The Long View
attended my first audio show in 1957, in the days of mono. As a teenager
interested in electronics, I discovered High Fidelity just about the time that
my disillusionment with ham radio set in. A friend invited me to hear his father's hi-fi system. All I can remember of that day was the sound of that
big five foot tall speaker system in the corner of his living room. Never had I
heard anything that sounded so real. I was hooked.
Over the last sixty some odd years, I have been involved in audio as a consumer, audiophile society president and small retailer. Needless to say, much has changed since those early days. In future columns, I plan to describe these changes, revisit assumptions made as well as evaluate their effect on the audio world of today. My opinions may be unorthodox, but they are entirely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Enjoy the Music.com.
Getting back to that show, here was my chance to see and actually listen to equipment that I could only read about. Most of my information was obtained from High Fidelity and Audio magazines, catalogs from Allied and Lafayette Radio as well ads and articles in the electronics magazines. Although there were a few dedicated audio dealers, most hi-fi equipment was sold by electronics wholesalers, who also sold electronics parts, televisions, public address systems and ham radio equipment. Demo facilities were limited or non-existent.
In the 1950s, hi-fi was mostly a do-it-yourself pursuit. Although complete loudspeaker systems existed, most speaker manufacturers also sold individual drivers and crossovers, while publishing plans to build enclosures, in addition to offering enclosure kits and finished cabinets. Electronics magazines featured plans to build speaker systems and amplifiers. David Hafler and Herb Keroes, the developers of the ultra-linear amplifier circuit, sold their Acro transformers to manufacturers, while publishing plans to build your own. Eventually, Hafler left to create Dynakit. Heathkit and EICO, manufacturers of electronics kits, offered a complete line of pre-amps, integrated and power amplifiers, tuners and speaker systems. Not to be outdone, audio manufacturers Fisher, H.H. Scott and Harmon-Kardon Citation all offered kits. Finally, there were even turntable kits from Gray and a company named Components Corp.
The average person was unaware of high fidelity. If he wanted something better than a portable phonograph or a radio, he purchased a console. This was a radio combined with a phonograph and. possibly a television, packaged in a decorative wooden box. Although some manufacturers such as Fisher and Stromberg-Carlson were concerned about sound quality, most consoles were designed primarily to be furniture. If you wanted good sound, you had to purchase and match individual components.
As hi-fi and stereo entered the mainstream, the concept of individual components became fixed in the public's mind. Manufactured consoles were replaced by furniture stores selling stereo cabinets containing loudspeakers along with the requisite Fisher receiver and Garrard record changer. These were followed by the mass market Japanese mini systems, which were really consoles disguised to look like stereo components.
The separate component concept became even more enshrined in the audiophile community. Although receivers and integrated amplifiers have always been available, they are considered budget options, inferior to individual components such as pre-amp, tuner and power amp. Many of these components, of course, are now being broken down into even smaller ones. A phono pre-amp, can be replaced by a line stage amplifier, a phono stage and possibly a step-up device for a moving coil cartridge. A CD player, by a transport and DAC and possibly a re-clocking device. Naturally, they will all require additional use of costly interconnects and can be improved by an outboard power supply, line conditioner or power cord. Finally, to take the component concept one step further, we can replace the individual electronic components in our devices, such as the tubes or capacitors in an amplifier.
Our audio systems have become ever more complex and costly. It's no wonder that the average person questions our sanity. Maybe we've gone too far. When consoles were the best we could get, it made sense for us to assemble component systems. Is this still the case? Few of us today assemble our own speaker systems. We are content accepting the designer's choices and judge the system on its merit. Yet that speaker's designer had to consider that it would have to work with a wide variety of amplifiers and make compromises to accommodate them. If he were designing the speaker and amplifier together, he could optimize their interaction.
Today's powered studio monitors, such as ATC compete with the finest audiophile speaker amplifier combinations. Similarly, other components are being combined, such as integrated amplifiers with built in DACs. Finally, we now have products that are essentially complete audio systems minus a source. These are not the dreck of the past but very high quality audio systems. The KEF LS50W and the Kii 3 combine speakers with amplification, A/D D/A conversion and digital signal processing. In the case of the KEFs, class A rated speakers are bi-amp'ed at 230 Wpc along with all the extra DSP goodies for only $700 more the unpowered ones. The advantages of a complete system approach are obvious: parts designed to work best with each other and significant cost savings.
The big disadvantage, of course, is the inability
to select the individual parts of the system. But just how much of a
disadvantage is it? Each year, the number of audiophile products seems to
increase while dealers are limited as to the how many products they can afford
to carry. Assembling a system is not easy. The number of possible equipment
combinations, even for a simple system with tight price constraints, is huge.
And of course, there is always the possibility of equipment mismatch.
When you audition a component, you're actually judging a complete system. That same component might sound different elsewhere. The system that a dealer assembles, combines components that he also sells, to show off the item as best he can. That component may sound better or worse in your system. You won't know until you try. Consequently audiophiles often rely on dealer recommendations for compatible products. The question is really whether you and/or your dealer can assemble a system from existing components, that sounds better than one designed as a unit from the ground up. What matters, is the final result, not how you get there.