Picks and Pans Review: Stereo Television

updated 12/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

On Thursday, July 26, 1984, there was a TV show heard round the world—if anyone could hear it. On that night NBC broadcast The Tonight Show in stereo, a first for major network TV. If you owned one of the rare TVs in America capable of receiving stereo and could pick up one of the handful of stations transmitting in it, then you could hear Ed Mc-Mahon growl "Heeeere's Johnny" to your left and to your right. Johnny's monologue probably sounds better in mono. But music is another matter—there, stereo makes TV appealing to the ears as well as the eyes. Electronics manufacturers are developing a stunning—but confusing—array of products to enhance TV's aural aura. Here are three basic options for receiving broadcast TV—but not necessarily cable—in stereo:

•You can buy a whole new TV, getting one with stereo circuitry and dual speakers already built in. They don't come cheap, starting at around $800 and rising fast. Zenith, RCA, Panasonic, Quasar, Magnavox and Sanyo are some of the companies offering stereo TVs today. A few others, including JVC and Emerson, are holding back, waiting until more programs are broadcast in stereo.

•If you bought a new TV recently and think it's "stereo-ready," look at the back of the set; if it has a stereo adapter plug, then you can buy a separate adapter from Sony, NEC and others for $100 to $200 (making sure that the brand of adapter you buy is compatible with the brand of TV you own). These work either through the TV's stereo amplifier and speakers—if your set has them—or through any stereo sound system. Some of these adapters also can be used to upgrade stereo-ready VCRs.

•If your TV is not stereo-ready, even if it's old and black and white, you still can get stereo sound by buying a different adapter. This one is more like a TV set without a TV tube; it has a tuner and a dial just like a TV, but it receives only the audio portion of the broadcast, not the video. So, you turn off the volume on your TV and let the adapter—hooked into a standard stereo system—handle the sound. Radio Shack has one model selling at $ 139.95.

That may make TV stereo sound easy. But there are considerable complications. Some TVs and adapters can simulate stereo sound from a mono signal, others can't. Some adapters receive only VHF stations, others both UHF and VHF. Some adapters let you control volume and sound quality through the TV, others don't. Some sets and adapters can pick up a third audio channel besides the two stereo channels; this one will be used mainly for simultaneous translation of programs into other languages. And there's the question of VCRs. If your TV is stereo equipped but your VCR is not, then you won't hear stereo on shows you record.

More important is the question of cable, which is how almost half of America gets its TV. Many cable systems cannot transmit stereo using the method broadcast TV does, which is what your stereo-ready TV is designed to receive. The FCC is considering a rule that would require cable operators to offer stereo, but the cable industry is fighting it, arguing that too many systems would have to be overhauled at too high a price. A handful of cable channels—MTV, the Movie Channel, ESPN and the Nashville Network among them—get around all those problems and do transmit in stereo. But to get that stereo sound, if your cable operator offers it, often requires yet another adapter; this one picks up a separate radio signal off the cable—simulcast apart from the TV signal—and feeds it through any existing stereo sound system. That adapter can cost around $4 a month.

Finally, if you do buy the whole works, what will you be able to hear in stereo? Not much. PBS' station WTTW in Chicago has been transmitting stereo steadily since August. NBC plans to keep on experimenting with stereo on Miami Vice, Friday Night Videos and a few other shows; the other networks are behind and not in a hurry to catch up.

The best advice seems to be: Let your neighbor be the first on the block.

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