An Ode to Stereophonic Sound

Stereophonic sound or, more commonly, stereo, is a method of sound reproduction that creates an illusion of directionality and audible perspective. This is usually achieved by using two or more independent audio channels through a configuration of two or more loudspeakers in such a way as to create the impression of sound heard from various directions, as in natural hearing. Thus the term “stereophonic” applies to so-called “quadraphonic” and “surround-sound” systems as well as the more common two-channel, two-speaker systems. It is often contrasted with monophonic, or “mono” sound, where audio is in the form of one channel, often centered in the sound field. Stereo sound is now common in entertainment systems such as broadcast radio and TV, recorded music and the cinema.

How It Works

Stereo sound systems can be divided into two forms: The first is “true” or “natural” stereo in which a live sound is captured, with any natural reverberation or ambience present, by an array of microphones. The signal is then reproduced over multiple loudspeakers to recreate, as closely as possible, the live sound.

Secondly “artificial” or “pan-pot” stereo, in which a single-channel (mono) sound is reproduced over multiple loudspeakers. By varying the relative amplitude of the signal sent to each speaker an artificial direction can be suggested. The control which is used to vary this relative amplitude of the signal is known as a “pan-pot”. By combining multiple “pan-potted” mono signals together, a complete, yet entirely artificial, sound field can be created.

Stereophonic sound attempts to create an illusion of location for various sound sources within the original recording.

In technical usage, true stereo means sound recording and sound reproduction that uses stereographic projection to encode the relative positions of objects and events recorded.

The History of Stereo

Clément Ader demonstrated the first two-channel audio system in Paris in 1881, with a series of telephone transmitters connected from the stage of the Paris Opera to a suite of rooms at the Paris Electrical Exhibition, where listeners could hear a live transmission of performances through receivers for each ear.

This two-channel telephonic process was commercialized in France from 1890 to 1932 as the Théâtrophone, and in England from 1895 to 1925 as the Electrophone. Both were services available by coin-operated receivers at hotels and cafés, or by subscription to private homes.

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