Toy Trains and Hi-End Audio

AR-lionel1.jpgAt Christmas time, when I was a kid, every house I knew of had a Christmas tree and every Christmas tree had at least one electric train running around it.  I say at least one, because an electric train was a favorite present to give a young boy then, and - in those days before video games or even G.I. Joe - there was no knowing when you might get one or get one more.

In those days, not only were there no video games, but about the only "video" reference that any kid might recognize was "Captain Video", a kids' TV hero that - if your family was rich enough or trendy enough to actually own a television set, you could crowd around with your friends and watch on the Dumont Network in all 8" of its black-and-white glory.

Although television sets were rare then, electric trains were ubiquitous. You could buy one (or additional cars or more track or trees or signals or stations or even miniature people to buy tickets or wait for the next train or its arriving miniature passengers) practically anywhere. Every department store had its own electric train section in the toy department; hobby and model shops sold them; and you could even buy an electric train set at your neighborhood dimestore (Remember those?) or drugstore.

In those days, Lionel, the leading electric train manufacturer, was king, the real train was the fastest (and certainly the most luxurious) way to cross the continent, and none of us could ever imagine things to be different.

Where, though, is Lionel now? That's the really interesting, and perhaps even scary, thing: Lionel is still the biggest name in the electric train industry, but so what? The electric train is now hardly even a shadow of its former self, and exists more as a curiosity or an object of nostalgia than as the popular toy or cultural expression it once was.  

There are still places that you can buy them, of course, even on the internet, and there are still people - probably many thousands of them - who are still serious electric train fans; who have devoted tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to their train sets; and who have dedicated large portions of their homes (or even special separate buildings) to housing them. With few exceptions, those people are male, affluent, and no longer young. 

Does that sound familiar?


It used to be that HiFi was just as popular as electric trains.  After 1957, when the first stereo records were released, HiFi and stereo, its latest exciting manifestation, were everywhere, and everybody wanted them. Every city and even most small towns had their own HiFi shops; you could buy a console "stereo" in any furniture or department store; and all around the country, people sat and "oohed" and "ahhed" at the sounds of ping pong games, marching bands, the Dukes of Dixieland, and (you guessed it) steam locomotives roaring through their listening room. 

When I "went stereo" in 1957, with an Electro-Voice ceramic stereo cartridge (for almost a year, the first and only stereo cartridge available) on my Garrard record changer, I was fifteen years old, and had already been an audiophile for three years.  I wasn't alone. All my pals - fine gentlemen of equally tender years - were also audiophiles, and, like me, had - even in mono days - bought Heath and Eico kits and such used PA and recording studio equipment as we could afford or scrounge and had built our own "systems", hooking them up, for those of you who might wonder, with our own "home brew" cables, made out of nickel-a-foot Belden microphone cable and two-for-a-nickel cardboard-dielectric "tulip" RCA connectors.

We were the vanguard of a whole new technology or perhaps even a whole new lifestyle, and we were followed into HiFi fandom by most of the country and, later, most of the world. The problem is that we who were the avant garde, of something new now find ourselves to be, at least in the United States, the rear guard of something that, like electric trains, we fear has had its day and may, like the electric train industry, never really die, but never again have any relevance in the real world.

In the last few months, I have attended several events centered on two-channel High End audio - the new fancy name for what we used to just call HiFi. The people I saw there were, with few exceptions, just as with electric trains, male, affluent, and no longer young.

We kids who were its founders have stuck with it, but where are the new kids to take our places?

Electric trains at least had their excuse for lapsing into obscurity and nostalgia: Airplanes came along, as did a national network of freeways, and, except for freight, trains no longer served any real function. Not so for High End audio. Music has always stirred the human soul, and High End two-channel audio is still better by far than any other medium or mechanism for delivering it in all its glory.


If it's not that HiFi has been technologically obsoleted, what is it? Certainly High End Audio has become so expensive that it's only the very rarest kid who can afford even a used genuine High End system, but is that all of it? The truth is that science and technology have advanced in the last half-century - so much so that even some of today's affordable "Mid-Fi" electronics and mini-monitor speakers can provide a creditable performance, even as compared to some High End systems of yesteryear. When you consider the price of a "Wii" system, or an X-box, or some of the other things that kids DO buy, it becomes obvious that it's NOT that kids can't afford it.  

Can it be that they no longer love music? Or that they've never heard a "live", unamplified performance, so they don't know what music really sounds like? Is it possible that their ears have been destroyed by so much loud noise, through earphones or otherwise, that they can no longer hear the difference? Do they simply no longer care? Or, even if they DO care, can it be that they have so many other options and involvements that they simply have no time for good sound? 

What do you think? If you have an idea, please let us know. If there is a way we can keep our hobby/sport/passion from turning into the electric train business, we need to do it!


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