The (mooted) Resurgence of Reel-to-Reel

Will these tape machines make a comeback? I've heard reports of them being used in recent years at hifi shows, and there are still secondhand buyers out there for decks and tapes, but how likely is this resurgence?

Look, I accept that a well-recorded tape on a good machine actually has less limitations than LP. However, we are still talking about a very old technology with (a) a lot of moving parts, and (b) so many tapes of indifferent quality due to either age or the fact that they were not made off a good sub-master in the first place. Really, the stereo hifi VCR rendered the reel-to-reel obsolete long before digital recording cam along.

I also accept that owning and using a lovely reel-to-reel is an experience. But to tell the truth I disposed of mine because it was so fiddly and the hard fact is that there are superior ways to make recordings and to listen to professionally recorded music by great artists. I thought I'd better move on in the interests of saving space, recycling the cash, and better to do it before more maintenance costs came along.

Last time I was chatting to Joe at Audio Connection, however, he showed me a box full of Decca master tapes he had - they came from Europe somewhere, not directly from Decca UK. These should give you the closest approach to the original recording possible in an analogue format. Check with him if you're wanting that ultimate experience.

Just getting back to the resurgence for a moment, as the linked article from Sound & Image says, there needs to be new manufacture of decks if this is to go anywhere in any larger numbers. I have outlined previously the exorbitant cost of new LP pressing plants, and the scarcity of working ones if a huge volume of sales were ever to happen again.

The same goes for reel recorders. The one brand that's said to be gearing up to do new decks is Revox. They're a premium brand, one that still attracts buyers in the secondhand market at very healthy prices. Seeing the new Technics turntable come along at $4500, you have to wonder what a new Revox Reel Recorder will retail at.

Anyway, I started out jotting down some thoughts on this subject in order to give you a link to the Sound & Image article on the resurgimento del reel. Have a read, it's very instructive!

A Room With a VU (or two)

VU Meters used to be on lots of upmarket amplifiers, and these days they are only retained by a few like McIntosh and Accuphase. But I notice that they are making a bit of a comeback on high-end esoterica. Why? Because they can be utterly charming, as the above Technics SE-A5 power amp shows.

Incidentally, Yamaha have released a high-end integrated amplifier with VU meters! See more on the Products Page - heading is Yamaha Retro Comeback!

But wait, there's more. Panasonic's announcement that they're reviving the hifi Technics brand looks like delivering some more of that ol' time charm too. Since they have made some lovely VUs in the past, I look forward to their new ones. For more details and a picture see AVHub's report here.

Speaker Rescue - Philips Norelco Bookshelf model

These turned out to be amazing little speakers, well worth the effort to fix. Full story here.

The Sonab OA6 Project

Just what do you do with a pair of speakers that are partly active, partly passive, with a unique and hard to fix "energiser" and two destroyed drivers?

I've been working on a pair of these, and you can read all about it here.

Speaker Rescue! KEF C75

These are tricky to fix unless you can find the exact midrange, so I had to become a bit inventive to do a patch-around as an interim measure. See what you think! Story here.


The Thorens Turntable Legacy

I've had various Thorens turntables over the years, and recently felt the urge to get one of the archtypical models from their golden age. My first one was a TD160 Mk2, and later I had a TD125 Mk2 with a bigger than usual plinth, electronic speed control, and all the usual core features of Thorens like a massive platter and suspended sub-chassis. I still have a TD180 which is not up to their usual standard, but has the 78 speed which I find useful from time to time when I have to play or transfer 78rpm discs.

This time around I wanted the fairly minimalist looking TD165. It's partly about the look of it, which is so mainstream retro that it's hard to beat. Functionally, it is everything you need in a player, with the heavy platter, heavier at the outside to get steady rotational speed, suspended (sprung) sub-chassis for the platter and arm (some other mob did this too, later - oh, yes, Linn), and an adequate but again delightfully retro arm with detachable "birdcage" headshell and anti-skate weight "on a string".

Apart from the looks, it's the basic attention to simple, functional design that keeps me marvelling at these turntables. The controls are very simple knobs but practically indestructible. I've included a photo of the lid showing the slot at the back, which goes over a simple sturdy pin to make a beautifully minimalist hinge. No complexity at all, no stress on the lid, it lifts up and stays put just short of 90 degrees with no need for metal hinges and springs, drilling and bolting.

Dual Turntable Fans - Here's a nice Video Clip

This is Jason Cale's clip on You Tube of his 1219 in action, with some special image effects.

The Enjoyment of LPs

Some of my most enjoyable sessions with LP were when I ran the Thorens TD125 II with Phase Linear pre-power amps and KEF Reference 105 Mk.2 speakers, during the 1990s. I'd sometimes have friends over for a musical evening with wine and nibbles, and they'd say to me "how have you got these LPs to sound so good?", and, "amazing, there's no surface noise".

There were a couple of reasons for this. The system was certainly not over-endowed with high treble detail. The 105 Mk.2 had huge depth to the sound, excellent midrange, but were a little rolled-off at the top. The Phase Linear amps were also not too sharp, but had some punch.

The other reason was that, as a secondhand record dealer, I'd amassed a sizeable collection of LPs which had been fairly carefully vetted for condition and sound quality. If I played something on one of those nights it was going to be carefully selected, aiming for maximum impressiveness on all fronts, sonically and musically.

