ONLINE - ISSUE 16
The Little Cassette Deck
That Changed the World: The Advent 201
Traveling Toward Knowledge
We recently lost audio visionary and pioneer Henry Kloss whose legacy is nearly immeasurable. His contributions to our industry over the last half-century include the first practical acoustic suspension loudspeaker, the first "high fidelity" cassette deck and the first color projection television for home use. All of those before 1972! He was the founder of (or associated with) some of the most recognizable commercial names of the early "high end" audio era: Acoustic Research, KLH, Advent, and Cambridge Soundworks. This glance at the long history of Henry Koss's important work is one man's recollection of an audio pioneer.
My first experience with the Advent 201, a path-breaking recording machine and a genuine milestone in the audio industry, witnessed a defining moment in the history of our recording hobby. Perhaps it is a sport. Or a disease. How's that? The Advent 201 was the fist deck to include now omnipresent Dolby B noise reduction. The marriage of Ray Dolby's compression/expansion system with the cassette transport ushered in consumer music archiving and, thus, the first debate over music piracy… an ongoing debate, at far more advanced levels of technology.
Some years ago, in the early seventies, Bob ‘Tin-Ear' Guthrie and I made a sojourn to the ‘Steel City.' We invaded Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania one Saturday in late fall. The reason for that trip eludes me. I suspect it was for the ‘Tin-Ear' to shop for business attire—him the natty dresser. Regardless of purpose, inevitably, given the fact that we were total Audio Junkies (and still are), we should have known that we'd visit the main store of the now long defunct Opus One retail chain, founded by Tasso Spanos.
The store, I believe, was on Smithfield Street, not far from that curious downtown geographical anomaly, 'The Point.' Tasso's elegant store was somewhat intimidating, especially to a couple of teenaged ‘stereo' buffs. Originally a department store, the converted space was large, open, and sported a slightly elevated round platform, twenty feet or so in diameter, near the center of its wonderfully unrestricted space. Around it were many, many ‘living room' simulations, each set up with its own little ‘system.' Already unlike other retail stores of its era, Tasso's shop went a step further yet. Placed across that round ‘stage,' reminiscent of a small jazz club, were real instruments, including a baby grand piano and a violin. The most striking detail, striking even for this distinctive set up, was a set of mounted microphones spaced across that elevated space. I wish I had been savvier to the microphones of the era so I could tell you what vintage or brands Tasso chose.
Remember, this was a store—not a nightclub or performance hall. Around the whole ‘concert' space, and in close proximity to those instruments and microphones, were all those numerous ‘systems' set up in demonstration mode. And there were records, the mass media of choice by the "discriminating listener" of the day, but REAL buffs used 10.5" open reel NAB's at 15 inches per second. Right? You remember that, of course.
When we became comfortable with the striking appearance of Tasso's facility, and comfortable was the word that describes his store, the next thing we noticed about Opus One was the fact that you could NOT choose between two or more of the same products at an identical price point. Tasso adopted a simple philosophy. He and his staff listened to every receiver available that sold for, say, $150. Rather than confuse customers with pointless choices, he and his staff settled on one receiver—the best sounding one—at a given price point, period. That was the only one they put on their sales floor. The customer chose that one or another at a higher quality level and price. Nice idea. Consumer friendly. Good old Tasso.
Striking as the surroundings were, the most arresting component of the facility was the man behind this fabulous audio experience. As he strode across his remarkable commercial space, Tasso's demeanor and carriage left no doubt that this was HIS stage. You were in Tasso's presence. His store was a theatre. He was the star. You were the person lucky enough to be a witness. In the 20 seconds he took to introduce himself, Tasso's soothing vocal cadence, reassuring poise, easy-going character and utter confidence combined to yield one commanding presence. This man was a character in a play, not just the owner of a retail store.
What was the topic of conversation our charismatic host broached after introducing himself? With obviously honest enthusiasm and childlike curiosity, he asked if we had heard the remarkable new cassette recorder from Henry Kloss of Advent. We had heard the buzz, but neither of us had been anywhere near one. Who wouldn't want to play with such a machine?
