By Brian M. Howle
These poor, poor kids. I feel so sorry for them. You know, kids today will never know the pure, unbridled joy of owning massive, heavy, powerful and acutely aesthetic stereo systems. And that’s just a doggone, crying shame.
Perhaps a little background is in order, to bring those of you (probably under the age of 30) scratchin’ your leetle noggins and wondering what the hell I’m talking about.
Just look at the electronics world around you. It is so beyond your comprehension it ain’t even funny, and you don’t have a clue what life was like before micro-sized stereo systems, PC speaker systems and – even worse, home theater systems – came along and ruined the thrill of assembling a component stereo system, the way God planned it.
In the early 1970s, yours truly was living large – young, free and single, life was good. No, really – life was very, very good.
While attending USC in Columbia, I came to the brilliant conclusion that higher education was not for me. I was ready, willing and able to contribute directly to the workforce of our great nation.
At the same time, I had also come to appreciate the finer electronic toys of the day, which presented a rather thorny conundrum: How the hell do you buy top-of-the-line stereo goodies while contributing directly to the workforce of our great nation as a 20-year-old without a college degree, or a job with highly-sought-after skills commensurate with a nice, hefty paycheck?
The answer was, of course, you don’t. But as in many other instances, I never let that stop me from chasing the dream.
So just about every weekend, while my friends and I made blowing the week’s wages on partying and carousing an Olympic event, I made the drive down to Five Points in Columbia, where the town’s high-dollar, avant garde stereo store held my Holy Grail in the window display for all to see and marvel in hallowed Stereo Review awe:
The Pioneer SX-9000.
Now, this bad boy was not just any stereo amplifier/receiver, folks. No, no… this was THE consummate stereo amplifier/receiver. The Cadillac, The Rolls Royce, The Porche, nay; The Ferrari of home audio electronics. If anything ever was, this was all that – and a bag of chips.
Keep in mind that – at the time – most stereos had a volume, balance, tone, function selector (AM, FM, Phono, Aux), a headphone jack, and maybe all of 3 to10 watts of power. As Arnold would say, “Little girlie stereos.”
The SX-9000 was about the size small suitcase, and weighed about as much as a cast-iron engine block.
The size and weight were due to the massive heat sinks of the amplifier, necessary to cool off the ear-splitting 70 watts of power that it cranked out to (get this) up to three pairs of speakers –each! 210 total watts!
It wasn’t just a brute, though – it had a ton of practical and very cool features: AM and FM (stereo or mono) tuners, 2 tape monitors (and record/playback headphone jacks), 2 phonograph (hey Dad, what’s a phonograph?) inputs, 2 auxiliary inputs (for reel-to-reel tape decks or the newfangled cassette decks), high and low bandpass filters, FM muting and loudness switches.
A mini-mixing/recording board, it also boasted stereo microphone inputs with balance controls, input controls, and a built-in reverb unit, assignable to either left, right or both channels. With a reel-to-reel tape deck (with sound-on-sound capability), it was like having your own 4-track recording machine. The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper on a 4-track, kids.
I’m tellin’ ya, this thing was just cool as grits.
And prior to this generation of stereos, the old-fashioned tuning needle was the only thing that lit up in the display window.
But the SX-9000 had those new, cutting-edge LEDs that indicated function selection, needle meters for signal strength and tuning, a way-cool oscilloscope-green display for the different tone color selections, and the way, way, way-cool reverberation intensity display, where opposing graphic lines crossed as the reverb was turned up.
And, unlike the other units, all of these features were accessible through the front panel! Brilliant!
To top it all off, the whole thing was all encased in a gorgeous, oiled, real-wood Oak cabinet. Sweeeeeeet!
Much like the way that Wayne Campbell would slide by the music shop and play the Stratocaster – only to put it back on display in the movie, “Wayne’s World” – I went in every Saturday and chatted with the sales guys, theoretically putting together my dream system.
But at $500 (about $10,000 in today’s money), the likelihood of my owning an SX-9000 was about as likely as me hooking up with, say, Linda Ronstadt. (Hey, my motto was: If you’re gonna dream, dream big.)
