Cool Audio Consoles

My current efforts in audio systems are  directed towards smallish, portable systems – “boomer boxes”.  But I am also thinking about more substantial, furniture-like pieces for the longer term.   The console stereo systems of the 50’s and 60’s fell out of fashion as the trend in audio went to separate components and the cool thing was to have a stack of electronic boxes on a shelf and separate loudspeakers on the shelf or on the floor.   But I think there is an appeal to audio furniture that hides the gadgetry when it’s not in use and that can stand on its own as an attractive or distinctive piece of design.  I’m not interested in building a “stereo” cabinet which simply acts as a dedicated container for a bunch of standard audio components.  Rather, I’m interested in reviving and updating some of the modernist stereo console designs from the 60’s.   Audio has gone into a retro phase in the past few years – tube amps, vinyl records, etc.  Time for cool consoles to come back as well!

Here’s some sources of inspiration.

 One of the coolest 60’s consoles was Canadian!  The Clairtone Project G  series,  Sexy spherical speakers cantilevered on a metal stand with the electronic components in a sleek Scandinavian-style enclosure.  Tambour doors hid the electronics on some models, acrylic covers showed them off on others.  These were the ultimate bachelor pad stereos for the mid-60’s.  Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Hugh Hefner had Project G’s and they were featured in several Hollywood films, including the famous house party in the The Graduate.

Electrohome, another Canadian company, joined the party with the 701.  A bit less radical, but still a classic mid-century modern piece of furniture.

If you were really avant garde, you bought an Italian Brionvega RR126.  David Bowie owned one!   Designed by noted Italian industrial designers Achilles and Pier Castiglioni, it reflects both the positives and negatives of Italian design.

A laudatory description from the Cooper Hewitt Museum says “The Castiglionis have turned a piece of audiovisual equipment into a playful, adaptable, sculptural arrangement that is both decorative and user-friendly. The radio controls on the center section are easy to read and cleverly arranged in conjunction with the speaker perforations so to resemble a human face. On castors, this movable, transformable stereo could operate in three positions: first with the speakers stacked on top to form a cube, second with the speakers open out to the sides to reveal a phonograph, and third with the speakers independent of the central unit and placed elsewhere. The Castiglioni brothers designed radios, televisions, and record players for Brionvega and this RR-126 is one of their most ambitious designs for the audiovisual sector.”

But a look at the photos shows that the phonograph was not well integrated. The speakers could not be stacked on top if the phonograph was included.  Nevertheless, this console was a design classic and was reissued in 2008 with the addition of a CD player.  The turntable was still a problem…

Now for a Scandinavian/German approach – the Wega 3300 HiFi Stereobar.

Designed for the German firm Wega, by the Danish designer/architect Verner Panton, this is a classic of Northern European minimalist design.  Steve Jobs would have liked this (except for the knobs!).  Loudspeakers were separate and apparently not designed as part of the system.

Finally, here is a recent, very expensive, revival of the 60’s console  – the Symbol Audio Modern Record Console.
Design elements that I like from these consoles include
  • Small footprint bases with casters for mobility and ability to swivel the console.
  • Loudspeakers separate but able to attach to the base or to the console.
  • Integrated design of speakers and electronic console
  • Ability to hide the electronics when not in use.

It’s been 50 years since the original consoles were designed, so it’s worth thinking about what has changed and how retro I really want the design to be.

  • The original consoles devoted considerable space and design effort to radio tuners.  I think that function has now been largely supplanted by music streaming and Internet radio.
  • I’m not a big fan of tube amplifiers.  I like my electronics compact and solid-state.
  • I’m also not a fan of turntables and vinyl.  However I do have a working turntable that needs a home.  I could build one unit with a turntable to sell to vinyl loving hipsters.
  • 60’s electronics had a lot of knobs, buttons, switches, and lights.  There is a tactile pleasure to turning a knob or flicking a switch. However there is an undeniable convenience factor to a good remote control, and modern user interface devices, such as rotary encoders, touch controls,  graphic displays, and multicolor LED bulbs, open up new possibilities for control panels.
  • 60’s televisions were too big to integrate into the cool consoles I am using for inspiration.  However a modern flat-panel screen could be integrated and would be more useful than a radio tuner, or even a turntable, in my opinion.
Building one or more of these would be a substantial project, so time saving alternatives need to be considered.  Recycling bases from other furniture (e.g. swivel office chairs) is one possibility.  Integrating existing (classic) loudspeakers is another.

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