Music Perspective Red Letters Technology Words

Stop Settling for Mono Playback

Stereo is worth a change.

Though I have many audio­phili­cal sen­ti­ments and pref­er­ences, I can­not — by con­science — ful­ly claim the title because I’ve nev­er been able to jus­ti­fy the allot­ment of funds nec­es­sary for the oblig­a­tory equip­ment. (And my dig­i­tal com­pres­sor usage in the pro­duc­tion of Drycast and Future­land has been man­i­fest­ly vul­gar.) That said, audio engi­neer­ing is one of the few top­ics which I can actu­al­ly speak on with almost-aca­d­e­m­ic author­i­ty, and my pre­ten­tious­ness-capac­i­tat­ed pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with qual­i­ty-of-life com­pels me to bring up a ludi­crous­ly-ratio­nal stan­dard that most of us have con­tin­ued to under­shoot for far too long.


Two weeks ago, the abun­dant­ly-rumored omis­sion of the 3.5mm audio port in the iPhone 7 was final­ly set­tled. We played our own part in feed­ing the “con­tro­ver­sy,” yeah, but I believe Apple was actu­al­ly quite tardy in label­ing smart­phone-bound ana­log audio as archa­ic, though I’m not going to waste words in that dis­cus­sion — it is def­i­nite­ly over­sat­u­rat­ed, at this point — because I think mono audio is an even more preva­lent top­ic.


Hon­est­ly, out of all the miss­ing fea­tures we’ve lament­ed over in the past decade, stereo speak­ers should’ve been the most aggra­vat­ing. The gigan­tic dif­fer­ence, of course, is that the indus­try (and — by mud­dled exten­sion — the con­sumers) has been all but silent in that regard. I write you, now, because we should all be colos­sal­ly dis­ap­point­ed with our­selves.


Two chan­nels. Left and right. Read: Mono vs. Stereo But why should you care? What if Google — some­how — failed to pro­vide you with a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence?


One chan­nel of sound is — in terms of locale — rigid­ly sta­t­ic in your per­cep­tion. Dou­bling the data cre­ates a spec­trum, adding dimen­sion­al­i­ty, which is infi­nite, ya know. Play­ing back audio in stereo, through two or more diaphragms (the fun­da­men­tal hard­ware unit of sound repro­duc­tion,) now enables the exhi­bi­tion of audio pic­tures.


If this is entire­ly new to you, I want you to do some­thing. Find your­self a pair of head­phones or a set of two or more com­put­er speak­ers. (If these aren’t avail­able, con­sid­er your car’s sound sys­tem. If it’s at all cur­rent and healthy, it’s gonna do the trick.) Both­er to dis­cov­er “L” and “R.” That is, left and right. Ori­ent accord­ing­ly. Down­load this 37-sec­ond clip I record­ed at Bike­Fest with my Zoom H2n. (Be advised: the pre­view is for­mat­ted in 5.1 sur­round, so it’s a very large file for its play­back length.) Lis­ten, obvi­ous­ly, and then lis­ten again on your sin­gu­lar smart­phone “loud­speak­er.”


That’s what I’m talk­ing about.


Why am I being so abashed­ly patron­iz­ing? Why am I trans­gress­ing against our par­tic­u­lar assump­tions about you — the informed, savvy mil­len­ni­al audi­ence? Because the vast major­i­ty of play­back I hear in day-to-day life is still from a sin­gu­lar diaphragm; a sin­gu­lar source.


A top­i­cal exam­ple: I am shown a YouTube video on an iPhone. (A pre-iPhone 7 device, that is.)


Walk­ing down­town, I pass a small band of ado­les­cent skate­board­ers lis­ten­ing to Can­ni­bal Ox on a Sam­sung Galaxy Note.


Worst of all: I find myself watch­ing a Net­flix film on my iPhone, in bed, not hav­ing both­ered to wear the $200 pair of QC15s sit­ting with­in arm’s length.


Informed or not, con­sumers are neglect­ing audio, and dimen­sion­al­i­ty, alone is worth a change. Recent years have allowed the unlim­it­ed band­width assump­tion to become habit, so even the vast major­i­ty of today’s spo­ken word pro­grams (like pod­casts) — which, in gen­er­al, stay in the “cen­ter” of their mix, mak­ing lit­tle to no use of the left-right spec­trum — are pro­duced in stereo, now. In many cas­es (includ­ing a few of ours,) this dou­ble­siz­ing is often for the sake of intro­duc­to­ry themes, alone. If you care to imag­ine a more data-fru­gal soci­ety, the “waste” is ridicu­lous. It is not unre­al­is­tic to expect such a real­i­ty in the near future, but the same holds true for the reverse.


In the present’s abun­dance, though, the result is sim­ply a decrease — as a whole — in playback’s “full expe­ri­ence,” if the hard­ware is not changed. Imag­ine how great it’d be if a dig­i­tal audio for­mat­ting stan­dard could be devel­oped that’d enable a sin­gu­lar file to be mono or stereo, if needed/utilized, to trim off redun­dan­cy, sor­ta like vari­able bit rate. Get on that, would ya?


So, why haven’t we become more dili­gent about our sound expe­ri­ences? 1 bil­lion iPhones in cir­cu­la­tion, all with mono play­back by default, are sus­pect cul­prits, I think. Of course, there are oth­er devices, but none as influ­en­tial — even the iPod, fun­ny enough — on fun­da­men­tal dig­i­tal func­tions like music play­back. And hon­est­ly, when is it appro­pri­ate or suave to take the extra steps?

I want to show you this song. Let me untan­gle my head­phones… Yes, okay. Put  them in. I’m going to sit here in silence for four min­utes, look­ing into your eyes as you lis­ten to the entire­ty of this track.
It’s nev­er going to be social­ly accept­able. But what about wire­less alter­na­tives?
Apple’s new Air Pods look absurd, but their by-com­put­ing opti­miza­tion of the Blue­tooth audio stan­dard is rev­o­lu­tion­ary, in a small way, in pro­pelling the “hear­ables” par­a­digm into the main­stream, if only for a moment. If — in a strange­ly-audio­cen­tric future — we are always wear­ing mul­ti­pur­pose sound repro­duc­tion devices in our ears, per­haps the waste of the Mono Mon­stros­i­ty will be final­ly resolved. Until then, I sup­pose all we can do is give it an extra thought, for our own quality-of-life’s sake.