RCA Quadraphonic - Flew like a lead zeppelin.

Gather round, children, and listen to a story of hope and disappointment.

In 1970, RCA wanted everyone to buy a new audio system for the new four-channel (which came to be known as "quadraphonic" or "quad") music system. At that time, consumer-level stereophonic (two-channel) systems were still sort of new. Anyone with a stereo "hi-fi" system would have been considered an early adopter.

This RCA ad wanted you to drop everything and rush straight out and buy a new quad system. Now, stereo systems have twice as many components as mono. Two amplifiers, twice the speakers, twice the everything, pretty much. As a result, they cost about twice the money that a monophonic system did.

Along comes quadraphonic, and they cost roughly twice as much as stereo, with four times the components as a mono system, of course. How much was that? Well, the system pictured in the RCA ad sold for $250. Run off to the CPI inflation calculator page and we can see that $250 was about $1300 in today's money.  Yowza.

Having just bought a stereo hi-fi a few years previously, would you be prepared to jump to a quad system already? To the well-heeled douchebag subscribers of Esquire, it may have been a no brainer. It was also 1970, so, amazingly bad decisions on the part of pop culture were coming fast and furious. Maybe a $1300 bookshelf music system (look at the size of the speakers in comparison to the cassette slot) seemed like a solid decision? Maybe you would have looked forward to throwing this in the trash when hexaphonic sound systems came out a few years in the future? I mean, why wouldn't you assume that was on the way, right? Spoiler alert: that didn't happen.

Time would show us that not many people were into quad. Not very many albums were recorded in quad, and before too long, Dolby Labs would figure out how to make a stereo signal feed four or more speakers through clever phase detection. Stereo was pretty good enough, it seemed. Five-channel and seven-channel surround systems, which extracted multichannel audio from a two-channel encoded audio signal, would embarrass your lame-ass quad system by simply being more cleverer with less hardware. If you haven't listened to music on a surround system, you're missing out. It's pretty cool.

Of course, we are now looking at an entire generation raised on hyper-compressed music played through twenty-dollar computer speakers or came-free-with-my-iPhone craptacular earbuds, so, hi-fi, or "high fidelity" is sort of a dead thing for now. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the superpopular bass-is-all-I-care-about Beats brand of headphones, which are as close to high-fidelity as the squeaky earbuds they, in many cases replaced, to be honest. People love those too, because they're expensive.

Come to think of it, hi-fi early adopters at least cared about accurate sound reproduction. Maybe those douchebags weren't so silly after all. Is the idea of four speakers more ridiculous than choosing a pair of headphones because you like the color, or headphones that are engineered with permanent bass-all-the-way-up circuitry? The last time I tried to buy a pair of headphones in a store, the clerk looked at me like I was nuts when I told him I wanted to hear them before buying them. Apparently, caring about how accurately a music system reproduces sound makes you an eccentric outlier.

Maybe the douchebags weren't so silly.


Unknown said...

reminds me of Steve Martin's Googlephonics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cjjsz14hL48

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