Audio Technology Follies—Ideas That Didn't Fly (Audio history, part 6)

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[article by Robert Long, orig. from Audio magazine 100 anniv. issue, May 1997]

Reviewing the audio projects that failed to make the cut over the last half century, I’m reminded of a line from Milton: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Many so-called failures ended up succeeding, in a way. Some were just plain ahead of their time, while others failed to find their public before their developers’ initial funding ran out. But in each case, somebody some where believed in them for a reason, and in many cases those reasons bear re-examination.

ABOVE: Pioneer QX 949 receiver had decoders for SQ and CD-4 quadraphonic LPs and a four channel balance display.

ABOVE: Sansui QS-500 4-channel amplifier included a decoder for QS-encoded records.

Certainly this is true of that notorious 1970s boondoggle, quadraphonics. Or quadriphonics. Or tetraphonics. Or quadrisonics. At the time, nobody could seem to agree even about the name. The IHF ( Institute of High Fidelity) finally adopted the spelling “quadriphonics”; this satisfied dictionaries but not philologists, who objected to the mixing of Greek and Latin roots. It was in vain, however; though “quadraphonics” used a nonexistent combining form, it was already well established in the marketplace.

I hardly need rehash the hype or the often acrimonious infighting that attended quadraphonics. By creating a three-dimensional sound field, we were told, the new technology would offer listening excitement and verisimilitude unknown in the fewer-dimensional world of stereophonics. The question was: How should the four channels of sound be delivered? The record companies generally preferred matrixing, using phase relationships within the stereo LP groove to carry spatial information that an appropriate decoder could reconstruct into a reasonable sound field. The most successful of the matrix systems was Columbia Records’ SQ, but there were several alternatives, of which Sansui’s QS gained a few adherents among the record companies.

The alternative to matrixing was discrete quad (a usage that made Quad, a manufacturer who’d been using that name since monophonic days, most unhappy). Tape had an obvious advantage in this respect, because each of the signal’s four channels could be fed directly to one of the four tracks on quarter-track tape—or to half of the tracks in an 8-track tape cartridge, which was still a popular medium at the time. And JVC, an active participant in the record business, developed a “discrete-quad” LP, CD- 4, whose rear-channel information was conveyed by ultrasonic carriers mixed in with the front-channel signals. Both RCA and Vanguard adopted CD-4. But it took special phono cartridges with controlled high-frequency resonance to read the ultrasonic signals, and even they didn’t always succeed—especially if playback by ordinary cartridges had worn down the carriers. So JVC’s CD-4 LPs proved the most trouble-prone of the major delivery systems.

TOP: Elcaset decks, such as Sony’s EL-5, offered higher fidelity than cassette but not enough to outweigh its greater bulk and cost. ABOVE: Viking playback-only deck. Quarter and Half track.

ABOVE: 3M s Revere recorder.

The entire quadraphonic edifice collapsed from a combination of three main factors, I believe. One certainly was the vituperative and ultimately destructive competition among companies who genuinely thought that theirs was the best system. A second was the gross failure of record producers to make good use of the medium. Those of us who believed in “surround sound” expected that, just as stereo eventually surpassed its “ping-pong” beginnings, so quad would blossom into the medium of choice. It never happened.

The third inhibiting factor was I probably the most significant: In the brouhaha over delivery systems, the recording industry never got around to examining the fundamentals closely enough. The aural mechanics of side sound sources, particularly those in motion, were never thought through until they were reexamined recently for home theater systems. Thus, quadraphonics laid much of the groundwork for home theater and, like a stage mother, succeeded vicariously in the end.

One point that mitigated against quad LPs was the fear that record company executives have of any double-inventory system, a fear born around the same time as Audio. In the late ‘40s, record dealers found they had to stock LPs, 45s, and 78s if they were to be all things to all customers, and they hated it. So when stereo came along, the cry was “compatibility!”

British Decca’s earliest experimental stereo LPs, made with the first Teldec/Neumann stereo cutter, had one channel recorded later ally, like a mono LP, and the other recorded vertically. To make both channels readable by mono equipment, the modulation directions were rotated by 45° so that one channel was recorded on each wall of the groove. But it didn’t work: The heavy, uncompliant mono pickups of the day wreaked havoc with the complex grooves of stereo LPs, and stereo recordings had to be issued additionally in mono pressings to satisfy the less adventurous or less affluent consumers.

The double-inventory issue came up again in the 1980s, when CBS Records issued the CX series of LPs. At the time, most of the major recording companies were compressing classical recordings (and perhaps other types) to tame dynamics for home playback. Audiophiles naturally were scornful of the practice. CBS thought a relatively simple, reversible compression design would make possible housebroken mass-market recordings that could still yield full dynamic range to audiophiles, via a reciprocal expander. But almost immediately there was demand, justified or otherwise, for the same recordings without the CX processing. That meant double inventory, so the series disappeared within months.

The vast success of the Philips Compact Cassette can be said to justify the many tape cartridge systems that sought to simplify the often galling problems of dealing with open reels. A near miss was the Cousino endless-loop cartridge, which enjoyed some success in audio/visual devices but never secured a beachhead in the home market. A nearer miss was 3M’s Revere cartridge system, which was licensed to Columbia Records. It contained a single “reel” of tape that fed automatically into the player. But the 3M system used half-width tape running at 1 /s inches per second; its narrow track width and slow transport speed pressed the ‘60s technology very hard, inhibiting credibility.

