Author Topic: Fractured History of Audio Products  (Read 36 times)


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Fractured History of Audio Products
« on: July 07, 2019, 01:11:56 PM »
Fractured History of Audio

Toys For Boys      

Many years ago, back in the mists of time, there were buildings called retail stores.

Retail stores, for those who have forgotten, or are too young to have seen them, were structures made of concrete and wood where products were sold.
I know this may seem hard to believe. It was a strange time back then.

Most of these retail stores sold women’s dresses, with rack after rack of flowing silk hiding that solitary, uncomfortable, straight-backed chair where husbands or boyfriends would wait. And since this was a time before smart phones, these men could not stream football games. They would all die of boredom. I know this. I’ve seen the skeletons.

Hello?...anybody there?

It seemed all the rest of the retail stores sold women’s shoes, with display after display of uncomfortable looking footwear just like the ones your wife already owned. Husbands would also die there of boredom.

This was nothing new, of course. Darwin had explained it all years ago. Eventually more intelligent men would evolve who would learn to never go shopping with women.

But to be truthful, there were also stores selling books and records. Fortunately, those quirky, small book or record stores, locally owned, where you could waste hours talking to people, getting to know them personally, often making new friends... those creaky, useless stores were on their way out of business. Larger, more successful companies were taking control. They had bigger inventories staffed with low paid clerks who were not allowed to waste your time talking. Maybe they had a cafe where you could hang out and have a cappuccino. The best ones had a Starbucks right behind the fiction section.

Despite their aromatic coffee bars, these big chain book and record stores would also, in turn, go out of business. For some reason, after internet retail began, all physical retail stores were torn down and rebuilt out of brick and mortar. The larger chain retailers, for some strange reason, began selling big cardboard boxes.

It didn’t matter. All old fashioned physical store based retail was living on borrowed time. So it goes.

early record store in Toledo just after CDs were invented

Imagine being forced to drive to some location in space/time, sort through physical objects containing music or prose with your own hands, and then having to carry them to a counter to pay for them! OMG!

I know this may seem hard to believe. It was a strange time back then.

In this time before internet there were also buildings called specialty audio stores. Now don’t let the current existence of internet forums with thousands of audio enthusiast geeks fool you. That’s the internet, Jake. Specialty audio stores have also vanished into the Amazon night.

Specialty audio stores sold boxes made of plastic and metal that plugged into the electric socket in your wall. These boxes connected to even bigger boxes made of wood and rubber that sat on the floor. This whole array of interconnected boxes might fill up most of the space in one’s living room. In technical jargon these were called: AUDIO SYSTEMS, or STEREO SYSTEMS, or Hi-Fi SYSTEMS.

These systems might consist of devices or components with names like: pre-amp, power amp, tuner, integrated amp...receiver, turntable, cassette deck, CD player, speakers...with accessories like: speaker stands, stylus cleaner, record cleaner, speaker wire. And later, as we tried to turn our living rooms into movie houses, there were center channel speakers, rear channel speakers, surround receivers, DVD players, subwoofers, Blu ray players. Oh yeah. And the biggest, highest resolution TV.

Let’s just call them, toys for boys. These toys for boys could be quite expensive. Boys young and old would flock to these stores to give a listen, or audition, the latest electronic devices for which they would pay top dollar so as to better enjoy their collection of tapes and records. At the same time they could impress their buddies or a prospective lady friend. It was often whispered on bar stools across America (and other countries) that women would swoon over a man with a rockin' stereo.

Beatles fan enjoys mono reel to reel 71/2 ips version of Revolver album

Nowadays the billionaire boys like Bezos, Musk, and Branson like to outdo each other with space toys. If we're lucky, they may soon leave Earth for Mars.

Just a side note. Back then, no one called records... vinyl. People used words like albums, records, or LPs, but not... vinyl. We had vinyl flooring on our kitchen floor or vinyl covering on our sofas.

