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Hurray For Knobs!

Posted on December 26 2018

By Peter Skiera

We often hear from our customers how much they appreciate having actual knobs and push buttons, controls frequently missing in action on competing multiroom speaker products. Most people assume our Founding CEO and Designer, Tom DeVesto, was going for a “retro” look when he designed our models. Not so. This is his design style and his preference and he still finds benefits to using hard controls.

The knobs and buttons got me thinking about vintage audio. Those were the days before hands-free voice assistants and using your smart phone as a remote control. Forty years ago, a typical stereo receiver’s front panel was bursting with knobs, buttons, and switches…a veritable feast for the fingers. My Pioneer SX-1980 stereo receiver from 1978 is a great example. The SX-1980 has long been considered by many to be the quintessential 70’s receiver. It has about 30 different controls on the front panel. I recently got it back from a local repair shop to fix a few problems and have some restoration work done. The previous owner had replaced all the lamps with white LED lights that were too bright and looked anything but authentic. I had the original, stocky incandescent glass bulbs reinstalled. One or more of the bulbs will surely burn out at some point, but I’m glad the warm, yellowish glow from 1978 is back again in all its glory. Interestingly, the guy who performed the work on my receiver told me he’s seen a measurable up-tic in repair and restoration of 8 track tape machines and cassette tape decks!


The legendary Pioneer SX-1980: Buttons, knobs, and switches, oh my!

 

“…a typical stereo receiver’s front panel was bursting with knobs, buttons, and switches…a veritable feast for the fingers.”

 

Speaking of tape decks, they were also loaded with push buttons and a knob or two. My Pioneer CT-M66R was the juke box of its day, accepting up to six cassette tapes into its flip-down motorized tray. It allows playing one cassette like any standard tape deck, or playing six tapes in order, or shuffle playing them, and even included a wireless remote control. It wasn’t considered “high-end audiophile quality”, but it’s a rather ingenious instrument. I can hear readers’ snickering over the thought of listening to cassette tapes, but according to Nielsen Music, cassette tape sales last year logged in at 174,000. That’s a 35% increase. The popular Netflix series Stranger Things released a few soundtracks on cassette which made the Top 5 of the cassette charts. The animated TV series Guardians of the Galaxy released three different soundtracks on cassette. The soundtrack to the recent film Bohemian Rhapsody is also available on cassette. Where can one buy music tapes these days? Besides eBay, Urban Outfitters sells over two dozen cassette titles on their website, including titles from Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Lauren Hill, and Eminem.

 
Everything old is new again: Queen on cassette.


Wholly cassette tapes, Batman! A six-cassette changer with Dolby noise reduction and a wireless remote control!

 

Heck, even the coffee table in my living room has a retro theme!


My gigantic cassette tape coffee table. The shag carpet completes the 1970’s vibe.

 

Let’s not neglect the turntable. The model surely winning the award for the “busiest” control panel is my Accutrac 4000. In all honesty, I didn’t know this model even existed until, of all things, I saw an episode of Columbo (“Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case”) in which the murderer played a classical record on this model at high volume to cover the sound of gun fire. This was one of the first, if not the first, programable turntables. The extensive row of pushbuttons gave the user the option to play a specific track on a record, or to program the tracks to play in a desired order, all thanks to a sensor integrated into the cartridge that could “see” the bands separating the songs on the record…pretty advanced for 1970’s technology. It even came with an over-sized, chunky wireless remote control. A second model was offered which allowed the stacking of six records, each of which was gently lowered by the turntable itself before playback as opposed to the loud “plop” noise of other stacking turntables.


The bodacious ADC Accutrac 4000 programmable turntable with wireless remote control.

