Hi-Fi for All


JOHN M. CONLYis a former NewYork and Washington newspaperman, now editor of High Fidelity Magazine. ”They Shall Have Music" is a quarterly feature in the Atlantic.

THE initial article of the quarterly series titled “They Shall Have Music” was written almost exactly five years ago. It was a report—apparently the first, in other than technical publications— on a new development called “high fidelity.”

Or perhaps it was not new, even then. In the two or three years preceding, a lively and sizable group of venturous tinkerers and record enthusiasts had been busily buying professional sound-equipment and rigging it up in their living rooms in lieu of conventional radio-phonographs. It sounded immeasurably better and it cost somewhat less, though it usually looked dreadful. Some few pioneers had been doing this since before World War I. And there are among us, from time to time, certain Britons who, while forbearing to sneer, do like to point out that concrete-mounted, horn-loaded, dual loudspeakers and kindred super-fi paraphernalia were by no means unknown in the mother country as long ago as 1935.

Ancient history aside, it was about five years ago that high fidelity first showed unmistakable signs of being here to stay, and of having outgrown its hobbyhood. It was taken up by people utterly innocent of any previous urge to tinker. They craved simply the end product of the prior tinkering: realistically reproduced music in their homes. Astute manufacturers of sound-apparatus heeded their demand, and shifted their attention from the movie theater and the skating rink to the home. The coaxial loudspeaker and the high-powered audio amplifier suddenly became what industrialists call “consumer goods.”

This marked the second stage in the growth of something that (it is interesting to reflect) probably will be accounted a major cultural phenomenon in American life. The naked musico-electronic device, its tubes glowing and bare wires bristling, assumed protective coloration and moved into the living room, the arena where the mahogany-cloaked radio console had battled the baby grand, exterminated the gramophone, and gone down to defeat before the television receiver. Oddly, the battle that should have ensued turned out to be no battle but a sort of chilly symbiosis. TV continued its sweep, but at the same time the high-fidelity component industry flourished. Someone with a taste for such calculations has figured out that the variety of amplifiers, speakers, tuners, phono-pickups, tone arms, record changers, turntables, FM and AM radio tuners, preamplifiers, equalizers, and tape recorders now on the market would make possible the assembly of nearly 250,000 different high-fidelity rigs. This may or may not be accurate, but even the most cautious estimate would still verge on the astronomical. There are now several thousand apparently tireless craftsmen dedicated to the aim of providing the American music-fancier with unlimited flexibility in his choice of sound-fixtures.

The purpose here and now is to consider high fidelity in its third stage, as something no longer esoteric, born of solder steam and midnight cursing, but an established part of many a well-appointed American household. A year of these writings will be devoted to a discussion of the requirements of today’s serious home music listener. However, a few sentences of background history will hurt nobody.

No one seems to know when the term “high fidelity" gained currency. It cropped up) in manufacturing circles in the late twenties or early thirties. John V. L. Hogan applied it to his experimental New York area musicbroadcasting station, W2XR (later WQXR), shortly after it was licensed in 1929. Sundry manufacturers of ultra-deluxe radio-phonographs used it in the latter 1930s, and with some justification — E. H. Scott, Stromberg-Carlson, McMurdo Silver, Avery Fisher.

The trouble then was that there was almost nothing for high-grade amplifiers and loudspeakers to reproduce; there were nearly no sources of highfidelity sound. Monstrous magnetic cutting-heads in recording studios could engrave a degree of fidelity on disks (we have discovered this since, by playing them with modern reproducers), but available reproducing cartridges could not re-evoke it. Live music transmitted over radio-network wires was even more drastically limited in tone range.

Probably the first breakthrough was made by the British Decca Company (now London Records, in the western hemisphere), which began exporting “ffrr" — full-frequency-range recordings—soon after World War II, and the almost simultaneous development by General Electric and Norman Pickering of the wide-range variable-reluctance phono-pickup cartridge. No doubt the well-publicized beginning of FM broadcasting helped, too.

However, the really massive push was furnished by two other, slightly later, developments: television and microgroove recording.

