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The Most Memorable Audio Receivers of the Last 50 Years

by February 20, 2015
Contributors:
Marantz 2285 Vintage Receiver

Marantz 2285 Vintage Receiver

This article will have a slightly different angle than the recent article, “The 10 Most Influential Speakers of the Last 50 Years.” Instead, we cover the most “memorable” receivers, not necessarily the most influential. Neither article is about “the best,” but we’re sure that won’t stop the flood of how-could-you-this-leave-off comments.

Actually, those comments are the very reason we do these articles, so we’d love to hear them. Round-up/historical articles like these are a heckuva lot of fun to write, and it’s even more fun to hear the reactions and read the comments. If the response to the Speakers article was any indication, this one should spark some lively debate of its own.

We cover everything from vintage two-channel to the more recent multi-channel surround AV receivers. We discuss the evolution from tubes to transistors, power ratings and the FTC, social, economic, and demographic changes that have occurred in America since the 1960’s and how this has impacted the receiver market.

So, in rough chronological order from oldest to newest, here are our picks for the 10 (or so) most memorable receivers of the last 50 years:

Two-Channel Simplicity: The Good Old Days

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Fisher 500-T

The Fisher 500-T receiver from around 1965-ish was a hugely important unit in the evolution of American hi-fi. Fisher and H.H. Scott were the two most prominent U.S. manufacturers of mainstream electronics and the 500-T was Fisher’s first all-transistor unit. Early transistor models used germanium transistors, before superior silicon parts were available. Germanium transistors had narrower bandwidth, less gain and were not particularly reliable, giving the first transistor units a somewhat shaky reputation for inferior sound and questionable quality.

Of particular interest is this ad’s headline, boasting that it’s a “90-Watt” receiver. 90 watts how? Per channel? 45 per channel, so 90 watts total? At what level of distortion? Over what bandwidth? Both channels driven simultaneously or only a single channel driven?

This is how it was done in those days: Let the buyer beware!

Way back in the ’60 s and early ’70 s, before the FTC stepped in (1974) and made all the stereo manufacturers clean up their deceptive advertised wattage ratings, companies would use all kinds of ratings. 

In 1974, FTC stepped in to make stereo manufacturers clean up their deceptive wattage ratings.

There was Continuous or RMS, but since this was the smallest, least-impressive number, it was always listed last, in small print, if listed at all.

Double the RMS was “Dynamic” or “Peak” or “Music” power—the rationale being that an amplifier could likely deliver about double its continuous rating on a temporary peak in the music.

Double that was a really bogus number called “IPP” or Instantaneous Peak Power. The flimsy rationale was that an amplifier—if it had enough of a power supply—could probably muster about double its Peak power for the briefest of instants, if it had the wind at its back and you completely disregarded the distortion.

So a 30-watt/channel RMS stereo amplifier became a 60-watt/ch peak amp, which became a 120-watt IPP amp. Adding together the two channels, manufacturers would advertise, “240-watt Amplifier!” for a 30-per-side unit. Ugh.

In 1974, the FTC came in and mandated that audio amplifier power specifications had to state RMS/continuous power first, in the largest type, and that it had to be specified over what frequency bandwidth, at what THD distortion level, and both channels had to be driven simultaneously. Furthermore, the FTC mandated a warm-up or “preconditioning” period of an hour at 33% of rated power at 1kHz before measurements were taken.

The manufacturers hated this one, because 33% power is right in the heart of the least efficient operating range for typical Class AB amplifiers (which all of these were), and so the amps would run very hot during the preconditioning period. That necessitated large, heavy heat sinks for new designs, or sometimes a downgrade in power ratings for existing designs in order to meet the new requirements. For example, Dynaco—a well-regarded manufacturer of better-than-midgrade electronics—had to de-rate their popular SCA-80 integrated amplifier from 40 watts RMS per channel to 30 watts RMS per channel, because the unit ran too hot during the new FTC-mandated preconditioning period.

This particular Fisher receiver—if you read all the fine print really closely—eventually said that it was 28 watts RMS per channel, although it’s not clear if a distortion level or frequency bandwidth was ever specified.

But considered all on its own, the Fisher was a fine unit. 25 or 30 clean watts per side would easily drive any normal speaker of the time to more-than-ample loudness levels in the typical living room. It was an attractive, convenient, easy-to-use piece. It ushered in the coming stereo market expansion and deservedly takes its place among the industry’s most memorable receivers.

