I’ve noticed one strange thing whilst browsing the shelves of Comet and Currys recently – no-one seems to buy Hi-fi systems anymore.
There was a time, and it wasn’t too long ago, when a person could wear most of the leather off the soles of his shoes walking aisle upon aisle of Hi-fi systems, ok so most of them were identical and for decades had touted the same combinations of a record deck, tape recorder and a radio tuner, in various self proclaimed qualities and every second year or so all of the manufacturers switched from black cases to brushed aluminium and then back to black again – but there was plenty of choice.
Even just three years ago we looked at a Phillips wireless hard drive thingy that could broadcast music effortlessly around your house and we, I mean I, came that close to buying one (hold forefinger and thumb of right hand very close together), indeed if I’d been paying more attention to the bidding on one eBay item we, I, would have been the proud owner of such a thing now.
But a quick browse along the shelf named “Audio” will show hardly anything to purchase now, you have a choice of some very small and very inexpensive little boxes which purport to play a CD and maybe a radio but nothing that will fill a corner of your room in its glossy smoked glass and black plastic cladding, nothing that will impress the neighbours and force them to go out and buy a better one – personal music players have done for the desire of a half decent Hi-fi system – and that is not good.
It didn’t used to be like that of course.
No-one was more surprised than I when my father came home one evening in the early 1970s with several large boxes and as we watched with saucepan-like eyes he took from those boxes the thing that was to become his pride and joy for the next twenty years – his Wharfedale stereo system
There must have been a good bonus that quarter is all I can think, our mother must not have known that there was a good bonus that quarter is all I can think, our dad must have received a blow to the head that afternoon for to spend money in such a way was not natural to him, it helped that Wharfedale Audio had just become clients of his of course, and in that way of his that meant that within minutes of him meeting anyone then that person was his new best mate, our dad managed to wangle his way into the Wharfedale Audio employees shop.
The shop was only open strictly to employees, it was more of a small warehouse counter than a shop where any slight seconds or discontinued lines were sold off cheap to the employees, call it a perk if you like although to be honest you don’t normally have to pay for your perk.
The security man on the gate, our dads new best mate, let him pass without hinderance on that day and our house was the benefactor to the tune of one of the best Hi-fi systems that anyones money could buy in the 1970s – we were astonished.
But he had a mate who could outdo even the Wharfedale system, for Albert the jeweller was a Hi-fi geek.
We went around to Albert the jewellers house one evening to appreciate his system – it was quad.
1970s quadrophonic Hi-fi would be called surround sound these days, it worked on pretty much the same principle, four speakers, one in each corner of the room which a geek like Albert the jeweller would spend forever positioning in exactly the right, inch perfect location, sitting in a tray of sand (for some inexplicable reason) and all pointing to his chair in the middle of the room – the quadrophonic effect was perfect if all of you sat together on Albert the jewellers chair, all at the same time, it was a tad cramped but otherwise you lost the quad sound as soon as you moved away.
The major problem with quadrophonic sound is that it was just for geeks and none of the major recording labels ever embraced it, none of the chart albums were ever released in quad, even The Who’s superb “Quadrophenia” album wasn’t released in quad – imagine buying a surround sound system today only to find that nothing ever used the effect.
Albert the jeweller had to content himself with two or three specialist albums that had been recorded especially for geeks like him, sound effect albums that made full use of quadrophenia, and so we all sat cramped on Albert the jewellers chair that night and we listened to railway trains going in and out of tunnels, whizzing around the room from one speaker to the next…
“ooh did you hear that Frank, it came out fo the wall over there that time”
“I did Albert the jeweller, yes, indeed it did come out of that wall and now its gone all around the room and back through that wall over there”
“It sure is, its the future”
I wasn’t so sure, there’s only so many times you can listen to the 8.42 from Paddington come out of your kitchen, do a circuit of your living room and then disappear up your stairs, I prefered my audio enjoyment to have a bit more of a melody, two guitars some drums and a keyboard rather than just a whistle and a hiss of steam, it wouldn’t catch on, mark my words.
The only good thing about that night is that seeing me sitting there looking rather bored by his railway train records Albert the jeweller asked if I’d like to browse through his daughters record collection and see if there was anything worth playing on there, his daughter was several years older than me and so her record collection tended to be a bit too late 1960s for my liking, but she did have Abbey Road by The Beatles, as she was out of the house at the time Albert the jeweller said I could borrow it to tape record on our new Wharfedale system, I eagerly grabbed it off him.
That would have been around 1971 – I still have Albert the jewellers daughters copy of Abbey Road, maybe one day I should think of giving it back…