TV displaced conventional radio, making it seem, somehow, secondrate and unsatisfactory. Yet, at the same time, it enforced a dearth of music, since it was not (and is not yet) a musical medium. Video victims who liked music still wanted it, but not on pain of seeming backward or old-hat. They wanted it to reappear in new and glamorous guise, able to compete fairly for their attention with the hypnotic shining tube across the room. To such folk, the hi-fi rig was the perfect counter-attraction. It has an aspect of modernity which even a television set cannot match. Now it has become a trade axiom that an area is ripe for high fidelity approximately two years after it has been invaded by TV.

The microgroove vinylite record, introduced by Columbia in 1948, gave the final boost. It cut the price of recorded music in half, ended the hazard of disk breakage, practically eliminated surface scratch, and at least hinted at something like exact reproduction of sound. Involved in this achievement, too, was something else, less widely publicized but important: the adoption of magnetic tape as a primary recording device. This helped put in business a myriad of small recording companies, which soon enormously and enticingly enriched the repertoire of recorded music. (Anyone unaware of this owes it to himself to take a look at a late 1954 issue of the Schwann Long Playing Record Catalog.)

There may be yet another causative factor, less easily definable, in the latter-day popularity of high-fidelity music in the home. It is interesting to hear dealers in custom music equipment discuss it—especially if one keeps in mind that most of these are former radio service technicians, not liberal arts scholars. There are two schools of thought among them. One faction holds the opinion that this decade’s craving for music is transitory, largely a product of atom-bomb and cold-war jitters. The other thinks the new taste for music is something permanent, brought into being as hitherto uneducated American ears are sensitized to sound. “Once you really learn to hear,” one sound-man argues, “music begins to make sense to you, and you never want to do without it. It’s a lot like learning to read.”

This writer is inclined to the latter opinion. Our better-educated forebears may have known their Milton and Emerson, and even their Virgil and Dante, but few could make any sensible distinction between Parsifal and the Poet and Peasant. We are their betters in this respect, and we are steadily increasing our lead. There are not a few among us who, without undergoing the ordeal-by-keyboard once considered the only decent introduction to music (they don’t make you write fiction before you may read Jane Austen, do they?), have found wondrous companionship in the Haydn of the Quartets and the Bach of The Well-Tempered Clavichord. Parenthetically, there is some ground for supposing that composers of music, past and present, have written primarily for listeners, not performers. No slight is hereby aimed at performers; but neither should listeners be begrudged their day, and this seems to be it.

Indeed, one of the attractions of high fidelity, for many a listener, has been that it affords him, in a sense, an opportunity to participate in making music. Allow Schumann to have done his work properly in 1842, and Dame Myra Hess and her colleagues to have carried it forward brilliantly at Prades in 1952; and credit, too, the engineers who taped and grooved it. Much of the intent and the life of the music still can be lost in the last long leap to the listener’s ear. But this is for him, the listener, to cope with. His turntable is leveled, and its speed checked with a 25-cent stroboscope. His diamond stylus points straight down, and no dust clusters to impede its small, essential swing. His pushpull 6L6 tubes are balanced, and do not provoke burblings from the loudspeaker as the volume comes up. His equalizer knobs are correctly set for the Columbia modification of the NARTB recording-curve. His loudspeaker enclosure, firm as screws and glue can make it, and padded inside against spurious reflections, is cunningly placed where no cello tone will awake the lurking resonances of the room. The great E-Flat Quintet comes out to him much as it came first to life in Schumann’s head more than a century ago. It is something important and nearly perfect, and something that he helped make so. There are few satisfactions to compare with this.

Lest this seem an excessively edifying picture, it can be admitted that the high-fidelity enthusiasm, in extending its sway, has inspired some dubious commercialization and enlisted a loud legion of extremists. Among the latter, the best-publicized are what equipment dealers call audio nuts, albeit not without a kind of respect. Quite commonly, the audio nut will spend money with awesome unrestraint, and will acquire an impressive grasp of the technics of soundreproduction. His peculiarity is just that he remains completely indifferent to the nature or content of the sound he reproduces; he is quite simply a gadgeteer. For some reason, some music lovers regard his existence as an affront, but it is not clear why. He has nothing against Beethoven. He just prefers gongs, thunderclaps, oscillator signals, and Mantovani.

At the other end of the spectrum is the salesman selling something— a “package’ —which is labeled “high fidelity” but may or may not be. This is shadier territory. When the success of the sound-craftsmen made it patent that there was money in music, various manufacturers (including some who had abandoned it earlier to concentrate exclusively on TV) entered or re-entered the field, vending what purported to be ready-made “hi-fi.”

