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What’s old is new again, as console-style stereos return

The console is back but it has become miniaturized and less costly than its predecessors.


By Thomas M. Prehoda

The console: a tube-driven hybrid, it combined turntable, tuner and TV screen between a pair of humongous speakers. It was the centerpiece of many middle-class living rooms from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. It was as much an attractive piece of furniture as it was a state-of-the-art entertainment combo. It was expensive for its time. But on the audio side, at least, the console sounded better than the monophonic “suitcase” style record players also popular at the time, and far less expensive than the console — considered by some to be a status symbol.

Then came the “British Invasion” and the increasing popularity of stereo. How a record sounded became almost as important as what was on the record. With nothing but two conical speakers that compressed all sound into mid-range frequencies, dissatisfaction with the audio end of the console soon developed. Teenagers were fast becoming the biggest record buyers. And the console was obviously too big to drag into a teen’s bedroom every time he or she wanted to hear The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or The Animals.

By 1966 or so, it was clear that the console was going the way of Mr. Edison’s horn and cylinders. The last original one I saw was in a friend’s house in 1971. As record-producers’ trickery became more intricate, the public turned increasingly toward component systems, which ranged in price from reasonable to through the roof. The prerequisites for playing a record — which meant learning all types of technical gobbledygook — became so important that one didn’t dare set down a stylus without prior knowledge of them.

Now, the console is making a comeback of sorts; although, like many other appliances, it has become miniaturized and less costly than its predecessors. But where an analog TV screen once stood in the middle of oversized speakers, there is now a CD player/burner bordered by small but powerful speakers.

You’ve seen them: Those units that resemble radios from the ’30s and ’40s. True, they incorporate AM-FM radios. And on the surface, they appear to be a low-rent gimmick. But these apparent anachronisms are truly state-of-the-art multitaskers. The Crosley Songwriter and similar obscure brands are affordable alternatives to the tube-fueled, do-it-yourself dinosaurs, which also seem to be in vogue again.

For the discerning audiophile, the Crosley and its kind make no pretense to equal the sound of the Bose or other wallet-grabbers. These Art Deco dinosaurs do have a number of features that, for a unit priced under $300, make it a bargain.

It houses a CD player/recorder, a cassette player and — lo and behold — a fully equipped, three-speed turntable with a lightweight tone arm, magnetic cartridge and diamond stylus (those ceramic cartridges and sapphire styli are deservedly dead and buried.) Most of these combos can burn CDs from cassettes or LPs (but not other CDs). This classy classic also allows you to simply listen to a tape, CD or LP, if that is your preference.

The Crosley itself drives a pair of four-chambered, cloth-baffled speakers. They exhibit a surprisingly good range and stereo separation for such small units. The Crosley also boasts a five-band equalizer and inputs for TV or MP3s, depending on how high- or low-tech you happen to be.

On the negative side, the Crosley and similar retro-styled units play but do not record cassettes. Also, the disc-burning operation is not always successful. Other than that, this futuristic antique is an excellent alternative to top-of-the-line, component-driven money pits.

For related items that you may enjoy in our Goldmine store:
• Get a Goldmine collective on The Beatles, "Meet the Fab Four CD"

• Get the new John Lennon book: "John Lennon: Life is What Happens, Music, Memories & Memorabilia"

• Buy the brand new edition of "Goldmine Standard Catalog of American Records 1948-1991, 7th Edition"