They were Rogers LS3/5a’s – British loudspeakers that sounded better than any small speaker I’d ever heard. It was in the mid-70’s. I don’t remember the year. Nor do I remember any of the gear in the chain. I was just mesmerized by the speakers. Their clarity and flatness captivated me unlike any speaker I’d heard up to that point. What they lacked in dynamics didn’t matter because everything else was just so…perfect.
The only other speaker to have so floored me were the Quad ESL electrostatic speakers. They were magical, but very different from the LS3/5a’s. For starters, they were much bigger. And more difficult to place in a room, more expensive and just a pain in the rear to keep going. But boy did they sound incredible!
Stereo speakers were some of my first loves. What’s not to love about a great pair of speakers?
I remember the first Advent speakers, an acoustic suspension speaker that was very inexpensive, but sounded very good. Advent was a Henry Kloss company and any respectable audiophile knew who he was, the K in KLH, an audio pioneer.
For a long time I had a love affair with my Dahlquist DQ10’s – besides the LS3/5a’s they were my first real speakers. They were large and sucked power so it required great big amps to drive them properly.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.
I don’t remember when it began or how, but I feel in love with music – and the gear that played the music. Stereo gear.
By 1970 I was a teenager. Barely.
My family didn’t have any fancy sound equipment. TV’s were black and white. I watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon on a black and white TV. But we did have one of those big console stereos. I remember the tone arm to the turntable was made to look like a snake. The head of the snake is where the cartridge (the needle) was. You could stack a number of records onto the spindle and it would automatically change records, a real innovation at the time. The speakers and a radio were all built into this one large, long cabinet. It was more a piece of furniture than a true stereo, but it’s what I had growing up.
My dad had Ray Charles records. My sister had The Letterman and The Carpenters. I enjoyed all of them.
I was mostly relegated to buying the occasional LP, but mostly 45’s of my favorite songs – because 45’s were cheap, and I was mostly broke. Well, I was mostly broke because during my childhood, in the 60’s, I spent every spare dime on Matchbox cars. I collected them and played with them constantly. They’re not the ones you see today. These were made of metal and they resembled the real deal. Hot Wheels came later and they would roll fast, but they looked cartoonish. I didn’t like them. Even though I loved cartoons. When it came to small toy cars, I preferred mine to look real. Matchbox cars did. And I had lots of them!
Sometime in my early teens I was given a little all-in-one stereo system. Probably for a birthday. I don’t remember. The speakers were detached from the main unit, which was an AM/FM radio, 8-track player and turntable all on a single chassis. But it was great. I was smitten.
The consumer electronics industry didn’t much exist at the time. There were hobby shops and there were stereo shops. Some years later Radio Shack and Lafayette Electronics would hit the scene, but early on I don’t remember either one of those where I lived.
I subscribed to every stereo magazine I could. Audio, Stereo Review and High Fidelity were the big 3. I regularly anticipated every issue. I’d spent hours reading them, filling out those reader request cards inside where you could circle the number of the advertising you liked to request more information. Talk about innovative. How cool was it that you could fill in your name and address on a single card, circle dozens of numbers, put a stamp on it and in about 6 weeks you’d get brochures from all those companies? I got reams of brochures and filed them away alphabetically in a big accordion file. I kept the issues of those magazines, too. (No, all that stuff is long gone today. Too bad ’cause I bet some of those things might be collectibles today.)
Every evening I’d get out my file and magazines and read, study the specs and read some more. I’d listen to my stereo. And listen some more.
If I was ever in front of the TV it’s fairly certain my stereo equipment literature and magazines were right there, too. I was obsessed with it.
I visited hi-fi shops regularly, going straight to their product literature racks hoping to find something new – some brochure about a piece of gear that I hadn’t seen yet. I’d go from sound room to sound room searching for the new thing, or looking to see how they might have reconfigured a system differently than the last time I was there.
If we ventured in travel to some new city, I wanted to find the stereo shop in that town. I’d spend hours listening, talking with the sales guys, finding out all I could about the differences in speakers, amps, preamps, turntables and cartridges.
Sometime around 16 I ventured into a stereo shop that I would frequent – I’m sure the salespeople all thought I was a nut, but I didn’t care. This shop wasn’t one that I visited any more than the others and to this day I don’t know why I suddenly decided to ask this question, but I did.
Are you guys hiring salespeople?”
I don’t even remember who I asked. Was it a salesperson? Was it a manager? I don’t remember asking for a manager. I just remember blurting out the question.
The next thing I know I’m sitting in the very back office across from a man who owned the joint. I had never sold stereo gear. In fact, I had never sold anything really. Well, going around the neighborhood trying to get people to let us mow their lawn for $10 didn’t count.
The owner peppered me with questions about gear. Mostly, he asked me about model numbers. I thought it was strange, but like a proud, confident contestant on Password, I answered. He didn’t carry the Marantz brand, which was THE hot receiver line at the time, but I remember him asking me about their model numbers. He specifically wanted to know if I knew what their model numbers meant. Namely, did I know what the last 2 digits of the model number represented?
“That’s their wattage,” I said.
He may have asked me some other stuff, but the next thing I knew, I was a stereo salesman. Straight commission. Come in every day after school and on Saturdays and punch that time clock. Don’t be late. Keep the sound rooms clean and make sure all the gear is working properly.
