Audio, Etc. (Sept. 1978)

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Well, here it is September already, and summer is beginning to fail. So this month's column is going to have a lot of failings including some that are of the double-negative sort that come out positive. If summer fails, can fall be far behind? And without fail, year after year, autumn is the time when hi-fi falls into place again after the hot weather hiatus.

We use that term "fail" too often, if you ask me. It's getting to be silly. Every single political opponent fails to do or say just about everything imaginable. I just got a snippy postcard concerning my musical broadcast in New York I "failed to identify" some of the performers. I didn't fail. I did it deliberately, because my subject was the music and its composer, and the performers were performing very well on their own, thanks. So often, you see, we are doing something positive when we "fail." Yes, this evening I failed to drink my usual martini before dinner, I had a manhattan instead.

A year or so ago in this space you may well remember that I spoke of an honorable old AM-FM tuner, the Fisher Series 80, one of the first "miniaturized" hi-fi components using the then new miniature tubes and taking maximum advantage of their reduced space requirements. (My point, in case you forget, was that the enormously smaller transistor and its relatives plus the IC have led us not to smaller but to larger hi-fi units, a thought that failed to please me.) So shortly thereafter in a letter to Audio magazine (June, 1977) Burdick S. Trask of Sherman Oaks, Cal., wrote a fascinating account of his refurbished 1936 Spartan all-wave receiver, complete with bi-amped output into a 15-inch woofer and two tweeters via an electronic crossover -- for more details see the letter itself. However, before he got into that, Mr. Trask took a good humored sideswipe at me and my Fisher. It seems I "failed to mention" once again the broad and narrow band width i.f. switch on the Fisher front panel, the main use of which was to allow reasonable hi fi when an AM station came in wide, clear and, maybe, clear channel, yet in the narrow-band position reduce the hopeless AM interference, especially at night, when reception was weak and/or distant and the desired station overborne by its neighbors far and near.


Well, with reluctance, the truth must now out. Yes, I failed to mention this useful Fisher feature, out of tact. On my Fisher the FM worked beautifully as I indicated, but the AM was dead.

Well, not quite. It did produce several types of interesting hiss and the signal strength needle moved perceptibly now and then as I wheeled along the AM band. But that wasn't enough for my local weather summary, which was what I was after at the moment. On mature reflection, and since the rest of the tuner worked just fine, I decided to fail to mention the dead AM. After all, it was probably my fault. And time had indeed been passing for many a year so why not give Fisher the benefit of the advantage? And after all, too, Mr. Trask's Spartan was rebuilt by himself from the bottom upwards with new and revived parts and even some rather vital modernizations.

My Fisher Series 80 was strictly on its own, never serviced in any way and still (mostly) operating. So there's one positive failure for you.

I'll betcha one of you hounds could fix that Fisher in an hour or two if you got your hands on it. Just call me up and I won't charge you a thing.

Historical Horrors

And speaking of that, our friend Bert Whyte last year in his history of hi-fi shows missed out on (i.e. failed to mention) one of the prime marvels of the first Audio Fairs in the Hotel New Yorker over on 8th Avenue and 34th Street in the Big Apple. That august hotel, vaguely out of the art deco era (1930s?) was indeed furnished with 120 volts of electric potential in each and every room, since it wasn't nearly old enough to boast gas light. But thanks to dear old Thomas A. Edison and his latter day namesake utility, now nicknamed Con Ed, the New Yorker was provided with the very best available electricity in the mid-town area as we used to put it, 120 volts of d.c. current. And we picked that for a HiFi show! Maybe nobody realized it until the last minute.

But the show must go on, and the Audio Fairs did indeed. Somebody with a proper electrical background had apparently foreseen the future and the lucrative possibilities in servicing Conventions at the hotel, electronic included. There was a modest local alternator, somewhere down in the basement, which fed a.c. to extra outlets (right among the d.c. outlets) in well, in some of the rooms.

Our earliest hi-fi exhibitors, therefore, had to choose the right socket, and if they did they were rewarded with that splendid cacophony which we now find so familiar in hi-fi shows the world over. It was a brand-new sound, then, and not nearly as well appreciated as now. If the wrong socket was chosen, in haste or by unfortunate accident, then there was smoke and damage and silence except for that ominous crackling hiss.

That alternator, if I remember correctly, was the handiest closing-time signal you can imagine. Right on the dot, six o'clock or whatever, the a.c. failed, whereupon the constant and excruciating blasts of nonintegrated fi from dozens of superior sources suddenly ceased penetrating every wall into four surrounding rooms and into corridors all over.

And we were left in an instant with the loveliest silent d.c. illumination you can envision. The d.c. kept going it was from Con Ed. Conversations, continued, in low, hushed tones, and I'd guess there were more hi-fi deals made in those late moments of silence than in all the day's noise.

