In 1957 I was at a store with my father. This place sold cameras, records and audio gear. I noticed a Pentron reel to reel tape deck. On it was the word “Stereo.” I asked what it meant. Stereophonic sound had been around, mostly in movies. The word was it would be developed. In 1956, Capitol records recorded Nat “King” Cole’s album ’Love is the thing” in stereo for future use.
Also in the store were several seven inch boxes containing prerecorded tape. Most were classical and on Mercury, a very early pioneer in stereo. And as usual, there were two types for the consumer, stacked or staggered heads. The tapes were very pricey, over six bucks, alot in those days.
In late 1958, came a huge new innovation. Stereo had come to vinyl records. The previous year I had gotten a great Christmas present, a Fisher integrated amp, a Garrard changer and a speaker whose brand escapes me. I was now a component stereo guy.
For 1958, my father bought me an Eico integrated amp and another speaker. The Garrard had been wired for stereo and he installed a GE reluctance cartridge. We were now a stereo home, the month it came out.
The early stereo records saw Audio Fidelity with railroad sounds, a popular seller during stereo’s birth. London records was on the two channel bandwagon early. Mantovani and Edmundo Ros filled our home with sound. The recordings were pretty good.
Here is where we must praise the audio engineers. This was a brand new project. Mostly they worked with two microphones. Sound mixers would come later. Many hit the nail on the head with great clean stereo sound. As you know, the Mercury Living Presence series is still very highly regarded by fussy audiophiles.
This caused difficulty for record stores. Having just cleaned out their 78′s by selling them cheaply, along comes stereo which created double inventory. We were told not to play stereo records on mono equiptment.
The new fangled stereo’s kept electronics firms busy. The “console” stereo’s had everything in one cabinet. The two channel sensation wasn’t really enjoyed.
The component people were busy tooling up new products. It was full speed ahead. This didn’t seem like another fad that would slip away.
Bandleader Enoch Light had an idea to appeal to these new fans of stereo. His company, Command records went full tilt ino multi channel sound. The albums had double covers with all spec info available. Light missed the point. Instead of a natural sound, he thought of stereo as a “ ping-pong” medium. He produced his records with an engineered by play between the two channels. Buyers of those stereo consoles loved them as it enhanced the stereo sound. One of his albums, Persusave Percussion went to no. one. The music wasn’t much, but nobody cared.
Stereo did help sell more record albums. Also, most companies needed a gimmick to sell LP’s. Previously albums had a “concept” but in the late 50′s it was thought to take best
selling hits by one artist and create compilation album. Capitol called theirs “This is.” RCA, “Golden Records”, Columbia had simply “Greatest Hits,” and Mercury made ”Encore of Golden Hits.” It worked. Best selling albums had been original cast or soundtracks and comedy material.
Columbia released “Johnny Mathis’ Greatest Hits” in 1958. It stayed on the top 100 list for ten years. Fans were getting their favorite hits together on one LP to replace the scratchy won 45′s. To help the stereo craze, enhanced stereo began to be manufactured. All this was was mono with the second channel phased reversed with phony echo. They were terrible.
The fifties gave us plenty of new changes. The sixties were no slouch either. In 1947, RCA labs invented a new device, a semi-conductor, called a transistor. Originally used by the military, this small innovation would change almost the entire world of electronics. They were lighter than tubes and under normal use, produced little heat. When Asia got a hold of them they became very cheap.
Transistors seemed to have a real advantage. Used in television, the huge old TV’s got smaller. They would bring a new look and feel to radios Previously, “portable” radios were hardly that. Powered by tubes, they needed two or three heavy and expensive batteries. I bought one with my grammar school graduation money. It never worked right and I took it back to the store.
Transistor radios became the first hot button item of the sixties. They could fit in a shirt pocket, had decent sound and were powered mostly by a small inexpensive nine volt battery. The battery companies benefitted and soon came improved and longer lasting ones made from alkaline.
Eventually technology took over and the transistor provided great sound at a low price. Years later came the Sony Walkman, that and its clones sold by the boatload.
What came out of radios changed too. In 1966, the FCC mandated that AM radio stations which owned FM would have to provide at least 50 percent different broadcasting on its FM station. In a few years, it was ruled that all radios sold would have both AM & FM. FM boomed because a sub carrier was invented which meant stereo sound was available over the years.
Transistors changed the high fidelity industry. In the early 60′s, the receiver became very popular. An amplifier, a pre amp and an AM/FM tuner on a lightweight chassis became the front runner of sound. All you need was a turntable and speakers. Teen ager’s bedrooms and college dorms were filled with music. Manufacturers like Pioneer, Kenwood and Technics were based in the orient and were affordable.
Sadly, some of the Hi-fi innovators like Avery Fisher and Saul Marantz got out of the business and their names were stamped on”inferior” components from Asia.
