Late 1950’s with Ivan Berger

Late 1950’s with Ivan Berger

Ivan Berger is a chronicler of the Audio Industry and a Leading Consumer Electronics and Technology Journalist in the CE Hall of Fame. Since he began his career as a tech writer in 1962, he has had the opportunity to hear and experience a lot of equipment. I pestered him for some memories and he was gracious enough to indulge my questions. The full interview will be posted on the site, but I was so charmed by one answer I am posting it here, too. I asked Mr. Berger for his memories of audio in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Early Hi Fi   by Ivan Berger

“Hi-Fi” became a buzzword in the ’50s (there was even a “High Fidelity” lipstick!), but most home audio came from table radios, portable phonographs, or radio/phono consoles.  Components were becoming available, but dealers were about as scarce as they’ve become today. Everything was tube, and everything was mono–though, by the late ’50s you could get “binaural” tuners (FM on one channel, AM on the other) and two-channel amplifiers (The first such amp I saw was a Bell–not from Bell Labs but from a maker of PA equipment).  Emery Cook had binaural LPs, tracked with a forked arm that held two cartridges, but I never saw one until it had long since become a curiosity.  

Ampex and Magnecord made two-channel tape recorders, but they were priced for professionals.  The Magnecord PT6-BN had a three-head setup, with a full-track erase head and separate half-track record/play heads for the left and right channels–that meant the tracks were staggered, one leading the other by about an inch, which must have made editing quite difficult.  My own first recorder was a mono PT6, but I later acquired a binaural head assembly for it, flipping one r/p head so both covered the same track. (I think the Ampex had stacked heads.)  My intent was to feed the output from that head to a separate preamp, so I could monitor off the tape, but I never got around to it. 

Lafayette made a preamp (designed by Stew Hegeman, I believe) that, as I recall, had separate left and right source selectors and stacked, clutched, volume controls, so you could also use it to feed two different sources to different rooms.  

The Lafayette preamp also had adjustable phono EQ (switch-selectable turnover and rolloff settings), as did the first Heathkit preamp I owned (The preamp had no power supply, getting power from the amp via an umbilical cable with an octal plug [same as an octal tube base]; this was a common arrangement at the time.). That was because, until everyone adopted the RIAA EQ curve, every record company used its own curve.  

My own first foray into audio was circa 1950, when I bought a 45-rpm changer to plug into the back of our RCA TV; later, we got a three-speed Webcor changer.  When i finally learned about tracking force, I bought a gauge which went up to about 8 grams; after setting the Webcor to the lighter of its two settings, it bottomed the gauge with a “Clunk!”  

Next, I changed the TV’s 8″ speaker to a Lafayette SK-98, a $10 item with a hardened center section to radiate highs better.  The TV provided an enclosure, of sorts, with the sides, front, and top boxed in but the back and bottom open.  Later, I got a tiny $15 reflex enclosure from Lafayette, and bought my first amp, a 10-watt Realistic–just a chassis with tubes up top and knobs in front. Later, I built a 25-watt Heathkit amp and the preamp I mentioned above.

In 1958, my college roommates and I decided to build a stereo system, with each of us buying separate components so that we’d have no problems of ownership when we split up.  The system included a Fairchild turntable, arm, and cartridge, an H.H. Scott binaural tuner and binaural preamp, Dynakit amps (one was my contribution)–I forget which speakers.  

A friend two flights below us had a Klipschorn and a 10-watt Pilot amp.  It had an adjustable loudness control, so its compensation could be based on the volume settings you actually used (which would depend on your speakers, room, and preferences) rather than the manufacturer’s guess. Skip liked a lot of bass, so I not only turned his bass control up full but maximized the loudness compensation–and used a ceramic cartridge (which required no EQ), feeding the RIAA input (which added still more bass boost).  The resulting bass was hardly realistic, but sure was impressive.

When we split up, I bought my first component turntable, a Weathers, selected because it was the cheapest decent one around.  It had a very light, stamped-aluminum platter, which enabled it to be driven by an electric-clock motor (as synchronous as you could get), via a soft idler wheel which could be left permanently pressed between the spindle and platter, because it did not permanently deform.  (More heavy-duty turntables required stiff rubber idlers, which would develop flat spots if you did not release them when the platter stopped–many turntables therefore built that function into the on-off switch.)  I mounted a Dynaco/B&O arm/cartridge combo, which could track at an amazingly low 2 grams.

(The turntable I had fancied before that was a Stromberg-Carlson.  It was very advanced for its time, with belt drive and three-point subframe suspension, long before the AR turntable, and a unipivot arm. S-C made conventional consoles, with everything built in, but when the started making components, they offered consoles with slots you could drop their components into, giving you a choice of amps, and maybe other stuff. )

 I bought a Dynakit mono preamp, and a used r/j enclosure, designed for an 8″ Wharfedale.  Later, I bought another r/j, complete with Wharfedale driver, and later still a second Wharfedale driver to replace my Lafayette.  They were good speakers, but their foam surrounds crumbled after a few years.  I also added an Eico FM tuner, with magic-eye tuning indicator built into the dial pointer.

When stereo came in, there were a lot of patchwork adaptations: Dynaco and others left space in their tuners for whatever stereo decoder the FCC might decide on, and there were gadgets designed to add stereo source selection, volume, and balance, to paired mono systems. (Marantz made them, among others.)       To be continued…

The full interview with Ivan Berger will be posted soon

Check out the CE Hall of Fame. For a little consumer ‘headphone review’ history, read the first article on audio by Ivan Berger: “In Both Ears”  Saturday Review, July 28, 1962. Great chart of headphones available at the time.


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