Tag Archives: stereo

Trying Brian Eno’s 3-channel “ambient speaker system” is a blast

I’ve been a Brian Eno fan for decades. There are lots of interesting bits from his album packaging that stuck in my memory- like the set of post cards by Peter Schmidt mentioned on the cover of Before and After Science (which apparently come with the 2-LP reissue- now I need to get that). But the most intriguing is the 3-channel “ambient speaker system” proposed on the back cover of Ambient 4: On Land. In the text and with accompanying diagram, he describes a system where in addition to a stereo pair of front speakers, a third speaker is added. The third speaker is wired strangely: one wire goes to the positive terminal of the left speaker connection, the second goes to the positive terminal of the right speaker connection. (I call them “one” and the “other” because it doesn’t seem to matter which is left and which is right.)

Eno doesn’t quite understand what’s happening, but he suspects what is common to both speakers cancels out, and what is played by the third speaker is only information unique to one channel or the other. Therefore, if you have a mono recording, nothing is reproduced to the third channel.

I finally decided the pandemic was a good time to mess around with this setup, so I bought a single speaker of the same type as my primary pair that happened to be on ebay. It arrived a few days ago.

On my amplifier, it didn’t work to use the positive terminals of the “B” set of speakers. So instead I wired the third speaker directly with the “A” set already connected to the amp. Sure enough, it worked. That is also how Eno indicates it should be connected- see http://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/onland-txt.html. So I guess that’s the only way it can work.

I situated the third speaker behind the couch, similar again to his diagram.

The result is, it’s been a lot of fun experiencing this pseudo surround sound. For albums with a lot of things happening in different channels, it’s been a real blast. The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin now spawns an infinite dimension behind my head. Tujiko Noriko’s self-titled celebration of electronic avant-pop whirrs and whizzes around in the room. Bitchin’ Bajas Baja Fresh imparts a feeling like floating in space, calming and slightly disorienting. And yeah, Eno’s On Land is infinitely more fun, offering secret nooks and corners buried in the mix that make you feel like wandering around an island in the dark stubbing toes on roots and rocks.

I also confirmed mono albums send nothing to the speaker. If a recording has extreme stereo separation, the opposite is true. If you listen to rough mixes of the Beatles’ early three-track recordings (as found on the Anthologies) or a stereo version of their first, Please Please Me, this setup adds basically a mono channel behind you.

Since low frequencies are rarely confined to one channel or the other, your third speaker doesn’t have to be a big, full-ranged one. A satellite will do. for the most part you’ll hear mids and highs in the third speaker.

Anyway, it’s been a fun, cheap way to hear familiar albums like new again, something you might enjoy doing with your old gear while in lockdown.