Audio pr0n

In the 1960s and 1970s, audio manufacturers played games with specifications, because they perceived that what hi-fi buyers of the time wanted was Really Good Numbers. Eventually the FTC stuck its beak into the proceedings and decreed a standard for power output: that “280-watt” amplifier would become “42 watts RMS per channel, all channels driven, 20-20,000 Hz, ± 2 dB, 0.5% THD, 8 ohms.” As with other Federally-approved numbers — cf. “EPA city mileage” — this tells you some things and doesn’t tell you others. This particular amp sits in my living room. If I fed it nothing but sine waves, I’d presumably get exactly the numbers the Feds ordered. Music, however, isn’t continuous tones: it’s peaks and valleys. And for very brief peaks, the box might actually deliver more than 42 watts: as much as 70, in fact. Given that this is a four-channel amplifier, you can multiply 70 x 4 and suddenly there’s that “280” rating. But that rating, too, conceals a lot: mostly, that the difference between 70 watts and 42 watts is only about 1.66 dB. And none of those numbers will tell you what you really want to know, which is “How does it sound?”

Back then, there were two markets for sound equipment: hi-fi and lo-fi. Today there are three: Real Crap, Average Crap, and Hideously Expensive But Good. A catalog from a dealer catering to the latter arrived this past week, and its cover photo tells the story: a rack of gear that cost as much as my house, off to the side a tube-powered amplifier, and seated off to the right, a fashion model, presumably expensively dressed, her expression suitably dreamy. I’d hazard a guess that guys who blow $100k on audio gear probably might not date a lot, but not being a member of this class, I could be wrong, and besides, the young lady is quite lovely, which tends to mess with my capacity to rationalize.

And I have to admit, I like the idea of a $13,000 turntable. (Tonearm sold separately.) At the very least, it hews to the idea that the closer you get to Utter Perfection, which of course is denied us mere mortals, the faster the price goes up, a characteristic found in most other activities as well. Most of those dollars seem to have gone into making sure that no stray vibrations of any sort find their way to the stylus and thus into your speakers, a laudable goal. But still: thirteen thousand dollars? I paid $12,400 for a car this past summer. (Don’t ask me about its alleged “200-watt” audio system.)

I must disclose here that some of the accessories in this catalog are items I actually own, and there are a couple of them I could see adding to the arsenal, had I a few zillion dollars to spare; this gizmo, for instance, actually de-warps records, assuming you haven’t done something foolish like leave them in the sun. And that amplifier of mine is now thirty-one years old, ready for banishment to the dreaded Auxiliary System. I doubt, however, that I’m going to put out five or six digits for new sound equipment: contemporary CDs are mastered for Maximum Loud, and the hell with dynamic range; most of my other new acquisitions are MP3s and/or AACs, which are compressed anyway; and how much good will the finest equipment do for a scratchy old 45? (Dave Marsh once said that the sound of Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ “Quarter to Three” possessed “peculiar unity”: “I’ve played it on stereo systems ranging from $49.95 to $10,000, and the equipment makes no difference.”) Of course, should someone discover that high-end audio does in fact enhance one’s ability to lure beautiful women in short black dresses into one’s home, I’ll grit my teeth and write the check.


  1. Mutt-Man »

    8 October 2006 · 1:53 pm

    Hi Charles,

    We are still trying to nail down the purchase date, but I believe your amp is a year or two “newer” than ours. I guess you are one of those people who always have to have the latest thing!

    Regarding the “scratchy old 45”, Garrard used to make a ‘scratch and pop filter’ that replaced the offending scratch/pop electronically with a very short sample of music taken from the music played immediately prior to encountering the scratch. Of course, these units will be 30+ years old too!

  2. CGHill »

    8 October 2006 · 2:22 pm

    It’s a JVC 4VR-5456, acquired in late 1974 or early 1975. List price was (I think) US$900; I got it through the Exchange Service (a perk of soldiery) for something like $490. (Since I was making $550 a month, this was a considerable expense; it had damned well better last for three decades.) And while this was a quadraphonic machine — there was even an optional joystick balance control — you could combine the back amplifiers with the front and run it as a straight 110w/ch stereo rig.

    Speakers are KLH Thirty-Eight two-way acoustic-suspension: a little weak at the very bottom and the very top, but solid in between. They’re even older, bought in early ’74.

  3. MikeH »

    8 October 2006 · 4:34 pm

    I see the reason for one of your problems; you’re way too picky! The short dress has to be black?

  4. CGHill »

    8 October 2006 · 5:05 pm

    Well … um … er ….

    Never mind. Here’s the cover photo with the store name scraped off. If you prefer, say, a yellow sundress, I won’t complain.

  5. Muttering In Manitoba »

    8 October 2006 · 8:05 pm

    OK, Charles, you win. Our best guess is that we purchased our amp in 1976. It is a Kenwood KA-7100, only 60W per channel, but with excellent specs (perhaps because each channel has its own power supply).

    Here is a question for you. In 1976, along with the amp, we purchased a pair of Bose 601 speakers. Can speakers from that era handle the dynamic range of today’s CDs, DVDs and MP3s, or should we be extra careful with the volume?

  6. CGHill »

    8 October 2006 · 8:29 pm

    The 601 (one step below the 901, if I remember correctly) probably can take more gaff than my KLH boxes can. And present-day CDs and such don’t have as much dynamic range as you’d think: in an effort to make them come out as loud as possible on contemporary equipment, they run a hard limiter at the top. Older CDs (through the early 1990s or so) tend not to have this limitation. DVDs, in my experience, seem to have a little more range, since they’re intended to replicate a theater experience; MP3s are severely compressed and don’t present much of a threat unless you have the volume knob way up.

    Sixty watts per channel is actually a pretty fair amount of juice, and a speaker is more likely to be damaged by too little power rather than by too much. (Overload the amp and it produces nasty distortion products: bad for speakers.) Unless you’re trying for concert levels (105 dB and up) in your living room, you probably don’t have anything to worry about.

  7. Muttering In Manitoba »

    8 October 2006 · 10:10 pm

    You are correct. The 601s were one step below the 901s. The cabinets have fabric on both the front (covering the woofers) and the top (covering the tweeters). One of the problems we have had over the years is guests putting down their coffee cups on the tops of the cabinets, not knowing that there is nothing but fabric separating their coffee from the tweeters and woofers below!

    Thanks for the info, Charles.

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