When I was
ten or eleven years old, my parents had a Silvertone "Home Music
Center" – a floor-standing piece of furniture, in probably a
"cherry wood" finish, that included both an AM radio (no FM, yet) and
some kind of a record changer – and to hear music, all you had to do was
to open the top and turn on KFAC (1330 kHz for classical) or KHJ (930 kHz) or
KMPC (710 kHz) for other music, news, sports, and all of the great radio comedy,
drama, and variety shows of the time. Or, if you just wanted to play your own
music, you could put a stack of records on the changer (If I remember correctly,
it was a four speed [Wow, hot stuff!] –
that played 16.66, 33.3, 45, and 78 rpm; every recording speed
available) and sit back (or dance around or even sing along, if you were young
and "with it") for as much as a couple of hours with nothing else to
do but enjoy yourself.
It was mono, of course – this was way before
stereo – and the sound was undoubtedly quite awful, even though it had a
12-inch "full range" speaker, but it was what we had, and I loved
it... until that fateful evening at Emmons Audio when, at the tender age of
twelve, I was first exposed to hi-fi and changed forever. After hearing what
music could really sound like and, for the first time ever, having heard real
bass (a pipe organ, no less; on a Bozak B310!!!), my poor Silvertone
forever lost its glory and became, instead, a daily reminder of the wonders I
had once heard but could never hear again. Well, not exactly never; I could
try to modify the Silvertone to make it at least a little better, and that was
exactly what I did.
When my parents tired of the Silvertone,
preferring, instead, the joys of television (Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, Jack
Paar, Liberace, and even Korla Pandit, each at one time or another capturing
their attention) it was passed on to me and I commenced my program of (at first
enthusiastic but completely untutored and begged, "borrowed", or
scrounged – you know how kids never have any money) DIY improvements .
The very first thing to be done was to add a
tweeter: A simple CalRad unit, which cost just a couple of bucks at Valley
Electronic Supply, and may have been (sorry, but I really don't remember)
piezoelectric. The tweeter probably made a pretty big difference, but with the
phono cartridge also being piezoelectric ("crystal" cartridges were
near-ubiquitous in those days because of their really
high output [sometimes as much as two volts] allowed for really
cheap, low-gain amplification), and with AM radio's effective top-end
limitation to only about 4 kHz, it was hard to tell.
So the next step was a Heathkit FM tuner kit to build (you could buy many of the kit brands already built, but the kit was always cheaper) and plug into the Silvertone's "AUX" jack. Having FM's spectacular 15 kHz highs was nice, but it just made the crystal phono cartridge sound even worse by comparison, which meant that the next step had to be to score a (used) Garrard changer and fit it with a (then, the hot setup) GE "variable reluctance" cartridge which, because of its relatively tiny output (as compared to a crystal or ceramic cartridge) meant that I had to buy a Fisher one-tube pre-amplifier ($13!) to bring it up to a level usable by the Silvertone.
That was a definite improvement, but the better
highs I was then getting from both the radio and the record-player just made it
more obvious that, even though the speaker was large, its bass (probably because
of, among other things, the flimsy and open peg-board back on the Silvertone's
cabinet, was definitely not thrilling. I imagined that a bass boost might
help, but the Silvertone's amplifier had no tone controls, so I went for the
next best thing, and replaced its volume control pot with a Fletcher-Munson
compensated "loudness control" from Switchcraft which, if you set the
compensation up and the volume down did add some bass.
It still wasn't enough, though (especially after
I had heard that organ on that Bozak speaker) so, in order both to be able to
play louder and to get some real
tone controls, my next project was (I was working after school by that point, so
I was able, by saving and pinching pennies, to start really feeding the hi-fi
monkey on my back) to buy and build an Eico HF-20 integrated amplifier kit.
As I had by then learned was customary, the improvement from that, and each subsequent improvement thereafter, only made the need for more improvements easier to see, and I started on the long and apparently endless road of adding more and more improvements and goodies not to make my growing System perfect, but just in hopes of getting rid of its obvious flaws.
After the amplifier came, over time, a new Rek-O-Kut turntable and arm to replace the changer; a new real-live-honest-to-goodness Bozak speaker of my own (a B-302, but still, a Bozak!!!), a tape recorder, (actually a series of tape recorders) and finally, the conversion to stereo, so I could double everything (if not identically, at least to the degree that I could afford it) and start the whole thing all over again!
There's an old story about a farmer who, when he
was accused of being obsessed with adding more land to his holdings, supposedly
said "I ain't greedy; I just want what joins mine! That's, I think, how it
is with Hi-Fi Crazies: We're not looking for perfection; we know perfectly well
that that's a fool's errand, and can never be achieved, no matter how much time,
effort, intelligence and money we pour into the quest, but we DO want to
solve the problem at hand – whatever it may be.
And that's where that whole approach falls apart: The fact of it is that hi-fi is not just an "on or off", "got it right or got it wrong" function. Instead, it's got a multiplicity (let's call it an "alphabet") of characteristics that, all together, make up the listening experience, and, two rules always apply: The first is that no matter how good your system is, if you listen to it long enough, you'll eventually notice something ("Thing L") that's not quite up to the standard set by the rest of the alphabet, and the second is that, once you've got that fixed (IF you get it fixed), something – perhaps just the fact that the problem with Thing L is no longer there to mask it – will cause you to notice that some other letter of the alphabet isn't quite up to snuff.
It works like this: You're sitting and listening
to your System and – just below the level of consciousness – you notice
that something's not quite right, but it's minor, and you're not sure what it
could be, and, besides, the System really does
sound great, and, whatever it is, who cares? That continues for an hour or a day
or a week or some time, and you
finally notice that there is a
problem, and that it's Thing L. Satisfied that you've finally isolated the
problem, you dismiss it as trivial -- after all, if it took you that long just
to figure out was it was, how bad can it be? Having resolved that, you relax and
go on listening and as you do, no matter how long it takes, that
"minor" problem with Thing L eventually becomes the only thing you
hear when your hear your System. Finally, it gets to the point where you can't
stand it any longer and you break down and take the time or spend the money to
fix it – perhaps by making an adjustment or by buying a new component
that gives you a really terriffic
Thing L, and all is well with the world and your System until, "little by
little, a little later" (Thank you Ken Nordine) you notice a slight –
not really noticeable, in fact really quite trivial; not actually a problem,
at all – something about Thing B, and it's off to the races, all over again.
Did you ever get to the point where you long for those good old days when a "Hi-Fi" console – maybe even a Silvertone – was sufficient? When it was the music and not the sound that mattered? When, with no concern at all for perfection or for alphabets and audiophilia, you could just relax and...
Enjoy the music?