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Is the Romance of High Fidelity Audio Today Dead?

by December 31, 2020
The Romance of High Fidelity

The Romance of High Fidelity

“You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’ ”

-- Righteous Brothers, 1964

The hobby of high-fidelity is fascinating. You have to understand, this is a singularly individual hobby, like no other. Audiophiles who came ‘of audio age’ in the Golden Era of the 1960’s-1980’s had a relationship with the equipment and aura of audio that simply doesn’t exist today. Certainly not to the same degree, anyway. Today’s equipment—whether it’s a multi-channel theater setup or a 2-channel music purist system—is so uniformly excellent that a lot of the mystique and “skill” of picking out one’s personal system is just not there anymore. That skill is not needed. Speakers, amplifiers, music-delivery devices, they’re all so good these days. The era of blind-luck, hit-or-miss design has long since passed.

Consider that 40-60 years ago, this is how it was:

Vintage Audio SystemAudiophiles actually put together their music-playing system one component at a time. They chose the electronics of the system, they selected the turntable, they chose the actual cartridge and the speakers. This was known as a “component” system because the audiophile picked out every component themselves, based on reviews they’d read, speakers they had heard and liked, other audiophiles they’d spoken to and the recommendations of salespeople in the stereo store.

There is nothing like that today. Let’s say you want a toaster oven for your kitchen. You go to Walmart or look on Amazon, find one that looks nice for the price you want to pay, and you get that one. Pretty simple.

But….let’s imagine you’re really into toaster ovens. You’re passionate about them. You read everything you can about them. You’re a total expert on everything there is to know about toaster ovens.  So, here’s what you do: You evaluate and compare six different sets of heating elements. You compare how hot they get, their expected lifespan, their physical size, their “speed to maximum heat” time, etc.

Then you look at aluminum enclosures. Same thing—you evaluate and compare their size, construction method, hinge assembly action, price, knobs, temperature adjustment range, heating options (bake, toast, broil, keep warm—does it have all those? Do you need/want all those?), etc.

But wait, you have to look at tempered glass fronts for the door: tint color, heat resistance, breakage resistance, thickness, opacity, cost, size, availability.

Then you assemble your chosen components into one complete, customized-just-for-you toaster oven system. It’s the best toaster oven for the money ever—because you designed it and put it together.

Acoustic Research AR-3aThat’s what a component hi-fi system was in the 1960’s through 1980’s—every individual component was selected by the audiophile. No two systems were alike. Every system was a reflection of that person’s likes, tastes, biases, influences, etc., all tempered by their budget and the space in their den or living room that was available to fit the system. You’d go over someone else’s house in the 1960‘s or 1970’s and guys’ eyes would instantly dart to that homeowner’s hi-fi system. “Oh,” the visitor would think to themselves, “They have a Pioneer receiver, the SX-727. Not bad. But I have AR-3a speakers and he only has KLH 6’s. My system’s better.”

Those are alien considerations today. Two 20-year-old guys arguing over which speakers were best in the college cafeteria doesn’t happen anymore. Heck, walking into a stereo store doesn’t happen anymore, never mind getting involved in some knockdown-drag out fight with a smarmy, opinionated store salesguy who wanted to sell you only EPI speakers, even though you insisted on hearing the Advents, because your roommate’s Small Advents sounded so good to you.

Then, a little later on, those 20-year-old college kids graduated school, got decent-paying jobs and kept their interest in audio gear. They became audiophiles. Stereo Review, High Fidelity and Audio magazines cluttered up their coffee table, in spite of their wives’ insistence to clean them up and put them away.

Once audio equipment was in your blood, it was there to stay. You always wanted to upgrade, to add on something new. You thought about the next discretionary $400 that would come your way. The next decent chunk of change that you could spend, guilt-free, without your wife accusing you of taking food off the table. What would it be? Add a cassette deck to your system? Maybe a graphic equalizer? Maybe you could trade in your 12-year-old Large Advents that you had since your Junior year for something really good, like AR-91’s. If they gave you a reasonable trade on the Advents and a deal on the AR’s, $400 should cover the difference. Maybe you’d just add $100 (in cash, of course) if needed and not say anything…..

