Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Archetypical Gadget Enthusiasts

My father-in-law passed away shortly after my wife and I were married. I didn't have enough time to get to know him as well as I would've liked to, but I've learned more about him as the years have passed. The first time he visited my house, he noted my sound system/home theater with interest. He looked carefully at the Ortofon cartridge on my Technics SL-1200MkII turntable and asked, "What's the tracking force on your stylus?" I brightened up, sensing I was in the presence of a fellow enthusiast.. "I run that stylus at a gram and a half." I could tell we were going to hit it off perfectly.

I was brought up by parents who had little use for stereo/hi-fi, and I grew up in the heady days of the 70s and 80s, where stereo systems were a thing of pride, to be obsessed over in their purchase, ownership, care, and feeding. My first good stereo system (Pioneer SX-450 Receiver, Superscope Cassette Deck, Dual 1257 Turntable, and homemade speakers) was a source of endless enjoyment for me. My father-in-law was a stereo enthusiast at the dawn of the home stereo enthusiast period: the late 50s and early 60s. This was back when companies like "KLH," "Fisher," "Scott," "Pilot," and "McIntosh" ruled the marketplace. The majority the gear was American-made. (By the time I got my first stereo, most of the good mainstream equipment was Japanese, and the old brands had faded into obscurity, or were now ultra-expensive enthusiast brands. Some of the old brands ended up being resurrected in the 80s, in name only. There were tons of 'Fisher' VCRs on the market in 1986, but that wasn't the same "Fisher" that made legendary stereo gear in the 50s and 60s.) Even though moderately high-end stereo equipment was reasonably priced, it was still somewhat of an extravagance to own a stereo system in the late 50s and early 60s. FM radio stations made a point of announcing they were broadcasting in stereo, much in the same way as television networks made a big point of announcing, "The following program is brought to you in living color." Neither stereo home entertainment, nor color television were mainstream in the early 60s. You were somewhat on the cutting edge of home entertainment technology if you had either a stereo system or a color TV.

When I first visited my future in-law's house, I noticed the two rather large stereo speakers in their living room. There was always something more important to talk about, so I never had time to discuss his stereo set-up at the level of detail I would have preferred. I eventually looked the speakers over and saw they were Altec 'Carmel's. He told me he bought them in the early 60s, but we never discussed what other equipment he used back then. By the time I met him, he had a much newer stereo receiver, along with a late-model Nakamichi CD Player and Yamaha Cassette Deck. I figured he'd gone through a technology renewal in the late-80s, and I tried to imagine what kind of gear these new components replaced. I never even got to listen to his system while he was alive, but I ended up turning the system on one afternoon, because I wanted to hear those magnificent speakers. It only took the slightest amount of gain on the volume control to fill the room with full, rich sound. "Nice Speakers, Dad.." I thought to myself.

Years have passed, and my Mother-in-law is now preparing to move closer to us. We spent the weekend at her house and my wife, brother-in-law, mother-in-law and I packed her belongings, and either sold or disposed of other unneeded items. My brother-in-law handed me a small box he found while cleaning out my father-in-law's workshop. "Dynaco Stereo 70" was printed on the box, and it contained bits of wire, and a handful of resistors and capacitors. I knew enough about old stereo gear to know that Dynaco / Dynakit components were "the shizzle" for their time. I previously imagined my father-in-law bought pre-assembled stereo gear when he built his first "dream system." I asked my brother-in-law if he remembered any of the brand names on his dad's gear. "No, but he built most of it from a kit." That cinched it for me. The man knew how to pick good equipment. The Dynaco Stereo 70 amplifier was (and is) a legendary piece of gear. Further discussions with my mother-in-law confirmed he also made good use of his equipment. He would put on the 1812 overture, and just about run her out of the house. (I've never run my wife and children out of the house with my system, but my parents probably contemplated running me out of the house 30 years ago with my stereo listening habits!)

My father-in-law also raised two children who appreciated good stereo equipment. My wife and my brother-in-law both shopped around and bought nice stereo systems. My wife told me how she and her brother both consulted with their dad and each other about good brands and features while they were assembling their own stereo systems.

There was never a lack of interesting conversation during the short time I knew my father-in-law. I just wish I had discussed stereo with him a little more. It's good to find a fellow gadget enthusiast every now and then, and get the opportunity to discuss shared interests. I also wonder what my children and their spouses will make of my gadget choices many years from now.

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