I've been through various combinations of gear since then, and found some of them to be quite hostile to LP, emphasising every bit of surface noise or edginess in the recording or unsympathetic mastering. I had wanted to move away from the rolled-off top end that my old system had, and get more detail. This has from time to time led me to have more detail than I really want!

There was, and maybe still is, a certain sub-set of the audiophile community who go for maximum detail retrieval. I'm not one of those, and might, for them, be some sort of heretic or luddite. There's a magic balance that can be achieved where a system sounds alive, or at least lively, without being a hair shirt aurally. I've found this combination in all sorts of gear, some large, some smaller, some expensive and some relatively cheap.

Then, what gives the best results? It will be firstly the turntable itself, but then the critical item is the arm, and then the cartridge. Arguments may rage over whether the arm or the bits spinning the record are more important, but in truth you need both to be good. My main system uses a heavyweight old SL1100 turntable by Technics, with a Dynavector DV501 arm, and at present a Supex cartridge, although in the past I've used Sumiko and Dynavector cartridges. This combo does a super job, but the Thorens, with a vastly inferior arm and cartridge, does a quite enjoyable job too. And at the moment that's connected to the Mirage M790 speakers via the Yamaha RX-V3900!

Hardly an audiophile setup, but it works well. If I went out to buy something equivalent today it would cost me about $6k. It's good enough to sort the LP sheep from the goats, the big variable being the LPs themselves. On that system you can easily pick lots of variations in LP quality, but it is certainly not a too-bright or too-critical sound.

If you have pristine, well-made, well-mastered LPs you can play them with excellent results on a highly detailed stereo and enjoy them. My collection is pretty varied in content , condition and recording heritage, so I've decided that a "forgiving" system is best. The picture at right hints at another way to enjoy music.


1. I don't have or use any tone controls on my better systems; it just has to sound good.

2. Cleaning can help but only if the LP isn't damaged.

3. Direct to Disc recordings often make for superior LPs.

4. You can get good and bad in both LP and CD.

5. System setup and maintenance is cheap and effective, such as tracking weight adjustment, anti-skate, cartridge alignment, stylus cleaning.

6. Yes, early CDs and CD players were not for the most part superior to a good vinyl system, but they evolved to a very acceptable level, and I listen to both CD & LP, and enjoy both.

7. Yes, I have heard a $500k system playing LP that sounded fabulous, but we know that even all the 1%ers can't or won't have that!

Stereo Decoder For Valve Radio

While we in Australia didn't get FM until nearly forty years after it was started in the USA, my lovely old German Valve radios tended to have AM/FM/LW and SW from the 1950s. Some valve radios had the option of a stereo decoder, which usually plugs into a spare valve socket in amongst the other components on the chassis. They would have one or two small valves plus other components, and perhaps a set of relays to close when a stereo signal was received.

These older style decoders have become harder to find, and often cost in excess of $100, plus freight from Europe to Australia. I was intrigued to see on ebay someone selling two models of solid state decoder designed specifically to work with some of either Grundig or Saba radios. They only cover specific models, and you have to get that right, but I bought one to try out since my Saba Freudenstadt 15M is stereo capable. There's a switch on the front for mono/stereo, and a vacant valve socket sat awaiting the arrival of a decoder.

This little decoder is a fraction the size of the Saba E14 decoder of old. It plugs in easily, and the only adjustment it needed was a tweaking of the "gain" trimpot, which works in reverse, increased volume as you turn anti-clockwise. When I initially plugged it in the volume drop when switching from mono to stereo on the front panel was quite noticeable. But with that simple adjustment, it's sounding very good indeed. It still cost a bit over $100 with freight, but should have a long usable life and is easy to fit. The radio itself is worth about $600 so the cost is not outrageous to upgrade it to stereo. Since it was designed to do it, and has two ELL800 power tubes, I thought I might as well.


QUAD 33/303 Amplifiers

Back in 1988 when I opened my first shop, selling secondhand LPs and new CDs, I had a music system in it that was a classic even then, and remains so today. The old Quad 33/303 combination is one of the nicest sounding amps you'll come across if you like a smooth but remarkably gutsy amp, although the physical layout is a little strange. Still, it has charm!

The Quad was eventually replaced by a more space-saving Marantz 1050, while at home I went on to bigger combinations such as the Phase Linear 400 power amp and matching pre. But I have from time to time felt it would be nice to revisit the old Quad, and so I recently bought one on ebay which had been upgraded by Esmond Pitt of Dada Electronics in Melbourne (see notes below). A nutty purist might call them Quad revisionists, but what they do works beautifully - so you'd have to be mad to resist. You get the better performance but still in the retro body, and they work with great respect for the original design and sound. I'd like a classic car done over in this way! Photo at left by Pascale Van Reijsen of

The picture was taken for Vintage Audio Repair where they also have a photo of the Quad 50 in lovely resored condition, and an extensive photo gallery of other vintage gear - click on that link

The main capacitor replacements are as follows - the two output coupling caps which were originally 2000uF are replaced with two 4700uF caps of the same physical size. The other two 2000uF originals were for power decoupling, and these are replaced by one 4700uF cap instead of two. This is why the modified 303 unit has only three caps instead of the original four. As Esmond says, you can't buy 2000uF caps in that size any more, and what he's done upgrade the capacitance in both roles anyway. See full upgrade details in notes below.

