Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Saturday, January 28, 2012

From Heaven To Hell In Less Than Two Months

I know most of my readers will be shocked but I must make a confession, between the ages of 18 and 25 I would on occasion purchase and read Playboy magazine.  Read?  Read!  Really?  OK, mostly I looked at the “pitchers”.  There, happy?  But actually I did read some of the articles and from what I recall some were quite good.  Now what I can’t tell you is whether the articles were quite good in an objective sense or were they quite good to a horny, late teen early 20 something lad that was not getting much action.  Either way, the photos were nice, a good bit unreal, but then again I didn’t have much in the way of a practical experience to make an intelligent comparison.
Playboy was much more than just a magazine.  It was a "cool" philosophy for bachelors to enjoy the good life of sampling many women and not being morally stampeded into marriage.  Playboy had a series of gentleman’s clubs featuring very attractive women dressed in the trademark bunny outfits. Of course there was the famous parties at the “mansion” thrown by none other than Playboy’s founder Hugh Hefner, prancing around in silk pajamas and a smoking jacket with a drink in his hand and a beautiful woman on each arm.  Even then, as a testosterone soaked 18 year old virgin, I thought Hef, his mansion, clubs, and bunny outfits ridiculous.  But his magazine did have some good looking women sans the bunny costumes.
The magazine always had an article featuring pricey fashions, automobiles, electronics, cameras, watches, sporting equipment, and even furniture that were the quintessential of the Playboy lifestyle.  Fashion, I didn’t care about. Automobiles, I couldn’t afford.  Cameras, watches, sporting equipment and furniture blaw.  But what about electronics?   
Ahhhh the electronics, now we are talking.  You have to imagine this now.  It is 1968, I am going to a community college and working for a $1.25 in an Esso station (Exxon wouldn’t show up for another 4 or 5 years).  No matter how classy the woman in the black evening dress looked standing next to Lamborghini on some cobble stone classic European street, there was that $1.25 an hour reality hanging over my head.  Sporting equipment?   A fully decked out dude sitting on a horse bearing a polo club, while another beautiful woman in a low cut evening dress stood looking admiringly upward with her hand resting on his thigh.  Hmmm.  Appealing, but that helmet?  No way!  

The articles on the electronics were the hit for me.  The venue was the a time in my life when bedrooms were one of those most fascinating places on the face of the Earth.   No smart, dashing and obviously rich guy in the photo, a big plus.  I needed no reminders that I was a skinny, awkward, rather homely, somewhat impoverished virgin (what a horrid status).   On the bed, a scantily clad, lovely girl with bedroom eyes, a huge, giant, wonderful plus, plus, plus!  Zoweeee!  This is where my interests lie!  Bear in mind that I was enough of a realist to understand that I would have a 1 in 22 trillion chance of ever bedding down such a woman but hope springs eternal. So, you ask, what were the electronics?  iPods, iPads, iMacs or iPhones?  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were in junior high school.  Hell this was before Walkmans for crying out loud.  We are talking dark ages.  Modular high fidelity stereo component systems, NOT those huge hunks of hokey looking furniture with the crap electronics that our parents bought--the hi fi, as in “Dear, put the Tommy Dorsey LP on the hi fi.”  What the hell did you need a hi fi to listen to Tommy Dorsey for anyhow?  A Victrola would have done nicely.  Our parents were so square, spending all their money on a chunk of maple to listen to corny sounding big band music left over from World War II. 
 In modular component stereos, you spent the money for good quality electronics, precision motors, and low distortion speakers.  The housings was minimalist and smoked, the money paid for sound.   And that girl on the bed?  She spoke directly to me “Hey you manly audiophile, put Ravel’s Bolero on the turntable platter featuring hydraulic dampened bearings driven by a synchronous motor, and a counter weighted jeweled gimbal mounted tone arm with a diamond elliptical stereo cartridge and give me 125 watts of pure ecstasy with less than 0.1% harmonic distortion from 20 to 30,000 Hz.”  The only problem was while I understood what her eyes were telling me, well in a theoretical sense, I didn’t understand what the hell she was talking about.  What is an audiophile?  Harmonic distortion?  Diamond elliptical stylus?  
So I had to find out about this stuff.  Well check out the Internet of course!  The what?  It’s 1968 what century are you from?   Oh.  Well then get a stereo for dummies book.  Oh wait the first for dummies was DOS For Dummies, 23 years in the future.  
Well I did find a book that described all the specifications and why they are important.  So I descended into the world of wow and flutter, rumble and hum, bass and treble, cross talk, frequency response, harmonic distortion, power ratings, vacuum tubes verses solid state, drive methods, bearings, decibels and Hertz.  It is all fairly confusing or fascinating depending on your level of geekiness.  As far as cost goes, let purity be your guide.  
So a purist would want the following:  a turntable with a strobe tachometer and speed adjustment, hydraulically dampened bearings, direct drive, counter-weighted, jeweled gimbal mounted tone arm...bla...bla...bla...bla..bla.  On and on.  A purist will not have a record changer.  You only play one record at a time.  The clap trap involved for making the turntable a changer will invoke the possibility of mechanical distortions which the purist can hear.  Plus you do not abuse your records by dropping them several inches onto another record.  If you have a couple of grand, you can still buy these vintage turntables at Ebay.  

