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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?