The Return to Mono

The growing number of bluetooth speakers and digital personal assistants means that fewer and fewer are experiencing music in stereo.
The usual suspects. Top: Bose SoundLink. Bottom, left to right: Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, Google Home

Before there was stereo, there was mono; exactly the same sound came out of all speakers. While that meant no cleverly-produced guitar-solo panning from left to right, it also meant that you didn’t need to care a great deal about how you placed your speakers and yourself while listening to music.

Stereo sets took a while to get adopted into the homes of music-listeners, so for instance most of the The Beatles albums (from 1963’s ‘Please Please Me’ to ‘The Beatles’ (often called “The White Album”) in 1968) were originally mixed and produced in mono — it was also these mixes that the band members approved; the stereo mixes where done later while none of the band members were present. (This is one of the reasons why I believe mono-Beatles are superior to stereo-Beatles, by the way…)

Mono > Stereo?

While I could go on and on about The Beatles in mono (and how great that 2014 release on 180g vinyl cut from the original analog master tapes really is) I won’t. A lot has been written on this topic, so I’ll leave it to you to dig deeper (which I can only recommend).

One article, however, that you should make sure to read is ‘Back to Mono’, written by Damon Krukowski for Pitchfork in September 2014:

Though stereo sound has long been the standard for listening to music, Damon Krukowski argues that single-channel mono can offer a superior experience — an opinion shared by Brian Wilson, the Beatles, as well as many jazz greats.

Brian Wilson (who more or less was The Beach Boys) talks about the control mono gives to the band and the producer:

When Brian Wilson was told by Capitol that they wanted to produce a stereo mix of Pet Sounds, he raised an objection unrelated to his own hearing. “Brian explains that he always wanted his records to be in mono so that he would be in control of the listening experience,” the liner notes to that egregious stereo mix confess. “With mono, the listener hears it exactly with the balance that the producer intended. With stereo, however, the listener can change the mix, just by the turn of a balance knob or speaker placement.”

‘Pet Sounds’ (by far the best The Beach Boys album) and The Beatles all happened in the 1960s and since then people have switched to stereo sets in their home. In Danish we actually call them “stereoanlæg” (which rougly translates into ‘stereo devices’) and in English they are sometimes just labeled “stereos”.

The Rebirth of Mono

But that is due to change. Many of us are switching back to mono, maybe even without actually thinking about it. Whether you buy a bluetooth speaker or one of the digital assistants being pushed and advertised for right now (the three most popular are Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod and Google Home) you are listening to music from one single speaker source which means you are listening to it in mono.

Actually, this really isn’t completely new. Steve Guttenberg wrote about it for CNET and asked the readers: Is stereo on its way out?:

Sound bars, iPods, AirPlay, and Bluetooth speakers are essentially monophonic, not stereo sound sources. Does one speaker sound better than two?

He touched on the subject again in July 2016, asking Is stereo sound twice as good as mono?:

That was nearly 50 years ago, but monophonic sound has returned in the form of Bluetooth speakers. While some BT speakers have built-in stereo drivers, they’re so close together that the sound has virtually no separation, and winds up sounding like mono. Sure, a few folks buy pairs of BT and other wireless speakers, but most BT fans make do with one speaker. Home theater sound bars can indeed generate mild stereo separation, but it’s never as good as a pair of speakers, placed 6 or more feet (1.8 meters) apart.
But mono’s appeal isn’t limited to the Bluetooth crowd; some audiophiles go out of their way to collect old mono LPs, which they prefer over stereo LPs of the same album. Most monophiles are jazz lovers, but there are legions of Beatles fans who much prefer the mono mixes of their albums. For the true believers among them the mono “Sgt. Pepper’s” is the Holy Grail!

Personal and social listening

The most popular way of listening to music in stereo might be in your headphones, but here stereo can be almost painful (try playing the stereo mix of The Beatles’s ‘Taxman’ in a pair of speakers with vocals on one side and instruments on the other…horrible) and it’s only when you’re listening to music by yourself that you put on your headphones — social listening will no doubt be in mono more and more as people switch to bluetooth speakers and others like them.

Surely, this will affect how music is produced. I am in no position to make this argument (since I don’t spend that much of my time listening to contemporary music), but here we go anyway: I don’t hear a lot of music production utilizing the awesome possibilities in stereo mixes — at least not as much as earlier.

That would make sense. If a lot of your playback is going to be on mono speakers, it would be a source of error to mix it in stereo. Plus, mono sounds so much better played on stereo speakers or headphones than the other way around.

I have both stereo speakers and a bluetooth speaker at home and I find myself only listening on the wireless mono device which combines today’s technology with yesterday’s sound:

  1. It’s so easy to put on my favorite albums (thank you, Spotify),
  2. I don’t have to care about placing the speakers in the rights spots and the best angle, plus…
  3. I can carry it around with me inside and outside of my home.

Stereo: Made for Movement

Maybe it’s just me, but I think stereo (and surround sound, for that matter) is a nice gimmick, but it belongs in movies not in music.

As Krukowski writes in his Pitchfork article (my emphasis):

Tellingly, Blumlein’s [the inventor of stereo] initial inspiration for the invention of stereo recording was not an audio experience, per se. His biography, The Inventor of Stereo, tells an anecdote about Blumlein going to the cinema with his wife and complaining that the actors’ voices didn’t move with them across the screen. “I’ve got a way to make it follow the person,” he then said to her, in what may have been his eureka moment.
Perhaps Blumlein thought of stereo at the movies rather than at the Philharmonic, because stereo’s realism is related to how we hear sounds in motion. If we always walked around an orchestra while listening to it, hearing their music from a fixed point would seem a paltry representation of the experience. But so many of our musical experiences are static: played by instruments in a single position and listened to from a single position

Read more:

Here are the articles I mentioned and linked to throughout this article: