The Rebirth of Quad

Four Channels Deliver Three-Dimensional Sound

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Jazz,
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The Rebirth of Quad

have fallen in love—again—with quadraphonic sound.

In 1972, I purchased a state-of-the-art Sylvania CR2743W stereo amp with built-in Phase Q4 Matrix four-channel circuitry. In stereo quadraphonic systems (SQ), four sound channels were converted down to two channels and then back to four through an SQ decoder. To experience the immersive effects, I placed the quartet of three-way AS105W speakers around the living room of my WWII-era four-plex.

My significant other inherited the system after our split and quad faded from my sound world.

Quad systems had been introduced in 1954, but didn’t gain widespread popularity until 1970. By the end of the decade, the quad format had become nearly extinct. Today, with the advent of Blu-ray and SACD formats, quad is a micro-niche and quad titles are slowly working their way back into my collection. Quad got a big boost with the reissue of John Lennon’s Imagine—the 2018 multi-disc box set included the original 1971 quad mix of his classic album (dubbed “quadrasonic” on the Lennon disc). 

Whereas the new 5.1 mix of Imagine uses the center channel to isolate Lennon’s vocals and separate instruments overall to create an ambient effect, the 4.0 mix packs more punch. 

The reissue has shined a spotlight on other recent quad releases and has drawn the attention of audiophiles intrigued by four-channel sound. Those recent quad recordings on Blu-ray or SACD include the 50th anniversary edition of Jethro Tull’s 1968 blues-heavy debut This Was, which sports a Steven Wilson 4.1 mix (which has no center channel). Audio Fidelity has reissued several quadraphonic titles, including Colors of the Day: The Best of Judy Collins. The bevy of 2017 Pink Floyd box sets proved a bonanza for four-channel enthusiasts. Titles included Deviation, 1970, with a vintage 4.0 mix of 1970’s sprawling Atom Heart Mother; and Reverberation, which features the 1971 quad mix of the epic space-rock anthem “Echoes,” from Meddle. 

Floyd was the first major rock outfit to embrace quad: In the mid-60s, the band boasted the most innovative sound system in rock ’n’ roll. “Its most legendary component, the quadraphonic azimuth co-ordinator, transformed the music into a truly three-dimensional experience by systematically projecting sound effects and solos behind and around the audience—in the process giving even the kid in the last row the sense that he was ‘inside’ the performance,” Nicholas Schaffner wrote in 1991’s Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey. 

In the classical realm, audiophile online forums lit up a couple of years ago following the reissue of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s powerhouse 1971 quad mix of The Planets by Gustav Holst (Deutsche Grammophon), under conductor William Steinberg. It was the follow-up to DG’s five-disc quad release Beethoven: The Symphonies, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The Pentatone label is releasing additional quad titles from the DG, Philips, and Philips Classics catalogs. More recently, Naxos has taken over the Vox catalog, which includes numerous quad classical titles.

Meanwhile, the UK-based Dutton Laboratories, through its Dutton Epoch series, has released 52 four-channel SACDs that feature works by 20th-century British composers. The label also has 32 soul, jazz, rock, and prog titles, all on 4.0 surround SACDs, under its Vocalion series. 

Quad has enjoyed a renaissance, thanks largely to the rise of audiophile-level home cinema systems,” says Dutton Labs label chief Mike Dutton. “I also think that, despite the quad LP and tape cartridge having been killed off by the format war of the latter 70s, there has always been interest in quad/surround sound, mainly because, when done properly, it sounds great. My own interest in quadraphonic sound began during the early 1970s when, in my teens, I acquired a decoder and began buying Quad LPs.

“The classical recordings we make for the Dutton Epoch label are in 4.0 because in 5.1 the center channel makes the front stereo image less wide, and the use of the bass speaker affects the phase/image placement of the bass in the recording when we use a ‘Decca Tree’—a stand with three microphones that capture the basic image. Also, the center speaker is designed for speech in film, really. Many of our classical listeners like a concert-hall approach to recording, so the compromise is 4.0.”

What does the future hold for quad?

“All this is now changing with the coming of Dolby Atmos and 3D recording,” Dutton adds, “which will extend the scope of surround-sound recording in new and exciting ways.”