Audio, Etc. (Jan. 1977)

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I've always had a fetish for the minimal, the small package, both in and out of audio. I bought my first subcompact car before you ever did-a 1948 Austin A40. Back in the twenties, my family had the first bookshelf radio, only it was a mantelpiece radio.

Same idea. This magazine came out in 1947, with me inside a year later, and was it compact. Miniaturization! The very wave of the future, not to mention the present, and it keeps our small world getting smaller even as we reach out incredibly into electronic space. But in hi fi right now I'm having a tough time keeping my fetish happy.

What do we do? We get bigger and bigger.

Rack-size quadraphonic? Preamp units it takes two hands to operate, 8 practically anchored to the floor. We never had it so big. My eyes bug out, but my fetish is frustrated.

It's not smallness itself, of course, that gets to me. Smallness on its own is nothing much. It has to be ingenious miniaturization, the have your cake and eat it sort, more out of less, the mostest with the leastest. The other day I tossed a little FM radio straight into the waste' basket. It was a palm sized miracle of cubic compactitude, but it sounded awful. That's not the idea. What is exciting, and keeps happening again and again, is some kind of super-ratio between smallness and performance, you might say the S/P factor. But you would have to add another, since we are all consumersease of usage, simplicity, versatility, etc. Does this count! Like, say, in a vest pocket cassette recorder. Call it C, for convenience, and don't forget it. So now we have the SPC factor, the product of size, performance and convenience, and when it's high, my fetish does handsprings.

The WC Factor

The classic example is the one you guessed. The miniature electronic calculator, ultimate consumer realization of the IC concept and the most successful miniaturization on the con sumer market. Its SPC is so high, it's like that little Roumanian gal at the Olympics, darned near perfect in an imperfect world. Size: Tiny. Performance: Nearly ideal and getting better.

Convenience: You name it. Every time I see one such, I start dancing in the streets. And, each time, I look around to see if anyone has developed some palm-sized quadraphonic yet. Nope, two palms maybe, but not one palm.

Can you imagine what might have happened if the little calculators had been introduced to a waiting public in big rack-mount models? Well, I can tell you. The same people who now buy our superb macro hi fi would have snapped up those monsters just as fast, complete with optional heavy-duty dollies to trundle them from room to room. Good market, too? Just like ours. The P would be fantastic.

But how about the S and the C! The smallest hi-fi AM-FM tuner I have around is the Fisher Series 80, and it ain't new. How old? I don't count the years. In its time it was compact state of the art via miniature tubes, designed into a chassis a bit over a foot wide and four inches high, no more than eight inches from back to front. Thirteen tubes and still works like a charm. Plays mono, of course; this was pre-stereo. But with transistors soon to come, would you think that two channels would require twice as much bulk? The jump to transistors was, as they say, quantum, and plenty of other circuit components went along with the new tiny size, maybe a tenth that of the "miniature" tube or a fiftieth, depending. Mount all these little things on circuit boards and plug them in.

Take a chassis like that of the Fisher and put perhaps 10 times as much on it! Well, that's what you might have supposed.

Look back where we came from. I remember scads of the much larger full-sized, earlier tubes, and they got even bigger when beam power and 6L6s came in. Four inches high, each of them and thick and fat and hot. I used to pull out every tube I had, every so often, lay them all on a soft pillow stuffed into a suitcase and take them safely down to the store to be tested. I got into real hi fi for the first time via tubes like that, way back in 1934. It was a big Midwest radio, console model, mail order, boasting no less than 16 tubes, the big fellows. (As I remember, they lumped four tubes in parallel, maybe even eight in push-pull, to get a whopping output.) Prophetically, I opted for the massive extra-cost speaker, a solid 12-inch dynamic with a big, dangerous electromagnet around the voice coil at maybe 400 volts. Nothing miniature about that baby! It was this speaker that I later took out of its console and mounted into a separate baffle that went into my fireplace, for my first BIG BASS. That would be around 1937, I think. Move over, Avery Fisher.

Engineering Ingenuity

The trend as I say was to the miniature. From those fat four-inchers, we jumped to the skinny little tubes of the Fisher 80, only two inches from base to pointed glass tip, for a very big decrease in space and, marvelously, right along with it, a big lift in performance. That's what I mean! Engineering ingenuity at work. We saved a lot of over-all space on the basis of those new tubes and the Fisher remains an excellent example of the way it was done. New compactness, designed right around the tubes themselves, making the most of them.