There were 2 other salespeople and one manager. We had three sound rooms, one that was much larger than the other two. We also had a tech on staff who repaired equipment. He smoked alot. Truth is, they all seemed to smoke alot. They were all older than me. The owner, the manager and the tech all seemed MUCH older than me. I look back now and realize the manager was probably in his early 20’s. The tech was probably in his 30’s, maybe 40. My biggest memory of him are all the times the owner had to go bail him out of jail for being intoxicated. He might have been a drunk, but I learned quite about about the technical side of things from him.
I made 5% of the gross sale before tax on all the equipment and 10% on speakers. So if I sold $500 worth of amps and turntables, I’d make $25. If I sold $500 worth of speakers, I’d make $50. You could blame my love affair with speakers on their higher profit margins, but I loved speakers before I ever got a job selling stereo gear.
There was a wonderful benefit to selling stereo gear – yep, being around the gear all the time. Taking in your favorite records and listening. Back in the mid-70’s the economy was in the tank. I didn’t know that, but looking back I can see it. We had a steady business, but the stream of traffic wasn’t exactly overwhelming. There are lots of hours to tinker, play with speaker placement and messing with configurations as you listened to your favorite music. The other benefit is you don’t have to buy the stuff since you’re working with it all the time. So, that meant all my spare money now went to buying records!
In episode 4018 I talked about my love affair with music and my favorite record store, Leisure Landing. I may have spent more time in Leisure Landing than I did in class at LSU. Maybe.
If not for the music, why love the gear?
I loved them both.
Eventually, like all good salespeople, I moved on to a new shop, where the brands were better and the sales were higher. They weren’t brands I would have owned necessarily, but they were more commercially viable. I mean if you get the chance to sell Bose and Marantz and it’s in the 1970’s – you take it. I did.
All this while I’m in school. At first high school, then college. And I’m making good money. Fact was, I found out in an odd sort of way one day, I was making more money than some of my friends’ — dads!! I’ve still got old manual ledgers that I would always keep to track my expenses and my income. Making $1000 to $1500 a month was typical and I thought nothing of it really until that revelation about the dads of my poor (literally, I guess) friends. Well, that’s not entirely true. It really hit me when I sat down one day with a journalism professor who was informing me that he had a great lead on a job for me over a summer. It was with the New Orleans Times Picayune, a newspaper I read pretty much daily, but mainly because they had Pavlov’s Dog cartoon and nobody else did. I told him, “I’m not going to New Orleans for the summer.” He said, “But it’ll play (however much he said, I don’t remember – but it wasn’t much).” I said, “Dude, I’m making $1500 a month pretty regularly now working part-time while I go to school.” Okay, that wasn’t entirely true. I was really putting in a full week of work while going to school full-time, too. I remember the astonished look on his face. He had been to Viet Nam as a war correspondent and was attending Tulane to get his law degree. “You’re making more than ME!” he said.
Yeah, go figure. Now you know why I never went into journalism. Okay, one of the reasons.
Back to the gear that I loved.
Like 1974 and the music I loved, there were these famous pieces of gear I also loved. The Rogers LS4/5a’s are right at the top. I had two pair for the longest time. I sold one pair because I wasn’t using them. Then, about 10 years ago I sold my final pair. Very reluctantly. They were walnut with black grilles. I got good money for them, but parting with them was bittersweet. They represented my youth. My lifelong love affair with stereo gear. They were the last hard evidence of that love.
I sold them because I had found a new love – some speakers crafted by a South Carolina hillbilly named Ed Schilling. Ed had created a speaker unlike anything I’d ever heard. And I had to buy a pair in order to hear them. Months early I had gotten a bug to find speakers that sounded like the Rogers, but with some dynamics. That lead me to Ed. Hours on the phone and I was convinced the hillbilly was nuts, but onto something. He got my money, I got a pair of his Horns.
Man alive. I didn’t miss the Rogers at all. My love affair with stereo gear was renewed. The speakers would end up being the least expensive part of my system and I’d have it set up in my office for a few years.
Everybody who heard the system, including sales reps from mainstream audio companies, was dazzled. The system was the absolute best system I had ever owned. It played for hours and hours and hours.
I was far removed from the sales floor of a 70’s hi-fi shop, but only the gear and some new songs made it different.
In 2009 my professional world changed. I walked away from a company that I had tried feverishly to buy for 3 years. I packed up the gear and all my belongings and went home.
Without a proper place to set up my beloved system, I found myself facing the reality that I needed to sell the gear. Ed’s Horns were the first to go. A fellow drove down from Oklahoma to buy them. I sold two amps that were perfectly tailored for the Horns. I sold a tube modified SACD player. And just like that, I was a man without a system. And it killed me to have to sell it all knowing that my audio nirvana was now gone!
From then until now I’ve mostly lived in my head with my music, relegated to ear buds and headphones and heavily compressed music. It’s not ideal, but maybe it’s fitting of where I’m at in life. I regularly check out Ed’s website (he’ll be the first to tell it “ain’t cuttin’ edge” but boy his speakers are wonderful). Lord willing, I’ll be able to invest in a new pair of Ed’s Horns and get the sounds back going again. But for now, I’m just sort of stuck in my head.
Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk comes to mind. When he said of academic types, they live mostly in their head and off to one side. That’s how I often feel without the open sound of great music reproduction. In my head and slightly off to one side.
One day I hope to remedy that, but not today.