There are times
when circumstances and conditions come together in a once-in-a-lifetime manner,
right? You know what I mean—perhaps it is a sports team, when just the right
collection of players are on the team together, their personalities and
chemistry mesh perfectly and they’re all having great seasons at the same time.
Or it could be a job, when market conditions are ideal for your company’s
offerings and you have just the exact personnel in place that can do the job.
Maybe it’s a social situation, when the setting is just right, your feelings
are right, you know exactly what to say—not too nervy and not too forward, but
sufficiently confident and chance-taking—such that you make that all-important
connection that will alter your life.
For the market
of high-fidelity electronics and speakers, that time was the 1970’s. Things
came together in such a way that the market flourished and grew like never
before. It was a singularly great time for the industry, with all the historic,
demographic and technological conditions and advances coming together in a way
that will never be repeated.
Let’s take a
closer look at the significant factors that made the 1970’s so special for
audio and how and why those factors affected the stereo industry in the ‘70’s.
I’ll try not to
veer too far off the audio path here, but the country’s historical context is
important in order to put the 1970’s audio market in its proper perspective.
successful conclusion of World War I (1914-1918), American entered a period of
great economic and social expansion. Known as the “Roaring Twenties,” this was
a great time for our country. The mood was celebratory, the economy was strong
and the prospects for the future seemed limitless.
Then in 1929,
fueled by a series of disastrous Federal decisions with respect to interest
rates and the money supply, the stock market crashed in dramatic fashion on
October 24th, 1929 (“Black Thursday”), plunging America into the
Great Depression, the likes of which had never been seen before and would never
be seen again. Unemployment soared to nearly 25% and remained well into
double-digits for more than an entire decade. Even President Franklin D.
Roosevelt’s much-heralded “New Deal” package of Government spending and
assistance programs couldn’t pull the country completely out its economic funk.
As late as 1938—fully five years
after the New Deal and nine years after the Depression began—unemployment was
still 19% and the country’s economy was a total wreck.
The Great Depression, 1929-1941
entry into World War II following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th,
1941, the nation’s armament factories shifted into high gear, as millions of
people went back to work and off to fight overseas. When WWII ended in 1945,
the millions of returning GI’s got new jobs, started their families and built
the greatest economy the world has ever seen. With the demand for housing
skyrocketing, the suburbs exploded and the construction and home furnishings
markets flourished commensurately. Automobile production—shuttered completely
for the four years of the War (1941-1945)—jumped back to life in the face of
incredible pent-up demand. Television took hold and made its way into homes
across the country. The stage was set for the post-WWII period to be one of the
most explosive economic expansions in our country’s history.
sentiment of all these new young WWII veteran families was this: “I’m going to
provide my children with the opportunities and comforts that I never had when I
was growing up in the Depression.”
the Baby Boom Generation, children born to WWII vets, from 1946-1964. The very
heart of this group—those born from 1948 through 1961—was in college at some
point in the 1970’s, away from home, going to concerts, partying and hanging
out with their friends.
the 1970’s there was no Internet, no e-mail or texting, no Social Media, no
smart phones, no Amazon, no personal computers or laptops or tablets, no
Playstation, nothing of that sort. But….it was a great, great time for popular
music: The Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, Santana, The Allman
Brothers, Pink Floyd, ELP, Stevie Wonder, Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, Crosby,
Stills & Nash, Steely Dan, The Who and dozens of others attracted
concert-goers and album buyers by the millions.
It was also a
time of tremendous technological advancement (which we’ll detail below) in the audio
industry. When you combine the market forces that were in existence at the
time—a period of great economic and social activism and engagement, the largest
demographic bubble (the Boomers) the country had ever seen, the attendance at
college by millions of young people, which had never happened before, coupled
with large sums of disposable income, music playback equipment that was both
quite good and easily affordable (and as we’ve said, without significant
competition from other technological distractions)—all the puzzle pieces were
in place for a “perfect storm” of unprecedented audio market growth.