Tone arm with a magnetic cartridge and stylus.
After you chose your turntable, you had to worry about the cartridge and stylus.  The cartridge was a small electro-magnetic or piezoelectric sensors in housing about the size of the end of your little finger. It bolted on to the bottom of the turntable’s tone arm.    It had a small replaceable stick with a jewel on the end of it called a stylus.  The stylus rode in the groove on the record and sensed two different mechanical vibrations.  Stereo remember has left and right channels which means that the record had two sets of vibrations recorded in a single groove.  How did they do that?  It still amazes me.  One channel used vertical movement, the other sideways.  Imagine a very tight luge track with a sled with two riders.  One rider senses the vertical bumps in the track on the cheeks of his butt and sings accordingly, the other riders senses bumps built into the sidewall of the track on the sides of his hips and sings accordingly.  Both riders ignore the other fellow’s bumps.  Except there is only one rider, the stylus.  This still blows my mind 40 some odd years and various technologies later, that you can inscribe a precise physical analogue model of a sound on a piece of plastic, not in one direction but two.  Then you can read these models by dragging a tiny stick with a jewel mounted on the end along the surface of the groove, and sense not only how the stick vibrates vertically but horizontally as well and then translate those movement into two tiny electrical signals by moving either coils or squeezing a crystals.  If the room was quiet, and you played a record with the volume turned all the way down, you could hear a very slight vibration, about as loud as crickets a quarter mile away.  What you were hearing was the actual music, but far too faintly for our ears to properly hear.

So now there were more considerations.  Magnetic or ceramic cartridge?  Stylus, elliptical (or I assume not), diamond or sapphire?   Plus you had to match the stylus and cartridge to your turntable.  Extreme quality cartridges required a very good tone arm that could support the stylus with a very small tracking force.  The purpose of the jewel was to give the stylus a precise shape that would not wear away with continued use. 
The Fisher, Integrated Amplifier & Tuner
A popular component at the time was the stereo receiver.  This was a package that contained 3 separate components in one housing.  The FM / AM  radio tuner, a pre-amplifier, and the power amplifier.  The purest of purists would never buy a receiver, or an amplifier.  The purist wanted all the components isolated from each other.  The purist would pay more for any one of those items than what the popular receivers cost at the time.  The pre-amplifier took the tiny output from your turn table, radio tuner, or tape deck and performed the first stages of amplification.  It also contained the typical front panel controls such as input selection, volume, balance, bass, and treble and high an low filters, and bass boost.  The power amplifier was generally a nasty looking wire cage full of big vacuum tubes.  The power amp took the intermediate signal from the pre-amp and amplified it the final time with enough power to drive the speakers.  If both the pre-amp and the power amp were in one housing, the unit was called an integrated amplifier or simply an amplifier.  Again each of these contraptions had a set of specifications that would please a government contracting agency. 

Last you had your speakers.  Large heavy electromagnets driving paper diaphragms boxed in an acoustically designed housing.  Speakers convert the powerful electrical impulses from the amplifier to sound waves by beating the air with the paper diaphragms.    No matter how good the rest of your components, the speakers could make or break the overall fidelity of the system.  The conventional wisdom at the time was to stick your money into speakers.  Things to consider,  the woofers, the mid-range, tweeters, cross over networks, impedance, power capability,  enclosure materials and geometry,  mounting methods...bla, bla, bla.  
With all these specifications and important facts, I began to question how these suave and worldly playboys had any time left to pursue the lovely lass lying on the bed.  I wasn’t even looking at reel to reel tape decks and I was swamped. 
So now you have some idea of what you want, what manufacturers do you want to consider?  There were endless choices, Advent, Harmon Kardon, KLH, Kenwood, H. H. Scott, Pioneer, The Fisher (not simply Fisher, but “The Fisher” oooooohhhhhhhh!) Techniques, Panosonic, Marantz, Sony, McIntosh.    
Fortunately (or unfortunately) my choice had a huge filter, $1.25 an hour.  So with one stroke I was able to eliminate all these brands and consider basically two: Lafayette Radio Electronics or Radio Shack.  These were the junk brands and they would engender laughter among purists, but as I found then, and in my life since, certain economic realities prevail.  

