Herb Reichert: Ancient Audio – Golden Eras of Hi-Fi.

June 15, 2019 Herb Reichert: Ancient Audio – Golden Eras of Hi-Fi.

“Fifty years ago, all audiophiles were older than me. Forty years ago, all audiophiles were the same age as me. So were all the audio manufacturers, dealers, and engineers. Thirty years ago, they were still my age. Likewise twenty years ago. But now, finally, I am a little older than the big-speakerbox two-channel guys, and considerably older than the average headphone aficionado. Praise be to progress – even if it is (as always) slow in coming.

When I was a teen, audiophiles were war vets living in newly developed suburbs with his & her cars in their spacious driveways. They drank highballs and cocktails. Their wives wore aprons and pointy bras. They read Playboy’s Jazz Poll and aspired to living like Frank Sinatra. They saw space flight, three-lane expressways, atomic energy – as well as long-playing records and high-fidelity stereo – as expressions of post-war modernity. The good old days of wooden radios were gone. Buddy Holly and Kukla, Fran and Ollie were gone too. Juan Esquival was an audiophile star. Shopping malls with hi-fi stores were popping up all over. Hugh Heffner was our chief lifestyle consultant. McIntosh, Marantz, Acoustic Research, and JBL were in every rec-room. So were Tiki bars.

When I was a teen, “audiophiles” were my friend’s fathers. We kids were not permitted to use their Garrard or Empire turntables – but we did! My friend Kevin’s father owned an appliance store with a huge hi-fi department; his father’s big system was in the pine wood-paneled lower floor rec-room of a tri-level ranch house with pink linoleum and a gray area rug sporting some sort of ‘atomic energy’ pattern. His McIntosh separates (and JBL L-100 loudspeakers) were nestled neatly in a bookcase across from a rattan “pretzel” sofa by Paul Frankl. There were no wires showing. Kevin’s dad spent his leisure time fixing mixed drinks for his work buddies and showing off his jazz LPs. Many days after school (before he got home) we’d smoke our weed and drink his rum while playing Cream and Dead records. Kevin’s Dad’s system played loud – real loud – and clear; bass was awesome. We all aspired to own one just like it someday.

In that era every family member had a hobby. Many dad’s collected Jazz or Classical records. That’s what old people listened to.

My friend Vincent’s father was a professional tile-setter who spent his leisure time soldering ham-radio projects in his well-organized basement workshop. His audio system was upstairs in their faux-wood-paneled family room/den that he had finished himself. It consisted of a Heathkit pre and power amp plus a single built-in corner horn (loudspeaker) hidden behind a burlap-looking gold-threaded grill cloth. He played opera arias while sitting in his vinyl Lazy Boy with an ashtray table and a TV tray table. He drank wine or Limoncello while reading audio magazines and smoking Chesterfields. We never touched his setup.

My father was a heating contractor who fixed oil-burners for a living. He had an old Columbia console with a radio, a turntable, a single 12” paper cone driver, and storage for LPs. He played mostly Bach organ music.

One of his customers was an old German (former U-boat captain) named Paul who recorded steam locomotives. He lived alone and his audio system was completely far-out. The wall between his kitchen and living room was crammed with at least ten 15-inch drivers; all facing his couch and an antique-looking coffee table stacked with notebooks and old TV Guides. This mad array of 15-inch drivers was literally screwed to the living room wall. There were horn tweeters installed randomly between the woofers and no grill cloths. In his kitchen, he had a reel-to-reel recorder on the counter next to a wooden breadbox decorated with hand painted flowers. Rows of bundled wires led across the floor to a Formica table covered with black crinkle-painted tube amps with giant power and output transformers – all of which had bulging exposed copper windings that had been scatter-wound by Paul using thick magnet wire. He said each amp generated “at least 500 watts!” He offered us beverages then spooled up one of his tapes.

I sat with my dad on Paul’s small couch while a giant “2-8-8-4 EM-1” steam locomotive passed directly in front of us. It seemed like I was only three-feet from the tracks. Despite the loud train-noise I could hear Paul’s collection of Bisque figurines rattling in the curio cabinet next to the couch. I drank Ovaltine and my dad drank buttermilk; Paul stood watching us – smiling, and sipping peppermint schnapps from a tiny glass.

 Audiophiles like these typified the First Golden Era of modern hi-fi (1955-1965).

They read magazines named Audio, HiFi/Stereo Review, and Stereophile – which was founded by J. Gordon Holt in 1962 and published initially without advertising. JGH’s declared editorial policy was to evaluate audio components by listening to them – a heretical idea in those days of meters and measurements. “Dammit,” said Gordon, “if nobody else will report what an audio component sounds like, I’ll do it myself!” Holt’s Stereophile was a staple-bound quarterly that struggled to print more than three issues per year.


Then music and audio changed instantly in 1967 when Jimi Hendrix’ album Are You Experienced?

arrived on the scene. Playboy bunnies, cocktails and starched white shirts were instantly over. Neat, clear – low-distortion – sound suddenly became ‘your father’s sound.’ Jazz and classical music were replaced by electric guitars, feedback, noise and distortion. Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and others spliced the harsh sounds of war, social injustice and revolution into their drone and scream-filled records.

