"No one thing turned more people into audiophiles than the '60s counterculture," said Bruno, arm flung over his cash register. "It opened up the doors of sonic perception. Even the great audio designers of the day were countercultural mavericks!"

Bruno is the lanky, braided-beard, thirtysomething owner of a small, well-stocked record shop in Montreal, and we stood facing each other on either side of a glass case filled with vinyl paraphernalia. Bruno has made the most of his limited space. Every foot of each wall supports a shelf crammed with music-related merchandise: rock and jazz memorabilia, album covers, refurbished turntables. There's even a rack in the back for music and audio magazines, including Stereophile.

Bruno owns a record shop, but he's also a raging conspiracy theorist who can provide a sordid, controversial backstory for any subject. It's why I didn't take his remark about the "countercultural" aspect of our hobby's history seriously. At first.

But as with all the best conspiracy theorists, many of the seemingly farfetched claims Bruno presents as Truth sound as if they could be true . . . sort of.

"Think about it," he said. "Hi-fi itself is an enhanced version of regular sound reproduction, designed to expand our playback music-listening consciousness."

"I'll take a bag of those record sleeves," I said, pointing to a shelf behind him in an attempt to change the subject.

This only motivated him to lean in closer. "Consider the audiophile lingo," he said. "Sound you can touch? With texture and color and 3D effects? That talk is rooted in a different era!"

The 1960s were an unprecedentedly prolific time in the history of recorded music—a decade when a generation of young people, high on social upheaval and mind-expanding substances, might, in blissful moments of connection with the sound of their recordings, say things like, "Wow. That is beautiful." Was Bruno right? Did the '60s counterculture help foster the audiophile movement? I asked a few notable audio designers what they thought.

"I think it's pretty clear it did," said Zu Audio's Sean Casey.

"I suppose so," said Pass Laboratories' Nelson Pass.

"Hi-fi also became more affordable throughout the '60s," said Atma-Sphere's Ralph Karsten. ModWright's Dan Wright noted that "Hi-fi was an extension of the music movement at the time. People also didn't have video, computers, iPhones, and other leisure-based technologies vying for their attention."

What of the pioneering audio designers themselves? Were they countercultural?

"I don't think so," said Pass: "Locanthi, Carver, Johnson, Bongiorno, Kessler, Levinson, Curl, Walker, Hafler—and that's just amplifier guys. I seem to have been the only one with long hair."

"For sure, lots of great gear came out of the '60s," said Casey. "But this was due mostly to technological advancements and the increased flow and sharing of new ideas."

Karsten: "Hi-fi in the '60s really started in the '50s, when both recording and playback equipment first exhibited low distortion and wide bandwidth. The tape recorder was largely responsible for this, and designers in the '60s progressed from there."

Casey: "A lot of the advancements made in audio in the '60s came from an increased understanding of the electron, quantum electrodynamics, and the commercialization of the wacky but insanely cool world of quantum mechanics."

I then asked each of them to describe the state of mind in which they were most likely to receive inspiration related to audio design:

Pass: "The very best stuff has come from boredom, when there is nothing else to do but think. I thought of dynamic bias in 1974, while sitting in the back of a VW bus on a long trip to visit a cave."

Karsten: "My ideas seem to take time to gestate. When they're ready, they'll often bubble up to the surface while I'm doing something rote, like bicycling, or mowing the lawn. I've also had several design ideas that occurred in dreams. One dream resulted in several patents."

Wright: "I'm more likely to get the sound or degree of success of a project when I'm relaxed and enjoying the music, sometimes with a drink in hand. I feel it's a matter of letting go of the analytical side of my brain to take in the music at its deepest level. But my best design ideas and solutions come to me in the shower, when my brain is most alert."

Casey: "For me, great ideas come through struggle, and collaboration, and sleepless nights of crazy, intense focus, until a breakthrough is reached on how to make something work."

Based on the results of my short survey, I infer that Bruno was about half right: The countercultural scene of the 1960s might have opened the minds of many to the immersive potential of recorded and reproduced sound, and, in doing so, helped foster the audiophile movement. But it wasn't a countercultural mentality that drove audio designers to make better-sounding products; it was their compulsion to design something better than whatever was available at the time; something that might, at the end of the day, make people say, "Wow. That is beautiful."—Robert Schryer

Anton's picture

Not just bandwidth, I declare! If we hadn't changed over to stereo at the time, we might not have had psychedelic music take off in a big way at all.

Altering the soundstage was an important part of altering sonic perception.

I know, 'they were best in mono,' but it was the wild stereo 'imaging' on Beatles albums that helped promote psychedelia.

Creating sonic three dimensional effects went part and parcel with a culture that was creating extra-dimensional effects of all kinds.

Stereo allowed new levels of creativity and experimentation. It really did take people on trips.

Lying on the floor between speakers? Check.

Hearing different sounds from different places in the sound field? Check!

Panning an image? Awesome for someone who's never experienced that in sound reproduction. Even more awesome if someone was altered in other ways.