All that goes back to one of T. Edison's greatest failures in the midst of his greatest triumph, the integrated electric light system as pioneered right there in New York at the famed Pearl Street power station and distribution system. That system was built on direct current, two-conductor. Very soon after, Edison worked out the three-conductor system but again via d.c. When this idea was applied to its ultimately right area, the a.c. distribution system, we had modern power but old Thomas would not go along. He stuck to d.c. and there were horrid stories perpetrated about people being fried via high-voltage a.c. in those newfangled arrangements. This was made even more gory by virtue of the new electric chair, which fried but did not quite kill one of its earliest occupants. Result was that the older Eastern cities, notably Boston and New York (and I would suppose Philadelphia) became entrenched in the d.c. system and stayed that way an astonishing number of years, right on through the 1930s. Of all the vicious impediments to fi, that of d.c. in the home was surely at that time the worst. Very nearly insurmountable. I should know; I was there.

Yankee Ingenuity

When I got out of college I moved to New York, right into a d.c. zone. There were plenty left, all over town. Ah, for today's ultra simple transverters, to make up a generic term! I could not exist without a record player, even then. I had a big collection of 78s, which travelled to New York from my college room with hardly more than 5 percent breakage, a near miracle, thanks to enormous care in the packing of it into my family's Ford . Naturally, I had rented my lodgings without a thought as to current and now it was too late. So I went out and bought a perfectly enormous motor-generator thing, which I could just barely lift.

Installed in my modest rooming-house corner, it went on with a wham, as the d.c. lights went momentarily dim, and produced a roar of "live" noise that rivaled the sound of the (a.c.) portable phono that it fed. So, heaven protect me, I put it in the back of a deep, deep, old-fashioned clothes closet and covered the entire thing with layers of old blankets and such. The brashness of youth! Somehow, there was no fire.

However, I failed to anticipate a failure to filter. There was a loud, insistent buzzing that came through my speaker whenever I played Beethoven. Was it square wave or sawtooth? I tend to think the latter. And Beethoven would have rolled over for good, because the pitch of everything, as you might guess if you are a Murphy's Law man, was about a half step too high.

Most radios and phonos in those days where a.c./d.c. and these faults, even in commercial manufactured equipment, were all too common.

Nasty buzzing.

Wrong pitch.

The very idea of fixed and stable playback speed, of course, was then relatively recent. The old acoustic machines had a loosely adjustable friction playback speed control, marked Fast and Slow, or just F and S, and you pitched things to taste, with the spring fully wound. As most of us know, the early acoustic 78s were of many speed variants in the original cutting. Fixed pitch only became really practicable in the electrical area of the 1920s, but it took many long years before the home player could match the large professional cutting table in this extremely vital respect. So-I was brought up on variable pitch, alternating with unstable pitch, as commonly found on virtually all the standard home equipment of the pre WW II period. That was a real failure, though nobody seemed to be bothered much except for a few of us musicians.

With all of that, you can understand why each time hear of a new amplifier that is "flat to d.c." I give a cringe and fail to be properly impressed. In my book, d.c. is an element of hated memory. Is there any U.S. city still providing d.c. for public consumption? If there is, I don't want to hear about it, so please fail to tell me.

Booming Bass

One final item in the positive failure category. A few months back, I went to a fabulous "do" in a late-late New York disco-type place (it was mid-afternoon) to celebrate an ingenious new device for the disco trade (mostly) whereby a low bass portion of the musical signal is electronically transposed downwards an octave (transpose is the proper musical term) and then fed to the giant woofers via giant power amps. When this thing was operating via the house system, the bench on which I had sat down actually jumped up and down under me on every beat. Overpowering. Fantastic!

The outfit behind this powerhouse bass is, of all people, dbx, a very imaginative firm if there ever was one. The only curious thing, as old readers may agree, is the title-Boom Box ! Now, not too many years ago, that term was generally derogatory and unfunny, referring to a mistuned home speaker system that produced a resonant, broken-up, false bass, not so much a thump as a thrrump. The sound had its place in the old commercial jukeboxes, which often had no highs above 2.5 kHz and made up for it by the famous basso, not so profundo, that would go right through walls. In a crowded "joint" that was all you got to hear. But when a haphazardly matched home bass-reflex system (speaker and cabinet bought separately) produced a similar thrrump, we spoke disparagingly and with disdain of the boom-box sound. We disapproved. Ask Paul Klipsch.

Well, I suppose dbx really didn't know -- or failed to remember. Because they are dealing with superpower public nitery and disco-type equipment where the enormously enhanced and improved Big Boom is very much in place and in taste.

I liked it! However-dbx did put on a small publicity for their Boom Box as a home device, usable even with systems of very modest power. I'd take that with some d.c. salt, if I were you. The small system won't really get much whomp out of the transposing down an octave. Not enough power and probably not enough bass range in the speakers. But if you have the prevailing super-watt big system, you may find your floor hopping and ditto for the ceiling below. But have a care with the overall level of the system. For while you may well love the effect of the Boom Box, your downstairs neighbors may fail to appreciate the unit quite so much as you do.

(Source: Audio magazine, Sept. 1978; by Edward Tatnall Canby)

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