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Ya gotta love the hi-fi industry. After inventing and popularising a format that delivered the best sound the great majority of consumers had ever experienced in their own homes*, the self-same industry has been driving sound quality backwards ever since.

I blame the Germans. And no, not Dieter Seitzer and Karlheinz Brandenburg, but Eberhard Zwicker and Richard Feldtkeller. Although Brandenburg worked for the Fraunhofer Institute and is often called the ‘father of MP3’ because he’d been researching methods to compress music since 1977 and Seitzer was a professor at the University of Erlangen who was involved in similar research, it was Zwicker and Feldtkeller who started the whole thing, ‘way back in 1967 with their book ‘Das Ohr als Nachrichtenempfänger’ (The Ear as a Communication Receiver) where they proposed that it was possible to remove information from a music signal without affecting the ear’s ability to perceive the end result as music because, as they wrote in their preface: ‘For communication systems [specifically referencing telephones and radio signals] to be cost-effective, they must aim at transmitting only parts of the signal that are relevant to the purpose of the system and, most importantly, only parts that are perceivable by the listener.’ In other words, lossy compression.

However, Zwicker and Seitzer only proposed the idea of lossy compression—it was up to others to actually develop successful lossy codecs, and so far as these are concerned, although Seitzer, Brandenburg and the Fraunhofer Institute should get the credit for the MP3 format itself (and it’s a fact that they were issued a German patent for it in 1989), MP3 is, after all, only one type of lossy codec, one that owes a great debt to other types of lossy codecs, all developed prior to 1989. The problem is that MP3 is now so ubiquitous that it has become a proprietary eponym, so that people say ‘MP3’ when they actually mean ‘lossy codec’ (and here I must confess that I, too have been guilty of that transgression).

However it now appears that MP3 was only the tip of the iceberg, because the hi-fi industry’s latest triumph is the discovery of monophonic sound. The problem is that I don’t know who I should blame for mono, Charles Cros or Edison. (I do know who to blame for stereo: Clément Ader, who demonstrated the first two-channel audio system in Paris in 1881, though it wasn’t until 1931 that EMI engineer Alan Blumlein patented a method of storing two-channel audio on both record and film).

Irrespective of who’s to blame, many manufacturers are now selling totally monophonic sound systems, in which an original stereo signal is summed to create a single channel of sound that is then reproduced by a single-channel amplifier and a single bass/midrange driver and tweeter. Others are selling similar systems that, whilst ostensibly ‘stereo’ (in that they are possessed of two-channels) have their left and right speakers so close together that the only way you’d ever hear a stereo image is if you jammed your nose hard up against the front (or top!) panel.

Not that I’m totally against monophonic sound: I would, for example, far rather listen to a good mono hi-fi system than a poor stereo one. But given a good mono system and a stereo version of identical quality, I’ll take stereo any day, thanks… which is very probably the reason stereo became so popular in the first place.  greg borrowman [hifi@nextmedia.com.au]

[*Say what you like about the sound quality, and the durability and longevity of the discs, it’s nonetheless inescapably true that in developing the CD, the hi-fi industry created a format that delivered, at very low cost, the best sound the great majority of consumers had ever experienced in their own homes. It was also, at the time (broadcast radio aside) the most fuss-free music playback system ever invented. g. b.]