In this era of MP3s, iPods, and mass-produced stereo components, the beauty of form and function of simpler times can get lost: a turntable with a great tonearm and stylus, fed through a tube preamp into a tube amplifier, then into a set of enormous, quality speakers.We’re living in a digital-audio glut, says Robin Rose, without an appreciation of what came before.
“There’s a philosophical thing associated with being an audiophile. It was like being a wine connoisseur,” says Rose, 58-year-old co-owner of U Street vintage-housewares shop Millennium Decorative Arts. “[There was this] superior sense you were hearing things other people didn’t hear, you were extending your level of consciousness, by buying into all this tweaking.”
Rose’s curiosity about the history of the speaker began to grow about five years ago, after consistently seeing antique equipment at estate sales he attended to scout items for his store. He met John Harding, a factory rep for pioneering Los Angeles company JBL, through the purchase of a JBL Paragon—a voluptuous, much-sought-after cabinet stereo system that JBL kept in production for nearly 30 years after its 1957 introduction. Together, the two decided to pool their knowledge and collaborate on a book—the two are still shopping for a publisher—and a lecture series focusing on the history of speaker design.
Rose’s interest leans toward the aesthetic—he’s primarily known in Washington as a painter, and he also lectures with photographer Brandon Webster at Cantilever, his own space inside Bethesda’s Second Story Books, on mid-century furniture design. Harding, by contrast, comes from a technical background. A JBL-history buff, he also has 25 years of experience with his professional sound company, SSI Audio Systems—which has provided sound support for such touring bands as Guns N’ Roses.
“There are fairly inexpensive ways to get into the game, and it takes years, literally, to acquire really nice stuff,” says Harding. “Not to mention part of the sickness of the art is once you get something, you go, Well, this sounds really good, but is there something else better out there?”
Putting together the history of analog audio will be no easy task for the two. “This is a very rich but complex history with few accurate documents. It is a quest,” says Rose. “A lot of the guys that designed this stuff are dead or in their 80s.”
To make matters even more difficult, JBL—one of the brands the pair’s book focuses on—was incredibly disorganized in its late-’40s growth stage. Most competing specialty companies went belly-up or were bought by mass-consumer–focused brands such as Sony and Phillips. As a result, audiophile-focused equipment became specialty items—with prices that made such products inaccessible to the general public.
Rose likens using vintage equipment to tuning cars. You can build, tweak, and modify old audio components, “whereas if you want to fix the newer stuff, it’s impossible. It’s like trying to get your [new] car tuned up. Unless you have the in-house computer, forget it.”
Rose also wants to incorporate the relationship between high-fidelity equipment and the family into a separate article. Initially, he explains, audiophile family men were sent to the cellar, because such equipment as the JBL Hartsfield (dubbed “the ultimate dream speaker” by Life magazine in 1955) was 4-and-a-half feet wide.
“In general, people didn’t want to see that upstairs, especially the housewife of the ’50s and ’60s,” says Rose. “So it was relegated to the downstairs basement, where the guy had his own workshop, building amplifiers…and she had no idea what he was doing.”
The size of the speakers also changed over the years, with housewives in mind. Danish high-end stereo manufacturer Bang & Olufsen played a pivotal role in the transition “because they realized the people who said yes [to household expenditures] were women,” explains Rose. But he adds, “it was never for the family, because the kids weren’t allowed to touch it.”
In his collection of vintage audiophile magazines, he traces the transition of the role of the wife figure in stereo advertisements. In earlier ads from the late ’40s, the wife is looking over her husband’s shoulder as he puts together his amplifier. Ten years later, notes Rose, “she’s sitting in her 1958 Charles Eames 670 lounge chair, by herself [with] her own stereo system.”
Rose and Webster lecture on “Danish Modern: The Nordic Phenomenon” at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, at Cantilever, Second Story Books, 4914 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda. For more information, call (301) 656-0170.