Editor's Note: This installment of "The Antique Collector" by Steven Stone is part of his blog for The Absolute Sound channel and is replicated in this forum for discussion purposes. Enjoy!
The Antique Collector: Focus on H. H. Scott
By Steven Stone
Break out the Champagne, find a ribbon to tie around its' neck, and smash it against the side of something gigantic; The Absolute Sound is launching a brand new column. Just as Sid Marks in TAS's "Marks Barks" has educated TAS readers to the glories of Americas' Golden Age of Stereo LPs, "The Antique Collector" will introduce TAS readers to Americas' Golden Age of tubed electronic components. There is a reason that thousands of pounds of vintage American electronics flows out of our country every month bound for foreign shores. It is real good stuff. Not only the big Ms - Marantz and Macintosh, made components that are desirable even today, Fisher, Scott, Dyna, Harman Kardon, Heath, Altec, Paragon, Eico, Sherwood, Crown, Western Electric, Ampex, and others, all produced equipment that can be compared to the sound of live music.
Cynics may think, "Why should TAS waste valuable space on ancient garbage? This is a publication concerned with the cutting edge of sound, the impossible dream of recreating the sound of live music in the home, not antiques." I maintain that there are several excellent reasons for a survey of old components. First and foremost, old tube electronics offer people a less expensive alternative to new tube electronics. Example: good new tube preamps start at about $500. For under $100 I can think of quite a few old tube preamp designs that with minimal modifications will equal the performance of new equipment. For the price of mass-market consumer mid-fi, an audiophile on a budget can get a good start along the trail to high-end nirvana.
Old tube electronics are not just for the new converts to high-end sound. How many TAS readers have summer homes, downstairs dens, kitchens, garages, bedrooms, and broom closets in need of music? Even the most well heeled audiophile can only afford so many ARC SP-11s and Krell KMA-200s. If the ritual of schlepping your sound system to your weekend retreat is becoming grounds for divorce, a system comprised of components from America's Golden age may be just what the marriage counselor ordered. Imagine the looks of disgust on the pimply face of your next burglar when he sees all this ancient crap where he had hoped to find a Sony, or maybe a B&O! How many audiophiles' kitchens could benefit aurally from the acquisition of and old 15 watt per side tube receiver? Think of how much more pleasant the sounds of Iron Maiden and Twisted Sister wafting down from your teens' bedroom would be through old valves?
Older audiophiles, who remember when a Fisher 500C was the cutting edge of technology, and Multiplex FM was like MTS stereo TV today, are the hardest to convince that old tube stuff has sonic merit. For them, tube sound means soft-top ends, flabby bottoms, and tube noise, not to mention the occasional fire or explosion. To these recalcitrant souls I say, you are absolutely right, most old tube stuff doesn't cut it above 15KHZ and below 60 HZ, and yes, tubes age, get noisy, and occasionally die in spectacular ways. But, in the frequency range where 95% of the music is, and with periodic maintenance, old tube gear can come as close to the sound of live music as almost anything currently available.
Finally, the aesthetics and ergonomics of old tube gear are, in many cases superior to new electronics. If you have old LPs, 78s, and tapes in your collection, you know that modern preamps are not properly set up to handle them. Try playing an early mono London LP on a Conrad Johnson Premier 3 – The CJ lacks the proper equalization curve to reproduce early records properly. I maintain that a half-track RCA or Mercury tape played on a Revox, Ampex, or Crown tape transport system, and fed directly into the NAB equalization of a lowly Dyna Pas3 or Fisher 80C, will best a new Revox B77 halftrack or Tandberg halftrack fed into the line inputs of most new high end preamps. These old dogs have some tricks that new components don't know exist.
On the subject of tricks, old components offer an audiophile who is handy with a soldering gun (and even those who aren't) the opportunity through parts upgrading and circuit modifications to produce results that are quite stunning. Sid Smith, Fred VanAlstine, Richard Modifari, and others have developed mods that bring their older designs right up to the cutting edge of current technology, and perhaps beyond. All of this is of interest to the Antique collector, and the readers of TAS.
Now that you know what we are going to cover in "The Antique Collector", the next question is of course, how. Each installment will cover one particular manufacturer. First we will go over a makers' history, and what period of time constitutes their "golden" period. We will then review individual components in a chronological order, starting, in many cases with mono designs. We will examine the physical and technical aspects of each model, its' production lifetime, its unique features, and most importantly, its sonic attributes. When relevant, we will compare stock units with updated or modified versions. Especially seminal designs will be given more detailed examination. And all equipment will be compared to live music rather than other pieces of hardware.
