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Barlow Wadley XCR-30 Mk II Receiver, 1974

The Barlow Wadley XCR-30 may be one of the most famous radios that you have never heard of. One of the reasons for its current obscurity is because in its heyday – the seventies and eighties – it was mostly bought by radio amateurs or ‘Hams’ and listeners to the Short Wave bands (known in the trade as SWLs or DX-ers). It has since become the stuff of myth and legend in amateur radio and vintage gadget collecting circles. It was quite expensive and comparatively few were built in its short production run (1973 to 1976) and this was largely due to it being made in South Africa. At the time SA was isolated and sanctioned by the international community in protest over its institutionally racist Apartheid system, so one way or another they are now quite rare. The XCR-30 was also unknown to me but a few years ago my brother Pete, who lives in South Africa, asked me if I had ever come across this radio, as he owned one in the seventies. He wasn’t a radio enthusiast but he did a lot of travelling and it proved quite handy for keeping up with the news in remote locations.  

 

One of the many features that made the XCR-30 so special is a clever piece of electronic circuitry called the Wadley Loop. Basically it helps the receiver to tune over an unusually wide range of frequencies covering the Medium and Short Wave bands (from 500kHz to 30MHz, on this model) with extraordinary sensitivity and precision. The why’s and wherefores of how it works need not concern us now (there’s more info here) and it would probably make yours (and my) head explode, but suffice it to say since the concept was developed in the 1950s by British electronics engineer Dr Trevor Wadley, it has gone on to become a key element in the design of specialised scientific instruments, like spectrum analysers.

 

The really surprising thing, though, is that such a sophisticated radio looks rather ordinary and not that different from the countless other portable radios doing the rounds in the 70s and 80s. The only slightly unusual feature, visible on the outside at least, is a hinged panel on the top with a slot for a printed card showing frequency coverage and blank cards for logging stations. Another oddity is the two large tuning knobs on either side of the case, and the two rotating frequency dials they are connected to. These are a clue to the XCR-30’s extra wide tuning range. The ‘MHz Set’ scale on the left extends from 0.5MHz to 30MHz, whilst the ‘kHz Set’ scale/knob on the right is for fine-tuning over the range 0 to 1000kHz. To the right of the scales there’s a small signal strength meter and below that a tiny knob for zeroing the kHz scale. This may need the occasional tweak due to changes in temperature and humidity. It is significant, and a clear indication of this radio’s remarkable prowess that the instruction manual (and others who know this receiver) say with great conviction, that once a station has been tuned ‘the stability is such that it will remain in tune indefinitely’…

 

The two knobs on the left side of the front pant panel are responsible for on/off volume, and Antenna Trim – we’ll come back to that in a moment – and on the right side there’s two more for Clarify SSB and Mode Selection (USB, AM and LSB). Those last two knobs definitely need some explanation, so starting with the acronyms, SSB stands for Single Sideband, USB is Upper Sideband (not to be confused with Universal Serial Bus, that came much later…), and LSB is Lower Sideband.

 

Single Sideband is an offshoot of AM (Amplitude Modulation) transmission, which is the system mostly used by radio stations broadcasting on the Long and Medium wavebands. Essentially it’s a very efficient way to transmit simple and relatively low quality sounds, like speech and Morse code, over long distances. SSB takes up around one third of the bandwidth and needs significantly less power than a conventional AM signal. This makes SSB popular with radio amateurs (and Citizen Band users), who enjoy chatting with fellow enthusiasts, hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away, using low power transmitting equipment. The downsides of SSB operation are that it is no use whatsoever for more complex sounds, like music; receivers tend to be complicated, expensive, and very fiddly to tune, hence the need for that manual SSB ‘Clarify’ control. Without it SSB transmissions would sound a lot like Donald Duck on speed… Back to that Antenna Trim control mentioned earlier and that is for fine-tuning the aerial. This is another handy feature on a receiver designed to pick up extremely weak signals on the short wave bands. One other thing worth a quick mention is the radio’s battery operation. One very welcome spin-off from the Bradley Loop Tuning system is really low standby or 'quiescent'  current consumption, typically 20 to 40mA, which translated into English means that a set of batteries will last many times longer than most modern radio receivers of similar capabilities.

 

And so to this XCR-30’s back story. I have been on the lookout for one ever since my brother drew my attention to it. Only a small handful turn up on ebay each year and almost without exception they change hands for three-figure sums; US buyers appear to be especially keen to get their hands on them. Barlow Wadley is saved as a Search term on my ebay but for some reason this one wasn’t flagged up and I only spotted it by accident, as a ‘you might be interested’ suggestion on some other unrelated auction page. It only had a day to go, with a starting price of £80, and no bids as yet. It was listed as working, in good condition and it came complete with the original instructions and service manual, which are both very rare and desirable to collectors. I was convinced it had been spotted and would sell in the last minute for somewhere north of £200. I put it on my Watch List anyway, more out of curiosity than in any hope of buying it. The auction was due to end early on a Thursday morning, and with an hour to go I checked to see how high the price had risen, but there were still no bids. Forty minutes later I decided to put in a mischief bid of £85 and annoy the hoards of last-second bidders I imagined were waiting to jump in. Fully expecting it to be instantly trounced I forgot about it so I was quite surprised, to say the least, to find the ‘You’ve Won, Pay Now’ email in my inbox later that day, and I was the only bidder.

 

It was as advertised and in spite of being more than 40 years old it is in remarkably good condition. The case is clean, there are no serious marks or scratches anywhere and it cleaned up well using nothing stronger a soft cloth and some household cleaner. The case was treated to a wipe-over with car dashboard polish, which buffed up to as-new shine. Inside it was just a bit dusty and the only very minor problem was the battery holder, which had a crack at one end, Fortunately these are still available and a new one cost just a couple of pounds. At some point there had been a minor battery leak on the the bottom of the case, which is all metal. The few small spots of ancient brown residue cleaned up easily.

 

The ebay description was also right about it being in good working order and even the on-board telescopic aerial managed to pull in scores of transmissions on both the MW broadcast and SW amateur radio bands. Articles on the XCR-30 suggested that well-used examples could have mechanical troubles but everything checked out, including a pair of fragile micro switches on the Antenna Trim adjustment. Performance is still excellent and whilst things have moved on, with the introduction of digitally controlled phase locked loop (PLL) tuning systems, not to mention digital displays and all manner of other enhancements in filtration and frequency control, the XCR-30 is remains a damn fine SW receiver and I suspect a good number of amateur radio enthusiasts and DX-ers would enjoy using it.

 

What Happened To It?

As far as I can make out Trevor Wadley retired to South Africa in the late 60s. He clearly wanted to keep his hand in and teamed up with a local manufacturer, called Barlow’s Television Co, to build his design for the XCR-30. At the time Barlow’s Television was mostly involved in assembling consumer electronics products under licence for Matsushita and Sony. It was a division of the Barlow’s Group, a large and long established conglomerate involved in steel manufacturing and building materials, motor retail and handling equipment. The Barlow’s Group continues to expand and is now a thriving multinational concern.

 

Although the XCR-30 was in production for only three years it underwent a number of modifications. This example apparently dates to post June 1974, and I know that because one of the few websites with any information about this radio reckons that after that date the all-transistor audio amplifier circuit was replaced with a TAA 611B amplifier chip. Later, even rarer models also sported an FM tuner. This should have made it more consumer friendly and improved sales. However, the home market was limited; sanctions made it difficult for South African companies to sell overseas and this probably bought about the radio’s eventual demise.  

 

I am under no illusions that this was a very lucky find and if you can find an XCR-30 you can expect to pay anywhere between £150 and £500 for one, possibly more if it is boxed and in mint condition. Nevertheless as this one proves they occasionally slip through the net and I have no doubt that over the years a few of them have turned up at a car boot sale or antique fair, selling for a few pounds. So you know what to do if you ever see one for a silly price, and this time, don’t pass it by, even if it is in poor condition. These days even spare parts can fetch a tidy sum.


GIZMO GUIDE (Manual)

First seen:                         1973

Original Price:                   £80?

Value Today:                     £200 (0917)

Features:                                     Triple-conversion drift cancellation, crystal-controlled ‘Wadley Loop’ tuner, Continuous frequency range 500kHz – 30MHz (Medium to Short Wave), reception modes AM, SSB & CW (continuous wave), dual range analogue tuning, SSB clarifier, antenna trimmer signal level meter, telescopic antenna, external open wire antenna and earth connections, 0.5 watt audio output.

Power req.                        56 x 1.5volt D cells & external 6 - 12 volt DC supply

Dimensions:                      290 x 237 x 100mm

Weight:                              3.6kg

Made (assembled) in:        South Africa     

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):      9


Binatone Worldstar Multi Band Radio, 1976

Some sections of the consumer electronics market have often shown a fairly relaxed attitude towards technical specifications and feature descriptions. It started in earnest in the early sixties and lasted until the late eighties, when legislation was introduced. Throughout that period some pretty big whoppers appeared in promotional and advertising material. The claims made for this late 70s vintage Binatone Worldstar multi-band radio are quite ambitious and must have suckered a good few punters -- including me -- into thinking that it was a lot more sophisticated than it actually was. This model, also sold under a number of other names, was widely touted as a sophisticated 9-band ‘World Radio’, capable of pulling in transmissions from around the globe. At first glance it does have the air of an advanced communications receiver, more so when shown with the flip-up cover for the tuner scale in the open position, displaying a fancy looking time zone calculator and a world map.

 

Unfortunately, like so much about the Worldstar, this was cosmetic fluff, like those alleged 9 wave bands. On the tuning scale they are listed as AM Broadcast, Sport, B1 Marine, B2 Marine, LW Long wave, FM Music, VHF Aircraft, VHF High and VHF Weather. It all sounds rather exotic but in reality it has only 5 switchable wavebands, namely: Long Wave, Medium Wave, VHF FM and High Band VHF. At least four of the nine purported wavebands were unused in Europe but in any case, even in the US, the market it was originally designed for, it would still have been next to useless for the applications suggested by the waveband names. Incidentally the two so-called Marine bands, covering 200 to 300kHz, were almost exclusively used by the Loran directional beacons. It is highly unlikely that American mariners trust a basic radio like this for navigational purposes, except in the direst emergency.

 

Three of the five actual bands (AM, LW and FM) work well enough for receiving regular broadcast radio stations, and the VHF Aircraft can sometimes pick up brief snatches of Air Traffic Control and Pilot exchanges, though you would need to be fairly close to an airport or flight path. However, if you were a UK buyer expecting it to pick up anything to do with sport, maritime matters or the weather you would have been sadly disappointed. Other questionable features include the twin telescopic antennas; only one of them really does anything, the other is largely for show, as is the red LED attached to the tuning needle. This glows whenever a station is received, which is most of the time on a busy broadcast band. The sliding Squelch control – a useful feature on communications receivers for eliminating background hiss – is also a bit superfluous on this radio since the opportunities for it to pick up the sort of intermittent transmissions it is meant for would have been few and far between.

 

But let’s not get too carried away with the imaginative feature list and pretensions. As a largish mains portable radio it stacks up quite well. Don’t be fooled by the faux stitched leather case covering though, it’s all plastic. It is quite sturdily built, though, and there’s even room inside the battery compartment for the mains lead and a US or continental 2-pin plug (but not a bulky UK 3-pin plug). FM reception isn’t too bad either, and you can take it as read that this one works, though it wasn’t always so.

 

My first encounter with the Worldstar was probably soon after it went on sale, in the mid 1970s. I recall that at the time it was widely advertised in the national press, weekly publications like Exchange and Mart and specialist magazines. It definitely caught my eye but after reading the small print I must have figured out that it was all a bit of a sham. We met again some 40 years later when I spotted this one lurking in a box of junk under a wallpaper-pasting table at a local car boot sale. It appeared to be in reasonably good physical shape, though the top flap with the map was missing but I didn’t have the heart to haggle over the  £1.00 asking price. Even if it were a complete write-off it would have been worth it for the mains plug and any salvageable parts.

 

It cleaned up well but as expected it was a non-runner. Luckily it was the simplest of all faults, a mucky power switch. A few squirts of contact cleaner bought it back to life, and while I was at it, a few more squirts fixed the scratchy slider controls. Inside, the circuit board is typical of Hong Kong made radios of the time. It’s not a pretty sight with a rat’s nest of wires and loads of wax all over the place, meant to stop sensitive components, like coils and capacitors moving around and upsetting the tuning. Everything is quite well spaced, though and it looks like it should be relatively easy to fix should anything go wrong. I would quite like to find a new flip cover for this one but unfortunately it’s going to have to come from another Worldstar. For that to make economic sense it would need to be the only useful part on a complete basket case costing no more than 50 pence, so that’s not going to happen any time soon...

 

What Happened To It?

It feels like the Binatone brand has been around forever but the company, founded by the Lalvani brothers actually started trading in 1958. Initially Binatone was mostly involved with importing and distributing badged-up electronic products made in the Far East. From the 80s onwards they took a more hands-on approach to design and manufacture and nowadays they are focused on home entertainment and telecomms products and small electrical appliances. Binatone’s success was largely due to its ability to spot trends and react quickly by bringing affordably priced products to the market. These included first generation home video games, audio and video gadgets galore and the Worldstar, which was one of several similarly specified radios around at the time. It appears to have sold quite well, there’s usually a few on ebay, with prices ranging from £15 to £40, and the fact that most of them are still going strong confirms that they were solidly built. This one I’m valuing at only £15 because of the missing flap, and whilst it doesn’t actually do much except let you work out the time in other parts of the world, useless, it is one of the radio’s most visible features and it looks a bit lost without it.   


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                           1976

Original Price:                    £25.00

Value Today:                      £15.00 (0817)

Features:                            5-Band (listed as 9): ‘. Frequency coverage: 150 – 300kHz, 540 – 1600kHz, 1.6 – 4.4MHz, 88-108MHz, 108 – 175MHz, 18 transistor superhet, rotary tuning, LED tuning indicator, 10cm speaker, twin telescope & single internal ferrite antennas, volume, tone & squelch sliders, earphone socket (3.5mm jack), hinged world time zone map and calculator

Power req.                        4 x 1.5 volt D cells and 240-volt AC mains

Dimensions:                      320 x 260 x 104mm

Weight:                             2.4kg

Made (assembled) in:       Hong Kong       

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     5

Binatone Worldstar Multi Band Radio, 1976

Some sections of the consumer electronics market have often shown a fairly relaxed attitude towards technical specifications and feature descriptions. It started in earnest in the early sixties and lasted until the late eighties, when legislation was introduced. Throughout that period some pretty big whoppers appeared in promotional and advertising material. The claims made for this late 70s vintage Binatone Worldstar multi-band radio are quite ambitious and must have suckered a good few punters -- including me -- into thinking that it was a lot more sophisticated than it actually was. This model, also sold under a number of other names, was widely touted as a sophisticated 9-band ‘World Radio’, capable of pulling in transmissions from around the globe. At first glance it does have the air of an advanced communications receiver, more so when shown with the flip-up cover for the tuner scale in the open position, displaying a fancy looking time zone calculator and a world map.

 

Unfortunately, like so much about the Worldstar, this was cosmetic fluff, like those alleged 9 wave bands. On the tuning scale they are listed as AM Broadcast, Sport, B1 Marine, B2 Marine, LW Long wave, FM Music, VHF Aircraft, VHF High and VHF Weather. It all sounds rather exotic but in reality it has only 5 switchable wavebands, namely: Long Wave, Medium Wave, VHF FM and High Band VHF. At least four of the nine purported wavebands were unused in Europe but in any case, even in the US, the market it was originally designed for, it would still have been next to useless for the applications suggested by the waveband names. Incidentally the two so-called Marine bands, covering 200 to 300kHz, were almost exclusively used by the Loran directional beacons. It is highly unlikely that American mariners trust a basic radio like this for navigational purposes, except in the direst emergency.

 

Three of the five actual bands (AM, LW and FM) work well enough for receiving regular broadcast radio stations, and the VHF Aircraft can sometimes pick up brief snatches of Air Traffic Control and Pilot exchanges, though you would need to be fairly close to an airport or flight path. However, if you were a UK buyer expecting it to pick up anything to do with sport, maritime matters or the weather you would have been sadly disappointed. Other questionable features include the twin telescopic antennas; only one of them really does anything, the other is largely for show, as is the red LED attached to the tuning needle. This glows whenever a station is received, which is most of the time on a busy broadcast band. The sliding Squelch control – a useful feature on communications receivers for eliminating background hiss – is also a bit superfluous on this radio since the opportunities for it to pick up the sort of intermittent transmissions it is meant for would have been few and far between.

 

But let’s not get too carried away with the imaginative feature list and pretensions. As a largish mains portable radio it stacks up quite well. Don’t be fooled by the faux stitched leather case covering though, it’s all plastic. It is quite sturdily built, though, and there’s even room inside the battery compartment for the mains lead and a US or continental 2-pin plug (but not a bulky UK 3-pin plug). FM reception isn’t too bad either, and you can take it as read that this one works, though it wasn’t always so.

 

My first encounter with the Worldstar was probably soon after it went on sale, in the mid 1970s. I recall that at the time it was widely advertised in the national press, weekly publications like Exchange and Mart and specialist magazines. It definitely caught my eye but after reading the small print I must have figured out that it was all a bit of a sham. We met again some 40 years later when I spotted this one lurking in a box of junk under a wallpaper-pasting table at a local car boot sale. It appeared to be in reasonably good physical shape, though the top flap with the map was missing but I didn’t have the heart to haggle over the  £1.00 asking price. Even if it were a complete write-off it would have been worth it for the mains plug and any salvageable parts.

 

It cleaned up well but as expected it was a non-runner. Luckily it was the simplest of all faults, a mucky power switch. A few squirts of contact cleaner bought it back to life, and while I was at it, a few more squirts fixed the scratchy slider controls. Inside, the circuit board is typical of Hong Kong made radios of the time. It’s not a pretty sight with a rat’s nest of wires and loads of wax all over the place, meant to stop sensitive components, like coils and capacitors moving around and upsetting the tuning. Everything is quite well spaced, though and it looks like it should be relatively easy to fix should anything go wrong. I would quite like to find a new flip cover for this one but unfortunately it’s going to have to come from another Worldstar. For that to make economic sense it would need to be the only useful part on a complete basket case costing no more than 50 pence, so that’s not going to happen any time soon...

 

What Happened To It?

It feels like the Binatone brand has been around forever but the company, founded by the Lalvani brothers actually started trading in 1958. Initially Binatone was mostly involved with importing and distributing badged-up electronic products made in the Far East. From the 80s onwards they took a more hands-on approach to design and manufacture and nowadays they are focused on home entertainment and telecomms products and small electrical appliances. Binatone’s success was largely due to its ability to spot trends and react quickly by bringing affordably priced products to the market. These included first generation home video games, audio and video gadgets galore and the Worldstar, which was one of several similarly specified radios around at the time. It appears to have sold quite well, there’s usually a few on ebay, with prices ranging from £15 to £40, and the fact that most of them are still going strong confirms that they were solidly built. This one I’m valuing at only £15 because of the missing flap, and whilst it doesn’t actually do much except let you work out the time in other parts of the world, useless, it is one of the radio’s most visible features and it looks a bit lost without it.   


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                           1976

Original Price:                    £25.00

Value Today:                      £15.00 (0817)

Features:                            5-Band (listed as 9): ‘. Frequency coverage: 150 – 300kHz, 540 – 1600kHz, 1.6 – 4.4MHz, 88-108MHz, 108 – 175MHz, 18 transistor superhet, rotary tuning, LED tuning indicator, 10cm speaker, twin telescope & single internal ferrite antennas, volume, tone & squelch sliders, earphone socket (3.5mm jack), hinged world time zone map and calculator

Power req.                        4 x 1.5 volt D cells and 240-volt AC mains

Dimensions:                      320 x 260 x 104mm

Weight:                             2.4kg

Made (assembled) in:       Hong Kong       

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     5


ITT KB Junior Super AM/FM Radio, 1971

This pocketsize transistor radio represents another one of the 'lost' gadgets from my early teenage years, though to be accurate, it is a slightly later version of the one that I actually owned. This Hong Kong made ITT KB Junior Super, dates from around 1972; my original one was the less well-specified Junior ML2 model that first appeared in 1969. For some reason it has become somewhat collectible, with eye-watering prices to match. They are not especially rare but until I find one at a sensible price (£5 tops...) this one will have to do.

 

To be fair the basic ML2 was the first of the line to sport the Junior badge, which may account for its elevated status, and being a late 1960s design it had only Medium and Long wave coverage. The Junior Super is a more advanced AM/FM receiver, which was actually quite an innovation on small and relatively cheap 'trannies', and somewhat unusual in that the ITT brand was actually quite famous. The vast majority of inexpensive portable radios from that era were made by small far eastern companies that almost no one had heard of, and in most cases disappeared without trace after a few years.

 

Whilst the Junior Super doesn't have any particularly flashy or groundbreaking features the size and styling deserve a mention. It is small, only slightly larger than the ubiquitous shirt-pocket radios that just about every teenager had back then. The housing is another very obvious sign of the times. The peculiar American fad for encasing almost everything electronic in phoney wood-grained plastic continued until the mid-eighties at which point the Japanese trend for shiny chrome and satin aluminium finishes took over. Inside the box there's a competent AM/FM receiver. It uses 10 transistors, most of which were, at the time, state of the art silicon types. There's a sliding pointer tuner scale on the front panel, which was a bit of a rarity on radios this small. It also has a telescopic aerial with a swivel base and again that was quite unusual on a compact portable. There's only three controls, a pair of thumbwheels on the side for on/off volume and tuning and a slide switch on the back for selecting AM Medium Wave or VHF FM. The only other noteworthy items are a 3.5mm mono jack socket for an earphone and a carry handle.

 

The date of manufacture is fairly easy to establish, thanks to several radio collector's websites and even one devoted specifically to KB (Kolster Brandes) and ITT-KB models. Oddly this otherwise comprehensive online archive doesn't feature the Junior Super but it does help confirm that it was almost certainly made between 1970 and 1972. This covers the period during which many ITT radios had horizontal wood-effect slatted grills (later ones had holes instead of slats) to when KB was dropped from the logo. This is getting dangerously nerdy, so time to round off the tour with the battery compartment on the underside, which houses four 1.5 volt AA type cells.

 

As part of my quest to replace the long lost tech of my youth I have been on the lookout for a 69 vintage ITT-KB Junior ML2 for some time but prices have been frankly ridiculous. One recent ebay auction topped £100, though that was for one in mint condition, and complete with its original box. The Junior Super you see here also appeared on ebay, with a starting price of £5.00, and there it stayed until my half-hearted bid of £5.25 went unchallenged. It was as described, in good clean, working condition. In fact the only slight defect was an easily fixed kink in the top section of the telescopic aerial. I don't remember much about the performance of my original ML2 but I can say this one works really well and FM sounds as good, if not better than most cheapo modern receivers.

 

What Happened To It?  

ITT or International Telephone and Telegraph had a rather colourful history. It was founded in the 1920s in the US by two brothers, Herman and Sosthenes Behn. In the early years they concentrated on manufacturing telephones and buying up telecomms companies in South America and Europe. It had a busy and some would say a controversial Second World War, especially where its German subsidiaries were concerned. Questionable connections and involvement with prominent leaders and political figures continued throughout the post war years and it was never far from the headlines, and the American courts. In 1995 ITT was split into three divisions and finally broken up into newly formed publicly traded independent companies in 2011.    

 

Consumer electronics and radios were only ever a tiny part of ITT's vast operation and mostly a badge-engineering exercise, outsourced to far-eastern manufacturers. My Junior ML2 probably only survived for a couple of years before it suffered a fatal drop onto a hard surface, or was killed my constant tinkering. I became adept at taking things apart; putting them back together was another matter but the parts would have been put to good use.  According to the KB Museum website the Junior name continued until around 1974 after which the smallest models in the range became Tiny and Pinto, though the Junior was briefly revived for a couple of seasons between 1983 and 1985.

 

I am clearly not alone in seeking a Junior ML2 and even fairly ropey examples can fetch unrealistic prices. I have no doubt the occasional bargain slips though, but I have yet to see it. As for later models, like the Junior Super, Junior 2 and Junior 21, they tend not to attract much attention, or suffer from optimistic pricing and if you are patient you will almost certainly manage to find a decent one for less than £20, possibly even less if you keep your eyes peeled at car boot sales and antiques markets, but whilst they all look a lot like the ML2 they're just not the same...


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1969

Original Price:                   £10.50

Value Today:                     £15.00 (0717)

Features:                           AM/FM superhetrodyne, 10 transistors, 9-section telescopic aerial, ferrite antenna, moving tuning scale, rotary volume & tuning, 90mm elliptical speaker, AM/FM slide switch, 3.5mm mono earphone socket, carry handle

Power req.                       4 x 1.5 volt AA cells

Dimensions:                     152 x 46 x 95mm

Weight:                            380g

Made (assembled) in:      Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    6


Koss ESP-6 Electrostatic Headphones, 1968

There’s always room in dustygizmos for technological ‘World’s Firsts’, and what made the Koss ESP-6 headphones briefly famous in audio circles in the late sixties was its fully self-contained, self-energising electrostatic transducers. Okay, so it doesn’t exactly trip off he tongue and it may not have made much of an impact outside the Hi-Fi biz, but this was actually quite a big deal back then and to understand why it is worth a quick trot through the principles of electrostatic speakers and headphones.

 

As you know the vast majority of speakers and headphones use electromagnetic drivers. Basically the output from an amplifier is applied to a coil of wire; inside the coil there’s a permanent magnet, attached to a conical diaphragm and this moves rapidly back and forth in response to the changes in the signal from the amplifier. It can also be the other way around, with the coil attached to the moving diaphragm and the magnet mounted on the speaker or headphone frame, but the principle is the same. In general it works quite well but a single speaker or transducer, has difficulty covering the whole of our hearing range and distortion can be a problem, so compromises have to be made. These mean putting up with a limited or uneven frequency response, or added complications and expense by using multiple transducers. 

 

One alternative is electrostatic speakers and headphones, developed in the 1950s. These can have a broader and flatter frequency response, with much lower distortion. They work by having a flat, thin and very light diaphragm, stretched and mounted on a frame sandwiched between electrically charged grids. The diaphragm has a conductive coating and by using the amplifier’s output to vary the charge voltage, the diaphragm moves between the grids, creating sounds. As the charge is applied evenly over the surface of the diaphragm and because it is so thin and light, it can reproduce a wider range of frequencies, with much less distortion, compared with a normal loudspeaker. In principle it’s a simple idea but the downsides are that additional circuitry is needed to convert the output from a normal amplifier to drive electrostatic transducers. A few high-end amps have this facility built-in but in most cases electrostatic speakers and headphones have to be used with purpose-designed power supplies and adaptor boxes.

 

Koss re-wrote the rules with the ESP-6 by fitting all the extra gubbins inside the earphones, with the power needed to generate the electrostatic voltages being derived from the audio output from a normal amplifier. It sounds like an elegant solution but there had to be drawbacks. And there are; the most obvious ones are the size and weight of the headphones and at little under 1kg, you definitely know you are wearing them! That’s not to say they are catastrophically uncomfortable, at least not for short periods. Soft cushioning on the headband and the liquid-filled ear pads help, though in retrospect the latter probably wasn’t such a good idea, as we’ll see in a moment.

 

They were expensive, even by current standards (equivalent to more than £500 at today’s prices), and most annoyingly, they came with a T3 adaptor module. To be fair you didn’t have to use it. They can be plugged straight into the headphone jack of a ordinary audio amp, and you might even get a half decent sound from them, but it runs the risk of damaging the amplifier as the effect of the ESP-6’s internal circuitry was to vary and raise the impedance of the headphones. Distortion and clipping is another a problem with this arrangement and to help the user avoid it happening each earphone is fitted with a red warning light. They are supposed to be within the wearer’s peripheral vision, though your eyes would need to be on the side of your head to be able to see them.

 

This pair was found at a Midlands antiques fair, in a rather sorry state, in a large box of junk. I could have had the whole lot for a fiver, but opted instead for the headphones on their own for a non-negotiable price of 50 pence… They were encrusted in layers of mud and the coiled lead had turned into a knotted ball that took half an hour to untangle, but that wasn’t the worst of it. They had fallen prey to two common problems with this design. The liquid filled ear pads had leaked into the earphones, and the foam padding inside had rotted into a gooey mush. Long story short; although the insides were a horrible mess, luckily the goop wasn’t corrosive and after disassembly most of it came away without too much trouble. The foam was easily replaced and some modern ear pads were found.

