When did the Hi-Fi sound mature?

Just a random thought I always had: when did the hifi sound got close to the point where it is now? Given the system from end to end. I don't mean comparable to state of the art today, but comparable to say an average audiogon system. The 50's? 60's? 70's?
It didn't - it has actually become more immature since the mid 80's. First it started with the "small speaker big sound" and now most Hi-Fi is nothing more than a narrow elegant speaker (made in China) with impressive Boom Boom Tizz (usually with polished metal drivers and phase plugs to make the consumer think "wow technology" versus the tried and true paper/pulp (think "outdated") cones). The reflex port(s) (yes plural as one beer bottle resonance is no longer enough to compete) are unbiquitous as is one note bass.

Not sure who started it but the boombox sound (often supplemented by earth shaking subwoofers) are now demanded by the masses (who are well trained to expect humongous bass and squashed compressed sound): even if it isn't at all musical, it is at least impressive and that's what matters.
I think that Shadorne makes some very valid observations with respect to the equipment that is sold to the majority of consumers (who may have vaguely heard of Bose and believe it to be the ne plus ultra), but the answer is very different with respect to "the average Audiogon system" that you refer to.

With respect to that kind of system, I don't think it's possible to define a clear answer on a system "end to end" basis.

For digital sources I would say that today's average high-end sound began to be approached in the early to mid 90's.

For amplifiers, preamplifiers, turntables, cartridges, and speakers, I would say the early to mid 80's.

For amplifiers and preamplifiers, though, a case could be made for some of the tube designs of the 1960's. And some would even argue that a case could be made for the Western Electric theatre amplifiers of the 1930's (with modifications for home use), if horn speakers (that don't require much power) are being used.

For FM tuners, I would argue 1954, when the REL Precedent was introduced. It was a mono tuner, but usable in stereo in conjunction with separate multiplex adapters that were introduced a few years later.

-- Al
It depends.

If you want to play pipe organ or marching band music at volume approaching the live performance a good 1960's system with its 15 or 18 inch woofers will blow away today's tweeky high end system.

If you want to play a female vocalist with "you are there" imaging, today's system is better.
Sounds like well before I was born....
The high point of maturation for my ears was the 2C3D system heard in the late 90s at Progressive Audio in Columbus OH. First time I can remember hearing life size vocal height and separation around audience members as they were clapping. It was as impressive with Thiel as it was with Avalon, and that system is still help as a bench mark for mine and others I design today.
The true Audiophile system of the mid to late 1950's surpasses in quality of audio reproduction the "state-of-the art" digital system in use today. Tube amplifiers, based on the Williamson stereo design, and others, together with reel-to-reel tape decks were the standard for recording and playback. Modernly, recording engineers try to imitate the 1950's recordings using digital equipment. Unfortunately, without much success. Audiophiles in the 1950's - 1960's had many choices of speakers, tube amplifiers, preamplifiers, turntables, all made specifically for the Audiophile market. Most of that equipment is scarce and expensive today. As a matter of economics, the audio and music industries require periodic renewal to survive. That means "new state-of-the-art" products to sell to a new generation. Perhaps the "new generation" doesn't require audio perfection with the forms of music popular today. Who can hear the difference in the dynamics of a recording played at 108dB??. All of the new forms of media lack the dynamics of well recorded 1950's performances. Hi-Fi sound never "got close to where it is now", it far surpassed where we are now 50 years ago and everything since has tried to replicate the peak once reached.
Buff sells Thiel products and it should have been disclosed in his post.

Repeat offender.

While I disagree with you that there was no real progress up to the mid 80's - culminating in digital audio (I actually think there was progress).

I tend to agree with you that music was probably better sounding (on average) in the 50's than the monstrous squashed pop music we get today on boomboxes...however music is widely available and cheap for the masses now so I guess that is a form of improvement (if you can call it that).
But, the rock and classical lp's I have from the 70's and 80's definately sound ALOT better than the ones I have from the 60's...
More like poop music, Shadorne!
Commcat, with all due respect, I think your position is a bit extreme, as well as being oversimplified by not differentiating between the different types of components (along the lines of what I did in my previous post in this thread).

During the 1990's, I went through a period of several years during which I bought a lot of revered 1950's and 1960's gear, used it extensively, and eventually sold most of it. My listening was to mostly high quality, simply mic'd, audiophile-oriented classical recordings, both modern ones and audiophile-calibre reissues of highly regarded older recordings.

The turntables and cartridges of that period were a joke compared to what came later. I have had, among other speakers, a pair of very large Tannoy's, the drivers from which sell today for several thousand $. A typical discerning Audiogoner would reject them in minutes, compared to good modern speakers, due to general lack of definition.

Amplifiers and preamplifiers of that period, as I indicated in my previous post, arguably are competitive with high-end designs of today, although I think that the better parts quality that is available to designers today (other than tubes) would result in their losing the competition most of the time.

