I still remember my first stereo system. With $500 I earned at the soft ice cream parlour/pool hall in my small town, I begged my dad to take my 14 year-old self into Winnipeg to buy it. Having poured over magazines like Stereo Review and brochures I got through the mail, I’d finally decided on what I could afford. And despite my parents’ begging that I spend my money on something more “sensible,” I would not be deterred. I wanted–needed–a sound system for my room and nothing was going to stop me from getting one. I’d worked for it and I’d have it.
That Saturday, we went to Krazy Kelly’s in the west end of Winnipeg where I picked out a Sansui 221 integrated receiver (12 watts RMS) for $249.99, an Akai APC-001 turntable ($99.95) and a couple of no-name full-range bookshelf speakers ($124.99).
The second I got home, I set everything up in my bedroom and began playing my record collection. I can honestly say that this modest system set me on the road to where I am today. That stereo led to a deeper fascination with all sorts of audio gear. That eventually led to wanting to work with this gear professionally. For me, that meant radio.
I loved my new stereo, but within 24 hours, I was already planning my next purchases. If you think Apple’s Forced Upgrade Death March is bad, you’ve never had the audiophile bug. Once infected, it doesn’t take long to develop an expensive obsession for better, clearer, louder sound. But achieving audio perfection is impossible; you’d have a better chance of exceeding the speed of light by flapping your arms. But that didn’t stop us from trying.
Before long, a worrisome amount of my meagre earnings started pouring into more powerful amplifiers, components with less distortion, cassette decks (Dolby-A or -B?), all manner of equalizers (graphic would do, although we lusted for parametric) and several close calls with a dreamed-for TEAC 10 1/2 inch reel-to-reel with solenoid controls.
Worst of all, though, was my hunt for better speakers.
I loved auditioning speakers. When I was in high school, I’d drive into Winnipeg and spend an entire Saturday going to from stereo store to stereo store, asking to listen to the best speakers they had in stock. I learned the difference between acoustic-suspension bass enclosures and horn-loaded ones. I debated with my friends over the merits of various dome tweeters. We realized that East Coast speakers (AR, Advent, etc) were okay, but the West Coast sound (JBL and especially Cerwin-Vega) were better for rock music. English speakers–B&W, for example–were good but hard to find. We agreed that Bose 901s were both overrated and too expensive. And one day, we all swore that we’d own a set of refrigerator-sized Klipschorns or a set of Magneplanars (if we could afford an appropriately powerful amplifier, of course).
If you grew up in the 70s, you know exactly what I’m talking about. We used our stereos not only for listening to music, but as a way of proclaiming our identity to the world. High-fidelity sound was our life.
But if you came along later–say as a child of the 80s or 90s–you’re probably wondering what was wrong with me.
Nothing. Back then, you see, music was everything to teenagers and college students. We didn’t have Walkmans or smartphones. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, texting, DVRs, computer games, gaming consoles, email, DVDs, Netflix, satellite radio, iTunes, Spotify, Rdio or 500-plus cable TV channels. Hell, plenty of kids didn’t even have access to rock on FM radio. What we had, though, was our stereos. (Later, we started buying stupidly powerful stereos for our cars, but that’s a whole ‘nother area of hurt.)
We bought lots and lots and lots of records. And we spent lots and lots and lots of money on our stereo systems. And we spent plenty of time showing everyone how loud and clear our gear was.
Sharing music meant having your friends over to sit between the speakers to listen to your latest album purchases. And the moment any record started to play, we’d start arguing about fidelity, recording techniques and the strengths and shortcomings of any audio that came through the speakers.
And then we’d critique the speakers. Distortion around the 4,000 hz range. Over-emphasized midrange, a worrisome situation because that was a major cause of listener fatigue. Hear the buzz in the woofer at around 100 hz? Is it the music or is that a shortcoming of the enclosure? Or is it the amp clipping?
I eventually sold the Sansui off to my friend Chris and relegated the full-range speakers to a corner of my parents’ basement where they apparently evaporated into nothingness (I still have the Akai!). In their place came a Denon tuner/amplifier pair and a low-end set of three-way speakers with 12-inch woofers. That set-up served me well into the 80s.
Since then, I’ve moved through gear from Technics, Cerwin-Vega (finally!), Polk, Mission, KLH, Carver, Onkyo, Pioneer, Yamaha, Marantz, Bose, Sonance, Tannoy and a few others that I’ve forgotten. My first CD player sent me in search of speakers and amplifiers that could reproduce the new digital sound. And when subwoofers became easier to afford, I got one of those, too. And then another.
In the 90s, I became distracted by the home theatre revolution and like so many purists drifted away from pure two-channel stereo. I now have 5.1 systems in my living room, my office and my home studio. They’re all perfectly fine, but I still dream of the day when I finish the basement and invest in the best old-school stereo I can afford.
Today–and this is subject to change–my amplification will come from MacIntosh and my speakers will be something tall and Canadian. In case you haven’t been keeping up, Canadian manufacturers –Totem, Axiom, Paradigm and K&W are just a few examples–make some of the finest speakers in the world today. I plan to buy a couch, set it up in the sweet spot between the speakers and embark on a journey through my favourite CDs and vinyl.
All of the above serves as a long introduction into this article on the most influential stereo speakers of the last 50 years. If you are or ever were obsessed with upgrading your two-channel stereo, you will love it.