Falling off the tracks

June 15, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

Televisions and home theaters need remotes, our hi-fi systems do not.

For those ancient enough to remember when equipment did not have remotes, we solved the problem of volume adjustment in the same way we made it easy to play a record. The preamp and turntable were next to us. No system worth its salt was set up away from us. We kept it simple. A table to the side of the couch or in front of us had the turntable and preamplifier at the handy. It was a perfect setup.

Televisions changed everything because they couldn’t be positioned within arm’s reach. So remotes were invented, first using ultrasound with clickers, later with infrared as most are today. Then, a marketing nerd decided what’s good for TV ought to be good for our stereos, despite the fact it was not only unnecessary but injurious to their design and performance.

Frankly, I never got over it. Our equipment is now far from us for one reason. The remote control feature permits it—almost demands it. Because we can, we do.

Where our kit once had clean sounding mechanical switches and decent pots, we had to resort to worse sounding relays and electronic volume controls—or complex motorized pots—to mimic that which made sense on televisions. The whole world has gone remote control and what manufacturer doesn’t feel obligated to include it?

After all, we’ve now permanently rearranged our equipment and living spaces to accommodate the convenience of a remote, rather than the other way around. Ahh well.

So, what does adding remote control mean to a piece of equipment? We’ll get technical tomorrow.

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33 comments on “Falling off the tracks”

  1. For those who don’t like remote controls there is good news.
    I think in the nearby future the remote will go the way of the dodo, only to be replaced by nowadays holy grail, the almighty app.
    There are networkplayers already without a remote. For controlling these devices you have to download the company’s app.

      1. Probably will be voice activated IOT, and as much as i dislike alexa, siri and all the other electronic control mistresses, giving up our dependency and attachment to screens might just be a positive step forward for humanity.

        1. You are preaching to the converted there. I have been asserting since the late 70’s that voice activation was the future of device control. It has just taken rather longer than expected to start emerging as a viable technology! However, control of an audio system may not be the easiest to achieve. The music itself makes for a noisy environment, and I would be quite interested to see how a voice activated system would react if you were playing rap. Some noise cancelling techniques might be needed.

          1. Good point on audio system control, in terms of whole house control, voice command looks like a not too distant reality. Invasive as hell, but what wired or wireless technology isn’t today?

            Apple is utilizing six microphones in their new
            VC device, with a Soundmind EEAS audio system
            design : -)


  2. I recently switched to a simple old school type preamp that has no remote and tubes. It’s a bit of a pain the get up and walk over to the volume switch, but the resulting sound is is more like what I have been looking for. It’s basically the circuit of an old Dynaco PAS-3 preamp, but with upgraded/changed components and an outboard power supply.

  3. “…clean sounding mechanical switches and decent pots…”
    Sorry, Paul, but I have to take issue with you here. Unless your equipment was in a pressurised clean room you had the dreaded dust to contend with, Pots sooner or later started to crackle, Nature’s way of making the transition from pure analogue, and you wasted time treating them with switch cleaner which reduced, but never completely cleared the problem. This was the same dust which made vinyl such a pain. Electrostatic wipes, tracking dust bugs, and directing little puffs of air at the stylus were part of the listening experience. The transition to CD was, for me, a great relief,

    1. And here I agree completely.
      I remember one amp I had a long time ago, the Quad 33.
      A nice pre amp at the time, but that craklin potmeter…
      It needed cleaning at least once a year.
      Not one of my remotes ever crackled.

    2. I am not a vinyl fan myself and the advent of CD was a blessing. I agree. But the pain and degradation caused by the remote control are real and pervasive.

      We’ve learned to deal with them and today, we’re better off for it. The volume control scheme inside the BHK preamplifier sounds better than any pot or electronic device known, but it took decades of poor performance to get there.

      A tall price to pay just for the convenience of isolating yourself from the equipment.

      1. The first remote control I got where I thought, “really, is this necessary?” was for the P500 Power Plant! A remote control…for a power re-generator. Paul, you are not blameless in this!!!