Later installments of "The Antique Collector" will be devoted to surveys of Mod shops, and sources of updated parts and circuits. A comparison of the many different modifications for the Dyna Pas preamp is also in the planning stages. Eventually we will work our way up to tape decks, and perhaps even get into microphones. There is gold in them there hills, attics, basements, and garages, and we're going to try to separate the real stuff from the pyrite.
Money and Other Real-World Considerations
During the course of my research for the antique collector series, my human information sources have expressed two reactions to TAS's foray into used components. The first reaction, by people who deal in used components for a living has been optomistic greed. They hope that this column will do for used tube component prices what Sid Marks column has done for RCA and Mercury record prices. The second reaction, by people who collect tube components has been pessimistic fear of exactly the same phenomenon. Their hopes and fears are warranted, and while there are parallels between Marks's column and this column, there are reasons why the sort of insanity that has taken over the prices of records will not be repeated in older tube electronics.
When you buy a record, what you've bought is what you get. If a record has a gouge in the middle of side one, no amount of tweaking or cleaning will eliminate that gouge. The importance of condition in pricing structure is paramount because records cannot be repaired. They can be cleaned, the jackets restored and archivally mended, but once you buy a record, no additional money need be spent on the record itself to enjoy it. Antique electronics are quite a different story. While condition also plays a part in the pricing of antique components, they can be restored and improved in dramatic ways. Very often, they MUST be restored at substantial expense before they can be enjoyed. More than once I've spent ten times the price of a component on its restoration and repair. The price of a used component is not just the cost of initial purchase.
When (and if) you buy a vintage piece of hardware, please bear in mind that 8 out of 10 times you are going to have to get it fixed before it performs up to new specifications. Most $50 tuners end up being $150 to $200 tuners once you finish getting their front ends aligned, pots and connectors cleaned, and a few tubes replaced. Often units must be disassembled and cleaned, polished, and de-grunged (its amazing the varieties of flora and fauna that can be found in old electronics, not to mention what is occasionally found stashed inside...nudge, nudge, wink, wink.). Even when a piece of equipment is in perfect cosmetic condition, you can expect to spend some money on its restoration. The current used component market prices are fair when you take these post-purchase expenses into consideration. Even a mint Scott 350 with original wooden case is only worth a maximum of $75, because your going to drop a C note on your repairman to tweak it up to spec.
What I'm trying to get across here is don't go wild. There is no earthly reason a component should double or triple in price merely because it's been mentioned in TAS; its' value has not changed one iota. $125 copies of Casino Royale are stupid, but Scott 350s going for $200 would be insanely idiotic, and while according to P.T. Barnum "There's a sucker born every minute" they can't ALL be TAS readers.
H. H. Scott
Hermon Hosmer Scott founded H.H. Scott in 1947. The prefix H.H. was to differentiate his fledgling company from E. H. Scott, The Scott Radio Company of Chicago, and makers of "The Rolls Royce" of AM radios. Although H.H. is different than E.H., it is similar enough to make one wonder if perhaps Scott, always the shrewd businessman, hoped that some of E.H. Scotts' reputation for quality might, by association, rub off onto his new company.
H.H. Scotts' first product was "The Dynaural Noise Suppressor". This product, aimed primarily at the professional broadcast market, made it possible, for the first time, to play records on the radio. Prior to its' introduction, 78 rpm records were considered too full of pops and ticks to warrant airplay. Scotts' first product, while a technical step forward, changed the face of American Radio in a way that, in retrospect, cannot be considered positive. Overnight, all those wonderful live radio programs were replaced with recorded music. Chalk up another victory for technology over live music. Scott continued making a Dynaural Noise Suppressor through 1956, when the model 114A was finally discontinued.
When the Dynaural Noise Suppressor was first introduced, Scott licensed the device to several companies for inclusion in their products, among them, the Fisher Radio Company. This alliance was short-lived, as Scott soon began to market their own Amplifiers and Control Centers utilizing their Dynaural Noise Suppressor circuitry. From the beginning Fisher saw Scott as trouble, and their two companies were competitors through the mid-sixties. It's funny, that even today, when people think of Scott, they also think of Fisher. These two companies became the Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum of American Audio.