Baby Boomers are voracious consumers
historical and demographic stars now properly aligned, all that was needed to
complete the circuit, so to speak, was the right audio equipment. If the
manufacturers could engineer and deliver audio playback equipment that was
high-performance, reliable, good-looking and affordable, then the Baby Boomer market
was ready to buy, in big numbers. It was all up to the audio companies now.
delivered. Big time.
The first thing
that had to be accomplished was the design and manufacture of inexpensive,
reliable, high-performance audio amplifiers. If receivers and integrated
amplifiers couldn’t deliver full power at low distortion all the way down to 20
Hz, then the Boomers wouldn’t be able to blast out their favorite group’s
latest album at chest-thumping, lifelike SPLs.
of the direct-coupled output stage
achieved that. I remember around 1971, a new series of Panasonic-branded
receivers (about a year before they came up with their “Technics” brand
marketing angle for their high-fidelity division) were advertised as having
direct-coupled amplifier sections, resulting in flatter frequency response into
the lowest bass range, at full power and lower distortion than had previously
been possible with traditional capacitor-coupled designs. Pioneer (with the
SX-424 through SX-828) and Kenwood (with their KR-5200, 6200 and 7200) soon
followed suit and the availability of truly full-range, low distortion
amplifiers made really satisfying audio reproduction—deep, pounding, clean
bass, essential for the day’s sought-after rock music—possible for the first
time at affordable prices. With this new generation of receivers and
amplifiers, audio electronics transitioned from the realm of the 1950’s-60’s
suburban middle-aged “GE engineer/Big 8 accountant”-type customer to being a
staple for the 1970’s college kid who’d saved up his/her summer job money and
was ready to spend.
Lots of other good
developments in audio in the early ‘70’s coincided with the
Around the same
time, really excellent, affordable speakers like the Large Advent, AR-2ax,
Infinity 1001 and EPI 100 became available and great music with pounding bass
and clear highs was blaring in dorm rooms from coast to coast.
the Dual 1215 and 1218 and the really good, rugged Pioneer belt-drive manuals fitted
with good-sounding cartridges from brands like Shure, Audio-Technica and
Stanton made record playing simple, accurate and reliable. Technics introduced
the revolutionary SL-1200 in late 1972, the industry’s first direct-drive
turntable. In the 1970’s, you didn’t have to spend a fortune to get a really
Back in the days before portable audio was commonplace, the
dominant playback formats were the vinyl LP and reel-to-reel tape. Both were
perfectly acceptable playback media, with good fidelity and reasonably
wide-range sound. Vinyl LPs were a bit restricted as far as their ultimate
low-frequency extension was concerned (deeper bass meant wider grooves, which
reduced the playing time that could be fit onto a record), and LPs had their
well-known signal-to-noise issues, especially in regard to surface noise, pops,
Open reel tape was far superior to the LP in terms of both frequency response
and signal-to-noise ratio, but it was incredibly cumbersome and inconvenient to
use in the home, and the medium did not lend itself at all to selling pre-recorded,
In the mid-1960s, Phillips developed and introduced a miniature tape recording
system called the Compact Cassette. Using a very narrow magnetic tape (about
1/8-inch wide, whereas most good reel-to-reel tapes were at least ½-inch wide),
it was housed in a plastic shell that could simply be popped into the player—no
actual handling or threading of the tape was required. It was incredibly simple
to use and quite small—roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes. When it was
introduced, Phillips intended it strictly as a low-fi medium, for dictation and
other non-critical uses. Wide-range frequency response and impressive
signal-to-noise ratio were not design considerations.
However, good marketing people always have their eyes open for the next big
opportunity. People immediately recognized that the cassette (no one used
“Compact”) had tremendous potential as a viable, simple-to-use high fidelity
recording format, perfect for either home or portable/automotive use. The only
potential roadblock was its terrible sound. Other than that, as they say, it
Then, clever and innovative engineering people entered the scene. The
manufacturers quickly developed transport systems with stable, dependable
motors that ensured accurate tape speed and long-term reliability. Tape
manufacturers came up with a new formulation called CrO2 or chromium dioxide.
