.

Mind you, I was listening to Sting over two loudspeakers. I had not made any changes to my hi-fi system. And yet my room was alive with sound, coming from places no speaker had ever gone.

I would say that such a thing could not happen, except for the fact that it was happening right in front of my ears. And from behind my ears, too.

And get this: I even heard the same effects when I taped the QSound CD and played it on my car cassette deck. I did the same thing with a Madonna recording sent out as a demo of QSound, and there she was, the material girl herself, dancing on the hood of my Sentra.

Recordings made in QSound—the inventors don't explain why they decided on that name, by the way—are not yet widely available. Nor is there any certainty that QSound will become a standard recording process.

Qsound's inventors say you can even hear multichannel sound on the cheapest boomboxes and TV sets. Even video games can have QSound—wonderful news for parents who are tired of hearing the Nintendo beeping from the far wall of the living room. Now they'll hear it all over the house.

QSound works, and it works very well. That much is clear. But I'm not sure that what I heard would work with other kinds of music. Will Beethoven roll over in his grave if his Fifth gets the QSound treatment? The answer awaits the first classical QSound CDs, which I have not heard yet.

But for rock and funk and all that stuff, QSound might be the best thing that has happened to recorded music since Tom Edison. Give it a try. You just might fall in love, too.

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