 

Unfortunately it didn’t come with the T3 adaptor box but I managed to find a simple adaptor circuit on the web so at least they could be tested using a regular amplifier and the results were quite surprising. The electrostatic elements survived the unpleasantness of the leaky ear pads and compared reasonably well with modern cans. I suspect that with a lot more TLC, the purpose-made adaptor and some fiddling around they could sound even better but you would need to be fairly determined to want to use them on a regular basis due to the weight and discomfort factor. 

 

What Happened To It?

John C. Koss set up set up the company, in partnership with engineer Martin Lange, in Wisconsin 1958 and immediately set about stirring up the then rather conservative audio industry. One of their first products was a stereo record player with built-in speakers and it was one of the first to have a headphone socket. This was quite handy because at the same time they also launched the world’s first stereo headphones, the legendary SP/3s. These immediately propelled Koss into the first division of audio manufacturers and with some clever promotion their headphones were regularly seen adorning the heads of the famous performers and personalities of the day. They’re still going strong with Koss continuing to be a leading light in high-end hi-fi, studio and specialist headphones.

 

Over the years the popularity of electrostatic speakers and headphones has waxed and waned but they’ve never had much of an impact on mainstream and home hi-fi due to the added complexity and expense. They also have a number of acoustic foibles that experts and purists endlessly debate. On a more down to earth level, the static charges they generate work like a magnet for dust and small insects so they need regular cleaning and in some cases, periodic checking and even replacement. In short they are high maintenance and the improvements in sound quality they may or may not have provided in the past can be hard to hear, let alone justify these days.

 

Nevertheless there are still plenty of enthusiasts who swear by them and vintage equipment, like these ESP-6’s are of interest to collectors. Vintage headphones tend to be at the lower end of the desirability spectrum but ESP-6s in tip-top condition, with a T3 adaptor and the original carry case can be found on ebay selling for between £80 and £120. Lesser examples, non-runners and fixer-uppers, like this one, are probably only worth £20 to £30 but they’re the sort of thing that will probably attract higher prices as time goes by, if only as sources of spare parts.

 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:           1968

Original Price:     $95.00 (£40)

Value Today:       £25 (0517)

Features:             Self-energising electrostatic transducers, response 30 – 19kHz (+/- 5dB), internal driver transformers & circuitry, gel-filled ear pads

Power req.                     n/a

Dimensions:                   115 x 85 x 63mm (each eph)

Weight:                          850g

Made (assembled) in:    USA

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)   7


Heathkit GR-78 General Coverage Receiver, 1972

It’s not a name you hear very often these days but up until the late eighties Heathkit was a byword for high performance electronic products. To be honest the company was better known in its US homeland, but such was the quality and reliability of its wares that it enjoyed international renown amongst those interested in such things. However, their unique selling point, and one of the reasons it didn’t have much of a profile in the general electronics market was that most of their products were sold in kit form, as well as ready-made. For a company you may not have heard of they developed a surprisingly wide range of consumer and specialist devices, from Hi-Fi systems and colour TVs to amateur radio equipment and test instruments and along the way became quite a big name in robots and early home computers.

 

The Heathkit GR-78 General Coverage Receiver featured here was aimed squarely at amateur radio enthusiasts or ‘Hams’ and although its 6-band coverage includes portions of the Long and Medium Wave bands, most of its considerable facilities are concentrated on Short Wave reception. Although outwardly it looks like the sort of thing that belongs on a table or desk it’s actually a portable design. Power comes from an internal rechargeable NiCad battery pack; the external 110/220-volt AC mains and 12-volt DC connections on the back are only there to charge the battery. It even has a carry handle, though it’s a bit of a lump and weighing in at 4.5kg, not the sort of thing you would want to lug around for fun. Portability, such as it is, is mainly for the benefit of radio amateurs, many of whom enjoy nothing more than indulging in a spot of long-distance chatting and wave hopping in the great outdoors.

 

It sounds a bit odd now, in an age of instant global communications, but amateur radio used to be (and still is, to some extent), a popular hobby. There is undoubtedly a sense of achievement, excitement even, making contact with fellow enthusiasts, hundreds, if not thousands of miles away using relatively low power radio transmitting equipment; better yet if that equipment was built or assembled by you.

 

To those accustomed to domestic radios with just a handful of controls or buttons and a simple display, the GR-78 looks a bit daunting but in this case more is definitely better. They help the user to pick out incredibly weak signals in amongst the mush of powerful broadcast transmissions, local communications systems, interference, background noise and who knows, maybe even the odd little green (grey) man trying to phone home…

 

The two most important controls are the rotary band selector and large tuning knob, both on the far right. The bands, assigned letters A to F relate to the scales on the tuning scale. A to C cover parts of the long and medium wave bands whilst D to F are for the key sections of the Short Wave, from 3 to 30MHz. If you are wondering why there’s no VHF/FM coverage that’s just an age thing. Back in the late 1960s, when the GR-78 was designed frequencies above 50MHz was largely the province of broadcast radio and TV stations. VHF signals also only travel relatively short distances – basically line of sight – and the band had yet to be fully opened up for amateur radio applications. The tuning dial is designed for making very precise adjustments. It’s coupled, by a cable and pulley sysytem to the moving pointer on the scale and a small flywheel that helps to smooth the motion.

 

In the centre of the panel there’s a bank of switches for secondary functions. These include automatic volume control (AVC), automatic noise limiter (ANL), calibration mode (used during initial setup and alignment), AM-CW/SSB selection (reception mode: Amplitude Modulation, Continuous Wave/Single Sideband), Receive/Standby and panel light switch. On the right side the two knobs are for on/off AF and RF Gain (volume and tuner sensitivity) and Bandspread (fine tuning, for separating stations that are close together), which moves the scale in the window above the knob. There’s also a signal strength meter to the right of the tuning scale, and it has a built-in telescopic aerial sticking out of the top of the case, and that’s all there is to it…

 

In practice getting the most out of this old beast is a bit of a palaver. The built in antenna, doesn’t do a lot and only picks up relatively strong signals a short distance away. Hooking it up to a long outside aerial is what it’s all about. After dark it should come alive when atmospheric conditions allow short wave signals to bounce around the earth reflected from the upper layers in the atmosphere. These days picking out an intelligible signal requires luck and patience though. The drop-off in Ham activity and fewer broadcast stations on the Short Wave bands, plus a proliferation of data traffic and so on means that SWL (Short Wave Listening) is no longer the absorbing hobby it used to be. That’s definitely not a fault of the GR-70, though, which is a superbly well made piece of equipment, so much so that it’s almost impossible to tell if this one is a home-build or ready made version. Construction is largely modular and critical components, like the main tuning block, are factory made and aligned, leaving less scope for cack-handed DIYers to get it wrong. Heathkit’s instruction manuals are also legendary for detail and accuracy and easy to follow, so a good percentage of kit built receivers would have worked, and worked well.

 

There’s no way of knowing how or why this one ended up in a muddy field, at a car boot sale one wet and windy April morning. The stallholder, obviously in the house clearance business, had no idea if it worked or not, or its value and was happy to accept my offer of £2.00. It could have turned out to been over generous if the innards had been fried but there were no obvious signs of corrosion or decay on the outside, the knobs twiddled, the tuning needle moved smoothly and it didn’t rattle when shook, so it was worth a punt. The date of manufacture or assembly is a bit of a guess, but probably not too far off as this particular model was on sale for just a few years, between 1969 and 1976.

 

Following a relatively straightforward case clean, internal muck and dust out plus a few squirts of switch cleaner and oil on the moving parts there was complete silence from the speaker when connected up to a 12-volt supply. In fact it was dead as a doornail, not even a panel light, which I checked was working (it was). After reading the manual I eventually managed to work out that external power was only for charging the internal NiCad battery pack. This had long since expired so I bypassed the charging circuit, fed it directly from the power supply and was rewarded with loud hiss from the speaker. More guidance from the manual helped me to navigate the controls and within a couple of minutes Radio 2 Long Wave was coming through loud and clear. All three Short Wave bands made a loud and promising hiss but apart from a few bleeps and squeaks there was nothing of note to listen to. It clearly depends on a proper external aerial. It will have to wait it turn until I get around to stringing up a long wire antenna in the back garden before resuming the road test, but on the evidence so far, it seems like it’s going to be a runner.  

   

What Happened To It?

The Heath Company dates back to 1912, founded by Edward Bayard Heath, who bought up the Bates Aeroplane Company, and proceeded to build light aircraft. Heath came a cropper in 1931 in a fatal test flight crash. The company folded and was bought up, and continued trading as Heath, making and selling aircraft parts. After the Second World War the company moved into electronics manufacturing, making good use of a cheap and ready supply of high quality military surplus parts. One of its first products, launched in 1947, was an oscilloscope kit, with a bargain basement price of just $50.00. It was a huge success and over the next five decades Heathkit went on to produce hundreds of self build kits, and finished products that compared very favourably with anything available at the time. However, by the mid 1980s the kit side of the business was in steep decline. Heathkit pulled out of the market in 1992, hit by overwhelming competition from the far east, the change to digital technology, microchips and tiny components, which made DIY assembly difficult and the consequent downturn in the hobbyist and enthusiast markets.

 

The Heathkit brand limped on through a succession of buyouts and in 2008 its then owner DESA, went bankrupt. What was left of the Heathkit Company filed for bankruptcy in 2012. In 2015 there were signs of a rescue attempt with a new group acquiring the rights to designs and trademarks, so the story may not be over.

 

Heathkit products from the 60s to the 80s are still very highly regarded, especially if they still work. Some designs have achieved classic status; test instruments and amateur radio equipment can fetch very respectable prices on ebay. Working GR-78s are not that common and when they turn up in online auctions they typically sell for between £20 and £40, so my two quid gamble could turn out to be a good investment. However, luck was definitely on my side and non-working products can be a gamble. If they were put together by an inexperienced kit builder troubleshooting could prove difficult. Fortunately there’s an excellent archive of manuals and instructions on the Vintage Radio website, for those who enjoy tinkering with old-school electronics.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:        1969 (Manual)

Original Price:  $130 (approx £55 in 1969)

Value Today:     £30 (0317)

Features:           Double/triple conversion superhetrodyne receiver, 6 band (LW, MW & SW) coverage: 200 - 400kHz, 550 - 1300kHz, 1.3MHz – 3.0MHz, 3.0MHz – 7.5MHz, 7.5MHz – 18.0MHz, 18MHz – 30MHz, AM, CW SSB (BFO) modes, variable bandspread, variable AF/RF Gain, internal 500KHz crystal calibrator, flywheel tuning, signal strength meter, internal 8cm speaker, telescopic antenna & external antenna, external charging: 12-15VDC/110/220VAC, available as self-assembly kit or ready built

Power req.                    Internal 9.6v rechargeable NiCad battery

Dimensions:                 288 x 222 x 110mm

Weight:                         4.6g

Made (assembled) in:    USA

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)   8


Decca RP 205 Record Player 1964

You have to be a real nerd to know, or appreciate, that Emma Peel, in the 1960’s TV series, the Avengers, had a Decca RP 205 recorder player in her apartment. That makes it the height of sixties retro cool and gives it a good deal of credibility right now, in the midst of one of those periodic vinyl revivals. The RP 205 really was one of the more desirable standalone (but I hesitate to say portable, check out the weight…) record players of its day. It was also a big step up, in terms of looks, performance and price over the popular Dansette models, though to be fair they were a lot more portable than this one and largely aimed at teenagers. The RP205 was the sort of thing that that the trendy well off parents of those teenagers might have bought. The more conservative, with a small c, option was a radiogram but these tended to be bought as much for being a piece of furniture, as an item of home entertainment. 

 

What made the RP 205 a bit special was the sound quality and this was largely down to the combination of three well chosen components. The first is a Decca Deram stereo ceramic pickup cartridge, noted for its wide frequency response and use of high-quality diamond microgroove styli. Mono records were still the norm in the early sixties and the RP 205 has a mono amplifier but the cartridge is also wired to a jack socket on the front so it could be connected to an optional Decca stereo upgrade kit or a suitable external stereo amp and speakers.

 

Critical component number two is the amplifier. It is a 3-stage push-pull design using two valves: 6BR8 and ELL80. The latter is a rather exotic double output pentode and today you would be hard pushed to find one on sale for much less than £50. The amp pumps out a healthy, room-filling 6 watts rms through a surprisingly supple 8-inch (200mm) elliptical speaker.

 

The last piece in the jigsaw is the Garrard AT5 4-speed autochanger. This was another well regarded piece of kit in the developing home hi-fi market, and its ability to play 16, 33, 45 and 78rpm recordings meant it could cope with just about anything. By the way, although it could play 78s, it was inadvisable to do so using the supplied LP stylus as it rides low in a 78’s wider grooves making a pretty awful noise. Fortunately it’s fairly easy to switch to another stylus, as the head shell is detachable, held in place by a simple twisting collar

 

It is housed in a stylish and sturdy wooden case with a hinged lid. The whole caboodle is clad in colourful leatherette. All of the amplifier controls (on/off, bass, treble & volume) are on the front panel, below the speaker grille. Around the back there’s a compartment with a sliding door for stowing the mains cable and plug. Straight out of the box it’s set to run on a 240/250 volt AC supply but this can be easily changed to 200/210 or 220/230 volts using a simple plug selector on the power supply, accessed through a removable panel behind the speaker compartment.

 

I normally give valve-based devices a fairly wide berth; they’re usually horrible to work on and the actual valves are becoming harder and more expensive to replace, particularly so on this model. However, this one, which I spotted at a boot sale in Surrey, appeared to be in very good shape and with an asking price of just £10, even if the amp was a complete basket case it would have been worth it just for the deck. Even so I couldn’t resist a quick haggle and we eventually settled on £8.00. After some basic circuit checks to make sure it wasn’t about to explode I powered it up and was rewarded with a smoothly spinning turntable and a promising hum from the speaker. All it needed to make it fully functional was a new stylus but I gave it a thorough overhaul, which included cleaning off a lot of nasty looking hardened grease on the turntable mechanism. Fully greased up it now fires on all cylinders and sounds excellent. It may not be up to modern hi-fi’s technical standards but those old valves and the, by now, well matured speaker, produce a warmth and depth that brings classic rock albums back to life, in a way that transistors and microchips simply cannot match.

What Happened To It?

Decca dates back to 1914, it was founded by one Wilfred Samuel, an established maker of musical instruments. In case you were wondering the name is made up from the D from Dulcephone, one of the company’s trademarked brand names, and the last four letters of Mecca. It was chosen for the simple reason that it was easily pronounceable in just about any language. The Decca Gramophone company was formed in the late 1920s and soon after it diversified into record production, By the mid 30s it was also involved in making radio receivers and after a busy WW II, which saw it developing military and marine radios and radar systems, Decca started making TV receivers and projectors. The company continued to thrive throughout the 50s and 60s, producing a wide range of valve based record players but growing competition from the Far East and a decline in record sales compelled it to wind down the manufacturing side of the business and concentrate on its core business, as a major recording label.

 

The RP 205 seems to have been in production from around 1963 to 1966; the one featured here is date stamped 1964 and if the 7-digit serial number is anything to go by, a goodly number of them were made. Valve-based record players from the 1960s tend to have a low survival rate; many of them were cheaply made and none too reliable at that but in any case they were bulky and heavy and decidedly un-fashionable following the introduction of Compact Cassette.

 

Throughout the 70s and 80s manufacturers reluctantly included record decks as the transition to the tower-topping component in countless home hi-fi systems but gradually it became an optional extra and by the late nineties had all but disappeared. Since then there have been several half-hearted vinyl comebacks but the latest one, which began in around 2015 has been the most pervasive to date with significant increases in the sale of players and records.

 

Sixties record players like the RP 205 are a bit of a gamble for anyone discovering vinyl for the first time, or hoping to revive old memories and actually wanting to listen to records. Valve-based equipment is also a bit of a time bomb; the cost alone of replacing the ELL80 in this one should be enough to put most sane people off. There’s also the problem of replacing worn out styli, and getting mechanical problems fixed could prove difficult, and expensive. That said, it still ticks a lot of boxes for collectors of retro and vintage technology, and one in good working order, with a recent service history, could be good for another 10 to 20 years, but be prepared to pay the thick end of £100 for the privilege. There are plenty of potentially decent fixer-uppers on offer though, on ebay at boot sales and antique fairs, but unless you really know what you are doing, or can hear it working, be prepared to dig deep.    


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:          1964

Original Price:   25gns (£26.25)

Value Today:     £45.00 (0417)

Features:           Three-stage 2-valve (6BR8  & ELL80) push-pull amplifier, mono output, 15 ohm elliptical speaker, 4-speed (16, 33, 45 & 78rpm) Garrard AT5 autochanger, Decca Deram stereo ceramic cartridge, tape & external stereo adaptor outputs

Power req.           200- 250V AC mains

Dimensions:           490 x 380 x 220mm

Weight:                           11.2kg

Made (assembled) in:   England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)  7


Ivalek De Luxe Crystal Radio, 1950?

There is something  magical about crystal radios, they seem to work without any visible means of power, and in their purest form, can contain just two or three components. In fact they can be so simple that it’s possible to make one with just a razor blade, a safety pin and a few metres of wire. That was the shopping list for the legendary ‘Foxhole Radio’, built by soldiers and POWs in Word War II.

 

Before we get to the little Ivalek De Luxe featured here it’s worth having a quick look at the key component in any crystal radio, namely the crystal, and that’s exactly what the very first crystal radios, and this Ivalek model used. The crystal in this case is a natural crystalline mineral called Galena. It is a relatively common ore bearing lead and silver, but it has another useful property. When the surface of a Galena crystal is in contact with a fine piece of wire, called a ‘cats whisker’, something interesting happens. An alternating current going through the crystal and the cat’s whisker contact can only pass in one direction. The point of contact between the crystal and cat’s whisker acts as a simple semiconductor, and the modern equivalent is an electronic component called a diode. Its job is to extract the audio component in an AM (amplitude modulated) radio signal coming from a long outdoor aerial. It does this by rectifying or stripping out half of the alternating current signal, which, after some simple filtering, leaves an audio signal that is just about strong enough to be heard on a pair of very sensitive headphones. That’s the short, quick and dirty explanation; there’s a lot more detailed information on the web for those who are interested.

 

Okay, that’s enough of the teccy stuff; the Ivalek Deluxe is a classic fifties design. It was made by Ivory Electric Limited, latterly of 45 Grafton Way in Fitzrovia in London, at some time between 1950 and 1955-ish. It’s hard to be precise on the date as there are two versions, this one, which has proper cat’s whisker crystal, and the one that replaced it in the mid to late fifties, which had a semiconductor diode. The case is made of white Bakelite, an early thermosetting plastic, which, unlike modern plastics, is hard and very brittle. There are only two controls, the tuning knob and the red-topped ‘tickler’. This is a simple brass tube with a small metal spring on the other end, aka the actual cat’s whisker. The idea is you use the knob to tickle the crystal to find the most sensitive spot. You can just about see the cat’s whisker tickling the crystal through a small viewing hole in the bottom of the case (see below). Around the back there are four screw connections, for the aerial and earth leads and two for the headphones

 

Inside the mostly empty case there are only three components, mounted on a simple aluminium chassis. They are the crystal detector, a rotary tuning capacitor and a small coil. The aerial needs to be long, the longer the better in fact, anywhere from 5 to 20 metres in length, depending how far it is to the transmitter. It also helps if it is outside, and strung up as high as possible. The connection to earth is usually via a short cable to a nearby water or gas pipe or a radiator. Unfortunately modern headphones do not work with crystal radios; they have to be a very high impedance type in order to make anything of the extremely weak signal. Although these types of headphone no longer made there are still plenty of vintage ones around, and you can also use earpieces with piezo-electric crystal elements.

 

This is my second Ivalek De Luxe; the first one I had was when I was about 6 or 7 years old, my brother sold it to me for half a crown (2/6 or 12.5 pence). It wouldn’t have lasted very long. Back then I was much better at taking things apart than putting them back together again. As far as I can remember I bought this one about 20 years ago at a small antique fair and I doubt that I paid more than £5 for it. It was, and still is, in near perfect condition and there’s definitely something going on in the earphones when hooked up to a shortish antenna dangling out of an upstairs window. 

 

What Happened To It?

Ivory Electric is long gone and there’s very little about the company on the web. They were big on Bakelite though and over the 20 or so years they were in business produced a small range of crystal radios, headphones and Morse code keys, all made using the stuff. It seems likely that the company shut up shop some time in the late 50s or very early sixties, no doubt overwhelmed by competition from manufacturers in the Far East who flooded the market with cheap and fully portable transistor radios, using modern plastics.

 

A fair few Ivalek radios have survived. These days almost anything made of Bakelite is collectible and that coupled to the very distinct 50’s styling and the current appeal of vintage technology means that when they turn up on ebay and antique fairs they can sell for anything between £30 and £80. However, top prices are only paid for examples in absolutely pristine condition that come with the original cardboard box and preferably a pair of headphones. Purists would also pay a little more for the Mk 1 version with the cat’s whisker crystal, so if you’re in the market for one shortlist any you see with that distinctive red tickler knob. The occasional bargain can be found though, and I am still kicking myself for just missing out on one on ebay, which recently sold for only £15.00. I have no doubt whatsoever that it would have made two or three times as much if the seller knew how to work their camera’s focus control and had a basic grasp of spelling…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:          1950?

Original Price:   10 shillings (50 pence)

Value Today:    £30 (0317)

Features:           AM radio, galena crystal detector with ‘cats whisker’ tickle knob, rotary tuning, antenna & headphone connectors

Power req.                    n/a (self powered)

Dimensions:                  119 x 89 x 60mm

Weight:                         243g

Made (assembled) in:    England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)    8


Teacup Novelty AM Radio, 1978

On the league table of the world’s weirdest radios this one barely makes it into the top 20, but you have to wonder what they were smoking the day someone suggested putting a radio inside a teacup. Sometimes there’s a sort of logic to these wacky marriages. Maybe it was commissioned by a cup and saucer manufacturer for some sort of promotion? Possibly a maker of novelty radios did it to show how clever they were? Unfortunately neither explanation really works in this case because there are no labels or logos and quite frankly, it’s not that clever. A tea cup is also not the best place for a radio, either acoustically or from a usability standpoint, so unless someone out there has a plausible explanation we’ll just have to leave the question of ‘why?’, up in the air…

 

Unlike a lot of novelty radios from the 60s and 70s this one is unusually well made. Most promo radios are flimsy throwaway items and rarely hang around for very long but this cup and saucer is made from a tough heavy-duty plastic. In another life it might even have started out as real cup and saucer. I recall that Melamine was once a popular material for unbreakable crockery, the sort you’d get in picnic baskets and for outdoor use, camping and so on. The radio is also a bit different. It’s a custom design, shaped to fit inside the cup; most novelty radios use off-the-shelf modules. Some thought also went into maintaining the illusion. The controls are all mounted on the underside, where they can’t be seen and from a distance it does indeed look like a cup of black coffee.

 

Otherwise the receiver is a fairly unremarkable 5-transistor AM superhet. There are only two controls, rotary thumbwheels, for on/off volume and tuning. There are no other features to speak of, not even an earphone socket (where would it go…?). A standard 9-volt PP3/6F22 battery powers it and this fits into a compartment on the underside. Performance is, as you would expect from an AM radio shaped like a teacup, which is to say it’s tinny, and not very loud. On the plus side sensitivity is fairly good, but with so few stations to listen to these days it’s destined to be more ornamental than functional.

 

This one was a chance find at a car boot sale. The first time I saw it, like most people who must have seen it that day, barely gave it a passing glance. The only reason I took a closer look was thanks to the person in front of me who picked it up really carefully but realising that it wasn’t made of china and was all one piece, promptly put it down again. In doing so I had a brief flash of the underside and spotted the control knobs. The stallholder obviously regarded it as junk and a haggle-free 50 pence later it was mine. It didn’t look very promising but as it turned out it was just really dirty and a soft cloth and some household cleaner revealed that it had been little used and probably spent most of its life in the back of a drawer or cupboard. The radio worked first time and there was more evidence of the quiet life it had led. The volume control was crackle-free and for once it didn’t need the customary squirt of contact cleaner. It is marked Made in Hong Kong on the base and I can be reasonably certain about its age as there’s a British Design Registration Number on the saucer. The National Archives web site indicates that it was submitted in June 1978; unfortunately that’s as far as it goes as this part of the archives hasn’t been digitised and to find out more involves paying a hefty fee, probably several times what it is worth. It’s probably not that interesting and the chances of the manufacturer still being in business is next to zero.   

 

What Happened To It?

Google and ebay searches for other teacup radios suggest that it’s not an especially common item. In fact the only other example of the species I have been able to find is a rather garish, and only vaguely tea cup-shaped, ‘Hello Kitty clock radio alarm from a couple of years ago. Maybe one day that will also be of interest to collectors, though to be brutally honest, I doubt that many vintage tech nerds would get very excited by this one. Nevertheless, it is quite rare and I have never seen another one – not that I spend much time looking – so I am going to be quite bold and put a value of £10 on it. Now I know what to look for I hope one day to find others, with a view to putting together a complete tea service and if anyone comes across a matching sugar bowl and milk jug with a built in radio please let me know…

 

Update. It’s not alone. Another teacup radio, almost identical to this one, but slightly tattier and minus its battery cover, appeared on ebay recently where it sold for £7.50.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:          1977

Original Price:   £5.00?

Value Today:     £10.00 (0317)

Features:           5-transistor AM superhet receiver, 55mm speaker, rotary on/off volume and tuning controls

Power req.                           9 volt PP3/6F22

Dimensions:                          70 x 140mm

Weight:                                 170g

Made (assembled) in:           Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)          8


Binotone Sportsman AM Radio Binoculars, 1962?

Radios turn up in all sorts of unexpected places. Over the years they’ve been built into wrist watches, cigarette lighters, model cars, boats, pianos, computers, batteries, drink cans & bottles, packs of cigarettes and telephones, and that’s just a selection of some of the oddities featured on dustygizmos Radio & Audio pages so why not a binocular - radio combo?

 

To be fair the Binotone Sportsman Binocular Transistor Radio is not as mad as it sounds but first, to avoid any confusion, Binotone isn’t a spelling mistake. Bino is clearly lifted from binoculars so the name or brand is not to be confused with Binatone, that well-known purveyor of affordably priced phones and gadgetry.

 

The big question, of course, is why anyone would want a pair of binoculars with a built-in radio? There is a reason and the clue is in the ‘Sportsman’ name. It was probably aimed at race goers and football fans -- especially in the US -- where spectators are in the habit of watching the action whilst listening to the commentary (or to follow, or catch the results, from another event) on a portable radio.

 

And so to the binoculars. These are a simple Galilean type using just two lenses mounted at either end of a telescopic tube. The large ones (36mm) at the front are convex and the small ones (12mm) in the eyepiece are concave. It’s a minimalist design, widely used in compact, cheap or basic bins, like opera glasses and so on. However these are really well made and the lenses and case parts are all quality items. It works rather well too with a crisp wide-angle view, but the trade-off is magnification, which is a modest 3.5x. Also, because of the built-in radio the optics is in a fixed position so the distance between the eyepieces cannot be adjusted and the only control is the focus wheel.  

 

The radio is a very simple two-transistor regenerative (regen) design, barely one step removed from a crystal radio. That’s not meant to be a criticism though; you have to remember this was made in the early 1960s when transistor radio technology was still in its first flush of youth. More sophisticated superhetrodyne (superhet) type radios were around but it would have been unrealistic, given the components and construction techniques of the time, and almost certainly uneconomical, to cram one into such a small space. There’s only one control, a rotary tuning dial situated behind the focus adjustment. It is switched on by plugging in the earpiece and if reception is poor there’s the option of an external aerial. This is in the form of a wire sewn into the leather neck strap. The plug on the end goes into a socket on the side of the radio case.