Far less innovative technologically was the RCA cartridge of about the same era. This cartridge’s two tape hubs were in a single housing and held quarter-inch tape that ran at 3¾ inches per second. The eventual winner in the cartridge sweepstakes, the Compact Cassette, was essentially a miniaturization of the RCA cartridge but with the tape speed and virtually the same tape width as the 3M Revere system’s. Another design, the semipro Elcaset, used the same tape width and speed as the RCA cartridge but had a slightly smaller shell; the tape was pulled out of the shell during playback or recording, for smoother travel. Key- ways in the Elcaset’s shell told recorders and players what bias and equalization to use. These features pre figured the way that cassettes for various applications have been designed more recently. (The original Compact Cassette had only a single pair of keyways, with tabs that could be broken out to protect either side against accidental rerecording.)

Among other failed ideas in the tape field were magic-eye (Tandberg) and neon-bulb (Ampex) level peak-reading displays give us the best of both worlds. Another failed idea was play back-only decks, as offered by Tandberg, Sony, Viking, and others. Since a record/play head must compromise between a narrow head gap for good high-frequency playback performance and a wide gap for good recording performance, dispensing with the recording mode made sense. But the buying public evidently didn’t agree.

Nor did the public ultimately take to the consumer version of dbx noise reduction, thanks at least in part to Dolby Labs’ campaign on behalf of the competing Dolby C; nevertheless, it spawned a series of dbx-encoded prerecorded cassettes and even some dbx LPs. Another once-hot development was ferrichrome tape, in which a ferric layer handled the low frequencies and a chromium-dioxide surface layer handled the highs. A particularly intelligent and forth right representative of 3M once told me that, as “Type III,” it would ultimately dominate the cassette market. But metal-particle tape technology (Type IV) swept ferrichrome aside within a couple of years.

TOP: Even though it was used for a few LPs as well as tapes, the dbx noise-reduction system lost out to Dolby C NR; ABOVE: Garrard’s Zero 100 had a pantographic arm that kept the cartridge reasonably tangent to the groove over the whole disc, to reduce tracking error.

ABOVE: The Rabco was probably the most successful straight line-tracking arm.

The struggle for tangent tracking of record grooves goes back to the B-J pantographic tonearm of the 1950s, an idea later resurrected by Garrard. The most prestigious design was probably the Rabco linear-tracking arm, which was eventually acquired by Harman Kardon. Several other companies—including Marantz, Bang & Olufsen, and Technics—produced linear-tracking arms, as separates or integrated with turntables. While these arms generally solved the tracking-geometry problem, they tended to be fussy and expensive, and only the Rabco remained available for long.

The idea that analog disc grooves could be traced without wear by a light beam goes back to just after World War II, when it appeared in a Philco console phonograph. Its most persistent exemplar in strictly hi-fi circles was a design from A. Bernard Smith. The idea reemerged most recently just at the dawn of the CD era, in the Finial Technology laser turntable (still active as ELP laser turntable). Though that design went into only limited production, the laser pickup used for CDs, laserdiscs, and DVDs is its exact counterpart in the digital realm.

ABOVE: The “art” of sound? Fisher sound panel speakers!!

In analog days, “direct-to-disc” recording was considered to be the purest of technologies for preserving sonic freshness. Also valued, although little used, was the 12-inch 45-rpm format. Its higher rotation speed created less pinch effect on inner grooves, in comparison to LPs, but that higher speed limited maximum recording time some what. Both direct-to-disc and 12-inch 45-rpm records have been pretty well obviated by digital recording.

ABOVE: Tracing the LPs grooves only by reflected light the Finial (now ELP) promised an end to record wear. This is not a flop or folly, as predicted in Audio (ca. 1997), but the laser turntable is expensive.

JVC’s Globe Speaker Baffle could hang from a chain or be stand-mounted; a small arrow marks this as the speaker’s front.

Loudspeakers also have had their share of flops. During the ‘60s, the many makers of cylindrical and spherical systems claimed propagation and resonance advantages, not to mention advantages in decor, over flat-surfaced boxes. Empire’s floor- standing cylinders with tabletops and the spheres from JVC (then sold here as Nivico) are but two examples. The most radical was the eighth-of-a-sphere Bose 2201, which used reflections from the walls and floor to create the other, virtual, 7/ of the sphere. The design ultimately evolved into the classic Bose 901, but the shape is no longer around, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Along the same quasi-decorator lines have been lampshade and ceramic-vase speakers. Even more bizarre was the ionic speaker because its byproduct, ozone, can be toxic. This technology has surfaced repeatedly during the last 50 years. By driving the ionized air directly with an electrostatic field, designers hoped to create a particularly “pure” transducer, free of the electromechanical resonances of traditional drivers.

Electronics have seen a great many corporate failures and some fairly bizarre designs, but few concepts that have clearly been blind alleys have made it to production. Solid-state circuitry came close during the era when H. H. Scott amplifiers were failing in droves because few people, at Scott or elsewhere, realized how low the impedance curves of some popular loudspeakers actually dropped. The most bizarre touch during those years was, in retrospect, Harman Kardon’s announcement that germanium transistors were superior to silicon for audio circuitry and that the company would create the world’s only all-germanium electronics line. That phase passed quickly, and Harman Kardon survived, though Scott did not.

And then there was Dolby FM...

Adapted from Audio magazine (1947-2000). Classic Audio and Audio Engineering magazine issues are available for free download at the Internet Archive (, aka The Wayback Machine)

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Updated: Saturday, 2015-08-15 19:03 PST