What if you had to pick a radio station to listen to and had to get off the sofa to change it. And what if changing the station meant you had to turn a knob to manually scroll through stations, listening to static along the way? What if you had to get up off the sofa to turn the volume up, or down. Imagine that. Well it wasn’t that long ago when our skinnier ancestors had to do these things, and a whole lot of other things manually. But those analog days really weren’t that long ago. If you’re younger than about 40 you may have no recollection of a time when playlists couldn’t be created, songs couldn’t be skipped, stations changed (if you actually listen to radio – showing my age here).
Well I’m 51, but I for one adapted very quickly to music in the digital age. As a pilot, I travel a lot. Due to a career spent in tents and hotel rooms, I skipped buying a 'stereo' and moved straight to an MP3 player (anybody know what that is?), and then adapted immediately to listening to music on a phone, which has pretty much been the only way I have listened to music for many years now. (Unless I'm playing it on a guitar). If I want to play music through a speaker, I stream it from my phone to a bluetooth speaker. Thus I listen to compressed files and generally 'lo-fi' music, which is ironically where music has 'evolved'. (Sorry Neil Young). And I’ve been passing over songs, listening to some half way through, moving on, volume up, volume down, phone call, web surf, etc etc, never really paying attention to what I was listening to. Somehow in this world of infinite choice, infinite control of music, I seem to have lost the enjoyment of it.
Hi-fi vs. Lo-fi
I have never actually owned an old-school stereo. I thought to myself, what would it be like to listen to music the way my dad did. My dad is still around, but whenever I went to stay with him, there was that stereo he bought in 1975 playing in the background. Yet even my dad has gone to Pandora now… So, do I know anybody who would do such a thing as listen to ‘the stereo’ these days? Only one guy, ironically a young guy - my former tenant Nick, a hipster in his twenties who has a vintage Pioneer stereo receiver, old school speakers and a record player. ‘Stereo’! Imagine calling if that. How is it that 26 year old Nick has a ‘stereo’ when I, a guitar player and music enthusiast, am listening to MP3’s on my phone? So I finally decided to get a stereo.
Now one advantage of doing this at my age is that I have a decent budget for ‘hifi’ equipment (‘hifi’ – another archaic term). But a really great system these days will cost a good $5000. I went to Bloor Radio here in Toronto to check some out. Wow, the speakers are so tiny now; and kind of tinny too. So much detail, so much ‘stage presence’, as they call it. You can get some amazing bass out of these tiny speakers, but it’s a bass that kind of hits you like a jab in the face. I just remembered a gentler body-shifting sort of bass from back in the day. These new speakers really seemed detailed, but potentially fatiguing too. In speakers under $1000 I heard an accurate but plasticy sound. I just remember a smoother sound coming out of my dad’s speakers back in the 70’s and 80’s, playing BBC3 in the background, for better or worse; Beethoven or swiss alpine horn, you name it, they played it, we enjoyed or laughed at it.
So deciding on vintage equipment, I began to study in a decidedly unvintage manner – on the internet. What I learned is that the 1970’s was the ‘golden age of stereo’. This was a decade of fine musicians and demanding listeners, willing to pay for great sound. It was also the last decade in which independent audio companies competed with one another before eventually being bought up, conglomerated, globalized etc, a trend that has seemed to increase cost and reduce quality in just about everything. In fact there was a veritable stereo war in the 70’s as independent companies like Marantz, Sansui, and Pioneer tried to one-up each other with each new model. And it wasn’t just a war of who could make the best sound; it was also about VOLUME. Wattage went from about 30 watts per channel, on up to about 250. A similar war went on with speaker manufacturers. But speakers will be another topic. This time my focus is that archaic piece of equipment called 'the stereo receiver'.
What's a 'Stereo Receiver'?
Well, it's just a fancy name for a radio that you can hook speakers up to, and a record player or CD player. These receivers of the 1970’s hold their own against the best receivers of our day. In fact blind tests conducted, the best of the 70’s beats the best of our day, and the so-so of the 70’s equals the better-than-most of our day. And they do this with a warmer, smoother sound. Listeners in the 70’s were stepping up from the warm yet clear sound of vacuum tube receivers to the harsher tones of solid state transistors. Solid state was cheaper, and more maintenance free, so the shift was inevitable. But If you were going to take away those tubes, listeners still expected that smooth, warm yet clear sound, which is what stereo manufacturers tried to emulate in their solid state gear in the 1970's. We’re far removed from those tube amp days now, and it’s all about accuracy and presence. Yet why do these new stereos sound harsh to me?
