Tales From Audio's Good Old Days: The Sweet Smell of Success

Back in, oh, 1973 or so, the Advent dealer in Cleveland (or Pittsburgh or Buffalo or Burlington—someplace other than Cambridge, Massachusetts in any event), helped a somewhat distraught customer, struggling under the considerable weight of a single Large Advent (Walnut) loudspeaker, up to the service desk. It was just after opening on a balmy Saturday morning in May. Or so I am told.

“I’ve got a problem with this speaker,” the customer said, with a slightly conspiratorial air. The salesman adopted his most solicitous face, and inquired after the nature of the trouble. A blown tweeter? (Rare, but it happened.) Woofer’s foam-surround separating from the basket? (A bit less rare, regrettably.) Too much bass? (Not rare at all, as novice owners so often simply placed their new speakers directly onto the floor, and shoved them out of the way into the corners.)

No it was nothing like that, the customer replied. In fact, he loved—loved—his Large Advents, which were operating perfectly. Had never heard anything like them. And with his Pioneer 727 receiver and AR turntable with Shure M91ED, this was indeed a budget-audiophile system of the day.

“They sound fabulous, he admitted. “I put them on those stands you guys sold me along with them, and I’ve got them well out in the room, like the other guy recommended. With the turntable on a wall-mounted shelf as we discussed, the system plays concert-hall loud, and with concert-hall bass. And it sounds incredible doing it.”

For those readers who can’t remember the Carter years, Advent Corporation was a highly successful speaker-maker in Cambridge, MA, founded by the late Henry Kloss to develop his invention, projection television, into a commercial product. But first, to prime the pump the perennially under-funded Kloss penned a successor to the fabulously successful KLH Model 6, a speaker from the company of which he had been the “K,” and principal designer.

Anyway, the 12-inch (sort of) 2-way Large Advent—so named to distinguish it from the 8-inch (sort of) Smaller Advent introduced at almost the same time, was an equally enormous hit; never had a loudspeaker so capable and accurate been so affordable. The Cambridge factory couldn’t crank them out fast enough. The plant was in the somewhat seedy, semi-industrialized Cambridgeport neighborhood a stone’s throw from MIT, on Albany Street if memory serves. Two shifts, requiring copious, much-welcomed overtime from the line staff, most of them from East Cambridge’s large and vibrant Portuguese-American community, produced Advents large and small, night and day. Employees came in early, stayed late, and as often as not ate their lunches on the line. Management and engineering regularly pitched in on menial tasks, like buffing out veneers in the cabinet shop, or humping speakers into cartons at the packing table (engineers are notoriously poor assembly workers, and as for accountants…). In short, selling speakers as fast as they could make them Advent in those days was a happy, busy place.

Which brings me back to our unhappy customer.

“No, the speakers sound fine; just like they did when I brought them home back in February—I bought them on your Washington’s Birthday sale,” he allowed.

“The thing is—well, around the middle of March we began noticing a bad smell in the living-room. I figured a mouse or squirrel or something had died in a wall—we’re out in the country a bit, and it’s happened before—so I assumed it’d clear up,” he continued. “But it hasn’t: it’s only gotten worse. And worse. And now I’m pretty sure it’s coming from this speaker.”

Indeed, by now our salesman was noticing a distinct malodorousness at the service desk. It surely wasn’t himself, nor his obviously clean, neatly dressed customer.

“It’s pretty quiet this morning,” the salesman said. “If you want to do an errand or two, or grab a cup of coffee, I’ll run some tests.” Acquiescing gratefully, the customer accepted the service ticket, and exited stage right.

Our salesman, or so the story goes, takes up the Retail Audio Specialist’s most sophisticated diagnostic weapon—a powered screwdriver—and goes to work. By now the smell was obvious: decayed, diseased, disturbing. Out comes the tweeter: nothing to see. A perfectly normal, perfectly functional, perfectly sweet-smelling example of the Advent “fried-egg” tweeter, a sort of cone/dome hybrid. The smell is powerful now, and obviously emanating from the Large’s now-free-venting enclosure. But the tweeter cutout is far to small to see the interior.

Our hero moves on to the woofer—with, it must be said, a certain trepidation. What would he find? A dead animal seemed unlikely: the Advents were sealed acoustic suspension speakers so there was no port by which a rodent or pet could win entrance, and there was no evidence of gnawing. Then a flashing image evoked a shudder: the severed hands from one of Whitey’s victims? Seemed unlikely: why in a loudspeaker? And anyway, neither driver’s screws appeared to have been touched since the factory; all were tight and matched their witness marks.

Out come the four screws securing the bass driver; out comes the woofer. Now the smell is overpowering; fellow employees are congregating, muttering angrily; early browsers are beginning to edge out of the store.

One trembling hand cradles the woofer, still connected to its wiring from the crossover deep in the bowels of the Large Advent; the other takes up the flashlight. With its beam sweeping the interior of the capacious cabinet, and using it to nudge aside the fiber batting filling the interior, he illuminates the awful truth: on the floor of the enclosure, beside the crossover, still on its square of oiled paper, lies the remains of what had once been half of a Large Italian. With everything. The roll might have gone quietly to dust; not so the capicola or prosciutto. Not to mention the cheese. And let’s not even contemplate the onions, peppers, and tomatoes.

Using a pair of channel-locks like giant tweezers our intrepid audio-iste gingerly gathers the fetid mess onto a section of newspaper, hustles it through the stockroom and out the back door into the Dumpster in the alley. On his return he snags the spray can of from the staff bathroom. After giving the interior of the speaker a careful wipe, he administers a healthy mist to the interior, replaces the two drivers, and is giving the cabinet a satisfied polish when the customer returns a moment later, paper cup of coffee in hand.

“What’d you find?” he inquires.

“You won’t believe this,” replied our quick-thinking salesman, “but you know these cabinets are stuffed with this spun-poly fabric for acoustic damping—you’ll find something like it in any acoustic-suspension speaker. Well, I guess that stuff must come on big rolls, and I guess a mouse must’ve crawled into a roll in the factory back in Mass., and then, well, you know,” he continued. “I pulled that piece out, along with what was left of him, and replaced it with one from one of our demos. You’re all set.”

And indeed, all that could be smelled, beyond a lingering faint scent of Lysol, were the apple blossoms blowing in the breeze beyond the store’s open front door.

“Gosh, that’s great! How much do I owe you?”

“Oh no charge, took two minutes; anyway, they’re still under warranty for a long time yet.”

"Gee, that’s great. Thanks a million!”

“All part of the service.”

And hoisting the now fragrant speaker back onto his shoulder, the customer—now a happy one, now a loyal patron for life—disappears down the block.

True story? Did it really happen?

I don’t know, I wasn’t there.

Or was I?

Rob Sabin's picture
Brings back great memories of some fabulous classic speakers I've owned...and some awesome hoagies.
DustinBickham's picture

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