Vintage Whine

Editor’s Choice

No, not this Editor. Continuing from my last column, inspired by the arrival of a big batch of old issues of The Absolute Sound, The Editor referred to is TAS‘ founder, HP—Harry Pearson. For decades, his pronouncements could make or break new companies in the peculiar fiefdom of high-performance audio. Judging by his portentous (and sometimes pretentious) writing, and the dozens of stories I’ve heard— Harry relished that authority and command. I only knew him the last decade of this life, and by that time the growth of what he called The High End had diminished, and so had his influence. But that’s a subject for another day.

As I’ve mentioned, I subscribed to TAS way back at the very beginning—the first year of the mag. While I no longer have those very early issues to refer to, I think my memory of HP’s pronouncements of that era are pretty clear (which is more than I can say for anything that’s happened recently). From the very beginning there were lists of The Best, according to Harry.

Initially, those lists included components that seem pretty modest compared to the megabuck monoliths of today: the ADC XLM induced magnet phono cartridge; stacked/double Advents (top one upside-down, so the two tweeters were clustered in the center); the Dahlquist DQ-10, which was around for years in various configurations, mirror-imaged, with added sub-woofer, without….

How cheap was cheap? The ADC XLM was around $90, which was about as much as one could spend on a readily-available cartridge those days (most of those pesky moving coils came later). A single pair of Advents was as little as $210 in vinyl, $240 in walnut veneer. In 2017 bucks? The ADC XLM would run about $520, which can still buy a pretty good cartridge today.That vinyl pair of Advents would run about $1216, and the walnut pair, about $1390. In the ’70s there were plenty of bookshelf speakers that cost less than the Advents (including smaller models made by Advent themselves), so they weren’t the cheapest things available—but they were reliable performers which most listeners could live with for many years, for far less than the cost of, say, a VW Beetle. In the world of college dorm  and young professional stereo systems, Advents were ubiquitous. Can we say the same of any $1400 loudspeakers today?  I don’t think so.

In those early days of TAS there were frequent interactions with designers and company reps—which was not something one had generally seen in Stereo Review. But then, aside from Julian Hirsch‘s almost fetishistic love of the AR-3a, one rarely read in Stereo Review that stereo components actually sounded different. Peter Pritchard from ADC was frequently around TAS  in those days, as was Jon Dahlquist, and the double Advent review was commented upon by Advent product manager Andy Petite—who later founded Boston Acoustics.

But of all the industry gurus, William Z. Johnson of Audio Research Corporation, Jim Winey of Magnepan, and (as mentioned last time) Arnie Nudell of Infinity Systems appeared the most often—and their products couldn’t be considered cheap by any standard. The Audio Research SP-3 started out at $595, a singularly high price for a preamp until Mark Levinson came on the scene. The Magneplanar Tympanis were $1200 or so, and Infinity’s first product, the Servo-Statik 1, was $2000, at a time when that was the cost of a VW Beetle (there’s that damn car again!). And things only went up from there. In 2017 bucks: $3,445, $6,948, and $11,580, respectively.

Pearson seemed to view the three as fellow explorers of a new world, and goaded and sometimes guided by HP, the three made major advances in  the art of sound reproduction for several decades. Early on in the game, HP even created a hybrid speaker with the woofer section of a Magneplanar Tympani and the mids and highs of the first Infinity Reference Standard (IRS), correcting what he saw as the deficiencies of both systems, and pushing their creators to make the next generation of speakers far better.

Time went on, and as the world changed, so did the market for home audio. Music is ubiquitous and mostly free. At least one generation is used to hearing whatever they want wherever and whenver they want, and don’t expect to pay. The quality of the music may be awful, and the quality of the sound may be dismal—but it’s free. Musicians are starving, and streaming services are losing money—but it’s free.

It takes a stubborn soul to pursue quality audio in an atmosphere like this. But here I am—and so are you. I’m grateful for the efforts made by guys like Harry, William Z., Jim, and Arnie—and everyone else who has devoted their efforts in pursuit of the sound of music.

And we ain’t dead yet. Not by a long shot.