I can still remember my first trip into the Lafayette store.  Sitting prominently in the glass-walled stereo showroom was a life size bust of Beethoven, made of styrofoam, with a pair of Koss headphones on.  How cool was that?  I mean this is high art! Aesthetics at its finest.  The stereo showroom had a switching panel so that you could hear different input devices with various amplifier and speaker combinations.  Totally cool. 
Lafayette seemed geared to selling stereos.  The local Radio Shack was far smaller, dingier, lacked the Beethoven bust, and had higher prices.  Of the two Lafayette had better specs for the bucks, and I liked the look of their equipment, so Lafayette won out.  Now what to buy was similarly controlled by my hourly wage.   Yes it would be great to buy a full system, turntable, cartridge, tuner, tape deck, pre-amp, power amp, and speakers.  I couldn’t afford all that so what did I really need?  I could substitute a receiver for the tuner, pre-amp and power amp.  But I really couldn’t afford a receiver either.  So I said to hell with the radio reception, and bought Lafayette’s best integrated amplifier, 125 watts, 62.5 watts per channel, which was fairly impressive.  I believe the model number was LA125T.   Turntables were extremely expensive.  So I bought the cheapest Garrard record changer featuring their Synchro-Lab motor (synchronous motor that locked into the line frequency for a solid speed).  I think Lafayette had a packaged deal, the SL 55 with a Pickering ceramic cartridge with a sapphire elliptical stylus.  All that remained were speakers.  Again my hourly wage reared its ugly head and, against the better judgement  of the purists, I scrimped on speakers.  They were Lafayette’s Criterion Model 150.  It had a 10 inch woofer and a 4 inch tweeter but no midrange and were rated at 20 watts.  So after weeks of studying the catalog and endless forays into the Lafayette store, I finally decided to buy.  The store didn’t have the amplifier in stock.  It will be in two weeks, but it is a special order.  You have to put money down.  OK so I put $50 down.  Two weeks comes and goes, no amplifier.  A month comes and goes, no amplifier.  Six weeks no amplifier.  Finally at 2 months I call another store on the other side of Pittsburgh.  Yes they had one.  So I went back to the store and told them, either get the amplifier from the other store, or give me my money back.  Oh we can’t do that, and you put your money down--you can’t get it back.  So after a small fracas that got a bit loud with me yelling about a promise of delivery in 2 weeks and something about a justice of the peace, they agreed to get the amp from the other store.  Come back tomorrow and pick everything up.  
So I finally got my stereo after 8 weeks.  I can still remember the smell of that amplifier when I broke into the sealed plastic packaging.  Heavenly!    I hooked everything up and it sounded magnificent.  It even smelled magnificent.  Hot power transistors cooking on  circuit board...the pure phenolic heaven, exceeded in my memory possibly only by the smell of the ozone from my Lionel train.  I was in heaven. 
I am trying to remember what I paid for that system.  My recollection is that the amplifier costing $100, the speakers were $50 each, the record changer was $60, and $20 for the cartridge.  $280, pushing $300 with the tax and the various connection cables and speaker wire.  So while my stereo was comparatively cheap compared to other stereos, it cost me 240 hours of work.  I worked 10 hours a day in the summer back then, so I had to work 24 days to pay for my stereo on gross wages.  BTW that is $1,859 in 2010 dollars.  
So for $300 I bought myself a piece of stereophonic heaven.  I would put Ravel’s Bolero on the platter, lay down on my bed, close my eyes, and imagine being with the girl in Playboy article...oh my goodness.  Of course this remained pure imaginings because I still lived at home, and there always some one home.  So it was Ravel, me, and a nameless woman floating about in my imagination.    
It was phenomenal...for about a month--maybe two.  Then something curious occurred.  I became accustomed to the rich and lovely sound of my stereo and I developed a critical ear.  I no longer played music to hear music, I played a stereo system to hear perfect fidelity and anything less than perfection was cause for unhappiness.   I began hearing ticks in the records, hum in the quiet portions, overdrive in the bass on the loud portions. Hiss in the treble.  Sometimes the tweeters would kick in and out.  Heaven became more mundane, and the more I listened to the damn thing the lousier it sounded.  Soon it became obvious to me that by spending $300 instead (oh pick any outlandish price you want)  $600 or $1000  or $5000, I had purchased myself $300 worth of misery instead of happiness.  My stereo sounded orders of magnitude better than my parent’s stereo in the living room, yet I could listen to something on their stereo and experience no aggravation, (although I did not put my precious records on their stereo, the stylus looked like an axe).  Why?  Because their stereo was a piece of shit and you didn’t expect it to sound good.  Mine sounded good but it had all these horrifying defects that you could never even begin to hear on my parents coffee grinder.   I went from a innocent, happy, albeit horny lad to a prissy, critical, unhappy, and still horny audiophile. 
I think a good bit of the problem was that I only had half the equipment shown in the Playboy article.  I had the stereo but not the woman.  I noticed years later when I had my own apartment and was entertaining the woman who would become my wife, I didn’t give a rat’s ass what the stereo sounded like.  I was experiencing heaven on Earth, but it had nothing to do with low harmonic distortion.  It was a lesson to me.  Sensual perfection exists only in the arms of a loving woman!   Wow and flutter indeed!      
Image Credits:

girl with stereo:

magnetic cartridge:

The Fisher components:

Styrofoam Beethoven:,,5987148,00.html