The use of the term vinyl, instead of records, in the present age seems to have begun amongst a mysterious folk known as... hipsters. (Latin: hipster doofus, pl. doofī) This possibly fictitious group, (often confused with those ancient, accursed folk known as hippies) is usually blamed nowadays for every societal ill one can imagine. Societal ills with strange sounding names like: iPhone...iHeart...iHop...avocado ice cream...internet bun...Record Store Day...use of the word, ‘bespoke’ warming...expanding universe...Windows X...this list goes on forever.

typical hipster

But irony has not been lost on that ancient, accursed hippie generation (the few remaining) who were also, back in their own time, blamed for every societal ill one could imagine. Societal ills with strange sounding names like: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ love...protest march...sit ins...drop outs...turn ons...Jane Fonda...beards...long hair...lsd...massive outdoor concerts... phrases such as: keep on truckin’...far out, man...don’t Bogart that joint...power to the more war...tell it like it is...and rock music from bands with ridiculous names like: Beatles, Stones, Pink Floyd, Cream, Led Zeppelin. Grateful Dead.

Wow. Those names are hard to believe. But don’t listen to me. I’m over 30.

Example of ancient, accursed hippie generation.

Watch out! The mere presence of a hipster at a Record Store Day event can drive up prices. They will always somehow get in line in front of you and buy out every one of your favorite items and then sell them on Ebay for a small fortune. They are most often found in TV commercials drinking beer with a lemon slice stuck on the rim of the bottle.

End of side note.

Back in the early 80’s, boys young and old, from every generation, would come home in cars loaded with boxes of expensive but absolutely necessary components for their new audio system. Perhaps they could have saved that money to buy presents for their wives or girlfriends, or used it for their children’s education. Perhaps they were audiophile geeks with no wives or girlfriends and no prospects for any future relationships beyond their new speakers. Maybe they were just normal guys with a decent job and a few bucks to spend who happened to like music. And most of them were. But there was an old saying back then, ‘he who dies with the most toys wins.’ This saying explained the goal of life. It could be found emblazoned on the back of Polo golf shirts. This saying has since been proven by theoretical scientists at Cal Tech. 

Whether they were seeking to win a contest for having the most toys or trying to make their living room sound like a concert hall, movie theater, or recording studio, they sometimes needed a delivery department to get the larger speakers and amps to their home.

Don’t forget, this was a time before SUVs. The closest thing we had back then to an SUV was a SOB.

And yes, those new speakers could be large. And amazing.  Like those new Klipsch Fortes. So efficient you could reach 100dB with your budget audiophile little NAD 3020, 20 watt integrated amp set for 4 ohm speakers. In fact, I remember writing several orders for Fortes before they even hit the sales floor. $1200 a pair for the first editions! A very handsome piece of furniture. No need to even audition a pair. They’d received great previews in the audio mags.

These audio mags were always staffed by independent thinking, critical writers. You could trust their opinions. They were never influenced by the companies that advertised in their publications. 

I saw many things come and go during my 30 years in the audio/video biz.  I started selling audio toys before CD players existed. A time before ‘home theater’ existed. Those were different times.

Some types of toys stuck around. Some came and went so fast I can barely remember them. Things like: Hi-Fi stereo VCRs, Beta, Double Auto Reverse Cassette Decks, Flat screen picture tubes, Laser Disc Players, Rear Projection Big Screen TVs, Sony Mini-Disc Players, Digital Compact Cassette, Plasma Television,  HD-DVD, SACD..3D TV...I sold them all. If they showed up in our warehouse it was my job to shuffle them ASAP out the door. ABC. FAB.
« Last Edit: July 08, 2019, 09:06:09 AM by slaneman »


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Re: Fractured History of Audio Products
« Reply #1 on: July 08, 2019, 11:07:04 AM »
Early CD Players, SPARS and Transport Screws

CD-63 Marantz top loading

Marantz CD-63 MKII front loading

Sony C[DP101a

Sony CD50 Portable

McIntosh MCD7000

Sony and Phillips co-invented the CD player. All later CD models were either Phillips or Sony derivations. The first player we got at our shop was the Marantz CD-63 top loading player. It came from England and retailed for $800. It was soon followed by the front loading CD-63 MK II. The Marantz was from Phillips. The explanation of what this actually meant varied with the factory rep who explained it to you. A Sony rep would of course extol the virtues of Sony derived CD players. In time, whether a player was a Sony or Phillips derivation became a non-issue.

An $800 player was not an easy sale, especially when there were as yet, very few CDs in record stores. As salespersons trying to demonstrate how great the sound could be, we sought out only the best sounding demo material. Though digital recording had already been used as the source for some classical records issued by Denon in 1982, pure all-digitally sourced and mixed CDs were few and hard to find. That's where the SPARS code proved invaluable.

