Exploring the Early Days of Home Hi-Fi

A few years ago a friend acquired a heavy, bound volume of all of Audio magazine's 1960 issues. Yes, home hi-fi/audio was a thing in 1960. The hi-fi movement actually began in the 1950's, but by 1960 things were heating up, particularly with the introduction of the stereo LP a couple of years earlier.

Riffling through the issues was fascinating, and so far I've only looked closely at the first three or four months. A popular audio writer of the time, Edward Tatnall Canby, wrote a column each month called Audio ETC (ETC, get it?). In the January issue he spoke out about something called 3-channel stereo. It seems that some recordings were being marketed as 3-channel. In fact, there were recordings that had been rerecorded from three microphones onto 3-track recorders, and then mixed down to 2-channel for release to match the 2-channel limit of the playback gear of the time.

I'm no audio recording historian, but I'm certain that 1960 was still years removed from complex multichannel mixes derived from multiple microphones. Multiple microphones were often used, but controlling them was limited. The sophisticated mixing decks you find today, in even a modest recording studio, simply didn't exist. And full surround sound was limited to high-budget films and heard only in theaters.

Readers of the time must have been tolerant of long articles. In the February 1960 issue, Norman H. Crowhurst wrote a 7-page tome called Second Thoughts About Stereo. It included 49 listed references! He concluded, "This is suggested as a further avenue for work...to achieve more consistent improvement in stereophonic illusion by properly applied recording techniques." The same issue included part 1 of an article on output transformers by James Moir. It ran about 9 pages including a part 2 in the March 1960 issue.

That March issue's “New Products” page included an announcement of Quad's first electrostatic loudspeaker. Made in England, it was then distributed in the United States by Irving M. Fried. Older readers (but not necessarily 1960s older) might recognize that name. Irving M. "Bud" Fried was involved in loudspeaker distribution, and later his own Fried designs, for decades. I got to know him in the 1990s. He loved to talk about why his speakers were the very best. At a '90s CES booth he and Richard Shahinian had demo rooms. Richard loved to play classical music on his speakers, and never talked over it. Fried walked in, sat down, and started to chat with others in the room. Shahinian didn't say anything, but you could count the icicles hanging from the ceiling.

Some of the references here might suggest that Audio magazine (which was published for decades but is now long gone) was more than just a guide for hi-fi consumers. True enough. It combined in-depth technical articles with reviews of both audio equipment and music formats, though like all magazines its emphasis drifted back and forth depending on the editor.

There were music reviews as well. Classical, jazz, and light pop dominated. Count Basie, Cannonball Adderley, Dinah Shore, The Kingston Trio, The Limelighters, and Mahalia Jackson will be familiar to many even today, but other artists not so much. Rock, however, was virtually absent. Elvis was already on the scene, but the Beatles and Rolling Stones were still a few years into the future. The record releases were still heavily mono, but there were enough stereo LPs to confirm that the future would be in stereo.

One constant, of course, was the advertisements. But two aspects of them were very different than today. Most of them were in black and white (apart from covers, color in magazines was likely rare at the time), and many if not most ads also included the retail prices of the advertised products. The brand names listed here include companies still in business and others no longer operating. Some you'll recognize, but only a few readers will be familiar with others.

Tubes were virtually universal in 1960's electronics, with amplifier power ratings we'd consider anemic by today's standards. There was even an ad for a new RCA tube — just the tube! Many of those tube amps and preamps were kits from the likes of Dynaco (including their PAS2 preamp for $59.95 or $100 assembled), Lafayette Radio (a preamp for $79.50, or $134.50 assembled), Eico, and Heathkit. The latter's lowball kit, at $30, was the SA-3 stereo integrated amp. Its specs were eye-watering in a negative way, at least by today's standards: 3 watts per channel ±1dB from 50cps to 20kc (cycles or kilocycles instead of Hz — the latter hadn't yet come into common use), THD under 3% (!) from 60cps to 20kc, and IMD less than 2% at 3 watts. The ad claimed more than enough power for clear, room-filling sound! Heath also offered a tape recorder kit and, in later years, a color TV kit as well!

Other ads featured Harman Kardon Citation (kits), and non-kits from Fisher, H. H. Scott. Pioneer (a receiver offering the enormous output of 40Wpc and 45Wpc peak), Bogen, Pilot, Sansui, Acrosound, Sherwood, and Madison-Fielding. The speaker ads also encompassed names both recognizable or not to today's audiophiles. These include Acoustic Research (its AR 2a), KLH, Wharfedale (introducing the Model 60 that featured its sand-filled baffle to minimize vibration and resonances, at $105 each), Electro Voice, University, and Audax. In later months of that year other names turned up in the advertisements as well.

And I haven’t even touched on sources, including several tape decks (in addition to that kit version from Heathkit mentioned above), turntables (dominated by record changers for stacking those LPs high!) and also separate tonearms, three of which were advertised in those early issues at under $35, along with cartridges topping out at or near the same price.

