What do Linn, Naim and Rega all have in common? Well, they’re all British hi-fi brands. And they all made a turntable and amplifier. Indeed, there are plenty of answers to this question given the vast amounts of overlapping products the companies have produced over the years. But no, I’m coming to something more specific, and that’s the year all three of these venerable manufacturers were founded – 1973. Exactly 50 years ago this year.
Allow a little leeway and extend that to either side for a few years and you can include Arcam (1976, when it was called A&R Cambridge), NAD (1972) and Monitor Audio (1972) in that group. QED is another with a date of birth in 1973. And that’s just the UK brands! I’m sure that list would grow exponentially if we looked beyond British shores.
This got me thinking: was there something special about that time that encouraged people to start hi-fi companies, or was it all just a happy coincidence? Of Which Hi-Fi?With British Hi-Fi Week fast approaching (our themed editorial event is now live!), I asked some of the industry’s wiser and more mature members and got a surprisingly wide range of answers covering all aspects of life. considering that moment time…
Appropriately, it begins with music. Do a quick Google search for the best albums of the 1970s and you’ll probably be as shocked as I was at the number that are considered musical milestones. The list includes Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and David Bowie’s The Fall and Rise of Ziggy Stardust, just to name a few. The availability of such brilliant music must have been a strong driver for the success of the audio industry with music fans wanting to hear every detail of their favorite recording.
Let’s not forget that stereo was only new to the market at the time and artists were still learning how to get the most out of this new format. Music production became more sophisticated and many experimented with the new musical experiences that two sound channels could provide. The three-dimensional nature of a real stereo system must have seemed light years ahead of the monoradiograms people were accustomed to when listening to such recordings. No wonder the demand for hi-fi boomed during this period.
The transition from old-fashioned radiograms to stereo systems also gave new manufacturers an easier way to market. They were now able to specialize in just one part of the audio chain, which over time led to the separate market we all know and love.
A start-up company no longer needed expertise in multiple disciplines, which made it easier to enter the market with a specific product. This allowed Naim and Arcam (then known as A&R Cambridge) to initially market with only a single amplifier. In Arcam’s case it was the integrated A60 and for Naim it was the power of the NAP160. In both cases, these standalone products were successful enough to make the companies serious contenders in the marketplace.
Breaking down the system into its component parts opened the door for easy upgrades. You could now improve the sound of the system by changing just one part at a time, making it a more affordable and practical thing to do. Naturally, this was ideal for audio manufacturers who could now make a range of components at different price points, designed to provide logical steps up the performance ladder. We know, of course, that the more expensive products didn’t always sound better, but the idea was sensible enough.
Slightly less specific, it seems there was a general push for higher sound quality at the time, inspired by the BBC. The company had a respected engineering department and a strong emphasis was placed on improving the audio quality of broadcasts and productions.
That engineering department did a lot of research into speaker design in the 1970s, and some of the engineers involved went on to set up their own speaker companies. The most famous examples are probably Spencer Hughes, who co-founded Spendor with his wife Dorothy, and Dudley Harwood, the founder of Harbeth. On a side note, Harwood’s wife was named Elizabeth. He, as Spencer Hughes had done before, combined part of his own name with his wife’s to come up with the company’s name. Sweet.
People like Spendor, Harbeth and Rogers are still making products that are heavily inspired by the thinking of the BBC. We’ve tested some of the Spendor Classic products, such as the Classic 2/3 and Classic 1/2, and can still hear a lot of merit in the engineering philosophy.
Rapidly changing technology also played a major role in the growth of the audio industry. The move from valves to transistors in electronic circuits led to smaller, cooler-running amplifiers with more power. They could also be manufactured more cheaply, making products more accessible. In the 1970s, major Japanese brands such as Sony, Panasonic, Sansui and Akai also benefited from improved trade and had a huge impact on how hi-fi was perceived and sold.
These companies had a huge influence on the market at the time, to the extent that it was generally accepted that buying a hi-fi scored as high as third on people’s list of priorities after buying a house and a car. In a world where smartphones, computers and game consoles did not exist and holidays abroad were seen as exotic things that only the rich could do, it seems a fair conclusion.
Finally, we must consider the available music formats. For decades, the radio was the primary source of music for the masses. The mass adoption of cassettes gave people more freedom to choose the music they heard, especially in situations where records were impractical to use. Cassettes were also so much cheaper and less clunky than the big reel-to-reel tape machines that existed at the time.
It’s true that sound quality wasn’t an issue for the reel-to-reel players of the time. After all, the cassette was originally developed by Philips to record voices for dictation purposes. But things improved with additional development and the introduction of the Dolby B noise reduction system, which took the performance to a decent level. Although anyone old enough to have used one will remember the frustration when the tape in the cassette got caught in the player’s transport mechanism.
Vinyl record sales were also booming in the 1970s. Together, cassettes and records covered almost every household use, from portable audio to newly emerging advanced high-end stereo systems. This clear and logical set of circumstances made it easy for buyers to get just the right sound equipment for their needs and avoided the confusion that came from the various format wars we’ve had since. Predictably, sales in all areas of hi-fi and audio boomed.
This huge demand led to more manufacturers and more stores selling the products. In the 1970s London had streets dedicated to the sale of sound equipment, and we have no doubt that the same is true of every major city in the world. For a time, London’s Tottenham Court Road and Edgware Road were lined with such shops. Huge audio chains such as Laskys existed on many high streets, which meant that good hi-fi was easily accessible to everyone. Today customers have to travel far and wide to find such access and the range of products offered by most dealers is limited in comparison.
Put all these disparate points together and it’s abundantly clear that in the 1970s the conditions for ambitious hi-fi startups to succeed were hugely favorable. Given the longevity and brilliance of many of the brands that were then founded, it is clear that the solid foundations laid back then have proved sturdy enough to last for decades.
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