Other sections are renewed in the same fashion, with new for old where needed, and alignments done to ensure original specs are restored or exceeded.

The sound is great, and since I got the FM tuner as well this time, I was interested to see how it performed. It surprised me in how nice it is too! Although not tolerant of anything less than an elevated T antenna in my media room, once I got that in place it pulled in all the Sydney stations (except for the more distant and low-powered community ones) with excellent clarity and soundstaging.

The Quad amps are driving a pair of Neat Critique two-way bookshelf speakers finished in superb Cherry timber, and they go very well together.

Now about those odd physical aspects. The 303 power amp has all the connections on the front; signal interconnect, power, and speaker lead sockets, the lot. So if you want to see the face, you have to try and dress all those cables around to one side and behind in order to get then to where they're going, and it looks a bit scrappy. I'm still mulling over whether to turn it sideways.

The source input sockets are mostly DIN, which I'm used to from my tinkering with older European gear - German radios and old B&O - even some older Australian and British stuff - but there are some tricks for the novice, like needing those cute little Bulgin 3-pin power plugs on the 240v leads to each piece, and the somewhat recessed socket holes for switched (US style two-pin) power at the back of the pre, and the 75ohm antenna lead socket on the back of the FM tuner - it doesn't like most of those black baluns which have too short a barrel, but a standard Belling-Lee RF plug is fine.

All things said and done, this is a fine retro setup, and could still be suited to anyone as a main system as long as your needs were mainly for CD and FM, and these days perhaps a streaming source. There are only three line level DIN inputs (Tape, Radio1, Radio2) apart from the dedicated Phono - but see in the notes below what Esmond does with the phono board when upgrading - you can turn it around and plug it in the other way, and it becomes a line level input for CD.

You can pick these up in good condition, sometimes also updated, for $500-700. There's even a version with a wooden case for the pre and tuner, a bit like the old Marantz and McIntosh style. The case was sold as an accessory - the components are exactly the same.

UPDATE: Sold my Quad 33/303 and FM tuner in order to purchase a valve amplifier. I've not had one before, but wanted to have that experience. I've heard them elsewhere, in the shop when I worked there, and here on loan at times. But now I have a nice little Cayin A-50T, which is a modest but well made amplifier, very charming.


Quad Upgrades by Dada Australia - Get a quote from Esmond Pitt -

The 303 Power amp service consists of: 1. Replace output coupling and PSU caps as we discussed per your first email, 3 x 4700uF BHC Aerovox, 25,000 hour lifetime. 2. Replace all other electrolytics. Increase the input stage supply decoupling capacitors to 470uF to lower hum. 3. Replace all trimpots with 12-turn so they can be adjusted much more accurately, 16x when you take into account that the originals only have 270 degrees travel.

4. Replace all resistors and diodes on the PSU board. 5. General cleanup. Change the input and Zobel capacitors if necessary. Replace the lamp if necessary. Supply missing feet if necessary. 6. Readjust the rail voltage, centre voltages and bias currents. 7. Test and measure. 8. Listening test.

The 33 pre-amp service consists of: 1. Replace all electrolytics in all boards: this comes to about 30 of the little fellas. Increase a few, e.g. the phono supply decoupler and the amplifier board bootstrap, in line with modern practice. 2. Replace *everything* on the PSU board except the transformer. 3. Change the phono input impedance from 68k to 47k. 4. Implement the S1 side of the phono adapter board as a CD input, 400mV nominal level.

5. Replace the biassing resistors and the output capacitors on the tape adapter board. Raise the output capacitor from 680nF to 2.2uF to remove a slight bass roll-off. 6. Replace the lamp if necessary. Supply missing feet if necessary. 7. Test, measure, listen.

After all this, both units typically measure better than original factory specification, mostly due to modern components being better, also to use of metal film instead of carbon resistors.

Dr. Amar Bose

The death of Dr. Amar Bose will be the catalyst for everyone to re-examine his legacy and to pass judgement on the long stream of Bose products that have enjoyed huge success in the marketplace over many years. I'll leave it to the experts to do the model-by-model assessments, but I'd like to make a few observations of a general nature, including some about the principle of mixing direct and reflected sound when designing speakers.

Over the past twenty years or more, the Lifestyle system in it's various guises became the backbone of the company's offering. Those damned little cubes appealed to women, and plenty of men fell into line. I won't get all elitist about the sound quality - these systems do a good job and they suit a lot of people, so they are a valid and useful product - but they are not high on the audiophile totem pole.

The small 3.2.1 systems were also attractive but tended to suffer faults at a greater rate than retailers and their customers found comfortable. The Wave Radio and Wave Music Systems were a huge success in delivering good sound from a mantle or benchtop sized device, and deserved their popularity. It was with these that the labyrinth was used to enhance bass, a phenomenon dating back many years to the old transmission-line designs of the 1970s. Active noise reduction in headphones was another area that Bose set the standard and enjoyed lots of sales.