 

Power comes from a pair of tiny 1.5 volt 'N' cells, which are around half the length of an AAA cell. For several years they were almost unobtainable, they may even have gone out of production, but they are back now, as LR1 alkaline cells, used in car door key fob remotes and other pocket-size gadgets.  

 

I stumbled across this one on ebay a year or so ago (depending when you read this -- see the date code for when it written in the Gizmo Guide panel below). As I recall the seller listed it under binoculars and telescopes, rather than vintage radios, the photo was fuzzy and the only mention of the radio was that it probably wasn’t working. There had been very little interest in it and my bid of £10 saw off the half-hearted competition. Overall it was in very good condition, the lenses were grubby but there were no serious scratches or dinks on the case and it came with its original (but rather tatty) black flock-covered cardboard box.

 

During a complete strip-down and cleanup I found a couple of minor faults on the radio; a broken wire on the internal ferrite antenna and some serious gunge on the earphone contacts, which would have prevented it from switching it on. Both were easily fixed and I was rewarded with an encouraging hiss and some faint music through the chunky crystal earpiece. After a bit of fiddling around with a trimmer adjustment it livened up noticeably with a couple of strong medium wave stations. The plug for the neck strap aerial had broken off but once this had been resoldered and connected the volume rose by around 50 percent.   

 

What Happened To It?

Binoculars with built-in transistor radios have been around since at least the 1960s. The Binotone Sportsman might even be one of the earliest examples, but it certainly wasn’t the only one from that era. I have seen at least three other makes and models but from the styling my guess is they date from the latter part of the decade. There’s nothing about the history or fate of the manufacturer on the web but I can be reasonably certain about the age of the Sportsman because the transistors it uses were only in production for a few years, between the late 50s and early 60s.

 

This unusual combination of optics and electronics continues to this day and you’ll find binocular radios from well-known brands like Praktica and Tasco, and plenty of others you won’t have heard of, selling for between £10 and £40. Vintage models do turn up on ebay every so often, though they are mostly from US sellers. They can be quite pricey too, and that’s without adding in the hefty shipping charges. Fairly ordinary ones from the 70s and 80s start at around £10, but can easily rise to £80 or more if they are mint and boxed. Binotone Sportsmen appear to be quite rare, as they don’t come up very often. Recently two were sold, one for £25 on ebay and the other went for £90 on a specialist website. Take from that what you will but in then end the only thing to say on the subject of value, as is often the case, is that they are worth whatever anyone is prepared to pay for them.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen         1962?

Original Price  £?

Value Today    £30 (1216)

Features           Binoculars: Galilean optics, 36 x 12 (3.5x), variable focus. Radio: 2-transistor (ST301 & 2NJ5) AM regenerative tuner, internal ferrite antenna with external wire aerial built into neck strap, crystal earphone, 3.5mm earphone socket/switch  

Power req.                     2 x 1.5v N/LR1 cells

Dimensions:                   104 x 90 x 48mm

Weight:                          272g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  9


National Panapet R-70S AM Radio, 1970

By their nature many collectors tend to be  completists and seek to acquire at least one of everything they collect. The problem, though, is there’s usually at least one rare or elusive, and occasionally mythical piece, and for the small band of collectors devoted to this week’s featured item it’s known as the ‘purple one’.

 

The collectible in question is the National Panapet ‘ball and chain’ radio, reportedly designed for Expo 70, the 1970 World’s Fair held in the Japanese city of Osaka. It’s a striking and very contemporary (for the time) design; there were lots of ball-shaped things in those days, everything from TVs and vacuum cleaners to weird items of furniture. Panapet was generally available in five colours: red, green, blue, yellow and white (yes, I know white’s not a proper colour…), but there was also the fabled sixth colour, purple or lavender. It appears that very few of them were sold, and when one comes up on ebay it can sell for three figure sums. In fact it is so rare there are rumoured to be fakes in circulation so if you are thinking of starting, and finishing, a collection of Panapets make sure you check the inside of the case for signs of spray paint…

 

Happily there is no shortage of the other colours but they do seem to attract some rather optimistic prices, especially on ebay. More about that later. The Panapet was one of a number of idiosyncratic radios from National in the early seventies (these days they’re better known under the Panasonic brand name, or Matsushita, the parent company). In comparison with the even quirkier Toot-A-Loop radio (1972) it looks fairly normal, but it’s worth remembering that before National’s designers started getting all funky, the vast majority of small portable transistor radios were dull rectangular boxes.

 

It was all about the shape, styling and cosmetics and the actual radio was a fairly conservative design. Early models, like this red one contained an unremarkable 6-transistor superhetrodyne receiver with AM Medium wave only reception and virtually no frills, though it does have a nifty rotating tuning dial and an earphone socket. A later version was given an FM tuner, and there were also changes to the power supply (from two AA cells to one 9 volt PP3 type battery). But that’s about as fancy as it gets, unless you count the very high standard of construction and eye-catching touches, like the chrome-plated tuning and volume knobs and that rather odd key chain. By the bye, the case is made in two halves and the bottom part, which has to be removed to replace the batteries, is held in place by a single knurled screw.

 

This one came to me via a fellow collector, in exchange for a small tape recorder of similar vintage. It was in good working order with no signs of corrosion in the battery holder but it still needed a complete strip down and a good clean up. Luckily the fiddly tuning mechanism, which uses a tensioned cord to move the rotating tuning dial, was in good shape but a few dabs of light oil were applied to the moving parts to keep it running smoothly. The outside of the case needed some TLC to get it looking presentable. It hadn’t been particularly well cared for and there were a few surface marks and some light scratches but I managed to polish most of them out using Brasso. It’s not just for brass; the mild abrasives it contains do an excellent job on most plastics, even clear pieces, like the tuning window. Armed with a soft cloth and a lot of elbow grease it’s possible to restore most surfaces to a showroom like finish. However, it’s important to remove all traces afterwards, especially from the nooks and crannies, to avoid leaving behind a yellow crust when it dries out. To buff it up to a mirror finish (and take away the smelI of the Brasso), I find car dashboard spray cleaner, bought from my local pound shop, does a really good job.

 

Although the speaker is quite small it is surprisingly loud, and the quality isn’t too bad, considering. Sensitivity is better than average and it manages to pull in a few stations but there’s not much to listen to on the medium wave these days otherwise it could be quite a useable little radio.

 

What Happened To It?

Panapet was one of the first of National’s range of wacky radios, jointly marketed under the Crazy Color Portables, banner. Ads for the radio on its own had the tag lines ‘Don’t listen to squares’ and ‘Your next radio can really be a ball’. The company’s toe-curling attempts to create a teen-friendly trendy, hip image didn’t last very long, though, and by the late 70s the range had been drastically trimmed and the emphasis switched to more grown up products. Nevertheless during its short life it proved popular and, thanks to sensible pricing, they sold in comparatively large numbers. The quality of construction and materials also meant that survival rates were good and there are still a fair few of them around today. This should mean that prices today shouldn’t be too scary but it didn’t work out that way. These iconic little radios have become highly collectable, and expensive. Needless to say mint, boxed examples can cost a pretty penny but even well used models can sell for between £25 and £50. Fortunately there are enough of them around for the occasional bargain to slip through the net and escape the attention of collectors. Patience pays off and badly described or poorly timed Panapets sold on ebay can be had for under £20, maybe half as much for fixer-uppers. You might even be lucky enough to find one at a boot sale at a bargain price, but don’t forget, if you ever come across an authentic purple one selling for less than £100 grab it quick, it could turn out to be a nice little earner!     


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                  1970

Original Price           £8.00

Value Today             £35 (1016)

Features           6-transistor superhetrodyne AM only receiver, rotating tuning dial, 55mm speaker, attached carry chain & keying, rotary on/off volume & tuning, 3.5mm mono earphone jack socket

Power req.                     2 x 1.5volt AA cells

Dimensions:                   111 mm diameter sphere

Weight:                          380g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Macarthys Surgical Novelty Radio, 1978

It’s more or less a given in the world of marketing that the freebies handed out to customers and suppliers, to promote or advertise a company’s products or services should ideally have some association, however tenuous, to the enterprise concerned. Somewhere down the line this fairly basic concept seems to have eluded whoever was responsible for commissioning this car battery-shaped novelty radio for a company called Macarthys Surgical  Limited.

 

Sadly Macarthys are no longer with us but the labelling on the outside of the radio informs anyone who cares to look that they sold such things as urine bags, nipple shields, enema rings, neurosurgical patties and something called a macrodom. (I believe the last one may be something to do with managing incontinence). The point is none of those items -- as far as I am aware -- have anything to do with 12-volt car batteries. 

 

To be fair, given the specialist nature of Macarthys business it is difficult to imagine what sort of housing they might have chosen for a radio, to represent their product range. Maybe they should have stuck to calendars and key rings? However, without more information it is pointless dwelling on its origins, unless someone can enlighten me, so it’s back to the radio.

 

There are a few things we can say about it, starting with the fact it is a fairly basic 6-transistor AM-only superhet design and it was made in Hong Kong, some time after 1975. It’s a capable enough little radio; there are only two controls (on/off volume and tuning) – the terminals on the top of the battery-shaped case – and a 55mm speaker. The sound coming out of it isn’t exactly terrible, good enough for speech and a little light music. As is customary for radios of this type a 9 volt PP3 type battery powers it and there are no extras to speak of, not even an earphone socket.

 

Macarthys only involvement with the design would have been the adhesive wrapping, printed with the company’s contact information and promoting their wares. Although I haven’t been able to find another one like it there are photos on the web of several near identical designs (same size and knob, speaker and battery positions) used to promote actual car batteries, mostly from US brands including Atlas, Exide and Co-Op.

 

This one was a fairly recent car boot find, bought for a very reasonable 50 pence and in pretty much state you see it here. It was in full working order – it even came with a battery – and apart from a wipe over with a damp cloth and a couple of squirts of contact cleaner to clear up a crackly volume control, it needed no special attention.

 

What Happened To It?

Although there is no date stamp I can be reasonably sure about when it was made, give or take a couple of years. On the underside there’s a British Design Registration number moulded into the plastic and according to the National Archives this was issued in July 1975. This fits in neatly with the type of components used on the circuit board and Macarthys trading history, which Companies House lists as being between 1974 and 1997. Marketing campaigns tend to occur fairly on during a company’s operation. In any case it is highly unlikely that it was made much after the late 80s as by then single AM/FM receiver chips had made all transistor AM-only radios like this virtually redundant. It was certainly no later than that as the sovereignty of Hong Kong was returned to the Peoples Republic of China in 1997 and products manufactured in the territory were generally labelled as made in China.

 

Novelty battery shaped radios were fairly common from the 70s and 80s. The majority of them are in the shape of single cells, but there are plenty of different car battery styles as well. The surprising thing is that there seems to be very few made after that time and I’m not aware of any current products. There is a small but lively collector’s market for all types of vintage novelty radios, especially in the US and prices vary enormously. Battery shaped radios do not appear to have any special cachet and you can find them selling on ebay for anything between £5.00 and £80. Clearly much depends on the condition, and the brands being promoted. I suspect that the higher prices are paid by those with a connection to the company or product concerned, so I’m happy to say that I’m open to stupidly generous offers from anyone interested in Nipple Shields, Neurosurgical Patties, Macrodoms and of course Enema Rings.  


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen          1978?

Original Price   £?

Value Today     £5 (0916)

Features           6-transistor AM only superhetrodyne tuner, 55mm speaker, rotary tuning & volume controls

Power req.                    1 x 9v PP3 battery

Dimensions:                   94 x 90 x 65mm

Weight:                          211g

Made (assembled) in:    Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Coomber 2241-7 CD Cassette Recorder, 1998

One of the lesser-known backwaters of the audiovisual industry is the small group of companies manufacturing products for what can only be described as institutional and ‘group’ markets. These include education -- schools, colleges places of learning and so on -- plus small public venues like local community centres, village halls and indeed anywhere there is a need for recorded sound to fill a largish space. Portability is another key requirement, which also means the equipment in question has to be rugged, dependable and as near idiot-proof as possible.

 

The Coomber 2241 Stereo Cassette Recorder meets all of those criteria with ease, and you may well have seen, or more likely listened to one of them, probably without realising as all you normally see, as the member of the class, audience or group, is a box that looks a lot like an ordinary loudspeaker. Seen from the other side it is immediately obvious what it is. The top half of the front panel is taken up by a cassette deck and a set of controls and sockets, whilst a CD player occupies the lower section. What really strikes you, though, is that almost no effort has been spent on styling or cosmetics. In fact it looks like something a hobbyist might knock together from spare parts in their garden shed.

 

Now that’s not meant to be a criticism, far from it! It is what it is, a purely functional piece of audio equipment, designed to withstand a lot of careless handling, and the lack of eye appeal has to be a bonus when it comes to security. It’s simply too big and ugly to be attractive to thieves and it helps that it weighs almost 10kg. Its bulk attracts attention; anyone trying to pinch one would quickly get tired, and you can forget running with it…

 

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the 2241 is that Coomber went some way down the garden shed route, mentioned a moment ago. It is built around several off-the-shelf components, and for very good reason. After all why bother re-inventing the wheel? The CD deck is a good example; it is basically a generic, Malaysian-made player (badged Soundlab) case and all, screwed to the bottom of the box. The cassette deck mechanism is an unbranded component and identical to the type fitted to scores of 80s and 90s portables. It’s much more than a parts-bin special, though, and Coomber are responsible for the important nuts and bolts stuff, like the 2 x 10 watt stereo amplifier, control and connector boards, the tape deck electronics and the power supply. These are all bespoke designs, some of them probably made in-house 

 

Operation is about as simple as it can be, which is just as well as many users will have little or no time to learn how to use it. All the user has to do is plug it in, switch it on select the mode (CD or tape), load the necessary tape or cassette, press the appropriate Play key or button and adjust the volume, tone or balance controls to suit. Additional facilities include recording audio on the tape deck using either a built-in microphone or an external mike. Playback can be through the internal stereo speakers, a set of external speakers, which plug into a pair pf 2-pin DIN sockets on the front panel, or through headphones. It can accommodate up to six pairs, plus one ‘master’ headphone, which plug in to a bank of standard jack sockets. The CD player is a fairly ordinary early 90’s era motorised drawer front-loader with 21-track program memory, optional remote but no other special features. The only other embellishments are a mechanical tape counter, a sturdy carry handle on the top, and a high-visibility orange coloured mains lead, which presumably is a safety requirement for electrical apparatus used in public buildings. The case is a mixture of plywood and MDF; it probably accounts for at least a quarter of the weight, and most of its strength.

 

I spotted this one, looking a bit sad and lonely, under a trestle table at a car boot sale near Brighton. The grubby state suggested that this wasn’t it’s first boot sale and the stall holder was clearly tired of lugging it around, judging by the £5.00 asking price. I couldn’t resist a haggle and my counter offer of £3.00 was readily accepted. Even if it were a complete no-hoper I reckoned it would be worth at least twice that for parts, or ballast… Luckily it was a runner – sorting out problems on mixed media audio component systems can be a real headache. The icing on the cake was that turned out to be in exceptionally good condition, inside and out, though only after liberal applications of surface cleaner, to remove the film of mud and grime. After some basic circuit checks I powered it up and, with no expectations, pressed the Play button on the CD as the display suggested a disc was loaded. It turned out to be a rather good compilation of 70’s Rockabilly and what came out of the speakers was a complete surprise. The combination of the custom made stereo amp and small (10cm) but good quality drivers performed really well. It produced a rich, lively and unexpectedly loud sound that would put a lot of budget and mid-range home hi-fi systems to shame. The generously sized enclosure was almost certainly partly responsible, but the downside was the stereo image. With the speakers so close together there’s little in the way of channel separation but that’s easily fixed by hooking it up to a pair of external speakers. The cassette deck, on the other had, was fairly ordinary. It’s not a very sophisticated design, a little hissy, but certainly no worse than the bulk of tape players made at around the same time.  

 

What Happened To It?

Coomber Electronics, based in Worcester, are still going strong. The company, which started out as a family-run business, was established in the early 1900s. They must have been doing something right over the years and they continue to make specialist audio products, mostly for the educational sector but also anyone needing group audio and small PA systems. The current line up still looks a wee bit old fashioned and you won’t find many of the bells and whistles associated with modern consumer audio products but the company obviously knows what its customers want. Nevertheless it has made some concessions there’s a noticeably more contemporary look and feel on some of its products. They’ve been moving with the times in other areas too – albeit at a fairly sedate pace – with the addition of features like tablet computer connectivity and control integration on some of the latest models.   

 

Coomber kept the 2241 model series going until well into the early noughties, and whilst the shape, layout and basic spec remained pretty much the same, there were a number of updates to the innards. Later models sported a smaller in-car style slot-loading CD deck with variable speed replay and a built in MP3 player with a USB socket and SD memory card slot.

 

To be honest relatively recent devices like this 2241 have limited appeal outside of their intended markets. They’re a bit too big and brutal for living room use, and not sufficiently retro or trendy looking to appeal to today’s audio equipment buyers. It’s not a completely lost cause, though; vintage audio equipment, from the 40s, 50s and 60s have been on the collector’s radar for some time, and as time goes by – and the supply dries up -- interest tends to shift from mainstream to specialist products. Who’s to say? In 20 to 30 years time the Coomber brand and this 2241 could become future classics; generations as yet unborn might even pay a few quid for them. Meanwhile, if you have an inexplicable urge to own one right now, ebay is the place to go. There are usually a couple of dozen Coomber products on sale. Older models, like this typically sell for between £30 and £50. More recent ones, that might not look too out of place in a contemporary setting, are surprisingly cheap, given the performance and build quality, but read the descriptions carefully as quite a lot are sold as fixer-uppers or with one or other of the main components ‘needing attention’. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen          1998

Original Price   £300

Value Today     £40 (0816)

Features           2 x 10 watts (RMS) stereo amplifier, internal stereo speakers (10cm Cliff F110), CD player (Soundlab G060A), stereo cassette deck with soft touch controls and auto stop, numerical tape counter, internal microphone, 6 x headphone outputs (6.35mm, 1/4in standard Jack), mic input & line output (std Jack), external speaker output (2-pin DIN), volume, bass, treble & balance controls, carry handle

Power req.                     220 - 240VAC 50Hz

Dimensions:                   370 x 300 x 255mm

Weight:                          9.7kg

Made (assembled) in:     England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  4


National Panasonic R-72S Toot-A-Loop Radio, 1972

While we’re waiting for the much-hyped wearable technology revolution to begin – and it seems like a very long time coming – here’s yet another example of some old-school gadgetry that you can use to adorn your body, this time dating from the early seventies. It’s the National Panasonic Toot-A-Loop, a truly weird and vividly coloured AM radio designed to fit around your wrist or carried like a purse. It’s shaped a bit like a donut and the clever part is the rotating hinge, which allows the radio to twist, split and bend, so you can wrap it around your wrist, or get it to stand, snake like, on a flat surface. Yes, it’s completely daft, but for a short time it was quite popular; we were easily amused back then and there wasn’t much else to do in the seventies…

 

National Panasonic (nowadays just Panasonic) had form with wackily shaped radios and a bizarre ball and chain styled Panapet R70S radio launched in 1970, is an early example. They quickly got into their stride with the Toot-A-Loop, which first appeared in 1972 and this was followed a series of distinctively styled radios, cassette and record players under the ‘Crazy Colour Portables – They even play music’ marketing banner. The unusual shape and bright colours was clearly targeted at the female teenage market, though any teen owning a Toot-A-Loop would either need, or end up developing, fairly strong wrists and elbows; it’s quite a lump to have dangling on your arm. This and most of Panasonic’s other novelty products came with a sheet of decorative stickers and letters, called ‘Crazy Colour Stick-Ons’, so owners could have even more fun customising and personalising their radios. Toot-A-Loops sold in the US and Europe was available in red, white, blue and yellow; in Australia and New Zealand there was a choice of lime and orange and for some inexplicable reason it was known as the ‘Sing-O-Ring’.

 

It’s fairly basic with Medium Wave only coverage and just two controls, for tuning -- the rotary dial is built into one of the ‘split’ ends, and there’s a volume on/off thumbwheel poking out of the outside edge. To be fair the radio is a competent enough 6-transistor superhetrodyne design. The circuit board is impressively small and very crowded; fixing a faulty one will be no fun whatsoever! On the plus side it has a half decent speaker and it doesn’t sound too terrible, though there’s not a lot to listen to on the Medium Wave these days but if you want to keep it personal there’s a mono 3.5mm jack socket for an earphone or headphones. Power is supplied by two AA cells, which fit into a holder located in one of the two horn-shaped halves, along with the speaker. The circuit board lives in the other horn and a set of connecting cables pass through the middle of the hinge. A limit stop prevents it from turning more than around 200 degrees so there’s no chance of straining the wires. 

 

This one found its way into my collection via a car boot sale in deepest rural Surrey. The stallholder wasn’t sure if it was working or not, which generally sets alarm bells ringing as AA batteries are not exactly hard to come by. This sometimes suggests that the seller knows it is a goner and may even have tried to fix it themselves but inside it looked clean and unmolested and since he was only asking £5.00 for it (haggled down to £3.50), it wasn’t much of a gamble. The Toot-A-Loop wasn’t on my watch list at the time but I was fairly sure I had seen basket cases selling on ebay for quite a lot more. It turned out there was absolutely nothing wrong with it and had been very well looked after with no cracks or scratches. The only marks were around the coin slot, used to prise apart the case to replace batteries. This wasn’t at all surprising as it’s fiendishly tight. Fortunately it was fairly easy to tidy up using a scalpel and a fine needle file. A quick squirt of contact cleaner took care of the crackly volume control and following a wipe over with a soft cloth and a squirt of furniture polish it was looking, and sounding, like new.

 

What Happened To It?

Panasonic’s dalliance with trendy and colourful technology turned out to be fairly short lived. By the late 70s it was clear that the brand’s image was being shifted upmarket in order to appeal to more grown up audiences. Cheesy styling and bright colours gave way to more sober designs, and vastly more sophisticated products, prompted by the rapid growth in home audio and video. Even so, it was apparent that there was plenty of mileage left in the teen and young adult markets. Rather than abandon this lucrative sector Panasonic’s parent company, the giant Japanese Matsushita Corporation, took the decision to switch the development and and manufacture of products with a more youthful slant to JVC, another of Matsushita's subsiduaries.

 

It’s hard to say when production of the Toot-A-Loop came to end but it was probably around 1975/6. Even so, it seems that a lot of them were sold in that relatively short time, or they were just so well made that many escaped the rubbish bin, either way they are sought after and there is usually a dozen or more on ebay most weeks, though the majority are in the US. Prices vary enormously; decent working examples routinely sell for between £15 and £30 in the US (plus at least £20 for shipping); there are fewer of them on this side of the pond and sellers tend to be quite ambitious, with £40 to £60 starting prices. If it comes with the original box, instructions and a super rare intact sticker sheet you can easily double or treble that. Occasional bargains do turn up will escape the attention of collectors if they are inaccurately titled or misspelled, so stay alert, prices will go up.


First seen         1972

Original Price  £7.50

Value Today    £30 - £60 (0716)

Features           AM/Medium wave only receiver (525 – 1605kHz), 6-transistor superhetrodyne, donut shaped hinged/twist 2-part design, 55mm speaker, 3.5mm mono earphone jack,

Power req.                    2 x 1.5v AA cells

Dimensions:                  155 x 70 x 25mm

Weight:                         400g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Onkyo PH-747 Headphones, 1974

Here’s something to think about. The first proper headphones, as we know them today, appeared more than 100 years ago and they have to be one of the very few consumer products from that era that are still in use. If anything they are more popular than ever and in all that time they’ve hardly changed, either in the shape and layout or the electrical gubbins inside. Actually, you don’t need to think about it for very long. The simple fact is that US electrician and inventor Nathanial Baldwin got it more or less right first time back in 1910, and everything that followed has been mostly cosmetic or involved only relatively minor technical enhancements to Nathanial’s original design.

 

To be fair there is little opportunity for radical improvement, given the restrictions imposed by the shape of the human head, the position of our ears and our ability to perceive sound. Along the way there have been a few milestones, though and there’s no denying that the headphones of today sound a whole lot better, and are much more comfortable to wear than those early models. Up until the Second World War headphones were mostly used for listening to crackly wireless sets, radio communications, telephony and industrial applications, where the ability to faithfully reproduce music was given a relatively low priority, compared with the need for volume and clarity of speech, but things began to change in the late 50s and early 60s, with the introduction of stereo sound.

 

The first real game changer was the Koss SP-3s, launched in 1958, and from that point on headphones could rightfully be regarded as serious bits of hi-fi kit. High-end headphones evolved slowly throughout the sixties and the market was dominated by well established US and European manufacturers but by the early seventies the Japanese had got in on the act and were producing headphones worthy of the high fidelity tag. This brings us to the Onkyo PH-747s and these distinctive headphones were in the first wave of high performance products from the Far East. At the time they were considered quite innovative, and affordable, with the price pitched well below that of rival Western models.

 

They also happen to be well featured, and very sturdily built. Items like the 747’s ear cushions and padded head band, which tend to perish or need replacing within a year or two on modern ‘phones, look and feel as good as the day they were made. They’re still very comfortable too and with an all up weight of less than 600 grams they can be worn for extended periods. The most obvious external features are the large ear enclosing cushions, which is generally reckoned to give the best sound quality, though size and weight make them less portable. It’s an open back design – i.e. the rear of each enclosure is open to the outside world through a perforated grille. Again this is cited as an advantage when it comes to sound quality, but it also means that your ears are less well insulated against ambient noise so they’re better suited to listening in quiet environments. Each phone also has its own level control -- precision wire wound potentiometers -- which can be handy for fine-tuning volume and balance, and compensating for any differences or deficiencies in the user’s hearing.

 

Inside the 747s there’s a pair of 90mm 8-ohm drivers. Compared with what you will see in a modern pair of headphones they’re not especially sophisticated, essentially they are just simple speakers, but in this application, and type of enclosure, they actually sound pretty good. They may even have improved with age as over time the cones and moving coils in old speakers become increasingly supple and free moving, better able to reproduce frequencies at either end of the audio spectrum.  Other items of interest include the lightly sprung adjustable headband and the two enclosure mounting brackets, which are heavily chromed and provide a good range of movement, for optimum comfort. It is fitted with a 1 metre curly cable, terminated in a standard 6.3mm stereo jack plug. I was tempted to cut it off and replace it with a 3.5mm minijack but in the end I decided to keep it original and wired a minijack into the plug. Incidentally 1 metre might not sound like much but it stretches to almost 3 metres without putting too much strain on the headphones, or listener’s neck.

 

My big brother Pete was the source of this rather fine specimen and as usual his memory is a bit hazy, about precisely when and where he acquired it, or how much he paid. Searching online and through ads in vintage hi-fi mags suggests that they first hit the shops in 1974, and sold for around £20 in the UK. This translates as somewhere between £160 and £220 in today’s (2016) money, putting them in line with the current crop of mid-range ‘phones.

 

Overall they are in very good condition, nothing a wipe-over with some detergent, metal and furniture polish couldn’t put right. One of the volume pots was a bit noisy and intermittent but this was an easy fix, and crackle-free listening was restored with a few drops of switch cleaner fluid. When it comes to sound quality I hesitate to make too many direct comparisons with modern ‘phones. Nowadays there’s a much greater emphasis on raw volume and bass response; if the 747’s are driven hard enough to compete they start to distort quite badly. At ‘normal’ listening levels, in quiet surroundings, they do not disgrace themselves with a smooth sound and pretty even mid to high range response, though bass is a bit weak. There are no complaints about comfort and even after an hour or so you hardly know they are there. They look smart too, by no means dated in appearance; far from it and classic or ‘retro’ styling is all the rage at the moment and as you can see the PH-747’s wouldn’t look out of place alongside many of today’s fancier, and ridiculously expensive designs.

 

What Happened To It?

