In the beginning there was Radio, the Phonograph, and Live Music. Radio was A.M., the records were shellac 78's, and the live music was in its' golden age of the Big Bands. The time was the early 1940's and the times were frightening. World War II had started and suddenly everything was in short supply. Records were available as were the Phonograph needles which had to be changed after each ten records. Radio was free and with a decent antenna you could get most stations and tune into The Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, Grand Central Station, and even several of the Big Bands which would broadcast from the Starlight Room in New York and other locations in major cities. My brother and I would often take turns holding the flimsy antenna wire for the A.M. radio, as it improved reception. You could ground the wire to a radiator pipe and use the whole house plumbing, if you could scratch a bare spot on the silver painted pipe without being caught by the parents. We had two radios. One was a table model while the other was in a large wooden cabinet that claimed to tune in short wave (but we never got anything but static). The phonograph was a wind-up affair, and as I grew old enough I was permitted to be the D.J. and switch records and change needles at the popular get-togethers at our home. My Dad had been hooked on semi-classics and my brothers and sister were hooked on popular music. This resulted in an interesting mix of music. Technology was crude and remained as such until well after World War II was over.
After the War, thousands of young men and women were able to get re-aquatinted and the Big Bands were thriving in New York City. You could get to The Roxy, the Paramount, or the Capital Theater and see a movie and a Big Band on the stage - live! My older brother who was recently home from the War treated me to many trips to Manhattan for a Saturday Show. I can't remember the movies we saw, but the bands!!! Where to start - Harry James, The Dorseys, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman even Spike Jones (pictured right)! At age ten or eleven it was close to heaven to see the bands bathed in colored spotlights and hear the great music as it filled the theater. Most bands had a singer that was considered part of the orchestra. Often they would sit quietly on one side, stood up and sang their song, then sat down again until it was once again their turn to sing. Frequently, very famous singers would team up with bands on tour. My then girlfriend (now wife) and I clearly remember waiting four hours on line at the New York Paramount where we saw Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra - for $2.50 a ticket! Music and Dance was everywhere and everyone wanted more. The old 78's could hold less than three minutes of tunes. It took two sides of a 12" shellac record to do "Sing, Sing, Sing", and it was worth it! Gene Kruppa on drums, Harry James on the horn, Lionel Hampton and so many great side-men. Something had to be done to record and preserve this great stuff. Oh, yes, Beethoven's First took eight sides of those easy to break 12 inchers!
The veterans of World War II came home with new skills in radio and radar. They improved on their knowledge by going to college on the G.I. Bill. Technology began to improve and the ever popular electronic tube was still King! Do-it-yourself kits were popular and easily available. They included low powered amplifiers, tuners (a new fancy word for radio), ham radios, and power supplies. Radio Shack, Lafayette, and Heathkit stores were just beginning to appear. F.M. Radio became commercially available, and Columbia (I believe) came out with a Long Playing Record. Beethoven's First now was on two sides of one record! New record players and needles had to be invented and made commercially available to play these records. These morphed into record changers, standard turntables, and cartridges.
In the early 1950's there were so many new companies making so many new things. It was mind-boggling trying to keep up with the new developments. Many companies turned from supplying the war effort to satisfying pent up consumer demand. Television became popular and affordable. Wow! F.M. Radio with live pictures! Records were being turned out by the millions in new "High Fidelity". New microphones, more sensitive cartridges, improved loudspeakers, more and more tubes glowing away in the darkness bringing good music to the masses! Monoblocks, pre-amplifiers, tuners in profusion and variety of quality continued to appear. "Good" brands in those days included Scott, Fisher, Sherwood. "Better" brands included Macintosh, Harmon-Kardon and Marantz (Marantz 8b pictured). Speakers took many shapes and forms - usually the bigger the better. Horn loaded, bass reflex, ported, folded horn, woofers, tweeters, mid-range... It became a whole new language. My brother-in-law and I put together a speaker enclosure kit. It contained a single dual-concentric 12" Whitley Stentorian, a British speaker recommended by his cousin who worked at Leonard Radio on Chambers Street in New York. He also built a Scott Tuner from a kit. Leonards, Sam Goody (only one store then) and Harvey Radio were where the good stuff could be found. Goody had listening booths for checking out a record before you bought it. In these stores you could hear the big Bozaks, Altecs, Universities, JBL's, and a small group of English Stuff not yet popular on these shores.