Between 1965 and 1975, I and my baby-boomer pals left our clean homes in the suburbs for pot, bad wine, and protest on college campuses. The rockers brought JBL or Cerwin-Vega speakers; while folk-and-jazz-clinger types brought AR or Advent boxes with beige grills. (I packed Dynaco A-25s). In those days, most everybody was using Japanese electronics with shiny faceplates, countless switches, and enticing luminous displays. These early solid-state receivers and integrated amps achieved commercial dominance by advertising ridiculously-low distortion specifications. Dual and Technics now dominated the turntable market. Light-tracking moving magnets dominated the phono cartridge scene. During this period the emergence of big-box stores with ads featuring massive discounts on Japanese electronics put neighborhood hi-fi dealers in retreat. From 1965 to 1975, mainstream audio hobbyists based their purchases on watts and switches-per-dollar plus reviews-that-weren’t-reviews from measurements-oriented scribes like Julian Hirsch at Stereo Review. Pay-for-play was the main game. But then…

HiFi’s Second Golden Era (1975-1985) was initiated by two radical innovations that only appealed only to the most underground audio connoisseurs.

The first of these innovations appeared in 1975 with the introduction of audio’s first mini-monitor: the 12-inch tall LS3/5a, which had been painstakingly engineered by the British Broadcasting Company as a recording monitor for use in trucks and other remote locations. Encouraged by reviews in Britain’s Hi-Fi News and Record Review, sophisticated audiophiles began placing these diminutive speakers not on bookshelves, but out into their rooms on slender open stands. Instigating a sonic revolution that had officially (but unceremoniously) begun with Spendor Audio’s BC1 three-way full-range studio monitor, introduced in 1972. While the BC1 was the first loudspeaker to get off the shelf and out into the room (on 10-inch stands), it was the much smaller Rogers LS3/5a that popularized the stand-mount mini-monitor concept.

Speaker cables were suddenly visible laying on living room floors. Now that every guest at a cocktail party could see the speaker wires, something had to be done to make that unsightly incursion acceptable: By 1977, Bob Fulton and Matthew Polk were marketing upgrades to the ubiquitous zip cord as essential audio accessories. (Monster Cable appeared in 1979.)

The stand-mounted LS3/5a took stereo descriptiveness to a new level of acuity which was enhanced even further by A.J. van den Hul’s 1977 invention of the Type-1 line-contact stylus profile. Previously, phonography was mainly handled by high-compliance low-mass moving magnet cartridges that tracked at forces of one gram or less. The superior information-retrieval of A. J’s invention spawned a re-introduction of heavier, lower-in-compliance, but most importantly, lower in moving-mass, moving coil cartridges. Moving coils with Van den Hul’s profile exposed tons of new, previously unheard information from familiar records. Most of it was spatial and ambient. Audiophiles responded enthusiastically. This new combination of fast open-sounding cartridges and small, low diffraction speakers on slender open stands generated conspicuously wide, deep and amazingly coherent s t e r e o sound-fields with shadow-like illusions of actual musicians standing between the speakers. If you were not there at the birthing, it is impossible to imagine how exciting these newly-discovered spatial illusions were.

Initially, only a small percentage of audiophiles noticed or cared about these audio-sonic phenomena. But those who did notice and care were likely subscribers to audio’s second subjective-review-based audio magazine: The Absolute Sound – founded by a man in Sea Cliff, Long Island, named Harry Pearson. “HP” as he was known to his fans wrote about high-performance audio gear with unprecedented authority and captivating intimacy.

What distinguished TAS from newsstand audio magazines like Audio, Stereo Review, and High Fidelity was its complete lack of advertising. (Beginning in 1972, Stereophile was accepting ads – but only from audio dealers). TAS distinguished itself even further buy its personality-driven reviews that emphasized extensive comparative listening. Harry Pearson almost single-handedly put audio equipment reviews in a place resembling art, wine, or literary connoisseurship. Between 1975 and 1985, HP and Stereophile’s JGH advanced the cause of serious listening as an antidote to the mindless measuring and specs-orientation of the monthly glossies.
 

 

What Harry Pearson did that was most unique and powerful was to champion a carefully-considered alternative to the measurements-and-specs rating strategy.

HP defined “the absolute sound” as “The sound of unamplified instruments playing in a natural acoustic space.” He stated that the most accurate components were those that came closest to delivering the illusion of real unamplified instruments (and voices) performing in a real room, club, or concert hall. He favored classical music and famous recording venues like Carnegie Hall (NYC) and Kingsway Hall (London) – which featured prominently is his equipment reviews.

