A quiet revolution

September 9, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

My father Don was one of the few in our neighborhood that had an actual sound system. It was a cobbled together group of separates: Rek-O-Kut turntable, Stromberg Carlson electronics, homemade speakers. The few neighbors that had sound systems relied upon the classic all-in-one console, while everyone else got music through a simple radio.

All that changed in the late 1960s with a quiet revolution. Japanese receivers, speakers, and turntables began infiltrating American homes—not through stereo stores at first, but through the military. It was the height of the war in Vietnam, NATO troop buildups in Europe, and cleanup activities in Korea. The US military was everywhere and so too were the audio stores and PX where low cost Japanese (and eventually American) hifi equipment found their way home to America. Entire systems could be had for hundreds of dollars and GIs in search of bargains, their pockets filled with cash, flooded the stereo outlets.

By the mid 1970s, when the Baby Boomers were taking over, the stereo situation had completely changed. Now, there were almost no homes, dorms, apartments, or condos without the minimum requirements of a turntable, receiver, and pair of speakers. It was the heyday of the music revolution.

When I think back on these days it occurs to me there was a perfect storm of simultaneous revolution going on: the British music invasion, Woodstock, vinyl LPs, FM stereo radio, folk music, protest music, Motown, and what today we refer to as Classic Rock.

Without many taking notice we went from radios and the occasional console stereo to a near complete penetration of sound systems in every home—and it wasn’t just America. All over the world people plugged in, played music, and changed the world.

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34 comments on “A quiet revolution”

  1. Its a long road for many enthusiasts. I earned money in the 60’s picking apples, as a printers help, on a farm etc. to buy my first serious hifi. I built a kit cabinet and fitted a Garrard 301, Leak Varislope Pre and the Leak Stereo 20 power amp into it and added a pair of Wharfdale Teesdale speakers (tweeter fired upwards to a dispersion cone).
    Man I was in heaven… and have been ever since.
    High-End hifi has evolved out of all proportion since then, sadly also the price (but once youve paid you soon forget that).

  2. The biggest sound revolution in audio I am awareness of in the mid 70th was the dummy head recording giving sensational “stereo effects” via headphones compared to loudspeakers. Room treatment or audiophile cables were no issue. Bookshelf speakers placed on shelves or cupboards was a most common practice of speaker setup.

    1. If it was a revolution, it was a failed one. Regardless of the benefits of binaural recording and headphone playblack, it is a practice that at no point in time represented more than a blip in consumer use.

  3. What I remember about that time period was getting the tube hand-me downs and drooling over the solid state styling – Also learning that valves had some hidden sonic attributes when compared to the new solid state.

    I was a young Early High school punk who just loved music and music reproduction. Dabbling in some home built speakers- mostly HIFI to start. At that point l was learning to appreciate equipment and sound differences.

    I earned enough to join the record clubs – paper routes & odd jobs –

    As a source FM was almost as good as anything – especially to expose oneself to new musical horizons.

  4. My system during that time was NAD 3020A, Boston Acoustics A150 speakers and a Dual turntable. It lasted me 10 years through the teen years. I will never get that much pleasure from a system again.

  5. I was at Ft Benning in 1968 running the army infantry school recording studio. Because of my job I was also permanent charge of quarters, there were four of us and we rotated the duty in pairs. I bought a pair of Dynaco preamp and amp and built them on my desk in the recording studio. When I was shipped out to Korea I shipped everything home.

    in Korea I was assigned to a remote microwave radio site as the AFKN technician. One day three of us made a pilgrimage up to the main PX in Seoul it was a long drive over bad roads but once we got there it was worth it. I bought an AR turntable for next to nothing (one of the best turntables of that era for $65 or so) a sony reel to reel tape deck, and a Sansui receiver and speakers, Bill and Jim also bought setups – it was good we brought the jeep trailer with us.

    Everybody in Korea had a stereo of some sort and the PX had a decent assortment of records, those of us on sites had somewhat elaborate systems while those in barracks made do with modest setups. I got to know the Colonel who ran the PX system in Korea and he sometimese asked what the troops were looking for, I told him better speakers and corncob pipes – he acted on both suggestions.

