Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The early "transistor sound" and my experience

I made my first transition from tube equipment to transistors in the early summer of 1974 when I bought a Marantz 2270 receiver to replace my very ailing set of tube components: a Dynaco SCA-35 integrated amp, a Harman Kardon Award Series tuner, and a Harman Kardon mpx adapter.  I believe the Marantz (which was soon to be replaced by 2275) was on sale for $399, and I found the low price compelling.

I guess I figured old tube equipment wasn't worth repairing.  In fact, the SCA-35, which I donated to my sister, refused to be repaired and I ended up buying her a nice low power Kenwood amplifier by the following year.  It randomly made noises like a frying pan noise.  Even after spending over $200 (which I considered a princely sum) for repair, it went back to its old habits fairly quickly.  I brought it to what appeared to be a professional looking audio repair center on 30th Ave in San Diego.  When we brought the amplifier back, the cranky and snobby repairman said he had done what he was asked to do, the amplifier was fine, and if I wanted anything more I'd have to pay more.  This was a fine amplifier, he said, suggesting I should appreciate it much more.

The tube tuner/mpx setup had delivered a tiny bit of separation way back when I first got it in 1971.  In fact, I had used my Fisher FM80, my very first hifi component, with the MPX first, but when I got the HK tuner I had a matched set which seemed to work better.  But by 1974 there was not only no separation, there was hardly any output at all either from tuner or mpx.

I had long planned for the transition to new gear, studying brochures, thinking about what I might buy.  I had several possibilities in mind, the leading contenders were a stack of transistor Dynaco gear (AF6, PAT5, Stereo120) and the best Marantz receiver (Model 19).  I asked the audio repairman which was better and he said, "There's no comparison."  Well that didn't help, so I asked again, and got some insult.

The 2270 was not so much an item of audio lust as practicality.  In one fell swoop I'd have all new hifi, brand new and working, and transistorized (which was seen as a great virtue then...I had not yet been exposed to tube worship, though that came just a few years later).

First, I didn't one of the noisy pushbutton switches and took it back for repair.  It came back exactly the same, but the problem went away quickly.

Then it also seemed like the bass, the great liquid wonderful bass that I had with the SCA-35 was gone.  Now I had very dried up sounding bass.

That really bugged me for awhile, but gradually I just forgot about it, and the new bass seemed normal and real sounding after awhile.  I used a pair of Large Advent speakers.

It turned out that my SCA-35 was actually exaggerating the bass due to several faults. After it was repaired, it was much more like the 2270 in sound.  If I had not accepted the sound of the 2270, I might have immediately become a tube freak.

I wonder how many times people have decided one type of gear is better than another based on faulty samples.  And once one has taken up the tube dogma, it becomes self-reinforcing.

Now, with my Marantz 20B, once again I'm hearing an exceptionally dynamic performance.  I don't believe this is entirely accurate.  It could be that some of the extra expressive dynamics are actually resulting from a somewhat deteriorated power supply.  Such unregulated supplies can motorboat (enhancing bass), sagging voltage can cause higher distortion in the highs (zing!), etc.

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