Paul McGowan: Radio station engineer Jim Mussel invited me to his home to hear what I couldn’t at the station, so poor the Quadraflex monitors were. Jim assured me that there were better speakers, better electronics and “something I’ve never heard before” awaited my arrival at his home.
We both lived in Santa Maria California, a sleepy little town along the Central California coast, inland from the water by about 30 miles. It was a farming town, mostly sugar beets and strawberries. Jim’s home was a modest 3-bedroom track house, the kind you see all over California. They seem to spring up like mushrooms in a blink of an eye. His stereo system was in the living room and occupied most of it. In each corner was a JBL horn loudspeaker and on the table between the speakers, some ancient looking tube equipment. Tubes!
“Jim, you have tubes?” This was during the days when transistor based electronics was sweeping the country in the form of the Japanese receiver invasion. Within what seemed a blink of an eye, not one stereo store I knew of carried tubes anymore, it was all solid state Japanese and American brands of receivers and integrateds. I remember thinking how far technology had advanced us to be rid of these ancient fire bottles.
“Sure. No one that really likes music listens to a receiver. They sound awful.” I learned that Jim’s “ancient” tube equipment was actually brand new and made by a company out of Minneapolis called Audio Research. Both his preamp and power amp were from AR and they were pure tubes, fed from a Thorens turntable.
Jim turned to me and asked “what would you like to hear?” At the time, one of my favorite tracks was Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein from the album They Only Come Out At Night. The album featured an instrument I was very excited about, an ARP 2600 synthesizer. At the time I was heavily involved in designing my own synthesizer and loved every aspect of these amazing instruments. I played that track on the air quite a bit just because I loved the synthesizer solo in the middle. So he cues up Frankenstein and lets it rip.
I was used to listening to this track on the radio station monitors and my headphones at the station. I listened loudly. The sound from the monitors was loud, but two dimensional and flat, as was the norm for the lackluster system at the station. Only I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that until I heard the same track on his system through the JBL corner horns. That was a moment I will never forget and it changed my life and its course forever. It sounded unlike the record I was used to from the very first note. Then there was the dual drum solo and the synthesizer solo. OMG. The drums were pounding as if they were in the room. Attacks of the snare and tom toms were so realistic it really did sound like the Edgar Winter group was right in the room. I was stunned. I had no idea. How was this possible?
I think we must have listened to that track two or three times until he refused to play it again and wanted to put something else on. I kept grilling him trying to find out why it sounded so different. How could this make such a difference from what, I assumed, was a great system installed in the radio station already?
Jim patiently did his best to explain the world of high end audio to me but I didn’t get it. What I did get was how much better it sounded than anything I had ever heard. Heck, it sounded better than most live concerts I had been to and all this in someone’s living room with ancient tubes powering it. I was stunned. I was hooked.
And here I am today.