Technology Makes Music
In the mid-1950s, before high fidelity became a household term, a story circulated in the press about a man spending his first night in his new home in Pound Ridge, New York. The man was startled by the sounds of a nearby railroad he hadn’t been told existed. Looking for the railroad, he learned that the trains ran only through the grooves of a record produced and engineered by a neighbor named Emory Cook, a hi-fi pioneer whose recordings were the first to capture the sounds of locomotives, jet planes, and hurricanestrength winds. Cook, who is seventyseven, denies the tale, but it is true to the aura of mystery and wonder that veiled high fidelity in its infancy.
High fidelity , a nonscientific and somewhat subjective term, means the faithful electromechanical reproduction of an original musical performance. Among the necessary ingredients of high fidelity are wide frequency response (the ability to capture and recreate tones from deep bass notes to high treble) and wide dynamic range (a breadth of sound levels from thunderous fortissimos to hushed pianissimos). Noise that is not part of the music, such as the hiss endemic in traditional analog tape recording, must be kept to a minimum, and distortion—inaccuracy that changes the shape of musical wave forms and consequently their sound—must be restricted to near inaudibility.
High fidelity is a post-World War II phenomenon and a largely American one. Its roots run back to the work of engineers in early broadcasting and recording, telecommunications, motion pictures, and even submarine detection, who discovered and worked out essential scientific principles. But high fidelity’s real pioneers tended to be individuals who emerged after the war and worked very independently, each charting his own course toward a musical holy grail. The saga that leads to hi-fi as we know it today has many chapters, set in places from Hollywood to Harvard Square.
Until the 1940s sound-reproduction techniques were relatively unrefined. Radio meant AM (for amplitude modulation) rather than the more sophisticated FM (frequency modulation) system, and rarely delivered musical tones higher than about five thousand cycles per second, or about four octaves above middle C—and such high tones are contained as harmonic elements in musical sounds even in the low and middle ranges. The 78-rpm records of the day were also severely limited in high frequency, ran only three or four minutes per side, and had high distortion and noisy surfaces. Moreover, the musical information etched in record grooves tended to erode quickly under the considerable weight of the era’s phonograph cartridges.
By the late thirties radio phonographs had become popular among well-to-do Americans. These were expensive consoles, and they were sold in furniture stores; like pianos, they were purchased as much for the status they conveyed as for reproducing music. The major electronics companies would have it no other way. Such manufacturers as General Electric, Magnavox, RCA, Westinghouse, and Zenith believed that the market for better-sounding home audio equipment would be too small to warrant their attention.
In October 1946 a lengthy article in Fortune magazine expounded on the nascent concept of high fidelity and made precisely this point. It cited a study by CBS that found that the public preferred broadcasts with frequencies limited to under 5,000 hertz (cycles per second) rather than those that reached 10,000 cycles (the range of normal human hearing ascends to about 18,000 cycles; the number of cycles doubles every octave upward, with A above middle C, the note to which orchestras tune, at 440). The popular margin against fuller frequency response, the story reported, was more than two to one, with professional musicians siding “fifteen to one against wide ranges and thus, apparently, against high fidelity.”
Fortunately, the gauntlet that the big corporations deliberately ignored was picked up by a small cadre of enthusiasts. The tiny companies they created in the late forties and early fifties may have seemed unlikely competition for the major radio and phonograph producers, but their crusade eventually transformed high fidelity from a hobbyist’s preoccupation into a worldwide industry.
One large corporation did stand out as an early innovator: AT&T, whose Bell Laboratories was by far the most important incubator for advanced audio engineering. Bell engineers saw work in music and acoustics as important avenues to their primary goal of improved telephone transmissions. They conducted numerous onsite recording experiments in a variety of venues, including the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and the Roxy Theater in New York. The conductor Leopold Stokowski took an active part in some of these, and in 1933 he swapped his baton for an electronic control panel to help send a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra along telephone lines to Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The methods and equipment used during this historic transmission (including an early form of stereo) proved fundamental to many subsequent improvements in sound reproduction.