What you probably didn't know, even if you were a hobbyist then, was that Advent owned the loudspeaker market in those days. In the early seventies, five out of every six pair of speakers sold in the United States were labeled Advent. That is market share—to a degree that I think safe to say will never be realized in the audio industry again. The only thing that would be comparable by today's standards would be Microsoft's domination of the Operating System market (the gullible writer announces as he taps away on his iBook!).
Tasso led us to the central staging area as we tried to explain that we were here only to look. We were gawkers, plebes. We wanted to know more and scout out future purchases since we had no real intention, nor funds, to buy anything. Maybe some music or blank tape.
Tasso didn't care. He honestly didn't care! "What, you don't WANT to hear this thing?"
We both could see the disappointment just behind his eyes. This man seemed genuinely alarmed that we might not want to listen to his toys. He was not concerned about making a sale. He wanted us to experience a new thrill. This was the first time I saw a salesman that good, so dedicated to the work of teaching customers what they needed to know. Imagine that! Have you talked to sales people recently, anywhere? Quite an experience, isn't it? Grunts substitute for sentences. "Dunno" stands in place of "let me show you." Was Tasso's invitation to us only an act? I don't believe it was. It was a genuine "love of the game" that stood behind his success. He'd built his small central Pennsylvania "empire" of four stores because his enthusiasm was infectious. The day's encounter was merely the first lesson Tasso Spanos inadvertently imparted to me, like many others, on an otherwise unremarkable day… a lesson I've carried with me to this very day. His lesson applies to sales people no more and no less to people in the public in any field. It applies to deans in universities and to publishers of magazines and journals. Tasso was all about courtesy, honesty, and intelligent conversation. His commitment to those values stood him in good stead. His example can be taken to heart by any and by all of us.
As we approached the Advent deck sitting among other components on Tasso's audio ‘stage,' we saw that the cassette well was "centered" on the top, not on its front like machines today. Along the top front, a row of controls held input and volume levels, the FF [fast forward] and RW [rewind] lever, and record, pause, play and stop buttons. Right behind that first row were switches for stereo/mono, noise reduction on/off, tape type (normal or CrO2) and the meter selector, Left or Right channel.
That's right, a meter selector. The oddest feature of this recorder was its Cyclops-like VU meter, located in the rearmost left corner. You were being looked at as you gazed at the Advent box! An eject button, tape counter and the On/Off switch rounded out the top of the device. But one thing more regarding the single, stand-alone meter. Universally lauded for its superb fidelity, critics of the deck loved to point to that single meter as the deck's Achilles heel. Users had to select one channel, set that level, then flip the selector switch to the second channel and set that level independently. Commonly praised for sonic performance, the deck's detractors continuously pointed to this obvious idiosyncrasy as a major flaw. It was not, but it did deter slow-thinking users who expected two VU meters, one for each channel, like the standard open reel decks of the era. Those who hadn't taken time to listen to the Advent cassette recorder were lulled into seeing it as a flawed design.
The stage nearly set, Tasso had us gaping at his prize unit. The show was about to begin. He must have summoned his players from somewhere unseen. I can't say who they were. Nor do I recall from where they emerged. It makes no difference. By this point, his two teenaged companions were so fully drawn into the play unfolding before them that things in our periphery were unimportant. One player sat down at the piano, another picked up the violin and, when Tasso hit the record and play button simultaneously atop this odd looking recorder, they played their instruments.
It may have been a Bach Concerto. Whatever the composition, suddenly, there was unfettered live music filling up Tasso's large and unique acoustic realm. It was lovely. Though I had heard live classical music on numerous occasions, this was the first time I had experienced anything like this in a store! (My colleague Jim Merod reminds me that his memories go back farther yet, to a moment in the mid-'40s when he was taken to a Frank Sinatra recital in a St. Louis music store: Oh, the cursed blessings of memory!) As abruptly as it had commenced, the concert was finished. Tasso hit the pause button, then the stop button and, toggling the rewind lever, the tape rolled back from the take up spool. Then, at that moment, I noticed the enormous smile on his lips, a foreshadowing of knowing something his audience did not. I knew this was going to be good.