Unfortunately for consumers, record companies were only interested in getting CDs to the stores as quickly as possible. Digitally equipped studios were expensive and almost non-existent. Existing master tapes that had been analog recorded and mixed for vinyl were put on CDs with no other remastering. They all sounded horrible. These were the dreaded AAD. We wanted DDD. Soon everyone understood what they should be looking for. Though smooth jazz might not be your favorite style of music, that music style along with some classical CDs might be the only DDD you could find.

The first CDs we used for demos were: Flim and the BBs on DMP records and anything by Dave Gruisin on GRP records. Both labels were already equipped with digital recording and mixing equipment to produce DDD discs. Soon Denon DDD classical CDs were out there as well. Of course DDD’s cost more.

Then there was Dire Straits and ‘Money For Nothing’.

There are questions as to whether or not this was a pure DDD recording but it sounded great and would take paint off the walls when played loud. It still sounds pretty good to my ears (what’s left of them) today.

One of our favorite demos was to take a younger customer into the Klipsch showroom, start the CD, close the door, and leave him alone. We had a table set up on a carpeted riser with a 100 watt McIntosh receiver connected to a pair of Klipschorn speakers. Now Klipschorns (105dB, 1 watt, I meter) were notorious for being super efficient, but they were also mammoth. These horn-loaded speakers were designed to fit into the corners of a room, which represented a serious commitment to very loud music in one’s home - if you could squeeze them thru the door. Anyway, after ‘Money For Nothing’ built up to the song’s opening, the customer’s brain was usually left flattened against the wall. Perhaps we’d turned the volume of the Mac up too high, but of course he dug it. This recording sold quite a few CD players.

Example: Klipschorn speaker

The point was not to try to sell the Klipschorns or McIntosh, but to sell the sound quality of CDs. You might also win his trust. And after this Dire Straits demo he would not remember his name. You could sell him anything vaguely within his credit card limit.

Speaking of McIntosh, I’ll assume anyone interested in audio knows about McIntosh. When word got out that Mac was building their own CD player, current and previous McIntosh customers wouldn’t wait. A Mac customer was loyal. A Mac customer was faithful. Mac clinics had won over a country wide base of customers and rightfully so. You can read about Mac clinics here:

Those were the days.

Who cares if the wife left you. By God, you’d want a new Mac CD player sitting inside its custom Mac cabinet, sitting alongside your other Mac components, which were sitting inside their own custom cabinets, and if you had any money left after alimony, you might still have your old Mac speakers. Thatta boy... you’re still in the race!

We soon had 40 or so PIF DD’s (Paid In Full, Delayed Delivery) between our 3 stores. That was $1399 a pop. It was going to be called the MCD7000. We still had no expected delivery date. BTW, there were 2 other retailers in our area who were also Mac dealers. I seem to remember almost a year going by before the boxes arrived. When they arrived they were all BIB...broken in box!

Why? McIntosh Labs, noted for building the most reliable electronics on the planet, had overlooked the need for transport screws. Every other audio company had put transport screws on their CD players. Now every McIntosh player had to be sent back, repaired, and fitted for transport screws. This was a most costly mistake for such a small company.

Transport screws.

All of the first few generations of CD players had some kind of locking system to protect the laser tracking mechanisms and other delicate parts that would not survive shipping. I probably unboxed hundreds of CD players doing setups for our store or in customers’ homes. CD tracking screws could be simple and obvious or complicated and hidden. But they were necessary. Soon the manufacturers would improve their designs and make them unnecessary, but that took a year or so.

When some of our sales crew spent a few days at the McIntosh factory for our annual tour, they had noticed empty Marantz boxes in the room where they assembled the innards of their new CD player. The Marantz had used transport screws. Obviously Mac used Marantz guts. But for some reason they had chosen not to use their locking system as well.

But there were already a bunch of players that had come out from companies like NAD, Nakamichi, Bang&Olufsen, Yamaha and of course, Sony.

The Sony CDP101 was quickly followed by the portable CD50. Now here was a player I just had to buy for myself. It came with a cumbersome battery set up but it was compact, mostly metal and exceedingly cool. It even came with a small set of headphones. These headphones sounded much better that those Apple earbuds which would come with the iPod many years later.