In the beginning, however, the reputation was built on speaker products which used a combination of direct and reflected sound - reflected off back and/or side walls to create a more spacious sound. The famous 901 series in fact used mostly rear-facing midranges, with just one facing forwards. They also required an EQ unit in order to boost the high and low end. This model has gone through a number of Mk.s, and was one of the ikonic speakers of the 1980s and 90s. Precise imaging was never their strong suit, but the punters loved them. Enthusiasts with extra cash to burn even used two pairs for more oomph!

The little 301 had an angled tweeter, plus a baffle that could be used to "steer" the top end, in effect a fine tuning for room boundary and "live or soft" response adjustment. I doubt that this was ever applied correctly by the purchasers. Likewise the squat 501, the next size up from the bookshelf 301 model.

But the one which I am most intrigued by is the 601 (picture at head of this section). This had two bass drivers, one forward firing, and another on the upper deck, angled upwards and slightly forwards. The really intriguing bit, however, was that in the later versions there were four high frequency drivers, (early models only had two high frequency units) two aimed to the side and forwards, and two upwards, to the sides, and backwards. The reason I find this design appealing is that I'm a late convert to the effect that Sonab achieved with this sort of design. In fact, when I do a stocktake of my current speaker holdings at home, I have direct-reflecting speakers in the main stereo (Alon V), the front of the surround system (Mirage M790), and several sets of Sonab speakers "just for fun", which have come into play as my previous sets of Ditton15 departed. Can't keep them all!

So I was tempted recently when some fairly mint condition 601s went to auction, but chickened out after thinking about the overcrowding I already have in the house! But I remain curious to hear what the 601 does with that classic array.

So, on hearing of the death of this famous man, I'm reminded that he did tap into some very valid acoustic technology, and that building things people like and will buy in droves pays dividends. It was also partly down to very good PR and advertising, of course. But Amar, you certainly got our attention, and your name is part of the hifi firmament for the long term. RIP.

Video of a Dr. Bose lecture.

15/6/2013 Everything Old Is ... well, Old!

LPs - Join the dots.

Bose have notified dealers that the older style consoles of Lifestyle systems, those with inbuilt CD players, can no longer be repaired. It's common knowledge that any piece of electronic equipment with chips older than 7-10 years is likely to be non-repairable unless you have a source of out-of-date integrated circuits.

Everyone loves steam trains, but their Achilles Heel is the very high cost of building, manning (modern OH&S wouldn't allow it!) and maintenance, not to mention the infrastructure required to coal them, water them, and then having somewhere to dump the red-hot ashes at the end of their shift. While one loco has been built in Britain in recent years, an A1 based on an original set of plans and called Tornado - and you can watch an awesome clip of it (with the sound turned up, marvellous) here on YouTube - the cost of building these things is so high that it's not going to catch on again.

Stay with me a while yet, until the last dot appears, shortly.

When I'm in the hifi store I work at several days a week you often hear people say, when they see the range of turntables on display, "Oh, I believe turntables are making a comeback!"

"No", we say, "for us they never went away". The same applies to valve amplifiers, which are being produced in large quantities, spurred on by demand from demand here and particularly in Asia, where the fondness for things like valve amps and horn speakers never went away.

Sales of LPs remain healthy, however the figures are open to discussion, as this very interesting article outlines. Pressing LPs seems to be going on at a goodly rate, even though sales are still only a small minority of total music sales. One operator mentioned in the article has gone from one plant to four, and all are flat out. They use secondhand, reconditioned presses, which might be bought for around $US25000, and are kept going by getting replacement parts made to order by engineering & machining shops. The original manufacturers of LP presses are long gone, and investigations regarding new production of presses revealed that the cost would be as high as $US500,000.

There's your final dot, right there.

Just as steam trains are now hideously expensive to make, so are LP presses. Unless the market goes on rising to well beyond enthusiastic collector levels and becomes once again mainstream, the price of production will be a limiting factor. I'm happy to have in excess of 2000 LPs in my rather eclectic collection, which covers classical, Jazz, Popular, Folk/Ethnic, Stage Shows, and even some oddities like steam-driven Orchestrion and mechanical music boxes. I'll always take a look at any pile of secondhand LPs I see for sale just on the off chance there's something of interest. But I'm not expecting LP production to become mainstream again, and agree that we have probably seen the last new physical disc in the form of Blu-ray. The commercial future belongs to digitally stored music, which has evolved to a High Resolution form that leaves no quality issues, and has storage and lack of deterioration (like surface noise) on its side as well.

But I'll go on enjoying all the old formats - I have most of them still running, although no DAT, DCC or Elcaset.

FOOTNOTE: India's last telegram: July 15th, 2013. The telegraph system, over 150 years old, lasted well beyond the advent of the telephone, but has now been rendered unnecessary and too expensive by the latest mobile phone networks.

How Not To Sell Turntables

I use a Technics SL-110 turntable and really like it. So do a lot of audiophiles, not that I count myself as such! Imagine my surprise when I saw recently two of them going "brand new in box" as a collector's estate was being sold off, presumably.

To add icing to the cake, both had good SME arms and cartridges. A new one would be good, I thought. There was just one snag. The seller had listed them ending after midnight, and there's no way I sit up late on the off-chance that I might get a good deal.

