It Takes More than Martinis, Mister!

In the 1970s, a small black-and-white ad sometimes ran in the pages of Playboy magazine. The ad pictured an attractive young woman with lots of disheveled hair and a crooked grin. There was little else to the ad other than the headline, which the reader would assume was being spoken by the model: "It takes more than Martinis to build an image, Mister!"

We were supposed to feel that we had just been given a friendly word of advice by exactly the sort of young woman we spent our days and nights trying to impress. "Martinis," of course, was an allusion to the James Bond novels and movies. Perhaps we had perfected the art of asking for such a Martini with a straight face, perhaps not.

But Miss Bed-Head was there to tell us that Martinis were not enough. "Sir!" cologne was a necessary a part of our image. Perhaps there were other essential components—turtleneck sweaters, a blazer, a swingin' hi-fi. Maybe even a pipe. Maybe. But the unstated, unquestioned premise was that what we wanted to do in our lives an image.

The magazines were there to help. Starting in the 1930s, Esquire pioneered the genre of the magazine aimed at college-age men. Esquire combined naughty glimpses of women with contemporary fiction, but an equal or greater amount of page space dispensed advice on topics from food and drink to fashion and travel to automobiles and etiquette.

Short-term employee Hugh Hefner left Esquire to strike out on his own. In 1953 he launched Playboy, sharpening the focus on naked women, while later extending the advice-giving function to encompass a write-in feature, "The Playboy Advisor."

By the 1960s, Playboy covered high-fidelity audio in annual features; included audio gear in gift guides for Father's Day and Christmas; and answered audio questions in "The Playboy Advisor." (In the 1970s, a Saturday Night Live skit featuring the real Hugh Hefner had Dan Ackroyd, playing President Jimmy Carter, barge into Hefner's bedroom to ask Hefner advice about stereo headphones to listen to on a diplomatic trip.)

February 1969's issue is an example of Playboy's coverage of audio gear during one of the Golden Eras of hi-fi—between the 1950s inception of the original elite brands such as McIntosh, Marantz, and Fisher, and the later 1970s–80s advent of the High End.

(By the way, Playboy's February 1969 issue has its own place in James Bond movie trivia. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond leafs through that issue while waiting for his safe-cracking machine to open the safe in a lawyer's office. Bond later walks out with the gatefold picture of Lorrie Menconi. Music-trivia buffs may recall that On Her Majesty's Secret Service's love song, "We Have All the Time in the World," was Louis Armstrong's absolute last commercial recording.)

The feature article "Sights and Sounds of '69" consists of five pages of full-color, full-page studio shots of audio equipment and more than four pages of single-spaced text. It covers the waterfront, from a bizarrely assorted trophy system ($7700) to a dorm-friendly KLH Model 20 compact system ($399). The photography is credited but the editorial copy is not, which suggests that the ad agencies involved might have been "helpful" in that regard, over and above rounding up the equipment to photograph.

$7700 in 1969 is about $45,000 in 2008's dollars. Whew. I think one can buy a pretty decent stereo for that today. In 1969, what Playboy thought made a great stereo was: two Klipschorn corner speakers plus a Klipsch Cornwall center-fill speaker ($2023 for all three); Koss electrostatic headphones ($95); a Thorens turntable ($175, model number not provided); an SME Series II tonearm "by" Shure ($106.50); and an Ortofon cartridge ($75). A Marantz 7T solid-state preamplifier and two solid-state amplifiers total $1315, but do not appear to make any provision for powering the center speaker. An FM tuner with numeric frequency readout, from a company that has not left much of a trace in audio history—CM Laboratories—added $1050 to the total.

Impressive as all get-out but perhaps not very practical was an Ampex AG-440-2 professional open-reel tape recorder on its own wheeled cart, at $3070 eating up almost half the budget. What went without saying is that tape machines were considered necessary so you didn't have to keep getting up from the couch to change the LP...

By now you may be asking: Apart from nostalgia, what's the relevance? I think that the comparison of 1969 to today holds a lesson about the future of high-end audio, and the lesson is this: Culture eats strategy for lunch.

Back then, a sizable proportion of an impressionable population (in 1972, 25% of college-age males bought Playboy) was being told—authoritatively—that component hi-fi was an important part of "building an image." I think that back then, a lot of audio equipment was bought by people who really didn't care all that passionately about music or sound—it just kept them from having to answer an embarrassing question once they got the girl back to their apartment: "Where is your hi-fi?"

Martinis: Check. Cologne: Check. Hi-fi: Check.

We can't go back to 1969; the culture has changed, permanently. Today, high-end audio shows up in magazines targeted at the aspiring young only for the curiosity aspect of "Wow, look how much that stuff costs!" People no longer feel—because they are no longer being told—that they need a good stereo to build an image. Perhaps, instead, we should be telling them that high-end audio equipment could help them enjoy music more intensely, deeply, and memorably. We just have to take into account that perhaps there are fewer people who really care about music than there are people who care about building an image. And strategize accordingly.—John Marks