Headphone technology has progressed fairly slowly but there have been several step-changes in the past 100 years and the most significant one, in recent decades, occurred in the wake of the Walkman revolution, kick-started by Sony in 1979 with the TPS-L2. This generated a huge demand for small lightweight models, with decent sonic performance and once again Sony led the way with its innovative MDR-3s. These relied on powerful rare earth magnets and micro-thin mylar diaphragms, to squirt a lot of beefy sound out of a very small space. Traditional jumbo-sized open and closed-backed, over the ear designs, like the PH-747, fell slightly out of favour throughout the 80s, 90s and early noughties, though they continued to be bought by hi-fi enthusiasts. In the past few years, larger ‘phones have enjoyed a massive resurgence, as quality audio components, but also as fashion items. It has to be said that a lot of the latter, bearing trendy brand names, sounded pretty awful, though it seems there’s a welcome trend for proper audio engineers to get involved in their design and construction and for those prepared to pay for the pleasure, there are some staggeringly good headphones on offer at the moment.

 

One useful spin-off from the current headphone boom has been a growing interest in collecting notable vintage models. These were mostly made in the 70s and 80s by the likes of AKG, Denon, Koss, Sennheiser, and specialist brands that you’ve probably never heard of. In other words prices are climbing, into the thousands for particularly rare or unusual examples. The Onkyo PH-747 is a long way from that but it, and similar models, are very useable and worth seeking out. If you look for them on ebay you will find plenty to choose from and good ones in their original boxes, when they appear, can sell for between £50 and £100, and as time goes by that can only go up.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1974

Original Price         £15?

Value Today           £50.00 (0616)

Features                 90mm drivers (open back), 8 ohms impedance (4 – 16 ohms), 18Hz – 22kHz response, 0.7 max power, individual (R & L) wire-wound volume controls, 1 metre (contracted) coiled lead, 6.3mm stereo jack plug, cushioned ear pads, padded head band 

Power req.                     n/a

Dimensions:                   200 x 150 x 105mm

Weight:                          580g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Philips CD 150 Compact Disc Player, 1985

The launch of Compact Disc in 1983 by Philips and Sony, changed everything and almost certainly marked the beginning of the so-called ‘Digital Revolution’. Up until that point virtually all household audio and video products, gadgets and appliances relied on venerable analogue technology.

 

Of course digital electronics had been around for some time but it had little impact on the consumer market, until the arrival of CD. It didn’t happen overnight, though, and CD got off to a rather slow start. First generation players were expensive, well above what the average Hi-Fi equipment buyer would be prepared to pay, and for the first year or so the small number of discs available lacked popular appeal, showing a strong bias towards worthy classical pieces..

 

Performance and the supposed indestructible nature of discs also came in for some stick and a lot of audiophiles and Hi-Fi stalwarts dismissed it as a passing fad. It did have one or two eye-catching features, though. Small size, convenience and the facility to play album tracks in any desired order was a revelation, and it avoided the main weaknesses of vinyl, namely vulnerability to dust and scratches. Even so, two years after launch, price was still a major obstacle with most players selling for between £500 and £1000. Then along came Philips with the CD 150, costing under £240, which was still quite pricey for an audio component, but it gave the new format a welcome kick-start. 

 

Those early CD players were large and heavy items with complex die-cast metal chassis and multiple circuit boards, densely packed with discrete components. The CD 150 did away with all that; almost all of the metalwork was replaced by plastic, which did wonders for the weight and the many individual electronic circuits, needed to control deck and laser servos, and the spindle motor, were bundled together into a small number of purpose-designed chips. The weight and component count fell dramatically, as did the price, and other manufacturers who had been quietly waiting on the sidelines, quickly jumped on the bandwagon, further driving down prices.

 

The CD 150 had one other thing going for it, it worked really well and a fair few contemporary reviews compared it quite favourably with players costing two and three times as much. Philips clearly hadn’t skimped on the important technical bits and pieces, but there’s no getting away from it, it is quite basic, and not much to look at. It had actually been designed as part of a system and an infrared remote control was sold as optional extra (it has a socket on the back for a wired remote control link to other Philips audio products). All of the standard functions were there though, with a programmable 20-track memory, 3-speed forward and reverse search (audio on the first two speeds), a simple track, time and index LED display and a nifty Pause mode with a countdown display, apparently for the convenience of DJs. The deck mechanism was advanced for the time. It’s possible there had been collaboration with the designers of portable decks that were soon to appear. It worked at any angle, even on is side, and was surprisingly stable with a good deal of immunity to knocks and vibration.

 

This particular machine was an early pre-production review sample supplied to me by one of Philips's PR agencies. This would have been a few weeks before the UK launch and as I recall Philips were handing them out at a rate of knots to fellow journalists working for the then numerous audio and consumer electronics magazines. This was quite a bold step for a new product so they must have been pretty confident that it would get favourable reviews. It came with a number of test CDs and in addition to classical standards there was a small assortment of what have now become classic rock and pop albums, from the likes of Dire Straits and Marillion. Several of those first edition titles have gone on to become collectibles in their own right and one or two of them may even be worth more than the player…

 

Philips never asked for it back and it remained in fairly regular use for a couple of years, providing a useful benchmark for the other CD system and entry-level players that I was reviewing at the time. I don’t recall exactly when it was retired but it would have been when the features and performance of other manufacturer’s players had become noticeably better than the CD 150, which says a lot for the resiliance of  the original design. I suspect that I couldn’t bear to part with it so it went into storage in my garage, under a large pile of other stuff that might come in handy one day... I stumbled across it recently in an abortive attempt to tidy up and was amazed to find that it still powered up and played discs, at least as well as it ever did. Back in the 80s Philips still had a well-deserved reputation for design and build quality and even managed to give top name Japanese manufacturers a run for their money.

 

What Happened To It?

Philips obviously didn’t waste much time on the cosmetics -- compared with previous models -- but at the time it was exactly what the market had been waiting for and it helped propel CD from an expensive novelty into the Hi-Fi mainstream. The trouble was, although Philips blazed the trail for affordable CD players it couldn’t keep up with the Japanese, who savagely undercut them, sometimes at the expense of sound quality. Sadly that often didn’t matter; even a low-end CD player could sound better than a poorly set up or maintained record deck and Hi-Fi system playing scratchy records, and CD had the convenience factor. However, in the end, for the mass market what really counted was price, but Philips was never a serious player in the bargain basement, budget sectort. Numerous sucessors to the CD 150 followed but in audio, at least, Philips never strayed far from its safe and familiar mid-market, euro-brand image. By the early 90s Philips had drifted even further into mediocrity, lacking the innovation and boldness that we saw throughout the 60s and 70s with genuinely ground-breaking products like its all-transistor colour TVs, Compact and Micro audio cassettes, Laserdisc, the first home VCR,  the Video 2000 recording format, and of course, CD.

 

Nowadays CD 150’s attract little attention; the real collectibles are first generation models, like the Sony CDP-101 and the classic Philips CD100. They sometimes sell for truly daft prices on ebay, though if you hang around long enough you might be able to find a fixer-upper for less than £100. Working CD 150s generally go for between £20 to £50, and that’s helped by the fact that there was very successful mod, involving replacing a chunk of the output circuitry that significantly boosts performance. It’s never going to have the status of the earliest models but it’s still a bit of a milestone, and worth a punt if you come across a cheap, presentable runner.      


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1985

Original Price         £240

Value Today           £25 (0216)

Features                 Track, time & Index display, pause countdown, 3-speed forward & reverse search (audio on first two), 20-track program memory, cable remote option

Power req.                    240 VAC

Dimensions:                  245 x 295 x 85mm

Weight:                         3.1kg

Made (assembled) in:    Belgium

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


Alpha-Tek AM/FM Pocket Radio, 1985

Once again I have to thank my elder brother Pete for donating this relic of eighties mobile entertainment to the dustygizmos collection. Outwardly it’s a fairly unremarkable looking pocket AM/FM radio, and whilst it’s not going to excite most vintage tech fans, it does have one or two interesting features. The radio part is fairly typical of the era; it’s a Hong-Kong made 9-transistor design, featuring a tightly packed, hand-assembled circuit board with healthy dollops of wax around the RF section. This was meant to immobilise sensitive components, liable to move or vibrate and upset the tuning. The downside is that in hot weather the wax can melt and find its way into places it shouldn’t go; more on that in a moment… There’s an eye-catching tuning scale on the front panel with a red band that appears to slide up and down a narrow window but it’s only when you take it apart that you see how ingeniously simple it is – see the photo further down the page. The volume on/off switch is also a little unusual, with on/off mode and volume setting showing through a small round window.

 

Another notable feature is a yellow light emitting diode (LED) power indicator. It wouldn’t rate any sort of mention nowadays but in the mid to early 80s it probably seemed quite exotic, especially on an inexpensive battery-powered radio; they even went to the trouble of giving it a fancy shaped escutcheon and labelling it on the front panel. Red LEDs had been around for several decades by the time this radio was made but other colours, including yellow, were not developed until the early 1970s and it took several years before they were cheap enough to use in domestic products. As a matter of interest it was almost 20 years before the price of blue LEDs, which fappeared in the late 70s, fell to the point when they could be used commercially. White LEDs are an even more recent development, dating back to 1995. Whilst almost certainly not a first, this little radio may well have been one of the earliest outings for yellow LEDs.

 

My brother wasn’t certain when and where he brought it but a date of 1985 is probably quite close. The clues are the (then) trendy sliver-grey cosmetics, components on the circuit board, the absence of any microchips, and the fact that it has a 2.5mm earphone jack socket. These were more or less obsolete by the late 70s, replaced by the ubiquitous 3.5mm minijack, thanks largely to the runaway success of the cassette Walkman.

 

It was in very good shape but at some point in the past there had been a leakage incident in the battery compartment. Fortunately it hadn’t done any serious damage; there was no corrosion and all it needed was a strip-down of the contacts and a quick scrub with a rotary wire bush on my Dremel tool. Before reassembly the volume control and band switch were treated to a few squirts of contact cleaner and it was ready to be powered up. The first attempt resulted in complete silence but I had noticed some waxy deposits around the on/off switch that had leached from the area around the ferrite aerial rod. Once they were removed it came back to life. Tuner sensitivity and selectivity turned out to be quite good on both wave bands and there is plenty of volume but actual sound quality, through the small built-in speaker, is pretty much as you would expect.

 

What Happened To It?

The company responsible for making this little radio appears to have been fairly prolific throughout the 80s and 90s but after that it gets harder to track its progress. Several firms based in Hong Kong are  now using the Alpha-Tek name but none of them seem to have any obvious connections with this one. During its busy period they churned out a range of audio products but references to this particular model are almost non-existent. What is apparent, though, is the brand’s marketing and distribution efforts, which seem to have been concentrated in Italy. Virtually all of the Alpha-Tek devices on the market at the time of writing are to be found on ebay.it. Valuation is really tricky. It may be quite rare but I seriously doubt that there are any specialised collectors out there desperately looking for one. The yellow LED indicator is mildly interesting but it does not deserve to be classed as a major technological breakthrough. One day, who knows? It might just be something future historians will pick up on it, in which case my great, great grandchildren may thank me, but for the moment my arguably optimistic valuation of around a fiver is about as good as it gets. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1985

Original Price         £15?

Value Today           £5 (0516)

Features                 Dual band (AM/FM), 9 transistor superhetrodyne tuner, 6-section 480mm telescopic antenna, LED power/tuning indicator, 55mm speaker, 2.5mm earphone jack 

Power req.                     2 x 1.5 volt AA cells

Dimensions:                   150 x 68 x 35mm

Weight:                          240g

Made (assembled) in:     Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):   8


High Sensitivity Transistorized Radio, 1965

Large wristwatch styled wall clocks appear to have been around for quite a while, maybe a hundred years or more, though it’s difficult to be precise as for some inexplicable reason it is not a particularly well documented area of the horological sciences...

 

Mostly they would have been used as shop signs and displays or trade and  promotional items, but they appear to have become briefly popular with the public in the midst of the nineteen sixties pop-art revolution, which revelled in this sort of oversized wackiness.

 

You may have spotted that this one, labelled a ‘High Sensitivity Transistorized Radio’ isn’t actually a wall clock but it certainly ticks – no pun intended -- a lot of similar boxes. To begin with it dates from the mid 1960s and it’s big, 750mm or just under 30-inches from top to bottom (and that's an ordinary wristwatch next to it in the photo above). It’s shaped like a giant wristwatch, you can hang it on the wall and even use it to tell the time, thanks to the built-in AM radio and the BBC ‘pips’ and regular time checks. It was made in Japan and the model number is 517.

 

It’s a quality item; the watch case is a heavy-duty metal casting as is the buckle and the strap is made of fine stitched leather. The radio is a competent, custom designed 6-transisitor superhet and it is powered by a 9-volt battery, but that’s where the certainties end. Mystery surrounds the name of the original manufacturer, who definitely made a fair few of them as there are usually several for sale on ebay US at any one time. The almost complete lack of them on this side of the pond suggests that they were never seriously marketed in the UK. One recent listing was labelled Aud-I-Tone but that proved to be a dead end, so if anyone can add to these rather sketchy details, please get in touch.

 

It has to be said that a watch-shaped hang-on-the-wall radio is not that useful, but the classic design is very pleasing on the eye so it must be art. Nevertheless its creator thought it through and made it very easy to use. The winder is the on/off volume control and the small brass-coloured knob protruding through the centre of the glass (actually plastic) works the tuner, with the approximate frequency shown by a fixed pair of hands that act as a pointer. A small 50mm speaker is built into the back of the case and this would normally be a bit of a problem when the radio is against a wall but a set of four small standoffs make sure that there’s just enough of a gap for the sound to escape so the volume level isn’t half bad.

 

As mentioned a moment ago ebay in the US seems to be the only source of this particular design of novelty radio and I struck lucky with this one, which somehow escaped the attention of fellow gadget nuts. It was mine for the one and only bid of $10, though shipping added another few quid to the bill. It was advertised as non-working but in clean condition and both claims proved to be accurate. The case and buckle cleaned up really well with a few dabs of Brasso and a light coating of age related grime on the strap and face came away with a light application of household cleaners.

 

When it was connected to a battery there was a loud crackle and hiss from the speaker but no stations, which indicated a hopefully minor problem in the RF stages. This turned out to be easy to find and fix. The ferrite rod antenna had come adrift from its support brackets and in doing so one of the fine wires from the coil had broken. The volume control responded well to a few squirts of switch cleaner and it was sounding as good as the day it was made, though that’s not saying very much, but in any case there’s precious little to listen to on the medium wave these days.

 

What Happened To It?

A brief investigation into the giant watch shaped wall clock market suggests that the sixties craze was fairly short lived and I've only managed to identify a small handful of models from that period but there was a resurgence, which began in the late 1980s. This was led by the Swiss watchmaker Swatch who produced a range of ‘Maxi’ clocks. These are really big, a little over 2 metres long, or tall, and based on the popular designs of the day. Early Maxis are now highly sought after and the rarest designs can change hands for several hundred pounds. In the intervening years there have also been plenty of smaller, and much cheaper large watch-shaped wall clocks. They continue to this day but they are mostly tat and I suspect that only original Swatch Maxi’s stand any chance of appreciating in value.

 

Large wall-hanging watch shaped radios from the 60’s don't seem to attract much attention at the moment and they vary a lot in price, from infrequent bargains, like this one, to a more typical £30 to £50. There’s also the occasional optimist asking in excess for £100, but it would need to be boxed and in mint condition to justify that sort of money. If you fancy one the chances are it will have to come from the States, so if you are in the UK expect to pay an extra £15 to £20, at least, to cover the cost of shipping.      


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1965?

Original Price         £10?

Value Today           £40 (1215)

Features                 6-transistor superhetrodyne AM radio, 50mm speaker, earphone jack (2.5mm mono), brass case & buckle, leather strap, rotary tuning & volume on/off controls

Power req.                      1 x 9volt PP3

Dimensions:                    155 x 125 x 45mm (overall length with strap 750mm)

Weight:                           680g

Made (assembled) in:     Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):   7


Aiwa LX-110 Linear Tracking Turntable, 1984

In spite of everything that digital technology has thrown at personal and home audio over the past few decades, hissy and scratchy gramophone records, which have been around in one form or another for the best part of 150 years, have never really gone away. Indeed, vinyl is currently going through one of its semi-regular revivals as another generation discovers the warmth and depth of analogue recordings, and older generations relive memories of simpler times.

 

Nevertheless, when Compact Disc was launched in 1982 there was little doubt that it would eventually replace records. Forget sound quality, though, which could be quite variable in those early days, CD initially sold on convenience. The ability to play tracks in any chosen order, not having to mess around with fiddly and temperamental tone arms and the digital format’s high immunity to dust and scratches were major selling points and as soon as player and disc prices fell to mass-market levels it took off like a rocket. Most Hi-Fi manufacturers swiftly embraced the new technology, phasing out turntables from their ranges as soon as decently possible, but a few stalwarts kept the faith, and one or two even tried to take on CD at its own game.

 

The Aiwa LX-110, launched in 1984, was one brave attempt to rejuvenate the traditional record deck, to help it challenge the new digital upstart. It was a multi-pronged attack, attempting to resolve some of the analogue format's shortcomings.

 

The first of them was an age-old problem coming under the general heading of inner groove distortion. Basically it boils down to the fact that the grooves on master recordings, used to make the dies from which copies are pressed, are created using a cutting tool that tracks, in a straight line, across the radius of the disc. Almost all turntables have the tone arm mounted on a pivot, so the stylus follows a curved path across the record. The overall effect is to create an imbalance between the sonic performance of the inner and outer edges of the groove, the left and right stereo tracks, which becomes more noticeable as the groove gets closer to the centre of the disc. Skilled recording engineers and turntable designers can mask or even eliminate these worst of these effects. You may have noticed that tracks with a lot of dynamic, high frequency sounds are often at the start of an album, whilst quieter, more mellow tunes are reserved for the inner tracks, where the treble response is reduced. The LX-110 attempts to tackle this problem with a parallel-tracking tone arm that follows, more precisely, the straight-line path of the cutting head that created the original master recording, in theory minimising the distortion that occurs when using a pivoting tone arm.

 

The second problem, and the one Aiwa probably considered the most likely to divert interest away from CD, is programmable track replay. When a record is placed on the turntable the arm first passes over the surface, using an optical sensor to detect the gaps between the tracks, which it stores in its memory. The turntable can then be instructed to play any track, or programmed to play them in sequence, just like a CD player.

 

Neither feature was new or particularly innovative but it was probably the first time they had been employed on a mid-market record player, sold as a stand-alone component, or part of a Hi-Fi system. Other features, like a direct-drive turntable, manual speed adjustment with a ‘strobe’ display and a bespoke, high performance stylus and cartridge, were meant to appeal to people seeking decent quality sound. It did not, on the whole, disappoint, however, it had no pretensions to being a high-end component, being far too gimmicky for die-hard audiophiles. 

 

It’s a pleasingly compact and understated design with a footprint not much larger than a LP cover. This was pretty much the standard for compact component or stack systems of the day. The direct drive turntable also helps to reduce the height, so all in all it looks quite smart, and with all of the buttons on the front panel it is not too dissimilar – seen head on – from first generation CD players. Although there is a fair bit of mechanical and electronic wizardry churning away under the bonnet it is very easy to use. The fully motorised pickup arm, which you never need to touch, probably helped reduce stylus wear and damage by ham-fisted users.

 

I cannot remember how or when I came by this one; it’s been in my loft for many years and was probably a review sample, though I’ve been unable to find it mentioned in my audio magazine collection. Having sat around for so long I had no great hopes of it still working but the turntable and track-scanning functions appeared to be okay. The pickup arm wasn’t lowering, though, and at the end of the scan there was an ominous clicking sound coming from inside the case. It took the best part of an hour to figure out how to open it up, they really didn’t want anyone poking around inside, but once the lid was off the fault was immediately obvious. The pickup arm is raised and lowered by a cam, driven by a worm screw that’s coupled by a pair of pulleys and a small rubber belt to a motor. The belt had stretched and was on the verge of turning to sticky goop.  It took another half hour to work out how to replace it and a quick test confirmed that everything was working properly.

 

Before the lid went back on I took the opportunity to have a close look at the parallel tracking mechanism and it is deceptively simple. It’s very similar to the horizontal moving pointer tuning scales on some old radios. The arm assembly slides on a tubular guide pulled right or left by a nylon string. This runs around the track, guided by a set of pulleys. On the left side of the deck it is wrapped around a drive pulley, attached to a reduction worm gear drive, connected to a small motor. The arm knows where it is, and where it needs to go using an optical sensor that passes over a perforated metal strip. Everything is controlled by what looks like a custom microprocessor, mounted on a PCB at the front of the case, with the rest of the electronic components. It has been very well made, the whole thing is reassuring heavy and the underside has some substantial rubber feet that minimise the effects of vibration.

 

Sound quality is still surprisingly good, thanks largely to it having been used for just a few hours, so stylus wear is minimal. I was encouraged to dig out a few old albums and the memories came flooding back. Unfortunately my aging ears are not sufficiently well tuned to say whether or not parallel tracking eliminates groove distortion but the track programming definitely makes listening to vinyl recordings a much more agreeable and leisurely business (it is quite slow). Not so welcome was the hiss and scratches of my old and poorly stored albums, which reminded me why digital was always destined to succeed…

 

What Happened To It?

Aiwa was always a bit of an oddity amongst the better-known Japanese consumer electronics brands. A little known fact was that from the end of the sixties it was mostly owned by Sony and under its stewardship it became a moderately successful manufacturer of mid-market hi-fi systems, separates and personal stereos but by the early noughties it was in trouble. Sony took a controlling interest and attempted to revive the brand but it was too late; it went into a steady decline and manufacturing ended in 2006.

 

The LX-110 dates from the company’s heyday when it was doing quite well in home audio and personal stereos. In the first few years after the launch of CD there were still significant numbers of vinyl fans, many of whom had large album collections and to some this would have been seen as a timely shot in the arm for the aging format. Unfortunately it was too late to make a difference, or inspire other companies to follow suit, and it is unlikely that it sold in significant numbers, though most weeks there are usually one or two of them on ebay. They don’t seem to attract much interest; even mint examples in good working order rarely make more than £30 - £40. Faulty ones are best avoided as spares are now in very short supply and the specialised stylus, though still obtainable, at a price, probably won’t be around for very much longer. There is no denying its curiosity value and in ten years time it may well be of interest to collectors in of vintage hardware but as a practical record player it’s a bit of a gamble and you would be better off sticking to more traditional designs.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1984

Original Price          £80

Value Today           £20 (1115)

Features                 Programmable, linear tracking arm, direct drive turntable (4-phase, 8-pole motor), 33 & 45rpm, diecast alloy platter, manually adjustable speed with strobe

Power req.                    230 VAC

Dimensions:                  335 x 90 x 330mm

Weight:                         5kg

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


Marlboro Giant AM Radio, 1965?

There are a great many question marks hanging over this rather large AM radio, not least, why? It’s important to put the size into perspective, and yes, that is a standard pack of 20 Marlboro cigs in the picture, which makes this mighty beast something like five or six times life size. Novelty radios are by no means unusual. Since the sixties there have been plenty of pocket size radios designed to look like packs of Marlboro, and most other major brands of cigarettes, but what is the point of one this large? My best guess is that it’s some sort of promotional item, maybe even a shop display. In fact giant fag cartons have been around for donkey’s years, but I have never seen or heard of any with radios inside. As you can probably tell it’s all guesswork. Unusually I haven’t been able to find anything about it on the web, and I’ve looked everythere, from novelty radio enthusiasts to Marlboro and cigarette ephemera collector’s sites, so if anyone can fill in the many blanks I would be very pleased to hear from you.

 

What I do know for certain is that the case is a made of a fairly heavy grade plastic, covered in what seems to be a folded sheet of lacquered paper with the pack logo printed on it. It’s clearly had a fairly hard life and is a little tatty and faded in places, which suggests that it may have spent a fair amount of time in the sun, in a shop window perhaps? The radio is a 7-transistor AM superhet; it is nothing special in terms of design and construction. It is, however, very similar to the sort of tuner boards coming out of Hong Kong in the 1960s. There are no markings anywhere and the date is unknown but it uses Germanium transistors, and components of a similar vintage, which is another vote for the mid sixties as the most likely period of manufacture.   

 

I found it at a large Midlands open air antiques fair and the stallholder, who turned out to be a fellow enthusiast and gadget collector, was equally mystified and had never seen another like it. Although it appeared to be in pretty rough condition the case and circuit board all looked quite solid and intact, and there was no sign of any serious corrosion. It was really grubby though and several wires were lose or broken but this wasn’t enough to put me off. The initial asking price was a little optimistic given its sorry condition but we managed to reach a satisfactory compromise and £25.00 changed hands.

 

The outer cover was the biggest let down and I considered a major renovation job, which involved removing the cover, scanning it, touching up the wonky bits and getting a new one printed, but it just wouldn’t look right, so it stays as-found. Sorting out the radio was much less of a problem, not that it needed a lot of work to get it going. The most obvious fault was the severed wires from, the coil on the ferrite antenna rod. Thankfully they were coloured so it wasn’t difficult to find out where they belonged on the PCB. There were a couple of other loose wires but these also proved fairly easy to trace. Rather than try to repair it in-situ I decided to strip it down for a thorough clean-up and this exposed a few other minor problems but they were all easily fixed, With everything connected and a set of 6 C-cells wedged precariously in the holder it came alive, possibly for the first time in several decades. The large elliptical speaker and generously sized case provides plenty of volume, and it sounds surprisingly good.

 

What Happened To It?

You don’t have to look very far on ebay to find radios that look like packs of 20 cigarettes, and I have a couple of examples in my collection but they are all more or less the same size as the actual thing. Incidentally, most of them are fairly easy to date from the pack designs, which tobacconalia (ciggy ephemera) collectors enjoy documenting. And if the pack has a warning message on it (Tobacco Seriously Damages Your Health etc), you can be fairly sure it’s post 1971.

 

But I digress and apart from the possibility that it was made at some point in the sixties, this one remains a complete mystery. I cannot even say for sure if this was an officially sanctioned product or how much it originally cost? Was it a one-off or were they made in volume, and of course, what on earth is it for? Likewise, putting a value on it is virtually impossible; there is simply nothing to compare it with and £50 is just a stab in the dark, though if, as I suspect, it is quite a rare, a serious collector may well be prepared to pay a lot more than fifty quid for one, especially if it was in really good condition.   


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1965?

Original Price         £?

Value Today           £50 (0915)

Features                 7 transistor AM superhetrodyne tuner, ferrite antenna, 150 x 80mm elliptical speaker, on/off volume & tuning controls

Power req.                      6 x 1.5v C Cells

Dimensions:                    340 x 225 x 120mm

Weight:                           2.2kg

Made (assembled) in:      Hong Kong?

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    9


Audiotronic LSH 80 Headphones, 1985

A few years ago, when headphones became fashion statements (again…), rather than serious audio products I wondered how long it would be until manufacturers got around to barrel-scraping some classic ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’ designs. They may have already, I haven’t really been paying much attention, but if any style wonks out there are casting around for an iconic look, here’s one to consider, and it screams nineteen eighties.

 

It’s the Audiotronic LSH-80 and it would have been a must-have accessory for any ghetto blaster or boom box-owning teen, fed up with their mums telling them to ‘turn that noise down’. They are simply outrageous, looking like part of a Cyberman’s helmet, or maybe a B-movie mad-scientist’s brain scanner. When wearing them you have to take care passing through doorways, in case they’re not wide enough, and at the same time being careful not to nod your head too vigorously to the beat, lest you take out someone’s eye…

 

They were guaranteed to get you noticed back in the day, and 40 years later they’re still capable of turning heads, though nowadays the looks you get are more of sympathy than admiration. ‘Nurse, he’s got out again’… These headphones have attitude, not to mention lots of chrome, and let’s not forget those saucer-sized cans. Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that headphones that big must be packed with studio-grade audio technology. Each phone even has its own individual level control, for example, and the huge enclosures must be good for the sound quality, right?

 

Sadly the complete opposite is true. Inside the funnel-shaped mouldings there’s 85mm driver units; essentially these are just ordinary, cheapo, speakers, identical to those used in medium-sized transistor radios (and a few boom boxes I suspect). There are no signs of any attempt to engineer, control or contour the sounds they make, they’re just speakers in round, sealed (closed back) plastic enclosures so, in a moment, when we get to the part about audio performance you can be fairly sure there will be no surprises.

