Zenith Table Radio - Look at the sounds.

"Oh boo hoo. Waah waah. Everything was better then. Everything is terrible now". Well, as with basically everything, it's a non-simple mix of "yes" and "no". This ad for a gorgeous Zenith table radio makes you want to go all "waah waah".
It sure is pretty. Look how deco and geometric it is. Much of the consumer products landscape here in the future has been designed to look all swoopy and blobby, as if one left one's consumer product out on the driveway on that one day in July when the sun chose to go triple nova. Your poor radio/vacuum/microwave, all bendy with the blown-off quanta.

This Zenith cost thirty bucks in 1954. That sounds a little steep. The old inflation calculator says that's... OOF! $240! For that, you got a radio that looks great, stores no presets, connects to probably nothing via an "aux in" jack, and has an analog tuner of the "nylon string wrapped around a pulley" type that dissolves into sibilant noise as soon as you take your hand off the knob. Two weeks after buying the radio, the volume pot would get that corrosion on the copper contacts that makes adjusting the volume sound like "KSSHT! kh-kh-kh KUUH! KKKSSHHHHT!" Aah, the golden age of wireless.

For my money, the digital tuner is the single greatest development that radio has enjoyed since it's invention. Second greatest: digital volume control.

Let's say you walked into your local Best Buy's Noyze Zone and plunked down your $240 and said "give me your best". First off, the best thing you can do after walking into Best Buy's audio department is to walk right back out before the Corporately Mandated Hipness Demonstration Subwoofers loosen your bowel.  But, maybe your car broke down and you're stuck there.

Well, it won't be easy to spend $240 on a table radio. The first thing that your Eminem-looking associate will show you is probbaly something like this Sony XPLOD plastic aorta  for $129. It's been overdesigned with the exact same degree of effort as the Zenith in the old ad, but with rather a different sensibility. The chosen name of the XPLOD brand tells you everything you need to know about their idea of audio fidelity, regardless of your chosen price point. For $240, you can get two XPLODs and make them into a pair of headphones with some of those really long zip ties.

If you simply must spend $240 on a table radio, you'd do better to get this Boston Acoustics iObject dock in Stormtrooper White from Amazon for $249. Radio with more presets than there are decent stations in any one language. Solid build quality. Various in and out connectors. No CD mechanism. Sound quality that will make you take a few days off just to finish being impressed with it. The menu system is cryptic and frustrating, though, until you get it figured out. It could use Bluetooth audio streaming. Also, pity it looks like you paid $100. The Boston radio isn't especially clever or pretty (apart from the auto-dimming backlight on the display), but the ghetto dynamic of XPLOD's mouth-breathing troglodytic product developers makes the Boston look positively inspired. Too bad all the really good industrial designers work for Swedish companies whose point of entry is, shall we say, "prohibitive".

So, like it or not, you do get a lot for your money, thanks to science. If only the ghost of Zenith past would have come and worked some magic on the Boston Acoustics design department.

[I know this looks like a review or a promotion for Boaston Acoustics, but it's not. It's just a decent radio that costs about the same as the old Zenith.  -Mgmt.]


Craig F. said...

Well, Mr. Are-Go, we part ways on one subject: Old vs. New.

I'll tell you why I like old things versus new things:

I have a pair of $300 Bose Quiet Comfort 3 headphones and an iPhone.

The QC3 headphones worked for exactly two years, then the right earcup quit working. So now I have lifelike, concert-hall sound with dramatically reduced ambient noise in one ear. The other ear sounds like my regular ear, but with a wad of toilet paper stuck in it.

The iPhone is like owning a British car. Sometimes it works ok. Other times it completely stops working. Then other times it mysteriously half-works. The headphones that came with it sound like I'm listening to my chosen music through an amplifier made of a paper towel roll.

Now, on the other hand, I have a 1966 Gibson Discover Tremolo amp. It has been rocking and/or rolling perfectly since the day it left the factory.

Modern electronic devices have 9,236 functions, three of which I use: Turn on. Change station. Make louder.

Vintage electronic devices have three functions: Turn on. Change station. Make louder.

Perfect. If I want it to be an x-ray camera or a colonoscope or a laser-eye-shooting-out device or a fishing rod, I'll buy one of those things at a yard sale.

(Parenthetically (which is why I put it in parentheses) the "Sonomatic" AM radio in my '68 Buick worked ok, but the quality of programming on AM radio is dismal. Unless you're angry at all the races other than "White" or religiously inclined, there's nothing much on the AM dial.

So, for $50, I had a guy wire up a 3.5 mm jack that I snaked from the radio into the console. Now I can plug my sometimes working iPhone into it and listen to Southern Culture on the Skids to my heart's content, on a radio that works just fine, thank you.)

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

All fair points, Craigf. I have one of those little Tivoli radios in my kitchen which are super simple in construction, kind of like a circa 1970s radio, but built in 1998. No tubes, mind you, but it just has a volume, analog tuner knob and band selector. All seem to be heavy duty pots with smooth action. It sounds great for its size. And yet, the volume control goes KISSH CKC CKC CKCKCKCKCKCKCSHT! when you turn it, until you let go of it. Annoying.

Thanks for posting, obviously!

Craig F. said...

OOoo, I have one of those, too. I love that radio!

My volume control seems to work pretty well. I love that tactile feel of that "CLICK" when you turn it off. I could just turn it on and off all day and never have any music come out of it and I'd be happy.

I have a Bose clock radio (I used to work there. They hate when you call it a clock radio, so I used to call it that every single time). It's fine, sounds pretty good, I guess, but I have absolutely no love for it whatsoever, with its silly pad buttons on the top where you can't see them while you're in bed.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

Ug, I hate those little afterthought remotes that come with every electronic thingy larger than a pack of cigarettes. They're all just one set of membrane buttons that can barely be felt, and are probably all made in one factory in China. You can't use them in the dark or without looking at the perfect grid of identical buttons to see what's what. Only the silk screen differentiates the buttons functions. I'd happily pay an extra five dollars for a remote like a 1960's calculator with backlit Commodore 64 keys you can actually feel.

The best thing to do with those horrible remotes is to harvest the battery and throw the thing away.

Don't get me started.

Comatoast said...

The price tag on the clock radio pictured in the ad would be $614 today. For that money you could get a clock radio and two rather nice 1000W speakers to hook up to it.

Though one feature that you would be hard pressed to find on a newer clock radio that you can find on the Zenith J733 is the port on the back to plug a coffee maker into.

Thanks for the great post.

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