Apparently a lot of others felt the same way. One went for $445 the other for $534, which is considerably under where they should be even in used condition - let alone in "as new". The arms are worth $200-$300 on their own, and the one with the series III SME went for just $445. I see a lot of rubbish turntables go for too much money usually. Not this time, in fact the opposite. Great turntables and arms at bargain price.

I know you can put a bid in any time, but in my experience this just ensures that someone knocks you off by a few bucks right at the end, so no point.

Fred at left, with Elgar and young Yehudi Menuhin

Fred Gaisberg, Legend!

I noticed on Twitter that the English magazine The Gramophone was asking the question: should Fred Gaisburg be inducted into their hall of fame? Hello! The man is a legend. It may be just a sad commentary on people's historical knowledge that this question needed to be asked. But since it has been, let's do a bit of a recap.

The spinning disc (and what longevity it has had!) was invented by Emile Berliner late in the 19th Century. Gaisberg was employed by Berliner's The Gramophone Company to manage the England/Europe end of the operation, including doing the actual recordings on the fairly basic acoustic gear of that time.

I read Fred's book, his memoirs of a life spent making recordings of the most famous performers of the early 20th Century, back in the 1990s. Called "The Music Goes Round", it contained many fascinating anecdotes of his personal travels and travails as he went from America to England, then across Europe and to Russia, seeking out artists to record for the fledgling record industry - on his "portable" acoustic setup. The Gramophone Company became HMV and ultimately, after merging with Columbia, EMI (Electric & Musical Industries). Gaisberg's Caruso recordings were the first issued with the famous dog Nipper on the label!

It is down to Fred that the industry could offer singers like Chaliapin, Caruso (who he recorded in defiance of head office's veto), Adelina Patti, Gigli, Melba and John McCormack. There were pianists from Paderewski to Grieg, and violinist Fritz Kreisler. He collaborated with Sir Edward Elgar in recording many of the great man's orchestral works, which in those days had to be reduced in orchestration to fit the venue and the ability of the acoustic process to capture only a limited number of closely grouped musicians. Elgar, rather than be put off by this, was thrilled to see his works being promulgated by this technological marvel of the day, and readily adapted his them as required.

Fred's stamina was tested by the great Russian bass singer Chaliapin, who liked nothing better than going top all-night clubs, drinking copious amounts of booze and singing until dawn.

He remained in the EMI company until 1939, and was an advocate of further developments such as stereo, and the big new studios at Abbey Road.

(Note: Fred's book The Music Goes Round seems to be available as an e-book from Google, but I haven't downloaded it, needs to be done via account)

Further Note: I'm just starting to read Jerrold Northrop Moore's 1999 volume on Gaisberg called Sound Revolutions. He draws not just on Fred's own words, but has other family and industry sources as well. It's full of photos too.

The Golden Age of Hifi?

The above advertisement from Douglas Hifi in Melbourne dates from 1974 and appeared in The Age newspaper. It shows that just about everything you might want to buy could be had for $199 per piece: the Thorens 160 turntable (now that was certainly a bargain!), an Akai cassette deck or a Sony reel-to-reel; there's a Ferrograph amplifier, and Rectilinear speakers, amongst some Linear Design stuff.

That's close to the time when I bought my first separate component stereo system (in 1972) for $400. For that I got a Sansui AU-101 amplifier, a Silcron Belt-drive turntable with a Sansui arm (looked like an SME knock-off!), Shure M55e cartridge and a pair of floor standing speakers (probably made by Interdyne) with two Peerless tweeters and a Magnavox 8" woofer, all in a sealed cabinet. FM hadn't started yet, but cassettes were all the go and I added a Teac A-350 deck with crystal-ferrite head and "Dolby NR", which a relative bought overseas for me - they were about $350 here back then, which seemed a bit rich compared to the cost of the whole system, but $150 in HK.

What has survived best out of all the gear from that Golden Age? Certainly not the cassette decks or the reel to reels - most of the oldies are worn out completely now, although you can get lucky with later models. I still have a three head cassette deck and a reel to reel. There are quite a few good old turntables still around, and sometimes a good set of old speakers - see Ralph Waters at Speakers' Corner for a lot more on that subject.

Amplifiers were mostly fairly low in power and were early attempts at solid state/transistor designs, so were a pretty mixed bag. Age has wearied many of them, too. Capacitors and transistors can be replaced, but later models will have better performance usually.

Tuners started to create more interest after the commencement of FM in 1975, and it became popular then to buy "receivers", industry jargon for a tuner & amp in one box. I have half a dozen assorted vintage receivers from way back when tuning was done with a multi-plate tuning capacitor and needle-dial, driven by a piece of string! ABC classic FM showed me a lot of music, and it remains a great free resource. Ads like the Douglas Hifi one above are always interesting, showing the way things were.

Retro Can Be New

I has been quite noticeable that audio manufacturers have latched onto the retro trend, and are producing all sorts of things with visual appeal that harks back to at least the 1940s, with stop-offs in every decade thereafter. It's a fashion thing, but it's also about pleasing the eye, and having some fun with design. There have been some good efforts in the car world too, with the Mini and the baby Fiat being among the best examples. The Micra taps into this vein too, as does the VW beetle - they should try again to get the Beetle right, and a new Karmann Ghia would certainly sell.