There have to be a few plus points, and there are, and in spite of them being so heavy they are quite comfortable to wear, even for prolonged periods (provided you don’t actually use them…). The padded headband is adjustable but on this one, at least, they’ve lost a bit of their springiness, so the headphones have a tendency to drop, slip and slide. This is probably just a sign of old age, rather than a specific design fault, and it’s easily fixed by tightening a couple of screws and bending the headband into a tighter curve. These phones also reawakened my liking for a good quality curly lead; they don’t get tangled or caught up so easily and it’s quick to put away when you have finished using them. The individual volume controls seem like a bit of a gimmick but they are actually quite handy and make it a lot easier to get the balance and volume just right, without having to mess around with fiddly push buttons or knobs, which may be on the other side of the room.

 

There is no point beating about the bush, they sound truly awful, lacking any semblance of depth or clarity. Despite the closed back design here is no bass to speak of and they leak sound like mad, much to the annoyance of anyone nearby. On the plus side they only cost me £2.50 at a Surrey antiques fair, haggled down from £3.00. They appeared to be complete and under the layer of grime, in reasonably good condition. They are fitted with a standard jack plug so there was no easy way to test them on the spot but the financial risk was minimal and it didn’t matter too much if they needed a bit of attention. As it turned out they worked first time, though the volume controls benefited from a few squirts of contact cleaner, to get rid of the crackles

 

What Happened To Them

Stereo headphones have been a perennial fixture in the audio accessory market ever since there have been sources of stereo music, and good quality high-end models have never gone away, but mass market products wax and wane according to the audio technology and fashions of the day. The Audiotronic LSH-80s are very much of their time, shiny, brash, all show and not much go, and like a cheesy 80’s pop band, you can’t help smiling when you see them. They capture the chrome-plated, glitzy, noisy and kitsch eighties to perfection; they would be a great prop for an 80s themed fancy dress party and in the wider world, they’re a real attention-getter on public transport, but sadly, the one thing you wouldn’t want to use them for is listening to music. You’re not going to get rich either if you have a pair in the attic. They’re not especially rare either but on a good day with the wind in the right direction someone on ebay might be persuaded to stump up £25.00, if they’re in really good condition. In some respects mass market headphone design hasn’t really made much progress in the past 40 years, and ‘phones like these, and a great many of today’s vastly more expensive models, are essentially fashion items, but if they make a noise you can bear listening to then that’s a bonus. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                  1985

Original Price           £25?

Value Today             £10 (0915)

Features                   85mm driver units, individual volume controls, 70mm (unextended) curly connecting lead, standard stereo jack plug, adjustable padded headband, cushioned ear cups    (replaceable)

Power req.                     n/a

Dimensions:                   each phone: 120 x 70mm

Weight:                          600g

Made (assembled) in:     Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):   6


1931 Rolls Royce Phantom II Radio Model Car, 1975

Because they can, is the answer to the question you may be asking about why anyone would bother shoehorning a transistor radio into a model car? In fact this was quite a thing back in the sixties and seventies with scores of scale replica vintage, and modern, cars like this one, with built-in radios, and it seems that quite a lot of them were sold in this country, many of them through the now defunct Tandy chain of electronic gadget stores.

 

What sets it apart from most other novelty radios of the time is the build quality, and attention to detail. Many of the fittings are made of brass and metal; the body, although not metal, is very heavily plated and you would be hard pressed to tell that it is plastic just by looking at it. It’s clearly not a toy – it wouldn’t last more than five minutes in the hands of the average 10 year old – but it’s unclear as to whom the target audience might be. It’s possible that they were simply ornamental or possibly an attempt to create a collector’s market, and that’s born out by the number of different models being produced.

 

This Rolls Royce Phantom II is fairly typical of the genre with the radio element cunningly concealed. From the outside you would probably wouldn’t know, unless you happened to spot the word Off, and channel markings on the two spare wheels mounted either side of the bonnet. The speaker is on the underside, as is the lidded compartment that houses a standard 9-volt PP3 type battery. All four wire-spoked wheels rotate and there’s an authentic looking steering wheel and dashboard under the Landau style roof.

 

Technically it’s not especially sophisticated; the radio is a fairly straightforward 6-transistor AM superhet, though it is mounted on a custom PCB, with the ferrite antenna fixed to the underside of the circuit board. There’s no earphone socket or indeed any other connections or convenience features, which probably indicates that that the radio element was of secondary importance. It definitely wasn’t there to be listened to for any length of time. It has to be said that a small model car body and a titchy 55mm speaker is a far from ideal setup for a radio and needless to say it sounds rather tinny.

 

I found it at a large open air antiques fair in Lincolnshire, in a box full of mixed tat and junk; it was quite mucky, so it didn’t look very promising. However, it appeared to be largely intact, apart from the Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet ornament, which was missing (very common with this model)  and since the stallholder was only asking £3.00 for it (haggled down from an opening price of £4.00), it seemed a pity to leave it behind where it would undoubtedly end its days in a rubbish bin. As you can see it scrubbed up well, with the aid of some household cleaner, Brasso and plastic polish and apart from some yellowing on the white sidewall tyres; it looks almost as good as new. There was nothing wrong with the radio either. It sparked up first time so I decided to leave well alone and skip the usual electrolytic capacitor swap; hopefuly they still have a few years left in them.

 

What Happened To It?

The fad for replica radio cars of this sort seems to have petered out by the mid 1980s, though model cars with built-in radios never really went away and one or two are still being made but they’re more toys than detailed scale models. Sales of this one must have been quite good, though and there’s always a few on ebay, with prices starting at around £10 - £15, but you can double or treble that it for mint examples, especially if they come in the original box with instructions. There are simply too many of them around for them to increase much in value but it has to a worthwhile addition to any collection of novelty radios. It also has a certain surprise value and a lot of people – especially those born after the 1980s – who seem to be genuinely amazed, not to say bemused, when you switch it on…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen               1975

Original Price        £10

Value Today          £15 (0815)

Features                 6-transistor AM (medium wave) superhetrodyne, rotary volume & tuning controls *spare wheels), 55mm speaker, brass fittings, rotating wheels

Power req.                    1 x PP3 9V battery

Dimensions:                  250 x 88 x 80mm

Weight:                         389g

Made (assembled) in:    Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  5


Steepletone MBR7 Multi-Band DRF Receiver, 1984

No, it’s not a handle; the T-shaped object on the top of this Steepletone MBR7 Multi-Band receiver is actually a rotating direction-finding ferrite antenna. Now why, you might ask, would anyone want such a thing on a largish portable tabletop transistor radio? It’s all in the name and armed with a map, compass a radio like this one and a list of navigational beacons it should be possible to pinpoint your position almost anywhere on the globe with a fair amount of certainty; at least that was the theory.

 

As to who might benefit from this facility, the obvious answer is mariners, yachtspersons and seafarers who, before GPS appeared, had to rely on a number of fairly complicated and seemingly archaic techniques to figure out where they were. Radio direction finding (RDF) is a reliable and well-established technique, but you would have to be fairly brave to trust your life to one of these. Whist the RDF antenna on the MBR7 sort of works, it’s really little more than a cosmetic frippery, aping the appearance a number of rather more serious portable multi-band RDF and communications receivers that were around between the 1960s and 90s.

 

Whilst it’s not quite a complete phoney, it does illustrate the way that designers of cheapie transistor radios sought to jazz up their creations, to make them look, superficially at least, like more upmarket and sophisticated models and hopefully stand out on the crowded shelves. In most cases this involved copycat styling and fake, pointless or non-functional features but this one goes a little further. The basic elements for radio direction finding are all there; the rotating antenna turns through 70 degrees and there’s a calibrated scale built into the base. Frequency coverage includes fair sized chunks of the bands used by the principle non-directional beacons (NDBs), and the two-part tuning dial has a coarse outer ring and knob in the middle for fine-tuning. There’s also a signal strength meter next to the tuning dial, to visually display the ‘null’ and ‘peak’ of a radio signal as the antenna is rotated. However, these features are not backed up by the receiver’s electronic circuitry, which is only a notch up from the majority of low cost multi band radios coming out of Hong Kong at the time, lacking the sensitivity and precision of a true RDF receiver. Much the same applies to the case; it looks a lot like the real thing, with plausible communications receiver styling, those eye catching chrome-plated rack handles and all the shiny knobs and switches but under the faux leather padding on the top and sides there’s the usual thin and brittle plastic that doesn’t stand up well to normal wear and tear, let alone the kind of rough and tumble and watery punishments it could expect to receive on a small boat bouncing around on the briny.

 

It would be unkind to delve too deeply into the technicalities, though. This model sold for a fraction of the price of a proper RDF radio or professional communications receiver, so let’s look at it in terms of a fancy-looking radio for landlubbers and wannabe sailors, and there it does much better. In addition to the two AM Short Wave bands (2.3 – 22MHz) and FM Air/Marine band (108 – 175MHz) it has the normal Long, Medium and VHF broadcast bands. There are three power options: for portable operation it takes four D cells, it has a built-in mains adaptor, or it can run from an external 6 volts DC supply. The centre mounted-speaker is a fair size and produces a pleasingly mellow sound, assisted by a variable tone control. There also a microphone input, for a slightly weird PA function. The radio’s modest 2 – 3 watt audio amp and 90mm speaker are fine for normal listening over distances of a few meters, but as a PA it leaves a lot to be desired. If fact you’ll be heard further away just speaking in a loud voice but it looks impressive and the kids probably enjoyed playing with it… 

 

I spotted this one at a large open-air antiques market in the Midlands and although it was decidedly grubby it seemed to be in pretty good shape, with nothing missing; more importantly, the battery compartment was free of corrosion and the mains lead still attached. All of the controls and tuning dial moved freely so it was worth finding out how much the stallholder was asking for it. This was a rather optimistic £15, but with rain visible on the horizon, and rapidly departing visitors, he readily accepted my opening offer of £8.00.

 

As it turned out it was rather a good buy and following a thorough clean up and muck out it was looking really presentable. There were no faults to speak of, apart from some crackle on the volume control and band selector – both easily fixed with a quick squirt of switch cleaner – and a dab of  glue for a loose cap on the DF antenna. It worked perfectly on both battery and mains power, that is to say, it tuned over the marked bands. However, the receiver’s lack of sensitivity, selectivity and noise rejection, combined with very basic antennas, meant that apart from the broadcast bands, there was little or nothing to listen too, apart from hiss, and RF interference from every electronic gadget within 10 meters. To be fair these days even a top-notch communications receiver would struggle to pick up any navigation beacons as most of them have been switched off. It’s also a shame about the lack of performance on the air bands, though it might pick up some air traffic control comms close to an airport.  

 

What Happened To It?

The market for pukka RDF and communications receivers has always been relatively small and it’s unlikely that there was ever much of an appetite for pretend ones like this, even if they were comparatively cheap. I suspect this model was only around for a few years; by the early 90s interest in big radios and boomboxes was on the wane and the trend was towards more compact and stylish designs and anyone who needed an accurate and reliable navigation aid would be investing in GPS equipment.

 

Steepletone, set up in 1972 was, and still is, a UK based branding operation for far eastern electronic gadgets and back in the late 70s and 80s the name became quite well known. Products like these were widely distributed and undoubtedly a few of they were sold but based on how many MBR7s turn up on ebay it seems that only a handful lasted the course. Of the few auctions that I have followed  they do not seem (yet) to be much sought after, though that might be due to the highly optimistic prices (£60 - £100) some ebayers have been asking. I would say £25 to £40 is about right for a really well preserved example. It is doubtfful that radios like the MBR7 will suddenly jump in price but their increasing rarity should make a sensibly priced one a worthwhile investment, but as always unless you know what you doing give tatty, non-working fixer-uppers a wide berth.  


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                 1984

Original Price          £30

Value Today            £30 (0715)

Features                  5-band AM/FM receiver (LW 150 – 300kHZ, MW 540 – 1600kHz,  SW1 7 – 22MHz, SW2 2.3 – 7MHx, FM 88 – 108MHz, Air/Marine 108 – 175MHz), coarse/fine tuning, rotary volume & tone, switchable AFC, PA function, signal strength/battery meter, internal fixed and rotating ‘ direction finder’ external ferrite antennas, telescopic antenna, 90mm speaker, 3.5mm jacks for microphone, antenna & earphone, faux leather case & chrome ‘rack’ handles. 

Power req.                           4 x 1.5 volt D cells (internal), 6V DC, 240V AC (external)

Dimensions:                         360 x 270 x 135mm

Weight:                                 2.6kg

Made (assembled) in:           Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):         7


Harvard Battalion AM/FM Radio, 1978

It’s only when you look back that you see how many distinct and varied trends there have been in consumer electronics design. For example, right now we’re slap bang in the middle of yet another retro revival, with shed loads of radios and record players aping styles of the fifties and early sixties; it surely won’t be long before fake wood, brushed aluminium and chrome-plated bling are doing the rounds again.

 

There's no need to ask where all this is going; look no further than this AM/FM radio from the mid to late seventies. It’s the Harvard Battalion, and the name says it all. This is a prime example of a brief fad for military styling. It came and went quite quickly, and for no good reason that I can see and there were no more wars and conflicts than usual during this period. The trouble with military styling is that it was never more than skin deep; the promise of ruggedness and durability was rarely, if ever, delivered and the Battalion is no different.

 

The drab grey colouring, chunky controls and switches, fake leather case and carry handle are all suggestive of a portable army field radio. However, inside the tough-looking -- but very plasticky -- case is a rather ordinary 9-transistor AM/FM radio. There are no particular features that set it apart from the thousand and one other portable radios of the time. Even the large and serious looking tuning dial, with its elaborate scales and markings, does nothing more than cover the standard MW and VHF broadcast bands. The only minor points of interest include a 6 section telescopic antenna, a 3.5mm jack socket for an earphone, which is on the right side and it’s powered, by a pack of 6 AA 1.5 volt pen cells, though there is added bonus of a built-in mains power supply.  

 

The largish case means that there’s no pressure on space inside and both the circuit board and speaker are a little bigger than usual, but otherwise it is all fairly conventional. A fading stamp on the back panel confirms the country of manufacture as Hong Kong, but even without this clue it would have been fairly obvious where it came from, with the usual generous coating of wax around the front-end RF components, and rough and ready hand-assembled PCB.

 

This one was found at a large Hampshire boot sale, partially buried under a pile of junk and looking like it wasn't the first time it had spent time hanging around in a damp and muddy field. The stallholder seemed happy that someone had finally shown an interest in it and wasn’t about to scare them off with a daft price. He suggested £1.00, probably expecting to be haggled down, but there are limits as to how mean you can get, and since it came with a fairly new-looking mains plug, even if the radio was totally kaput, I couldn’t lose on the deal.

 

He claimed that it was in good working order but I wasn’t totally convinced, as the fittings on the case and handle were rusty in places. It’s never a good idea to plug in mains-powered products bought from boot sales without thoroughly testing them first, especially, as with this one, there were signs that the outside, at least, had exposed to moisture, but a internal check suggested that there hadn‘t been any water ingress, and it powered up without any problems. The tuner and volume were a bit scratchy but it was nothing that a few squirts of switch cleaner couldn’t fix. As it turned out sound quality wasn’t half bad, thanks mostly to the larger then normal speaker and capacious case.

 

What Happened To It?

Since the early 70s Harvard International have been exceptionally busy at the budget end of the consumer electronics market, and a prolific buyer-upper of failed and forgotten British brands, like Alba, Bush and Goodmans. At one time or another it has also owned the rights to Breville, Grundig and Hinari. The company has itself been through several name changes and owners, including at one point the Home Retail group (who also own Argos), and since 2012, Chengdu Geeya Technology in China.

 

Harvard products were never noted for innovation or technical excellence but they were competitively priced and the company was impressively nimble when it came to jumping on bandwagons, as evidenced by the Battalion radio, which almost certainly came and went at precisely the same time as military styling. This wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple of years, plus another year of two for stocks to run down, so it probably wasn’t around much beyond the early 1980s. Whilst I have yet to establish exactly how much it originally cost, £15 to £20 won’t be too far off the mark, and the £1.00 this one cost me was about right, considering its condition. I have yet to see another one but my guess is that a really clean example, especially if it still has its original box, might fetch between £10 and £15 on ebay on a good day.

 

It’s fair to say that it’s not yet a sought after collectible, even though I doubt that many of them are still around to tell the tale. The low initial price and briefly trendy styling meant that most owners wouldn’t have thought twice about chucking it in the bin, once the novelty had worn off. Nowadays military styling comes and goes but the Battalion represents one of the first outings for this curious fad and one day, in the distant future, it is just possible that rare items like this could become quite valuable, at least that’s my excuse for hanging on to this one…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                 1978?

Original Price          £15.00?

Value Today            £5.00 (0615)

Features                  AM/FM tuner, 9-transistor superhetrodyne, 70mm (2.5-inch) speaker, 6-section telescopic aerial

Power req.                    6 x 1.5v AA cells, built in 230VAC mains psu

Dimensions:                  185 x 125 x 75mm

Weight:                         700g

Made (assembled) in:    Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


Waco Caribbean Cruiser AM Radio, 1972

It looks like a toy boat but it’s actually a novelty radio, and rather a good one at that. The cabin cruiser shape probably won’t raise too many eyebrows, after all you will see plenty of much stranger designs on this website, but what may not be obvious from the photos is the amount of fine detail, and how heavy it is!

 

The Waco Caribbean Cruiser radio is a far cry from most other transistor radios coming out of Japan in the early 1970s, and quite exceptional in the amount of metal used in its construction. This includes all of the fittings, which are mostly solid brass or brass plated, the mast, which is steel, and much of the middle and upper deck superstructure. This is not a cheap plaything, and but for the fact that the hull and deck are made of plastic, it could almost pass as a superior home-built scale model boat; it even comes with a smart display stand, though alas it was not included with this one.

 

The radio circuit board lives inside the hull, it’s a fairly ordinary 5-transistor AM (medium wave) superhet and you can just see the red volume on/off and tuning knobs on the aft deck. The speaker is mounted on the underside of the lower deck, radiating upwards though the main cabin. The battery, a 9-volt PP3/6F22, lives beneath a hatch on the foredeck, this being secured by a brass capstan, which operates a simple latch. This radio works and whilst the sound quality isn’t too bad, compared with most other small AM transistor radios of the period, it’s not going to win any prizes. That’s not what’s about, though, and it’s the attention to detail that catches the eye, like the brass anchors, ship’s wheel (it turns), binnacle, fog horn, radar scanner, lamps, ladders and davits for the lifeboat (sadly another part that has gone walkabout). It even looks like it should float, though it would probably sink like a stone due to the weight, and open portholes.

 

I spotted this one at a large open-air antiques fair in the West of England and from a distance it really did look like a child's toy, but the two control knobs caught my eye. The stallholder reckoned that it was probably a radio, but wasn’t sure if it worked, or where the battery went. It was stone dead and on closer inspection I managed to find the battery hatch. There was one inside but fortunately no signs of leakage, and the rest of it was – excuse the pun -- reasonably shipshape, with no cracks, scratches or marks, so it looked like it might be worth a gamble. Following a brief haggle a price of £10 was agreed and once I got it home it didn’t take long to discover the reason for it’s non-functional state; the battery had expired long ago. Although there are a few parts missing (display stand, lifeboat and flag), it was definitely a tenner well spent.

 

What Happened To It?

Waco were busily making novelty radios and throughout the 60s and 70s and produced a succession of designs that ranged from scale models of vintage and classdic cars and aircraft, to figures and animals, as well as a weird mini TV-shaped cigarette lighter, posing as a slide viewer. Surprisingly there’s very little about the company’s history or activities on the web and it doesn’t seem to have lasted much beyond the late 1970s. I suspect that prices were pitched quite high, as befits the standard of construction and materials, but the specialist nature of these products would have made them increasingily uncompetitive in the cash-strapped eighties.

 

Comparatively few Waco products appear on ebay in the UK, and I have yet to see another cabin cruiser, but they do turn up occasionally on the US website, probably because a lot of Waco products were stocked by the now defunct Radio Shack chain. The high initial prices and low survivability have made them quite collectible and good examples of some designs can sell for between £30 and £60 in the US, though high shipping charges takes the shine off them for buyers on this side of the big pond. The UK collectors market is probably small to non-existant, but if you do come across a clean Waco radio at a reasonable price it could turn out to be a decent investment. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen               1972?

Original Price         £20?

Value Today           £30 (0615)

Features                 AM tuner, 5-transistor superhetrodyne, 63mm (2.5-inch) speaker solid brass fittings (wheel & binnacle, light, horn, dingy, bench, capstan, foremast, ladders, anchors, railings portholes etc.) steel mast & superstructure parts, display stand included

Power req.                     1 x 9v PP3/6F22

Dimensions:                   290 x 72 x 155mm (to tip of mast)

Weight:                          400g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Sanyo G-2615N Portable Music Centre, 1972

Combo systems, where two or more semi-related technologies are shoehorned into one box rarely turn out well. The first problem is that electronic and mechanical components wear out at different rates and you could be reasonably sure that one or more of the key elements in a combo would fail soon after the warranty had expired. This would render the device only partially useful and because these things were often difficult or expensive to get repaired, it would usually end up in the bin. The other, more fundamental problem was the often-eccentric choice of technologies. Throughout Dustygizmos you will find several examples of odd bedfellows, like a combined radio/camera, or how about a piano/radio or piano/phone and who can forget the handy-all-in one lighter/torch/radio? Some combos do work though, like this Sanyo G-2615N stereo music centre. This boasts a 3-speed turntable, a 3-band stereo radio and a stereo cassette recorder. Needless to say, back in the early 70s this wasn’t a new or original idea; radiograms had been around since at least the nineteen forties and home music centres were really starting to take off, but making the whole thing portable and packing it into an executive-style briefcase was new, and different, and as it turned out, surprisingly effective.

 

The G-2615N has been (mostly) well though out and it was genuinely portable, able to run for an hour or so on a set of 6 D cells. The two part case lid is actually a pair of detachable loudspeakers with cables attached and they can be positioned to get a half-decent stereo sound. The tuner covers the Medium Wave, stereo FM channels and, unusually, one of the lower Short Wave bands (3.2 – 12 MHz), which back in the 70s and 80s would have been quite busy. Incidentally, a variant of this model (G-2615H) had Medium Wave and 2 Short Wave bands (no FM) covering 2.3 to 22MHz, but as far as I am aware this never went on sale in the UK.

 

The cassette deck is a fairly basic design and the only feature deemed worthy of mention on the top panel is Auto Stop. There is one oddity, though, and that is the Fast Forward function key, which for no good reason that I can see lacks a locking function, so it has to be held down. Not surprisingly this takes some owners unaware and it is not unusual to see this mentioned as a fault on ebay listings. The deck has a recording function and a pair of microphones is supplied (though sadly not with my one). There is also a microphone mixing option, so you can record from two sources and warble along with the radio or the record player. The Beat Cut facility changes the recording bias frequency and is supposed to eliminate an annoying beat sound when recording from the radio.

 

And so to the turntable, which is arguably the weakest link. It’s a pretty cheap and cheerful affair using a motor with a stepped shaft driving an idler wheel, in direct contact with the inner rim of the platter. True, it has three speeds but no one in their right mind would use it to play 78’s, the stylus wouldn’t last five minutes. You would also think twice about using it to play cherished vinyl because of the tone arm. It looks as though it’s counterweighted but it isn't; it is actually quite heavy, and pivoted on rather wobbly bearings. To be fair it was no worse than most other budget or low-end record decks of the day and fine for the market it was designed for, which would have been predominantly teenagers and young adults.

 

Sound quality is actually quite pleasing, thanks in part to the largish elliptical speakers and the solidly made enclosures, which look unpromising but they do produce a surprisingly mellow sound. The amp is rated at 3.5 watts, but these are the practically meaningless ‘peak music power’ (pmp) type watts; nevertheless, there’s plenty of volume on tap and more than enough to fill the average bedroom or living room, and annoy nearby parents and neighbours.

 

The only real downsides are the weight; it comes in at almost 8kg, and the mains power cord, which uses a long-forgotten 3-pin connector (to the side of the battery compartment). This is frequently missing on the G-2515Ns on sale today. Fortunately it’s fairly easy to modify and by swapping a couple of cables inside the case it is possible to persuade it to use a modern figure-of-8 Telefunken mains plug.

 

I found this one in a cold, wet muddy field, at a car boot sale in Kent, looking very much the worse for wear. There had obviously been a battery leak at some time and it was encrusted in dirt, but it seemed to be all there and it would have been a shame to leave it there to rot; I thought it was worth a punt and the seller accepted my best offer of £5.00. The battery holder was easy to remove and the encrusted gunk cleaned up fairly easily. The metal contacts were only lightly corroded and they scrubbed up well with the help of my trusty Dremel and a wire brush tool. Otherwise all that was needed was a good spring clean; a blow out with the air line inside and plenty of metal polish and car dashboard cleaner for the outside chrome trim and plastic. Half an hour’s elbow grease and it came up sparkling. Switching on an unknown vintage mains-powered device for the first time can be an adventure but not this time as I took the precaution of trying it with batteries first, so I knew that everything, bar the mains PSU was in good order. There were no problems with it, though, or any of the electronics or mechanics; even the tape deck drive belt was okay. In fact the only part that had to be replaced was the stylus and as luck would have it, it was a common type and cost just £3.00.

 

What Happened To It?

Sanyo wasn’t the only manufacturer producing portable music centres, nor was it the only one to pack them into executive briefcases but this has to be one of the best looking examples, and from the reviews that I have come across, one of the best sounding as well.

 

The G-2615N was at the forefront of the portable music revolution that was getting underway in the early seventies. It went though a number of quite radical trends and transformations and by the mid 70s the boombox or ghetto blaster phenomenon was in full swing. Later the same decade and at the other end of the size scale, the first Walkman personal stereos had appeared. This model was apparently still in production by then, but it was on its last legs as the compact cassette had become the preferred audio medium for under 25s and vinyl record sales were in a steep decline. Since the turntable accounted for around fifty percent of this music centre’s surface area and functionality it was effectively doomed and made it look increasingly old-fashioned. It did have a pretty good run, though, judging by the number of them turning up on ebay. It’s also a popular topic in vintage tech forums and discussion groups; even those who didn’t have one can remember them.

 

Putting a price on one is next to impossible. If ebay is anything to go by a decent runner can be had for anywhere between £25 to £150, and at the time of writing there were several extraordinarily optimistic Buy It Now prices for quite rough looking fixer-uppers. If you want one be patient, you can still find a bargain but two words of warning; don’t wait too long, and don’t use the turntable if you care about your records…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1972

Original Price         £50?

Value Today           £30 (0213)

Features                 3-band radio (stereo FM, MW & SW), telescopic antenna, stereo cassette deck with Auto Stop, 3–speed turntable (33.3, 45 & 78RPM), 2 x 3.5W (pmp…) stereo amplifier, record level/battery meter, detachable speakers, rotary volume, tone, balance tune, fine tune, speed selector & mode controls, push button mic mix & beat cut, headphone (std jack) 2 x mic inputs (3.5mm mono jacks), stereo out (2 x 3.5mm stereo jacks) speaker out (2 x 3.5mm mono jacks), AC mains in (proprietary 3 –pin), 2 x 140 x 90mm elliptical speakers, 45rpm record adaptor, 2 x mono microphones 

Power req.                     6 x 1.5 v D cells

Dimensions:                   470 x 350 x 140mm

Weight:                          7.8kg

Made (assembled) in:     Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  4


Novelty AM Radio Piano Organ, 1975?

