This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Oh Mono how I love thee, or why don’t I miss your cousins’ imaging
“Hi-fi is its own beautiful thing and for me the more simple it is the better. Mono, that's right, MONO.” From “Mono Mia”, Vinny Gallo, Sound Practices, Summer 1992

Did you know that the first commercial motion picture to be exhibited with multi-channel stereophonic sound was Walt Disney's Fantasia way back in 1940? They called it Fantasound and Disney went so far as to have custom hifi gear designed and built to travel with the show. I got to hear one of the original 1940 ‘Fantasia amps’ at Oswald’s Mill since the Mill’s owner, Jonathan Weiss, owns one. And this Fantasia anecdote makes perfect sense to me since multi-channel stereophonic sound is all about a better illusion - which is what Walt Disney was all about.

We listened to a host of mono recordings, mostly original releases. You may think this means all pre-stereo, pre-1958 records but it doesn’t. Mono records were regular off-the-shelf items as late as the late 1960s and they are still being made by labels like Brooklyn’s Daptone Records (I just picked up a brand new release by A Hawk and a Hacksaw which also happens to be a 10” 78RPM record). It’s interesting to note that original mono LPs are generally the more prized possessions for the vinyl-addicted audiophile.

There were tons of tasty mono treats to be sampled, including selections from Ben Webster, Dizzy, Miles, Ella, Ellington, Elvis, Sinatra, Dylan, J.J. Johnson, Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls, Peggy Lee, Otis Reading, Pet Sounds, The Ventures, Charlie Rich, Gladys Night and the Pips, Lefty Frizell, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, The Fendermen, Rose Maddox, Hank Williams, George Jones, Merle Haggard, John Lee Hooker, Bobby "Blue" Bland, The Budos Band, Van Morrison, Mal Waldron, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and many more. Stereo also made an appearance and included a super-rare super-amazing sounding white label promo copy of Led Zeppelin IV courtesy of Andrew Klein that managed to make “Stairway to Heaven” feel like the first time.

While we’re on the super-rare super-amazing-sounding theme, there were also two extremely collectible Sonny Rollins LPs at the Stereophile gathering; an original first pressing mono copy of Saxophone Colossus on Prestigecourtesy of Jeff Wong (which also sported an inscription to Jeff from Sonny) and an original mono Sonny Rollins Vol. 1 on Blue Note courtesy of Alex Halberstadt. A special thanks to Jeff, Alex and Brinks Armored Services for bringing and sharing these monaural delights.

But don’t you miss that stereo stuff? Don’t mono records sound flat in comparison? My answers are no. In a nutshell, mono records sound as real as real can be and I am not left wanting for anything except maybe more. As a matter of fact, there’s something viscerally concrete about the mono presentation and I find myself getting lost in the performance even without the aural queues of stereo’s necessarily less concrete illusion. I dare say mono records can sound even deeper.

Illusion ain’t everything
Reproduction and illusion are not necessarily co-dependant. In other words, you don’t need to rely on illusion to provide a fulfilling reproduction. I’d also suggest that when listening to music on a hifi, we’re really interested in a musically engaging presentation which does not necessarily mean one that also conveys the aural illusion of stereophonic sound. Beyond the fact that some music never was performed live, being a product of the studio, I’ve been to concerts where if you closed your eyes, you’d be forced to imagine the band bouncing off the walls, floor and ceiling to create a visual image of their location. Yet at the same time I was never in doubt that I was witnessing a real event.

With hifi I believe we’re mainly talking about what our sensory apparatus and accompanying processing requires to have an engrossing and captivating experience. I suggest that we each perceive in different ways and that some are more inclined than others to fill in the blanks from incomplete sensual stimuli. Some of us may even prefer an incomplete yet more exacting presentation to a full-range sensory overloaded-in-surround sound with 3D glasses and Smell-O-Vision version. Still others have little regard for sound quality and have no problem getting their musical rocks rocked by a table radio. Guess what? No one’s wrong.

Without getting too far off course, it’s also worth pointing out that the preference for art and its varying degrees of illusion changes with time and culture. And these changes are not linear. When looking at the history of Western Art for example, we do not see an unbroken march toward greater and greater levels of illusion. Further, these deviations are caused by among other things social, scientific and cultural events. In other words, our chosen and preferred flavor of representation is another aspect of our human condition. It follows, at least to me, that our preferred flavor of musical reproduction is also non-linear and similarly pushed and shoved by the times and world we live in as much as it is by our personal preferences; and sensitivity -- or lack thereof -- to sensory stimuli. In other words, like art, the history of hifi is not measured by a yardstick whose far end is marked “illusion”.