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Vintage Hi-Fi: Basking in the Glow of Vacuum Tubes
There was a magical period in the late 1950s, when audio was still a hobby in the hands of a few die-hard enthusiasts who loved to pursue the improvement of musical fidelity. Wires were strewn across the living room floor, often connected to raw speaker drivers mounted in crude, unfinished cabinets. These neophyte audiophiles were much the same as today's computer geeks; they just obsessed about a different medium. These early audio components were proudly named after their pioneer inventors, men like Saul Marantz, Avery Fisher, Herman H .Scott, and Paul Klipsch, to name a few. This was indeed the "Golden Age of Hi-Fi." We now have colorful digital displays emanating from sterile black boxes full of transistors that lack the musical soul that was enhanced by the warm glow of vacuum tubes.
Interest in high quality stereo equipment was stimulated by the introduction of the stereo LP and by the approval, in 1961, of FM stereo broadcasting. It was at about this time, at the age of 13, that I became enthralled by this intriguing hobby. While my friends were reading comic books or sneaking peeks at Playboy, I eagerly awaited the next issue of HiFi/Stereo Review so I could covet the newest amplifiers and tuners. Was I a geek or what? Most of those components were not within the budget of a teenager, but with odd jobs, birthday gifts, and savings, I managed to assemble a modest but acceptable stereo system. I remember many a cold New England winter evening in which, after completing my homework, I rotated my Sherwood multiplex tuner’s smooth flywheel in search of stations broadcasting in FM stereo. A red indicator light would come to life, indicating reception of the high-tech multiplex signal. Imagine my excitement at being able to pull stereo music right out of the air! My LPs, played on a simple AR turntable, were also a great source of stereo sound.
I have seen numerous technological developments in the last forty-plus years, ranging from 8-tracks to cassettes, CDs, audio DVDs, MP3s, and beyond. Many of these media were promoted with the promise of accuracy that could challenge live performance, but the digital approach has rarely matched the visceral experience offered by vinyl records and vacuum tube technology. Although seemingly primitive by comparison, LPs actually contain more information than CDs because they deliver a constant stream of nuances that CDs cannot emulate. Turntables are again hugely popular. Many classic recordings by popular artists are being reissued to higher standards. Vintage record shops are proliferating. Although this may be considered a niche market, turntables and LPs are still alive and well. Those who have taken the time to listen find them surprisingly rewarding.
My interest in golden-era components was rekindled five years ago, when I found several websites devoted to vintage equipment. I found a group of people like-minded in their love and appreciation of early stereo technology. eBay and other sites offer a treasure trove of older components that have been gathering dust in someone's attic for nearly half a century, making them readily available at bargain prices when you consider their build quality. Because these things were built to last a lifetime, many of these components need only minor cleaning and tweaking—and perhaps replacement of paper capacitors—in order to return to their former musical glory.
I presently own approximately thirty-five pieces of vintage audio, including amplifiers, FM tuners, turntables, speakers, and more. I find myself accompanying my wife to garage sales and flea markets in search of audio treasures. I find it heartening to listen again to these antiques. It’s like discovering a long-lost friend. After lovingly restoring a dusty amplifier or tuner, I find the sensation of manipulating their mechanical knobs and dials both comforting and familiar. There’s not a computer chip in sight.
I also own a fine stereo system comprised of the latest technology, but as I listen to the sound provided by these relics of the past, I sometimes find myself asking the question "How much progress have we truly made in the reproduction of music?" For me—and, I am sure, for many of my fellow vintage audio enthusiasts—the answer is not always clear, as I seek to recapture the musicality I loved in a simpler time.