Valve amplifiers hardly have to try and look retro, it just comes naturally. Radio's also easily adapt to this design mode, and Tivoli have gone all the way back to a Vernier style tuning knob - it's geared, so the centre turns more quickly than the outer ring. Another product that caught my eye was the Cayin SP105 Radio (above), which is so nicely made it costs quite a bit, like around $1000 in Europe, but probably quite a bit less in good ol' China. I may still have to track one of these down for the display case!

The people at Symbol Audio (see record player above - more pics at their site) have adapted a military looking valve amp section to a relatively up-to-date turntable, then clothed the whole package in a seventies Scandinavian timber cabinet with full-range paper-cone speakers - which as Ralph Waters has told us is a very "sound" way to go!

Yamaha's A-S2000 (and all of the current stereo range) is again very seventies in appearance. That was about minimalism, something the German Braun company did to perfection. Their products still fetch a premium for the sole reason of design excellence, with the main man back then being Dieter Rams. I have one of these tuners - see below

The Grundig/Sonos Genetic Engineering Project

The experiment in blending Sonos into an old valve radiogram came about gradually. I inherited the large KS680WE some years ago from a distant in-law relative, and it has moved around a bit while entertaining me with its big, warm and intriguing sound. What you get in this 92kg brute is a Dual 1237 turntable, a valve tuner-preamp and a valve power amplifier (2 x 15w, using two EL84 per channel), driving two large speakers each with five drivers - 2 x tweeter, 2 x midrange, 1 x 8" woofer.

The cabinet work is high-gloss timber, and is superb. A little the worse for wear when I got it, a polish with some car polish and brasso brought it back to a deep luster, typical of the better German cabinets before they became lighter and cheaper in the 1970s.

The tuning section has FM, AM and Short Wave 1 & 2, and there's a spare input for Tape, which I could have used for this exercise but for a mishap with the tuner/preamp section. That whole assembly is a tightly coagulated bucket of bolts, valves and dials of the old string-driven type, and the complexity is such that I think the designers practiced by designing the Strassburg clock before they attempted this one.

Apart from the usual multi-slider/pushbutton function selector system there are two strings, one for the FM tuning, and another for the AM/SW bands, with a clutch mechanism that jumps from one string to the other depending on which band button you press. The FM string does a complete circuit around the outer perimeter of the whole radio assembly, with the actual tuning capacitor located at the opposite corner to where the clutch and tuning knob are. That string broke a while back, rendering the FM untunable, so I bravely extracted the entire assembly, put it on the kitchen table, and attempted to splice it back together after making a careful map of the route.

I failed, and decided to reassemble it and try again later when I had fresh supplies of tuning string. At least I could still play the record player and AM radio - wrong! My reassembly may have been incorrect in some detail, or there's a valve on the way out, or something else, but the sound was noisy and awful. It'll need not just the new string but more detailed de-bugging to get that fabulous rich sound (on FM anyway) back again.

So, the wife thought it was way beyond time to chuck it out. I just can't quite come at that. Given time it can be made good again. But in the meantime, I wanted to try and integrate Sonos into it without damaging anything. Given the sound issues, using the Tape input was no longer an option. I decided to take the line of least resistance and use a Sonos ZP100 to drive the speakers, which are very efficient. To do this, I unplugged the speaker connection from the power amp (an 8 pin valve connection) and noted the left and right channel pin connections. Obtaining an 8 pin valve socket, I made a speaker cable adaptor with bare wires at the ZP100 end, and the valve socket at the other.

The moment of truth arrived when I made the connection and turned on the Sonos. Had I made the right connections or was I about to short circuit the ZP100? No worries, I soon had the sounds of some appropriate music (Swingin' Safari) issuing forth from the big beast's speakers. The ZP100 sits neatly in the cupboard below the tuning section, and I can now play anything I want through the Grundig, linking to Spotify,, any streaming radio service, my iTunes Library (all from my CDs, and at Apple Lossless quality) - or anything connected to the main stereo in another room - which, of course, even includes a better turntable.

To tell the truth, the Dual record player is the weak link in the system anyway. I got it to sound a bit nicer by improving the pickup cartridge, but the phono section is not that great, and FM was easily the best sounding source I had before. So, in purist terms this is not a fix, but a fudge. The fix can wait. But it's given the old thing another lease on life, staving off the wife's submission that it be put out for the next council cleanup!

It's a slightly zany one, but a further illustration of the flexibility that Sonos gives you in imagining applications for it. I could have attacked it another way, by making an input adaptor for the valve amplifier and preserving that as part of the functioning whole as well. It could then be run from a ZP90 Connect. That may come next, but it would involve some electrical modifications that I am a bit reluctant to do. I'd have to isolate the power amp and pre-tuner, so only the power amp comes on when power is applied. For now, I'm having fun playing with it and no mods, so no harm done. The better choice is to go back and spend a day or two getting all the original bits back up to speed, then link the ZP90 in via the Tape input. The joys of retro!


Feature: Did Steve Jobs Like B&O?

Did Steve Jobs like B&O? You bet! Looking around the web finds evidence that he bought their gear for himself, both recently and in the early days of his bachelor apartment existence

They way they designed things into slim and elegant forms would have won him over completely, as it has many others. I've been working with an old (circa 2000) B&O Beocenter 1, which at first glance is just a TV, but on closer examination reveals itself to be a stereo with FM and DVD/CD player too. It stands on a pedestal of gleaming brushed metal, and can rotate with a the help of a little motor. The styling is classic B&O and the slim lines owe something to the very tidy Philips tube they used, but the casing is also a masterpiece of design.

