You can break the need for separates into two neat categories: added functionality, improved performance.
If, for example, your system is CD based and you decide to add a turntable, you’ll need a separate phono amplifier if your preamp doesn’t already have one built in. Or, perhaps you are not happy with the performance of your built in feature – adding a better separate version of the device is then the obvious choice for you. But how did the industry move from the all-in-one consoles to separates and why? After all, the vast majority of people simply want to enjoy extraordinary music reproduction in their homes first, fiddle with equipment second (or not at all).
The answer to this question isn’t 100% clear because what happened took many divergent paths at once – the path closest to what we’re interested in has three distinct events shaping the future of separates: cylinders to discs, consoles to portables, radio.
The first event in our connected story was one born out of necessity: the move from the original Edison invented cylinder to the Berliner disc. When the first complete music players launched they were all mechanical based record players that used cylinders of wax or foil to record their music. The cylinders could only be played a few hundred times before they wore out and had to be replaced. This drawback was made worse by the fact that making many copies of a cylinder was extremely difficult and relatively expensive. To make a copy of a recorded cylinder a mold had to be made and you could wangle a few hundred cylinders out of this mold before it died. Then a new idea emerged: a flat, circular disc to replace the round cylinder. The advantage of the flat disc is that you could stamp copies of the disc to your heart’s content and with very little skill and equipment. Compared to the cylinder the phono disc, which is still in use today, just blew the doors off of the cylinder.
The next piece of the puzzle involved going smaller and portable. It wasn’t long before folks wanted to be able to take their music with them and within a few short years the portable turntable was invented. These became poplar even during the days of musical cylinders but their popularity really bloomed after the invention of the flat disc. In fact, it was the invention of the flat disc that single handedly made the portable player possible and practical at all. Imagine carrying a box of expensive and fragile wax cylinders around on your picnic. From the 1920′s onward, the popularity of the separate portable record player grew exponentially and without much fanfare, became an accepted category unto itself.
The last piece of the puzzle is radio and interestingly enough, when we combine the popularity of portability with the flat disc invention we get two product directions that are important to understanding separates: the table radio and the pro market.
Table radios were a natural fit as an extension of the console all-in-one radio and turntable combos. Homes in the 1920′s and 30′s were small by today’s standards and while folks who had money could afford a floor standing console, the vast majority of people were waiting for the smaller and more portable models to come out. All-in-one record players came and went quickly – but it was radio most people were interested in and all they wanted. Within a few years, table top radios were sold by the millions. Here’s a picture of one out of the ubiquitous Sears catalog.
What’s instructive about this model is that it is truly a separate radio tuner – not an all-in-one console. So by the 1930′s we had our first separates and accepted them into our homes: the separate radio tuner and the separate portable turntable.
The final piece of our puzzle is put together by the rise of an industry that began building pro separates for radio stations. In 1921 there were only 5 commercial radio stations in the US – 2 years later there were 556 commercial stations and today there are over 10,000. Someone had to build equipment for these radio stations and guess what type of equipment they needed? Yup, separates. You couldn’t use consoles, you had to have separate turntables, phono preamplifiers, power amplifiers, monitor speakers, microphones, recoding equipment and so on.
So by the mid 1920′s and into the 1930′s our homes had separates and an industry had formed to build “pro separates” for radio stations, recording studios, government applications and so on. It isn’t too big a leap of imagination to understand how business owners looking to expand their market share of broadcast quality separates turned to everyday consumers to form the basis of what we know as high-end audio separates.
In the 1950′s my father built his own Hi Fi system at home – which no doubt was a major influence on my later life’s direction. His turntable was a wheel driven Rek-O-Kut broadcast quality turntable, the electronics from Stromberg-Carlson a company with one foot planted firmly in the pro market and the other in marketing those same products to the new Hi Fi market. To have “broadcast quality” equipment at home was a mark of a true Audiophile.
It took portable turntables and table radios to build acceptance of separates in consumer’s homes and it took the need to expand the market possibilities for broadcast equipment manufacturers to put the final piece of the puzzle together. Between these three events an entire consumer market we know today as high-end separates was created and the rest, as they say, is history.
Tomorrow let’s look at how we bifurcated separates: added functionality, improved performance.