“Chrome tape,” as it was called, had markedly better recording properties than
standard tape. High frequencies were vastly superior, distortion was much
was still one critical puzzle piece missing: Noise. The low tape speed of
cassette (1 7/8 Inches Per Second or IPS compared to open-reel’s 7 ½ or 15 IPS)
meant that the background noise floor inherent in the magnetic tape medium was
simply too high in the cassette format to be acceptable in high fidelity
applications. If the cassette’s noise issue couldn’t be satisfactorily
ameliorated, then it had no future in the “serious” audio business.
issue was solved. Here’s how:
Labs, founded by Ray Dolby in the 1960s, developed and introduced a series of
tape-recording noise reduction systems that improved the inherently noise-prone
recording process of magnetic tape. The first system was called Dolby A, and it
was intended mainly for professional recording applications.
But the system that really had the biggest impact on the consumer electronics
market was Dolby B. This was a simple but extremely clever “compander”
(compression/expansion) system, whereby the signal above around 1kHz would be
pre-emphasized (boosted in level) during the recording process and then
de-emphasized back to its correct level upon playback. Since the inherent noise
floor of the tape was always there, when the 10dB playback de-emphasis took
place, the tape’s residual hiss level was reduced by that 10dB as the original
signal was played back at its correct level. It was simple and ingenious and
soon became a widespread industry standard.
People would ask for it by name, even if they had no actual technical
understanding of its function: “Does it have Dolby?” “I want
Dolby.” “This is good, it has Dolby.” When people ask for a specific
technology by name and base their buying decision on whether or not the product
has that technology, that is proof of the importance it has to that market.
Advent Corporation of Cambridge MA introduced a cassette deck in 1971 that
combined these new technologies—Dolby B noise reduction and chrome tape
capability—into a brand-new model, the famous Advent 201 cassette deck. With
the ability to make truly high-fidelity, great-sounding tape recordings combined
with the small size and convenience of the cassette’s form factor, the 201
ushered in a new chapter in home audio. High-quality cassette units soon
followed from all the major manufacturers like Pioneer and the cassette became
a major fixture in consumer electronics—in the home, the car and in portable
devices like the Walkman and the boombox— for at least the next two decades.
Even today, there are millions of cassette-equipped cars still on the road,
satisfying their drivers with surprisingly good sound. But it all started in
the pivotal, never-to-be-repeated era of the 1970’s.
Power Rating Confusion and
the college-aged Baby Boomers buying up stereo equipment at an amazing pace,
the manufacturers took to advertising their amps and receivers in truly
outlandish, misleading ways with respect to wattage power ratings. It got so
bad, that in 1974, the Government stepped in with their now-famous “FTC Power
Ratings” ruling. To my mind, this was one of the few times when Government
intervention actually helped a situation, instead of making it worse. Here’s
the full story, as I’d written before in The Golden Age of Audio:
As stereo grew in popularity by leaps and bounds through the
1960’s, the electronics manufacturers began to inflate and exaggerate their
amplifier power ratings in a blatant attempt to win the attention of prospective
new customers. Things got so bad (30 watt-per-channel RMS amplifiers were being
advertised as having “240 watts of total system musical peak power!”) that by
1974, the Federal Government had to step in with amplifier rating guidelines to
ensure that the manufacturers rated their equipment honestly.
One of the new guidelines was a 1/3-power “pre-conditioning”
requirement, which stated that amplifiers had to be run at 1/3-power at 1000Hz
for an hour before the power output and distortion measurements could be made.
The rational, presumably, was that an amp that was properly “warmed up” would
give a more accurately representative result than an amp that was measured
The problem was this: the 1/3-power test made a class AB amplifier
(which virtually all the amps were at that time) run very hot—especially at 4 ohms. Manufacturers
found that they had to either modify existing equipment to increase the
heatsinking or downgrade their power ratings so they’d run cooler at a lower
power level. The very popular Dynaco SCA-80 integrated amplifier, for example,
was downrated from 40 watts RMS/channel to 30 watts after 1974.
