Come Back with Me to a Time When Speakers and Stereos REALLY Mattered

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).

sansui_221_stereo_receiverakai-ap-001-turntable-1977

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.

teac-16

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).

KlipschornMagneplanars

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.

Denon amp

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.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

8 thoughts on “Come Back with Me to a Time When Speakers and Stereos REALLY Mattered

  • January 4, 2015 at 2:42 pm
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    Alan, I can so relate!!! Your ’70’s youth experience mirrors mine. My first stereo system was a JVC. I never could afford those Cerwin’s though. I envied my friends that had them. I upgraded to some Missions which were mid range OK but still lacked that umph and clarity I was after. I too succumbed to the 5.1 theatre in a box system that I have today. My wife simply CANNOT understand why I still cling onto the dream of purchasing a REALLY good stereo sytem with a pair of massivelly tall speakers that I can plant myself infront of for hours…one day..sigh

    Reply
  • January 4, 2015 at 4:07 pm
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    Love the article! I recall my Dad’s stereo, from Radio Shack. “Realistic.” And laying on pillows, on the floor, with my head in-between the speakers – listening to his 8-tracks (Elton John, CCR). And then my brother’s collection (Dark Side of the Moon and hundreds of others). Caught the bug early! My first system (aside from the Sears all-in-one system received at Christmas in Grade 6!) was a JVC, also, purchased with money from a loan shark in TO – from I think “Stereo Den.” No worries; that interest was well worth it, based on how much music I played over the years! When it was time to upgrade, I recall how difficult it was to part with those components. And I’ve tried to sell my vinyl…had a couple people lined up to view the collection…and then I cancelled on them. Can’t do it. Thx for the great step back in time., Alan!

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  • January 4, 2015 at 7:07 pm
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    I too am on a quest to have the perfect 2 channel system. After giving in to crap MP3’s, cheap ear buds, etc, for the late 90’s up until 3 years ago, I have gone back to spending my precious little free time doing what I did back in grade school…..plopping down in front of a real stereo system and getting lost in the music. I have a great Pro-ject turntable, nice PSB speakers, excellent Grado headphones, and a wonderful vinyl collection that is ever growing. You know what is the old hold out? My dad’s Sansui 871 receiver that powers the whole system. Is it the weak link in my system? Highly likely. But I just can’t let it go. Sitting in my leather chair with a great album playing through is my hobby. And i just know it always will be. Long live the home stereo system!

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  • January 5, 2015 at 8:47 am
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    My parents were equally thrilled when I spent most of my summer job money on a JVC LA-11 turntable, a JVC Receiver and a pair of “made in Toronto” Audiosphere Research AX-330A speakers. I still have the speakers and they are magical. I foolishly upgraded to some much more expensive Missions in the late 80s and they never sounded as good as the ARs.

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  • January 7, 2015 at 4:21 pm
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    I refurbished and started using what had been my folks’ tuner and amp, an early 70s SX Pioneer component with its matching speakers that sounded amazing. To this day, i think that is one of the best sounding things i have ever heard, regardless of what i plugged into it.

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  • November 8, 2016 at 12:49 pm
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    my at 10 cerwin vegas are very loud an awesome,but..i hear things beautiful an basy and hi trebly accurate things through my ar 2ax speakers,simply the best speakers an most accurate i ever have heard,no wonder them an big brother ar3 or 3a,is way beyond pricy,the most sought after loud accurate speakers from many years ago that can be had ifyou got 1500 a pair or so,or more.i love old school vintage analog,sounds like the band is in the room,klh,is wonderful model 20 stereos,o wow..im listening thru it right now an my 4 ohm at 10 vegas,sounds like 100 watts per channel instead of20 or whatever it is……………….

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