Herb Reichert: Ancient Audio – Golden Eras of Hi-Fi

Fifty years ago, all audiophiles were older than me. Forty years ago, all audiophiles were the same age as me. So were all the audio manufacturers, dealers, and engineers. Thirty years ago, they were still my age. Likewise twenty years ago. But now, finally, I am a little older than the big-speakerbox two-channel guys, and considerably older than the average headphone aficionado. Praise be to progress – even if it is (as always) slow in coming.

When I was a teen, audiophiles were war vets living in newly developed suburbs with his & her cars in their spacious driveways. They drank highballs and cocktails. Their wives wore aprons and pointy bras. They read Playboy’s Jazz Poll and aspired to living like Frank Sinatra. They saw space flight, three-lane expressways, atomic energy – as well as long-playing records and high-fidelity stereo – as expressions of post-war modernity. The good old days of wooden radios were gone. Buddy Holly and Kukla, Fran and Ollie were gone too. Juan Esquival was an audiophile star. Shopping malls with hi-fi stores were popping up all over. Hugh Heffner was our chief lifestyle consultant. McIntosh, Marantz, Acoustic Research, and JBL were in every rec-room. So were Tiki bars.

When I was a teen, “audiophiles” were my friend’s fathers. We kids were not permitted to use their Garrard or Empire turntables – but we did! My friend Kevin’s father owned an appliance store with a huge hi-fi department; his father’s big system was in the pine wood-paneled lower floor rec-room of a tri-level ranch house with pink linoleum and a gray area rug sporting some sort of ‘atomic energy’ pattern. His McIntosh separates (and JBL L-100 loudspeakers) were nestled neatly in a bookcase across from a rattan “pretzel” sofa by Paul Frankl. There were no wires showing. Kevin’s dad spent his leisure time fixing mixed drinks for his work buddies and showing off his jazz LPs. Many days after school (before he got home) we’d smoke our weed and drink his rum while playing Cream and Dead records. Kevin’s Dad’s system played loud – real loud – and clear; bass was awesome. We all aspired to own one just like it someday.

In that era every family member had a hobby. Many dad’s collected Jazz or Classical records. That’s what old people listened to.

My friend Vincent’s father was a professional tile-setter who spent his leisure time soldering ham-radio projects in his well-organized basement workshop. His audio system was upstairs in their faux-wood-paneled family room/den that he had finished himself. It consisted of a Heathkit pre and power amp plus a single built-in corner horn (loudspeaker) hidden behind a burlap-looking gold-threaded grill cloth. He played opera arias while sitting in his vinyl Lazy Boy with an ashtray table and a TV tray table. He drank wine or Limoncello while reading audio magazines and smoking Chesterfields. We never touched his setup.

My father was a heating contractor who fixed oil-burners for a living. He had an old Columbia console with a radio, a turntable, a single 12” paper cone driver, and storage for LPs. He played mostly Bach organ music.

One of his customers was an old German (former U-boat captain) named Paul who recorded steam locomotives. He lived alone and his audio system was completely far-out. The wall between his kitchen and living room was crammed with at least ten 15-inch drivers; all facing his couch and an antique-looking coffee table stacked with notebooks and old TV Guides. This mad array of 15-inch drivers was literally screwed to the living room wall. There were horn tweeters installed randomly between the woofers and no grill cloths. In his kitchen, he had a reel-to-reel recorder on the counter next to a wooden breadbox decorated with hand painted flowers. Rows of bundled wires led across the floor to a Formica table covered with black crinkle-painted tube amps with giant power and output transformers – all of which had bulging exposed copper windings that had been scatter-wound by Paul using thick magnet wire. He said each amp generated “at least 500 watts!” He offered us beverages then spooled up one of his tapes.

I sat with my dad on Paul’s small couch while a giant “2-8-8-4 EM-1” steam locomotive passed directly in front of us. It seemed like I was only three-feet from the tracks. Despite the loud train-noise I could hear Paul’s collection of Bisque figurines rattling in the curio cabinet next to the couch. I drank Ovaltine and my dad drank buttermilk; Paul stood watching us – smiling, and sipping peppermint schnapps from a tiny glass.

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Everclear's picture

"Glory Days" .............. Bruce Springsteen :-) .............

Everclear's picture

"Old Days" ............ Chicago :-) ................

Richard D. George's picture

Thanks for the history. In the 1980’s my first system had a McIntosh integrated amp (solid state), a B&O turntable, Advent speakers, and Kimber Kable (bare ended). I had a decent collection of vinyl albums. Loved that system...

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