The Gadgets: Panasonic's SL-850 quadraphonic turntable, featuring the unusual 4.0 discrete-channel format for stereo-besting sound. (As the brochure says, "In the real world, sound comes from literally every direction.") Plus, GE's 4-Channel Receiver, with a built-in 8-track cassette player.
The Verdicts: First, the Panasonic SL-850 turntable: This turntable uses the first version of quadraphonic sound, CD-4, which means the turntable outputs four distinct, individual channels directly to 4 separate speakers. Though it's a form of surround sound, in my test track, "Musicione" by The Guess Who, the differences between stereo and quadraphonic weren't quite as obvious as, say, between stereo and a 5.1 surround sound mix. There's very little of that gimmicky "moving sound" that flits between each channel that's sometimes emphasized in 5.1, but there's definitely a noticeable difference between quad and stereo.
In the chorus of the quad version of "Musicione," each background vocal track gets its own channel, which is reduced to a mere two-way split in the sad stereo mix. Also in quad, there's a treble/bass split between the front and rear, even going so far as to split the drum set components (high hat and snare in the front, floor tom and bass drum in the rear), while the left/right split is saved for the band's two main instruments (piano left, guitar right). It's pretty subtle, and no doubt some of the subtlety was exacerbated by the questionable quality of my speakers, but a stereo version of the same song definitely felt flat in comparison.
The turntable also features an automatic start and stop, a welcome addition, as well as the standard 33/45/78 RPM modes. It's the only automatic turntable I've ever used—instead of lifting the needle and placing it on the record (crazy! I'll go to the gym if I'm gonna work out, you know what I mean?), you just flip a switch and the Panasonic does it for you. My particular model is missing the center pin that holds the record in place—in the past, I've filed down a wood pencil as a replacement, though the drill bit I found amongst my dad's tools (pictured) works nicely as well.
The downsides to quadraphonic? The needle, technically called the "Shibata stylus," is a specialized type. When the time comes for replacement, you can bet it'll cost more and be harder to find than a standard needle. Plus, there are comparatively few quadraphonic records out there—my dad's copy of The Who's Quadrophenia was actually only in two channel. While the SL-850 plays stereo like a champ, you're not buying it for mere two-channel audio.
The GE 4-Channel Receiver is an even more interesting beast. Its most striking feature is the built-in 8-track cassette player, though to my deep, deep disappointment, it refused to play the only two 8-tracks in my possession, a Motown compilation and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. No amount of NES-style blowing into the cassettes or the player would yield any sound, so I suppose it must be busted.
But the receiver itself is a powerhouse—it's got both four-channel and simple stereo modes, a stylish AM/FM tuner, and a sweet balance joystick that lets you control which of the four channels (L/R front and back) gets the most emphasis. It was able to push my four speakers (a pair of giant Pioneer cabinets and a pair of slightly smaller Sonys, one of which was mysteriously and unsettlingly sticky) with a ton of power and pretty decent bass/treble control, thanks to a pair of sliders. Unfortunately, it's packing only a single audio input, so it might require an external A/V switcher if I wanted to line in more than just the turntable.
The GE unit is also a handsome-looking deck, with wood paneling all around accompanied by a chrome and black plastic front. The AM/FM tuner lights up in fluorescent green and has this great squiggly grid design, and it's very clear what every toggle and switch does. If it weren't for the busted 8-track deck, it'd be a winner.
Quadraphonic audio recordings sound great
Plays stereo and quad perfectly
Automatic start/stop is a welcome feature
Rare needle could be expensive and/or difficult to replace
Not the best-looking turntable we've ever seen
Powerful, customizable sound (joystick especially is great)
Single input necessitates external A/V switcher
8-track player doesn't work
Heavy as hell
Special thanks to my dad for hoarding all this ancient gear in our basement.
Gizmodo '79 is a week-long celebration of gadgets and geekdom 30 years ago, as the analog age gave way to the digital, and most of our favorite toys were just being born.