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When Everyone Was An Audiophile: Remember Your First Stereo System?

Culture | June 5, 2020

Debbie Harry, lead singer of the new wave group Blondie, sits in front of some stereo equipment, circa 1977. (Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Hi-fi components... big stereo speakers... something called a receiver... and an equalizer... file them all under "things kids don't know about these days." Sure, listening to an album in the modern era is easier, as easy as scrolling through your phone on an app, but the music doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as that big old analog hi-fi sound. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, stereo equipment became affordable for mass consumers, turning everyone into an audiophile. Even if you didn’t have thousands of dollars to drop on the system of your dreams you could still put together a pretty good setup. Whether you were using a reel-to-reel to listen or a sturdy phonograph your system was personal; there was none other like it, it was yours. 

High-fidelity is a state of mind

Frank Sinatra with his sweet home hi-fi. Source: kcrw

What does “hi-fi” even mean? We hear it bandied around quite a bit when discussing music and sound quality but it’s one of those phrases that sounds like nothing, unless you’re in the audiophile world. A “hi-fi” or high-fidelity system is how audiophiles describe a stereo system that’s designed to play sounds that are as close to their original source as possible. If you’ve got a great hi-fi and you’re listening to a live classical recording it should be like you’re sitting in the audience of an orchestra. This pursuit of perfect audio can be a bit of a trap, one man’s high-fidelity can be another’s lo-fi system. It’s all in your perspective.

Stereos of the ‘50s tended to be cobbled together

source: pinterest

In the era immediately following World War II people who wanted to listen to music had to do so on stereos that they pieced together from disparate sources. The war gave audiophiles of the era a ton of new parts and technologies. There were new tubes and valves and even new ways to record on to tape. With the right know-how you could create a receiver or an amplifier, a pair of speakers and a plug it into the music source of your choosing (a turntable or reel to reel) and you were good to go.

At the time everything that was being released was in mono, it only had one channel, but by 1957 there was a limited editor stereo player with two channels, one for the left and one for the right. Even if you had enough money to get your hands on this contraption there weren’t any records being mixed in stereo at the time.

 In the 1960s hi-fis became design forward

source: flickr

America’s economy was doing so well in the 1960s that people finally had the cash to spend on high end electronics and this was a decade when electronics manufacturers and audiophiles were making leaps and bounds in the world of sound. In many cases tubes were phased out in favor of transistors while receivers and amplifiers received facelifts. Suddenly everything had style. There was wood grain on the receivers bookending a brushed metal fish and gorgeous knobs upon knobs. If you were so bold as to hook your receiver up to a graphic equalizer you could have even more control over your sound.

Speakers came into their own in the late ‘60s

source: rocket roberts

As the electronics market grew in the 1960s, speaker companies refined their products until they were immaculately tuned into whatever sound someone was looking for. Someone who understands wattage and the intricacies of sound could put together a pretty good sound system for a small chunk of change. Although this kind of purchasing was addictive (and it still is if you’ve got the money) -- grownups who caught the hi-fi bug could be like children acquiring toys or comic books. By purchasing woofers, tweeters, and stereo paired speakers an audiophile could create an entire room filled with the most perfect sounds. This kind of chase for perfect sound continues to today, with man caves and dens outfitted for immaculate listening capabilities.

Setting up your sound system meant understanding how your equipment worked

source: cnn

Hi-fi systems of the mid 20th century weren’t like the plug and play stereos of the ‘90s. You couldn’t just pull a hi-fi out of the box and start jamming, you had to put all of the right components together while keeping track of the positive and negative sections of speaker wire, and once it was in place you didn’t want to move it because early speaker equipment was seriously heavy. Hi-fi owners of the the mid-century basically had to be amateur electricians. If something went wrong with your system that meant taking it down to the dealer or learning how to fix it yourself, and after a while that was just easier. Many an audiophile learned to wield a soldering iron in case of hi-fi emergency.

Putting it all together

Today, if you want to go back in time and play your old (or new) vinyl you can pick up an all in one turntable with an amplifier and speakers. It’s not going to capture the pristine audio that you want but it’s an option. Mid-century hi-fi set ups could be as simple or as complicated as you needed, but even the smallest systems packed a big punch. Most systems featured a turntable that was connected to a preamp and no matter what kind of hi-fi you were using it needed to be grounded unless you wanted to feel an electrical jolt every time you put on an LP.

Audiophiles using a reel to reel have to make sure that they connect the line-out RCA connectors to the auxiliary line inputs of a stereo or a preamp. As long as the reel to reel isn’t plugged directly into a set of speakers it’s good to go. Plugging a reel to reel directly into a pair of speakers will damage the either tape machine, the speakers, or both if you’re unlucky, and you’ll spend more money than you want getting the whole system replaced.

Hi-fis disappeared because of the convenience and low sound quality of pop music

source: audiostream

Most of the hi-fi systems of the ‘50s and ‘60s were used to listen to jazz and classical music - stuff that you begged its audiences to pay attention to every note. It makes sense -- the kids with their rock and roll might have been having more fun, but they didn't have the dough to buy multiple components and giant speakers. The jangly, fuzzy rock music that started taking over the airwaves didn’t require precision sound. Crude rock ’n roll music sounds just as good coming out of a quality hi-fi system as it does a tinny radio.

By the '70s, rock and R&B music had matured; the sophisticated, multi-layered music of Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Parliament Funkadelic and Stevie Wonder was recorded with care and really did benefit from precision equipment. By the '80s, you didn't have to like jazz or classical at all to make good use of a high-end hi-fi.

By now, the glory days of big home stereo systems are long gone. One factor leading to their downfall was convenience -- as younger people grew up on cassettes, they didn't want to store or handle big, scratchable vinyl, and their first system was probably just a boom box. It was just as well -- sound quality on cassettes was not as good as vinyl anyway, so spending a lot on a fancy setup would be a waste. There was also more and newer technology to spend money on, like home theater equipment, DVD players, and of course personal computers. There's still a market for high-end stereo components and speakers, but it's a niche market -- clearly, the public prefers the incredible convenience of digital files (mp3s) or streaming music, combined with the ever-improving sound quality of bluetooth speakers that don't take up half the room.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Hi-Fi | Remember This?... | Stereo | Technology

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.