Hollywood also provided fertile ground for hi-fi innovation, especially in loudspeakers. As soon as the movies accepted sound, in the late 1920s, Hollywood kept an ear cocked for equipment better able to reproduce the medium in theaters. In those years Western Electric, the manufacturing division of AT&T, was the dominant force in theater loudspeakers. Its early designs relied on large horns, which could faithfully reproduce only midrange tones. Later both high-and lowfrequency drivers were added. These were among the first integrated loudspeaker systems, employing separate component speakers to reproduce specific segments of the audible frequency range. That technique is now incorporated in home hi-fi systems; nearly every speaker sold is actually a system consisting of at least two component speakers or drivers within one box, a woofer for lower notes and a tweeter for higher ones.
In the early 1930s one film studio decided to develop its own speaker systems. MGM recruited two men who were to become important names in the hi-fi loudspeaker pantheon: Robert Stephens, who went on to found the Stephens Manufacturing Company, which provided speakers to early audiophiles, and James B. Lansing. Lansing was subsequently instrumental in founding two important companies. Altec Lansing was born in 1941 in a merger between his Lansing Manufacturing Company and the Altec Service Corporation, a company that had come into being in the late thirties, when Western Electric divested its holdings in motion-picture sound. Five years later Lansing left that firm to start another, JBL. Plagued by mounting business debts, the speaker pioneer committed suicide in 1949.
The most prominent name in the 1946 Fortune article, which was the first to introduce the high-fidelity concept to a large number of Americans, was Avery Fisher. In 1937 Fisher had chosen to combine his hobby with his career by forming a firm called Philharmonic Radio. Before long he sold Philharmonic to a company better able to finance its war work and founded Fisher Radio. Fortune published two photographs of the urbane forty-year-old hi-fi pioneer, in which, as if presaging his role as an industry patriarch and patron of the musical arts (one of New York City’s two major concert halls was renamed in his honor following the 1969 sale of his company and a subsequent large donation), he was already graying. “Avery Fisher makes fine sets for the finicky,” one caption began. His latest hi-fi sets were “best … in price and performance.” Already he and the mass-market manufacturers were point and counterpoint.
Fisher Radio provided an entire audio system, but Fisher himself took the same approach to design and manufacturing that all his hi-fi colleagues of the time followed: he concentrated on a single link in the component chain. In Fisher’s case it was the electronics. He was by training a graphic designer; he hired engineers to develop the preamplifier, amplifier, and tuner sections for his early sets. (Essentially an amplifier contains the circuitry that magnifies the signal from a record player, FM or AM tuner, or other source to drive speakers; a preamplifier both begins the amplification process and serves as a hi-fi system’s control center; an integrated amplifier combines all these functions; and a receiver consists of preamplifier, amplifier, and tuner on a single chassis.) The products of Fisher engineers were carefully matched with record players and speakers from companies that specialized in those.
Record players were markedly improved around that time by the introduction of the variable-reluctance phono cartridge, first produced by General Electric. During the war years GE engineers worked by day on military projects, such as proximity fuzes, and worked by night on projects that might produce viable postwar products. A staffer named William Bachman developed a cartridge (a phonograph stylus plus signal-generating components) that employed a polarizing magnet, placed behind coils, to establish a magnetic field. As the stylus followed a record’s groove, it moved within this field and generated voltage. This cartridge, the forerunner of today’s hi-fi phono pickups, was so sensitive that its downward force could be reduced from about thirty grams to a then remarkable five. This meant far less groove damage and longer record life.
Shortly after his cartridge appeared on the scene, Bachman helped midwife another innovation crucial to modern high fidelity. In the late 1940s he left GE to become chief engineer of Columbia Records Research Laboratories. In this capacity he worked with Peter Goldmark of CBS Laboratories, a sister facility, as production engineer for the long-playing record. Columbia introduced the LP in 1947, with a narrowed record groove and a new, slow speed of 331Xs rpm. Along with FM radio, developed and championed by Edwin Howard Armstrong (whose tragic story appeared in the Fall 1985 issue of this magazine), the LP was the principal source for high-fidelity listening material until well into the 1980s.