They and their wares are fairly easily categorized. To begin with, there is a multitude of small portable or table-top phonographs, ranging in price from $99 upward. Mostly, these are respectable merchandise, and some of them sound a great deal better than the average 1939 console radio-phonograph. But no one versed in the wonders of present-day custom soundequipment would think of describing them with the words “high fidelity.”

The semantics are a little harder to handle at the other end of the readymade line. Some of the handsomely cabineted units selling for upward of $500 do indeed contain very respectable equipment, sometimes properly installed. (One such “set" actually has its loudspeaker in a separate cabinet, so that it may be placed to fit the room acoustics.) To fanciers of custom equipment, the main faults of the better high-priced ready-made sets are that too much money has been spent on their cabinets, and with looks rather than sound in mind; that they lack the placement flexibility offered by an array of separate components; and that they seldom embody the latest developments in the fine control of sound.

There is also the fact that they are usually sold according to the normal retail scheme. In contrast, the sales route of the custom component is, almost invariably, direct from manufacturer to dealer, eliminating one stage of markup. Some of this saving to the customer may vanish if he has the custom dealer do his installation; this necessarily involves a charge.

It is probably unfair to no one to say that the man who buys individual custom components — amplifier, loudspeaker and enclosure, phonopickup, turntable or record changer, radio and/or TV tuner—instead of a ready-made set, usually gets a little more for his money, including a little more work to do. Many people do not find this enough of a bargain to outweigh the convenience of having their sound-equipment preassembled and made sightly for them. To these, the only possible useful advice is to shop carefully, making full use of their ears and of all free-trial offers.

It is for those who do want to tailor their sound to their homes that the next four articles in this series will be written.

Record Reviews

Bach, Johann Christian: Symphonies in D Major, Op. 18, No. 4, and E Flat Major, Op. 18, No. 1; Harpsichord Concerto in E Flat; Sinfonia Concertante in A Major (Paul Sacher conducting soloists and Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Columbia ML 4869; 12” LP). Youngest son of Sebastian and teacher of Mozart, the gifted and indolent “London” Bach wrote too little, of which too little is played. These buoyant works, performed as if they were by Mozart , have a Mozartian vivacity, plus a devil-may-care vigor and a profusion of irresistible themes. The recording is good.

Bach, J. C.: Symphony in D Major, Op. 18, No. 4; Symphony in E Major, Op. 9, No. 2, with Haydn: Harpsichord Concerto in D Major (Isabelle Nef, harpsichord; Pierre Colombo conducting Chamber Orchestra of Concerts Lamoureux; L’Oiseau-Lyre OL 50007: 12" LP). This disk has one J. C. Bach work in common with the Columbia listed above, and to compare the two is fascinating, for the French group is bent upon a pre-Mozartian style, with harpsichord reinforcing the tiny orchestra. I prefer it; not everyone will. The Haydn Concerto gets the deftes! treatment it has had since Mme. Landowska recorded it, a long time ago. The recording, though no hi-fi marvel, sounds up-to-date.

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major (Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Philharmonia Orchestra; HMV LHMV 1061: 12" LP). Beautifully recorded, and the two famous artists understand each other, but—caution is advised. The interpretation features majestic deliberation and a pace which will seem sluggish to admirers of Toscanini and Heifetz or Boult and Ricci.

Coates: London Suite; London Again (Eric Coates conducting Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra; Decca DL 4039: 10" LP). Patience always pays off, so here we have at last in one package ($2.50, no more) the Knightsbridge and Oxford Street marches, and the bicycle bells, and all the other bright trimmings of Mr. Coates’s London, in zestful aspect belying its years, and exemplary fidelity.

Hindemith: Kleine Kammermusik, with Poulenc: Sextet for Piano and Winds (Leona Lurie, piano; Fine Arts Wind Players; Capitol P-8258: 12" LP). Poulenc’s irrepressible waggishness devalues his eloquence in this one, but it’s vivacious and pleasant, and the Hindemith has bitter-witted power no one can miss. Apart from this —and the brisk, intelligent playing— the sonic realism of the recording is really noteworthy, even in the hi-fi era.