      2. Aren’t you exaggerating here a little bit mr McGowan ?
        I, like everyone I know (incl. audiophiles) never experienced any degradation in sound caused by the remote.
        But maybe my ears aren’t sensitive enough.
        And “isolating yourself from the equipment” sounds as if the equipment and you “live” in different buildings.
        I didn’t know musicroom one was that big.
        My equipment is about 12 ft. away from my chair. For me that’s not separated. We can stil say hello to each other.
        And why should I have a personal relationship with my equipment ? At the end of the day It’s all about the music !

        1. Me? Exaggerate? 🙂 Sure, to make a point I often do. But truth is, remotes for years caused sonic degradation to preamps because of the gyrations we designers had to go through to get the remote controlled. It’s not the remote itself that causes degradation, it’s the components needed. For example, pots sound better than any electronic scheme (up until a few years ago) and even pots aren’t that great.

          Let’s take a look in tomorrow’s post.

  4. I have never lived in a house where the size and shape of the living room, combined with my furniture, would make it possible to put the TT and preamp next to the couch. Such an arrangement would require long interconnects, which are not necessarily a good thing, either sonically or ergonomically (don’t trip over them or scrunch them by walking on top of them if buried under a rug). And I too have experienced those crackling volume pots.

  5. My streamers don’t have a remote, only an iOS app. The Devialet switches on from the remote, otherwise I control it and the streamer entirely by iPhone or iPad. So generally no searching under the sofa for the remote to get music.

    We got our first colour TV around 1969. I think it was a Telefunken. Anyway, long before remotes. Not too much jumping up and down to change as we only had three channels (BBC1, BBC2, ITV). Anyway, as a sensible 6 year old I was probably lying on the floor 6 inches from the screen.

    With regard to remote control, the ALPS motorised potentiometer seems to have become widespread. Audio Note include their own high quality step attenuators, as I mentioned yesterday I had a Hattor with remote controlled dual mono stepped attenuators. They are made with your choice of resistors, so it is possible.

    Transformer volume controls are also popular here.

    1. These TVCs are the best preamps I ever experienced. And as an option you can order them with a stepper motor for getting the volume setting remotely controlled. A great and simple design!

    2. So how is it that an iPhone or iPad used in that application isn’t a physical remote control other than the fact that most remote control apps operate over the internet, via a wi-fi or a bluetooth link between your iPhone and another device?

      One could add an infrared iPhone accessory to control a variable level V/C, but they’re a little unrefined and clunky.

  6. I am with Steven that most, if not all of my kits nowadays have apps, which I greatly prefer. The lack of a remote was my #1 reason for recently getting rid of my separates and going with an all-in-one box. Besides the apps, I like how I can hack into the back door settings on some of my equipment with a browser and IP address (not generally a published feature from the manufacturer LOL ) to tweak things!

    I remain a skeptic that a remote would change the sound in such a demonstrative way. I will never own equipment that resolving probably, and not sure anymore that I desire to, as that gets to the point of listening to the equipment more than the music. Thanks everyone for posting those old photos of the wired remotes, those were fun to look at! I never realized those existed!

  7. The thing about machines is that as time goes on, humans begin to lose control. Slowly, subtly at first but then as time passes the pace accelerates and we grow to accept it. Remote controls were just a start. Computerized controls that no one except a few experts understand how they work. Self driving cars. Artificial intelligence. The internet of things. Machines that can out think all humans and connect together over the internet. Machines that can design and build other machines better than they are. When will they start conspiring to get rid of us? When will humans become obsolete, redundant, and when will the machines decide its time to do away with us. Watch out Paul, your new bread maker may start to conspire with your garbage disposal unit to get rid of you. Ya never know.

    Rod Serling looked 60+ years into the future and saw where it would go. We’re almost there. The protagonist Finchley gets what he deserves and of course he doesn’t stand a chance. Those the gods would destroy they first drive mad.


  8. I have a large economy sized box full of remote controls, most with crusty old batteries I suppose. Never did cotton to the things. I seem to be completely out of step. Listening to a lot of vinyl, as well as still buying lots of CDs, but not doing any streaming of any kind.

