The Hub: Made in the USA: First in a series

The expression, "familiarity breeds contempt" is itself so familiar as to draw contempt. Nowhere is the expression truer than in America, land of Wal-Mart, SuperSize, and Open 24 Hours, where we demand the New, NOW, and kick aside the old and familiar. Nowhere is our fickleness more obvious than in the flavor-of-the-moment world of consumer electronics.

Don't believe it? Ask almost any American teen WHY they need a new cellphone, despite having one only a few months old. In the audio world, forget the tube/transistor debate; the significant epochs will one day be viewed as pre-iPod and post-iPod. Like it or not, change is the norm: in today's 500-channel world it's impossible to conceive of a TV show capturing American viewers as the Tonight Show once did. Given Best Buy, Audiogon and Amazon, can we imagine a world in which a speaker-maker has nearly a THIRD of the market?

But that's getting ahead of the story.

Yogi Berra once said, "In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is." In theory, the consumer electronics business is an international one, without restrictions. In practice, there are constraints. For example: a variety of frequencies and voltages of household current make trade in amplifiers and players more difficult than it would be if AC standards were the same worldwide. Similarly, trade in large and heavy speakers is restricted by the sheer cost of shipping them around the world. Obviously, if the shipping costs approach the cost of the product itself, that's just not a commercially-viable product.

Now think back to a time when shipping was so cheap as to be almost inconsequential, at least within the USA. That period, roughly from the end of World War II to the first energy crisis in 1973, was perhaps not coincidentally the golden era of American Hi-Fi.

The end of the war saw a boom not just in babies but in electronics and in new forms of merchandising. Wartime training created a huge pool of talented engineers and technicians who needed work, following the diminution of the defense industry. Those same techies contributed to the creation of a buying public far more sophisticated than that of pre-war USA, when new gizmos were rarely purchased unless the OLD gizmo died.

Add to these elements vast warehouses of war-surplus radios, electronic components, and untold tons of tech toys, and you have a period of material and technical prosperity unmatched in human history. For those with a technical bent and an ability to work with their hands, even the sky was no longer the limit. Out of this pool of resources came the Californian Hot Rod culture, the Hi-Fi industry...and NASA.

Our concern today, however, is earthbound. The Hi-Fi business in America had its roots in the '20's and '30's , in the alarmingly-expensive radio consoles of E.H. Scott, McMurdo-Silver, and even RCA. Those radio- and radio-phono consoles were the first consumer products which sold the concept of "High Fidelity", occasionally even using that catchphrase in marketing. At the same time, fundamental research done by Bell Labs/Western Electric and RCA laid the way for broadcast and theater sound-systems, the technology from which found its way into products for the home.

Take that heritage and blend in the post-war elements of war-surplus and mail-order radio parts houses, and the modern Hi-Fi era begins. Magazines like Radio Electonics devoted more pages to amplifier and speaker projects, ads for kits, and finished products from brands such as McIntosh and Jensen. The final tipping-point which spurred mass interest in home Hi-Fi was the development of the LP by CBS Labs in 1948. Records were no longer limited to the 3 minutes per side common to 78 rpm records.

A flood of Hi-Fi companies appeared, most of whom are long forgotten. Once-prominent brands such as Fisher, Pilot, Bogen,and Jensen have either vanished altogether, or morphed into mere shadows of their former glory. One such phantasm was for 25 years the leader of the American audio industry, and was recognized worldwide for its quality and technical innovation. That brand was Acoustic Research.

Our next installment will look into the history of Acoustic Research and its best-known product, the AR 3a loudspeaker. Meanwhile, check out the AR family tree in our model database and feel free to search our discussion forums for our members' extensive experience with AR speakers, which were once among the best and best-known in the world.
Wonderful article, Bill. Thanks!

Yes, the multi-chassis chrome-plated 1930's "radios" of E. H. Scott (no relation to the hifi manufacturer H. H. Scott, who came later), and McMurdo Silver, who was his chief competitor, can rightly be considered to be the precursors of modern high end audio systems. Their better models, if in nice condition and complete with original wood cabinets, are highly prized today and will command upwards of $5K when they appear for sale. Unfortunately many of them today have deteriorated chrome, and lack cabinets, either because they were purchased and used just as chassis originally, or because they were separated from the cabinets during the intervening 75 years or so.

My antique radio collection includes sets from both manufacturers, although most of them lack cabinets. I can tell you that their station-getting performance and sound quality is amazing, considering the inherent limitations of AM.

It's interesting that their models from the early 30's used type 45 tubes in their power amplifier sections, and the top of the line Scott's in the mid-30's used 2A3's. Both tubes being highly prized today by fans of (very) low-power directly heated triode amplifiers. What goes around comes around, especially if it was good to begin with!

Best regards,
-- Al
Thanks for the kind words, Al.

The performance and complexity of some of those old units were pretty impressive. I actually owned a Scott console years ago, but it was a non-runner. Yet another unfinished project....

It's ironic that we bring up 45s and 2a3s, as it was the inefficiency of acoustic suspension speakers that caused low-powered amps to fall from favor. But I'm getting ahead of the story.
Hello Bill,
You managed to bring back a lot of good memories again.It would be interesting to find out how many of these AR's survived history.The ones that did may outperform a lot of the ones that replaced them.Then the Western Electric and RCA's that made theater sound brings back more memories.Some of that theater audio is still going and keeping its owners happy too.I imagine the newer,especially big box stores type of speakers will never get even close to do what the classics did then and still are.After reading this,I may just dig out some of the older magazines to look at more great oldies.
Best Regards
Alas, I am old enough to remember AR. My first system, purchased at age 17 in 1967, consisted of AR4Xs, ARXA(?) 'table with a Grado B series (I think) cartridge, all held together by lamp cord, and fed with Seraphims, Odysseys, Victrolas, Nonesuches, etc, purchased on sale from Sam Goody's in downtown Philly.

If my memory serves me, I bought the speakers and table from Boston Audio, Waltham, MA. Yes, shipping costs would have been negligible. The speakers were $47, the 'table $76 and the cartridge about $14. I remember because it took me a year or more to get the money together. I hungered for the AR 2ax, because bigger was surely better; the AR 3s, well, they were beyond my imagination.

A friend put together a Fischer/KLH/Garrard system that was louder and, therefore, by our standards at the time, better than mine. I have matured, sort of, since then.

Yes, we are now surrounded by sound consumers of mp3s rather than music listeners. Maybe the ratio has always been so skewed, but the ready availability of silly technologies and diversions just makes it much more obvious.
Thanks, guys.

When starting up the Wayback Machine, what strikes me most is how much music-listening has turned from a social activity to an isolating one. Even browsing at a record store was a collegial event, at least at the record stores I frequented.

It used to be that "wall of sound" referred to Phil Spector's production style; these days I think it refers to the barriers we build with our earbuds!
It's nice to remember this golden era, which I was privileged to witness as a youth in the 1950s and 1960s. I miss those days and I miss the audio industry as it was then. Audio salons were for Everyman, and you could find the best brands and models at large discount stores. And frankly, a lot of that old gear sounds pretty good if properly maintained and installed. The advantage they had was that they didn't need to make things small and pretty looking. The money went into the engineering. But I have to dissent from the comment on the 1957 Chevy. I'd buy one in a heartbeat. Certainly no 'deathtrap' compared to a Mini-Cooper!!!