The patent Bachman won for his variable-reluctance cartridge was later invalidated because of the existence of prior art. This in no way demeans his achievement. Many of the industry’s successful innovations were conceived earlier in one form or another by people other than those who painstakingly developed them into marketable products. The acoustic-suspension speaker is another important case in point. When its developer, Edgar Villchur, sued the rival Electro-Voice company for infringement in the late 1950s, his patent was held invalid. The court based its decision on disclosures published by Harry F. Olson, a colossus in the field of electroacoustics whose 1982 obituary in Audio magazine credits him with “more than 100 U.S. patents on [audio] devices and systems.”
The acoustic-suspension loudspeaker, the first to extract true high-fidelity bass response from cabinets small enough to sit on a bookshelf, was unveiled by Villchur in 1953. It was precisely the kind of product the fledgling hi-fi industry needed; early hi-fi speakers were simply too large, even for many devout music lovers.
Villchur first tried to interest other hi-fi speaker companies in his idea, but it was repeatedly rejected. So he co-founded Acoustic Research to produce his landmark product. The acoustic-suspension speaker used a sealed box as an enclosure; the air in the box functioned as a spring to repeatedly return the low-frequency speaker cone to its original position after electromagnetic impulses caused the movement that generated sound. Only one sacrifice was required to reap the benefits of extended bass range and small size: the loudspeaker needed more amplifier power than previous speaker systems.
Villchur had three partners at Acoustic Research. He had met the best known of them while teaching an adult-education class in high fidelity at New York University. In 1952 he showed a prototype of his loudspeaker to a pupil named Henry Kloss, a serviceman based at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, who was taking the course to occupy his evenings. Kloss had been a student at MIT and owned a cabinet shop off Harvard Square that supplied speaker enclosures. At twenty-three Kloss already knew enough about loudspeakers to understand that Villchur’s idea represented an important step forward. Kloss, who went on to found KLH, Advent, Kloss Video, and Cambridge SoundWorks, was always quick to recognize a great hi-fi idea.
Kloss has continually endeavored to make hi-fi both more convenient and more affordable and deserves considerable credit for helping propel it into the consumer mainstream. He was at the leading edge of what might be seen as high fidelity’s second wave, which began to roll landward at about the time he started the KLH Research and Development Corporation in 1957. (Kloss was the K in the company name; the L and the H represented Malcolm Low and J. Anton Hofmann, the son of the piano virtuoso Josef Hofmann; the three had been Villchur’s partners at Acoustic Research).
By that time elements necessary for broader acceptance of hi-fi had been falling into place for some time. FM broadcasting was gaining popularity, and LP records, with their extended playing time and quieter surfaces, had grown commonplace. Speakers small enough to be attractively paired in living rooms were now becoming widely available, a fact that, as much as any other, led to the rapid acceptance of stereophonic sound. Even as KLH was preparing to open its doors, standards were set for recording in stereo, which combines two separate channels of sound to help recreate the three-dimensional ambience of live performance. Ever a practical man, Henry Kloss in 1962 completed development of the KLH Model Eleven, an ingenious compact stereo system, whose parts snapped together to form a suitcase-shaped portable. It became a staple in dormitories all around America.
The most important promotional arenas for hi-fi pioneers in the industry’s earliest years were public exhibitions at which they displayed and demonstrated their wares. The first of these was organized by a man named Harry Reizes and held at Manhattan’s Hotel New Yorker in 1949. Shortly before that event a loudspeaker designer named Rudolph Thomas Bozak had unveiled his first speaker system, which employed a kettledrum as an enclosure. Bozak was invited to demonstrate the Bozak 201 alongside speakers by competing makers on the stage of the New Yorker’s ballroom. “We made a definite impression,” he later recalled. It was nothing, though, compared with the impression he made at Reizes’s later audio fairs. Bozak struck up a friendship with Emory Cook, the record producer, and in 1951 he demonstrated his speakers using Rail Dynamics , Cook’s soon-to-be-famous recording of trains, made mainly at night in yards north of New York City. “We just stole the show,” Bozak remembered a few years before his death in 1982. “The comments! Down the corridors, from around the corners, people would say, ‘Where are those railroad trains?’”