And since dreams are free, we went all out: Advent’s large speaker cabinets (in tandem, no less; that meant 2 speakers on each side, stacked for maximum frequency range; a Dual 1228 turntable (hey Dad, what’s a turntable?), and an Akai 12” Reel-to-Reel tape recorder. All told, I would have had to shell out around $2,500 for the whole shootin’ match.
My annual income at the time was about $5,000. Do the math, and feel the pain.
Sometimes, on Sunday, I would drive back down there and just press my leetle nose against the window, dreaming of the day my Playboy-approved bachelor’s pad would showcase my eclectic, expensive and oh-so-happenin’-with-the-ladies taste in music. Sigh…
Of course, that bastard Monday always rolled around, and while I rolled wheelbarrows of cement back and forth on the construction site of the nuclear power plant site where I worked as a laborer, the reality was oh, so unkind.
A couple of weeks later – after I figured out that the market for wheelbarrow pilots was pretty much flooded – I discovered a career in graphic arts, working for printing companies, newspapers and magazines.
Ah yes, the big time had finally arrived.
Now, there was still no way I could afford my dream system. But after I began working for a local buy & sell classified shopping publication called – cleverly enough – The Horry News & Shopper, I realized that I could place a wanted-to-buy ad for something nearly as good as what I wanted, and still be able to afford it. Brilliant!
So, I made my little 1 column x 1 inch ad and waited for the fortuitous calls that would fulfill my dreams to start pouring in.
And sure enough, a former serviceman called me with not one, not two, but three complete stereo systems for sale. Seems he couldn’t make up his mind on what he wanted, so he bought all three and then compared them in his living room, each system for a week.
Man, he must have been one hell of a wheelbarrow specialist in whatever part of the world that he was stationed.
There were two Pioneer systems (the smallest units they made) that didn’t really jazz me … but the third system was anchored by a Marantz 2240.
Well, it was no SX-9000, but it was dang close. Marantz was a top-name manufacturer, and with 40-watts x 2 channels, did the job of impressing friends and family just fine.
I paid $100 cash for it, on the spot, and he packed it back up in the original carton and even gently placed it in the back seat of my car for me.
Later, I picked up a used turntable (hey Dad, what’s a turntable?) at a pawn shop for about $20; and as fate would have it, a new colleague at work had a couple of used Advent speakers that I obtained in exchange for installing his car stereo (what a maroon that guy was). I then proceeded to play each and every one of my 2,500-plus albums (hey Dad, what’s an album?) with sincere, unabashed glee.
That is, until one of my friend’s unemployed, redneck roommates and her equally unemployed, redneck boyfriend broke into our house in broad daylight – while we were at work – and stole all of it (though we didn’t know this at the time). And they also stole my roommate’s gun collection (about a dozen different firearms, from black powder pistols to an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle).
Enraged, I couldn’t stand the resulting silence – along with that mocking empty spot in the living room – and I ran down to the mall and bought a cheaper, wannabe Technics system thru a finance company, with loanshark interest rates.
Which should tell you how much I wanted happenin’ tunes in my humble abode.
That little system filled my needs for a decade, and I eventually put together a slightly better system over time.
A few years later, I found out – undeniably – who stole our stuff, but God had already equalled the score with them through a series of accidents, personal losses and jail time for other crimes that they committed, so I just let it go.
Oh, I wanted to kick that sorry sack of crap’s butt to within an inch of his life – but I did the Christian thing, turned the other cheek and let it go.
And as it should be, the Good Lord took note.
About two years ago, I briefly worked for a classified shopper, which has since gone belly up. But while I was there, I befriended a young girl in the sales department. 30 years my junior, she shared a love of music that made us best buds at work – and along the way, I told her the story of the SX-9000.
One day, she approached me for advice on what to do with a box of stereo components that her crazy landlady had – for some reason – decided to bequeath to her, out of the blue. I told her to bring them to the office and I would appraise their worth, and she could then sell them thru our paper.
The next day, she brought them in. There was an older Panasonic unit, a fairly new Radio Shack Optimus unit, and, down at the bottom …
One mint-condition Pioneer SX-9000. Which she gave to me.
Yeah, if you’re gonna dream, dream big. And don’t forget to turn the other cheek.
Anyone know where Linda Ronstadt is these days?
The previous article was originally published in the October 5, 2006 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.