In the scheme of things a novelty radio hooked up to a small electronic organ barely raises an eyebrow but you have to admit that housing these two disparate technologies in a miniature, fake wood, Victorian-style, upright piano is not something you see every day…

 

Generally speaking novelty radios are mostly tacky, plasticky things, made for promotional purposes and destined to either fall apart or get thrown away long before the first set of batteries expire. This one is different, it looks like the manufacturer took a lot of trouble in its design and construction, and meant it to last. Even more surprising is that it was made in Hong Kong, once the world capital of throwaway gadgets. Sadly we cannot give the manufacturer their due credit as the only marking, anywhere on or inside the case is the country of origin. Establishing when it was made also proved difficult and 1975 is simply a best guess. It could easily be 5 years either way but there are a few clues that may help to narrow it down. Firstly the radio is AM only; by the early 80s most radios of this type were sporting AM/FM tuners. Then there’s the electronic components, design and layout of the printed circuit board, which are all typical of mid to late 70s Hong Kong radios. Finally, the frequency markings on the tuner scale are in KCs (kilocycles). Even in 1975 this would have been regarded as old-fashioned; by then kilohertz (1000 cycles per second) had been in widespread use for around 10 years   

 

The cases of old gadgets often get only a passing mention but this one deserves a much closer look. As you should be able see from the photos it is an extraordinarily detailed and a very faithful, quite possibly near scale model of an actual late nineteenth or early twentieth century upright piano. It’s made up of half a dozen or so separate mouldings, in an unusually dense, wood-effect, plastic and this would have been expensive to produce. In fact it is not unrealistic to describe it as verging on a piece of craftsmanship, which is not something you hear very often about mass-produced items, let alone something from a factory in 60s/70s Hong Kong. The quality of construction continues on the inside and the single circuit board was clearly hand assembled, and by the looks it, by someone who cared and knew which end of a soldering iron to hold. The tuning system uses an unnecessarily complicated rack and pinion mechanism and the keyboard, which spans almost one and half octaves, is another well-made item, with a smooth action and large, effective spring-contact switches

 

Only two things let it down, the first is a nasty paper sticker pretending to be a book of sheet music, above the keyboard. The second is the horrible noises that come out of the 50mm speaker (mounted below the keyboard), when either Radio or Piano mode is selected. To be fair AM radio sounds pretty terrible at the best of times but the organ function is disappointing. The best that you can say about it is that makes a few feeble tones that vaguely resemble musical notes. There is also one mystery feature and on the left side of the case is a jack socket market ‘Mic’. The actual socket appears to be a blank, it has no contacts, nor does there seem to be any missing or loose wires on the inside, any place for them on the PCB, any provision for function switching, or indeed any good reason for a small AM radio piano to require a microphone. If anyone has any information or views on this matter, or can put a more precise date on it, as always I will be very pleased to hear them.

 

This was an accidental find on ebay and the bidding – there were only two of us – stopped at just under £6.00. Since acquiring it I have been on the lookout for another in the hope of finding out a bit more about it but so far, this has been the only one I have seen. The condition is excellent with virtually no signs of wear and tear or any corrosion in the battery compartment. It worked first time too, though later inspection and cleaning of the internals revealed a couple of cable joints that were very close to failing, but they were easily repaired.

 

What Happened To it?

Who knows, and if you do, prey tell… Miniature transistor radios that look like pianos are not that unusual and you can find modern examples on ebay but you won’t see many with a working organ or keyboard, and definitely none that are so well made and highly detailed. I have a feeling that this one came and went in a relatively short space of time. It would have been expensive to make; that would have been reflected in the selling price so the numbers made, and the market for them would have been quite small. Possibly it was sold as a toy, and that would fit in with the phoney music book sticker, but the overall quality and attention to detail makes it look and feel much more like an ornament; either way it certainly wasn’t sold on the quality of the radio or the facility to make music but that’s all forgiven; it is of its time, a thing of beauty and I do not expect to see another one anytime soon.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen               1975?

Original Price        £?

Value Today          £10 (0215)

Features                Medium wave AM radio, 6-transistor superhetrodyne receiver, 1½ octave monophonic electronic organ, 50mm speaker, rotary tuning & volume on/off, radio/piano mode selector switch, external microphone (2.5mm jack socket) 

Power req.                    6 x 1.5 v C cells

Dimensions:                   228 x 200 x 105mm

Weight:                          850g

Made (assembled) in:    Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Novelty AM/FM Computer Shaped Radio, 1994

The original IBM PC, on which the majority of the world’s desktop and laptop computers are based, dates back to 1981. Early examples have become highly collectible and can fetch tens of thousands of pounds, and, one day, this might be good news for owners of miniature PC styled radios like this, though its present value is probably only just into double figures…

 

Unfortunately, in common with many late twentieth century novelty radios there is no brand or maker’s name (though there may be a clue to its origins, more about that in a moment), but the point is they were often short-lived promotional items, cheap gifts or givaways and entirely disposable commodities, so establishing the precise date of manufacture can be quite tricky. It is not helped in this case by a slightly bizarre mixture of styling cues and technologies, which means that it could easily come from a year or two either side of that 1994 guessimate.

 

It definitely wasn’t made before 1992, though. This is because the tuner circuit, built into the base or system unit, is manually tuned and uses an LA1800 single chip radio (coupled to a 7 transistor amplifier), and this first appeared in 1992. It also suggests a possible end date of 1998, or thereabouts, as by then most cheap novelty radios were FM only and using a new generation of inexpensive, digitally based receiver chips. These dramatically reduced manufacturing costs and simplified the design by requiring fewer ancillary components and features like push button volume and auto-scan tuning.  

 

The design of the system unit is a bit strange as it clearly shows two 5.23-inch floppy disc drives (and they really were floppy); these had become virtually obsolete by the early 90s, replaced by smaller and more convenient 3.5-inch rigid floppy diskettes. This suggests that the mould for this part, at least, was made some years earlier, or it was designed by someone whose only reference was an old PC. Now we come to the monitor, which looks more recent and closely resembles a chunky, mid 90’s CRT multimedia model, with built-in stereo speakers. The final clue is what’s showing on the fake computer screen. The display, a printed card behind a clear plastic sheet, shows a Windows 3.1 desktop. This operating system first appeared in 1992 and was sold until 1994; Windows 95 replaced it, in August 1995. It’s a fair bet that the manufacturers wanted it to look as up to date as possible and it would have been given a Win 95 desktop makeover as soon as it was released, which brings us back to that 1994-ish manufacturing date.

 

Otherwise the design is fairly straightforward. There are only three controls, the on/off volume thumbwheel is on the right side of the system unit, the tuner thumbwheel is on the left and the right and left buttons on the ridiculously out of scale mouse select AM or FM wavebands. There are a couple of LEDs on the front of the monitor indicating AM or FM reception. The batteries, three AA cells, fit into a compartment with a sliding cover on the base. When new it probably came with a miniature keyboard, though this does not appear to have been attached to the unit in any way so it probably parted company with the radio quite early on.

 

I found this one at a Sunday flea market in Brighton. In was in a pretty grubby state and tangled up with some other junk but the stallholder’s asking price of £1.00 seemed very fair so I didn’t bother haggling. I reckoned there was a 50 - 50 chance of it working; the battery compartment was clean and it didn’t look as though it had been interfered with; as it turned out luck was on my side and it fired up first time. Sound quality is dreadful, not through any fault, but an inevitable consequence of a cheaply designed receiver, small 55mm speaker squirting sound through slots on the side of the monitor screen, built into a case that vibrates and rattles. But that is not what it is all about; it is super cute and all it took to get it looking like new was a quick strip-down, clean out, and a wipe over with a soapy cloth.

 

What Happened To It?

Although there is no branding or model number anywhere on the case there is a design number on the back and a little digging around on the Internet turned up the name Gold Winny Electronics, based in Hong Kong, as the likely maker, but the trail goes cold at that point and aside from a few patent notices for other novelty radios there is no mention of the company after 1996.

 

That’s not the end of the story, though and by the looks of it PC shaped novelty radios with CRT monitors were still being made until relatively recently, judging by what’s on ebay. I have seen several fairly distinct styles, though none of them exactly like this one.  Most of the later examples have the speaker, behind a grille, set into the front of the monitor, instead of a phoney desktop display, which rather spoils the effect. These also tend to be FM only types with autoscan tuning, though I have seen the odd AM/FM model as well.

 

In the world of proper grown up computers the rapid change from CRT to flat screen monitors, which began in the early noughties, probably marked the end of the line for these little radios, and it’s not hard to understand why. The problem with a flat screen is that there is nowhere to put the speaker and flat screens just aren’t as visually interesting, which could be great news for collectors. Clunky old style boxy PCs and CRT monitors are already well on the way to becoming museum pieces and my guess is that in another ten years or so it will be difficult to persuade anyone from a generation who’s only experience of personal computers has been smartphones, tablets and wearable gadgets, that this was how we did things in the bad old days, and hopefully items of retro kitsch, like this neat little radio, will soar in value…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1994

Original Price         £5?

Value Today           £10 (1114)

Features                 AM/FM Tuner, thumbwheel tuner & volume on/off, press-button waveband selection on dummy mouse, LED waveband indicators, 55mm speaker

Power req.                      3 x 1.5v AA cells

Dimensions:                    112 x 87 x 125mm

Weight:                           260g

Made (assembled) in:      China (Hong Kong)

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    6


Dansette Richmond MW/LW Radio, 1967

In the same way that Hoover became the generic name for vacuum cleaners, for a short while, during the nineteen fifties and sixties, the British company Dansette became a household name and a byword for portable record players. Typically they were chunky, brightly coloured, leatherette covered boxes, fitted with the infamous BSR autochanger, and at the risk of annoying their many fans, they mostly sounded pretty dreadful and were notorious for destroying records, but it wasn’t the only product that Dansette made, or at least, put their badge on.

 

The company’s other less well-known speciality was portable radios and there were several types including some classic early transistor models, initially designed and built in Britain. Production eventually moved India and finally ended up in Hong Kong. The Richmond is from the latter group, a dual-band (MW/LW) 8-transistor ‘Empire Made’ receiver and one of the last of the line as by the late sixties Dansette was in steep decline, ironically due to fierce competition from cheap far eastern products

 

The Richmond is one of several models named after English towns (others include Dorchester, Hendon, Medway Oxford and Stanmore) but that is arguably the only connection it has with Britain and it is virtually indistinguishable from countless other small two band radios coming out of Hong Kong at the time. I suspect Dansette’s design input didn’t go much beyond deciding on the colour and position of the badge. In short the only feature of note is the name, but don’t let that put you off, these little radios played their part in the cultural revolution, that led directly to personal stereos and digital media players. The Richmond’s role in this revolution would have been fairly minor, though, they never sold in the same sort of numbers as the record players, but the British connection and English sounding name was a clever marketing ploy and would have proved comforting to concerned parents, and those resistant to buying ‘foreign’ products (though they would have had to be fairly short sighted to miss the ‘Empire Made’ and Hong Kong markings on the box. 

 

There are no especially novel features, though the tuning mechanism is a little unusual on a radio of this type. Most small radios have a simple dial, directly linked to the tuning capacitor but the Richmond has a proper linear scale and moving indicator. There are only two other controls, an on/off volume thumbwheel on the top and a two-position slide switch on the back for selecting Long or Medium wave bands. There’s also a 3.5mm mono jack socket on the side for an earphone and as usual it is switched, so plugging in the earpiece disengages the speaker. It is powered by four 1.5-volt AA cells, which live in a removable holder that sits in the bottom of the case. The circuit board has been hand assembled and in the scheme of things, it is reasonably well made. Supplied accessories include leather slip case and strap and a small plastic pouch for the earphone.

 

This one was a boot sale find and several things caught my eye, including the Dansette name, the condition – it’s exceptionally good – the original box, and the price, it was just 50 pence! For that money I didn’t mind if it worked or not, though I needn’t have worried, it actually came with a set of batteries and I was able to do an on the spot test. Apart from the usual volume control crackle – easily fixed with a squirt of contact cleaner – everything worked, and following a quick wipe over with some furniture polish you would hardly believe it was getting on for 50 years old.

 

What Happened To It?

Dansette was a relatively recent and short-lived brand. It was set up in 1952 by J. A. Margolin, a wel established family firm of cabinet makers and importers of musical instruments that had previously dabbled in the manufacture of radiograms in the 1940s. The first Dansette badged record players appeared the year the brand was registered and the business thrived up until the mid 1960s. However, in spite of the introduction of portable radios and even one mildly successful car radio, it failed to keep up with rapid changes in the music industry, from 45rpm singles to LPs, the growing popularity of the compact cassette, and demand for better sound quality.

 

The company finally went into liquidation in 1969 but the name, and the record players lives on with a thriving band of enthusiasts and collectors, now happy to pay some eye-watering prices for clean, working examples. The market for vintage Dansette radios is much less well developed and as this one shows, it is possible to find some real bargains. For what it is worth, I would seek out the more interesting early British made models, rather that later and, in my view, blander Far Easter models like the Richmond, though if you come across another one for 50 pence it has to be worth a punt.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen               1967

Original Price         £10?

Value Today           £5  (1014)

Features                 Dual band (MW/LW), 8-transistor superhetrodyne tuner, 50mm speaker, on/off volume & tuning controls, 3.5mm mono switched earphone socket

Power req.                    4 x 1.5 volt AA cells

Dimensions:                  150 x 96 x 41mm 

Weight:                         300g

Made (assembled) in:    Hong Kong (Empire Made)

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


Internet Radio S-11 1974

No it is not a typo. This vintage Internet radio dates from the mid 1970s, which is around ten years before the word entered common parlance, and almost 20 years before streamed net radio services on the world-wide web began in earnest. No doubt you have already figured out that it’s not a remarkably ahead of its time Internet radio, just a common or garden dual band (medium and long wave) pocket tranny, marketed under the Internet brand name. Okay, so it’s not any sort of technological milestone, but it’s definitely a talking point, and an interesting collectible, if only for the fact that there’s not many of them around.

 

The radio was made in Hong Kong but the Internet name seems to have originated much closer to home, judging by the warranty card that came with it. This gives details of an English company, called Internet Radio Limited, located at 100 – 102 Beckenham Road, in Beckenham Kent (now adjoining carpet and convenience stores). Virtually nothing else is known of the company, though I have found one of their mail order adverts in the November 1973 issue of Practical Wireless magazine, which shows another of its portable radios, a car radio and a cassette player. I’ll update the page if and when anything else of interest turns up.

 

Apart from the name and the yellow – and I mean bright yellow – case there is not much to distinguish it from other small transistor radios of the time, though the layout is slightly unusual as it’s a landscape, rather than portrait – as it were – orientation, and the dual band tuner was fairly uncommon on cheapie radios like this (it sold for less than £5.00). Inside we find a familiar 6-transistor superhetrodyne circuit, with a longer than usual ferrite antenna (for the LW coverage) and it is powered by the ubiquitous 9 volt PP3 battery. The audio output is fed to a more or less standard issue 55mm (2.25 inch) 8-ohm speaker and there’s a 2.5mm jack on the side for a personal magnetic earpiece, which was included with the radio. There are only three controls, two thumbwheels on the side for on/off volume and tuning (with a rotary tuning scale showing through a window on the front), and a slide switch on the rear for waveband selection. It also comes with a wrist lanyard, finished in the same vivid yellow.  

 

Back to the inside, it’s all discrete components and the PCB looks as though it was hand assembled. There’s the usual film and blobs of wax on and covering the IF coil slugs, audio transformers and windings on the ferrite antenna. It’s never a pretty sight, and sometimes it degrades into a sticky mess, depending how it has been stored over the years, but not in this case; it’s as clean as a whistle. Whilst the seemingly crude manufacturing techniques of Hong Kong radios makers in the 60s and 70s contrast with today’s clinically clean, neat and tidy circuit boards, it never fails to impress me when a 40 or 50 year old radio like this still works when you hook it up to a battery. Even when they don’t, they are often simple to work on and can often be fixed fairly easily, which is more than you can say about most modern gadgets. There were no surprises with the performance, sound quality is thin and tinny, and the tuning is touchy but it’s certainly no worse than most of its contemporaries. Sadly there’s not a lot to listen to on the LW band anymore, and Medium wave isn’t much better but for all that listening to a 70’s oldie through the hiss and crackle is a real nostalgia trip, though not something you necessarily want to wallow in for more than a few minutes at a time…

 

What Happened To It

Until I can find out more about Internet Radio Ltd I cannot say for certain when the S-11 first went on sale, or eventually disappeared but it probably wasn’t around for more than two or three years. It wasn’t the only radio bearing that name, though, and I have found references to a J70 and details of Models 10 and S-100 on the excellent Radiomuseum website. Pocket portables if this ilk never really went away and continue to this day, though over the years they have become rather more sophisticated, with the addition of VHF/FM coverage, more advanced tuning systems and greater use of integrated circuits.

 

This one came to me via an ebay seller in Hungary; I was the only bidder and with shipping it set me back around £20. I wouldn’t normally consider spending that much on what is after all a fairly ordinary 70s pocket radio but this one was in full working order, super clean inside and out and in fantastic overall condition; it actually looks like it has just come out of the box. I have only seen a couple of them on ebay and they were both in pretty rough condition but sold for significantly more than what I paid for this one, so I can’t be the only one who thinks the name, at least, has some curiosity value.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen          1974

Original Price   £4.62

Value Today     £20 0914

Features           2 band (MW/LW) radio, 6 transistor superhetrodyne, 50mm speaker, ferrite antenna, 2.5mm earphone socket, earphone supplied, wrist lanyard

Power req.                    9v PP3 battery

Dimensions:                  111 x 73 x 35mm

Weight:                         202g

Made (assembled) in:    Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Sinclair Micromatic AM Radio MK 1 & 2, 1967

Few mass produced radios from the 1960s promised so much and delivered so little, but I, like countless other school-age kids, and no doubt a fair few dads as well, were happy to part with two or three pounds for a Sinclair Micromatic, enticingly advertised as the ‘world’s smallest radio’ (needless to say it wasn’t, and later on this was changed to ‘Britain’s smallest radio…).

 

Who could fail to be impressed by it? The Micromatic looks superb, especially when pictured next to a matchbox and the fancily worded technical spec made it sound vastly more sophisticated that it actually was. Terms like ‘multi stage’, ‘powerful AGC’ and ‘bandspread at higher frequencies’ were bandied about and the flummery extended to the cosmetics. What appear to be holes beneath the tuning dial turn out to be blanks, but they clearly suggest that it has a built-in speaker. It doesn’t, of course, and to maintain the illusion it was never shown alongside the companion earpiece.

 

The fact is the Micromatic is a very basic 2 or 3 transistor AM radio – more on the differences in a moment – based around a simple superegenerative tuning circuit, which is essentially one step up from a crystal set. The circuit was pared to the bone, highly unstable and one of the reasons it is so small is that the tuning capacitor is actually a compression trimmer. This component was designed to make one-off adjustments and is not well suited to this application; it was also the reason for the impressive sounding (but pointless) ‘bandspread at higher frequencies’ feature, which was actually due to the trimmer’s non-linear characteristics.

 

Clive Sinclair’s marketing budget must have been huge, with ads, for this and his other electronic products and modules, often running over three or four pages in most of the monthly radio and electronics enthusiast magazines, and it also made regular appearances in general interest magazines and newspapers. The Micromatic was available ready built, or for a pound or so less, you could assemble it yourself from a kit, and that is what most of us did. It is impossible to say now how many of those kits actually worked first time. My guess it was fewer than half of them, but to Sinclair’s credit, they could be sent back and fixed, sometimes for free if it hadn’t been too badly botched.

 

The Micromatic went through several revisions during the 4 or 5 years it was on sale but they can be boiled down to the relatively rare Mark 1, and much more common Mark 2 versions. The Mark 1 was essentially a cosmetic re-hash of the earlier Micro 6 and used an almost identical 3-transistor circuit, employing MAT (metal alloy transistors). At the time these were amongst the most advanced transistors available, with high gain and low current consumption, but they were incredibly delicate and would self-destruct if you so much as looked at them. The Mk 1 is characterised by a square-cornered case, the earphone socket is on the left side and doubles up as the on/off switch, when the earphone plugged in. It came with a piezo (crystal) earpiece and uses two tiny ZM312 mercury button cells.

 

The Mk 2 is an even simpler design, and this time the case has rounded edges. It uses two silicon transistors (ME102 or D1425), which have higher gain and are a lot more robust. The earphone socket is on the right side of the case, it uses a marginally better sounding magnetic type earpiece and is powered by slightly larger RM675 button cells. Incidentally, whilst the original mercury cells these radios used are no longer made (mercury is toxic), several near-equivalent and slightly less toxic alkaline button cells are still readily available.

 

Both models suffered from numerous and often critical design flaws; here are just a few of them. The most serious one is the flimsy battery contacts. These are made of thin tin strips, soldered directly to the copper foil on the printed circuit board. The adhesive holding the foil in place is instantly weakened as soon as the soldering iron is applied, no matter how quick you are, and it will tear or detach after only a few battery insertions. Even if it didn’t fail straight away it would corrode and the contacts become intermittent after just a few months. The ferrite antenna and tuning coil is held in place by thin strip of glue. This will eventually weaken as the coil brushes against the sliding battery cover; eventually it works loose, breaking one or more of the fine coil wires. The case is made of a thin and extremely brittle plastic that will not survive even a short drop onto a hard surface. It will often crack around the earphone socket, for no good reason, and the corners and edges are weak and chip easily. The sliding case back rarely stays in place and unless it is removed and inserted very carefully the grooves it slides in break off.

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I was and still am a huge fan of this super-cute, but horribly flawed little radio. As a youngster I saved my pocket money and wages from a paper delivery round and over a period of a couple of years purchased two kits. I only managed to get one of them to work, blaming it on my own lack of skill rather than poor design or faulty components. Years later I learned that Clive Sinclair used low grade and reject transistors in many of his kits so I reckon he still owes me at least 49/6. But I forgive him, and will continue to acquire them, when the price is right, and I currently have five complete ones – all runners -- plus a fair assortment of parts from terminal basket cases.

 

There is not much to say about performance, if you are very close to a strong AM transmitter you might hear something, briefly, but move it, or touch it and it will drift off station with the least provocation. In short, as a radio it’s not much fun to listen to, but that’s not what it’s about. For all of its shortcomings, and it has many of them, it has bags of character. It was British to its bones, and in spite of the liberties Sinclair took with the electronics and marketing spin there is no denying that it is tiny, great fun to build and for a lot of people, an introduction and for some the start of a lifelong interest in electronics.

 

What Happened To It?

Sadly the Micromatic was the last of Sinclair’s kit radios and it seems likely that he was put off making any more by the high return rate, which must have made them relatively uneconomical. Ads for the little radio had stopped appearing by 1972, though production probably wound up a year or two earlier and the last ones were almost certainly old stock. By then it was well past its sell-by date, in fact it was pretty much outdated even before it went on sale with smaller and more sophisticated radios coming out of Japan and Hong Kong several years earlier. To be fair the Micromatic was quite cheap, and the kit version was undoubtedly very popular.

 

Prices on ebay vary dramatically. Junkers are fairly common and usually sell for £10 - £15, depending on the condition. Clean examples that work can go for anywhere between £20 and £50, but the ultimate collectible for Sinclair fans is an unbuilt kit. These are extremely rare and when they do come up, can easily fetch £100 - £150 when they are complete and in mint condition.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen          1967

Original Price   kit 59/6 (£2.97), ready built 79/6 (£3.97)

Value Today     £10 - £50 0614

Features           AM receiver, 550 – 1600KHz, 2/3 transistor regenerative tuner, rotary tuning, ferrite antenna, earphone on/off switch

Power req.                    2 x 1.3v button cell (modern equiv. Mk1: AG3, Mk 2: AG12

Dimensions:                   45 x 33 x 16mm

Weight:                          Mk1 27.3g, Mk2 25.6g

Made (assembled) in:    England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  4


Sinclair Research Z-1 Micro AM In-Ear Radio, 1999

The Sinclair Research Z-1 is not quite the craziest product from the incredibly fertile mind of Sir Clive, but it’s not far off… It’s a tiny radio and like the wonderful Micro 6 and Micromatic radios from almost 40 years previously, it was ambitiously (and erroneously) billed as the ‘world’s smallest’. Fair’s fair, it is tiny, you might even say it’s an early example of wearable technology, designed to fit in the users ear, a bit like a Bluetooth earpiece. The only problem was, for many people, it wouldn’t stay there and had the unfortunate habit of dropping out unless you held it in, but more on its multiple shortcomings in a moment.

 

Technically it is quite clever. It’s an AM only receiver based around a single chip tuner, driving an integral earphone capsule via a simple one-transistor amplifier. There are only two controls, a rotary tuning knob on the back and an on/off slider switch on the side. There’s a space-age flexible wire antenna coming out of the top; it’s powered by a single 1.3 volt SR44 button cell, with a claimed running time of 40 hours. It came with its own smart lozenge shaped carry case and it was very attractively packaged, and priced.  

 

All up weight, including the battery is just 8.5g, which doesn’t sound a lot but the only way it is going to stay in place is if the earphone is firmly wedged into the user’s ear canal, (or the antenna gets tangled up in your hair). There is a thin foam cushion on the earpiece, but it has diameter of the earpiece is 15mm, which I suspect is a fair bit bigger than most people’s ear-holes so even if you manage to cram it in, after a few minutes it becomes incredibly uncomfortable. Incidentally, the foam cover turns to dust after a few years but replacements are very widely available, so it’s not a problem for purist collectors.

 

Now we come to the performance. In short it doesn’t work very well, in fact it’s terrible, and unless you are within spitting distance of the transmitter you won’t hear much besides medium wave mush and buzz. It may not have been too bad back in the late 90s, when a fair number of powerful AM stations were broadcasting, but nowadays you would be very lucky indeed to find anything to listen to. The tuner also happens to be rather touchy and just moving your head slightly, or putting your hand to it – to stop it falling out – makes it drift, and it doesn’t have any sort of volume control, apart from moving your head. Suffice it to say the Z-1 was probably not the best choice for anyone who actually wanted to listen to the radio, but credit where it is due, it does look cute with its little aerial, the selling price of £9.95 wasn’t outrageous and it probably did quite well as a gadget geek’s stocking filler.   

 

What Happened To It?

The Z-1 went on sale in May 1999, just two years after the slightly larger and more sophisticated X1 Button FM Radio. I have been unable to find out how many Z-1s were made or when production stopped but as I recall a few years later they were being sold for only two or three pounds. My guess is that it wasn’t around for very long, even though it was quite widely promoted. However, at first it was only sold by mail order, through Sinclair Research, which by then had become a small holding company, following the break-up of his once fantastically successful computer business, which fell into steep decline in the mid to late eighties. It is hard to say if it was a success or not but it has the distinction of being the last in a long line of very unusual and often innovative Sinclair radios

 

Over the years several Z-1s have passed through my hands, I am fairly sure one was sent to me for review when it first came out but it probably got dropped or pinched soon afterwards. Later, when they were being sold off cheaply, I purchased several for emergency Christmas and birthday presents. This was probably one of them and I found it at the back of a drawer, sadly minus its case and packaging, which would undoubtedly add to its value. They used to be fairly common on ebay and rarely sold for more than £5 to £10 but there are fewer of them nowadays and I wouldn’t mind betting that good examples, in their original packaging, could start to attract some serious bids, so if there’s a Sinclair Z-1 sized gap in your miniature radio collection, don’t wait too long to fill it.  

  


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen         1999

Original Price   £9.95

Value Today     £5  0614

Features           AM receiver, Medium Wave coverage 530 – 1600KHz, single chip (1GS) tuner, rotary tuning, integral earphone, on/off switch, flexible antenna, 40-hour battery life

Power req.                     SR44 1.3v button cell

Dimensions:                   30 x 20 x 25mm (antenna 65mm)

Weight:                          6.5g

Made (assembled) in:    China?

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  5


Hacker Radio, Hunter RP38A, 1970

Although vintage radios made by Hacker have not, as yet, achieved the same sort of widespread recognition and status as those made by Roberts Radio, they are highly rated by collectors. This also means that real bargains can still be found at car boot sales, as the brand simply isn’t that well known. The one pictured here is a case in point, it’s a Hunter RP38A and from the trim and solid teak end panels it is possible to say, with a fair degree of certainty that it is an early example, dating from 1970 or thereabouts (later models had padded, leathercloth panels and a different handle – as you can see it’s easy to get really geeky about these things….).

 

Outwardly it doesn’t look too different from a lot of other seventie’s 3-band AM/FM portables but it has several distinguishing features. Firstly, sound quality is outstanding, thanks in part to the large 200mm (8-inch) elliptical speaker, made by Goodmans. Credit is also due to the well designed, hand assembled circuitry, and the separate amplifier and RF tuner boards. This former is mounted at the bottom of the case, well away from the RF and IF circuitry and it pumps out well over a watt of proper RMS audio power; that’s pretty good going for a battery powered portable radio. Another reason it sounds so good is that it has a set of bass and treble tone controls. They actually work and with a bit of twiddling it is possible to get a rich, mellow sound. It was made in England, which is more remarkable than it appears as at the time the British radio industry had been all but wiped out by far eastern manufacturers. Lastly like Roberts Radio, Hacker Radio had a Royal warrant, and you can be reasonably certain Her Maj (or more likely her minions) didn’t buy any old tat.

