It’s hard to imagine that when JazzTimes launched as Radio Free Jazz in 1970, transistors were still in the process of replacing tubes, mono records were still widely available and “portable audio” usually meant an AM pocket radio. Back then, one had to spend thousands of inflation-adjusted dollars to get decent sound. A good audio system took up a large chunk of a living room, required a lot of knowledge to set up and still didn’t sound all that great, at least compared to the gear we have now.
In honor of JT‘s 45th anniversary, let’s take a look back at the products that revolutionized home audio, presented in chronological order. Although they’re all great, these aren’t necessarily the best audio products of their time; rather, they’re the pieces of hardware that had the most impact on the systems audiophiles enjoy today.
Advent Model 200 cassette tape deck (1970)
The Model 200 was the first high-quality home cassette deck, with Dolby B noise reduction and compatibility with chromium dioxide. The Model 200 turned the cassette into a medium for high-quality audio, and in the process spawned numerous movements in audio: home recording, portable audio, the decline of the vinyl record-and piracy.
Linn Sondek LP12 turntable (1972)
Most audiophiles consider the Sondek LP12 to be the first real high-end turntable, and the first to demonstrate how important the turntable is to the sound of an audio system. The LP12 remains a standard by which other turntables are judged; it’s still in production and many enthusiasts continue to swear by it.
Audio Research Dual 75 amplifier (1972)
Back in 1972, almost everyone considered tubes obsolete and assumed they’d fade into history. Audio Research had the audacity to insist that tubes still sounded better, and with the Dual 75 and other amps that followed, played a major role in keeping the technology alive. Forty-three years later, tubes are still going strong.
Mark Levinson JC-2 preamp (1974)
In the 1960s and ’70s, audio gear was often judged more by the number of knobs and switches on the front panel than by the quality of the sound. By dispensing with tone controls-which Levinson believed added complexity and reduced sound quality-the JC-2 set the standard for the minimalist preamps that still dominate high-end audio today.
BBC LS3/5A speaker (1975)
The BBC designed the LS3/5A as a high-quality compact monitor speaker for mobile recording, but audiophiles quickly embraced it as the first true high-quality minispeaker, thanks in large part to its realistic stereo imaging. It was produced by several manufacturers, including Harbeth, KEF and Rogers.
Krell KSA-100 amplifier (1981)
The backbreaking monster amps powering most of today’s ultra-high-end systems trace their origin to the KSA-100. It’s a Class A 100-watt-per-channel design, which basically means its transistors run full-on all the time and it consumes huge amounts of power. Audiophiles found its combination of sheer muscle and sonic delicacy irresistible.
Meridian MCD CD player (1985)
When Sony launched the CD with the tagline “Perfect Sound Forever,” the assumption was that all CD players would sound identical. By starting with a Philips CD drive and replacing its audio circuitry, Meridian was the first to achieve digital sound that demanding listeners could embrace.
Wilson WATT 3/Puppy 2 speaker (1991)
Audiophiles think nothing of spending tens of thousands of dollars on a piece of audio gear these days, but with the WATT/Puppy speaker, Wilson Audio was, arguably, the first to make the case that some gear is worth five figures. The second version, the $10,940/pair WATT 3/Puppy 2, was so popular dealers sometimes had difficulty keeping it in stock.
TacT Millennium amplifier (1998)
Most of the amps built into today’s mainstream audio products use high-efficiency Class D (or digital, or switching) technology, but back in 1998 Class D was brand-new-and audiophiles were wary. The Millennium won them over with its transparent, detailed, dynamic sound. Later versions added correction for room acoustics, now a feature found in most audio/video receivers.
Wavelength Audio Brick digital-to-analog converter (2005)
In the early part of the new millennium, the trend toward computer-based audio was clear, but many audiophiles didn’t consider the sound quality up to snuff. Using a new technology that let the digital-to-analog converter control the computer instead of vice versa, the Brick proved that a computer with a USB connection could deliver better sound than a CD player-and in the process launched the concept of high-quality desktop audio.
HiFiMan HE-5 headphone (2009)
By reintroducing audiophiles to the spacious, natural sound of flat-panel planar-magnetic drivers, the HE-5 helped spark a resurgence in high-end head-phone sound-and helped spawn today’s new generation of hardcore headphone enthusiasts.