The art of tape recording had a small audience and were limited to reel to reel. Changes happened here too. Bill Leer, the small jet plane manufacturer created recording tape in a cartridge that would play eight tracks on an endless loop. This became a new music source. It was now possible to hear stereo music in the car. These underdash players were reasonable. However, installed under the dash, they were often stolen.
Sony made an eight track recorder. Of course we had to have one. It was nice to have my music of choice in my car. The eight tracks were clumsy, often jammed.
Consumers who bought them to play at home were disappointed. The compressed sound and tape hiss were hardly hi-fi. As always, there were two choices but a four track tape failed as fast as it was made. Eight track was a nice novelty but there had to be something better. Soon there was. Norelco/Philipps developed a small cassette. These small recorders were helpful to reporters for interviews. Why not music? The speed was only 1-7/8ths inches per second. This meant tape hiss. Along came Ray Dolby and his sound reduction system produced full fidelity cassettes.
Another product boom. These small cassettes almost caught vinyl as the choice for music consumers. This caused another new industry, the car stereo business. The players became popular as music in the car would compare with home systems.
Cassette recorders became a new component with manufacturers trying to out-do each other with impressive performance and specs.
Things became different on the music side. For the life of the industry, the single record, first the 78 then the 45, was the medium that put record companies in the black. In the early 60′s a change was coming. Four “mopheads” from Great Britain formed together in 1962. They became The Beatles. They had recorded many singles and had success in England. In 1964, their fame blew through the roof. The music industry had not seen such an impact since Elvis Presley. EMI records, Capitol in the US, acquired all their music. Early in 1964, they had one week the top five hits on the survey. Then came their infamous Ed Sullivan TV appearance. Capitol began putting all their sides on albums.
Teenage fans by now had the playback gear. Suddenly the long playing album took over as the “software” of choice.
This changed policies of record companies. When an artist got a hit, they would wrap an album around it. In 1966 when Frank Sinatra had a surprise no. 1 hit in “Strangers in the night,” he was rushed into the studio and quickly cut nine sides to fill the LP.
Record stores began putting LP’s on the main floor. Album’s popularity became enchanced by discount record sales in department stores.
In New York, a chain known as Korvettes would purchase truckloads of albums and would hold weekly sales. I remember buying four albums for ten dollars, tax included.
Other large stores followed suit. While great for the record buyer, the independant record store owner couldn’t compete. The 60′s were probably the best years for the music business.
With albums now popular, rock and roll artists were making them and mostly writing their own songs. The new FM era saw specialty stations that played different kinds of rock. Gold albums sold 100,000 copies. Now a million sales would be platinum.
In 1969, Simon and Garfunkel released a new album, “Bridge over troubled water,” it went platinum before it was released, because of pre orders.
Stereo stores were doing well. The imported products sold at a reasonable price. The transistor era brought components made in kit fom from companies like Heath, Allied and Dynaco. The Dyna amp and pre amp were big sellers. A budget minded fan with a soldering iron could put them together easily. Pre wired printed circuit boards made things easy. While most components in the 60′s and 70′s were from Asia, Americans dominated loudspeakers with names like AR, KLH, JBL and others.
No one knows for sure when the “high end” era began but some disgruntled audiophiles weren’t thrilled with most of the products on the market. Some hated the “solid state” sound. In basements, just like 20 years before some independant thinkers were making what they hoped was more sophisticated gear. The goal was being able to hear what seemed to be live music, in homes.
Suddenly, the electron tube, which had all but disappeared was back. One company that stubbornly stood for high quality was McIntosh. While many of the others had sold out or retired. The Binghampton, N.Y. firm maintained its stance of being the ”Ferrari of high fidelity.” The inroads took time. The new high end era had virtually no name recognition and was very pricey. Why spend ten times the amount a Pioneer or a Kenwood cost? Why indeed. While never able to make huge inroads into hi-fi sales, the high enders were developing a following. Truthfuly much of the mass media stuff sounded fine and the public was satisfied.
The seventies found a new toy, four channel. Of course, there had to be two different versions, discrete and CD-4. I admit, I went for it. I bought a very powerful top of the line Pioneer four channel. receiver as my Dyna 120 went up in smoke. You had to use a special cartridge to play CD-4 which were four independant channels. RCA and Warner Bros./Reprise/Elektra went for CD-4. Columbia made special “discrete” records. Everything sounded OK but I gave up after a year and traded it all in for an big SAE power amp. I tried different speakers over the years, going from Wharfdales to Infinity columns and then I went for Infinity monitors. They cost a thousand bucks a pair back in 1975, a bit over my budget but I fell in love with them. They served me well, owning them over fifteen years.
Meanwhile a new music era rolled imnto the 70′s…Disco. A fad which reminded some of the flappers of the 20′s and the Charleston. Disco was good for those who made hi-fi gear. Guys started their own DJ businesses traveling to dance halls and such. They needed powerful amplifiers and big speakers and they had to be loud. The most famous “brute” of those times was the Phase Linear which the out a whopping 350 watts per channel. Some of these DJ’s were dismayed when after hooking up several speakers to their amp, had them blow up.