 

In design terms there are relatively few surprises, you might even say it is quite old fashioned, even for the 1970s. All of the controls are on the top panel, which has a nicely traditional moving pointer, attached to a complex pulley arrangement, that sweeps the tuning indicator smoothly past nostalgic (for my generation) station names like Hilversum, Strasbourg, Toulouse, Athlone and BBC Home. The case is mostly made of wood, with some leather cloth and plastic trim here and there, and the chassis is metal, so it feels solid and substantial, and quite heavy when the batteries (and there are two of them) are onboard. The high build quality extends to the internals and as you can see from the photo no attempt has been made to miniaturise or skimp on the circuitry. The RF module (to the left of the telescopic aerial) is protected by a clear plastic cover. Most of the IF tuning cans have twin ferrite-slug coils for super-precise adjustment and the majority of the passive components are vastly overrated for the job that they have to do. It is no wonder that many Hacker radios are still with us, and continue to work as well as the day they were made. If, heaven forbid, one should ever go wrong, it could be fixed by any reasonably competent service engineer, probably without having to look at a circuit diagram as it is all laid out so neatly and logically. 

 

As I said earlier, bargains can still be found, and this one set me back £1.50, too cheap in fact to even haggle. To be fair it did look a bit messy, but it was mostly just grime and I could see that it was otherwise complete, and the stallholder was absolutely right when it said that he though it probably still worked. It did, though I later treated it to a thorough case strip-down and clean up, plus a few squirts of contact cleaner on the volume pot and waveband selector switches to sort out the noisy contacts. It performs flawlessly and the only slight downside for modern owners is the fact that it needs two PP9 9-volt batteries that are becoming harder to find, and increasingly expensive. However, there is a cheap and easy fix. It runs happily on a dozen common or garden AA cells. All you need is a pair of 6 x AA holders (around £5.00), which can either be permanently wired in, or if you are a purist, use battery contact adaptor cables (£2 - £3.00 on ebay).

 

What Happened To It?

I won’t go over old ground as I dealt with the history of Hacker radio a while back, in the Mini Herald write-up. Suffice it to say the company wasn’t around for very long, barely two decades. It closed down in the late seventies, thanks to the combination of a factory fire and intense competition from far Eastern manufacturers. The good news is that there are a fair few of them around today, and they make a functional and very pleasing collectible. Prices on ebay vary enormously; there are some wildly optimistic sellers out there pitching late model RP38s at £150 or more but the occasional bargain slips through and this model, in working order, generally sells anywhere from £20 to £50. Car boot and flea market prices tend to be lower but unless the seller has batteries to prove it is working it’s going to be a bit of a gamble. In most cases, though, providing it is all present and correct, getting it working again shouldn’t be too difficult, or expensive. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                     1970

Original Price               £38

Value Today                 £50 0514

Features:                      3-band (MW, LW VHF/FM), internal ferrite antenna (AM), swivel base telescope antenna (VHF), external car aerial socket, treble & bass tone controls, AFC, 200mm elliptical speaker, external DC input (18-volt), headphone socket (phono) 12 transistors (2 x RF, 5 x IF, 5 x AF)

Power req.                    2 x PP9 9-volt battery

Dimensions:                  283 x 215 x 108mm

Weight:                          2.7kg

Made (assembled) in:    England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Henica H-138 AM Radio Lighter Torch, 1981

It’s the early 1980s, there’s a loud explosion, the lights go out; is it a power cut, terrorist attack, nuclear war? Quick, find your way out of the darkened building, check the radio, and have a calming cigarette. Well, I suppose it could happen, and if it did, just think how relieved you would have been to have a Henica H-138 in your pocket… That’s right, it’s another one of those wacky combo gadgets, an AM radio, torch and a lighter, all in one compact, pocket size package. We can only guess at the state of mind of the person who thought this one up...

 

To be fair this was at the tail end of the Cold War and terrorism was an ever-present threat. It was a time of fear and tension and many of us half expected to be blown up at any minute, so this is exactly the sort of thing a latter-day Doomsday Prepper would have wanted to keep about their person. Or maybe it was just a cheap novelty lighter with a built in radio? Who can say, either way it’s definitely not something you see every day, and the world is a poorer place for that.

 

It is shaped like a largish table lighter, but the actual lighter part is one of those small refillable ‘electronic’ jobbies, with a piezo electric sparker and it fits into an oval shaped slot on the top. Also on the top panel is a 3.5mm jack socket, for an earphone, and a hole, through which a small torch bulb – the sort with an integral lens – shines. This has an interesting extra feature, a sliding red filter, the purpose of which remains unknown. I suppose that it could come in handy if you dropped something a darkroom, or maybe it could be used for signalling at night? The radio is AM only and an unexpectedly elaborate design with no less than 9 transistors. It seems hard to justify on such a simple receiver and it’s not as though it’s powering a big or fancy speaker, just a tinny little 40mm type, with no more than average volume and terrible sound quality. In fact the extra circuitry has a significant downside; power consumption is unusually high and it sucks a set of AA cells dry in just a few hours. I suppose that after the big one has gone off there won’t be many radio stations left not that there’s much to listen to on the AM band these days…

 

The on/off volume and tuning thumbwheels are mounted in the right and left hand edges of the case and there’s a small window, showing the numbers on the tuning wheel and a red LED that glows when a station is received on what would be the front panel. Inside it is neatly laid out and build quality is pretty good. There are spring contacts for the two AA cells that sit at right angles to one another and power the radio and torch. The latter is operated by a small slide switch on the top right edge

 

I came across this one recently on ebay and although it was accurately titled and correctly described I was very surprised to be the only bidder and it was mine for just 99 pence. The seller said that it wasn’t working so it was a bit of a punt, and the lighter was absent but it was easily replaced with one from my local pound shop, which is a near perfect fit. The fault turned out to be fairly trivial, just a loose speaker wire. At some point in its career there had been a minor battery leak but it cleaned up easily with no lasting damage to the battery contacts. 

 

What Happened To It?

The date of 1981 is a good, educated guessimate as there is a useful clue to its age on the case. It was made in Hong Kong but it has UK Design Registration number (999505) moulded into the base. A quick trawl of the National Archives website indicates that this particular registration dates to March 1981. Sadly it hasn’t yet been digitised but you can apply to view it in the flesh for free at the National Archives HQ in Kew, should you be so inclined.

 

Apart from that there is very little information on the manufacturer or the H-138, or any indication of how much it originally cost -- as usual any extra details are very welcome. Only a couple of them have been listed on ebay in the last year or so, which suggests that they weren’t around for very long, not many were made, and few of them remain. It is certainly worth more than the 99 pence I paid for this one but how much I cannot say, so I’ve played safe put a figure of £10 on it. I would not be surprised, though, if a really clean example, with its original packaging could sell for two or three times as much, and if, as expected, the lights start going out and the fear of imminent annihilation bestrides the nation it might be worth a lot more -- in whatever passes for money post-apocalypse -- assuming that it comes with a good supply of AA batteries…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen           1981

Original Price    £?

Value Today      £10 0313

Features             9 transistor AM superhetrodyne radio, 40mm speaker, LED tuning indicator, 2.5mm earphone jack, built in torch with sliding red filter, refillable piezo spark gas lighter

Power req.                     2 x AA cell

Dimensions:                   130 x 75 x 24mm

Weight:                          176g

Made (assembled) in:    Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  9


Sinclair Z-30 Amplifier, 1969

Magazine adverts and specs for Sinclair products always made interesting reading and I suspect that a lot of it would be outlawed today for the often highly optimistic claims. But you have to hand it to Sir Clive, his electronic designs were never dull, the ads always seemed plausible, and even though you just knew it was going to end in tears, he persuaded lots of people, including me, to part with their money.

 

The 25 watts RMS output sounded just too good to be true (it was) and the idiosyncratic circuit pushed the components to the limits. It was prone to overheating and thermal runaway, there was no short circuit protection and some said that the only thing it did really well was blowing output transistors. Seasoned users quickly learned to replace the stock components with something more robust.

 

The Z-30 was actually one of Sinclair’s more successful forays into the audio market. It was part of the self-assembly Project 60 system, which appeared between 1969 and 1970. The idea was that you could put together a high-performance system using ready-made modules, for a fraction of the price of comparable off-the-shelf components. In addition to the Z-30 and the later, more powerful Z-50 amps there was the Stereo 60 pre-amp, an Active Filter unit, PZ series power supplies, a Stereo FM tuner and the now extremely rare Q-16 loudspeakers. All you needed was a soldering iron and some basic carpentry and metal bashing skills, to wire up the modules and construct a housing, and you were in business.

 

Needless to say it never quite lived up to the flowery promises, which included ‘worlds lowest distortion Hi-Fi amplifier’, ‘laboratory standard’ and ‘perfection that could not be bettered in its class, no matter how much you spent’... The actuality was that in addition to the transistor zapping Z-30s, the pre-amp had a reputation for poor reliability, and lots of crackle, due to the use of cheap trimmers, instead of proper potentiometers for the volume, tone and balance controls. The performance figures for the Z-30 were another area of contention. The power output of 25 watts RMS was, apparently, theoretically achievable, but anyone driving one at full tilt, at the maximum recommended supply voltage would quickly regret it. To be fair if the amps were run at a lower voltage and not put under too much strain, the notorious Active Filter Unit omitted from the system, the linear trim pots replaced with proper logarithmic potentiometers, and coupled to a set of decent speakers, it didn’t sound too bad; there are even rumours of Z-30 based systems still in daily use. 

 

I managed to destroy at least two Z-30s back in the day and although I cottoned on to the trick of replacing the output trannies with some beefy power transistors and more substantial heat sinks, none of them lasted. I found this one in a box of electronic bits and pieces at a car boot sale a year or two ago and the whole lot cost £5.00. It is one of the earliest versions with the extra fragile MP8112 output transistors. They measure OK on my multimeter but I haven’t the courage to power it up to see if it still works; it would be a shame to blow them now, after all these years.

 

What Happened To It?

The Z-30 went through several revisions, mostly around the output stage, but it was superseded by the more powerful, but equally touchy Z-50 in 1970. Sinclair obviously made a lot of Z-30s, though, and they were still being advertised for sale in electronics mags as late as 1974. Project 60 was phased out and replaced by Project 605 in 1972, which continued the home-build theme. Audio products remained in the company’s line up until the late 70s but by then Sinclair’s was concentrating on digital electronics and the age of calculators, watches and computers had begun.

 

You don’t have to look very far to find Z-30s and Z-50s, they appear fairly regularly on ebay, though inevitably there are fewer of them coming up for sale as the years go by. Prices hold up well, and good examples often go for £15 to £20, more if sold in pairs, or with other Project 60 modules, and prepare to dig even deeper if they are in working condition and come with any sort of original packing or documentation. Sinclair products can be a good investment, and assembling a complete Project 60 system, with some Q-16 speakers would be an interesting, and possibly quite lucrative challenge. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                      1969

Original Price                £4.47 (89/6 or £4 9s 6d)

Value Today                  £20 0214

Features                        Power output 25 watts RMS (30W peak) into 8 ohms, frequency response 30 – 300kHz +/- 1db, input sensitivity 250mV into 100k, distortion 0.025, Class AB output, 9 transistors (2 x MP8112 2 x ME4102, 2 x ME4101, 2 x ME 0411, ME6102)

Power req.                     8 – 35VDC

Dimensions:                   75 x 55 x 12mm

Weight:                          322g

Made (assembled) in:    UK?

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


AKG K290 Surround Headphones, 1995

Nowadays we take multi-channel surround sound pretty much for granted. It has evolved into a mature and refined technology, but it wasn’t a quick or easy process and some pretty weird things happened along the way. The AKG K290 4-channel surround sound headphones were by no means the strangest development in surround sound (my vote for that goes to Holophonics – another story for another day), but they’re up there with the best of them.

 

The idea was simple enough; traditional surround sound works by positioning four or more speakers around the listener, and driven by a multi-channel source, they produce an immersive and hopefully realistic three-dimensional soundscape to accompany movies shown in the home. For the most part it works quite well but there are a few drawbacks. To begin with, in the confines of a typical living room it is difficult to achieve a large soundfield and there’s usually a fairly tightly focused ‘sweet spot’ where only one or two people can enjoy the full spatial effect. Second, a big system on full song can be very loud and quite annoying to anyone not actually involved in watching the movie – in short it’s not very neighbour friendly, then there’s all the wires and boxes, which can be a nightmare to set up, position, and trip over.

 

On the face of it the AKG 290s appear to be the perfect solution. The sweet spot is in and around the listener’s head, there’s little in the way of sound leakage, and there’s just the one cable – well, that’s not strictly true, but we’ll come to that in a moment. Inside each ‘can’ there are two high performance drivers, independently connected to the right and left front and rear channels. For obvious reasons there has to be compromises; for example there is no independent centre dialogue channel but there is a provision for a pseudo centre channel, and there’s no sub-woofer, but the drivers have a wide response that dips down into the bass region.

 

So far so good but the question is, how do you plug a pair of four channel headphones into a surround sound source? AKG's answer is  a custom Switchbox. This has spring connectors on the back for five channels (front right and left, rear R + L & mono centre front). Inside the box there’s some simple switching and filtering but basically its job is to pipe all the channels into a pair of 9-pin min DIN sockets. The outfit also comes with a 9-pin to standard/3.5mm Jack adaptor, so they can be used with a regular stereo source, the sound being fed to both sets of drivers.

 

Inside each can the two 30mm drivers are mounted horizontally and angled inwards, to point directly at the wearer’s ear canal. The cushioned pads cover the whole ear, providing good sound insulation, and there’s plenty of adjustment for a comfy fit, though they can get a bit hot and sweaty after a few  minutes. For such substantial looking phones they’re suprisingly light, and the generous 6 metres of cable means the switchbox can be conveniently sited well out of the way. 

 

It’s still looking quite good, so the next question is why didn’t they, or at least the concept, catch on? Price was a factor and when they went on sale in 1996 the headphones on their own cost a whopping £150. That’s peanuts by current standards but it was a small fortune back then, and pitched them at the top end of the semi-pro headphone market, where there was some seriously good models on offer. That wasn’t the end of the story, though, and to get the surround sound effect you had to shell out a further £100 for the Switchbox, which quite frankly was a rip off as inside all there was were a few passive components (resistors and capacitors), a couple of switches and a couple of plugs. Together they couldn’t have cost more than £10.00, if that. The answer to the second part of the question is even simpler; the reason we’re not all walking around with surround sound headphones is that they didn’t work very well. Here’s a snippet from my review of the K290s, written in February 1996 for Home Cinema magazine:

 

‘....specific surround effects that I know back to front and inside out, that normally leap out and demand the listener’s attention, remained stubbornly locked into the soundfield. No amount of messing around with front-rear balance, delay times or even cable-swapping had any effect. Centre-channel dialogue was reasonably well resolved, though it seemed to come from above, rather than from in front. ...An interesting idea but in the end it has to be said that you can get better stereo phones cheaper, and surround sound is barely perceptible’.

 

To be fair the headphones I tested, and the ones featured here, were early production samples but other reviews tended to confirm my findings and the notion that it is difficult, if not impossible, to create a convincing spatial soundfield through headphones, no matter how many drivers or fancy processing is involved. It’s always going to be a problem with headphones, which place the sound firmly inside the listener’s head; open backed headphones produce a slightly wider image but they can never match the breath and depth of sound coming from speakers sited a metre or two from the listener, a beefy sub-woofer and a centre channel speaker behind the or below the screen.

 

What Happened To It?

AKG (Akustische und Kino-Geräte or acoustic and cinema equipment), founded in Vienna in 1947 and still going strong under the US ownership of Harman International, didn’t keep the K290’s in production for very long, probably no more than a year or two. Mixed reviews and the high selling price didn’t do them any favours but this was also when proper speaker based home cinema and surround was taking off in a big way. For the most part watching a movie at home it is a communal experience to be enjoyed at max volume, with the sub turned up to 12, and sod the neighbours!

  

For some reason no one asked for these K290s to be returned after the review so they ended up in my desk drawer and later my garage , where they remained until recently. They still sound pretty good in stereo mode, though things have moved on and modern mid-priced cans have a noticeably fuller and cleaner sound, and better fitting earpads. I have resisted the temptation to hook them up to a surround source – there are not enough hours in the day – but I can be reasonably sure they are no better now than they were back then.

 

K290s appear on ebay from time to time and my guess is there is a small market for them amongst collectors of vintage audio equipment. There are not enough of them though to get a handle on prices but on their own the few I have seen went for at least £50, and one with a switchbox sold recently for £85. Should you stumble across a pair for less I would snap them up; they might not be in the classic hi-fi equipment category but they played a part, albeit a small one, in the history of home cinema and but for the laws of physics and psychoacoustics, they might even have worked…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                      1995

Original Price                £250

Value Today                  £50 1213

Features                        2-drivers per can, range 20 – 20,000Hz, sensitivity 92db/mW, SPL120dB, 150 ohm impedance, optional dedicated switcher box with impedance matching, 6-metres cable

Power req.                     n/a

Dimensions:                   Headphone 105 x 60mm

Weight:                          270g

Made (assembled) in:    Austria

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Cartex TX-160 Multiband Radio, 1980

But for a strange turn of events in the late 1970s and early 80s it is unlikely that this radio would ever have seen the light of day in the UK for the simple reason that two out of the three wavebands it covers, carry no broadcast stations. You might have heard the odd Ham radio enthusiast and an occasional burst from Air Traffic Control, provided you were within a few kilometres of an airport, but otherwise, all you could hope to hear would be a lot of mush, squawks and bleeps.

 

Over in the USA, which was one of the intended markets for the Cartex TX-160 -- and countless clones of the same model -- the bands would have been a lot busier. There was plenty to listen to, including weather information, public services (police, fire etc), TV sound channels and Citizen’s Band (CB) Radio. The latter is only reason it went on sale in the UK, and for a while, it sold fairly well.

 

Back in the 1970s Citizen’s Band Radio in the UK grew from some illicit two-way radio fun, enjoyed by a handful of truckers and motorists, to a major underground cult and then into a mainstream consumer technology, until, inevitably, it disappeared up its own naffness.

 

Before CB was finally sanitised and legalised in 1981 the early pioneers or ‘Breakers’ used equipment smuggled from the US and a handful of European countries where it was tolerated. At that time the use of two-way radios in the UK, of any sort, was strictly regulated by the Post Office (known at the time as 'Buzby' after a cartoon character used in PO adverts). To use one you needed a licence or authorisation, or be a member of the emergency services, a Government employee or in the armed forces.

 

Initially the small number of CB transceivers (transmitter/receivers) coming into the country went largely unnoticed but that didn’t last.  American CB operates on the Short Wave band on a set of frequencies around 27MHz, using amplitude modulation (AM). Unfortunately the CB channels overlapped frequencies legitimately used by the radio control fraternity, who's models tended to crash whenever CBers were in the vicinity. Some CB users also drew attention to themselves by using linear amplifiers or ‘burners’ which greatly increased the transmitter output power of their ‘rigs’. Most burners were fairly crude and generated a lot of interference that could be picked up on nearby TVs, and, so it was claimed (though a lot of this was anecdotal), hospital equipment, aircraft landing systems and emergency services. As the CB fad took hold pressure from legitimate and licensed users of two-way radio and radio control forced the authorities to clamp down on illegal CB. Eventually, after a short campaign it was begrudgingly legalised, and the Government introduced a watered down system using portion of the 27MHz band well away from the radio control channels and with frequency modulation (FM), which, it was hoped, would avoid problems with interference.   

 

That brings us back to the Cartex TX-160, which appeared at the height of the illegal CB boom. It was specifically aimed at wannabe breakers, those who wanted to get in on the fun, but either couldn’t afford, were unable to get hold of, or didn’t want to take the risk of using outlawed equipment. It covered the whole of the 27MHz AM CB band, which is split into 40 channels, but this is where it all goes horribly wrong. AM CB channel frequencies are precisely defined and separated and most CB transceivers use sophisticated phase-lock loop (PLL) circuitry to tune them in. The TX-160 uses a fairly run of the mill superhetrodyne tuner, which is simply not capable of discriminating between adjacent channels. The telescopic aerial doesn’t help either; it is short, untuned and not well suited to picking up signals on the short wave band. In other words it’s not very good for listening to CB channels, especially in towns where multiple channels are likely to be in use at the same time, or someone nearby is using a burner. As I am sure many owners discovered, it was just about okay for listening to broadcast stations on the VHF FM band, but where’s the fun in that…?

 

It probably wasn’t too bad out in the sticks where CB populations tended to be much smaller and widely separated. This would have made it handy for monitoring and it has a Squelch control, for cutting out the background hiss when a channel is not being used. It was also relatively cheap, selling for between £10 and £15, or a fraction of the cost of a proper rig. It is styled like a walkie-talkie and at a distance it looked quite imposing so they were popular with youngsters, but its days were numbered.

 

What Happened To It?

The legalisation of 27MHz FM CB almost certainly killed sales of this radio stone dead. It was hopeless as a domestic radio, no die-hard AM CBer would have touched it with a bargepole, and for those that wanted to get their voices heard over the airwaves, FM CB gave them the means. However, as most of them found out, legal CB turned out to be a major let down, and virtually unusable, with poor range and channels swamped with sweary kids and distorted music.

 

During its brief outing in the UK market numerous badged variants of this radio were sold and if the number of them appearing on ebay is anything to go by there are still a fair few of them around today. It helps that they were sturdily built and perfectly capable of surviving a few decades in a loft or garage. That’s probably where this one had been kept, before I cam across it at a car boot sale a couple of years ago. It was quite tatty and I was unable to check if it worked or not, but the one pound asking price seemed fair. As it turned out all it needed was a clean up, and were I disposed to put it on ebay it might make £10 to £15, perhaps twice that much if it was in mint condition and with its original box, but any more would be pushing it. It’s not that rare, or interesting and there’s still not much to listen to on two of those wavebands…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                     1980

Original Price               £15

Value Today                 £10 1213

Features                        AM/FM, 3 –wave band (‘Air,Weather,Public/TV, FM/CB’). 14 transistor superhetrodyne, 7-section 700mm telescopic aerial, tuning, volume & squelch controls, earphone & external power jacks, 80mm speaker 

Power req.                   4 x 1.5v AA cells

Dimensions:                 258 x 95 x 54mm

Weight:                        520g

Made (assembled) in:   Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5


Seiko T001-5019 James Bond TV Watch, 1983

In an attempt to head off angry emails from pernickety James Bond fans, I have to say straight away that the Seiko T001-5019 TV Watch isn’t the exact same model that first appeared in ‘Q’s’ workshop, and in later scenes on Mr Bond’s wrist in the movie Octopussy. 

 

The one  that is seen on the screen was almost certainly a one-off stage prop, possibly even a prototype, provided by Seiko. This is the production version, outwardly very similar to the movie watch and sold as the Seiko TV Watch; but it will be forever associated with Bond, Octopussy, and later appearances, including one worn by Tom Hanks, in the 1987 movie Dragnet.

 

Seiko’s TV Watch differs from the Bond watch in several respects. Firstly, thanks to some movie magic the one in Octopussy has a bright colour display. In actuality, back in the early 1980s tiny (28mm) colour LCD screens were still several years away from volume production; the watch sold in the shops sports a rather dull, non-backlit grey/blue monochrome screen. Second, the movie watch appears to be a stand-alone device, with a built in speaker. In reality there is a fairly thick cable that connects the watch to a companion tuner/screen driver module, and you have to plug in a pair of headphones if you want to hear the TV sound. But don’t get me wrong; back in 1983 even this two-box design was an astounding feat of electronics and engineering. In 1984 it even made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s smallest TV, though that was open to debate. It’s also yet more proof; not that it is needed, that there really is nothing new under the Sun. There’s a definite sense of deja-vu, with the current buzz over ‘wearable technology’ and ‘smart watches’; it was old hat more than thirty years ago, and arguably long before that...

 

Sadly these days this watch is pretty much useless, at least as far as watching TV is concerned, but it still tells the time. It does work though, and the radio sounds great, but there are two fundamental problems with the TV. The first is the tuner, which was designed for analogue broadcasts. Even if some analogue TV stations were still operating it wouldn’t be much use in Europe as this model only displays 525-line NTSC formatted signals. Apparently a 625-line PAL model was developed and it may even have gone on sale for a short time, but if they exist they must be extremely rare. Not that the NTSC model is that common; it was only on the market for a couple of years and virtually disappeared from sight by 1984, probably due to the high selling price in the US of around $500. I also suspect that potential owners may have put off buying one after they saw the fairly disappointing TV display in the flesh.  

  

And so to the customary guided tour. The watch part has a narrow LCD located above the video screen. It displays time and date and as an added bonus there are basic alarm and stopwatch functions as well. Two buttons on the left and one on the right side of the case operate the watch functions. This was pretty much standard fare for LCD watches in the 1980s and there’s really not much to add, apart from the fact that it is housed in a rather nifty looking stainless steel case, with a stylish metal (also stainless steel) strap. In the top photo you may have noticed a row of small metal dots just above the watch display. They are contacts for the connecting lead, which clips on to the case. The other end plugs into a miniature, round 8-pin EIAJ socket on the top of the tuner unit. This is about the size of a small transistor radio, with two slide switches on the top for power on/off and mono/stereo (in radio mode) and video on/off (in TV mode). There’s also a thumbwheel for tuning and this drives a pointer that moves across a scale marked with both FM/VHF and UHF TV and radio channels. The rest of the controls are on the left side. There are two slide switches for selecting TV or Radio operation, and TV band select (VHF high/low band and UHF). Above that’s there’s a rotary volume control and on the bottom left hand side there’s a socket for an optional mains adaptor. Power for the tuner and video screen is provided by a pair of 1.5 volt AA cells, which will keep the TV running for around 4 – 5 hours.

 

There is no video input, external aerial or aerial socket (a real pain – more on that in a moment), instead the headphone cable acts as the antenna. Needless to say you would have needed to be fairly close to a transmitter, and not move around too much to get any sort of picture. The reason the lack of an aerial socket is a nuisance is that if had one it would be a relatively simple matter to get an image on the screen by plugging it into a NTSC VCR or DVD with an RF output. As it happens I have a multi-standard/standard converting VCR that can output a pure NTSC-M RF signal. I’ve also cobbled up a Y-cable patch jack lead that connects between the tuner and the headphones but to date, as you can see, the results have been pretty awful, mostly wavy lines and a very brief, wobbly image (but quite good sound). I have found plans on the web for an adaptor box with a video input that you can plug the watch into. Hopefully I will get around to building it one day and if it works out I will update the images.      

 

What Happened To It?

I first encountered the wristwatch TV that was to evolve into the T001-5019 in August 1982. I can be fairly precise about the date because I still have original press release photographs and a copy of the October 1982 issue of Next… magazine, which I was editing at the time, and where my news item on the watch appeared.

 

The preview model was badged Suwa Seikosha and the tuner module had a slightly different top but otherwise it was the same watch and the only things I got wrong were the price, which I speculated would be around £200, and a UK launch in 1983. As far as I am aware it was never officially marketed in this country.

 

Needless to say wristwatch TVs never really caught on and whilst I vaguely recall several other attempts by Japanese companies to generate interest in the concept, none of them made it into the shops. More affordable pocket-size portable TVs with larger and more watchable LCD screens did, however, achieve some success throughout the 80’s and 90s. They were always a bit disappointing, though, and were hobbled by the need to be fairly close to a transmitter, and their unquenchable thirst for batteries. It took another 15 years, and the arrival of the smartphone and mobile broadband to make TV and video on the move a practical reality, and now, with tech companies falling over themselves to market smart watches.

 

Seiko TV Watches appear on ebay every so often and almost always from sellers in the US, which is where this one came from. It is in near mint condition, complete with the original box and accessories and is in full working order. I have been after one for a couple of years but until recently prices have routinely been north of £500, which is way more than I am prepared to pay. Somehow this one slipped past the normally vigilant and highly competitive Bond memorabilia and watch collectors, Lady Luck was smiling on me and I snagged it for just under £100, plus shipping, Customs duty and VAT. In recent weeks one sold for £95, but this was without the all-important connecting cable and in a questionable state of repair. Another, in similar condition to mine went for £300, and at the time of writing a highly optimistic seller had one for a Buy It Now price of £1,200... What you can take away from this is that they cost as much (or as little) as anyone is prepared to pay and in the end finding one for a good price is down to nothing more complicated than luck, timing and persistence.