If it appears that audio gear in 1960 was amazingly cheap (most of it made in the U.S. or Europe), don't overlook the effect of inflation over the years. You may have heard of inflation. In 1960, a good mid-level, white collar salary hovered around $10,000/year. Given that, those $35 tonearms should sell today for about $350, and that $100 Wharfedale loudspeaker for $1,000. But you can't find a separate tonearm today for $350, and a $2,000 pair of speakers isn't near the top of most audio manufacturers' offerings. I'm no economist, but inflation affects different industries in different ways. Audio today is a far bigger business than it was in 1960, and there are far more buyers willing to pay more for it.

COMMENTS
echidna's picture

I graduated from high school in 1960, and was a teenage audiophile. I began subscribing to Audio magazine around 1957, and devoured the equipment and record reviews and Ed Canby's wonderful columns.

There were electronic projects as well. I built an output-transformerless tube amp from one of them -- a wonderful-sounding but temperamental beast.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

jeff-henning's picture

Audio, Stereo Review and High Fidelity were so much better than just about every audio site today that it's quite sad.

All of those publications were big on testing the equipment they reviewed rather than today's ubiquitous "sounds good to me" reviews that offer no real information to the reader other than some know-nothing a-hole likes it (the opinion of an ignoramus is useless). They employed a Who's Who of technologists who were experts.

Just about every person who does audio reviews today has no real understanding of the technology that they are listening to.

I'm all for change, but the change in audio journalism in the past 40 years has not been for the better.

John_Werner's picture

While Hi-Fi magazines remain, they are a pale image of their forebears for the most. Most focus primarily on higher priced gear than what I'd consider affordable. The very "hands-on" act of home taping is dead, yet there is some life regarding vinyl. Tube amps have become affordable thanks to off-shore manufacturing, yet the phone and Bluetooth speakers/headphones/earbuds combo rules. I get depressed regarding the state of all of this. I doesn't help that it becoming harder by the day to find newly minted music that connects. This is the late-fifties/early sixties audiophile's circle of life coming to a very not glorious end.

iraweiss's picture

If you want to read all the reviews from the aforementioned magazines, go here: https://worldradiohistory.com/index.htm and go to Technical and Engineering to read reviews from publications like Audio, High Fidelity and Stereo Review. I read them all from 1960 until they faded away one by one.

While Sound and Vision does a fine job with reviews of flat screen TVs and projectors, they have dropped the ball with objective reviews of audio equipment. Stereo Review's longtime premier reviewer Julian Hirsch would be rolling over in his grave to see this. Today for objective reviews of audio equipment I routinely go to Audio Science Review (ASR) and Audioholics. For video equipment in addition to Sound and Vision, my sources are rtings.com, CNEt and HDTVtest.

Dleitaus's picture

I do not normally make comments on these articles, but the comment from Ira Weiss on “More about hi-fi magazines” really hit the spot. That link leading to past High Fidelity and Stereo Review magazines put me into a nostalgic mood.

As a child, I started listening to my father’s Fisher receiver in the 60’s. I was fascinated by the innards, as he had removed the top making the tubes and circuitry visible. As a teen, in 1976, I started mowing lawns to save money to buy my own audio equipment. My first receiver was a Marantz 2245 receiver with a pair of Cerwin Vega speakers, a Technics turntable, and Pioneer cassette deck (the later model numbers lost in memory).

At the time, I subscribed to Stereo Review, and still subscribe to Sound and Vision today. It is fun to read old magazines and see what company branding still persists (even if it is not the original manufacturer in many cases), along with how much audio has changed. Today, I am happy with a Denon AVR, multiple Golden Ear speakers, and a home network stream with Plex. Seems simpler than the old days? I really just came here to say thanks for the link Mr. Weiss!

iraweiss's picture

I you want to find manuals, brochures, reviews and other information on audio equipment, check out https://www.hifiengine.com/ and its companion site https://www.vinylengine.com/ I've downloaded information on equipment I own and uploaded scanned manuals for equipment not yet in their extensive library.

barfle's picture

Certainly one of the best publications in our hobby! I was a bit young in 1960 (12 for most of the year), so I wasn’t exposed to good sound for a couple of hears after that, but I believe I was a subscriber from about 1970 until it sadly passed into history.

I’d say you got hold of a treasure! I just wish the spousal acceptance factor would allow me such a collection.

3ddavey13's picture

My first exposure to Audio and Stereo Review was at hi-fi store in the mid-seventies. I was shopping for a stereo system but had no idea what to buy, so the salesman handed me a stack of both magazines to help. I can't remember what brands I bought, but they were all based on what I read in these magazines.
Looking at the response to this article, maybe S&V should consider bringing back the Stereo Review articles they were reprinting back in 2018. I for one enjoyed them more than a soundbar or earbud review.

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