 

Although you’d be hard pressed to find any today, knobs on headphones from the 70’s weren’t unusual. I’ve never been big on headphones because I wear glasses, so extended listening becomes very uncomfortable unless I take my glasses off, and then I can’t see. My vision is poor. The Hubble telescope was based on my lens prescription. But I digress. My 1973 two-way Pioneer SE-505’s have generously-sized aluminum volume and tone control knobs on each ear cup to control the woofers and tweeters. Then-New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Conductor Henry Lewis endorsed them. They look like something you’d wear at a shooting range or on a noisy construction site while operating a jack hammer. They aren’t exactly babe magnets, but you’ll be living large wearing these puppies. I bought a 20’ ¼” headphone extension cord from Radio Shack (yes, you can still buy from them on line) to connect the headphones to my vintage Pioneer receiver so I can recline on my couch with my headphones on (and glasses off).

 
The Pioneer SE-505’s: Note the big knobs toward the bottom of both bulbous ear cups.

 

Knobs and other controls certainly weren’t limited to 1970’s hi-fi.  Take, for example, my 1985 Conion C-100F boombox with nearly 30 knobs and buttons. At almost 30” wide and standing 16” tall, the C-100F was one of the biggest boomboxes made. Imagine being a kid and finding that under your Christmas tree from Santa! It even had a built-in, super loud “burglar alarm” with proximity sensor if you didn’t want someone picking it up and running away with it. Not that it would be that easy. Besides its girth, it weighs in at 26 pounds. In addition to the alarm, it boasted two tape decks, shortwave (plus AM & FM), a “wide” sound mode, dual 8” woofers, and 30 watts of power (45 watts peak power). It came with a power cord but could also be operated using ten (count ‘em, ten) D cell batteries.

 
Fantastic plastic: I put a computer mouse in the bottom right for scale to get a better sense of how massive the C-100F is.

 

Depending on the model and condition, the price tag for vintage equipment usually isn’t cheap, but the expense doesn’t stop after the purchase. Maintaining your vintage audio equipment can easily set you back several hundred dollars. I remember when I worked in the Tech/Parts and Service Department at B&W Loudspeakers. People would buy ancient B&W speakers on eBay and call me to order a driver or two. Those calls almost always ended in disappointment because either the drivers were crazy expensive or they were no longer available. This is the inherent problem with vintage audio. When it comes time to repair it (with models that are 40 or more years old you can bet that time will come), you might not be able to due to parts being long discontinued. Even if you manage to track down substitute parts, it will likely mean the product will no longer sound as it originally did or perform to original specifications, resulting in an acoustic Frankenstein. By the way, the work on my Pioneer receiver cost me over $300, not to mention the hassle of lugging an 80-pound receiver back and forth by myself with a bad back. Vintage audio is neither a cheap nor light weight hobby.

As a somewhat related side bar, legendary guitarist/singer Neil Young published an article in his newsletter last month written by our Founding CEO, Tom DeVesto, in which Tom put forth his theory that baby boomers have better sounding music systems than Millennials.

 

 

I’m proud Como Audio keeps some of the old-school alive in our high-fidelity music systems by incorporating thick cabinets, real wood veneers, aluminum knobs, push buttons, and a remote. Even our new SpeakEasy model with the Google Assistant built-in, tentatively slated for mid-2019 production, includes knobs.


SpeakEasy by Como Audio with the Google Assistant built-in…coming in mid-2019.

 

“I’m proud Como Audio keeps some of the old-school alive in our high-fidelity music systems by incorporating thick cabinets, real wood veneers, aluminum knobs, push buttons, and a remote.”

 

Nigel Tufnel in the cult mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, proudly proclaimed the volume knob on his electric guitar “went to eleven.” If that film had been shot today, perhaps he’d be asking his guitar to raise the volume to 11. As hands-free voice assistants become more prevalent, physical controls will become endangered. It gives one pause to think there’ll be an entire generation of music lovers who won’t know the satisfaction of turning a knob or pushing a button to listen to music on their home audio system.

 

Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio as V.P. of Product Development in 2016. Peter can be reached directly at pskiera@comoaudio.com

 

 

 

 

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