Many factors went into my choice of a receiver. Firstly, because these units are old now, I wanted something with a proven track record of reliability, and after 35 years the scoop is out on these stereos. I wanted a particularly smooth, warm sound. And I wanted that classic 70’s look and feel, because these receivers really can look beautiful. (And the stereo equipment of our day really looks ugly). I settled on the Marantz 2270, producing 70 watts per channel; Plenty of power for me. I loved the look and feel of this stereo – the brushed steel faceplate, blue lighting (actually faded greenish), old-school dials and indicators, and a heavy, smooth feeling tuner wheel; a light that comes on and says ‘stereo’…
After much searching I paid $580 for a 2270 from an audiophile named Bart. What a cool guy he was too. Bart was 20-something, a hard-working sort of guy, had tattoos and lived in a very modest house in a not-so-great neighborhood. But when I stepped into his house and saw his audio set-up, wow, this guy had something else going on. And he was amazingly knowledgeable and articulate about this hobby. This was my first contact with an actual ‘audiophile’. First impressions: These are smart, slightly geeky people, but cultural at the same time. Bart had three top-of-the-line vintage receivers, and he was obviously working his way through the field, enjoying each one for it’s special qualities. $580 was a fair price, and I didn’t haggle. Bart said he wanted to go back to the 60’s now with a McIntosh or Fisher tube receiver. Cool. (Incidentally, Bart was super fit. Was that from having to get up off the sofa to turn the volume up or down or flip a record on the turn table?)
My Marantz 2270 is an American-made stereo classic, built in Sun Valley. What? American’s actually built stuff in places like Sun Valley? Sounds bizarre to me now. So what would at 2270 have cost back in 1975? Ironically about $580, which adjusted for inflation would have cost close to $3000. Like I said, top-of-the-line. This is a receiver my dad would never have been able to afford back then, just as I can’t afford a black butt-ugly made-in-China Marantz today.
Back to the Future of Sound
So my Marantz is set up now at home. Impulsively I bought a pair of British, BBC influenced Roger’s speakers. These aren’t quite 70’s units, but at 1981 they are old enough, and just inside the quality-war era. I bought them at a vintage audio store, where I tried many speakers. A close second were the well-reviewed Dynaco A-25’s, an audiophile favourite, but not a good power match for my 2270. The Rogers just sounded more detailed and neutral while still sounding warm.
So phase one of my stereo system is in place now, and it looks awesome. The Marantz is just a beautiful stereo. The sound is warm and smooth. The on/off button has a heavy, solid feel. Rolling through the stations with the heavy gyro tuner is just fun. But not so much fun you want to jump up and change the station when you don’t like what’s playing. No you certainly don’t feel like doing that. And you don’t have a remote. So you deal with it. The classical station sounded particularly good. Beethoven really rocked on the Marantz! But then for the the old folks they played the soundtrack to that 70’s show about lions in Africa, ‘Born Free’. Oh no. But oh well.
Listening to music like this becomes an education. You are exposed to music you would never choose to listen to. And you listen to the whole piece, because it’s what’s on. I feel my attention span is being restored. Music is no longer some ADD choice I have on my phone, it’s something alive in my living room, something enriching and educational. I am enjoying lazy days with the stereo playing jazz, classical, and the indie rock channel. What’s next? Vinyl. I’ll write about that when the time comes.
Digital technology has given us infinite choice in music. It has also made the experience too much about the self, about your immediate needs and preferences. The experience is entirely personal now, and rarely shared: My playlist, my iTunes, my phone. It is my belief that this level of self-indulgence is ultimately unsatisfying. If you’re interested in getting stereo equipment, I highly recommend going vintage.
Some Fun Links
Here's what a new Marantz looks like. Excuse the French, but WTF is that?
Check out this cool site too:
The Golden Age of Vintage Stereo
And here's a fun link to a sound-comparison test, vintage vs. new:
Vintage vs. New Sound Test