A view of the world from my own unique perspective

I consider myself fortunate, because I grew up during the late 1970s – a time that I call “the golden age of stereo equipment”. Back then, stereo stores always had racks of multi-page, full-colour brochures available for customers, and when I was a teenager, I amassed a large collection of them. During this golden age, a stereo component was not only functional, it was also an object of beauty, with its brushed aluminum face and solid wood side panels. It held the same status as a piece of furniture, and was intended to be displayed prominently in one’s living room.

Sansui Receiver

Stereo consumers were also a different breed. The aficionados were known as “audiophiles”, and possessed not only a discerning ear, but decidedly deep pockets and an equally deep understanding of the equipment itself. The typical stereo buyer was educated, knowledgeable and technically-savvy. The manufacturers knew it, and created advertisements that were informative, educational and persuasive.

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Pride In Workmanship

While the focus of these ads was the fidelity of the components, stereo manufacturers during the 1970s and 1980s were just as proud of the design and craftsmanship of their products – both inside and out. Many ads featured not only photos of the cabinets and controls, but also interior or cut-away views of the stereo components. They wanted us to marvel at the quality and care that went into the parts that we wouldn’t normally see. They knew that consumers would comprehend what was happening “under the hood”, and appreciate the engineering and design, right down to the circuit board layout and wiring. Here are a few examples:

Bose 901 Series III speakers

LUX Power Amp - Internal v2

Realistic SA-2000 amplifier

 

Stereo Advertising – Then And Now

Turntables: Take a look at any current audio advertisement, either in print or online, and look at the differences. While there are still a few specs, most of the technical information is gone. The focus now seems to be on aesthetics, with only a cursory nod to the electronics within. The love that manufacturers had for the internal design of the components is also absent.

Despite the introduction of compact discs in the mid-1980s, vinyl never disappeared from the audio landscape, and is now enjoying a bit of a resurgence. That’s why you can still find turntables for sale. Take a look at this turntable advertisement from the Pioneer web site. This is the sum total of its technical information: number of speeds, type (fully automatic), cartridge type, equalizer information, dimensions and weight.

Pioneer PL-990

Now let’s look at a Pioneer turntable advertisement from the late 1970s (Stereo Review, February 1979, inside front cover). They just can’t wait to tear it open for us, so that we can look at the innards and admire the build quality of each part. Here is the complete three-page foldout ad, and close-up views of the various turntable components:

Pioneer PL-518 complete ad

Pioneer PL-518 Motor

Pioneer PL-518 Headshell

Pioneer PL-518 Tone Arm

Pioneer PL-518 Feet

Pioneer PL-518 Platter

Pioneer PL-518 Base

Pioneer PL-518 Spindle

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Phono Cartridges: Here is a description of a phono cartridge, taken from the web site of a high-end stereo store. At $275, this is the most expensive model that they carry, and I’m surprised at the dearth of technical information.

BBR Phono Cartridge

In the late 1970s, phono cartridge advertisements often filled an entire page, because there was so much technical information to consider and compare. This was not a purchase that one made hastily.

Micro-Acoustics Cartridge Guide

Empire Cartridges-1000

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Amplifiers / Systems: It’s more difficult to do a comparison of amplifiers and receivers, because today’s stereos are generally all-in-one units, whereas the audio systems of the late 1970s were component-based: a tuner, an amplifier (sometimes separated further into a pre-amp and a power amp), a turntable, an equalizer, and speakers. However, the paucity of technical information in today’s equipment is still obvious. Take a look at this full-page magazine ad for the Bose Wave Music System. Despite its high price ($580-960), I consider the Bose Wave to be little more than a glorified clock-radio, but Bose is marketing it as a bona fide home stereo system.

Bose Wave Music System

The emphasis in this ad seems to be more on aesthetics than on sound. Consider the following phrases: “Without all the wires”, “no stacks of components”, “no tangle of wires”. Sound quality is described in very simplistic and decidedly non-technical terms: “All the sound”, “music that’s much bigger than you’d expect”, “Clear, realistic sound”, and “A roomful of premium sound”. There are also no specifications anywhere in the ad, so I went to the Bose web site, and there were no technical specs there either.

Now take a look at this 1980 ad for a Sansui amplifier (Stereo Review, December 1980, pg 42-43). This component is presented with an open case, and most of the text is used to explain its distortion-reduction circuitry. It may seem exceedingly technical today, but this was normal back in 1980s, and the consumer was expected to follow along and understand it.