Cook and Bozak again dazzled the crowds at the 1952 Audio Fair, this time with an early form of stereo. Cook’s system involved records divided into two separate bands of grooves, one for the left channel, one for the right, and a turntable that employed an arm branching into two heads, each with its own cartridge. What would they do for an encore? Cook invited the English organist Reginald Foort to Symphony ” Hall in Boston to record, for the first time anywhere, a sixteen-cycle organ tone, four octaves below middle C. Speakers of the day weren’t equipped to handle such low bass; Rudy Bozak built a pair that could. These behemoths—each consisting of a bass cabinet four feet wide, feet high, and nearly two feet deep, with a smaller enclosure for midrange and high-frequency drivers atop it—stand today at one end of Cook’s thirty-five-foot-long listening room.
The response to their demonstration at the 1954 Audio Fair approached awe. Cook describes the scene: “The pedal frequencies were heard in the lobby sometimes. Felt, was more like it. It’s not something you could resolve and say, ‘Oh, that’s an organ,’ or whatever, but it’s strange how it would travel around the hotel and up and down the elevator shafts and then come out in the lobby. A feeling. No music; a feeling. And it wasn’t loud in the room. These things were played only somewhat louder than you would play them in your own living room- because the room was full of people.”
Since high fidelity is a medium for communicating an intangible art form to the imperfectly understood human ear and brain, many people feel that the best audio components embody as much artistry as technology. Others strongly disagree. Rudy Bozak did not consider his speakers an expression of his personality; when asked if another person could have designed them, he replied, “I don’t see why not.” And Henry Kloss flatly asserts about his accomplishments, “Artistry had absolutely nothing to do with it.” Nonetheless, a lack of consensus as to a speaker’s ideal sonic personality continues to result in models sounding different from one another.
Even in this age of sophisticated computer measurements, many argue that the ear must be the final criterion for judging an audio product. It was once suggested to Bozak that perhaps he was underestimating the importance of his own ear, and he responded by recounting an incident that had occurred during his four years working for C. G. Conn, a manufacturer of musical instruments.
“We had one particular session there where we developed an electronic organ,” Bozak recalled. “The general sales manager, who was a pianist and played organ, sat down and played the thing and said it was great, just what we were looking for. … A week later he was invited back into the laboratory and sat down and played the instrument again. He didn’t play ten or fifteen bars when he said, This goddamn thing doesn’t sound right. What did you guys do to it?’ We said we hadn’t done anything. Well, he didn’t believe us. ‘You did something to it. You messed it up here,’ he said. ‘Restore it back to the way you had it.’ So what we did was let the damn instrument sit there for another week, and he comes back and plays it again. ‘Now this is the way it should be,’ he says.”
In 1961 the Federal Communications Commission announced a system of standards for FM broadcasts in stereo. Leonard Feldman, a consulting engineer and writer about audio, vividly remembers not only the date, April 19, but the time of day, 10:00 A.M. Feldman had worked with a fellow engineer named Murray Crosby on the development of a competing stereo broadcast system. Those knowledgeable about hifi felt sure the Crosby system would be the commission’s choice. At 9:59 that morning Feldman’s holdings in Crosby-Teletronics were worth $15 a share; by 2:00 P.M. they were down to less than $2.50.
The Crosby system was, in fact, sonically superior to the one picked by the FCC in that it produced lower background noise when handling weak signals. But the FCC opted for a system developed by GE and Zenith that allowed subscription background-music firms such as Muzak to piggyback their decidedly low-fi product onto the signals of FM stations. This afforded station owners an additional revenue stream.
In an industry known for its colorful figures, Paul Klipsch stands out. Like his famous Klipschorn loudspeaker, still his company’s flagship product after more than forty years, he seems blessed with eternal youth. Paul Wilbur Klipsch took up a stringent regimen of running at sixtyfive, piloted his own airplane until well into his seventies, and only last year, at eighty-five, gave up the presidency of Klipsch and Associates.