For new equipment, the answer was simple: Simply don’t rate the
amplifier at a high power level into a 4-ohm load, since a 4-ohm load required
too much expensive, heavy heatsinking, a beefy power supply and heavy-duty
output transistors. Things were very competitive in the stereo biz and every
dollar counted. If a manufacturer could save $10-20 by using less of that
costly die-cast aluminum heatsinking, a less beefy power supply and cheaper,
less robust output devices, that could easily translate into a retail price
that was $50-100 lower. In a cutthroat market, there’s a world of difference between
a receiver priced at $279 when your biggest marketplace rival is $369.00.
Regardless, in the 1970’s, amps and receivers could routinely handle
4-ohm loads. There were some really great lower-priced units that were pretty
gutsy. The Sherwood S-7100A could deliver 20-25 watts per channel into 4 ohms
all day long and the entry-level Pioneer SX 424 and 525 were also quite
comfortable with 4-ohm speakers. A very popular 4-ohm “budget” speaker in those
days was the Smaller Advent Loudspeaker. “Small Advents,” as they were called,
were deliberately designed to be 4-ohm speakers. Advent wanted the Smaller
Advent to have essentially the same excellent bass response and deep extension
(-3dB in the mid-40’s Hz) as the Large Advent. In order to achieve this, they
needed a woofer with more mass (they mass-loaded the center of the woofer,
under the dustcap), for a lower free-air resonance to offset the smaller volume
of air in its compact cabinet. It worked just fine, but at a severe penalty in
sensitivity—the Small Advent needed a lot of power to drive to reasonably loud
levels. To offset that, Advent made it a 4-ohm speaker, so it would draw more
power out of its companion receiver and “seem” just as loud for any given
volume control setting as the bigger Large Advent, which was an 8-ohm speaker.
Sherwood S-7100A receiver—1972
This was clever engineering and marketing on Advent’s
part, made possible only because modestly-priced receivers and integrated
amplifiers existed at that time that could handle 4-ohm loads. There were
thousands of Small Advents and Sherwood receivers happily signing away in dorm
rooms all over the country in the 1970’s. Today’s
inexpensive, entry-level electronics generally caution against using 4-ohm
speakers. It’s usually not until you get into the middle-range models that
low-impedance loads are acceptable (and then often only 6-ohm). But in the
1970’s, 4-ohm loads were perfectly acceptable for inexpensive electronics.
were record stores everywhere and in areas with strong concentrations of
college-aged kids—like Boston, NY, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.—it seemed like
there was a stereo store on every street corner. Tech Hi-Fi, Tweeter Etc, Audio
Labs, DeMambro Electronics, Atlantic Sound—these were just some of the store
names that I can recall. Indeed, as a college kid in Boston in the mid-70’s, I
remember there were no less than four stereo stores (and at least as many
record stores) in Harvard Square in neighboring Cambridge, a trendy
retail/dining section not bigger than a mile by a mile. I spent many a Saturday
buying jazz albums and going from store to store, looking at all the new gear
and bugging the salespeople.
Receiver Becomes King
As the stereo market exploded in size
among the college-aged consumer in the ‘‘70s, receivers became the dominant
electronic component, replacing the separate preamp/power amp configuration
that was popular among the middle-aged audio enthusiasts who comprised the
majority of the market in the ‘50s thru mid-‘60s. Advances in electronic
componentry, such as the widespread availability and low cost of reliable
silicon transistors, made the design and manufacture of budget-priced receivers
feasible and popular. By combining three components—the power amplifier,
preamplifier and tuner—onto a single chassis, using a single main power supply
and only one cabinet, the manufacturer’s cost of production, shipping and
warehousing was drastically reduced. Receivers were eminently affordable by
college kids, reliable (many a beer was spilled into them!) and they boasted
high performance, the likes of which would have been unthinkable only ten years
The decade of the 1970’s was
unquestionably the Age of the Receiver (and to a large extent, the age of the Integrated
Amplifier as well. I
am actually still using a 50 WPC 1972-vintage Kenwood KA-7002 integrated amplifier in one
of my systems right now. It’s 49 years old, works perfectly and sounds great). And what a Golden Age the 1970’s
were. Every year, major manufacturers like Pioneer, Kenwood, Sony, Sansui, JVC,
Marantz and Sherwood introduced new and better models, with more features, more
power, and lower prices. There seemed to be no end to the growth and success of
the audio market, so the manufacturers flourished and consumers benefitted from
better and better gear at lower and lower prices.