MacDowell: Indian Suite No. 2, in E Minor, Op. 48 (Howard Hanson conducting Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra; Mercury MG 40009: 12" LP). Perhaps it is trite to describe MacDowell as an American Grieg, but it saves space and seems accurate. It would be equally trite to say that the “Indian" suites don’t sound very Indian, but that might not be accurate. Anthropology seems to be on his side. At any rate, this one makes wonderful listening, especially when abetted by the kind of engineering Mercury furnishes here.

Poulenc: Les Mamelles de Tirésias (André Cluytens conducting Denise Duval, other artists, chorus and orchestra of Opéra Comique de Paris; Angel 35090: 12" LP, boxed with libretto or in thrift-pack). Not for children, nor for the unimaginative, but for others one of the cutest, most winsome items in many a dull moon. The composer and Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet-librettist, conceived of this as buffoonery with melancholy overtones, and probably it is. It deals surrealistically (?) but sternly, also hilariously, with emancipated womanhood and France’s falling birth rate. It is almost impossible to stop listening to it.

Strauss, Richard:Aus Italien,Op. 16 (Clemens Krauss conducting Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; London LL 969: 12" LP). This probably is the last Strauss tone-poem we shall have from the greatest Straussinterpreter of our day. Krauss died in Mexico last May. The gay and florid Italian vignette-piece is beautifully presented here, and beautifully recorded, too. Another farewell bouquet is on London LL 970, the Vienna Philharmonic 1954 New Year Concert, which contains seven works by Johann and Josef Strauss, including the most nostalgically glinting “Blue Danube” you’re ever likely to hear.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2, “Little Russian” (Sir Thomas

Beecham conducting Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Columbia AIL 4872: 12" LP). Rhythmic and vivid, full of tunes you’ve often heard and never could place, performed with real enthusiasm and recorded to be played back good and loud. Very enjoyable.

Vaughan Williams: Norfolk Rhapsody; English Folk-Song Suite; Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis; Fantasia onGreensleeves (Sir Adrian Boult conducting Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra; Westminster WL 5270: 12" LP).

Boult is the world’s leading Vaughan Williams interpreter — he has just made for London a complete set of the symphonies—and has measurable competition here only because of two extraordinary performances elsewhere: Collins’s, on London, of the Fantasias, and Howard Barlow’s, on Columbia reprints, of the Folk-Song Suite. This is mentioned only to console owners of these older records. Everyone else should buy the new one; it is completely delightful.

A Violin Recital (Gordon Staples, violin; George Silfies, piano; McIntosh Music MM-101: 12" LP). This is strictly a hi-fi entry. There are several unreviewed David Oistrakh records at hand, and Gordon Staples, albeit a very deft and perceptive young fiddler, would not mind yielding precedence to Oistrakh. However, Staples has enjoyed the privilege, denied Oistrakh, of being recorded by Frank McIntosh, an audioinventor whose name is frequently sworn by when sound-addicts foregather. If you want Mr. Staples in your living room, playing Sarasate’s Malaguena, you now can have him. Truly beautiful sound.

Atlantic readers who are Toscanini enthusiasts will be interested in the announcement by RCA Victor of a contest offering handsome prizes on the inside front cover.

Vanguard Jazz Showcase, Series 2 (Brother John Sellers; Sir Charles Thompson, piano; Joe Newman, trumpet; Jo Jones, drums; other artists; Vanguard VRS 8004, 8006, 8007: 10" LPs). Apparently Brother John happened to drop in on a Showcase recording session, and one of the Jazz disks came out somewhat Spiritual, but the results are very listenable. So are the accompanying two records, of Joe Newman’s Band and Sir Charles’s Quartet. Perhaps this proves that an interest in high-fidelily techniques can warm jazz performers up for recording as well as a noisy live audience. Worth while.

The Pajama Game (John Raitt, Janis Paige, Eddie Foy, Jr., Carol Haney, other members of the Broadway cast; music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; Columbia ML 4840: 12" LP). There is a kind of poignancy and lifelikeness in the song-scenes of The Pajama Game that has not cropped up in musical comedy since Guys and Dolls. The songs stay with you, though they are not so clever as those in, say, New Faces. Perhaps it’s partly out of relief at hearing something normally so grim as labor problems touched with jollity. Anyway, they do.