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March 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine


The Wonderful DIY Experience
Just because it is fun!
Article By Roger Skoff

 

Heathkit Electronics  My very first piece of "real" hi-fi gear was a Heathkit FM tuner that I built myself when I was somewhere in my early ‘teens. (Don't ask me for an exact date or even an exact year. At more than a handful of decades away, such things get a little blurry, and I'm glad to have any recollection of them at all!) Before that, hi-fi, for me, was limited to just diddling with whatever – as a kid, and not even from a wealthy family – I could scrounge or adapt from stuff I "inherited" or could get ahold of cheap or free. (Editor Steven adds, my first fun 'day job' was working for Heathkit Electronics.)

What that meant was that my first "system" was what had been my family's Silvertone radio-phonograph (mono, of course), to which, when it became mine, I had added a Quam 12" external speaker that was housed in a converted TV cabinet that had somehow fallen into my hands and was connected to the radio's speaker leads with ordinary 14AWG "lampcord".

One of the earliest modifications to that setup was when I, lacking anything other than a treble-cut "tone control" on the Silvertone and wanting more bass, took out the volume control "pot"  and replaced it with a (possibly Switchcraft?) Fletcher-Munson-corrected "loudness" control which, If I ran the volume setting all the way up and turned the "loudness" ring (it was a two-part concentric control) down, would give whatever I was listening to noticeably more bass, at least up to moderate listening levels.

Lafayette AdAt more than $20 (if I remember correctly), even in kit form, plus tax and shipping, that Heathkit tuner was something that I had to save-up for, but when I heard that FM radio – which I knew of only by hearsay – was much higher fidelity than the AM radio I was familiar with, I had to have it (and fortunately, the Silvertone had an AUX input to plug it into) . After the tuner came a Mohawk wire recorder that I bought used from Valley Electronic Supply (truly awful sound, but I could record on it, and "editing" or repairing broken recording wires by tying knots in them was sort of fun) and then I was ready for my next kit project – an EICO HF-20, 20 Watt integrated tube amplifier, followed by a Rek-O-Kut L34 two speed turntable with Rek-O-Kut arm, GE Variable Reluctance Magnetic Cartridge (with a $13 Fisher one-tube "preamplifier" to bring it up to sufficient level for the HF-20, which didn't have a low-level "MAG" input of its own), and then to a Bozak B302 concentric two-way speaker in an Acousticraft "genuine cherry wood" (woo  woo!) enclosure, and then a Viking mono tape recorder, and then, and then, and then... until, in 1957, stereo records came out and I got to do it all over again for a second channel.

In those early days, it was not at all unusual for a kid to be into hi-fi, and kits and do-it-yourself ("DIY") was the way to do it – not just for kids, but for many adults, as well. Electronics kits, and sometimes even DIY speaker kits, were available not just from Heathkit and EICO, but also from big retailers like Radio Shack ("Realistic"), Allied Radio ("Knight Kits"), and Lafayette Radio (was their kit brand just "Lafayette"?), and from other companies like Arkay and David Hafler's (still-classic; still highly regarded; still much imitated; and still much sought-after) Dynaco. EICO, in addition to a broad range of electronics, had a quite respectable "whizzer-cone" transmission-line omnidirectional speaker kit designed by A. Stuart Hegeman, and even major speaker manufacturers like Electro-Voice, University, Altec, Bozak, and James B. Lansing (later to change its name just to "JBL") offered not just finished speakers but also drivers, crossovers, and other speaker parts and supplies, and some even offered the choice of "Complete" products or "staged" products with "step-up" kits to appeal to the do-it-yourself market.

 

Lansing Hartsfield SpeakersOne of those last that was of particular interest was the Lansing Hartsfield staged-growth-kit. This kit allowed buyers with real-world budgets to start with the (gorgeous) Hartsfield cabinet factory-fitted with just an 8" woofer, the diffuser, but no driver for the midrange horn, and the famous 075 "Ring" tweeter, and to add drivers and crossover elements to bring it up to its full specifications as budget became available. Interestingly, there were more than a few people who thought that the first-stage (8" plus 075) actually sounded better, in at least some respects, than the "final-stage" version with the full complement of drivers and crossover elements in place. Electro-Voice's Patrician, another corner horn speaker like the Hartsfield and the Klipschorn (which certainly became available in "replica" kit form later, from other companies, but I don't think was ever actually offered as a kit by Klipsch, itself) was also offered with driver options and a number of "step-up" kits (including woofers of various sizes) so that people could "grow" them or tailor their performance (and expense) as they saw fit.

After stereo records came along, hi-fi, for the first time, became "mainstream" and, both in response, and as a spur to growing popular interest, a tremendous rush of new affordably-priced hi-fi gear became available – much of it from Asia, and much of it with (deceptively?) "non-Asian-sounding" names like "Pioneer" and "Kenwood", "Panasonics" and "Technics" . Within not too many years, practically everybody had a "stereo", and, once that happened and just about anyone could afford – or at least aspire to – a "store bought" system, hi-fi changed and "do-it-yourself" acquired a whole new meaning.

Once anyone who wanted one could afford to buy something that at least claimed to be a high fidelity system, "do-it-yourself" in its aspect of actually making your own hi-fi gear largely went away, to be replaced by really three entirely different approaches to hi-fi: One – the "appliance" approach – is still seen in the Bose table radio, which like my old Silvertone, combines everything is a single box that also allows external sources. In its ultimate extension, this approach eliminates all DIY aspects entirely, by offering so-called "personal" component Hi-fi Systems that, usually in a 12" format (as opposed to the more conventional 16" to 17" format) misleadingly claim to continue the tradition of component hi-fi by offering (typically) an equipment "stack" consisting of a matching CD player, a tuner/preamp, and a power amplifier, plus a matching pair of small separate-box two-way speakers, all as a single purchase at a single moderate price.

Another approach that emerged was what we now recognize as "High End" audio, which, while you no longer have to actually build the components, allows an audiophile the great good fun of getting to pick and (often continually) upgrade and replace each individual component and cable while (if he chooses) spending hours without end fine-tuning speaker placement, cleaning records and adjusting phono tracking force and VTA, and diddling with tweaks and room, power, and other treatments.

Finally, there's the modern version  of what Do-It-Yourself used to be: People of every level of interest, knowledge, affluence, and accomplishment, are building kits, designing gear from scratch, and modifying or up-dating almost every aspect of their music system. It's a wonder and a glory, and there doesn't even seem to be any favorite area of activity; everywhere you look -- in person and on the internet -- people are building, designing, and talking about speakers, electronics, and cables with an enthusiasm that, frankly, I haven't seen since I was a kid.

Do-It-Yourself, perhaps because of the ever-increasing cost of "High End" gear and tweaks or perhaps just because it is fun, seems to be coming back strong! Good! To all of you who are involved in it, I have just one bit of advice: Dick and diddle to your heart's content, and then, when you need a break or just want to relish your accomplishments, sit down, relax, and...

Enjoy the music!

 

PS: Remember to see Enjoy the Music.com's DIY reviews and articles at this link.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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