Stu looks at a few things from his past as a fledgling audiophile, though he didn’t know it then.

Last week NASA put the Perseverance Rover on Mars, which to me seems quite a technological achievement however you choose to look at it. To put this into some kind of perspective, planning a trip to the shops to pick up the week’s shopping takes us ages to get organised, and we still come back with things we either already had or didn’t need. Yesterday we bought a jar of gherkins but when I went to get them out of the shopping bag I found vinegar, glass and little green cucumbers all over the place – and some little silverskin onions, that are my favourite bits, too. I assume that the glass jar was smashed when I placed it on the tiled floor in the kitchen in a less than delicate kind of manner. A little more perspective here – NASA put the Perseverance Rover onto the surface of Mars last week and landed it without damage, despite traveling through the red planet’s atmosphere “at the speed of a bullet” and only slowed by a “supersonic parachute”. The whole NASA expedition really got me thinking about how far we have come in HiFi since I first got into it as a fledgling audiophile way back in the early 80s.


So back in the day, I had, like many I imagine, a hand-me-down record player that came in its own integral carry case and had its own built-in loudspeaker. Actually, I loved it and would stack the seven-inch singles I had on the spindle, pull across the arm that held them in place, and set them playing. When a single finished the tonearm would return to its position, there’s be a bit of a clunking sound, the next record would clatter down onto the previous, the tonearm would move into position, hover over the first grooves of the record (ish) and then drop onto the record with all the grace of a male bovine in a porcelain retail emporium. This would be repeatable until the stack of records on the platter became too high and the tonearm would clatter into the side of the pile of vinyl. This was the first playlist I think!

Reading the above paragraph back in my head, I can see in my mind’s eye several hundreds of audiophile readers shudder with the horror of putting my records through such a barbaric process. Some may well be getting in touch with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Vinyl (RSPCV). However, there will be loads more readers thinking “Oh, yeh, I used to do that too”. Clearly, it damaged the records, but they still played, and I still got an immense amount of enjoyment out of the music in those battered grooves.


Old Fashioned Tape Recorder for a Fledgling Audiophile

The height of sophistication

I then acquired a little tape recording machine – I think I was bought it for Xmas or inherited it from an aged grandparent. You remember the ones that I’m on about (the tape recorder not the grandparents), the ones with the built-in speaker (when did external speakers actually become a thing in my HiFi life?) at the top, the tape mechanism and bed which was covered in a flip-up plastic cover that would inevitably come off and disappear at some point shortly after having been given the recorder, a mechanical counter that would click, click, click as the tape played, a series of off white clunky buttons, and one red clunky button for record. This big red button had a certain DO NOT TOUCH air about it to my seven-year-old self. It also had a carry handle, as did the record player I mentioned earlier – clearly it was important in the 70s to be able to take your chosen music-making machine with you wherever you went – though how a scrawny seven-year-old boy would lug the Dansette-style record player about is beyond me!

The tape recorder was an integral part of life throughout my early initiation into the wonderful world of audio. Sunday nights would be spent tuned into Radio One and the chart show that would count down the top records of the previous week based on sales. Now, I understand it was a legal requirement for boys (I knew nothing of the female of the species at that time and so cannot comment) at this time on the evening of the Day of Rest to sit by the family radio with their cassette recorder to hand and with a cheap cassette tape in the mechanism and with their fingers hovering over the play and RECORD buttons trying to time getting the tape to start when the disc-jockey quit his jibber-jabber and the music began. It was a fruitless exercise, of course. Not only did you get the tail end of some over-enthusiastic dickhead babbling on at the start of your recording, you also got it at the end too because your reflexes just weren’t, and would never be, fast enough to hit the buttons quickly enough. Over time you would achieve a level of competence in the art of recording the radio and, as an experienced tape op’, you would learn to keep the big red and play buttons permanently engaged and use the pause button like some kind of fine control to catch the transmission at just the right moment. It never worked properly, needless to say, and was wholly unsuccessful! There’s worse to come! No sooner had you gone to school the next day to tell your mates how you’d managed to get the full version of Terry Jacks’ Seasons In The Sun (oddly that is the third time this week that this tune has come up) copied to tape than the tape would clog itself in the tape mechanism and end up being chewed to an unusable ribbon that would only be fit for the bin. Like the record player I mentioned, I loved that first tape recorder and have very fond memories of them both despite their now clear limitations.


I also had a little plastic, battery-operated AM radio – actually I think this was in the days before Radio One had its own FM frequency – and I used it at night to surreptitiously listen to night-time radio under the covers of my bed and with a single, flesh-coloured in-ear headphone. Come one, who else in their fifties didn’t do this too? I’d listen to radio Luxembourg and Radio 1 on that little set up for hours on end and until I fell asleep. Actually, I was constantly listening to two records at once, as my bedroom (I grew up in a series of pubs) was above the busy tap-room that had a noisy jukebox. It was years after leaving home that I finally managed to get to sleep without music playing.


Later came an Amstrad music centre that I thought was the bee’s knees, despite it being utterly pants and, if rumours are to be believed, not having the tweeters on the speakers connected. Then the Walkman, though obviously I didn’t have a Sony, and who can forget (despite our best efforts) Cliff Richard’s ode to the Walkman ‘Wired For Sound’. I looked that tune up and it was 1981 when I was fourteen and beginning to get very interested in real HiFi, though my interest, through financial constraints, only went as far as reading about esoteric boxes in the print magazines of the day.

That point on the time-line seems to be a logical place to stop this nostalgic look back on my first steps in audio, but it has made me think about how far we have actually come in the world of audio. It also made me question that, despite having all this really high-tech and high-end equipment, do I actually enjoy the actual act of listening to music any more than I did when I listened on those very basic and arcane instruments of aural torture? I think the answer is far too complex a thing to tackle in these virtual pages and is the kind of topic that deserves serious investment in a few pints, a few like-minded audiophile mates, and a good few hours to hammer it all out – only not really to get to any answer.

I wonder if the folk controlling the Perseverance Rover listen to music whilst guiding it around the red planet –  and if so what on?

Read More Stu’s Views






Stuart Smith

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