An incident with my stereo in college

Inspired by Jon Wolfman’s Blaupunkt story (though it wasn’t really his point)


I’m a manufacturer’s representative for commercial audio equipment for a living. When I was in college, my father’s company mainly represented residential audio equipment, which is to say home stereo. This was before 5/1 home theater and before audio for video in general, so people cared about how good their systems sounded, at least some did. Having a father in the business, I went to school with good equipment. It got better as school progressed.

When I was a sophomore, I had a pair of speakers by Altec Lansing, then made in the orange groves near Disneyland, which Dad represented. I’d say they were probably two-way ten inch bookshelves. That’s about the size I remember. I suppose they may have been two way eights. What that means is a tweeter and a 10” (in diameter) woofer.

You might think that a speaker of any size couldn’t be driven by a small amount of power. You’d be wrong, because in actuality larger speakers tend to be more efficient, which is to say get louder with the same amount of wattage. This isn’t to say one should underpower large speakers; for one thing, that’s the best way to destroy them, because if you push the amplifier too hard it will distort, and prolonged distortion wrecks speakers. The Altecs were quite efficient.

I had a clock radio at the time. I couldn’t figure out how to rig up my stereo system to wake me up, so I had an idea: take an earphone, the kind we used to use with transistor radios, cut off the earphone itself, strip the wires, plug the plug into the earphone output on the clock radio (they had them) and feed the stripped wires into the back of one of the Altecs. I tried it and I got pleasant sound out of the clock radio, way, way better than I was getting out of the 1 ½” speaker inside the clock radio. I wasn’t listening at distortion levels, so the speaker was fine. And then I went to bed and set my alarm, but I forgot something.

The alarm wasn’t set to radio.

It was set to buzzer.

I figured that meant that there was a little mechanical buzzer inside the unit. My grandfather, an electronic engineer and avid ham radio operator, told me how they worked once: There’s a spring loaded piece of metal touching a contact and completing a circuit. The circuit completed activated an electro-magnet, which pulled the piece of metal up off the contact. Pulling the metal up broke the circuit and deactivated the magnet, releasing the piece of metal which promptly fell onto the contact, reactivating the magnet, which pulled it off, breaking the circuit, etc., all quickly enough to yield a buzzing sound.

Nope. The buzzer was an electronic signal sent to the speaker. It was pretty Low pitched, though through tiny speakers you don’t get bass, more like a low whine.

Coming out of the 1 ½” cone, it sounded sort of


That’s not what it sounded like coming out of the Altec.

It sounded more like


 I must say, I awoke instantly. I sort of vibrated out of bed, and I shut the alarm very quickly. I do not remember my roomate’s reaction, other than he obviously woke up. I do remember that I was asked down the hall what the noise was.

I didn’t set it up that way again

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