How Good Was Audio 50 Years Ago?

MC-275 KLH Model Nine Fisher 500 C20

In a previous newsletter, we spoke about speakers becoming smaller over the years. In spite of this, the sound quality is better than ever. So, I was pondering the question: “How good was Hi-Fi in the late 50’s and 60’s when stereo first became popular?”

Ok Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for 1961, destination Hollywood, California. Let’s examine a high end audio system that was owned by my late uncle (who lured me into the world of audiophiledom). For speakers, he had KLH9 Electrostatic speakers. The Nines were the first full range electrostatic speakers produced in America. Their diaphragms were extremely light and they didn’t use boxed enclosures, which eliminated all sorts of audio problems exhibited by most of today’s boxed speakers (present company’s speakers excepted). These speakers still sound fantastic today, rivaling or surpassing many “high end” speakers. Powering these speakers was a McIntosh MC275, an all tube power amp along with a McIntosh MC20 tube Preamplifier. These McIntosh pieces are revered by audiophiles and currently command a hefty price. I recently listened to the amp and pre-amp combo and the sound quality was stunning; smooth as silk, yet fully detailed.

Because electrostatic speakers can’t deliver deep bass, he had a separate subwoofer with a Marantz tube electronic crossover to fill in that part of the sound. The Empire turntable and cartridge he used may not be quite up to today’s high end turntables and cartridges, but it did deliver excellent sound quality. Back then, you could also buy stereo reel to reel tapes that sounded great. His system sounded fantastic, even if judged by today’s standards.

Back then, if you couldn’t afford a system of this quality, you could still avail yourself of some of the tubed stereo receivers from companies such as Fisher, Scott and Harman Kardon. With some of the modestly priced speakers (like ARs and KLHs), you’d still have a great-sounding system.

In the 50’s and 60’s the recording industry had terrific equipment, which delivered high quality record albums. For example, the Neumann condenser microphones of the 1960’s sound as good as any microphones of today and can fetch enormous prices. The analog tape recorders did an amazing job of capturing all of the sound.

Yes, the industry has made a lot of refinements. Great sound has become more affordable. But make no mistake about it, the early days of stereo in the 1960’s were far from the dark ages.


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