STEREO ARRIVES! Now we need two of everything. Records, at first, then F.M. Radio. Magnetic tape machines are launched and have the reputation for being the ultimate in recording and playback! Amps, pre-amps and tuners are still all tubed. Power amps are huge and heavy beasts with massive transformers. You had to read the instructions on the records to set the roll-off and turn-over properly. It was like the Wild West. Anyone could do anything and say it was "High Fidelity", and "Stereo". Standards were not yet fully cooked. Less than 5% distortion was considered GOOD! Struck by this new sound, and finally ready to part with some hard earned bucks, I put together my first set-up. A Dynaco Stereo 70 Amp, Dynakit PAS 2 Pre-Amp, Altec Tuner (Monophonic, but got it free), Weathers Turntable, Fairchild Viscose Damped Arm and Pickering Cartridge. Ran out of money and space so I got some inexpensive Phillips 8" speakers. The kids loved the turntable and tried real hard to get the arm to go down fast, but it wouldn't cooperate! Many scratched records later we opted to enclose the separates to keep little fingers from getting burned (tube amps often run HOT) and had to eliminate the turntable for a Garrard Changer/Turntable with a lower profile. The late 1950's and early 1960's were astonishing for the advancements made!
Fast forward a few years. Tubes start to give way to transistors. Specifications get tighter and distortion is lower, but is it better? The Dutch brings out cassettes while speakers show up in sealed enclosures. Some have no enclosures at all - electrostatics! Circuit boards, mass production, new brands from Japan with names we never heard of. Brands we learned to love, sadly, disappear. Tubes are where? Even now I fondly remember shopping for my matched sets of EL 34's and could chose between Mullards, Gold Lions, or some domestic brand such as Western Electric. I usually chose the Mullards at about $40 a matched pair. They seemed to have a special smoothness, and a special glow
Good fortune smiles upon us in 1972 and we are assigned to London, England for several months. The street for Hi-Fi goodies is just a stones throw from the British Museum and I have a need for new speakers. Many hours spent listening, chatting, listening. Wharfedales, Tannoys, early KEFs, Rogers Monitors Kits, raw speakers - a cornucopia of sound! After much agonizing we settle on the gold series Tannoy 12" dual-concentric speakers. I refuse to check the speakers as luggage and hand carry these puppies on board the airplane! It is love at first sight for the Dynaca's and the Tannoys. With 92 db/w/m we can really buggy with me Dynaco cruising at low output. Only problem we have is the Tannoys refuse to stay enclosed and blow apart their enclosures! Was I too enthusiastic with Bach's Fugues, E. Power Biggs soloing, or maybe the good old 1812? If he put canons in there, then it should sound like canons, right? Therefore I have cabinets custom built of mahogany. The solid 1 1/4" thick variety with no veneer. Speakers seem quite happy now and stay well put. Alas, lightening hits house and in one bolt the Dynaco fries to a crisp black. We donate remains to a fellow Dynaco owner for parts as Dynaco is now out of business. So we replaced the Dynaco with Yamaha receiver with lots of features, lots of watts but these are Transistor Watts. Are they the same as tube watts? My old textbook says yes, but my ears say - well, maybe I still wish I had my old Dynaco.
Today, my equipment is all digital except for speakers. Yes, the Tannoys are still terrific but I think they long for the glow of some tubes. To try to keep them happy, we have surrounded them with some Wharfedales (oldies, but goodies) 12" woofer, 3" mids, 1 " tweeter. Also have some older J.B.L.'s (a gift from my son) and another pair of Wharfedales (12" FSAL concentrics), and another pair of Wharfedales just for luck. If you look closely at the woofers you can see written in soft pencil the initials of the assembler and which number this speaker is within the production lot! Guess I over-dosed on Wharfedales, but they needed a home so what is a Dad supposed to do? Credit goes to my loving wife who has put up with my speaker fetish all these many years.
Why all there old speakers you ask? The answer is simple. Go to a live performance and listen. We are not talking about the amplified, synthesized stuff being thrown at us. Listen to some good piano, a good singer, a great orchestra. Visit it and listen, if you can, to some large pipe organ music in a great old church (St. Omer, France pictured). Can you hear the difference in a performance recorded in one hall as compared to another hall? Why does Carnegie Hall work for Mel Torme or the B.S.O. while Avery Fisher Hall doesn't work for anyone? What do you want from your system - sizzle or the steak? First you must listen, and remember, and compare.
In our next installment, we will relate some of our listening experiences to you. This will tell you why we are what we are, and why we love the music.