  6. By the mid-70s as Paul points out, everyone had a stereo system of some kind. I well remember how the dorm rooms had to be reconfigured to be sure to make room for the speakers and the turntables and tape decks and assorted accessories. I kept my clothes in a box on the floor of my closet because the shelves they provided had to be for the albums! Still to this day, the thought when moving somewhere is that the stereo is the last thing packed and the first thing unpacked after the move!

    Here is a photo of a couple of buddy’s of mine’s room back in the day. Note the bed against the wall, sleeping took second place to the installation and use of the stereo system. Ha, this photo dates things pretty well what with Donna Summer and “Saturday Night Fever”as the albums of choice for the moment. http://spuddls.com/ps_audio/dorm_stereo.jpg

  7. Another thread got me reminiscing about my youth and stereos. I had no money to speak of as I was growing up (I graduated HS in 74) so had pretty low end stuff. My 2 friends however, were a bit better off and they ended up buying the exact same systems: Large Advents, Sherwood receiver, and a Dual 1229 with Shure V15 cartridge. Man, they sounded good! I wish I could here that system, as new now. It would be interesting to judge it with older, (maybe) wiser ears. I often think that the quest for better and better gear hasn’t really added to enjoyment much.

    1. It wouldn’t sound that good. On the other hand, no matter how good your system is today it will will never make you feel the way the systems of your youth did.

      1. It wasn’t the systems, but the music, between the British invasion, West Coast bands like the Airplane, the Dead, CSN&Y, etc, and the Velvet Underground, going from AM to the Progressive stations on FM, I don’t think any other era had so much new music. Nobody was discussing imaging or soundstage. There would be a speaker in one corner, the other on a shelf. People sat in circles listening, passing around the cover. We had home speakers in the backseat of the car.
        My Dad’s interest in music started and stopped with the big bands, Glen Miller in particular.
        Jazz had many greats, but the average person knew about Duke Ellington and Count Basie. In jazz the greats of the ’50s are better known now, than when they were out playing.
        If you look back at music history, I don’t think until the ’60s there was so much new music. Once you heard something that amazed you, there were lots of other bands in that sub category.
        For the first time albums weren’t the hits, and the rest filler. When I was around 12 years old, friends would be buying 45s, now at 16 we were buying albums.
        There have been bursts of new genres, with Punk, then Grunge, but their influences came out of the ’60s and early ’70s.
        It really was a great time to be growing up. Music had value, yet concerts were affordable. I have all my ticket stubs. I saw Savoy Brown at a venue that was considered the best sound wise, for $5.

  8. I started out with a mono cassette player in the early 70’s. It was a National. The first rock song I heard was “Black Magic Woman” by Santana through the radio and I was hooked. Got the mic out and placed it front of the radio and had my first recording. From that moment on would be doing the same with the theme music of TV shows. This is the north western part of Pakistan where access to western music in the early 70’s was extremely limited.

    The upgrade path went from that to a 2 in 1 (all mono and based on cassette tapes) to finally a 3 in 1 stereo (boy was I excited). Then the move to the US in the early 80’s for higher studies. Upon checking into my dorm, there were two things to take care of. Bedding and a music system from a local store in Berkeley. That was my first truly separate component system – very low cost as funds were limited. Sherwood amplifier, speakers and a cassette player. Well 30+ years and the quest still goes on and enjoying every moment of it.

  9. The 60’s was my parents built in tuner, turn table and 8 track into a piece of nice furniture especially for the time. My father loved it, and made it a point to tell people that he bought it twice making it twice as expensive as anything out there; when they were married and again from my mother when they divorced. With this furniture system still house in part of my upbringing, came the 70’s and my fathers Marantz system with the smooth tuner dial you would give a hard spin to watch it move across the frequency stations, a turn table (forget the brand) and JBL fronts and something else for the rears – it sounded warm and good! I was into recording albums to Maxwell cassettes for the car and walkman.

    Then came the Submarine years, and the Navy Exchange is where I was able to secure some great gear, this was the late 80’s, under Reagan and Bush eras. You could buy Rolex watches, Harley Davidsons, and a lot of other things. The barrack/dorms had plenty of beer, liquor, porn VHS, cigarettes and stereo systems. I remember integrated Onyko, Pioneer, Kenwood being popular then, and I went for the plunge with Adcom and later Carver separates with Klipsch Fortes, maybe Forte II’s and Klipsch La Scala speakers – it was Cadillac to me at that time and sounded amazing. Power cables were hard wired in.