The thing about that great old audio gear was that it held an emotional attachment, as opposed to being merely functional. You selected that individual model number, after painstaking research, comparison shopping, seeing your friends’ systems, going around to all the stores, touching it, listening to it, spinning the dials, flicking the switches, taking the grilles off.

MC152

There was definitely a romance to the process. Seeing the back-lit blue power meters on a McIntosh power amplifier and imagining it in your system, in your living room, powering your speakers, you just knew it would sound great. Look at that thing: those heatsinks! The amp weighed a ton! That power supply—toroidal! It just has to be so much better than your Pioneer receiver.

pioneer sx838

In the 1970’s, receivers had analog FM tuners. You tuned to a station by turning a weighted central tuning knob, connected by an internal string to the tuning pointer. Since this was the primary point of user interaction with the unit, manufacturers figured out pretty quickly that if they made the feel and action of the tuning knob silky-smooth and precise, it would go a long way towards conveying quality, by virtue of great tactile sensation. Unlike the tuning knobs on FM tuners in the 1960’s (which felt like garden-variety table radios), tuning knobs in the 1970’s were fabulous. You could take a heavily-weighted Pioneer tuning knob on, say, an SX-838 receiver from 1974 and spin it all the way from 88.1 to 106.9 in one easy action. Man, that was impressive! That was equipment romance at its best.

technics_rs-m206 cassette_deck

miracord-50h IICassette tape decks from that time period had smoothly-damped door mechanisms. You practically needed a stopwatch to time how long it took for the door to open, it was so slow and smooth. Turntables too: The best ones had cueing levers that raised and lowered the tonearm with such incredible precision, it was a joy to behold. If they were fully- or semi-automatic devices, the tonearms and platters moved and spun like fine machinery. The German-built Miracord 50H II automatic turntable actually had a disc brake on the platter that would bring it to a smooth stop at the end of the record. You could hear the quiet, background noise “shhhhh……”of the brake engaging the platter. It was the sound of finely-engineered German machinery at work. My older cousin had a 50H. I think he liked the sound of that brake more than the sound of the Coltrane record that had just finished playing! These components just exuded romance. Interacting with them, the pride of ownership at having made the very personal decision to acquire that particular model over all the others you could have chosen, made the hobby of audio from the 1960’s through the 1980’s something very special indeed.

Much of today’s equipment does not exhibit—nor does it even try to—that same degree of flat-out romance and visceral appeal. Many of today’s amplifiers—whether integrated amps, multi-channel AVRs or totally inclusive home systems like smart speakers or Sonos-type whole house music systems—are powered by Class D amplification.  That is absolutely the correct design decision for these units. The actual audio performance of modern Class D amplification is excellent and their advantages over Class AB amps in terms of space and weight efficiency is huge.

Today’s audio/home entertainment customer (those under, say, 40 years of age) simply don’t have the same expectation and interaction experience with home equipment as do older enthusiasts. Some do, of course, but not as a general rule. Having grown up on a steady diet of smart phones, tablets, ear buds, fast Internet access, smart speakers, etc, today’s younger audio buyer is what could be characterized as results-oriented. How does the unit/system perform? Do I get what I want quickly, conveniently, repeatedly? Yes or no? It’s the result that they are looking for, every time, no questions asked.

The audiophile from the 1960’s-1980’s (and the small slice of traditional audiophiles who are still out there) are as much process-oriented as they are results-oriented. For them, the actual process of researching, auditioning, selecting and assembling their hi-fi systems was as important as the final result of listening to their system. Indeed, for the old-time audiophile, the process never ends, since they are continually on the hunt for their next upgrade, their next tweak, their next improvement.