Loved your As We See It, and raise you two channels!


dalethorn's picture

In Stan Gooch's book Cities of Dreams, he writes that "All of the legends are true." And that is the core of the 1960's.

ok's picture

Nelson is wrong about Curl, the engineer par excellence behind Dead’s infamous acid tests.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Although Curl does not explicitly state, in this post, what drugs he may have been using back then, his proximity to Owsley and the Grateful Dead does suggest a psychedelic influence. Personally, I thought it strange that some of the people interviewed for this piece were in diapers, in utero, or solely in a state of parental desire when the psychedelic 60s were in full blossom. (Then again, not every designer in their late 60s, 70s, or 80s wants to cop to what drugs they dropped or smoked or ate or mainlined during the Summer of Love.)

Having said that, I think it's a great piece. I enjoyed it immensely. It's a perfect intro to an issue that has another story about a three letter acronym - MQA - that, like LSD, has some people tripping out and others bouncing off the walls.

Anton's picture

It's wonderfully counter-cultural to see audiophiles fighting to resist the oppression of one after-market compression algorithm being monopolistically foisted upon us by the man.

Imagine if Sandoz had made it impossible for other people to make different forms of acid.

Imagine being forced to use only a specific industry approved Cannabis strain!

What if Grey Goose cornered the market and we could only drink their version of vodka?

What if only Levi's could make jeans?

Even Teddy Roosevelt would be opposing MQA - it is monopolistic in its agenda.

Fight the power!


Now, off to my listening room to stage a sit in.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

what are you on? Hath hyperbole no limit?

Anton's picture

I was shooting for jest, no bad intentions toward anybody.

dalethorn's picture

The main issue for us was getting good weed, since most of the street bags were low-grade junk, hardly better than the stuff they put in Chesterfields or Camels. Pills (tabs) were another thing entirely. You never knew exactly what you were getting, and you had to be careful. If I were selling then I wouldn't want to talk either - someone might still be looking for me.

Robin Landseadel's picture

John Curl saw a lot of me in the 1990s. We became fast friends after I posted a letter in The Absolute Sound. It was a shock to get a phone call from Curl, but soon we were seeing each other, talking about audio, making connections with others in the Bay Area who were interested in extreme modding of audio gear. He was a great help during a particularly hard time for me. I consider him a real mench.

So is John Curl "counterculture"? Sho' nuf. But we have collectively co-created a clichéd portrait of what constitutes counterculture. One thing that strikes me as very countercultural—Curl started out in ballet. I saw some video tapes of his on his Advent projection TV in his living room. He was certainly antinomianian as regards the rest of the electronics industry back in the day—thus "Vendetta Research". As the late Augustus Owsley Stanley III was his good friend, that should suffice.

One more thing—the CTC Blowtorch is all that.

rschryer's picture

...my invitation to participate in my piece. Perhaps they were worried that their association with a "countercultural" (i.e. drug-referencing) article would harm their credibility as serious audio designers.

The four that accepted my invitation did so graciously, appreciatively, with humor, and with openness. They also exhibited an uncommon faith in one's fellow human being — a faith in me that I would do them no harm. For all this, I will forever be grateful to them.

Peace :-)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Sounds as though they would have been caught lying had they said, "Oh no, listening to the Beatles while tripping out on acid had nothing to do with the way my amps threw a huge, three-dimensional soundstage."

Robin Landseadel's picture

John Curl has a commitment to designs that throw a huge, three dimensional soundstage, but you couldn't get there with the Beatles, at least not back in the day. On the other hand, Curl had a hand in the recordings of the Grateful Dead. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty do have that potential of throwing a huge, three dimensional soundstage.

dalethorn's picture

There's an amazing bit of soundstage in Day In The Life following the lyric "somebody spoke and I went into a dream". The other fascinating thing about that segment is how it sounds very much like an LSD trip at certain dosage levels.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Hello JVS ........ When you get a chance, please read my comments about MQA and Ehrlund microphones under the article about MQA by Jim Austin ........ Tell us what you think about it .......

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Please take a look

DougM's picture

There's also the impact that Kenwood, Pioneer, Yamaha, Sansui, JVC, Sony, Technics, and other mainstream Japanese manufacturers had. In Northern California we had a big chain called Pacific Stereo which would advertise different packages that they put together every week with big ads in the Sunday SF Chronicle. You could buy a package they put together with a Kenwood, Pioneer, or other receiver with a Dual, Technics or other turntable, and speakers from a variety of makers. Of course, at that time the speaker world was divided between the "East Coast" makers like AR, Allison, ADS, Advent, KLH and others, and the "West Coast" makers like JBL, ALtec, Cerwin-Vega, Klipsch, and ESS.
Us rockers preferred the latter. But, the point is, that many of us acquired our first good system in that way, once we were out of the parents house and had our own place, and then upgraded from there, as funds allowed. So, those Japanese companies giving us our first taste of good sound paved the way for the higher end companies to attract us to their products.

