From Hi-Fi to Ultra-High End

A Historical Overview of the Development of Home Audio and Loudspeakers

From Hi-Fi to Ultra-High End

The Modern High-End Era Begins: 1970–1980  
If the High-Fidelity Era was marked by a shift from pure science practiced by professional researchers in the service of industry to applied science practiced by gifted amateurs in the service of home entertainment, the Modern High-End Era is most certainly more of the latter than the former, but with a key difference. Most of the products of the hi-fi era were made with the discerning, moderately well-heeled, upwardly mobile music lover and audio enthusiast in mind. For the most part they were designed to blend into a lifestyle that included other people and other passions—not to become a lifestyle in and of themselves. All that was about to change.

There have been “hi-fi nuts” in every era of this hobby. Even before there was hi-fi in the modern sense of the word there were connoisseurs who wouldn’t settle for anything but the best of the best. But throughout the Seventies (and beyond), the nuts rather took over the asylum—not everywhere, of course, but to an extent unprecedented in the past.

Part of the reason for this was the Sixties—and the music, energy, and excess it produced and inspired. Listening to records in your home had, by turns, always been a joy, a solace, a shared form of discovery and education, a display of status, and (Lord knows) a tool of seduction; in the late Sixties all these threads were woven into something like an ecstatic communal rite. The Sixties are almost unimaginable without the rock music they are famous for; the protest movements, the sexual revolution, Flower Power, pot, even the Vietnam War—the other things the Sixties are famous for—still live for us in song, as if the entire wild, rebellious, besotted era had been scored for a rock ’n’ roll movie. If you lived through the Sixties, you didn’t just want to have a nice stereo in your pad; you had to have one. It was your connection to the world at large and the worlds within that world. 

When you combine this compulsion for constant sonic stimulation with Sixties idealism, experimentation, and self-indulgence, you get something like what happened to hi-fi in the Seventies. You get an explosion of new ideas—some of them half-baked, some of them fully cooked, most of them shockingly expensive to implement, and all of them contributing to the excitement and momentum, to the feeling that “something” new and different was up that we wanted to be a part of. 

In the Seventies (and Eighties) anything that could be tried was tried. An electrostat that used an acoustic lens to launch a hemispherical soundwave? A plasma speaker that combined a spark and a bottle of commercial-grade helium to make a massless driver? A tweeter that squeezed air in its folds rather than pushing and pulling it like a membrane or a cone? A bending-wave driver that looked like a short spherical horn standing on end with paper at the throat of its elongated cone, aluminum in its middle, and titanium at its neck? Been there, done that.

Perhaps the best exemplar of this new epoch in hi-fi was Jim Winey’s planar-magnetic Magnepan Tympani 1U/D—one of several speakers using drivers never seen before (the Walsh driver, the Heil tweeter, the Hill plasma driver, and the MBL Radialstrahler were four more from this unusually fecund era). I call the Maggie an exemplar not just because of its extraordinarily realistic sound, but because of the way it looked. Where hi-fi-era designers mostly built speakers that would fit unobtrusively into living rooms, many of the iconic loudspeakers of the “high end” (which is what this spirited new epoch came to be called) fitted in nowhere. The Tympanis, for example, were six feet tall and nearly six feet across—per side!—insatiably power-hungry, and about as attractive as office-cubicle dividers (which is exactly what their planar-magnetic panels were housed in). Their sole raison d’être was great sound for the audiophile who put great sound ahead of everything else—wife, kids, home décor, old age pension, peace of mind.

The high end wasn’t just a bunch of new products; it was a fever in the blood (on both the design and consumption sides), a single-minded lust to get closer and closer to the sound of the real thing, no matter the sacrifice in domesticity or the penalty to the pocketbook. And that penalty got steeper and steeper as the decade wore on. 

As boutique became the new mainstream and little companies no one had ever heard of before suddenly became the hottest tickets on the market, specialty audio manufacturers discovered that they didn’t necessarily need economies of scale to turn a profit; they quickly learned that any number of people would pay again and again for their “new and improved” offerings, even after spending small fortunes on their previous ones. The high-end merry-go-round began to whirl, as standard-setting product followed standard-setting product. In the decade of disco and rampant drug use, high fidelity was another addiction—a ride some folks just couldn’t get off of, even when their jobs and marriages went up in smoke.

And at the still center of this whirligig was The Absolute Sound. For a whole lot of us the guide and connection to the new landscape of “high end” audio was none other than Harry Pearson and the magazine he founded in 1973. Of course, Harry’s magazine wasn’t intended for penniless, bedraggled scum like me—it was meant for the respectable hi-fi nut, not the hippie hi-fi nut. It was, quite self-consciously (and sometimes off-puttingly), a members-only club made up of old-timers from the hi-fi era (like Harry himself), married to the best reproduction of acoustic music, and FNGs from the Sixties and Seventies, who, just out of college, were on their way up and wanted that rock soundtrack to accompany their climb. 

There was, at least at first, a good deal of tut-tutting about the extravagant prices of some of the earliest high-end gear from companies like ARC, MLAS, and Infinity Systems. But that was mere lip service. High prices (and they proved to be pittances compared to what was to come in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s) simply made the gear that much more desirable—either because it was tantalizingly out of reach of most of us or in reach of the chosen few. For guys like me, it was the fox and the grapes retold with every new issue of TAS. 

But there was something else going on in addition to “me generation” conspicuous consumption—something just as closely tied to Sixties idealism and experimentation as the explosion of “high end” products from brand-new or little-known companies, many of them started quite literally in garages.  

Prior to The Absolute Sound (and Stereophile, which preceded it), most of us depended on the numbers published in mainstream audio magazines to form our opinions of which hi-fi gear looked worthiest of purchase. The better the numbers, the more appealing the product. Even though readers hungered for plain-English opinions about the way things actually sounded in real rooms with real sources, such opinions were seldom voiced in Audio or High Fidelity or Stereo Review, lest a negative review upset advertisers. J. Gordon Holt famously jeopardized his job at High Fidelity for speaking this kind of truth in its pages—and went on to found the first “subjective” audio magazine.  But it was Harry Pearson’s TAS which made the “absolute-sound” standard—the sound of actual acoustic instruments playing in a real space—the benchmark. Using real music as a basis of comparison wasn’t HP’s invention. Acoustic Research, for one, produced “live-versus-recorded” exhibits on an occasional basis throughout the Fifties. But with Harry, the occasional became the absolute. The only reliable metric was how close reproduced music came to the real thing; the only reliable measuring device was the human ear.

What made the products of the Seventies so special—and so memorable—was that, unlike many of the measurements-bound Old School audio designers, the new generation believed as fervently in the absolute sound as HP and his readers did. The sound of the real thing was what they were after, too. The resulting colloquy in the pages of TAS was unprecedented in audio history—an open-ended discussion in which new-gen (and some old-gen, as well) audio designers, Pearson and his staff, and a growing and vocal readership, all speaking more or less the same language, shared opinions about audio gear and audio goals. 

In time, something like an extended family formed around the magazine—a family that those of us alienated from the establishment by the Sixties embraced wholeheartedly. The absolute sound was something you could believe in without a penalty in dashed hopes; it was a community you could belong to even if you couldn’t afford the initiation fee. Issues of the magazine were passed around like pages of the gospels; opinions were voiced about products heard, unheard, and never to be heard; cliques formed around certain products and certain reviewers who championed those products; a new high-end normal began to coalesce, replacing the old hi-fi one; and it was all incredibly exciting and incredibly fun.