This portable actually used a 12-bit DAC instead of the usual 16-bit so it should have been sonically inferior to standard sized units, but no one could actually hear any difference. One night, after we’d closed the store, we set up a little sound test to try and hear any differences between the players out at this time.

First we had multiple copies of the same CDs and set up 3 players playing the same disc at the same time point and equalized the volume to everyone’s satisfaction. One of us even had a Radio Shack dB meter. We set up a switch box such that by pushing one button we could change from one player to another. We used a standard receiver and speakers, just mid-priced stuff. We went back and forth using different music. No one could hear the difference between the $350 Sony portable and the other $1000-1500 players. Oops. This shouldn’t be.

Side note: I must admit I thought myself very cool to own this CD50. I even bought an extra one to give my dad for his birthday, knowing he loved music. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the first few CD players on the market preceded any great selection of CDs in stores. My dad already had a good collection of his favorite genre, big band music, on records. He would tape his records to make mix tapes for friends. He didn’t need a CD player. None of his music had made it to CD yet, and when it did, it was those horrible sounding AAD collections rushed to press. Most of those early CDs did not help sell the new CD players. This was a time when records clearly sounded better than most CDs.

The Toy of Toys

Sony SCD-1 Super Audio CD

Sony introduced SACD by bringing out the SCD-1 super audio CD player. They sent a small party of reps and techs to our company for a special SACD seminar. It was open to the public as well as to our staff, but it was barely publicized. We made phone calls to our best customers to let them know. The seminar was held in our biggest store. Maybe 35 customers attended. The event was on a weekday morning so one had to be pretty much the audio geek to take off a half day just to learn about yet another electronic invention that was rumored to be the ‘next thing’.

This one was only $4999.99. Sony brought 2 of them. That was all they could spare for our 10-store chain. They had as yet only 5 different discs to play as demos. This was all the discs they had pressed. There were only a handful of machines available for the US. A handful! At over 50 lbs., the SCD-1 was quite a handful.   

It’s hard to call the SCD-1 a commercial SACD player because it was built to military standards. The SCD-1 was top loading. It reminded me of Sony's early Beta Max player. It took forever to load. It came with a heavy metal ring you placed over the spindle to hold the disc in place.  The SCD-1 was very, very heavy. It was super well constructed. We were told that it might overload even the best pre-amps unless we toggled down the outputs. We didn’t have any XLRs at the time so we had to use the unbalanced RCA outputs. No matter. It sounded wonderful. To be honest, I don’t remember the exact titles they brought, but we listened to all of them the rest of the day. The SCD-1 became my favorite audio toy.
One of my store’s regular customers bought one of the two they'd brought. Because of that, our store got to keep the other one for display purposes in hopes we might take more orders for the future. We got to play it for a week before it was sold.

I was on duty when 2 Sony guys showed up in our store after the seminar to bring us that other display model. They set it up in one of our better sounding 2-channel displays. I think it was Audio Research and B&W speakers. They only had 1 set left of those 5 demo discs. They also had a few interesting stories (off the record) to share about their latest invention.

The tech said that the original impetus for Sony to have a high resolution player was basically the need for a high quality storage format. They had just bought Columbia. This included a mass of movies and music masters. They needed a format to store and protect their purchase that would be better than 16-bit digital. Replacing consumer CD players with a new gadget was not their intention at all. This might explain their later lack of marketing for SACD.

Knowing this I was not surprised when Sony stopped supporting SACD in the consumer market. You can bet that all those tape masters were being transferred to SACD. A few audiophile-type companies continued pressing some SACD discs, but in effect, the format was dead. A couple websites carried SACD discs from various labels.

You can read in Wikipedia that at some point there were sound tests that showed that consumers really didn’t hear any difference between CD or DVD-A or SACD, so Sony gave it up. After 20 years of listening on a daily basis to hundreds of components and speakers and audiophile pressings on wax or CD, with perfect masterings of this and that and blah-blah-blah...SACD was the best digital audio device I’d ever heard. Even SACDs of old recordings, e.g., Bob Dylan’s catalog, sounded excellent.

Just my opinion.
« Last Edit: July 08, 2019, 11:15:30 AM by slaneman »