I've owned good examples of the most highly revered vintage Marantz stuff (Model 1's, 2's, 7, 9's, two 10B's), as well as a lot of McIntosh, Scott, Fisher, Brook, and other highly regarded 1950's and 1960's electronics. The only piece I ended up keeping in my main system is my REL Precedent tuner, together with a Scott multiplex adapter.

Recordings themselves, which you and Shadorne have been discussing, are a another story altogether, which I won't get into here. Suffice it to say that I have no problem finding sonically enjoyable classical material from any of the decades from the 1940's to the present one.

-- Al
For sheer sound quality on any level, the biggest step from puberty to adulthood was supposed to be the CD player, but now it seems that puberty was maturity as the ultimate in sound seems to still be the turntable?
The definitive greatest step forward was absolutely the electronics of the golden age off HI FI. bewteen 1955 and 1965. Before 1955 or there about everything was mono.
Stereo took root from the late 50s through the mid 60s. The amps were in general low powered except the few that didn't rely on a variant of the EL-84. These amps also didn't make tons of deep shake your guts bass but had a very sophisticated input or preamp section. By the time 965 rolled around Solid State was widely used providing much more power but the amps sounded very flat and dull.
The ultimate advancement in Amp Gismos had peaked with the late 1970s Japanese solid state amps and giant all in one reievers. The best quality amongst them were the luxury brands such as Accuphase and Luxman .
The speakers that were used with the circa 1960 tube integrated amps were very efficient. The Corner Horn by Klipsch the JBL Hartsfeld 1957, The JBL 075 aluminum /alloy compression horn, with a phase plug "bullet tweeter" came out a year or two before that and the D-130 extended range 15 inch woofer with a passive radiating plate for a dust cover making some midrange were all developed by the mid 50s.
The D-130 stayed in production for 40+ years and the Bullet tweeter has yet to be discontinued. Paul Wilbur Klipsch built his horn speaker in 1948 and James Martini AKA B Lansing developed his D-130 driver that same year. The landmark in speakers that set the speaker industry racing forward was introduced 20 years earlier with a coaxial design by Guy Fountain in 1928. The speaker is simply called the Tannoy Black. They were all very efficient taking aim at using the low output amplifier signals that were the norm for that time and providing less tiney more full sounding "Concert Hall" music at realistic volumes.

Whether or not that represent a system that sounds like one made in 2009 is really not the question. Of course it doesn't but getting to this point was always a matter of quantum leaps. Thus it was the big steps that happened which culminated, so far anyway, in SOTA audio.
I for one liked the freedom that all those amplifier controls gave you. Despite the fundamentally poor sound.
I freely admit my volume and source selector preamp only. My current tube power amps with speakers made here and France are sound more to my liking than the low definition that typified the clouded sound of the mid fi from the peak of the imported SS amp/receiver.
I still hope however, that people will pull those plugs out of their ears, and we return someday to everyone having audio played out loud.
There was a time when almost everbody owned and played a stereo, believe it or not.
That's a very generic question. Does it really matter?

Fact is there are more choices to make more people happy today than ever, plus sites like this make good sound more affordable to more people who might care than ever.

I would say that other than better and more efficient amp designs (class D) and expansion in sources and means of delivery of digital music, there is not too much radically new or significant happening in audio design these days in terms of just better sound.

I suppose overall, speaker and perhaps amp designs are more refined and detailed sounding as a whole, but I consider this more refinements to an already fairly mature set of products.

An exception could be products that rely more on digital processing for better sound, like the Emerald Physics line.
The advances in digital since 2004 makes everything before virtually obsolete in my opinion, so I'd say around 2003/04
for decent CD playback(getting near as satisfying as good analogue).
I think this is really fascinating. Putting a finer set of points on the discussion:

1. When did quality "HiFi" first enter people's homes in reasonable numbers?

2. When did "HiFi" or full spectrum recordings become widely available?

3. When did turntable and cartridge technology achieve a moderate level of accuracy in speed, noise level and frequency range?

4. When did Solid State amplifiers finally become recognized as competitive with tube amps in terms of "HiFi" reproduction?

5. When did digital reproduction start to close in on analog in terms of that "you are there" essence (or has it in your mind)?

Interesting that I can't think of a more recent watershed in speaker design to rival the comments above about the early horns and large dynamic drivers. There are so many variations on the solution to this electro-mechanical problem at the heart of music reproduction, that it seems difficult to identify when we "closed in" on where we are now. Maybe when quad introduced the first ESL speakers?

Clearly, the Internet and the iPod have expanded the availability of, and exposure to all kinds of music to people - but also the MP3 has lowered expectations of how music should sound. I submit that the next breaking point in HiFi will come when bytes become so cheap and downloads so fast that iTunes "Plus" will mean true hi resolution bit rate/sample rates, 192 kHz/24-bit, rivaling analogue and far surpassing red book CDs. The only limitation on quality of reproduction will be in the gear used, not the format.