Yamaha M-5000

So, it’s a “Results vs. Process” audio universe. Embedded deeply, inextricably in the “process” aspect of this hobby is the notion of the romance, the visceral, emotional appeal of the equipment. It’s doubtful that the average home audio buyer under 40 will ever feel that thrill when seeing backlit power meters glowing in the dark or a row of cast-aluminum heatsink fins bristling like a battleship’s 16-inch guns from the sides of a monstrous 500-watt RMS power amplifier.

Audio, you’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’.

Article Epilogue

by Gene DellaSala

It is interesting to read Steve's romanticism of audio gear from the 60s to 80s. I find myself of a similar mindset of audio gear from the 80s to early 2000's. I dearly miss going to local hifi shops to demo and touch the gear I was interested in purchasing. Making a purchase online is just not the same. I wrote about the best home theater receivers of all time and of a strong mindset that the golden age of that category of product ended with the demise of the super receivers in the early 2000's.  I'm in agreement with Steve that audio gear performance is more predictable today (especially with loudspeakers) than decades ago making it easier to build systems that sound good with less trial and error. However, the streamlined selection process and reduced shelf life caused by new technologies emerging at substantially more rapid rate has certainly made us value the components we select less than ever today. Food for thought.

Do you still have that lovin' feelin' for audio gear? Share your comments in the related forum thread below. 

 

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:

MichaelH posts on February 08, 2021 14:48
I read the article with great nostalgia.
Yes, the romantic phase with audio is dead for the new generation. As another poster said it so well - our kids our not interested in it.
I remember building my own stereo amplifier in the 70's. It was a kit, and after hearing the sounds it generated, I fell in love. The next thing was to build my own speakers.
It was so gratifying, because I was picking raw components, designing a speaker box, building a crossover.
It was not necessarily for the purity of the sound - it was for the capability to tinker with it and discover new listening experiences.
I remember experimenting with the pre-amp stage of the amplifier with long nose pliers: I would short resistors, and if the sound improved, I would reduce the resistance. If it got worse, I would increase it. Did same experiments with capacitors. It was trial and error, and yes sometimes I needed to replace burnt transistors, but that was part of the fun. I remember infinite sessions with friends comparing which system could achieve better bass expansion or better clarity in the highs. I remember scouring the book stores for the latest British Hi-Fi magazines, because we all could agree that it was all about German cars and British speakers. It is still my hobby today, but it feels distant.
I wanted to advance, so when the first CD players came out, I shelled quite a lot of $$ to get my Sony CD. The tinkering was replaced with arguments about digital vs analog sound comparisons. The purists would not let go of vinyl. I was OK, but there was a shift in what we were looking for. Home theater and surround sound really created the second opportunity to assemble a new component system. I researched every piece and got to listen to it. I had this set of CDs i would take to audio stores to compare the sound. I got excited about laser discs. Who cared if you had to stop and go through 5 discs just to see one movie. At least you could claim that it was not MPEG compressed. It was “pure video”. And then that changed also.
Today, equipment has gottern better and instead of looking for sonic differences we are comparing features and ease of use or setup. The fun days are definitely gone.
Browncoat posts on January 28, 2021 09:47
My interest in audio started when I was in high school in the 70's. In the mid to late 70s I was in the Navy. When I hit some ports overseas like Subic Bay, PI Yokosuka Naval Base and Hong Kong I got to see great and buy HiFi equipment that was not sold in the US. I wish I still had that stuff. Marantz receiver and JBL speakers. Now I have a Home Theater that the wife and I love, but for music I still run it 2 ch stereo. I am luck to still have a high end Audio store plus a Best Buy that has a Magnolia section that sells McIntosh.
Eppie posts on January 27, 2021 13:26
Some interesting points in the article. When I got into hi-fi in the 80's, you could only find decent gear at specialty shops and the sales people were usually hi-fi enthusiasts as well. Still remember well the first time I heard a pair of JBL L300 Summits connected to a Harmon Kardon Citation amp and pre-amp. That was when the bug bit me. That shop still survives today but deals mostly in custom home theatre and high end audio. Can't blame them since it's hard to compete with big box stores in the low to mid range.
Music used to be a shared experience. We would share LPs and show off our latest gear. Some evenings we would just drink and play loud music for entertainment. Portable music players changed that. My daughter has probably listened to more music at her age simply because she can carry it with her wherever she goes, but it's a solitary experience. That may be why hi-fi now often involves home theatre, as that is once again a shared experience. When my daughter got an apartment and a big screen, she also asked me for advice and bought some vintage audio gear, bless her heart. There is hope after all.
As to the ‘romance’, that's hard to find in a big box store. If you're ok with Klipsh or Energy or Polk, you can find something ok there, but there is no dedicated home theatre room and rarely the opportunity to play your own music. I was one of the few that actually spent a good hour moving from speaker to speaker listening for different characteristics. Most people play the Avengers movie and check out the effects. I ended up going to a local specialty shop and found what I wanted there. That's doesn't imply that the romance is dead. While us old timers had to rely on in store demos and Sound & Vision magazine, presently there are a lot of Youtubers that cover audio gear with great enthusiasm. There are companies spending a great deal of time and money developing improved DACs and streamers. Small book shelf speakers have improved incredibly over the years. Spotify may sound like crap, but there are enough enthusiasts to give rise to companies like Tidal. I think the romance is still there. It has just taken a different form.
winnoch posts on January 23, 2021 17:56
N6RTHERN, post: 1452244, member: 94464
I finally got a type c DAC coverter for my Sony Over Hear Headphones to connect to my Samsung Note 10 I love it so I won't return the cable lol I just found it ironic how this article popped up after a bunch of Google search for HiFi auxiliary cords to go with another type C DAC converter that I'm ordering now for my Sony HT-ST5000
For me, the only reason I buy ‘better’ cables than the freebies supplied with equipment, is for tactile/visual purposes. I don't want lovely, well engineered equipment, connected by cheap looking, stiff plastic sheathed, unsatisfyingly connecting wires! Same reason the brake callipers on hi-end sports cars tend to be shiny, red and very solid looking. Doesn't affect their braking performance one iota; said car would just look a bit naffer with the same callipers as a Fiat Panda.
SMU1976 posts on January 22, 2021 15:18
That's what is so good with audio, and lucky I am in my time here on earth. I got to enjoy the golden days of audio, wherein the 1970's guys that ran the local stores would let me sit in the various rooms with my buddies, and either we would bring in an album are they would let us choose from their selection, and oh, did they have a good selection. See that today at the Magnolia room?
Now at 60, I have had several Marantz receivers in different rooms with some classic speakers. Sure I may buy the top-of-line Marantz home theater, but it's outdated in two or three years. Even the B&K receiver, out of business. Two-channel listening room up to Accuphase and McIntosh. Yep, the old boys hooked me for life in the 1970's I enjoy every minute of it. The thing is, I will offer for free a $2500 Marantz home theater with some outstanding NHT speakers to the kids; they don't even want it. Nice $3000 new B&K receiver, “not interested.” They got their HomePods and are perfectly happy. I don't understand it, and quite frankly, I don't think they listen to music; it is just a background activity. That's why they enjoy over-compressed music with the highs and lows butchered off because they're usually doing something else. Maybe that generation would be a lot more calm sitting back and enjoying a couple of CDs every so often. Just my opinion, I may be wrong, but I doubt it. One last thing, I stay out of most audiophile groups, what a group of snobs arguing over their new cables. These guys are the same age as me, but they are still looking at the equipment and not listening to the music. Gordon Gau and Roger Russel suggested all copper lamp cord to me back in the 1980s ended that McCoy and Hatfield fued. Can't someone prove this to the masses?
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