High end was growing slowly out of basements and garages and a few small magazines were created to talk about them. It was not yet a mass market attraction. Some called it “stereo for Yuppies,” meaning you had to have money to throw away. Those of us who read Stereo Review and owned Pioneer gear were snubbed upon.
The 80′s brought some new “toys” for retailers. The VCR was born and it was big. As always, there were two formats, Betamax from Sony and VHS from JVC. They changed the lives of many. People who stayed home on certain nights because their favorite show was on could time shift and record them. Costing neartly a thousand bucks at first, VCR’s dropped nearly 80 percent in price and every home had one. Prerecorded tapes were available and rental stores became very popular.
Another innovation came from France in 1982, the compact disc. Most of us ignored them. Owning over 3000 LP’s I said I’d never “convert.” Did I ever, on a lark, I bought a player in 1986. Getting discs was tough, not many stores carried them.
Among the ten discs I bought was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” I could not believe that sound. Great clarity, no pops or clicks and I could easily pick what cut I wanted to hear. I was hooked.
It took some time to find available CD’s then, just 20 minutes from home, Tower Records opened a store. It was like Christmas to me. I began to build a library. Meanwhile, what to do with my precious record collection, which was taking up a lot of space. With a heavy heart, I sold all of them to a guy who ran a used record store. It took us three hours to load his three cars. It made me sad. I hoped that all my LP’s would be available on CD one day.
Rhino records began making compilation CD’s of older material which was great. Eventually records companies began releasing CD reissues. The best were the ”two-fers” which had to albums on one disc. Two companies, Collector’s Choice and Collectibles (Oldies.com) became a great source of beloved recordings.
The CD’s and the fact I played them rather loudly made my SAE amplifier work. The lights used to dim in the house and the low end had an edge to it. I decided to get a new amp. After hearing good things about Soundcraftsman gear, I bought their power amp for a bargain price. It worked beautifully for seventeen years. When one channel gave out, I was dismayed that they had gone out of business.
All these years I have bought so many components, I have forgotten some of them. It is one of the “fun” things about being an audiphile, even a low budget one. You can always replace or update something.
Another impact on the eighties was cable TV. Man, we had so many things to play with! The nineties roared in with the computer age. Of course I had to buy one. That 1947 invention of the transistor sure paid off! Later came the internet which has changed many of us live.
HDTV was being developed but it was, like most new things, very expensive. In a few years it was affordable for everybody. Along with it came DVD which would knock VCR’s out of the picture. The audio world was bolstered by surround sound for TV’s.
One of the things the internet brought was the way we shop. The beloved record store would all but vanish in the 2000′s. I haven’t bought a CD in a store in three years. There are many mail order sources. GEMM for example is a big internet flea market where you can get music from all over the world. The LP holdouts will find vinyl they thought no longer existed.
I have been reading high end publications for several years and salivating over the possibility of owning superior sound. My nearly 4,000 CD’s need to speak loud and clear.
When I retired in 2003, I decided to treat myself to my “last” stereo system. The year before I got off to a good start. I had an insurance/endowmrnt policy and for some reason I was sent some shares of stock worth two thousand dollars. Eight years before I replaced my well worn Infinity Monitors with a similiar pair. I wanted something better so I used the “gift” for new speakers. After a couple of tries that didn’t see an improvement I went to Audio Breakthroughs on Long island. The guy showed me a pair of Definitive Technology 7002TL’s. I loved them and bought them. It was pouring rain and he gave me a “rainy day special.” With tax, it was almost the two grand I gained. They delivered them a few days later. I made a mistake than many do, I first played my exceptional sounding CD’s. I was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be much on an improvement. After a couple of hours, the speakers “opened up,” and I played some CD’s that had in the past sounded ordinary. What a difference. It seemed like each instrument in the band could be heard. I sit off-axis to the when on my computer and I get full stereo imaging. Nine years layer, I’m still raving over them. It’s the best product I ever bought.
The next year I needed something to “feed” them. After checking various high end publications, I had noted that PS Audio made very fine gear and I could afford it. The amplifier was just $1600 and after all these hours, sounds terrific. It never ever gets warm either. I then got the companion pre amp which cost a bit more. It’s very smooth. I like the subtle volume control and the ergonomics. It has a character generator so I have the names of my two CD players on it.
One of the reasons I’m contributing to PS Audio’s website is that I am very pleased with the feedback I have received. One problem for them is that they made such a fine product, I see no reason to replace/update it.
So a lot has changed. We’ve gone from cylinders to Ipods. You can buy eight feel of speaker wire and pay more than you did for your first new car. Too many people spend thousands of dollars for audio and don’t appreciate the music.
Yes, it’s all about the music, not the perfect sound. Whether you spend a few hundred bucks or thousands, the music should be the highlight.
We don’t know what the future will bring. I’m glad my collection is where it is. I have years of enjoyment stockpiled.
After all these years, you can’t beat two channel stereophonic sound. Let’s not even try.