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The forgotten world of weird old stereo system accessories

A Radio Shack store in Marshfield, Mass., seen here on April 30, 2007. Alan Cross remembers decades earlier, when he couldn't wait to receive the Radio Shack catalogue to see what audio gear he might want next. AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

I like shiny things, especially when it comes to audio systems. This affliction goes back to my youth when many of my generation spent ungodly amounts of after-tax income on building up stereo systems that were big, brash, and loud.

No speaker was too big, no amp was too powerful, and the more bells, lights, and whistles on display, the better. Part of the music listening experience often included lying in a dark room watching needles and meters dance to the music while hot red power buttons burned everywhere. It made audio visual.

But even after you had all the appropriate audio components, it wasn’t enough. That Wall of Stereo in your living room, bedroom, or dorm needed more. How many of these old-school accessories and accouterments do you remember?

The Radio Shack catalogue

One of the best days of the year was the arrival of the new Radio Shack catalogue. What wondrous new devices would it contain that could be used to take my home stereo to the next level? I thought I’d hit the jackpot with page 30 of 1979 edition of the catalogue. It featured five must-have items. A five-range stereo equalizer, a stereo power meter, a device that measured sound levels, a strobe light, and a couple of things known as “colour organs.”

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The Radio Shack equalizer was an expanded version of the basic bass-midrange-treble tone controls found on any amplifier or receiver, allowing for extra boost to the bottom end (always important) and more crispness at the top. Too much turntable rumble? EQ it out. Midrange too fatiguing? Bring it down. This model wasn’t as good as, say, an SAE parametric equalizer (a far more customizable device), but it looked cool. And frankly, once you got the sound you liked, you never touched it again. I saved up my wages from the grocery store (two weeks’ worth and the equivalent of nearly $300 today!) and laid my money down.

Same thing with the power meter. I didn’t really need it and twenty bucks (over $80 today) was a lot to spend to watch a couple of needles dance to the music. And I just had to have the light organ.

It was about the size of a bookshelf speaker and had a translucent prismatic cover hiding a series of different coloured lights. Inside was a cheap microphone and each of the colours was set to pulsate to a certain set of frequencies (e.g. red = low, green/blue = midrange, yellow = treble). Long before there were visualizer music videos on YouTube, this is what excited us.

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The strobe? I got that, too, although it did little more than induce dizziness and headaches. And after demonstrating the sound level meter for the friends who visited my basement bedroom, it was confiscated by my parents. I wonder where it went?

Atari Video Music

Had I had the money, I would have probably splurged for Atari’s “light synthesizer.” Long before such capabilities were built into game consoles like the Xbox 360, the AVM was meant to be hooked up to your stereo system with a line leading out to a TV.

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You were then entertained with various pulsating shapes that could be adjusted in a variety of ways. Want Deep Purple’s Highway Star to produce dancing coloured diamonds? No problem. Fast, slow, or somewhere in between. There was a control for that.

The AVM was hideously expensive for such a toy — around $1,000 in today’s money — plus it was hard to find. The only reason Atari greenlit the product was apparently to satisfy some of the stoner engineers they had on staff. It was a financial disaster and was soon dropped.

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The JC Penney MCS VTR Component TV

Behold a tiny TV monitor with VHF and UHF tuners that pumped TV audio into your stereo system, resulting in better sound that you got from that tinny little speaker in your Magnovox console television. The audio was still in mono, but it was an improvement.

But that wasn’t as exciting as its bonus party feature: an oscilloscope signal/level display that allowed you to … well, I’m not sure what. But it looked cool!

Did I mention it was only sold at JC Penney?

The dbx Dynamic Range Expander

 

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Today, a lot of recorded music appears to be louder because it’s compressed to death, resulting in very little difference between the quiet bits and the loud ones and producing a tremendous amount of listener fatigue (see The Loudness Wars for more).

The dbx (lowercase, please) 3BX was a three-band dynamic range expander featuring some cool LED metering that could open up the sound of a recording by expanding its dynamic range. They were hideously expensive — a used unit can sell for over $2,000 today — and I’m not sure if they worked as advertised.

But look at those cool lights!

The Hidden Talking Heads lyric generator

 

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When Talking Heads’ Naked album arrived in the spring of 1988, CD technology was still in its infancy. Yes, they were all about crystal-clear sound, but some artists and producers saw beyond that. Although I never saw this in action, Naked came (allegedly) with a file filled with lyrics that would scroll by karaoke-style along with notes on instrumentation as the music played.

The catch was that you needed a special CD player to decode this information (something that no one had) and would then relay it to a TV monitor where all the information could be viewed.

If the band or their label advertised this, I have no recollection of it and only became aware of this years after the fact. I’ve never seen it in action, so there is a chance I’m just hallucinating. But if it did exist, the set-up would have been a cool and unique addition to the stereo gear.

Other fun stuff

1. The dbx Boom Box: Really deep bass is physically impossible to cut into the grooves of a vinyl record, so dbx came up with a “sub-harmonic synthesizer” that added fake deep bass to the playback. No cool flashing lights, but it looked mysterious sitting on the shelf.

2. The Realistic Bass Enhancer: Not as sophisticated as the dbx unit and did little more than add distortion to your listening, but at least it had one light on the front.

3. The Seeburg  AP1 Audiomation: Made by the same company that manufactured jukeboxes, it was a home unit that stored up to 50 LPs and could play them all in sequence. It wasn’t operated with a keypad but by an old telephone-style dial. That’s how the oldsters made playlists, kids.

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Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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