The forces of mass production and mass markets will drive down the cost of higher quality reproduction, whether it is for your head phones, your iPod dock, or your "home entertainment center". As marketers take advantage of higher quality source material, people will begin to expect and demand gear that can keep up with Apple's or Audio Engine's latest thing, or whoever is first to market with the most convenient and exciting "hi-res" gadget.

The next big thing is HiFi is probably not going to come from the hi end, but rather from the mainstream, and we will take it up and push the limits of what's possible.
Certainly there was a breakthrough by the early 50's. People would run around to the various HIFI (monophonic then) shops with Toscannini's (sp?) Pictures tucked under their arms to hear it on one of the big speaker systems. I think a major development was Edgar Vilcher's AR speaker design as a competitor to the big folded horn systems then so common.

I lived in the beach area of LA, and a neighbor had a JBL folded horn, Gerrard (sp?) with variable reluctance cartridge, an amp with separate power supply he's designed, and a few Capitol FDS LPs. What a revelation for a teenager using an RCA 45 RPM through his Fender amp. I was hooked. I think my love of audio equipment led me to get a doctorate in psychoacoutics, rather than any real interest in hearing.

Knowknothing...GREAT QUESTIONS. I would love to know some of there answers as well. For me the sound has almost always been digital. When I was a kid my dad had a cheapo Magnavox stack...my only exposure to records. I didn't really get into the whole stereo thing until this decade, so all of this maturation of stereo sound came well before I was aware...the DAC I am use now came out before I entered Highschool.
1. When did quality "HiFi" first enter people's homes in reasonable numbers?

2. When did "HiFi" or full spectrum recordings become widely available?

3. When did turntable and cartridge technology achieve a moderate level of accuracy in speed, noise level and frequency range?

4. When did Solid State amplifiers finally become recognized as competitive with tube amps in terms of "HiFi" reproduction?

5. When did digital reproduction start to close in on analog in terms of that "you are there" essence (or has it in your mind)?

My earlier posts in this thread, and some of the others, partially addressed these questions, but I'll try to summarize more explicitly here:


2)1950's. I believe the 33-1/3 rpm long-playing record was first introduced in 1948, in monophonic form. Stereo was introduced around 1957.

3)My opinion is ca. 1980. But certain special cases such as the Garrard 301 turntable from ca. 1957 can be singled out as being capable of providing excellent sound when well restored and used with a modern cartridge.

4)1975-1980, imo. Noteable examples include the early products of the original Mark Levinson company, designed mostly by John Curl. These were very influential with respect to subsequent high-end products. They are now very collectable, like the better tube equipment of the 50's and 60's, and go for considerable $ on eBay.

5)As I indicated earlier, my feeling is the early 1990's. Opinions will differ.

-- Al

Thanks for the summary, especially interested in your answer to no. 4.

My first experience with HiFi was my dad's HH Scott tube receiver and his tank-like Garrard turntable around 1962. He had mounted large full range speakers in the rafters of our house. I thought it sounded great!

I got into hot water early on by climbing on top of a stool as soon as I was able and "messing" with his system in the cabinet (a budding audiophile!?!). He quickly bought me one of those Westinghouse portable record players to keep my hands of his stuff. I seem to recall that he was only partially successful at that...
Re no. 4, I should also have mentioned the name of the late Tom Colangelo, who succeeded John Curl as Mark Levinson's chief designer, and was responsible for most of the "ML"-designated models.

The original company (under Mark Levinson the person) existed from 1972 to 1984, when he was forced to sell it amidst financial problems and power struggles. The terms of the sale included the provision that he could no longer use his own name on products at companies he later founded (Cello, Ltd., and currently Red Rose Music). Tom Colangelo remained with him through the Cello years.

During that 1972 to 1984 period, Mark Levinson Audio Systems (which made only solid state products) was instrumental in furthering the high-end concepts of minimalist circuit design, no tone controls, no power switch on some or all of the preamps, very high quality parts, construction that was simultaneously tank-like and beautiful to look at, and emphasis on sound quality rather than measured parameters.

I still have an ML1 preamp, and I use its phono stage (accessed via a tape out jack) into a more modern line stage preamp in my main system.

I should add, in case anyone may wonder, that I have never had any connection whatsoever to any of these people or companies.

-- Al
Thanks Al, good stuff. I had read somewhere that the early Mark Levinson JC-1 preamplifier (John Curl one?) was one of the first pieces to be acknowledged as challenging tubes for use in "high end" systems. One of the reasons Parasound raised eyebrows when they came out with a "JC-1" model amplifier (and JC-2 preamp) of their own not so long ago.

Nice post. It is always pleasant to see a balanced view that does not follow the heavily beaten path of simply pitting digital against analog or tubes against SS!
Yes, that's right. I believe that John Curl designed all of the JC-designated products for both MLAS and, in recent years, for Parasound.

-- Al
Shadorne -- Thanks!

-- Al