Hi Fi Schwartz small 01Books for hi fi enthusiasts, when they can be found at all, are invariably ‘how to’ guides: how to buy, how to test, how to set up equipment, how to listen and what to listen to. This makes ‘Hi Fi’ by one-time New York lawyer and lifetime audio tragic Gideon Schwartz, a rare thing indeed. First published late 2019, this is a beautifully presented book celebrating high-end audio. It’s exactly the thing with which rusted-on readers of a magazine like Australian Hi Fi yearn to relax, ideally with gentle music and a glass of bloody good red. And like any item of high-end audio esoterica it’s damn hard to find. I’ll get to that.

First of all, it’s beautiful. Phaidon has a solid track record of publishing beautiful books and this is a ripper, with great and generous photography, black end pages and perfect binding. The cover is silver on black and arresting, featuring one of the great classics, a Revox A700 reel-to-reel tape recorder. It’s only by opening that you discover the complete book title is “Hi-Fi, The History of High-End Audio Design.” Okay, you now flip through and enjoy the photographs. A very young Amar Bose, a glaring Paul Klipsch wearing a ten-gallon hat in an anechoic chamber, ads from the1960s showing gorgeous women with impossible eyelashes lovingly stroking vinyl records, an ad for an in-car seven-inch record player directly over a picture of Sammy Davis Jr cueing a record in a London restaurant.

Hi Fi Schwartz small 04Second, it’s written by someone who understands what we audio enthusiasts suffer, the ever-evolving quest for purity in a field where the goal posts are as capricious and fleeting as the end of a rainbow, always almost, almost, almost within reach. But it’s also an easy read and relatively quick for a large format hardback of more than 250 pages. It traces audio from the earliest examples of recorded music through to digital and back again to analogue, marking milestones like the Ampex 600 reel-to-reel (over 55dB signal-to-noise ratio!) and the Marantz 10-B tuner. Edgar Villchur figured out how to make acoustic suspension speakers in Woodstock, yes that Woodstock, but before it became a celebration of peace and love. If brand names like Nakamichi, Tanberg, Linn Sondek, Stax and Martin Logan ring your chimes, here are their stories and scads more.

Quick question: when was the first music streaming subscription service launched? Maybe you said 2006 with Spotify, maybe you went even earlier, Pandora in 2000 or even Sirius XM back in the 1990s. Nope, it was the Theatrophone, launched in 1881 by Clement Ader during the first International Exposition of Electricity in Paris. Ader set up microphones in various Paris concert halls and transmitted their concerts live to Theatrophone subscribers, who held what we now call a headphone earcup to each ear and listened in at the cost of five cents for five minutes. The invention used existing phone lines to carry the music and Theatrophones could be found in the houses of the rich and beautiful as well as dotted along the Paris boulevards – insert your coins and listen in. Groundbreaking as it was (the Theatrophone preceded modern radio broadcasting by around 40 years) the author argues that it was not Ader’s main claim to audio fame. His approach was to group microphones on the stage to the right and the left of the orchestra, each microphone group transmitting to the right and the left earcup of the subscriber. “In other words,” Schwartz writes, “Ader effectively invented stereo.” This was 140 years ago, remember.

Hi Fi Schwartz small 03High-end audio owes a great deal to people who were not versed in the technology. Ader, for example, was an aeronautics engineer. The key collaborator with Bell Labs in driving for better quality audio reproduction was conductor Leopold Stokowski. Frank Sinatra pioneered the private recording studio at his house in Palm Springs in the 1950s. Adolph Hitler was pivotal in perfecting tape recording after the invention of magnetic tape by the German-Austrian Fritz Pfleumer. The Fuhrer used it to deliver speeches at one location while he was actually at another.

But none of this stuff would fit the modern definition of high-end. It was in the 1960s that stereos got sexy and started showing up in Playboy magazine. Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen did much of the early legwork here (admittedly after they moved out of Olufsen’s parent’s attic) but they were far from alone. Home entertainment centres strove to be stylish as well, some of them massive like the circular Eletrohome of 1966 or the 1965 Clairtone Project G with its spherical speakers, complemented by an enraptured Tuesday Weld who, by the way, is older now but still alive. What a pity those ads from the 60s and 70s don’t work anymore, they’re wonderful time capsules. By the 80s, of course, we were far too mature for that sort of stuff. Cue the original Philips ads for compact discs in which the CD appeared to be a flying saucer beaming down to its player.

The re-birth of analogue is covered extensively without making the customary sniffily rude comments about digital audio, and the book carries an entire section on valve amplification including a page illustrating the various valves used in audio reproduction.

Altogether it’s an entirely satisfying way for people like you and me to spend an afternoon when there’s no footy.Hi Fi Schwartz small 02

I mentioned that this book is hard to find. I saw it at a very out-there book-and-vinyl shop in suburban Perth called Diabolik and spent half an hour just flipping through it. The price was on the rear cover, $130. $130? Save me. I figured I could do much better than that and went home to my computer. Nothing on google. ‘Currently sold out’ on ebay. On Amazon five copies were available from $US250, three used from $US188. I went to Phaidon’s website. Australian dollars 150 and: ‘This title is no longer available’. So I went to world’s great repository of impossible-to-find books, abe.com. Two used copies at $US320 plus $US23 shipping.

I hightailed it back to the bookshop, laid my money down and the woman behind the counter grinned. “I told them we’d sell it one day,” she said.

Posted October 2021. Published in Australian Hi Fi magazine.

 

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