Kenwood KA-7002 Integrated Amplifier
That Elusive 100 Watts per Channel
there seemed to be an “unspoken” barrier to power ratings, a level that, for
whatever reason, no manufacturer of receivers or integrated amplifiers wanted
to cross: The mysterious 3-digit barrier, the 100-watt per channel line in the
sand. Around 1970 there was the Crown DC300 power amplifier, a brute of a power
amp, rated at 150 watts per channel. This was probably the first truly high-powered
consumer amplifier, but it was a power amp, not a receiver.
Crown DC 300 150 WPC power amp of 1970
For receivers, the 3-digit barrier seemed like an impenetrable
wall, almost foreboding and sinister, as if something horrible would befall anyone
who had the nerve to attempt it. It was almost like the fear that aviators had
in 1947 about breaking the sound barrier before Chuck Yeager did it in the Bell
X-1. There was the safety of 40, 50, 55, 70 watts per channel. But no one
dared to go to…..<gulp>….100. Remember, too, in those days 60 watts per side was considered
more than enough, especially since the reputable manufacturers in those FTC
days were rating their equipment honestly and conservatively. It was a
competitive badge of honor to see how far you could surpass your “published
specs” in a review in a major magazine, then quote the reviewer in your next
print ad saying something like, “The Kenwood KA-7002 easily surpassed its rated
power specifications on our test bench, clocking an excellent 63 watts compared
to its rating of 50 watts,” said Stereo
Review. In 1974, 60 watts RMS was a really, really gutsy 60 watts RMS.
Because the FTC got involved with
advertised power ratings in 1974, wattage wasn’t faked or fudged. It wasn’t
one-channel driven or two channels driven out of seven, or 1kHz or at clipping/1%
or 10% THD or any other bogus arrangement like the majority of manufacturers do
today. Let’s be totally honest here: In the 1970’s, 1% THD was not high fidelity. 1% THD was low-fi, it was a
joke. Heck, a power rating of 1% THD at
1kHz would’ve been laughed out of the joint as being completely unacceptable
for serious gear. Because rating power at 1% THD at 1kHz is a joke.
No, instead, in the 70’s, power
ratings were the real deal. We’re talking Class AB amplifiers here. Power
supply and heatsink weight tell a large part of the story. A good integrated
amp or stereo receiver from the mid-70’s rated at 60/60 watts RMS weighed in at
about 30 pounds. Today, a typical Class AB 7.1 channel home theater receiver
rated at “7 x 100 watts” weighs about 35 pounds, even with all the extra
channels of amplification and the HT circuitry. How is that even remotely
possible? It isn’t, of course.
Side observation: Audioholics tests
amplifiers and receivers in a very stringent, transparent and professional
manner. The results from one test can be easily compared to another and the
consumer benefits from clear, accurate data. The manufacturers and the FTC
should take note, especially since the 1974 FTC power rulings are no longer in
effect in today’s multi-channel age.
Led the Way in Receivers
So in 1974, 100 watts per channel had
to be All Channels Driven, 20-20kHz, at a very specific and very low level of
THD. Not easy, especially in 1974. Pioneer did it with their groundbreaking
SX-1010 receiver, the industry’s first-ever 100 WPC receiver.
And what a beautiful, full-featured,
great-sounding piece of gear that was! It had very innovative tone controls
with “turnover frequencies” that enabled the user to adjust the frequency
extremes without affecting the midrange. Like almost all 1970’s FM tuners, it
was analog, but in typical Pioneer fashion, the tuning dial was heavily
weighted and perfectly balanced, giving it a luxurious, precision feel as you
spun the knob from one end of the tuning scale to the other.
groundbreaking Pioneer SX-1010 100 WPC receiver
The SX-1010 opened the power floodgates. Once Pioneer
introduced the 1010, everyone else rushed in with their own 100 watt receiver.
Soon, 100 WPC wasn’t enough. It went to 105, 110, 125. The “power race” was on.
