Tuesday, January 13, 2015


            The attic of the old home overlooking the Hudson River in “old” New Jersey was a veritable treasure trove; almost a living history family museum. By the time I was old enough to know my way around its four floors, endless corridors and mysterious “hidden” closets, those attic aisles under the pitched eaves were an explorer’s paradise – especially during a noisy thunder storm. There were tall barrels, wooden boxes and a myriad of old travel trunks interspersed with overflowing and even bursting cardboard crates. There were also lined up like so many soldiers shelves filled with strange, green colored cylinders.  I learned they were for the Edison Electrical Music Machine which had long been replaced by the more familiar oak-stained piece of furniture in our dining room which had to be wound up via a hand crank in order to listen to the round wax records bearing such names as Rudy Vallee, Deanna Durbin and the Great Valentino.
            A few years later, and with a 78 rpm wonder that needed no cranking, I was accumulating my own stack of those wax discs featuring The Firehouse Five Plus Two, a skinny new singer from nearby Hackensack named Frank Sinatra and of course The Andrews Sisters.(I still have a fifty-pound hoard of those irreplaceable pieces of music history in my basement – and I play them!)
            Then by the early 1950s and with the birth of the 33 rpm, Vinyl Long Playing record, the recorded music world changed dramatically. With fine-tipped diamond needles and narrow microgroove  technology, it was possible to put a full hour of high quality sound on a single twelve-inch disc which was almost indestructible and had a long playing life.
            The coming of what was marketed as “High Fidelity” in recording but was simply the combination of lower distortion and a greater range of clean sound made possible by progress in the industry had an enormous effect on the growing number of dedicated “audiophiles”, many of whom like myself became home-builders of their own playback equipment. I built my own “HiFi” system for the first time around 1958 with a Heathkit amplifier and a Tandberg turntable. The resulting sound was magnificent, and I learned a lot about wiring schematics and soldering technique in the process.
            The true “Golden Age” of recorded musical sound really began with the introduction in the mid-60s of what was first known as binaural sound, later marketed as stereophonic – or just stereo sound, although both terms were technically deceiving. Essentially it came down to recording on both sides of a groove and playing back through two speaker systems so as to create the illusion of spacial separation. Very impressive! But the ultimate in true stereo involved recording the original performance on two separate microphone systems so that the separation achieved was actual and real.
            For the dedicated audiophile of the day, there was one more important decision to make .The other revolutionary change going on was ushered in by the arrival of the transistor and what came to be known as “solid state” technology. I spent hours and days in my friend Herb Mooney’s Mission, Kansas sound demonstration lab listening to every available combination of amplifier and speakers. For me the answer was clear: Vacuum tubes produced better sound than transistors, and the combination of Harmon Kardon electronics and Bozak speakers rang the bell for me.
            I spent the next twelve months building my “dream” stereo system, from wiring to cabinetry. It first played the opening phrases of Jean Sibelius’ Symphonic Poem Finlandia in my Kansas living room in 1963, and still fills my 1800 square-foot Utah basement with angelic sound today 52 years later. My nearby collection of vinyl recordings (about 70% classical) probably numbers over 500, each bearing a white label on the outer cover which tells me the date it arrived in my library, and each date it was  played. Do I have a favorite demonstration pressing? That would be Camille Saint-Saёns’ awe-inspiring “Organ” Symphony No. 3. with a cathedral size pipe organ and up to four pianos.
            Why am I writing on this subject today? Because, my friends, the vinyl disc is enjoying a comeback. Today’s audiophiles have “discovered” that no other medium compares with the quality of its sound. What’s more, collectors are willing to pay big money for a surviving vacuum tube playback system like the one they told me was obsolete. Makes me wonder about a lot of other things “they” told me.

   With its weighty transformers and a hard-to-find matched set of KT88 vacuum tubes, the Harmon Kardon Citation still powers the author’s stereo system52 years after its construction.

No comments:

Post a Comment