McIntosh 1900

McIntosh. The “Macs.” The generally-acknowledged best electronics of their time (apologies to Marantz separates fans), long before the Aragons and Brystons and Audio Researches and Jeff Rolands, et al. came on the scene.

 Mc-1900.jpg

Mcintosh 1900 Receiver

They were primarily a separates company but when they did finally come out with their first receiver—the tube/solid state hybrid model 1500—it was a big event. They followed that with the more solid state/less tube (tuner section only) model 1700, but with the model 1900 in the early ’70s, “Mac” finally entered the solid-state receiver market.

And what a solid, well-built, beautiful, high-performance unit it was. You didn’t judge Macs on a watts or features per-dollar basis. These were the Cadillacs of their day and price was just not part of the equation. In 1972, a Ford Galaxy 500 would take you to the store to buy milk just as well as any luxury car, but that’s not the point, is it?

At a list price of around $950, it was probably twice as costly—if not more—than similarly-spec’d receivers from mainstream companies, but the 1900 had an aura of solid quality that nothing else could match. Mac watts were somehow cleaner, more powerful, louder and more authoritative than those very pedestrian Kenwood watts coming forth from their KR-6160 receiver. In high school as my interest in stereo picked up steam, one of my classmates had (or I guess his Dad had) a “high end” system consisting of a Mac 1900, AR-3a speakers and a Thorens turntable with a separately purchased tonearm (probably an SME). The system cost over $2,000—this was an extremely expensive system in the early 70’s, real high-end. I remember he played the Isaac Hayes record “Shaft,” and the high-hat strikes that began the title cut were so realistic and sharp, I didn’t think anything could ever sound better. I was blown away. As a teen just getting into audio, that was an impression that has lasted to this day.

McIntosh electronics certainly had the cachet and their 1900 receiver did nothing to sully that reputation. It was quite arguably the first “high end” receiver of the modern equipment era, where the specs/price ratio was not as important as the build quality, company reputation, and perceived sonic superiority.

Pioneer SX-424 through SX-828 series

These were the receivers that launched the stereo college revolution of the ’70s. The line consisted of five models, from the SX-424 (15 wpc) to the SX-828 (50 wpc). They were beautifully-made, beautiful-looking units, with silver faceplates, wooden side panels, and heavily-weighted tuning flywheels that spun nicely from one end of the tuning dial to the other. Since younger aficionados are only acquainted with digital tuners, they’ve really missed out on one of the greatest tactile/high-quality equipment sensations of the halcyon era of stereo. (Another being the smoothly-damped, slow-opening cassette deck door—but that’s another story for another time.)

Pioneer was the standard-setter for mainstream receivers in that timeframe. Kenwood, Sansui, Sherwood and others definitely had some great equipment also—the budget-priced Sherwood S-7100A (20 wpc) being a particularly terrific value, a truly gutsy, great-sounding receiver. But the Pioneers were the benchmark units and their sales and marketing policies ensured they were the biggest sellers.

pio727.jpg

Vintage Pioneer Receiver

In the ’70s, all those millions of Advents, EPIs, JBLs and ARs blasting out Allman Brothers, the Who, Jimi and CSN&Y in beer-drenched, smoke-filled (never mind what kind!) dorm rooms across the country had to be powered by something. More often than not, they were made to sing by the clean, dependable, abuse-resistant power of a Pioneer receiver.

The SX-424 thru 828 model series was made from about 1971-1973. It was followed by the SX-434 series and then in 1976 by the SX-450 series models, the latter with their strikingly-gorgeous soft gold backlit tuning dial/power meter display area. Two of these later series units—one each from the 30 and 50 families—were so significant to the history and evolution of the high-fidelity industry that they’ll be called out on their own a bit later.

But for now, let’s remember the Pioneer SX-424 thru 828—the receivers that powered so much of the music of the Baby Boomers’ college-aged youth. From Joni Mitchell to Miles Davis to Santana—Pioneer was there.