  9. What it bad about a remote control for me at least, is that I put on music and then find myself switching song after just 30 s. I think this is because I do not have to think through long enough what I’m in the mood for listening to. This does not happen when I put on an LP, because the procedure gives me time to think about what I want to hear.
    Mats, Stockholm

    1. mats – that’s what I found revelatory about the DMP. I had digitized all of my CDs around 16 years ago, and so have been using remotes and/or apps for control all that time (with the exception of vinyl). Apps, BTW, don’t change the potential degradation Paul is discussing, it’s just another means of turning the motor-driven potentiometer or whathaveyou.

      With the DMP I got back into physical media, and the practice of choosing a disc, putting it on and letting it play. Albums as they were intended to be enjoyed. The temptation to swipe on your iPad as soon as you see something else potentially more intriguing than what is currently playing, and the visual distraction of it – like some sort of short-attention-span dating app – is too great.

  10. Paul, sorry but once again I must disagree with your perspective. “Our equipment is now far from us for one reason. The remote control feature permits it”!

    In the first place, in my experience it was rare to see anyone with their preamp/tuner/turntable next to their listening chair. I can think of only one person I know who did so. Far more typical is having components set up in some fashion between the speakers, well beyond arm’s reach from the listening chair. Many hobbyists chose to have both interconnects and speaker wires as short as possible, and that usually means placement between the speakers. Why? For the sonic reasons you mention.

    Also in defense of the remote, many recordings do not have the same volume or necessarily balance from one track to the next. Jumping up and down to reach the controls is eliminated when one can fine-tune level and balance from the listening seat. From my experience this was not as simple an evolution as you suggest.

    1. I do not ever remember seeing anyone in the 50s and 60s with the turntable and preamp or receiver within arm’s reach. As mentioned above, components were either between the speakers or along a side wall. I never thought about getting up to change the record or adjust volume. It was a natural part of the listening experience at the time. I still get up to turn over or change the record as I listen almost exclusively to vinyl. Not a big deal. I do use the remote to tweak volume, a nice convenience and my system sounds awesome.

    2. Then you’re likely not my age. In the 60s and 70s audiophiles had their controls at the ready. Else, they either didn’t care much for getting proper volume levels or they jumped up and down a lot fine tuning them.

      Yes, there are clearly advantages to shorter cable lengths, but that’s little reason to sacrifice all that we gave up in the interim between now – when we finally have a handle on how to make remote-controlled equipment sound better than mechanically controlled kit – a process that took decades.

      It’s a trade-off, to be sure.

      1. Well, with all due respect I’m quite certain I’m older than you. My interest in better quality audio than average consoles began in college in the early ’60s and I built my first stereo system around Dynakits in 1966. I’ve been active in audio clubs since the early ’70s and have visited many friends to hear their systems over the intervening years. That was the basis for my observation that placing components by the listening chair was a rare set up.

        So yes, a great deal of jumping up and down to manage the controls.

  11. It wasn’t just the advent of remote control, it was also the steep increase in the cost of cable. I used to have a setup where my preamp and front-end components were away from my speakers and amps, but the setup required 20+ feet of cable between my preamp amd power amps. That system suffered audibly because even the cheapest audiophile interconnect or speaker cable at that length would cost more than the sum of all the components in the system at that time!

    So, now all my components are together away from my listening spot, and the longest cable I use is 2 meters.

  12. I’m with the dissent. No doubt, you all have large houses with dedicated audio rooms. If so, remotes aren’t so important; I get it. But I live in Silicon Valley. Got just one “entertainment room,” so my high-end stereo is integrated in with my TV and DVD/BluRay player. (A non-trivial engineering project, btw.) The ONLY hope of having the family just be able to sit down and select whether they want to watch TV, watch a DVD, or listen to music is via an universal remote. Because the house is open and small, I also have to support headphone options for all three usage models, btw. In fact, I needed a remote that supported both IR and RF because some of the components don’t fit and are in a different room, accessed via an RF repeater. I use the Logitech Harmony 900, no longer sold. (Not sure if they have any IF + RF remotes any more.) Though setup was itself an engineering exercise, it works great. Family is happy and continues in blissful ignorance of all the goes on when they select an “Activity.” As a plus, I find watching TV or disc is far more pleasant with superb sound.

    I would not buy an audio component — other than a headphone amp or a turntable — without a remote.

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