The glass panel at the front is supposed to reduce glare and improve contrast, but I suspect it's more about the look. The picture is fine without it - yes, it got broken in transit, so had to be removed. The trouble they went to in order to make this glass attach securely and invisibly is still being done on a larger scale with their flat panel TVs. The mounting brackets have to be precisely placed and glued with something that just will not part company when you're attaching a big heavy glass sheet to a big screen. It's done by robots for precision. This approach is a pain to grapple with when things go wrong. I had to take the whole back cover of the set to get at the anchor bolts for the glass panel, which are about 120mm long. As you'd expect, the panel is no longer available as a spare!

The DVD/CD player is incredibly minimalist. It appears out of nowhere below the screen, where a little panel drops down then something that's just a semi-circle with a couple of small holding tabs about the size of fingernails comes out for you to carefully balance a disc on it. But it works, which has always been the charm, until the day when they don't work any more.

There was a time when B&O was affordable for a lot more people than it is today. But it's easy to see how their approach to design would have appealed to Steve, who was a design and appearance obsessive.

UPDATE: the service wing of B&O here in Sydney has been able to find me a replacement glass panel (no cheap glass that!) for the front of the Beocenter 1, and special thanks to Tim Hartmann for his efforts. It's all looking good and running well now, with the addition of an offboard digital TV tuner. One slight challenge was that the replacement glass had diffferent threads on the retaining lugs, so the original four bolts didn't fit. Cured with threaded shafts of the right size.

Retro Is Cool

Being into retro gear, at least as a (modest) collecting interest, I'd be interested to hear from readers what they like in that line. Email me here, or comment via Facebook. So to get the ball rolling, here are some thoughts on the subject.

Last year Onkyo released a stereo system that was a blast from the past, complete with a big power amplifier featuring real Vu Meters! Anyone wanting that good ol' religion of two-channel will appreciate the pulling power of a pair of these. They've disappeared from most brands, although McIntosh are smart enough to know that their retro look is part of their attraction. It's not just that, of course, as they also have a big following for their sound and durability - it's a package deal, and not cheap.

The sporadic hype about turntables and vinyl (which I still use too), together with a lot of new production of valve amps, has combined to make me think about doing a rough guide to retro hifi, what's good, bad or just ugly about these items. So here goes.


These are the main item that retro-hounds are into. What makes a good one? Basically it's about good solid engineering, such as heavy platters, smooth transfer of energy from the motor, and well-made arms. Most of the cognoscenti go for belt drive, but I'm not alone in liking direct drive if it is well done. And companies up to and including Goldmund have embraced this approach. There have been some fine broadcast turntable that were DD, and I use a very heavy Technics SL-110 with Dynavector 501 arm with excellent results. Pics of a similar model (SL1100) here, but with Technics arm.

For the audiophile brigade, the Linn Sondek LP12 with every modification from the last twenty years or more fitted to it remains the holy grail. I'm something of an agnostic on this, being a bit distrustful of a suspension system that's so touchy that you need a shaman to set it up, and mustn't move it afterwards for fear of disruption to The Force.

If you're looking for good value, any of the better used turntables will deliver great results. Thorens, Rega, Music Hall, the better Project models, the Denon direct drives, even the higher models from Rotel, Yamaha and Technics will serve very well. There have been a lot of junky plastic turntables that are not worth the effort to resuscitate, but fortunately there seem to be plenty of reasonable, better built ones around as well. No doubt many of all sorts have been binned over the years.


These are a very mixed bag indeed; vintage speakers vary from brilliant to dull as ditchwater. I should stick to recommending those that have some life, some vitality to them, but in the retro system it's not all there is to it. You might want a more laid-back sound combined with the look - timber, chunky, or perhaps even quirky design.

A common UK brand that I think delivers the goods very musically is Celestion. You can get a very nice speaker secondhand for $150-200 a pair. I saw a nice pair of Celestion 3 go for around $100 recently, but the larger models will usually be anything up to $400, still a good buy. I also have some Sonab OA5 II, plus some OD-11 cubes that have amazingly good sound. Quirky design, but they work.

KEF are a famous old brand that can give you a smooth result, but a little on the tame side for me these days. I did have a pair of Reference 105 Mk2 for quite a while (pic above), and wouldn't mind getting another pair just for old times sake one day if they can be fitted in to a room somewhere, but space is at a premium now at my place, owing to all the other things I've put on display.

B&W are a huge company with plenty of old models that qualify for the retro tag, as are Tannoy, AR and JBL. Focal are great speakers, but not yet old enough to be retro. Get in early, buy a classic before it becomes rarer and more expensive!

A more specialised area are the electrostatics like the Quad ESL-57 or ESL-63: you'll need a good repair man, and they are thin on the ground, if they're not already under it. Apogee full ribbon speakers are hard to drive, as are some of the Infinity RS series. Duntech are more efficient but still demand good amplification

Old Tannoy concentrics get some people excited, while others go for the full-range Lowther or Coral, and other similar exotics which can do good things if the cabinet is just right for them. The full-range paper cone models are also very efficient and can be used with good low-powered amplification.


