High-Fi?September 4, 2019
“No one thing turned more people into audiophiles than the ’60s counterculture,” said Bruno, arm flung over his cash register. “It opened up the doors of sonic perception. Even the great audio designers of the day were countercultural mavericks!”
Bruno is the lanky, braided-beard, thirtysomething owner of a small, well-stocked record shop in Montreal, and we stood facing each other on either side of a glass case filled with vinyl paraphernalia. Bruno has made the most of his limited space. Every foot of each wall supports a shelf crammed with music-related merchandise: rock and jazz memorabilia, album covers, refurbished turntables. There’s even a rack in the back for music and audio magazines, including Stereophile.
Bruno owns a record shop, but he’s also a raging conspiracy theorist who can provide a sordid, controversial backstory for any subject. It’s why I didn’t take his remark about the “countercultural” aspect of our hobby’s history seriously. At first.
But as with all the best conspiracy theorists, many of the seemingly farfetched claims Bruno presents as Truth sound as if they could be true . . . sort of.
“Think about it,” he said. “Hi-fi itself is an enhanced version of regular sound reproduction, designed to expand our playback music-listening consciousness.”
“I’ll take a bag of those record sleeves,” I said, pointing to a shelf behind him in an attempt to change the subject.
This only motivated him to lean in closer. “Consider the audiophile lingo,” he said. “Sound you can touch? With texture and color and 3D effects? That talk is rooted in a different era!”
The 1960s were an unprecedentedly prolific time in the history of recorded music—a decade when a generation of young people, high on social upheaval and mind-expanding substances, might, in blissful moments of connection with the sound of their recordings, say things like, “Wow. That is beautiful.” Was Bruno right? Did the ’60s counterculture help foster the audiophile movement? I asked a few notable audio designers what they thought.
“I think it’s pretty clear it did,” said Zu Audio’s Sean Casey.
“I suppose so,” said Pass Laboratories’ Nelson Pass.
“Hi-fi also became more affordable throughout the ’60s,” said Atma-Sphere’s Ralph Karsten. ModWright’s Dan Wright noted that “Hi-fi was an extension of the music movement at the time. People also didn’t have video, computers, iPhones, and other leisure-based technologies vying for their attention.”
What of the pioneering audio designers themselves? Were they countercultural?
“I don’t think so,” said Pass: “Locanthi, Carver, Johnson, Bongiorno, Kessler, Levinson, Curl, Walker, Hafler—and that’s just amplifier guys. I seem to have been the only one with long hair.”
“For sure, lots of great gear came out of the ’60s,” said Casey. “But this was due mostly to technological advancements and the increased flow and sharing of new ideas.”
Karsten: “Hi-fi in the ’60s really started in the ’50s, when both recording and playback equipment first exhibited low distortion and wide bandwidth. The tape recorder was largely responsible for this, and designers in the ’60s progressed from there.”
Casey: “A lot of the advancements made in audio in the ’60s came from an increased understanding of the electron, quantum electrodynamics, and the commercialization of the wacky but insanely cool world of quantum mechanics.”
I then asked each of them to describe the state of mind in which they were most likely to receive inspiration related to audio design:
Pass: “The very best stuff has come from boredom, when there is nothing else to do but think. I thought of dynamic bias in 1974, while sitting in the back of a VW bus on a long trip to visit a cave.”
Karsten: “My ideas seem to take time to gestate. When they’re ready, they’ll often bubble up to the surface while I’m doing something rote, like bicycling, or mowing the lawn. I’ve also had several design ideas that occurred in dreams. One dream resulted in several patents.”
Wright: “I’m more likely to get the sound or degree of success of a project when I’m relaxed and enjoying the music, sometimes with a drink in hand. I feel it’s a matter of letting go of the analytical side of my brain to take in the music at its deepest level. But my best design ideas and solutions come to me in the shower, when my brain is most alert.”
Casey: “For me, great ideas come through struggle, and collaboration, and sleepless nights of crazy, intense focus, until a breakthrough is reached on how to make something work.”
Based on the results of my short survey, I infer that Bruno was about half right: The countercultural scene of the 1960s might have opened the minds of many to the immersive potential of recorded and reproduced sound, and, in doing so, helped foster the audiophile movement. But it wasn’t a countercultural mentality that drove audio designers to make better-sounding products; it was their compulsion to design something better than whatever was available at the time; something that might, at the end of the day, make people say, “Wow. That is beautiful.”