Kal Rubinson's picture

My memory suggests that Hugh Hefner was as influential on the rise of consumer interest in high fidelity (in music, at least) as was the counterculture of the time.

dalethorn's picture

Yes, Hefner's jazz events especially - those were hugely beneficial to jazz artists and fans.

jimtavegia's picture

I love baseball, so my son bought tickets so we could go see the Cubs play the Braves at the new field. Parking was over 1/2 mile away (Turner Field was at most 250-500 yards), but what transpired was the most trouble some.

The two rows in front of us seem to contain a company outing of which no one really cared about the game. Loud conversations, 100's of group selfies as they blocked our sight-line to home plate (the game clearly did not matter as it was about THEM). Two younger ladies stood up for an entire inning just talking when they could have sat and done the same, so totally self-absorbed and cared nothing about why We came to the game. And then the constant up and down for food, drink, and bathroom use. Would they have ever done this at the Atlanta Symphony or and Emory's Schwartz Auditorium? Not without being asked to leave for sure.

This experience was purely a creation of the digital age and has made each of them instant celebrities on their own Facebook page. I'm sure that much time was wasted at work the next day sharing said photos and plenty of giggles to go with it.

What digital has created is that I can see a great image of the game on my own big TV and not have to try and look around someone who cared nothing about the game. I can listen to music recorded well without coughs and conversation of others. I can record my own singing and playing just about as well as anything commercially provided that I own. Digital is a great thing with no cleaning of heads or worry about tapes growing old and my noise floors at -80db. I still have two great cassette decks and may tapes and two turntables and they can sound good considering the mechanical problems engineering has tried to overcome, but often can't. That is a past that brought me into this hobby, so I am grateful for that, but 2496 and better is just that, better. And for those of us who will never get a record deal, a God-send for sure. I get more enjoyment these days playing and singing than just listening, but for most digital has just made too many new "spectators" and for them I guess that is all they want in their lives.

I'm sure that is why the stadium was only half-full when their great team is in first place and fun to watch, but you can't enjoy due to the people in front of you. I can do without the inconvenience, over priced stadium food, and inconsiderate patrons. I am guessing the other 20,000+ missing patrons feel the same way.

volvic's picture

Does Bruno really exist? Trying to figure out which record store in Mtl he works and owns.

rschryer's picture

Technically speaking, he's a composite of two people I met, one of whom sells (sold?) records at the St-Eustache flea market.

My article's four interviewees, however, are each 100% real. :-)

volvic's picture

Thanks for replying. Keep em coming!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Bruno-Mars? ......... Yes, he exists .......... In Los Angeles ........

hapinoregon's picture

The Dead had amps? I always thought it was good drugs and the power of suggestion...

WELquest's picture

The audio business does not create itself or influence the fertility of the soil we grow out of. The audio business is the tail wagged by the much bigger cultural-dog.

Of course the 60's and 70's created the hi-fi business that provokes our nostalgia! A business which was created by the culture of the times, and further facilitated by the portability and economics of the transistor ... which led to both the cultural provocation and economic possibility of the great designers of the time being able to follow their passion.

Similarly, it's a mistake to think that the vinyl resurgence today is all about better sound and influence from those of us who know good audio. The numbers are driven by a film industry that's been putting a turntable in every cool home for the last 10+ years, and Urban Outfitters selling turntables not because they sound good, but because they foster the practice of "playing music on purpose."

If all hi-fi was half as good, or twice as good, the size of our business would be exactly the same -- it's the relationship and the lifestyle -- the allocation of time, that drives our existence. The particulars of the hardware are irrelevant -- except for the invention of the Walkman (personal audio), the only "technical" advance that truly rocked how upcoming generations learned to listen to music.

Bill Low/AudioQuest

dalethorn's picture

I can't rebut any of these interesting observations, but may I ask a few questions?

How much does the state of the art of high fidelity reproduction depend on the size of the industry?

Given the normal progress of technology through the 1900's until now, just how much constraint does the industry place on hi-fi hobbyists who seek a better sound, and who then sell their devices to others?

From the earlier days of the so-called vinyl resurgence, when certain individuals were buying up and restoring old LP manufacturing machinery and seeking ways to press and distribute heavy "virgin vinyl" LP's, through today when stacks of LP's can be found in Barnes and Noble, Urban Outfitters, etc. -- how much do those pioneers of the vinyl resurgence and their now "state of the art LP manufacturing" depend on the size of the vinyl LP industry?

How much do those of us who listen undisturbed to refined music on hi-fi gear depend on the size of the industry that makes the convenience gear that plays music for those who are doing other things while listening (assuming they're listening)?

Side note:
In the early 1980's, besides having a stereo system at home, I carried a Walkman D6C around with me, playing cassettes I made on an Advent 201, with Dolby noise reduction and premium tape. My portable headphones ranged from certain Beyerdynamic models to Sony and AKG, to name a few. While not as good sonically as an iPhone 7-plus playing lossless WAV files through the DragonFly Red to some of today's better portable headphones, the important difference I see between then and now is the normal progress of technology, not the size of the industry.

bullethead's picture

you'll find all types.