The Klipschorn is far and away the high-fidelity industry’s longest-running hit. Klipsch produced the first commercial version in 1946 in a little Arkansas town called Hope, where he had been doing Army service. Klipsch’s invention utilizes the horn principle employed in film-sound speakers of the thirties. While all loudspeakers produce sound by moving air, horns acoustically couple the air vibrating within their confines to that outside. This provides the most economical way of moving large quantities of air, but such speakers are, of necessity, large. Musical-instrument designers learned long ago that horns can be curled for compactness; Paul Klipsch discovered that a horn folded into segments connected by acute angles would also function properly. He not only folded the hom but also split it into two separate lengthwise sections that rejoined at the mouth. He specified that the Klipschom should always be placed in a corner, so that the room’s floor and two walls functionally extend it. Such thinking made the Klipschorn, though by no means small, suitable for home use.
In the 1960s and 1970s the widespread adoption of transistorization gave hi-fi electronics improved reliability. Transistorization also meant increased amplifier power. This translated to less distortion, even at modest listening levels, where sudden, shortduration bursts of sound demand surprisingly high power for clean reproduction. And transistorization meant convenience—components that were smaller and no longer required a warm-up period. This increased the appeal of hi-fi to people who had grown up without it. At the same time, those who came of age in the sixties and later were finding high-fidelity systems as indispensable as television had become to their parents.
No one could have foreseen the success the Japanese would attain in the U.S. high-fidelity market beginning in the 1970s. The hi-fi products that arrived from Japan a decade earlier were widely viewed as inferior, but that nation’s hi-fi makers understood enough to add an important American component—marketing know-how—to their own penchant for rapid technical improvement. They set up subsidiary companies here and hired Americans to help develop products specifically for this market and ad campaigns to promote them. The fact that so many U.S. servicemen stationed in Asia in the 1970s were introduced to Japanesebrand hi-fi gear through their post exchanges also helped the Japanese ride an industry growth curve that rose steadily until the end of the decade.
It was Germany that initially led the way in tape-recording technology; the first tape recorders demonstrated in the United States were German machines brought here just after World War II. But it took a Dutch invention and two subsequent American developments to bring high-fidelity tape recorders into the homes of average music listeners. It also required the vision of Henry Kloss, with his genius for fusing hitherto unrelated concepts into new, innovative products.
Kloss immediately recognized the importance to tape recording of Dolby noise reduction, introduced in 1967. This was the invention of Ray Milton Dolby, a precocious engineer who, while still a Stanford undergraduate, was part of the Ampex team that developed the first videotape recorder. Dolby was a hi-fi hobbyist, and like many, he was bothered by the background hiss endemic to tape recording. He realized he could diminish tape hiss during audio recording by in effect turning up the volume during certain soft passages so that they too, like loud passages, would drown out the hiss. Thus his system boosts the amplitude of selected low-level signals during recording; in playback, circuitry built into the tape recorder reduces these signals to their original volume.
When Kloss first learned of Dolby noise reduction, it existed in a form suitable only for recording studios. Kloss envisioned it as an important addition to consumer tape recorders. He reasoned that Dolby’s system could make a tape running at 3¾ ips (inches per second) sound as good as a nonDolby tape recorded at 15 ips, four times as fast. One Friday in March 1967 he reached for the phone in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and placed a transatlantic call to Dolby, who was then based in London. Kloss asked if Dolby had considered adapting his noise-reduction system for consumer use. Dolby said he planned to do so in due course. Kloss then asked when Dolby would next be in the States. Dolby said the following month. Henry Kloss countered with a suggestion that left Ray Dolby “quite taken aback.”
“He said,” Dolby later remembered, “‘I really want to talk to you right away. Could I come over to London to see you? How about tomorrow?’” Kloss did indeed arrive in England the following morning, and as Dolby recalled it, the pair “spent the whole weekend speculating on the possibilities.”
Kloss, who soon left KLH to found his third important hifi firm, Advent Corporation, wanted to see a tape recorder with Dolby noise reduction made available to consumers. To make sure it would happen, Kloss developed and sold a transport—the mechanical part of a deck that moves the tape—to KLH; KLH combined this with its own electronics to produce the first tape recorder to include Dolby.