Sansui AU-D11-1

Sansui AU-D11-2

This is what’s happened in only 35 years – an appalling dumbing down of audio component advertising, and what appears to be the complete disappearance of the technically-savvy audio purchaser. There may still be audiophiles among us, but manufacturers don’t seem to acknowledge them anymore.

From time to time, I’ll look back fondly at my stereo-brochure-collecting days, and although I (as a teenager) was not in a position to afford any of this equipment, much less the high-end brands, I was still enamoured by it all – especially the educational aspect. I loved learning all I could about every facet of the equipment: harmonic distortion, amplifier classes (A, B, AB), switching transistors, the differences between graphic and parametric equalizers, speaker design and efficiency levels, cassette tape bias formulations, stylus shapes and sound pressure levels. The more I learned, and the deeper I descended into the audio universe, the happier I became. You get out of it what you put into it.

The 1970s audio enthusiast enjoyed another benefit. The substantial investment of time, studying and money usually resulted in an immense sense of satisfaction after a purchase. Thirty-five years ago, audio enthusiasts never made impulse purchases – they might spend weeks or months reading magazine articles, studying specs, visiting stores and listening to floor models before deciding on and assembling a system. Since everything was modular, everyone’s audio system was different, and usually intensely personal. Audiophiles took great delight in showing off their system to friends, and were happy to explain – at length – why they decided on a particular combination of components.

Installation of the Month

Stereo magazines of the 1970s understood this glowing pride, and often devoted a full page to exceptional installations, including a description of each component, cabinet construction details, and a short interview with the system’s owner.

By comparison, today’s consumer invests very little into the stereo-buying experience. I will admit that digitization and convergence has led to integrated system designs, and that we no longer need to buy separate components, but the things that we used to care about in audio equipment are no longer mentioned: watts per channel, clipping levels, total harmonic distortion, frequency range etc. In only 35 years, the audio consumer has devolved from an informed and sometimes critical equipment evaluator, to a mass-market purchaser – happy with an increasingly limited selection of brands and models.

Sadly, I don’t see a quick fix or even a long-term solution for this dumbing down of stereo advertising, so I’ll put it to you, the reader: if you’re old enough to remember the golden age of audio equipment, and were excited by the depth and breadth of the field, and by the knowledge that you needed to acquire in order to make an informed purchase, what (if anything) can be done to rekindle this excitement in today’s consumer?

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Comments on: "What Happened to the Technical Stereo Consumer?" (2)

  1. You know, I’ve never thought about it this way, but you are absolutely right. Nowadays people just go to Future Shop or Best Buy (or…shudder…Walmart) and pick either just a CD player or they go for one of those single-unit, plastic-bodied, multifunction “stereos” and think they’ve got the bees knees because they spent a whopping $200 on it. They buy 25 or 50 feet of speaker wire and that pair of $50 speakers – or they splurge the whole $75 for the “surround sound” experience. The added bonus is they can hook it up to the tv for surround sound there too.

    Okay, call me a stereo snob if you will. We’ve got a pretty decent stereo. Probably around mid-low range of “high end” when you consider we spent only about 20% of the price of the $125,000 system we really liked. It was nice shopping in a store where the sales staff were extremely knowledgeable about their products, right down to the speaker cable with the gold connectors. We bought a nice Bryston amp (Canadian made and with a 20 year warranty!), speakers, tuner, CD player (just a really good single player, not a cheap little plastic multi-stacker), and all the cables. Then we found a nice Rega turntable and a pre-amp. It makes albums (and we have many) sound amazing. Some classical recordings are so clear that you can even hear the orchestra breathing. By choice we went with speakers that wouldn’t lose quality on those delicate higher octaves, but would still give nice bass when we’re rocking it out for a party.

  2. The discrete circuitry audio market has been dead since the early 80’s. In fact, the 80’s is when all these great manufactures like Harman kardon, Sansui, Luxman, Marant etc.. all cashed in and took advantage of the inferior integrated circuitry. Cheaper to manufacturer, lower the price point so they sell more and build in obsolescence so the consumer is forced to replace in a few years. Production costs for parts has skyrocketed since the 60’s and 70’s. No more brushed aluminum face plates, no 40 pound turntables (unless you pay a ridiculous amount of $$), no huge power supply transformers. Speakers used to be of high quality even at a low price, think of Dynaco A25’s for example. The value isn’t there anymore and since analogue is usually not the media source, why bother anyway.

    This is a well written topic on this site, great job.

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