Marantz 2230, 2245, 2270 series

No matter how good the accepted standard-bearer is in any field, there’s always something a cut above. Whatever it is, it has that something extra, a bit unexpected, a little better than it has to be. A better affordable family sedan than Toyota. A better chain restaurant than Olive Garden. The better ones exist because the company feels their customers will appreciate it and pay a little more for their product. Not too much more, but a little more and worth it.

marantz_2270.jpg

Marantz 2270 Receiver

If the Pioneers (and by implication, the Kenwoods, Sansuis, Sherwoods et al.) were the benchmark for minimum-required excellence, then the Marantz 2200 series was the line that represented a cut above.

What distinctive and classy units they were. With their beautiful champagne-gold faceplates, their elegant black script control labelling and that striking deep blue tuning backlighting, the Marantz’s were certainly lookers.

But their tuning knob—who could forget that tuning knob? While everyone else chased the conventional spin-the-dial target, some brilliantly-inspired industrial designer produced the horizontally-oriented thumb-actuated Marantz-only tuning knob. With its black-knurled slip-resistant surface and heavily-weighted expensive feel, the horizontal tuning knob ensured that the Marantz 2200-series receivers were instantly recognizable and forever unforgettable, even to this day.

You didn’t see too many of these in random dorm rooms and fraternity house bedrooms. While we have no specific empirical sales data from that period showing the demographic distribution of its buyers, the strong suspicion here is that Marantz was the receiver for “grown-ups,” and the others were mostly for college kids. Whenever one did see or come across a 2230 or 2245 in someone’s room, it elicited an involuntary—and well-deserved—chorus of “ooohs” and “ahhhs.” No one ever ooohed and ahhhed over a Kenwood KR-5200. But a Marantz 2245 or 2270? Well, that was different.

Now—another tale of the Marantz 2270, and not a particularly flattering one. I went to college in Boston and was a member of the nationally-known Boston Audio Society, a group of enthusiasts who met monthly to discuss audio matters and get presentations, factory tours and demonstrations of manufacturers’ latest gear.

At the time—the mid-1970s—the whole notion of “why did amplifiers sound different” was really taking hold in audio circles. At a BAS meeting in the fall of 1975, we got a presentation from a test equipment manufacturer (I forget who) who was going to show us—prove to us—why some amplifiers sounded better than others.

They used three popularly-priced receivers of about the same power output—a Pioneer, an AR receiver, and a Marantz 2270. All three were rated at about 50-70 watts RMS/channel into 8 ohms, within about 1.4 dBW of each other. In other words, no real-life difference in loudness capability. I think the speakers for the demonstration were Advents or ARs.

When the receivers were pushed hard—to the edge of clipping, as we all watched on the scope—they sounded markedly different. The Marantz was clearly the worst.

From an audibility standpoint, it wasn't just total THD but how that THD was constituted that mattered.

These were the very early days of distortion spectrum analysis, and the presenter of the test equipment was showing us how an amplifier whose THD products are comprised of upper-order harmonics would sound much harsher and more strident than an amplifier whose THD products were the more benign and musically-related lower-order (2nd- and 3rd-order) harmonics. In other words, it wasn’t just the “total” of THD, it was what that THD was constituted of that really mattered.

We saw on the scope that the Pioneer had a reasonable spectral distribution of distortion products (a mix of lower- and upper-order distortion when pushed into clipping); the AR receiver was almost entirely lower-order distortion (2nd- and 3rd-order) and so its clipping was quite smooth-sounding and hardly noticeable, but the 2270 was a complete mess when it ran out of steam—virtually all 4th-,  5th- and 6th order distortion. Nails on the blackboard. (See THD vs IMD distortion sidebar)

This is not to denigrate the 2270, a well-built handsome powerhouse whose 70+ undistorted watts per side were more than enough to get a set of Large Advents far louder than any reasonably-sane college kid (or mature adult) could stand. It’s just an interesting recollection that must be included for the sake of historical accuracy and completeness.

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About the author:

Steve Feinstein is a long-time consumer electronics professional, with extended tenures at Panasonic, Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology. He has authored historical and educational articles for us as well as occasional loudspeaker reviews.

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Recent Forum Posts:

tonyE posts on August 24, 2019 17:22
MrBoat, post: 1335169, member: 80705
….

I bought a 100 watt Fisher rack system in the 80's and never looked back from there. Attached to that, was some of the most enjoyable listening ever, a whole lot of experience gained with things like EQ effects, and other ways to further enhance sound. Come 2019, that experience has proven invaluable, with finding the truth and fiction with marketers today, with somewhere north of 90% of available information being complete, and utter BS.
….