There are a lot of junky seventies amplifiers that really have little to recommend them apart from some having vu meters. The age of them means you'll get a lot with noisy volume and tone controls, capacitors and transistors needing replacement, and generally poor performance. Yes, some will look good, and may even sound ok. I admit to liking some, not all, old stereo receivers.

My current collection has some nice looking examples HK450 (pic above), Luxman R-3055 and 1500, Saba 9260 (pic above), and Revox B285. There are some nice ones around from Marantz, and I also quite like some of the Yamahas from their "green dial" analogue tuning period, late seventies. Earlier than the seventies and you're really into vintage gear!

Accuphase is another brand that's sought after and usually does an excellent job.

For many, the ultimate retro amplifier is a valve amplifier. You can now buy so many different models, all looking the part, all made in China, but how do they sound? As anyone familiar with these things will tell you, the key part of these amplifiers is the transformer, and getting transformers with the wide frequency response you need for good hifi is the expensive bit. How well put together they are is also an issue. The last thing you need is a major melt-down and a house fire. It's not good to have valve gear that you turn on only for short periods and then off again, but it's also dangerous to leave them on for long periods unattended, just in case!

Cassette Decks

These are now for the most part old, troublesome to maintain, and unless you want to transfer some tapes to CD, forget it. Nobody would really need to make a new recording onto tape these days. I still see cassette decks fetching good money if they are top-of-the-line three head decks, but most of the interesting looking "vintage" style ones on the market these days are past it. Nakamichi are famous and sought after, but there are other very high standard cassette decks by Aiwa, Pioneer, Marantz and Technics. It comes down to individual models.

Reel To Reel

This category has some high-end hifi credibility left, and refurbished machines have been appearing at hifi shows for the past few years. Again, the vast majority of ordinary consumer models are "reely" not worth worrying about. If you're going to get into this line of product I'd suggest a very good model, capable of taking the larger 10" reels, and something from the better levels of TEAC (A-3300 series), Akai, Technics, or preferably Revox A77 or B77. There are others, but the key concern here is aged componentry and lubricants that dry out and seize up mechanisms. There are also issues with old tapes delaminating and grotting up your heads with sticky stuff!

Music Systems

I have to admit to having wasted a fair bit of time and money on B&O systems over the years - they are either modern and a bit ho-hum, or older and have a different sort of charm - retro charm! I just acquired the all-in-one 2800 music centre (see pic above) which has turntable, amplifier, tuner and input for another source. It needed a little repair, but I love the look of it and it just might go well with one of the Sonab speaker models, which sound better than B&O speakers of the late 70s.

I also have a Beomaster 901 (pic below) which is another of that early Jacob Jensen style, as well as a transistor radio also of that era. It wasn't madly expensive back then, so there's a fair bit of it around, but often no longer working. Getting a new stylus or cartridge for the turntables is expensive.

Latest Addition: Beomaster 1200 (below). Looks great. There's one in the Museum Of Modern Art, New York.

This "early B&O lookalike" (below) is the Arena T2600, made in Denmark as well, by coincidence! I've paired it up with two speakers formerly with a nice old (but troublesome) Grundig valve tuner/amp, and the result is excellent.

Another old music system in my smallish collection is the Nordmende Super, or Snow White's Coffin as it's known in Germany, because of that large, flat, clear, perspex lid (see below). It's a valve job, with turntable and stereo amp/speakers plus multi-band radio including am/fm/shortwave. Virtually impossible to find in Australia, have to be imported like most good German table radios - more about them below.

My Nordmende Super has been modified, so it has a better pickup cartridge (Ortofon MM) and a better phono stage than the original, with adjustable gain.


My special subject! I collect a few radios, mainly German valve "table radios" of the 1960s, which have multi-band capability, rich tones and lovely glowing dials. They are in large wooden cabinets and some are even stereo, but that's not the main event. Just to sit and listen to one, even in AM quality, is to be taken on a journey.

Australian valve radios were more often simple, either mantle radios or incorporated into the full-sized radiograms with record players, speakers and storage cupboards - a pretty massive bit of gear. There are none that match the German product as far as I'm concerned. They were mostly AM only, with some Shortwave, but none with FM as well. FM did not arrive here until well after the valves had succumbed to transistors in all that sort of product.

If you want to get into radios there are plenty on ebay, here and overseas. But again, maintenance is tricky. My advice is to get one really good German one rather than muck around with numerous rubbishy ones. I did that for years, and only woke up to the more elitist approach after wasting a lot of time and money. A good table radio will set you back $500-$1000 including freight from Germany. Good brands are Saba, Telefunken, Nordmende. Grundig are not as good, particularly the later stereo models with a troublesome "Pertinax Platine", a large main circuit board prone to cracking.

A good Aussie cheapie though, is the Kriesler 11-81, a five valve AM radio, plastic rather than bakelite, and relatively easy to come by for under $100, even $50. It's a neat design and works well, and the circuit design is easily obtained. The valves are a little less common, but still around, usually Philips Miniwatt brand.

Reference Sites

Audio Database

The Vintage Knob

Vinyl Engine

Hifi Engine