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.
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)
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.
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"
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!