Compactness, Performance and Convenience, all three, and a new high in SPC, but by that time we were on the verge of the transistor.

True, it took a long time for transistors, etc. to take over, reliably, and maybe they haven't yet, if I read the hi-fi mind correctly. But with some famous exceptions, the tubes did vanish. All solid state. Now, I am wracking my memory--do I recall any great diminution in the bulk of our hi-fi gear? Did our equipment shrink in proportion? Well, maybe for awhile, back then, we had some notably slimmer units by a few percentiles. Of course, we still had to deal with all the ancillaries of control, switching, connections, and, never forget, fingers. They don't get smaller. Good excuse. Yet I recollect no great blinding enthusiasm for further miniaturization. And after awhile we began to grow again. Just when the biggest quantum jump of all was coming up, far greater than all the other put together. The IC, the integrated circuit, the chip.

Imagine my reaction to this news! Yards and yards of circuitry, even a roomful, compressed to the size of a fingernail. Incredible, unbelievable! NOW what will we do? Some readers may remember my first printed shouts of joy, my fetish fairly leaping in a frenzy. Now, we really had it. Alice and her mushroom. Let's put everything into ICs, boys (oh so simple!). Rooms full of hi-fi in a thimble. The whole works, please, and all you'll have left to do will be to attach the handles. (Ah, there was the rub.) So I began projecting into the hi-fi future, around about then. If we meant to use the IC for its full advantage, then we should go to logical conclusions. For a start, how about building a hi-fi amp into the inside of a volume control? Stereo? Plenty of room, surely, and for a dozen more channels if you really needed them.

The only real problem I foresaw was purely mechanical-how in heck would you turn the volume control.

You'd have to clamp it onto the arm of your chair, for leverage. Tail wags dog.

Smaller = Larger

Luckily, I stopped fantasying at that point, or I might have gone on to put quadraphonic systems into headphones or something. The clouded crystal ball. I'm still waiting for mouse sized hi fi out of the IC, but I wait in vain. Instead, it's rack-sized, with transistors, and even ICs.

I could say a lot, by the way, about that third factor in my SPC, the C for Convenience. Sometimes it is the most important of all. That Philco mantelpiece radio had a terrific SPC, and that is why so many people bought it up, including us. Miniaturization, yes, relatively speaking, up there on its mantel (or at the back of a living room table). It kept out of the way and was pretty, in a Gothic sort of fashion. Parabola shaped. A respectable performance, too, through its built-in loudspeaker, so much better than the earlier tinny magnetic horns. Here was the beginning of the radio age, but one aspect of success you might not realize. That Philco plugged into the wall.

What? Well, we had only one radio before that, a square furniture box on spindly legs called a Kolster. A sensation in its time and the first radio of any sort that my father would tolerate.

It sat in his study, the holy of holies.

Why? It, too, plugged in. Maybe it wasn't the very first model to do so, but it must have been darned close to it.

Earlier radios ran on batteries. Good batteries, well engineered, compact-more or less-both dry and clean, but still-batteries. They ran down. They were always running down. Do you think my father, a Professor of English and a literary man, was going to horse around with batteries? That was for kids, for hams and nuts, or those people who always had to be first. (My grandfather was one-he had an Atwater Kent.) Not so my father! Nor a million other solid Americans. No amount of battery engineering was going to change that situation, as somebody finally realized.

Plug-in Profits

The instant a radio appeared with a real, live wall plug, joining the toaster, the waffle maker, and the Hoover, the radio biz was made. It never stopped from that moment on in its march to the big time, and out of it came the modern phono, hi-fi, TV, with every last one a plug-in. That little C factor was worth $-billions.

Yes, we are back to batteries now, but these are different. Miniaturized and transistorized. Suddenly, batteries, too, are Convenient. No cords. So you see how the C factor can shape us, along with the S and the P. Just tie them all together, and you have your public by the tail.

It's a long tale I have to tell, and HI be back later with more. Meanwhile-we have quadraphonic chips.

They're here. Where? Why, right inside those boxes, silly, can't you see them? Now my idea is-hey, where did put that waste basket? That palm-sized FM cube I threw out is exactly the right size for a complete quadraphonic control system, with IC chips. Speakers extra, of course.

(Source: Audio magazine, Jan. 1977, Edward Tatnall Canby)

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