Pioneer’s next family of receivers,
the SX-x50 series, upped the ante with the 120 WPC SX-1050 and the terrific 160
WPC SX-1250. These were truly beautiful units, with their all-silver faceplates
and amber-backlit tuning dials. They had great amps, capable of driving
low-impedance speakers in their sleep, low-noise pre-amps with those great tone
controls and fabulous FM tuners with Pioneer’s phase-locked loop circuitry,
during an era when pulling in over-the-air FM broadcasts was really important.
Marantz, Kenwood, Sansui, Sherwood, Technics
and others all had similar competing high-powered receivers, all great-looking,
superb performers, all built like tanks. This was an amazing period for stereo
receivers. Today, any of these units—and there are many sites that will fully
refurbish them and restore them to factory-original specs—sell for
astonishingly high prices. If you can find them, that is. They sell as fast as
they become available.
Pioneer was the market leader in receivers. They led the way, they
established the benchmarks and set the standards. Everyone else seemed to take a “see what
Pioneer does” approach to the receiver market. The family of receivers that
followed their SX-1010 really cemented Pioneer’s leadership in receivers and integrated
amplifiers. I’m not saying that Pioneer was the absolute best sounding, most
audiophile-worthy brand out there, but they were definitely the pace-setters
for styling, features and power.
Nothing illustrated this better than the incredible SX-1250
receiver. Introduced in 1976), it was rated at 160 watts RMS per channel,
20–20kHz, at .1% THD. Not .5% or even .25% (McIntosh’s old claim-to-fame), but .1% THD over the full 20-20kHz bandwidth.
Pioneer SX-1250 Receiver
The SX-1250 single-handedly heralded in a new chapter in receiver
history: the era of the ultra-high-powered receiver. Soon after, 160 watts was
hardly enough to even get into the game. The SX-1250 was replaced by the
SX-1280 in 1978 which boasted 185 watts per channel, not at .1% THD over the
20–20kHz bandwidth, but .03% THD. Rated, advertised, guaranteed—.03%!
Then in 1979, Pioneer introduced the totally off-the-charts
SX-1980, which raised the bar to 270 watts RMS per channel, 20–20kHz, at .03% THD. It
weighed a ridiculous 80 lbs. It was 20 inches deep. It wouldn’t fit in any sane
person’s entertainment furniture.
But the biggest, heaviest, most powerful two-channel receiver I ever
knew about was the Technics SA-1000. It boasted 330 watts RMS per channel 20–20kHz.
.03% THD. It was even bigger and heavier than the Pioneer SX-1980. I never
actually saw one in person and I can’t vouch 100% that it actually materialized
in the flesh on dealer shelves. But they announced it, so that sort of counts,
Technics SA-1000 Receiver
And then, mercifully, without any warning or real reason, it
was over. The receiver power race that Pioneer started with the 100 WPC SX-1010
finally came to a peaceful, anti-climactic end. But it sure was fun while it
lasted! Like long sideburns, polyester leisure suits with wide lapels and
bellbottoms, the high-powered receiver was oh-so “70’s.”
Music to go with High-Powered Receivers
There is a very interesting musical
development that coincided with the 1970’s receiver power war. That was the
emergence of jazz-rock fusion music, often referred to by musical insiders as
“high energy” jazz. In almost exact chronological lockstep with the advent of
the high-powered receiver came the emergence of high-energy jazz-rock fusion
music. Groups like John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report,
Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Miles Davis’ electric band, Chick Corea’s incredible
Return to Forever, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House and others blasted onto the
musical scene in the early 1970’s.