Gulp… from ‘83 to ’88 I sort of stopped listening to music, even though I had a very fine top of the line Sony Super Beta HiFi and a matching Laserdisk… I dumped the audio receiver and used an all Sony ES system driving ADS car amplifiers with a BIG 12VDC power supply into my ADS L810s. I guess the sound of CDs sucked. I used my Kenwood integrated as phono preamp for my then Dual/Grado turntable.

Sometime in ‘88 I got a used Linn LP12, Conrad Johnson PV9, Audio Research D70 MkII and a pair of Acoustic Energy AE1s. I do own some classic receivers, but I don’t drive them in a serious audio system.

Once you go to separates, it's very hard to go back to an all in one. Even though my receivers are gorgeous. Heck, my High End audio stuff looks boring, specially my all black, no switch, class A FET mono amps. I bought a Radio Shack APM-200 power analog meter thingie… in very good shape. My kids think it's a hoot that the cheapest thing in the stereo, cheaper than my cheapest interconnect, is the one thing we end up looking at most.

I did own an equalizer once… it just made things worse.
MrBoat posts on August 24, 2019 15:42
tonyE, post: 1335034, member: 89479
And let's not even discuss those solid state receiver monstrosities from the early 80s. Yuck.

In spite those being mid-fi at best, they managed to match or exceed the recording quality of most popular music of that era and before. What 75% of the planet was listening to. Those Japanese engineers knew what they were doing. The least of which was bring affordable, and better sound quality to the masses. I grew up with my parents systems with names like RCA, Zenith, etc., which was so horrid that the speakers came essentially blown before the first signal ever passed through them. House brand electronics from Sears, M. Ward, Kmart etc., were what was affordable before the Japanese figured out the next step up from that, which was up and coming audiophiles blessings, truth be told.

I bought a 100 watt Fisher rack system in the 80's and never looked back from there. Attached to that, was some of the most enjoyable listening ever, a whole lot of experience gained with things like EQ effects, and other ways to further enhance sound. Come 2019, that experience has proven invaluable, with finding the truth and fiction with marketers today, with somewhere north of 90% of available information being complete, and utter BS.

ETA: With many of those systems being quite functional nearly 40 years later, it tends to discount the notion of them being low quality.
tonyE posts on August 23, 2019 22:58
Marantz 2325, 4215 Sansui G7500, Kenwood separates, etc.. etc.. that, and lots more in the closet. Those were indeed the days. Yet, as beautiful as those receivers were, stuff like Nelson Pass and Audio Research were still ahead.

And let's not even discuss those solid state receiver monstrosities from the early 80s. Yuck.

BTW- I'm really surprised you didn't bring up the Sony VFET TA-5650 and 5450! Those were (are still) likely some of the best sounding amplifiers of all time. Just make sure to replace the kamikaze diodes.
JengaHit posts on August 21, 2019 17:12
Txzick, post: 1334327, member: 76956
You grew-up listening to the golden age of stereo. All those brands made respectable equipment, Stereo is making a strong comeback. Surround sound is difficult to do correctly without room acoustic panels, too many speakers bouncing sound off the walls. Stereo is more forgiving for most people, by stopping the first reflection point.
Yeah, I remember those components were solidly built, tank-like, and all manufactured in Japan. I'm still stuck in stereo myself with a 2.1 system. Resisting the extra effort needed to wire extra side and back speakers. Many typical rooms don't make it as easy as it looks in those speaker set-up diagrams.
Txzick posts on August 21, 2019 14:21
JengaHit, post: 1334318, member: 88330
My dad owned Pioneer, Sansui, and Marantz. Don't remember model numbers as I was just a kid back then, in the 70s. He then graduated to Kenwood integrateds. Got the audio bug from dad. Also remember my uncle's Yamaha receiver, used to drive Dahlquist speakers. Elegant and sleek.
You grew-up listening to the golden age of stereo. All those brands made respectable equipment, Stereo is making a strong comeback. Surround sound is difficult to do correctly without room acoustic panels, too many speakers bouncing sound off the walls. Stereo is more forgiving for most people, by stopping the first reflection point.
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