Neil McCauley (editor in chief) talks to Howard Popeck (features editor) about his respect for some vintage analogue receivers.

Q: So Howard, you’ve from time to time mentioned, in the context of receivers, the “good old days”. What does that mean?

In the “good old days” the electronics for a hi fi system was all in one box that usually included a power amp, preamp and radio tuner. They were very convenient.

Q: Convenient, yes – but what about the sound?

I'll come to that later.

Q: Was there a golden era for these?

The 1970s and 1980s would in my view be that.

Q: Predominantly Japanese-built but other countries?

The UK with the excellent (for the time) Armstrong 600 series. B&O of course, but the snobs dismissed these. Tandberg of course. USA such as Fisher and McIntosh but yes, Japanese dominated the scene.

Q: What was the appeal back then?

The idea of a complete stereo system in a box had many appealing qualities: lack of interconnects and connectors, each piece designed specifically for the task at hand, same design team and controllable environment.

Q: And the downsides?

Oh ….. well ….. shared power supplies, increased noise within the chassis and the temptation to cut corners.

Q: So what classics have you owned and used?

Ah ha. This is not as straightforward as you might hope. Let me explain. It’ll be a two-part answer. You okay with that?

Q: Yup

So, part one. Most recently the mighty Luxman FQ990. Great bit of kit. Yamaha CR2020 and their very rare 2000. Various Pioneer units. A Sansui something or other. I missed out on the giant state-of-the-art Marantz units, similarly with the Quadrophonic units.

Q: But no AV Cinema units?

No way!

Q: How did you make your purchase choices?

Availability, price, looks, anticipated sound, probability of low depreciation if i had to sell on. All of that but not necessarily in that order!

Q: Anticipated sound?

I never ever listened before buying. I did my online research just like 'civilians' do.

Q: Bit risky wasn't it?

No, not really. Not if you do your research properly. All came via ebay and I looked at the images, seller feedback and always paid by Paypal so i was well protected.

Q: What was, or is the fascination?

Oh, ah ... first a foremost no interconnects. But that's just me. Great FM performance with masses of power, flexibility, curiosity. All of that. Terrific value. I truly believe that if one buys wisely, a 1970 / 1980 unit if working correctly can perform as well as some modern combinations at many times the price of new units.

Q: Really?

Really!

Q: And now H ..... part two if we may?

We may. This is a bit of a hobby-horse with me. The thing is, it’s …. Identification. For example a unit from brand A and badged as such might have been designed by a freelance designer only as a hired gun for that single project. Nothing wrong with that I suppose. Probably happens all the time. Not only this but it may have been both designed and built by an external organisation in no way associated with brand A.

Q: You say that like it’s a bad thing.

Well …. Sometimes yes; sometime …. no.

Q: Err?

Okay. Here’s thing; it’s the impact of branding. Branding if effective can ….. but not always …. cause a buyer to marginalise their rational thinking; throwing caution to the wind. So for example, let’s assume you consistently buy car diesel from the same garage. You assume it’s top quality. But how do you know? An unscrupulous garage manger – assuming he/she is unmonitored by his employer’s HQ purchased a tanker of cast-off sub-standard fuel for tractors and unwittingly you bought it? Then what?

Q: Then … what?

So a respected brand with a high cache might …. not necessarily would but might … stick their badge on a cheap set of innards in a classy case and mark it up to the retailer at say times 50 compared to what would have cost had they designed and built wholly in house.

Q: Hence part two?

Yup. I have no idea if any – or indeed none of the vintage receivers I have purchased were built by the brands or merely re-badged.

Q: But does it matter, really matter?

If one distills it as far as one can, the no it doesn’t – if it sounds as you want it to sound. That said, why pay more than one has too – correct? Rhetorical, don’t answer that.

Q: So if I can use a purely hypothetical analogy …?

Okay, go on.

Q: Buying what you believe is a genuine Rolex, or at least a genuine Rolex case with Timex innards. Something like that?

Yup – you’ve got it. But there are further implications. Shall I explain?

Q: If you must (warm laughter)

Interesting analogy. Nice one Neil. So for anyone other than a passage-of-time fanatic, the butchered Rolex in terms of accuracy over, say, a three month period may be indistinguishable for the genuine Rolex. Okay so far?

Q: I think so.

Good. It is highly likely that a Rolex buyer already knows this. They buy a Rolex for myriad reasons beyond ‘mere’ timekeeping. Further discussion at to Rolex motivation is, I think you’ll agree, beyond the scope of this interview.

So ….. back to hi-fi, most buyers really don’t know the genesis of the model they are buying. Note my use of the word ‘model here please. They are of course buying a brand and the power of brand motivation and influence cannot, repeat cannot be overestimated. Brand means, or translates into …… expectation!

Part of the expectations is ….. consistency. Right?

Q: Consistency in what exactly?

Product performance, product reliability and so on. So it is not inconceivable that a range of receivers from brand A might, just might be a series of models each individually designed by a one-off talented hired gun none of whom are part of the brand A culture.

Q: Okay, but what does this mean in practice?

What about parts reliability, safety and so on? Can anyone seriously imagine that Accuphase would ever, ever countenance such behavior? Of course not.

Q: They have never made receivers!

Quite so. That’s why I chose them.

Q: So … it’s a mystery, right?

Yes indeed. That said, I have never been even vaguely disappointed in any of the receivers I have owned. But beyond the brand, I had no real idea if I was buying something that genuinely represented the unshakeable culture of that brand – or a quick fix to plug a gap in the range.

Q: So ….. ?

Could I have achieved an identical sound from a far cheaper initiator rather than a re-badged prestigious maker?

Q: I think we’re done on this aspect

Okay, what next?

Q: I wonder if now the time might be getting ripe for the introduction of a true high-end one-box stereo system? After all, we now know enough to create one without compromise. What’s your view?

Hmm. The advantages would be really big: convenient, better performance than all those separates, the system tweaked as a whole, possibility of an amazing connected interface to control everything and help the high-end stay up with today’s desire for compact and easy.

Q: Is the world of high-end ready for such a thing?

I have been impressed with some of the better AV Japanese receivers of late. They are pretty good performers – not something I would own yet, but they do demonstrate that it is indeed possible to offer the level of quality and specs you would need to engineer into them. Their biggest problem is they are still trying to be the everything-to-everyone Swiss Army knife.

The disciplines and engineering resources needed to do this would be big and perhaps prohibitive to most high-end companies. And would the public want it?

Q: That’s the problem!

I think it is. Big, visually impressive single boxes that appeal to many of us of a certain age might not – in the context of visual minimums – appeal to our partners. Even the claim of ‘look, no cables!’ might be insufficient to persuade a sceptical decision-influencer.

Q: Okay H, magic wand time!

Really?

Q: Yes – really!

Imagine if three or four high-end manufacturers joined together (gasp!) and designed such a product – each company contributing the design of what they’re best at – and then packaging their own version of the consortium’s design into their own product. So, just off the top of my head, casework from Luxman or Accuphase with internals such as a Benchmark DAC, LFD Audio phonostage, Parasound power amp, a re-engineered SAE 102 preamp and ….. a Lynx Theta FM tuner. Bliss!

Q: Why that combination?

Because other than the Accuphase / Luxman casework, I have all these pieces. Are we done now?

Q: Yes.

Time for a pint then?

Certainly!