These bands—with their amazing
high-volume refrains, pounding rhythmic basslines and searing lead guitars—appealed
to both hard-core rockers and cerebral jazzers, routinely playing to sold-out
venues. Anyone who attended a Mahavishnu Orchestra concert in the ‘70’s
remembers it being more like a spiritual happening than a mere pop music
concert. It would begin with a totally darkened hall, then the audience would
light matches (no 2021 safety regs in those days!), holding thousands of them
up as the musicians walked onstage. As the matches were extinguished,
McLaughlin would begin the opening strains on his distinctive double-neck
guitar, and the rest of the band would follow. Thus began a Mahavishnu Orchestra
concert—a continuous, uninterrupted 120-minute blur of unequaled musical
pyrotechnics and emotional intensity. I was always struck by how much their
drummer Billy Cobham—a drummer whose sheer speed and technical brilliance has
never been surpassed, to my ear—reminded me of then-heavyweight boxing champion
Joe Frazier: Both men were physically stocky and thickly muscled, full of seemingly
boundless frenetic energy and non-stop motion.
Like the high-powered receiver,
high-energy jazz-rock fusion bands faded from prominence by the end of that
decade. It could be that the perfect alignment of high-energy jazz-rock fusion
music in the 1970’s with the high-powered receiver race in the 1970’s is just
one of those inexplicable coincidences, two totally unrelated, independent phenomena.
It probably is, the more I think of it. But it’s a delicious happenstance, with
both developments destined never to occur again and both being immensely
enjoyable to the largest demographic group of music lovers/stereo buyers the
country has ever seen. And will ever see.
“Speaker Wars” in the 1970’s
other only-1970’s social experiences that took place with stereo equipment. One
of my favorites was the common practice of waging “Speaker wars” with your
friends. When we were in high school and college, we all had our first component
stereo systems. The most critical component and the one most closely tied into
your ego and personal pride were the speakers you selected. Which ones did you
pick? How did they stack up to your friends’ speakers?
I’m from the
New England area, so in the early 1970’s, three speaker brands dominated the
stereo landscape: Advent, KLH and AR. They each had their proponents and
detractors, they each had very distinct tonal and spectral “personalities,” and
the various stores either pushed or disparaged the different brands. One thing we’d do was engage in audio battle
with each other. Someone would drag their speakers over to their friend’s
parent’s house (or if it was during the college school year, over to their
friend’s dorm room) and we’d set them up, side by side, each set connected to
the A and B terminals of the receiver or integrated amp. Then we’d play record
after record, switching from A to B, comparing bass, clarity, tonal color, high
frequency extension, inner detail, you name it. We’d argue and fight:
phony and fake sounding, so colored and exaggerated.”
are so dull and lifeless, so muffled, so boring. If that’s ‘accurate,’ I don’t
there would be 3rd parties in the room as well, people who didn’t
own the speakers under test. The combatants would try to enlist their support
and endorsement: “You hear that, right? The Advents are better, right? You
agree, don’t you?”
And so it would
go, often for hours. It could get quite heated and no one ever—ever—admitted that the other person’s
speaker was better. Friendships could be strained during these contests and it
wasn’t unusual for one person to seek out a magazine test report—days or even
weeks later— that extolled the virtues of their speaker and wave that magazine
in the other person’s face. “See? You’re wrong! Even Stereo Review thinks mine are the best.”
People don’t do
that these days. But they sure did in the 1970’s. Stereo was really, really
important and an awful lot of your personal image and pride was wrapped up in
your stereo system.
1973, I was 19 and totally “into” stereo gear. Lost beyond control. This was
the basement of my parents’ house. On the bench is my system: The Kenwood
KA-7002 integrated amplifier and matching KT-7001 tuner. To the right is my
turntable, a Phillips 202 manual with a Shure V15 III cartridge. Sharp eyes
will notice the Discwasher on the ledge directly above the Kenwoods and the
bottle of rubbing alcohol to the right of the Phillips turntable that I used
with a genuine horsehair artist’s brush to clean the stylus.
the left of the Kenwoods is the EVX-4 4-channel adapter feeding my Dynaco
SCA-80 integrated amplifier. The EVX-4 synthesized two rear ambient channels
from ordinary stereo LPs.
speakers were AR-2ax’s (10-in 3-ways), the ones sitting vertically directly on
the bench. Lying horizontally on top of them are my cousin’s AR-3a’s (12-in
3-ways), which he had loaned me for a few weeks. Sitting on top of the 3a’s are
my sister’s AR-7’s (8-in 2-ways), which had just arrived by mail order and I
hadn’t yet brought them over to her house to set them up.