The chain of electronics the Advent 201 was connected to included a Sherwood receiver and a double Advent Larger system in wood. Cables were run of the mill, since the cable upgrade game had not yet begun.
What is a "double Advent Larger system," you ask? Simple. The rage at that time was to take two pairs of Advent Larger loudspeakers (there were only two models at the time—the Larger and the Smaller), and place one pair atop the other, tweeter to tweeter. If you never heard that configuration, I have to say that it's likely that the only thing then that could best them for midrange involvement was the Quad ESL 63. That not withstanding, a single pair of Advents put a whoopin' on Peter Walker's Quads in the bass department. And the Double Advents? They kicked the stuffing (even) out of the JBL 4311 Studio Monitors, the L100s, as that model came to be called for the home market. Rock ‘n' Rollers they were!
Every bit a consummate entertainer, Tasso held his perfectly crafted suspense a few moments longer after the tape rewound. He smiled and said simply, "Listen," and stabbed at the "play" key. As soon as the leader cleared the heads, music began. Music poured out. Music was everywhere and real. Bob and I were stupefied and pleased. Tasso's recording was remarkable. The violin had body and space. It hung in a place off the floor and behind the plane of the speakers, remarkably close to where the real instrument was now standing ready, silent. And timber, unbelievable. The unmistakable sound of the rosined bow aggravating catgut strings into motion as it was dragged and pushed across their resilient compliance was spooky. Spooky and real. Spooky-real!
As superb as the violin replay was, the piano was the most hauntingly real of all. The lowest registers, truncated and rolled off by most playback systems in my experience, were there in spades. Fundamental tones of the baby grand were rich, full of their own weight and detailed. And the upper register harmonics... to die for. All from this simple, unassuming and strange looking little cassette deck.
Was it indistinguishable from the live music? I'm sure it was not, but the degree of fidelity was overwhelming. We stood with our jaws nearly gaping for minutes. When the tape had played half way through, Tasso touched the pause button. Like automatons, the two musicians began playing from the beginning. Roughly at the point where Tasso paused the tape, they stopped. There it was, a side-by-side comparison. Is it "live" or Advent? Tasso showed us how close it was. Before the reverberation of piano strings had completely decayed, the 201 began once more. He kicked in "play" and damned if it didn't sound as if the musicians were still playing right before us even as they listened to themselves along with us.
The smile on Tasso's face was almost too broad to contain. He was like a small child who had done something that immeasurably pleased his mother. He was basking in her favor afterwards. It was all an astonishing experience, to say the least. Everyone ought to enjoy at least one occasion like this each year.
Chatting with Tasso afterward as he was showed us the latest Sequerra Model One tuner, another product out of our price range (something like $2000), I asked him why he conducted his demonstration in this manner.
His explanation was obvious, clear and logical. I carry it with me today. He started by recalling that he had once wanted to buy his wife a fur coat but could not afford real fur. His only option was among the so called ‘fun furs,' synthetic copies, priced more reasonably. At that moment it dawned on him that he knew nothing about furs, real or otherwise. Education would be necessary if he was going to be able to pick a fun fur that didn't look like what it was, a fake. What to do?
Tasso decided the he would visit real furriers. He went from store to store examining real furs, how they were stitched, cut, and put together; how they hung and felt. After he had spent enough time learning about the real thing, he started his pursuit for a synthetic fur. Well, armed with his knowledge of the genuine article, he searched until he found one that closely approximated a real fur coat. Most of his wife's friends never knew it was not real. "It is the same with music," Tasso told me. "If you've never heard a real piano or violin, live, right next to you, how can you judge whether a stereo system is doing an adequate job of recreating them?"
