Early Hi-Fi

by Bob Seidel

I generally get a lot of positive feedback from my columns, but the recent one on early rock and roll music was apparently a hit. I guess there are a lot of you out there who are around my age and shared similar circumstances. Always one to recognize a good thing, let's continue!

My first exposure to the world of hi-fi was at a birthday party for a friend. This was back in Passaic, NJ and I believe that I was in the third grade. My friend's dad was a shoemaker. (Yes, they actually had people back in those days that had storefronts in which they made custom shoes and repaired them.) Although it was an occupation that you would not consider very technical, my friend's dad was into quite a few hobbies. He had built one of the first hi-fi systems that I had ever seen and was using it to play music for the party.

But apparently he didn't understand the entire concept. His system had a crossover to separate bass (woofer) and treble (tweeter) speakers, but I think he didn't understand that the speakers were supposed to be different in construction, and usually housed in the same physical box. He had two of the same speakers, one on each side of the room. So the lows came from one side of the room, and the highs from the opposite wall! A very strange arrangement.

For us kids, music was mostly from the radio or on small portable turntables on which we played 45 RPM records. Friends would get together and bring their 45s with them. Of course, being used like that, the records because pretty scratched fairly quickly. Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee", and Bobby Day's "Rockin' Robin" were hits that I recall being played over and over, until the grooves wore down and the noise pops were stronger than the music! And, of course, the early work of Stan the Flan.

Early hi-fi systems were usually built into large cabinets, often with a TV. The innards contained tubes of course - transistors only came into common use later. We did not have one of the large console units, but we did have a semi-portable Zenith unit that had two speakers (one could be detached for wider stereo) and a pull down record turntable. The sound wasn't bad, but the innovation was that it actually had stereo capability, whereas most of the earlier units were mono, and the majority of the 33RPM records of the time were recorded in mono. Stereo records were clearly marked as such and cost more.

We played a mix of music types, but I bought every Peter, Paul and Mary album I could get my hands on. I eventually picked up a guitar, but that's a story for another column.

When I first 'moved out' and shared an apartment with a college friend, I discovered yet another step in hi-fi. He had a very nice Harmon-Kardon receiver (still tubes), but he had a couple of Wharfdale speakers that were not the bookshelf-sized speakers that we were used to. These behemoths were the size of 3-shelf bookshelf units themselves and were filled with sand. But the sound (for that time) was awesome.

Cars had no provision for hi-fi sound. Most car radios were AM/FM, but there was no stereo (just a single speaker, usually in the dash surface) and no 8-tracks or cassette tapes. Since I spent a lot of time driving down to the Jersey Shore that summer, I wanted tunes in my car. My answer to that was to take a guitar speaker that I had built (a 12" speaker in a large homemade cabinet) and put that in the back seat. I then got a portable (battery powered) 3" reel-to-reel recorder and powered it from the car's 12v system. I recorded music at home and played it on the road. But those of you who know reel-to-reel recall that you had to thread the tape through the head assembly and onto the take-up reel manually - and I did it at 60 mph going down the Garden State Parkway, with one hand on the wheel and the other threading the tape! Actually, I would have been going faster than 60, but the old Rambler Classic 550 just wasn't up to the task! Well, a longer trip means more time to listen…

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport / Oak Island area. You can visit his website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail him at bsc@bobseidel.com).