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My Dad’s 16-Foot Wide Speaker, 1965

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The following is a tale of my dad’s remarkable home brew hi-fi project and a unique audio artifact. It’s also homage to a father who was a tinkerer and audio pioneer who implanted in my siblings and me a deep regard for music and lived a do-it-yourself life.

Dave Ed Robin Radlauer c 1955 (left to right: Dave, Ed, sister Robin)

Hi-fi in the Fifties

My Dad was a “Hi-fi” enthusiast before there were Audiophiles. In the 1950s, he built his own speakers and designed components using mostly surplus military electronics and a Navy circuit manual. For instance, he stepped down a 100-watt military shortwave transmitter to audio bandwidth. It massed over 50 pounds and a couple cubic feet. With an external power supply, this monstrosity exhaled gales of heat, blew circuit breakers and was overkill for his DIY speakers designed for 10-20 watts.

Starting around 1960 my dad ran a small retail electronics shop that repaired televisions and stereos, sold kits, parts, radios and components. I recall helping him install TV antennas, home stereos and a grocery store music system. He carried one of the first lines of consumer electronics imported from Japan for the US market: Calrad.

 

Ford truck “Electronic Sales Co.” logo

For a ten-year-old boy the shop was a stimulating, predominantly male workplace. I was encouraged to conduct simple transactions, evaluate batches of second-hand tubes on the Tube Tester, observe countertop repairs or learn the distinction between resistors and diodes, fuses and rectifiers.

My all-time best birthday present was a classic transistor radio that fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. Then still a novelty, I’m certain today it would be discounted or a promotional merchandise. Though not my first, I loved that radio to death. I recall listening to Los Angeles DJ “Emperor Bob” Hudson playing the Top 20 countdown Sunday afternoons. At signoff a sexy female voice announced, “Get off the freeways Peasants, the Emperor is on his way home.”

 

Calrad catalog

 

The Magnificent Beast

My dad constructed a large rumpus room above the garage. On one wall he built a speaker cabinet 16 feet wide, about 16 inches deep and 16 inches tall, lined with egg carton-style packing material (and a few egg cartons) and probably some Owens-Corning insulation. At each end were 12-inch woofers with coaxial tweeter horns. I think of it today as his Magnificent Beast; it roared.

He spent considerable time and effort building a crossover network, equalizing by trial and error, voicing it by ear with oscillator-generated sweep tones and music. He added two midrange horns above the woofers near the upper left and right corners of the room, eventually flipping the flying horns around to point them at the wall and broad diffuser cones.

The cabinet was mounted at ear level about 3 ½ feet off the floor, its back firmly attached to the wall which sounded resonantly. In the center was a 3” x 16” port. He could input a strong 30 Hz tone too low to hear yet air from the port would extinguish a match at twelve inches.

 

Building upstairs

 

Dedicated Audio Room, 1958-68

My dad originally built this approximately 20’ x 22’ room intending audio use. He’d skewed the plan so it was 18 inches shallower at one end, reducing standing waves.  The vivid sound made the walls, floor and windows shake and shiver.

By 1964-65 he had a state-of-the-art front end to demonstrate for potential clients (hence, deductible): Empire turntable, McIntosh Preamp-tuner and probably Harmon Kardon tube monoblocks. The system was super-efficient and the amps were dialed way back. His sternest warning to me was: do not screw with the amp attenuation pads or impedance switches because I’d blow up the speakers.

Our location outside of town in the quiet hills of avocado groves enhanced its remarkable dynamic range. His favorite listening and demonstration record was the Decca/London Rite of Spring conducted by Ernest Ansermet . . . or some Chet Atkins.  Sometimes Kid Ory.

Berlant comp

 

My dad also had a rack mounted Berlant open reel tape machine and preamps.

In 1967, when I started buying Jimi Hendrix albums, that system would take you on an interstellar space ship ride. Home alone once, I played the first Credence Clearwater album at top volume receiving a call of complaint from a neighbor 1/8th of a mile away.

Sadly, in around 1968 a family decision was quietly made to convert the rumpus room into a home office. The big speaker would be made into a bookshelf! My folks subsequently authored 250 children’s books to fill it, but that’s another story.

His big speaker, The Magnificent Beast, fell silent. One day I found he’d bought a pair of bookshelf speakers. I still recall my deep disappointment listening to the screechy little AR-1s. “You’ve ruined it,” I complained bitterly. “It’ll never sound great again.”

Yet, my craving for engagement with that intensely physical, visceral experience of reproduced sound had been sparked. It continued to grow into a passion and professional life full of music, sound and electronics. As for my brother, he became a successful commercial composer and musician.

 

Brother, Dan c. 1963, probably age 6

 

Postscript

Years later, my dad assembled another monster sound system. The centerpiece was high-end Sansui Statement electronics, repossessed and acquired at cents on the dollar. The 300-watt solid-state monoblocks exceeded 80 pounds each on rolling dollies. They fed a phalanx of used Fisher, Infinity and Pioneer speakers in the loft of a barrel shaped vacation home.

Looking for something more, Ed inexpensively acquired a pair of used 15” Stevens theater woofers with massive 30 lb magnets. First, he auditioned them in commercial speaker cabinets, but was disappointed with the response. So, he took the woofers to the basement/crawl space below.
They barely fit between the joists where he bolted them face up directly to the wooden floorboards. For ultra low bass reinforcement they didn’t need air access to the room. Instead, the floor served as an infinite baffle and resonator quite effectively, making teeth and tummies jiggle and chatter.

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6 Responses to My Dad’s 16-Foot Wide Speaker, 1965


  1. ben says:

    Hello Dave,
    thank you for sharing your really excellent story. Your dad would have been great to know.
    -Ben

  2. Tone says:

    Thank you! Sharing your fathers story. I bet it was as awesome as you say. What a great history lesson.

  3. Tom Gravel says:

    Dave, That is a great story and homage to your dad ! I have a couple of little boys , 3 & 5 years old, that listen to music with me …. well jump around the room while I try to listen ! Music is a great cornerstone for our children. I know one day the music will capture them and they will stop and hear how captivating it is ! I enjoyed your story very much …. got me thinking of how I could turn my front wall into a giant speaker, lol !

  4. Andy B. says:

    While my father had none of the technical knowledge that your father had he did love music and was constantly playing some form of reproduced music whenever possible. He is a drummer, still playing wherever he can in his late 70s now, he really appreciates HiFi sound, but he’s always been a cheapskate. When the already poor speakers in his Chevy Vega gave out we went to Radio Shack and got new, better replacements. Frustrated that he couldn’t find a way to install them in the original speaker locations he just put them in the back window with wires running under the car through holes he drilled in the floor. That sounded great by comparison to the old system but not as good as he would have liked so he bought some Rubbermaid plastic bowls and with the help of some scissors and probably a heated kitchen knife he made “waterproof” speaker cabinets out of plastic bowls! The system didn’t sound great but we got hooked on speaker experimentation and built or alerted numerous speaker cabinets over the next few years. Most of what we did was, like your father’s equipment, used or salvaged. Nothing we did ever reached the levels of fidelity or spectacle that you witnessed but we learned a lot about how speakers work and had a ton of fun doing it. Of course I read websites like this so it’s already obvious that I never lost the bug.

  5. Thanks Andy. Dave R

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