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Positive Feedback ISSUE 58
november/december 2011


From Clark Johnsen's Diary: Early Hi-Fi Stores I have Known



Back in northwest Iowa where I grew up in the Fifties, there was widespread interest in the newish hobby of high fidelity. Even in junior high there were fans, well before Playboy began showing how cool hi-fi could be vis-à-vis the fairer sex. In ninth grade I built a Williamson circuit amplifier from scratch, punching the chassis holes myself at a kid-friendly machine shop. Later in my dad's workroom I constructed, again from scratch, a Karlson speaker enclosure.

But it was Prof. Nydegger, my friend Danny's father, I admired for his store-bought hi-fi featuring a Fisher preamp. The good professor also made me sit down and listen closely to classical music. Then there was Dorothy Mann, youth leader at Grace Methodist, on whom one day I dropped in as she was flipping a record. I asked whether I could listen along and, unaware of my sessions at the Nydeggers, she replied, "Oh I don't think you'd like it." "It" was the largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony—and I loved it!

Thus my growing interest in the classics paralleled my activity in audio, and I continue to love both -- causing me to become an inveterate habitué of record stores and hi-fi shops.

When Wolff's Hi-Fi opened near East High I headed right over. Crazy Dan Wolff, with whom I hung out, had an older brother who was concertmaster of the Sioux City Symphony. Their father was a hi-fi nut too and had invested in Jack's store, so the place was not undercapitalized. Then my great friend and audio compatriot Stan Shedd got hired and I became a more frequent presence. There I heard my first stereo records (London and Audio Fidelity), and my first Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado, very impressively soundstaged. What were the brands? AR, Sherwood, Dynaco, Garrard and Shure. Also Eico, Stephens, harmon-kardon and JBL. Oh, and Grado.

Then one day in 1959 a reporter from the Sioux City Journal called to do an article on the hi-fi hobby and could we be interviewed? Gosh, yes!

Here's how it looked:

And here's how it read:

Woofers and Tweeters for Golden Ears

By Mark Miller

YOU GOT golden ears? All hi-fi's chillun got golden ears. Not corn—those big things that flap at the side of your head.

Now, in 10 easy lessons, you can acquire golden ears. Listen...

The newest hobby in modern living, just now beginning to pick up steam in Sioux City, is putting together your own hi-fi set.

Hi-fi is lingo for high fidelity, both recording and reproducing, which seeks to re-create sound in exactly the same manner as originally heard.

That goal is a will-o'-the-wisp which has not been reached: some say it never will be, but a few of the braver ones in Sioux City claim their machines have come so close to perfection that only 24-caret golden ears can detect a shade of difference.

Just how close hi-fi has come to the goal of perfection was dramatically illustrated last March 3 at the San Francisco Opera House…

Some 2,000 Sioux Cityans have taken up the hi-fi rage in the last few years, but only about 50 of them are true "bugs." To be a genuine bug you not only have to put your own set together, but you are expected to go around button-holing people and saying, "Come on over to my place and listen to my hi-fi."

The big majority of hi-fans go into the hobby because they like music, but it isn't always true. Some use it as an ‘escape' hobby; others go in for the mechanics of it. These are referred to by music lovers as "knob-twisters."

Asked why he liked hi-fi, one Morningside College boy said, "It gives me something to brag about."

Now I ask you

Now I ask you, does that not read as though it had been written yesterday? Heck, even the Wall Street Journal doesn't get it as right as a midsize Midwestern paper did in 1959. (Right, Mikey?) The picture was of Stan and me fitting a JBL driver into an actual Karlson enclosure, me on the left.

The Journal had provided an 8x10 glossy, which I proudly framed, but I never saw the text again until I returned to visit the folks much later and found Mom ready to throw stuff out, including my school memorabilia. "Why don't you look through it first and see if there's anything you'd like to keep?" Soon she heard whoops and hollers arising from the basment, upon my discovery of the complete page. "Is everything all right down there?" she called out.

Everything was fine, just fine.

Even later, in the mid-Nineties, Stan visited me in Boston from his home in Calgary, Alberta. Immediately he pulled out "something you might not have", his own print of that photo. Triumphantly I ran to fetch the original page, and we laughed and laughed.

My father was with the program

Although not himself an audio hobbyist—more a woodworker and gardener and quite accomplished ragtime piano player—Dad gamely drove me around to hi-fi stores wherever we traveled. In Omaha, the House of Hi-Fi, where no one paid much attention to me. In Denver, a couple of places whose names I don't recall, but nor was the reception warm. In Chicago we headed to Allied Radio, where the term "audiophile net" was devised for faux-discount pricing, and I was able to see and touch items I had lusted after in their catalog—notably an RCA mic replicate to use with my Webcor tape recorder. (Audio catalogs still exist, but good luck finding a place where you can handle the merchandise, much less listen to it.) In Milwaukee and Detroit we found several more, like most of the others bare-bones operations with stuff in display cases and speakers lined up against the walls. But the pursuit had started to become boring and by then I was more interested in the music anyway, having added rock'n'roll to the mix. [See "Days of Rockin' Radio"] Also I had landed a two-hour daily DJ gig at KSCJ ("The Station of the Sioux City Journal"), where at last I faced a real RCA mic.

Finally when I arrived in Boston I headed to Harvard Square because the college handbook had ads for Audio Lab and the AR Listening Room. The former was located in an old house (in Cambridge "old" means two hundred years) with small rooms and creaky floors, but stuffed with gear and loudspeakers, more good (and expensive) stuff than I had ever seen together in one place before. (Later that house became the site of Goodwin's Music Systems, still in business around here.) The sales staff was knowledgeable, it seemed, albeit under the thrall of owner Dan Boynton, whose sales training manual I still have. From that book one can discern how hi-fi salesmen ever since have gotten their disdainful ways. Such an attitude was held to be best for selling luxury goods. Dan had been a post-grad psychology major and quite possibly therefore knew whereof he spoke.

Earlier, on a trip East before our senior year, Stan and I had visited the AR Listening Room in Grand Central Station. Both of us were thrilled to be in this place of audio legend. Although the sound per se wasn't up to what we made in Sioux City, the people seemed glad to see us and talk to us. Not so in the Harvard Square AR Room, where an icy attitude prevailed on each visit. In fact, as I seem to recall, they were reluctant to play any music at all, instead preferring to pound a hammer on their turntable plinths to demonstrate imperviousness. I wondered what the hell they thought they were accomplishing. AR epitomized the so-called Cambridge sound, so you'd think… oh well; maybe they'd got hold of Dan's manual.

Another real hi-fi store existed, over in Boston on toney Newbury Street, called The Listening Post, but it closed that year and I never got there. One day, however, a couple of my new college friends organized a subway trip downtown to the one-and-only Radio Shack. Then as now, it was a parts depot with some audio stuff—but also with thousands of LPs on sale ($1.88!). There I bought my first college records—at the original Rat Shack!

The only national big name I never got to was Lafayette Radio—like Allied and Radio Shack, spawn of the Twenties' enthusiasm for ham radio.

These memories were precipitated by reading Greg Milner's Perfecting Sound Forever, an excellent book when you absent sections on "the loudness wars" and such. But for a volume on recording history that cannot be beat, go for Read and Welch's From Tin Foil to Stereo. Although it stops at 1976, the information therein, combined with stylish writing, should interest any ‘phile today. Along with the Sioux City Journal from 1959, it confirms that even for audio, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.