Harry was also an ambitious amateur photographer; the back cover of every TAS issue featured one of his artful photos. That interest consequently spawned his other important innovation: in order to describe audio’s newly discovered spatial illusions, he transposed the language of photography: using words like focus, image aspect-ratio, and depth-of-field, to describe what he “saw” between the loudspeakers in his three reference systems. After studying the work of Decca, Mercury, and RCA recording engineers, HP began to describe the results of their efforts in terms of soundstage, imaging, and transparency – insisting that the most resolving audio-gear not only made instruments and voices sound like the absolute (i.e. natural) reality of themselves; but said detail and focus also opened up the listener’s view to the back and extreme sides of the soundstage. Harry got us all to listen more closely and study the space between the speakers.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact and long-term effect HP’s persuasive ideas had on what audio cognoscenti continue to believe is important. HP gave neophyte audiophiles a very specific checklist of desirable characteristics they could use to evaluate their own systems. This was hugely important. During this Second Golden Age, TAS, more than Stereophile, emphasized the importance of imaging and soundstage as a measure of an audio system’s quality.

Legions of new brands and scores of sophisticated audio retailers appeared – worldwide – in response to HP’s proclamations. HP’s emphasis on beauty and detailed spatial mapping caused audiophiles to reject the flat sterile sound of Japanese receivers and high-feedback solid-sate amplifiers. This rejection allowed tube amplifiers to reappear on the scene.

HP canonized the engineers that had committed these expansive soundstages to tape. The price of stereo recordings by Kenneth Wilkinson (London-Decca-Lyrita), C. Robert Fine (Mercury Living Presence), Lewis Layton (RCA Living Stereo) skyrocketed under Harry’s tutelage. HP had all of us buying/collecting/studying Columbia “six-eyes,” EMI “ASDs,” London- “bluebacks,” RCA “shaded dogs” and Mercury “Living Presence” recordings – while listening for the subway under Kingsway Hall and squinting for detail at the back of the Carnegie Hall soundstage. Stereo was no longer just left-right; it was now deep and high.

Pearson’s writings also turned the tides of trade: creating a new American hegemony, making brands like Infinity, Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, and Magnepan into international empires.

Pearson so effectively adapted the expression “high end” to the level of products he reviewed that today, most audiophiles think he coined the term. To me, HP’s writing was effective because it was so personal and sense-oriented – almost pure right-brain. I remember looking every day in my mailbox hoping Harry’s little digest was there. If it was, I would immediately examine his Leica photo on the back cover; then immediately stop whatever I was doing; quickly read his record reviews; then run out immediately and buy his latest recommendations before everyone else beat me to them. Harry’s reviews described recordings, not as cultural product, but as precious collectable tools for evaluating the quality of reproduced sound. Readers felt they could not actually be audiophiles without at least some LPs from HP’s list of reference discs.

Harry Pearson.

Unfortunately, the persuasive intimacy of Pearson’s writing began to wield such an exaggerated influence that a single HP sentence could make or break a small manufacturer. What started as a private conceptual revolution evolved into an absolute monarchy. And then… Digital appeared, and Gordon Holt at Stereophile embraced CDs immediately; while HP expressed great difficulty finding merit in the new format.

As the 1980s morphed into the 1990s, and silver discs now dominated the record stores. The presence of John Atkinson’s more objectivist voice at Stereophile began to shift audiophile’s attention away from the subjective self-aggrandizing “Realm of HP” towards something fresher and more balanced in a ‘science-meets-art’ kind of way. Under Atkinson’s guidance, Stereophile not only embraced the CD, it delivered not just one voice, but a full-reviewer-palette of high-quality voice-driven prose in concert with a somewhat scholarly (but not pedantic) measurements-oriented viewpoint. Instead of HP as old-testament god handing down commandments from the high-end summit, Atkinson’s Stereophile asked readers to think for themselves and make their own proclamations by comparing listening impressions made by experienced listeners to measurements made with lab-quality instruments. Thusly, audio journalism in the ‘90s began to emancipate itself from the tyranny of the purely-subjective review.

By 1995, Stereophile had supplanted TAS as the biggest show on the audiophile stage. Simultaneously, multi-channel video and big-box stores began taking over the lower end of the high end. The legions of specialist audio dealers that opened in the 1980s were now forced to re-invent themselves as audio-visual installation contractors. It wasn’t pretty.

This power of Atkinson’s Stereophile rested in the fact that JA hired reviewers, like Corey Greenberg, Jonathan Scull, Wes Phillips and Michael Fremer that could not only listen and get to the core of a component’s sound – they could describe what they heard in very certain (and entertaining) terms. Stereophile’s journalistic lucidity was enhanced by the fact that JA never let his reviewers know how their review unit measured until their reports were submitted and copy-edited. In that way, everybody concerned, the reviewers, the readers, the manufacturers and even JA himself, were kept in the dark until the end about how a completed review process would turn out. The exact opposite of pay-for-play.

Just as audiophiles began to trust their own ears, the Internet took over and new forms of audio big-box stores began selling genuine high-end gear at discount prices – directly! Suddenly audiophiles needed purchasing advice – again! New, online-only audio blogs sprouted like weeds to fill that need. So did pay-for-play. The legions of audio dealers that, for two decades had patiently serviced the audiophile’s need to compare and decide are now struggling to survive. And strangely, today’s audio is a billion-dollar-a-year industry without leaders, or voices, or a coherent viewpoint. Therefore, I am forced to ask: Who are we? Where are we going?

Does it matter?”

Source: Audiostream

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