Tuesday, February 18, 2014

2014 – 60th Anniversary of the Transistor Radio

It may be not be hi-fi and only becomes indispensible during calamities that interrupt the mains AC power supply but did the battery-operated transistor radio help spread Rock N’ Roll and the concept of high fidelity audio?

By: Ringo Bones 

You might be in a minority if – as a hi-fi enthusiast / audiophile – you have no interest whatsoever in the history of the transistor radio, never mind into collecting ones that date back to the mid 1950s. But like it or not, it was the “lowly” battery-operated table-top transistor radio that was very instrumental in spreading post World War II popular music – as in Rock N’ Roll music and inexplicably the concept of high fidelity audio to the general public. 

As the transistor radio turns 60 in 2014 and like the revolutionary solid-state semiconductor active amplification device it was named after, it was as American as Bell Labs (and apple pie?) where the transistor was first developed. The first sets were pricier than most of us today might imagine. Back in 1954, an Acoustic Research AR-2 floorstanding hi-fi loudspeaker sold for 86 US dollars a pair (around 1,000 US dollars in today’s money) while those early transistor radios retailed between 50 to 90 US dollars when new back then. 

Undoubtedly, these early little transistor radio sets offered increased portability due to their battery powered operation and a way lower working voltage than the typical vacuum tube based radio. In reality, the first generation of transistor radio sets weren’t always quite so small than their mid 1950s Madison Avenue admen suggest. When the Japanese made Sony TR-63 pocket transistor radio set arrived in the United States in 1957 and was billed as the “shirt-pocket” radio, but because it was actually a tad bigger than that, Sony’s American affiliates had shirts with oversized pockets tailored for their salesmen. 

Older audiophiles today who were old enough to remember when the first transistor radios became affordable enough by saving parts of their week’s allowance to buy one back then now listen to their premium audiophile pressings of Surfin’ Bird by The Trashmen or other iconic Rock N’ Roll classics– either from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs or Classic Record reissues on their vacuum tube based single ended triode hi-fi power amplifiers. But it was actually the “lowly” battery-operated AM / FM transistor radio set that made Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Ritchie Valens and other of American Rock N’ Roll’s seminal performers “go viral” like the Sputnik scare back in the latter half of the 1950s. 

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