For tape recording to achieve the mass acceptance it has since attained, however, a form far simpler than the cumbersome reel-to-reel medium was needed. The cassette tape, which had recently been introduced by the Netherlands electronics giant Philips as a dictation medium, seemed an unlikely successor to the open reel; it employs a strip of tape only Vs inch wide and was designed to run at only 1 7/8 ips, so very little surface area is available for the storage of magnetic signals. Ray Dolby, undaunted by the medium’s humble qualifications, wired one of his noise-reduction units to a Harman-Kardon cassette deck. During a trip to the United States in the fall of 1969, he tried out the combination for Kloss, who was impressed enough to take out a license and put Advent into the cassette-recorder business.
Henry Kloss further helped to make the cassette a bona fide hi-fi medium by bringing chromium-dioxide tape into the picture. Tape coated with CrO2 particles permitted better highfrequency response and recording at louder amplitude levels than the usual ferric-oxide formulations. He learned about the tape coating from an article in The Wall Street Journal and figured that by combining it with Dolby noise reduction, he could endow the little cassette with genuine high-fidelity stature. So Kloss called the Du Pont company, the inventor. He learned that “for four years they’d tried to sell it, and they couldn’t sell a foot of it.” That wasn’t surprising; the company had approached only commercial tape duplicators, never known for much interest in sound quality. Now, as Du Pont worked the final kinks out of chrome tape, Kloss helped improve the cassette shell mechanism. Advent soon became the first company to offer chromium-dioxide cassettes.
The high-fidelity industry had been created largely by and for hobbyists in the 1940s and 1950s and had caught the fancy of a lot of student-age consumers in the 1960s; in the 1970s it finally moved into the mass market and matured as a business. Other than in loudspeakers, the mainstream manufacturers are largely Japanese now, and except at the high-priced luxury end, hifi is less esoteric and more like other businesses providing commodities commonly found in American homes. Growth in sales in the industry slowed during the 1980s, but hi-fi made another important stride forward with the introduction of the compact disc. This represented a major first step from the analog to the digital domain. Rather than store music in wavy vinyl record grooves or magnetic-tape particles that are actually analogs of musical wave forms, CDs contain music encoded as a series of binary numbers that are read optically by a laser pickup. The compact disc at once eliminates wear, distortion, surface noise, and the need for dynamic compression, the limitation in the range of soft to loud sounds almost always present on tapes and LPs.
The CD, like the cassette, was initially developed by Philips, and it incorporates an errorcorrection system (to ensure the accuracy of the data being read) designed by Sony. It became an immediate success upon its introduction in the early 1980s and has steadily gained in popularity since. A digital cassette system (DAT, or digital audio tape), standardized years ago by the major manufacturers, has been waiting in the wings, but its debut on the American high-fidelity scene has been delayed by threats of legal action by the recording industry. The major record manufacturers, who have traditionally maintained that tape recording cuts into sales, particularly fear a digital medium capable of making copies identical to their originals.
Whether or not the hi-fi industry will convert other major links in the music reproduction chain to digital technology remains unclear. Shifting from analog to digital would have other advantages in addition to helping preserve signal purity. A digital amplifier, for example, could dissipate so little heat as to operate at an efficiency level approaching 100 percent (compared with under 50 percent for the best of today’s amps).
Whatever its future, high-fidelity technology will almost certainly continue in the elusive pursuit of a single goal: bringing musical performances home alive. Music, after all, is the foundation on which the industry stands.
Perhaps no one has understood this better than Avery Fisher. Still handsome and urbane as ever at eighty-four, the hi-fi pioneer and benefactor frequently attends concerts at the hall named in his honor. In the living room of his Manhattan apartment sits a Bösendorfer grand piano and, on a shelf a few feet away, the basic literature for string quartet. This is not merely decorative; chamber musicians play in the Fisher home.
The Fisher radio-phonograph line described in the October 1946 issue of Fortune consisted of two models costing $885 and $1,000 respectively. More than forty years later and without taking inflation into account, any number of high-fidelity component brands and combinations offer improved performance, reduced size, and added convenience at a lower price in actual dollars. For those without the means or opportunity to hear world-class orchestras in major halls or invite prominent performers into their homes to play, this is an unprecedented musical opportunity for which Avery Fisher and the highfidelity innovators who worked alongside and after him in the forties, fifties, and sixties deserve a hearty round of applause.