Thursday, September 8, 2016

Remembering the family audio system

A "Throwback Thursday" memoir

As threatened, er, promised a while back, I decided to write about the audio system my parents had when I was young. It was not an audiophile dream come true. But it had importance for me. It is the first system I remember. And it was the one that we used for many years, and made the idea of playing records a normal thing.

The system was a wedding gift. It was pretty simple: a cheap Garrard record changer (probably very low end, if not absolute rock bottom of the line), and a Panasonic stereo receiver and speaker system.

The receiver and speakers were an integrated system. One speaker actually held the receiver electronics. A lot like powered monitor speakers of today which often put the electronics inside one of the speakers. If I recall right, however, there was an option to use the receiver with totally different speakers via a jumper on the back panel.

The Panasonic was also probably very low end. There was exactly one input on the back panelm usable for tape or ceramic phono cartridge. But, even then, there were plenty of useless features included. There was motorized tuning. (Might be helpful if there was a remote of some sort, but there was no remote. It would have been faster and better to just tune manually, rather than stand by the receiver, holding the tuning button down.) There was a gauge that showed the "balance". Presumably it indicated where the loudest sound was coming from. Which you could tell by ear pretty easily.

On a plus side, though, the enclosures were pretty solidly made, and were probably real wood.

My parents apparently had the system as stock for about a year, and then upgraded. Someone they knew added a different cartridge--a Shure M44, I think--and a phono preamp. Such phono preamps were not rare--I've seen them advertised in old ads for people like my parents who upgraded to a moving magnet cartridge on a system that was too low end for a moving magnet cartridge input. But I like to think my parents were ahead of the times--they had a "phono stage" before 1970!

And that was the last upgrade that system ever saw. There never was a tape deck. (Even though I tried to sell my mother on the idea of a cool looking Panasonic 8 Track deck that looked like it was from the same era at a neighbor's yard sale!) There definitely was never a CD player. The only change that ever got proposed was a new record changer. The old changer never worked as a changer in all the years that I remember. That was probably for the best as far as preserving records was concerned. But I recall my father seeing an ad for a record changer on sale at Radio Shack. We didn't get it, and it's probably a good thing as far as record life was concerned. (Particularly since that changer was a BSR with a ceramic cartridge.)

This system probably would not win any audiophile awards, although aspects were probably better than a lot of mass market dreck of today. Certainly the build quality was better. I suspect the Garrard was also a better turntable than any cheap mass market turntable of today. It was idler wheel drive, so it would probably have had better speed stability than today's rock bottom belt drive turntables. My parents also probably did well in getting that Shure cartridge--I have to think if nothing else it was gentler on records than whatever was there originally. It would have sounded better, too, at least in absolute terms. Whether the better performance was noticeable through the Panasonic speakers is another question.

But even though the system wasn't audiophile dream, it did get used. It might have been used more if it had been a better system, of course. But my mother apparently played records pretty much daily while I was enjoying supervised play time as a small child. Later, I can remember her listening to records some evenings after dinner. And my mother started broadening her musical horizons when that system was still in service. I say, that system has value in that it established the idea of playing records as a normal, every day thing.

The system lasted until I was a teenager. And then the problems started. The first problem was that my mother decided to move the system to a real stereo stand. Up to that point, it had lived on our dining room buffet. (I have no idea why it ended up there... I have to wonder if it wasn't originally a move to keep the system out of my reach.) The stereo stand looked nice--real wood!--but was not super solid. So the record player started skipping. (This was before I knew much about the care and feeding of turntables. Today I'd take one look, and at least have a pretty good guess what the problem is!) Then, not long after, the receiver picked up a hum--probably a failing power supply capacitor. So the system fell silent.

After the system was taken out of service, I had some idea of using the changer for 78 RPM records, but it was one of those projects that I never got around to doing. The closest I came was trying it one time. I think I ran it through a console mono unit I had (using the old phono preamp that my parents had used). I didn't have a 78 RPM stylus, but didn't care--the record was a battered, last survivor in a set of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. Battered record aside, however, there was something that grabbed me. Was there something in the system--the idler wheel drive turntable or the tube amp in the console--that better served the music than the 80s rack system a few yards away? (I'd speculate yes, but can't answer for certain.)

No matter...while I'm sure I'd find that system my parents had appalling to my audiophile ears of today, there is a certain amount of sentiment. I have many happy memories of listening to records on that system.

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