Listening #89

Nineteen days after J. Gordon Holt died, my daughter and I drove west on NY Route 20, passing lawn sale after lawn sale on our way to the supermarket in Richfield Springs. Each sale promised a pleasant waste of time on that hot afternoon, but only one caught my eye: There, among the Avon bottles and the 8-track tape cartridges, were two large bookshelf loudspeakers, dressed in walnut veneer and light-colored fabric grilles. AR 3s, I thought. Or maybe Large Advents. "They'll still be there when we come back this way," I said, stupidly.

Two years earlier I'd driven past a tag sale on the same road, not a tenth of a mile from this one, and seen a blackface Fender guitar amp. Knowing it would be there on my return trip from the same supermarket, I didn't stop; when I went back for it, the seller told me he'd just let it go for $50. He also pointed out that it was an original Deluxe Reverb, probably from the early '60s. Bastard.

This time I got lucky: When we returned an hour and a quarter later, "our" treasures were still in place. I pulled over, gave Julia some quick advice—don't let on that we want the speakers, do look at all the other stuff first, don't tell anyone where we live, do let me do the talking—and we got out of the car and began to browse. There was a cardboard box full of good detective novels, a nice-looking wrought-iron patio table, a bowling ball with a thumb hole almost a foot away from the finger holes (I imagined it being used by a very large crow), and a card table laden with unopened blister-packs of various trinkets: cake decorations, specialty light bulbs, fly traps, musical bottle openers, Star Wars figurines. Julia had just picked up a factory-sealed Yoda, noticed the $10 price tag, and whispered, "Outrageous, this is," when two men I hadn't noticed approached us from the direction of a gas grille, beers in hand.

Sizing up lawn-sale people is a tricky business. Sometimes they're nice and normal, but just as often they're crazy as burning ants, in which case I worry less about haggling and more about keeping an unobstructed path between us and our car. But these fellas, one of whom had apparently just barbecued a part of his hand in error, were friendly and softspoken; their house and their clothes suggested nothing more sinister than trouble with women. We made small talk for a minute or two, and then I asked about the speakers.

"If you want to know the truth of it," one of them said, "they don't work. But they sounded damn good when they did." I had a look at the backs of the enclosures and saw that this was, indeed, a pair of Large Advents—or, as this flagship product was officially called, the Advent Loudspeaker. The instruction sheets and warranty cards, though water-stained, were still stapled to their backs: remarkable for speakers that were perhaps 40 years old (footnote 1).

I hmmmed my evil hmmm and pretended to think. "Maybe I can fix 'em up," I said quietly. Then: "Would you take $15 for the pair?" That was, in fact, the amount of cash in my wallet.

Smiles were smiled, hands were shaken, and the two strangers carried the Advents to our car and set them down side by side on the back seat. The speakers had been sitting on the ground, and only now did I see that the wet grass had turned their bottoms muddy green. Minutes later, when Julia and I had arrived back home and unloaded the car, we saw that their top surfaces were decorated with scratches, stains, handwriting imprints (I couldn't help thinking of the desktop scene in Fritz Lang's M), and a substance that I hoped was black candle-wax. The grilles were nearly hopeless.

Because there was no one else at home to help me do my thinking, I brought the Advents inside. Almost immediately, a big spider dislodged itself from the recess on the back of one cabinet and zipped across the floor like a rat on a string. My daughter yelped, the cat arched its back in that classic Ray-O-Vac pose, and for the first time it dawned on me that I had, in fact, paid someone $15 for the privilege of hauling his trash a mile down the road. I pushed that thought away and carried on, prying from its Velcro moorings one well-stained grille.

Let me remind you that I have an opinion about dead mice: I hate them. A portion of my brain is programmed to flinch when I see something small and gray in the shadows. So it was that afternoon, until my daughter pointed out that the gray chunks that had fallen from inside the cabinet looked less like rotted mice than rotted rubber. I looked closer and saw that they were, in fact, the remnants of a dead foam surround, which had dried up and fallen free of the woofer. The same was true of the other speaker.

Common sense told Julia that, if she could see the pink stuffing inside a loudspeaker without taking it apart, something was wrong—and her ardor came down a notch: "These probably won't work, will they?"

I had a different idea: "We'll fix these up in no time—and from then on, they'll be your speakers."

Six months later I did a Google search on the words loudspeaker foam surround kit DIY Advent and discovered that quite a few companies sell re-foaming kits. All the kits looked pretty much the same, and all of them looked good; I wound up buying mine from Orange County Speaker, simply because I'd worked with them in the past. (Years before, Orange County Speaker had done a beautiful job of re-coning the damaged "blue-bell" Jensen speaker of my 1956 Fender Harvard guitar amp.) The kit, good for fixing two woofers, cost $29.95, plus $6.95 for Priority mailing.

A few days later I received my kit: good instructions, a bottle of adhesive, a metal brush, some fiber gasket segments that I didn't actually need, and two nicely molded foam surrounds, which appeared to perfectly fit my Advent's woofers. I cleared my workbench, reviewed the instructions a couple of times, and got to it.

First I undid the four cockeyed woodscrews that held each woofer in place—a quaintly casual approach to driver installation in those pre-Linn days—and unsoldered the very thin hookup wires. Then, the woofers out of the way, I sought and discarded the remaining bits of rotted foam that had fallen into the pink fiberglass batting inside the cabinet. Only the thinnest scraps of foam were still attached to the papier-maché cones themselves, but they told an unpleasant tale: The original surrounds had been glued to the inside surfaces of the edges of the cones, complicating the cleanup effort. Those weird, chisel-shaped X-Acto knife blades finally came in handy—all the old residue had to come off before the new surrounds could be securely installed. Of course, the same was true of the metal frame, against which the new surround would also need to be sealed.

After a dry run to check the fit of the new surrounds—nearly perfect!—I followed Orange County's instructions and applied a thin bead of adhesive to the paper cone, then spread it evenly with the brush provided for that task. (The adhesive itself, supplied in an unmarked squeeze bottle, appeared to be nothing more exotic than household polyvinyl glue, à la Elmer's.) Working my way from the edge, I gently stretched the new surround over the cone, then secured it in place by evenly pinching together surround and cone all around the latter's circumference; the setting time of the adhesive was slow enough that I could adjust the fit, but fast enough that the surrounds stayed where I wanted them to. I did the other woofer and then, again per Orange County's instructions, set the two drivers aside for 24 hours, to let the glue joints cure.

Footnote 1: During its long, successful run, the Advent Loudspeaker underwent a number of detail changes, many of which help today's hobbyist to date individual samples. Their lack of metal tweeter grilles put my pair between 1967—the year of Advent's founding—and 1970.