From the very beginning Scott used a model numbering system that was Rococo in its complexity. Scotts' use of letters to differentiate updated versions of products is still employed by many contemporary high-end manufacturers, and still wreaks havoc on hapless consumers. Like most overly complex systems, Scotts' model numbering system was designed to be simple. The system was set up as follows:
100 - Preamps and control centers
200 - Power amplifiers and integrated amps
300 - RF devices like Tuners
400 - Sound Measuring Devices
700 - Pro Sound Products
800 - Acoustic Measuring Devices
The system worked rather well until 1952 when the model 99A integrated amplifier was released. This unit was the first to mount tubes horizontally, pioneering "slim-line" styling that is common in current audio components. The marketing folks at Scott felt that since their product was priced at "only" $99, what better way to get their point across than call the unit model 99. It should have been christened the 299 to adhere to the system, and in 1960 Scott did introduce a model 299 integrated amp. The model 99 went through several incarnations, and remained in the Scott line well into the stereo era. The model 99D was finally dropped from the product line in the September 1964 price list.
Although Scotts' first product, the Dynaural Noise Suppressor was important as the Dolby, or DBX of its day, Scotts' primary contribution to Audio was its FM tuners. If there is a single antique Scott product worth owning in 1987 it is one of their tuners. While no one man is ever responsible for a major new technology, Daniel Von Recklinghausen, Scotts' chief engineer, was certainly a major force in the development and popularization of FM radio. Von Recklinghausen, unlike his contemporaries, still has designs that are in the forefront of current State-Of-The-Art audio technology. The EMIT tweeter, that can be found in some of the finest systems in the world (including Sea Cliff) was designed by Von Reclinghausen. KLH first marketed it as the DVR tweeter (you are all such quick studies that I need not tell you what DVR stands for).
Von Ricklinghausen, was, and is, a rare breed of audio engineer; one who uses his ears, and has an open mind. A quote from a Boston Audio Society Meeting best illustrates his philosophy "if it measures good, and sounds bad, it is bad. If it sounds good, and measures bad, you've measured the wrong thing.” Listening was in integral part of the design process at Scott. The "Audio hall of Fame" article on H. H. Scott contains the story that once Scott came to work one morning with a black eye, the result of a scuffle with an angry neighbor who objected to Scotts' nighttime listening and testing sessions. This is the kind of dedication to sound quality that is only found today among high-end manufacturers. At Scott, the sound of music was the reference.
An Article in December 1954, co- written by Von Recklinghausen, Casey, and Pomper, introduced the public to the first commercial wide-band FM only tuner, the 310A. Scott was so confident of their lead in the market that the article even included a schematic of the new unit. This six-month lead in FM technology continued up through the multiplex stereo era. Not only did Scott bring to market the first FM multiplex adapter and first FM multiplex tuner, but also they designed and built the first multiplex broadcasting and test equipment.
Scott took some very calculated risks in the development of their multiplex adapter. No one knew which of four systems tested would be accepted by the FCC as the standard, so Von Recklinghausen and his staff had to design multiplex adapters for each of the four systems, utilizing as many of the same parts in each design as possible. On April 19, 1961, when the FCC finally announced the new multiplex standard, Scott was ready with enough parts and materials in stock to immediately manufacture 1000 multiplex adapters, and begin shipping them to radio stations across the country.
During Scotts' first 15 years, from 1947 to 1962, they were more of a high-end manufacturer than a mid-fi or consumer electronics company. Products were added not because it was a new year, and marketing demanded new products, but when substantial enough improvements were made in a design to warrant a new product. During the sixties, the definition of "substantial improvement" became increasingly abused, as marketing became more influential in decision-making. In the early days, Scott products were not cheap. In 1956 Their Model 280 - an 80 watt mono power amp sold for $199.95, their 310B tuner for $159.95. In 1987 dollars, the 280 would cost $860, the 310B about $690.
Scott remained independent until 1973, when it was sold to its European distributor, Electro Audio Dynamics. This began the final chapter in a gradual decline that began back in the mid 1960's. The transistor age, and the entry of foreign product into the American audio marketplace was the beginning of the end for Scott, Fisher, and most of the American manufacturers. Rather than aim for the smaller upscale market, as did Macintosh, Scott tried to beat the Japanese at their own game. Scott Lost.
While its early products are important, and much sought after by collectors, "The Antique Collector" will concentrate on components made between 1956 and 1964. 1956 on the bottom side because most electronics that are more than 30 years old needs substantial restoration and modification for reliable everyday use, and earlier pieces are priced to reflect their rarity and collectability rather than their sonic virtues. After 1964 Scott products took a rapid nose-dive in quality and sonic excellence.