    Today my system is uber crazy and yesteryear would have serious challenges keeping up. It was simpler then, less expensive and the fun did not change, other then my system got so expensive I sometimes wonder what the hell did I do despite it sounding great!

  10. Predicting the future is risky business. Most predictions turn out to be dead wrong and those that even slightly resemble actual events have to be twisted and contorted to conform to facts. From Bible prophesy to Nostradamus, from HG Wells and Jules Verne to Star Trek few got it right. OTOH, I’ve seen things that really did happen that I never thought I’d live to see. Even Captain Kirk’s communicator is a joke compared to a modern smart phone.

    The 1960s was an era of excitement and turmoil. The nuclear age, the space age, the promise of limitless clean safe electricity from the atom, monster computers, transistors led to the internet, the power of a hundred million vacuum tubes in your hand powered by a battery no larger than a matchbook that anyone could afford, it seemed like anything was possible. And then there was stereophonic sound. Audio engineers promised us concert hall realism in our homes from recordings was just a matter of time. Yet here we are 50 years later and with all that happened in just about every field of science and technology, for the promise they made, they have merely tried to perfect everything they did back then to one degree or another. You can try to kid yourself all you want but the fact is there has been no real progress. None. Nada.

  11. I’ve long believed that releasing 5″ instead of 12″ digital disks was the biggest single marketing blunder ever made by the music industry. The album jacket was a huge part of the listening experience but the label “suits” and artists believed it to be all about the music and not those pesky, expensive graphics. Record stores, eager to resell classic albums in an era of poor-selling new releases, removed the vinyl from their shelves and refused to discount CDs while wagging their fingers and blaming those “greedy evil record labels.” It was amazing with many “budget” labels being sold for a dollar above list price.

    1. I watched a documentary a few month’s back about the ever evolving history of music sales, and I had not realized that prior to the 60’s it was all about singles. The stores predominantly sold A & B side small discs. Then, the record companies pushed everyone to LP’s to boost profits but the consumers really didn’t want that. This has been used as rationalization for why downloaded singles have proliferated in the digital age as album sales have lagged. For some reason the program name has escaped me now, it might have been “All Things Must Pass” about the defunct Tower Records chain.

        1. The documentary disagreed, and perhaps “pushed” was not the right word.

          I absolutely agree that those of us who had nicer stereos and were into album based rock (or had some sense of curiosity as to what the artist was all about beyond the single) absolutely wanted the LP. However the millions of consumers who just wanted the latest Beach Boys or Rolling Stones or Shawn Cassidy hit on a 45 suddenly found those unavailable and their only choice was to buy the album which they didn’t really want. The record companies made more profit from the LP than the 45 so they limited supplies or didn’t release them in that format at all. That’s what I referred to as “pushed”. It was obvious in the stores that I used to frequent. At one time you would go in and 3/4 of the store was singles and the rest were LPs but within a few years you would barely find one tiny section of singles and the whole rest of the store was LPs. Maybe your part of the world was different!

          That was not my philosophy and probably none of the majority of those that read this blog and honestly over the years I found some of the best music on the album we’re tunes that never got any radio play.

          1. I worked for record companies between 1965 and 1998 or so and never saw anybody limiting selections or “pushing” formats other than retail record stores. The tech industry has been pushing this “evil record label” B.S. for years as they both encouraged and made a fortune off of people stealing music.

            1. I might agree with you there, in that, if the retailers stopped ordering singles because they made more money off the LPs then, of course, that limited the consumer choice but not by the record company. Once the retailer was able to be out of the mix for the most part and the consumer could buy direct (or “get” direct through whatever means) it seemed they opted for singles over albums.

              I spend a lot of hours on the running trail with folks in my marathon training group and inevitably music comes up. I will say the younger the crowd, the more annoyed they are that they have to buy the album to get the one or two songs they want. All us geezers all want the albums, even from the newer acts we support.