Kenwood KA-7002 had A, B and C speaker terminals, so I could switch at will
between all three. What fun! The AR-7’s were AR’s smallest and least expensive
speaker. The 3a was their top of the line. All three were very highly rated,
with great test reports from all the major magazines. The amazing thing was how
similar the 7 sounded to the 3a, except for the deepest bass and extreme highs.
shown in these pics are another set of AR-2ax’s connected to the Dynaco amp
that comprised the rear channels of my “4-channel” stereo music system. That’s
my sister’s Dual 1215 on the left, connected to the phono input of the Dynaco,
again before I took it over to her place to set it up. This was my “stereo
life” in the 1970’s.
dad was an avid audiophile, from way back. He’d jumped on the “Hi-fi/stereo”
bandwagon in the 1950’s and assembled a very nice stereo system as soon as
‘stereo’ became a thing in 1958. When the 1970’s receiver power race came on,
he wanted one. Really bad. He had a Sherwood S-7900A, which was a typically
excellent ‘70’s receiver, 60+60 watts RMS, well-built, nice-looking. But he
wanted a big one, 100+ watts per channel.
was a sales rep in the electronics industry at the time. Our biggest line was
Sanyo, which was a major brand in the 70’s and 80’s. They’ve since disappeared
from the U.S. market, but they were a really big deal back then. Sanyo offered
a full range of consumer electronics, like TVs, tape recorders, car stereo, compact
home stereo, boomboxes, etc. They also had a hi-fi division and marketed some really
excellent equipment, including receivers, turntables and cassette decks. Since
I worked for the company that repped them, I could get their products at a
I surprised my dad with a Sanyo JCX-2900 receiver on his birthday. The Sanyo 2900
was pretty much a blatant copy of Pioneer’s SX-1050 (120 WPC, silver faceplate,
amber back-lit dial, tone control turnovers, etc.), but it was a really good
copy. It looked great, it had all the bells and whistles and it performed like
a champ. My dad used it for many years without a hitch. He eventually upgraded
several years later and gave the 2900 to a nephew of his, who used it for at
least another five years.
A Decade Like No Other
So, to recap, the
1970’s were a time when so many socio-economic and technology factors came
together in a way that will never be repeated:
- The Baby Boomer generation was the largest
demographic group in the country’s history, and they were primed and
conditioned to be voracious consumers by parents who’d lived through the Great
Depression and World War II and were determined that their children would have
the opportunities that they never had.
- Technology developed in such a way that
great-sounding compact bookshelf speakers, reliable, high-performance receivers
and integrated amplifiers, cassette recorders with Dolby B noise reduction and
superb, dependable turntables all became widely available at affordable prices
at the same time. What were the odds of
so many unrelated technical advances-electrical, mechanical, acoustic—occurring
at pretty much the exact same time?
- Popular music, fueled by the existence of the huge
population pool of Baby Boomers, produced more amazingly great bands in wildly
different musical genres (heavy metal/hard rock, country rock,
singer/songwriter/acoustic, jazz-rock like Chicago/BST, fusion, Latin-flavored
rock, soul/funk, etc.) than at any other time in our collective musical
- To meet this demand, stereo stores, record
stores and concert venues were everywhere. Everywhere.
Each weekend brought another live concert for the ages. All week after that,
record and equipment sales would be off the charts.
period has its charms, its special appeal. Today’s best Home Theater systems
present an audio/visual experience that is far superior to what the great
majority of commercial theaters can offer in return. But the visceral emotion
surrounding the acquisition and ownership of today’s gear is not anywhere near
what it was like 50 years ago. No present-day AV enthusiast puts a friendship
in jeopardy by arguing about their speakers vs. their friend’s, and then goes
and derisively waves a magazine test report under their friend’s nose and says,
“See?” That kind of raw excitement, that defensive pride in one’s meticulously selected
system, fueled by out-of-control 18-22 year-old emotions, was strictly a 1970’s
It’ll never be
that way again. But for those of us who lived it, it was fun on a scale not
even remotely approached by today’s electronics market.