Remembering a Heyday in Hi-Fi Industrial Design
Every step forward in the 1970s seemed to come with an equivalent step back. One President stopped a shooting. Then his replacement was fired on twice. The Sears Tower rose and Three Mile Island fell. New cultural institutions were born in Saturday Night Live and Star Wars, while one of our oldest — the Olympics — crashed to a halt. Even Kool-Aid managed to kill and test tubes sparked life. Except in the case of technology. Its potential to make life better seemed just as limitless then as it does today. This was, after all, a decade that started with the first VCRs, pocket calculators and Atari, and ended with the founding of Microsoft and Apple and the launch of the Sony Walkman. The sense of progress ran just as deep in the home audio industry, sparking a golden age in hi-fi aesthetics I wish would come back.
Many audiophiles shudder at the notion today, but the supplanting of vacuum tubes for the transistor at the time was key. They boasted superior power efficiency at significantly lower price points and were easily integrated into a single circuit. Soon enough, a new class of electrified monoliths from Japan and elsewhere surfed the latest peak in hi-fi specifications, provided by transistors, right into the American living room.
Their excessive powers, signified by an ever-expanding buffet of knobs, switches and buttons, were supported by the mesmerizing glow of dials and readouts that made the state of one’s listening situation known with just a glance. The combination of tactile and visual feedback was a thing of beauty then, and still is today — especially in the context of the Jony Ive era, where aesthetic restraint has become marching orders for all.
How I and plenty of others could fall so hard for these trumped-up metal boxes is admittedly a mystery. Perhaps it was the sense of control over the mighty forces of physics these devices promised in an age where nothing seemed to stick with the script. It helped that they were also built like tanks — sometimes camouflaged as furniture. Let’s all thank a backlash against the ’60s love of synthetic materials as well as an energy crisis for making traditional materials like wood and metal a clear choice over plastic.
But hindsight, as it has many times since then, has shown that the rush towards the next great thing wasn’t without consequences. The audio enthusiast world soon learned that transistors tended toward higher distortion than vacuum tubes and were more susceptible to radio interference. Early iterations also sharply clipped certain frequencies, resulting in a very non-musical sound in spite of beefy specs. Steps needed to be retraced from the supposed leap ahead.
But progress didn’t brake. Engineers cracked some more nuts and fidelity soon returned. Here’s hoping their stunning looks will one day do the same.
A Collection for the Ages
We don’t know much about the man behind the Flickr account Old Sansui, but we do know that this German collector is quite handy with a camera and has excellent taste in hi-fi gear. He’s also a fan of rock. All of the photos below are copyrighted and have been republished with his permission. Check out his entire Flickr portfolio to go further down the rabbit hole.