  12. What if the quiet revolution had not happened ? What would the current state of Hi-Fi be ? Would we still be stuck with consoles ? progress is inevitable so the consoles would have been more sophisticated maybe. Who knows ? Would we be as advanced as we are now ? I doubt it. Change is inevitable. So if there is no progression there is always regression. History is full of examples. How would have this fact of life changed the history of HI-FI. Even in this era of progress in audio regression has been a part of it in a big way. Very interesting topic Forces one to think. Regards.

  13. Dear Paul,

    Nostalgy….

    I understand it completely

    now try to imagine a slightly different reality from the same years, but different environment – I mean closed soviet russia society – people who love and understand music but are deprived of the opportunity to enjoy this wealth.
    maybe you understand what happiness you got as a matter of course and perhaps appreciate what many people have been deprived of for many years

    regards,

    igor

    1. As a musician, I’ve played placed like Poland and Ukraine and Azerbaijan. From the incredibly appreciative (much more then American) audiences I encountered, I have a good idea of what you’re saying!

    1. Unfortunately I sold my Garrard 301 turntable a number of years ago, it was highly sought after in Japan and realised a high price. It was a superb turntable however I progressed to a Sota but now prefer an ancient but wonderful combination of a MRM Source turntable from Glasgow (that didn’t get the recognition it should have got)
      a Zeta tonearm with a Koetsu Gold Onyx cartridge.

      1. I have an MRM Source with an Audioquest PT6 arm. Sadly, in a move about 6 years ago the outer platter was misplaced or lost. I’ve hunted for it and not been able to find it, which is a huge disappointment. When I have my Thorens TD160 serviced and modified I will, naturally find the missing part!

        1. Earl Dunbar, I hope you find the missing outer platter of your MRM Source, its certainly worth restoration even though that Papst motor has been discontinued. (Although there are after-market motors available but I don’t know what difference to the performance that would make) . I think the late Mike Moore was a genius and the Source didn’t get the accolade it deserved. I’ve heard it against the LP12 and it won out easily!

  14. Looking back on it I think it’s surprising that no one marketed a 3 channel stereo system with a center channel for a wider Soundstage without a hole in the middle.

    About the closest I’m aware of was Klipsch Heresy named because it wasn’t a corner horn but was intended to be a center speaker for his corner horn model in a very wide room.

  15. In 1973, when I entered Brooklyn College, I took out a student loan and bought a SAE 2200 power amp, 2100 preamp, with built in parametric equalizer, Mark VIII tuner(analog with digital display), AR XB turntable with a Stanton 881S cartridge, Teac A450 cassette deck, and AR 11 speakers. It was my introduction to high end audio and made the 4 years at college much more enjoyable.

  16. Four years ago my wife and I purchased a 1967 time capsule of a home. Built by wealthy families for their children’s wedding present it was equipped with everything modern convenience conceivable at the time. Imagine fifty years ago a house having remote electric drapes, alarm with closed circuit TV, a master bed night stand that could control every light in the house, and finally audiophile quality (for the era) stereo speakers in every room. Every room had two Frazier of Dallas 18” X 13” X 12” cabinet speakers pf 3/4” birch plywood with an 8” Altec woofer and a Foster tweeter. Except the media room, which was equipped with two 15” EV Duplex speakers. Power was from a huge Fisher receiver and music sources were a Sony reel to reel and a Dual 1019 turntable. We can only imagine the parties and the music that was played in this house.

  17. I started my working life in 1960 with the record company EMI. In late 1961, the magazine Wireless World published the Tobey-Dinsdale design for a transformerless 10w transistor power amplifier and matching pre-amplifier. By then I had taken up a position in the computer department, and with ready access to all the electrical components needed, everybody in the department had built their own amplifiers within a matter of weeks! We were delighted with the sonic results. I used my amplifier with a Thorens TD150 turntable and Heathkit FM tuner for several years, before eventually upgrading to Leak separates.

    Yes, it was a revolutionary period – first with the general availablity of stereo LP records and later of CDs. These were a godsend to the classical music lover with their more-or-less unrestricted track lengths that could accommodate whole movements of symphonies and whole symphonies on a single CD. It’s well known that the size of the cd was specifically chosen to be able to hold Beethoven’s 9th symphony – some 74 minutes long. Cover design is not such an important factor for classical records, though there are some memorable ones to be sure. I’ve no idea what effect, if any, they have on sales.

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