Dear readers, to hear such clear insight was like being struck by a bolt of lightning. Doubtless, many of us know what Tasso told me that day so long ago. At the time, his insight was revelatory. With colossal impact, Tasso Spanos imparted his second lesson of the day. His young disciple had an epiphany as the audio shaman/entrepreneur shared a completely overlooked point of view. How obvious. How correct. How simple!
Close on the coattails of the Advent cassette recording deck, many recorders using Dolby B noise reduction followed suit. It's of interest to note that, before the application of Dolby noise reduction to cassette tape, the amateur recordist had exactly two options. He could play his records repeatedly and wear them out. End of the matter. Or he could play them once to make sure pops and clicks were minimal, then play the disc again to archive his LP to 1/4" tape on an open reel tape recorder... an Ampex or Revox or some such large and quite expensive machine. That archiving allowed the recordist/music lover to put his near-virgin record on a shelf and then play his self-made tape until it wore out. The process could be repeated, another copy from the same LP. An expensive option for a teenager. Bob and I did not have deep pockets.
The Advent 201 offered a much more affordable alternative. And blank cassette tapes came in just the right length to facilitate archiving records. Since a 90-minute tape is 45 minutes each side, and LPs usually run about 20-22 minutes per side, the whole of most LP's fit on one side of a cassette tape.
There was an instant fuss from record companies. What's new? It was then, but in the long-run, consumers won. Will they now? Have they won already? Nonetheless, a battleground had been stormed and taken over by the public. The record industry gave up, joined the revolution, and decided to get even by marketing inferior prerecorded cassette tapes along with LPs and professional grade open reel tapes. That last item is a different story.
I still have an Advent 201. I bought it, not from Tasso (alas), only at a point I could afford it. The photo at the top of this essay is my own classic antique machine. Do I listen to it often? No, yet I cannot bring myself to part with it. It is a timeless machine, with its own charisma, capable of transporting me back to a simpler, less hectic, more carefree and festive time. I have it hooked up to a ‘period' system in my bedroom along with a vintage 1970's Luxman R1050 receiver and whatever speakers I'm working with that need to be run in preparation for reviewing or "out of rotation" elsewhere in the house.
In those less frantic days that I've alluded to, music was everywhere in my life. I attended two or three concerts a month and my audio system played every waking moment. I am not so fortunate now. Work, family, work, commitments, work, writing and did I say more work? I still get to hear live music several times a month, but I'd love to have the time to do so much more often. Now I understand the cliché, "youth is wasted on the young!"
That clear, crisp fall day in Pittsburgh has never left me. There are many reasons: the engaging, charismatic persona of Tasso Spanos; his unique recording and live music space masquerading as a store; his astonishingly powerful live vs. playback demonstration; extraordinary outlooks shared with those young kids Bob and I once were; and, most important, the impact those revelations all had on me and my future.
Several times over the years, when I have been asked to point to the single event that shaped ‘the audio analyst,' my print journal of the late-'80s and early-90s, I've spoken of that day with Tasso Spanos in Pittsburgh. By the time we made our trip, I had already been selling audio equipment for several years. Unofficially. Many find it surprising that I was selling audio gear before I had a driver's license. But the significance of my hours spent with Tasso that afternoon, three decades ago, drove home valuable lessons. That day touched a part of my character never to be the same. Ask Bob, good old "Tin Ear"!
The value of those lessons will likely never be fully understood, even if I try hard, but their effects were enormous. Though I had always been exuberant and sincere on a sales floor, seeing Tasso's infectious demeanor allowed me to realize how much our knowledge can affect others. Seeing it executed by a consummate expert teacher left me with no doubt how I should proceed as I worked with high-end audio. His indirect and gentle reminder to keep one's own mental yardstick calibrated by frequent and regular doses of live music secured the message, even though it was one I had known without knowing that I knew it. Perhaps much of life's wisdom comes to that.
This ugly duckling of a cassette deck, the finely-bred Advent 201, changed my thoughts on how recorded music should be played at home. Thank you, Henry Kloss, for one of your many gifts and inventions. Thank you, Tasso Spanos, for what you gave so freely and generously to two young men so long ago.