Joel Goldenberg: The Hafler effect, in my car

Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane.

We interrupt our evaluations of notable albums throughout my listening history, to return once again to one of my favourite subjects — surround sound music.

My father got our first all-in-one stereo system in about 1973, and I later used it extensively to listen to his cassette collection, as well as interesting 78 RPM records, including the funny Jewish humour of comedian Mickey Katz.

As it happens, 1973 was also supposed to be the Year of Quad. Most of the major record companies (MCA and,for the most part, Capitol were exceptions) — Columbia, RCA Victor, Warner Brothers, Atlantic, A&M, the folk label Vanguard, and others— were busy pressing and releasing millions of albums in quadraphonic, four-channel, sound.

RCA, notably, released Elvis Presley's last #1 album, the live Aloha From Hawaii, only in quadraphonic sound, at least in the U.S. although I have read Canadian pressings released with a "stereo" designation were also really quad.

As I have written before, quadraphonic was doomed to failure for several reasons — it was too much trouble and pricey to install two additional speakers and a whole new system; and there were several quad formats that were not compatible with each other, at least on vinyl — Columbia had their SQ system, while RCA and Warner went with CD-4.

Notwithstanding this problem, Columbia and RCA, especially, released a very large number of quad LPs.

As someone who started buying music in the early 1980s, I was sad to have missed out on at least hearing quad material. I even bought some quad LPs, not because I could hear them that way, but to hear some mixing differences — such as three Sly and the Family Stone tracks that had been only released in fake stereo on their greatest hits stereo LP.

One day, my father set up two additional speakers in our house in such a way that I could hear distinct sounds from the rears, even from a two-channel stereo recording. I later learned this is called the Hafler effect, in which an element of a recording that is out of phase or in a distinct place in the stereo spectrum would be separated from the other elements. The process involves reversing the leads going to one of the speakers.

It worked well on some recordings, not so well on others.

Much later, I read that some members of the Steve Hoffman Music forum readjusted the wiring in their cars to achieve the same effect, but I was not prepared to do that.

Fast forward to November 2019 — I got a new Honda Civic, with plenty of audio features — Bluetooth, three free months of Sirius XM, regular AM and FM radio, but no CD player. That's the trend these days.

But when the dealer showed me the system, I was intrigued by an additional feature — DTS Neural Surround. I figured this was a different version of Dolby Pro-Logic II, which transforms stereo recordings into five-channel, with not always great results.

My first listen was the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), but it sounded kind of messy. Then I heard the Carpenters' Close to You, and the background vocals were in the back speaker.

I then proceeded to the Quadraphonic Quad forum and read a discussion of recordings that benefit from the Hafler/Dolby Pro-Logic II effect. Two albums were discussed — the Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing at Baxter's and Crown of Creation, both very psychedelic and from the late 1960s.

The resulting sound was discrete music all over my car. On the same site, I saw a list of "stereo albums that sound great in quad," and began downloading from Spotify and YouTube Music.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers by the Byrds, a somewhat psychedelic album, is a revelation. The vocals are spread out in what sounds like a phantom centre channel, and the effect is wonderful.

Another notable LP is Johnny Cash's Live At San Quentin (Columbia Records) , which produced the #1 hit A Boy Named Sue. When the song in question only employs guitars, the sound is in the front. But when the drums kick in, those are in the back.

Especially stunning (at least soundwise, the singing is rather bland) is Ray Conniff's Bridge Over Troubled Water album, on Columbia Records. The vocals are mainly in the rear channels, and sound wonderful.

Let it Be by the Beatles is interesting. On songs that just feature guitars and drums, one guitar sound is in the rears; but on others, the background vocals and strings are in the rears. On one especially short song, Maggie Mae, John Lennon's vocal is in the front, and Paul McCartney's backing vocal is in the rear.

Another listed recording, John Denver's Poems, Prayers and Promises, doesn't work as well, as the backing is mostly acoustic guitars. Even when other instruments are involved, the effect is not that pleasant.

But overall, I am very happy to have this feature. Not only does it mostly sound great, it brings back memories of our old speaker set up on our 1973 stereo.

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