GIZMO GUIDE (Manual)

First seen                      1983

Original Price                £450

Value Today                  £300 - £1000 1013

Features                        Watch: LCD display, time, date, stopwatch & alarm functions, steel bracelet. TV display: 28mm (1.2-in) monochrome, non-backlit LCD, 31.9k pixels, 10 grey levels, variable contrast. Tuner: stereo FM radio. NTSC-only, VHF (low & high bands) & UHF channels 2 – 83. Accessories: leather pouch for tuner, stereo headphones, watch connector lead, extra bracelet links

Power req.                    Watch: 1 x SR920W button cell. Tuner: 2 x 1.5volt AA Cells

Dimensions:                  Watch: (ex strap) 40 x 50 x 10mm. Tuner: 125 x 75 x 20mm

Weight:                         Watch: 87.5g. Tuner: 186g

Made in:                        Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Coke Bottle AM Radio, 1971

Coca-Cola is one of those iconic brands that seems to have been around forever. In fact it goes back more than 125 years, to 1888, and a good part of the company’s survival, and continued success, can be put down to some very clever marketing and promotion. Coca-Cola has never confined itself to traditional advertising media and promotional fripperies. Over the years the famous logo has appeared on a vast range of non-fizzy drink related paraphernalia, spawning a thriving collector’s market in memorabilia, and this includes radios in the shape of Coke bottles. Promotional radios are nothing new but Coca-Cola have been doing it longer than most and it may surprise you to learn that the earliest examples date back to the 1930s.

 

This particular Coke bottle radio is a good deal later than that, almost certainly early to mid seventies, judging by the country of manufacture (Hong Kong), small design points, like the metal bottle cap, the electronic components and features such as AM-only reception. However, like the ‘real thing’, classic 8oz Coke bottle radios have changed relatively little over the years, but obviously, when it comes to collecting, the older and consequently, rarer they are, the better. 

 

Operation is really simple, you turn it on and adjust the volume by twisting the top (the cap and transparent section) and tune it in by rotating the base. It is powered by a pair of 1.5volt AA cells, and these fit into a holder, which is access by splitting the case. Apart from the shape of the printed circuit board the radio is a fairly conventional design. It’s a 6-transistor, 3-stage superhet tuner and audio amp, driving a 48mm speaker set into the side of the case. The short ferrite aerial means it’s not especially sensitive, and it is quite directional; needless to say sound quality is nothing to write home about. Okay, let’s be honest, it’s dreadful and like most novelty radios, it is more decorative than functional, but that’s part of the fun. I cannot be sure of the original selling price --  it wasn’t much, and a lot of them were probably given away as promotional items -- most owner’s performance expectations wouldn’t have been very high.  

 

I came across this example at one of the regular giant antique and collector’s fairs held at the South Of England Showground and it was one of two in a box of old radios. The other one was a much later model (made in China), in very poor condition, way beyond restoration. I managed to haggle the price of the pair down to £8.00, which seemed fair to both parties, especially as the seller couldn’t say whether it was working or not as the battery holder showed signs of corrosion. Normally I am wary of radios with this type of damage, the chemicals from leaky batteries play havoc with everything they come into contact with, metal and plastic, but this one didn’t seem too bad. As it turned out only the battery contacts had been eaten away and they were easily replaced with the fittings from a modern AA battery holder. Other than that the radio was fine and it manages to pull in half a dozen stations between the South London Medium Wave mush. After a quick wipe over and a few blasts from the air duster to remove the resident spiders it scrubbed up really well with the plastic parts looking almost like new and no serious scratches. 

 

What Happened To It?

Coke bottle transistor radios of one sort or another appear to have been in fairly regular production since the sixties though I suspect that a high proportion of them probably weren’t officially endorsed by Coca-Cola. Those that are, like this one, should be clearly marked on the base (‘Made under authorization of the Coca-Cola Company’), though I wouldn’t put it past the fakers to copy that as well.

 

Suffice it to say Coke bottle radios are by no means rare, but they can fetch quite fancy prices on ebay, especially if they come with the original box. Every so often some spirited bidding pushes one up to £50 or more but that does seem over the top as the same day, or week, usually sees one or two identical models selling for half as much, and sometimes less. However, as always it pays to be careful and the older models are much more desirable. Fortunately they are usually quite easy to spot as anything produced before the late seventies will usually be AM only, and made in Hong Kong; AM/FM reception and those made in China and Taiwan are normally from the eighties and nineties onwards. The ultimate Coke bottle radio, though, is one of those very early models, like the Crosley165 from 1933. They are now incredibly rare, worth hundreds of pounds to collectors, and you needn’t worry about mistaking one for a modern version; they are bright red, almost 55cm (23 inches) tall and stuffed full of valves.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                       1970

Original Price                 £?

Value Today                   £25 0913

Features                         6-transistor AM superhetrodyne receiver, 48mm speaker, on/off volume (bottle cap) tuning (bottle base)

Power req.                     2 x 1.5volt AA Cell

Dimensions:                   200 x 60mm

Weight:                          192g

Made in:                         Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):   6


Hacker Radio Mini-Herald RP17, 1962

Mention1960s transistor radios to most people and they conjure up images of cheap Japanese and Hong Kong made pocket portables, clasped to teenager’s ears, listening to offshore pirates or Radio Luxembourg but that wasn’t the whole story. The 1960s was a golden age for small British companies making the sort of radios -- or rather wireless receivers -- bought by those teenager’s mums and dads.

 

These were a world away from tinny plastic portables; designed to appeal to an older and more mature consumer, looking for radios with a bit more substance and decent sound quality. In other words they wanted something a bit more classy and traditional, ideally craftsman-built and from the outside at least, not too scary looking, and preferably similar to the kind of chunky portable valve radios that had been around for more than a decade and they were familiar with.

 

Most of those manufacturers seeking to exploit this market didn’t last much beyond the end of the decade as makers in the Far-East rapidly expanded into the larger form factors and inevitably, undercut prices of home-grown products, using cheaper materials and benefiting from lower labour costs. There were exceptions, though, and Roberts Radio, who is still with us, is the one notable example. Another highly rated brand from the era was Hacker Radio, based in Maidenhead, and even though it ceased production in the late seventies its products were made to last and a surprisingly large number have survived to become potential collector’s items.

 

The Mini-Herald RP17 featured here was a fairly short-lived design from around 1962. It was a development of Hacker’s first radio, the Herald RP10, smaller but with a similar specification that includes Medium and Long Wave coverage, a simple 3-stage superhetrodyne tuner and a separate amplifier module, pushing out a healthy watt of so of sound through an elliptical speaker. The case is made entirely of wood, covered in a padded leatherette or Rexene material and available in some quite racy colour combinations. Power comes from a pair of 9volt PP7 batteries, which sit either side of the amplifier board. On the top there are two knobs, one for tuning, which moves a pointer across a back-painted scale, and a volume control. In the middle of the top panel there’s a bank of three push buttons for selecting MW, LW and power off. There are two sockets; the one on the left for ear or headphones and the one on the right is for an external aerial, for in-car use. The case is straddled by a stitched leather carry handle with plated brass trims and it has a removable back panel – to access the batteries – with a shiny brass locking knob.

 

As you may be able to see from the photograph the standard of construction and materials is very high indeed, with the tuner circuit board and tuning mechanism securely bolted to a lightweight but sturdy aluminium chassis. The amplifier module is bolted to the case bottom and in another clear sign of high-end design and attention to detail, is connected to the tuner board and speaker by plug connections.

 

This one came from ebay and although clearly described as non-working and in need of a good clean up I was still surprised to secure it for my modest bid of £5.50. It scrubbed up really well and cosmetically it is in excellent shape with no marks or tears on the covering, clean brassware and only a couple of small marks on the tuning scale. This model has a reputation for dicky transistors in the RF stages but I struck lucky. There were only two minor faults, a broken wire on one of the coils on the ferrite aerial rod and a leaky electrolytic capacitor on the amplifier board. I would normally swap out all of the electrolytics on a 50-year old radio but amazingly only one showed any signs of old age. The others, which will undoubted fail one day, all checked out so I decided to leave well alone. With the new cap in place and the wire repaired the radio came alive, producing a wonderfully rich, treacly-smooth sound, thanks in large part to the big speaker and padded wooden box. It’s just a shame there’s so little to listen to on Medium Wave these days otherwise it would probably be in daily use.

 

What Happened To It?

Two brothers, Ron and Arthur Hacker, set up the company in 1959. They had a long track record in the electronics industry and along with their father, had founded Dynatron in the 1920s. This was taken over by Ekco in the mid fifties, prompting the brothers to set up their own business. Production in the Maidenhead factory began in 1960 and during the following decade and a half it produced an impressively large range of technically unadventurous, but superior sounding, and surprisingly expensive, luxury models. Such was their reputation for quality and performance that Hacker Radio was granted two Royal Warrants. Sadly the company ran into difficulties in the mid seventies, Receivers took over in1977 and following a couple of unsuccessful rescue attempts, a move to a new factory in Bournemouth and a fire, the brand was finally sold to Roberts Radio and it quietly disappeared.   

 

Hacker Radios are well worth seeking out and bargains may still be found because they don’t have the brand recognition of Roberts Radio, for the moment at least. Thanks to the build quality and high selling price they’ve tended to be well looked after and there are still plenty of them around. Non specialist collectors are becoming increasingly aware of them, though, and clean ones on ebay can attract determined bidding but occasionally, one slips through the net, or avoided due to faults, but they should be an easy fix for anyone familiar with basic electronics. Nevertheless, your best chances of finding a Hacker at a sensible price is away from the online auctions, at car boot sales, antique markets and charity shops, just don’t get in my way!  


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                       1962

Original Price                 £18 7s 6d (£7.37)

Value Today                   £30 0913

Features                         MW/LW coverage, 7 transistor superhetrodyne (3 x AF117, 2 x OC81, 2 x AC127), 200mm (8-inch) internal ferrite antenna, 150 x 75mm (6 x 4-inch) elliptical speaker, external antenna and headphone sockets

Power req.                     2 x 9volt PP7

Dimensions:                   230 x 155 x 97mm

Weight:                          1.7kg

Made in:                        Maidenhead, England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Sinclair System 2000 Mk 2 Stereo Amplifier, 1970

Whilst Clive Sinclair is mostly known for his often innovative, frequently quirky and sometimes downright wacky gadgets, it’s easy to forget that in amongst the world’s first, smallest or cheapest radios, pocket TVs, electronic watches, calculators and computers there were a few mainstream products. System 2000 certainly qualifies as one of them; it was an integrated hi-fi system, comprising matching amplifier, FM tuner and speakers. It was a reasonably determined attempt to break into the middle ranks of the growing Hi-Fi market, which at that time was dominated by a small handful of established brands. Sinclair had already dabbled with audio systems, producing a succession of amplifier modules, but these were mainly aimed at hobbyists, prepared to find or make their own enclosures and do a bit of soldering; System 2000 was built and ready to use straight out of the box, but as usual the advertising puff promised rather more than was delivered.

 

System 2000 was billed as a 35-watt stereo amp, but omitted to specify what sort of watts they were, or that it was 35-watts in total, i.e. 17.5-watts per channel. The practical reality was the output, on a good day with the wind in the right direction, and assuming it was working, was probably closer to 8 -10 watts rms per channel. There were contemporary reports – perfectly normal for Sinclair products -- of faults and failures on first use. The power output transistors and push-button switches appear to have been unusually delicate and there were some mixed performance reviews, though to be fair most of them centred on the quirky FM tuner. On the plus side, the sleek aluminium case and crisp, minimalist cosmetics were ten years ahead of their time; for the most part the styling of late sixties audio equipment was still grimly stuck in the 1950s. The electronics were cutting edge, using advanced circuitry – especially in the tuner – and a new generation of silicon transistors operating at or close to their design limits, which may also help explain the higher than normal failure rate.     

 

This System 2000 amp came from ebay, it was labelled as non-working but in good shape, apart from some discolouration on the knobs. There was obviously something good on telly that day because there were only two bids, and my rival can’t have been very interested as it cost me just £15.00. I have seen non-runners selling for as much as £50 in the past. The mains fuse had blown so after replacing it, checking for shorts and finding none, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was working. The volume and balance pots were a bit scratchy, despite a generous application of switch cleaner, so they would have to be replaced eventually. However, I take the blown fuse as a warning, didn’t leave it powered up for long and won’t be bothering it with mains voltages very often. Apart from anything else it’s too much like hard work to hook up as it uses now virtually defunct DIN connectors for the inputs and speaker connections and finding and wiring up DIN plugs is not my idea of fun.

 

What Happened To It?

The System 2000 featured here is the later Mk 2 version, probably dating from 1970 or 71. As far as I can make out the main difference between the Mk 1 and 2 is the use of BD187 power output transistors, bolted to a heavy duty heat sink on the inside of the case. These seem to have replaced a set of big all-metal TO-3 types, screwed to the back panel. Unfortunately there’s not much in the way of documentation on this product, but looking through the Sinclair ads in electronics magazines of the day (Practical Electronics and Practical Wireless), it seems that System 2000 disappeared from view in early 1973, to be briefly replaced by System 3000, after which Sinclair moved back to home-build products, with Project 60 modules and the IC10 and IC12 integrated circuit audio amps. 

 

Complete System 2000’s can command very respectable prices from collectors, particular if they come with the original circular speakers. When they do come up ebay, which is probably no more than a couple of times a year, they can go for several hundred pounds. Separate component prices vary a lot and most of the one’s I’ve seen are sold as not working. Putting together a working system is going to take a fair amount of patience and effort. It’s certainly not worth pursuing if you’re looking for a high quality hi-fi system, it’s soundly beaten on almost every level by one of today’s cheapie audio systems, but like almost all Sinclair products from the 60s and 70s, performance is not a consideration, though you really had to be there to appreciate what that means…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                      1968

Original Price                29 guineas (£31.48)

Value Today                  £25 - £50 0813 

Features                        22-transistor stereo amplifier, 10-watts rms per channel, low-cut filter, bass, treble, balance volume,  2 x line level and 2 x phono inputs (5-pin DINs), switched mains out

Power req.                    120/240 VAC

Dimensions:                   305 x 180 x 52mm

Weight:                          1.9kg

Made in:                        England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Roberts R200 MW/LW Radio (S1), 1960

Roberts has to be one of the most iconic brands in the portable radio business and this British company has been making them since 1932. Along the way it has picked up numerous Royal Warrants and awards, a reputation for solid, reliable designs, and very decent performance. Rarely at the technological cutting edge, Roberts have managed to keep up with the times and is still going strong, which is pretty good going these days.

 

The R200, which we are about to look at, was in production from 1960 to 1964. I’m dating this Series 1 model at 1960, due to its serial number (29991), which predates a change to the Series 2 model (serial number 36546) in 1961, and Series 3 in 1962 (serial no 70001 onwards).

 

From that you may assume, quite correctly, that there is a lot of information available on Roberts radios. Vintage models are very collectable with a bit of a geeky sub-culture surrounding their design, repair and restoration. It is a testament to their popularity that Roberts, and numerous others, continue to churn out vast numbers of retro, repro, lookalikes and plain old fakes, based on sixties and seventies classic models like the R200, R300 and R500. In other words buyer beware; many of the supposedly vintage Roberts Radios you might come across in antique markets turn out to be modern designs  

 

This particular model is a compact 6-transistor design, covering Medium and Long waves, and the first clue to its age is the tuning dial, marked with long-forgotten station names like Hilversum, Kalundborg, Paris, Vienna, Brussels, Athlone plus Light (now BBC Radio 2) and Third (BBC Radio 3). Flip open the brass clasp on the hinged back panel and you can see that the case is made of wood, covered in a leatherette fabric called Rexene. The old glass cased germanium transistors are another giveaway, but more than anything else it is the musky smell of wood and wax that confirms it is a genuine oldie. 

 

Turn it upside down and you see another trademark Roberts feature, a small rotating stand. This is a tuning aid, to allow the radio, and its ferrite rod antenna, to be turned to pick up the strongest signal. It oozes quality, and it was no surprise to find a Harrods stock label (no. 8129) attached to the metal chassis. It may even be possible to find out the date of purchase, the name of the first owner and how much they paid for it from that, but I can only take so much excitement… Talking of which, the advertised high street price for this model was £14 6s (£14.30) which included purchase tax and a battery, though I suspect Harrods customers paid a fair bit more for theirs.

 

I stumbled across this one at a sunny Sunday car boot sale in Surrey. It was amongst a small pile of nondescript seventies and eighties portables. At first glance I thought it was a late repro but closer inspection showed it to be an original, so I was rather pleased to hear the owner dismiss it as a useless piece of junk, and ‘all yours for a quid’.

 

Powered up from a 9 volt battery there was some signs of life, a low level whine and some background hiss, but no stations. As a matter of course I replaced all of the electrolytic capacitors, all of which proved to be leaky, and whilst doing that I came across a broken track on the printed circuit board, next to one of the front-end transistors. With the new caps and board repair completed it came back to life with a pleasingly deep mellow sound from the 5-inch speaker. After a thorough clean up it was good to go for another 50 years.

 

What Happened To It?

The distinctive and understated design of Roberts radios continued well into the seventies when they started to get a little bit tacky – like the rest of the market -- with lots of plastic and shiny parts. However, solid, no-nonsense electronics, a big sound from quality loudspeakers and sometimes eye-watering prices helped to keep them going in the face of severe competition and maintain the brand’s high-end profile. It continues to make analogue models but much of its output these days is focused on digital technologies like DAB, Internet radio, MP3 and tabletop sound systems with iPod docks. There’s even an ‘eco-friendly’ range, which seems to mainly concern low power consumption and the use of recycled packaging, but hey,  every little helps. The spirit of the R200 and its sixties stablemates lives on in the Revival range and other retro designs, so if you spot one that looks like it might be an original, don’t forget to give it a good sniff, to make sure…

 

There is no shortage of good vintage Roberts radios on ebay and prices vary widely. Fixer-uppers can sell for a little as £5.00, but expect to pay at least £25 for a decent runner, and anything up to £100 for a pristine example.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                       1960

Original Price                 £14, 6s inc. battery (£14.30)

Value Today                   £25.00 0713

Features                         2 band (MW/LW), 6-transistor (OC44, OC45 x 2, OC78 x 3), superhetrodyne, 128mm(5-inch) speaker, external aerial socket, rotating baseplate, leather carry handle

Power req.                    9volt PP9 battery

Dimensions:                  225 x 150 x 104mm

Weight:                         1.8kg

Made in:                        Britain

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


GEC Transistomatic Radio Camera, 1965

Here we have a classic blend of 1960’s what-were-they-thinking-of weirdness, combined with nothing-new-under-the sun technology. It’s the GEC Transistomatic and at first glance it looks like a fairly ordinary sixties transistor radio, but take a closer look. To the right of the large tuning dial there’s a smaller dial-like projection, but this is no dial, it’s a lens, and it is attached to an Instamatic 126 film cartridge camera.

 

The camera has been cleverly integrated into the body of the radio so swinging young hipsters could take their electronic musical entertainment with them, wherever they went, and remember the occasion, by taking pictures. Now what does that remind you of…? 

 

We’ll start with the camera, which looks a lot like a lightly customised version of the Kodak Instamatic 100. In fact the pop-up flash gun, winding lever, shutter button, battery compartment and a dozen other small details are virtually identical to the Kodak camera but there’s no makers name or any other signs so it would seem that Kodak were happy to not to be too closely associated with it. The camera attaches to the body of the radio by a threaded ring around the lens, and a pin on the base, where the tripod mount screw would be, which slots into a notch in the case. This allows the camera to be removed, for fitting or changing the two AAA cells that power the flashgun, or use the camera independently of the radio. The camera is a true point-and-shoot design. There are only three controls, the shutter release, film wind lever and a button for releasing the flash. There only other camera-related feature is a small compartment next to the camera, with a hinged cover, for storing flashbulbs

 

The radio is a 7-transistor (all germanium)  superhet, covering the Medium and Long wave bands. For some reason the MW band is split into two, designated MW Black and MW Red, whilst the Long Wave coverage on the dial is colour coded blue. Sadly much of the dial marking has worn off on my Transtomatic, so it’s not as colourful as it used to be. Once again it is very simple to operate; the volume on/off knob and three-position band selector switch are on the top, and the tuning dial and sockets for headphone and an external antenna are on the front panel. Power comes from four AA cells fitted into a holder that lives in a compartment inside the radio, accessed by removing the back panel. There’s a pair of metal loops for a carry strap, which is just as well as it’s a bit of a lump; all up weight is a tad over 1kg, and it’s a bit too big to qualify as a pocket radio. 

 

What Happened To It?

Surprisingly the Transistomatic wasn’t the only combined radio camera, nor was it the first. That honour probably belongs to the US made Air King, dating from the early 1950s. This truly bizarre and extremely rare design mated a roll film camera with a portable valve radio, housed in a wooden box, covered in fake snakeskin. There probably were others but if so they seem to have come and gone, virtually without trace. It is clear that the idea never really took off, at least not until the late 90s when, as they say, what goes around… Cameras are now a standard fitment on all sorts of electronic devices these days, not least mobile phones, tablet computers and so on

 

Transistomatics are quite scarce, my guess that fewer than a dozen a year make it onto ebay, which is where I found this one. No one else bid on it and with postage it cost me just under £20. The lack of interest  was a surprise as another one selling at the same time had a reserve of £170. Admittedly it appeared to be in slightly better condition and came with its original box and manuals, but month later it was still waiting for an opening bid. I think it was eventually withdrawn and I would say £50 is a fair price for one in tip-top condition but you can probably get away with half that if you get lucky at a boot sale or antiques fair. My Transistomatic was sold as not working, but as is so often the case with 60s technology, the faults are generally simple to trace and fix. In this case all that was needed was a new battery connector and replace a leaky capacitor. After a thorough clean up the camera was also up and running, though it will need the attentions of a air duster before it is useable once again, assuming I can find an unexposed 126 film cartridge, and someone to process it. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                       1965

Original Price                19 guineas (£19.95)

Value Today                  £50 0713

Features                        MW/LW radio, 7 transistor 3-stage superhetrodyne, detachable 126 cartridge camera, pop up flash, flash bulb storage compartment, external aerial and headphone/speaker sockets

Power req.                    radio 4 x AA cells, camera 2 x AAA cells

Dimensions:                  225 x 135 x 60mm

Weight:                         1.1g (with battery pack)

Made in:                        Great Britain

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Philips P3G8T/00 Transistor Car Portable Radio, 1963

It’s hard to believe but the once mighty Dutch giant Philips -- now just a shadow of their former selves -- were once market leaders in the in-car entertainment business. Philips car radios were rightly revered for performance and build quality and they were constantly innovating. Who can forget the famous Auto-Mignon? Well, most of us probably have, but in case you are wondering this was a brave attempt in the early 1960s at an in-car record player, for 45rpm singles, but that’s another very weird story for another day…

 

It’s not quite in the same league as the Auto-Mignon but the Philips P3G8T, dating back to 1963-ish, was, in its own way, pushing the envelope of mobile entertainment technology. According to the badge it’s an ‘all transistor car portable’, which says it all, more or less. The idea is very simple. It slots into a cradle underneath the dashboard, tapping into the car’s 12 volt battery and connecting to a roof or wing mounted aerial through a simple connector on the back panel. Here’s the clever bit, once you get to your destination simply pull it out of the cradle and switch to the internal battery. The radio becomes a portable – it even has a nifty fold away carry handle -- and you can continue to enjoy the musical stylings of Matt Munro, Cliff Richard and that popular beat combo, the Beatles, from the likes of Radio Luxembourg and the off-shore pirate stations.

 

It seems like a pretty obvious idea now but don’t forget this was at a time when private car ownership was a fraction of what it is now, and as a consequence, car radios were comparatively rare. Very few motor manufacturers offered them as a standard option, and of the ones that were available, some were still using valves. Inexpensive portable transistor radios had been around for just a few years, and rapidly gaining in popularity but it was still a bold move by Philips to produce such a specialised product for what was then a relatively small market.

 

Under the skin the radio is fairly conventional – more on that in a moment -- but the really clever part is the styling. In its cradle it looks like a modern 60’s car radio; out of the cradle it looks like a smart portable. That’s actually much more impressive than it sounds. Managing to combine two very different functions and personalities into one seamless design, was quite a feat.

 

The radio uses six transistors, for the record they are germanium types (three AF117s for the RF stages and three AC128s for the audio section). There’s a large ferrite antenna running across the width of the case and an elaborate moving dial tuning scale on the top panel, between the controls. This is a bit of a rat’s nest of nylon line, springs and pulleys but as far as I can make out, on my example it’s all original. That’s pretty good going after 40 odd years! Operation is simple; there are just three controls, for volume on/off, tuning and a pair of push buttons for MW/LW band selection and in-car/portable operation. It has a 75mm speaker behind the shiny grill, and one way or another there’s little to go wrong, indeed this one works well, though I have a suspicion that with just a couple of AC128s running in a push-pull amplifier configuration, it would have struggled making itself heard above 60’s era road and engine noise.

 

What Happened To It?

Removable in-car entertainment systems, or at least their front control panels, made a bit of a comeback in the 90s, though for rather different reasons (to make them unattractive to thieves) but proper dual-purpose car portables like this one never really caught on. There’s no particular reason for that, apart from the fact that portables became significantly smaller and cheaper, so there was no real need or cost-saving, and a radio designed specifically for in-car operation is always going to perform better than one which inevitably has to make compromises for portable use.

 

I found this one at a large antiques fair in Sussex; the asking price was £18 but the seller readily accepted my offer of £10; it was a chilly day after all. He sold it as non-working and it seemed to be in a pretty sorry state. As it turned out it was mostly just the grime of years of non-use and storage, probably in a greasy garage, and it cleaned up really well. As expected it was dead as a doornail but this turned to be a broken battery wire. It even came with a PP6 battery, though it expired long ago and fortunately hadn’t leaked. These are quite difficult to get hold of now but a regular PP3 works well, though not for very long.

 

There doesn’t seem to be many of them around anymore, I have only ever seen one other on ebay, and that didn’t attract much interest, mostly, I suspect because it wasn’t very accurately labelled or described. It is unusual enough to qualify as a collectible, but I have a feeling the ingenious styling, which makes it looks rather nondescript, and the lack of a catchy name may be its undoing. Nevertheless, keep your eyes peeled, and if you ever see one with its original car cradle, or an Auto-Mignon for a fair price, grab it quick!


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                       1963

Original Price                £?

Value Today                  £10 0613

Features                        LW & MV coverage, on/off volume and tuning controls, moving needle tuning indicator, folding handle, 6 transistor () superhet tuning & push-pull amplifier, 75mm built-in speaker

Power req.                     9 volt PP6 (battery portable), 12v DC (in-car)

Dimensions:                   180 x 164 x 45mm

Weight:                          800g

Made in:                         England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Jasa AM Wristwatch Radio, 1980?

The idea of a tiny radio, small enough to be worn on the wrist, has been around for a suprisingly long time, since at least the 1930s in sci-fi movies and comic books, but actual working designs that fulfil the basic criteria of being both small enough to be wearable, and self-contained with their own batteries, didn’t appear until the early 1950s. This was shortly after the first transistors came onto the market and one of the earliest documented examples was in 1953, built by engineers working for the US Signal Corps. In spite of the fact that the technology was available to make them a commercial reality from the late 1950s there doesn’t seem to have been very much interest in wrist radios from manufacturers, or the buying public and over the years they have been surprisingly few and far between. This is one of them, it dates from the early 1980s and it is unusual in that it is a proper wristwatch radio, in other words it also tells the time.

 

It is difficult to be more specific about its age or origins; Jasa is just one of a number of names I have seen on models identical or very similar to this one but a couple of things I can be fairly certain about. The first is the tuner, which is a simple 3 transistor reflex design covering the AM band. It has a rotary tuning dial on the front of the case and is switched on by plugging an earphone or headphones into a 3.5mm jack socket on the left side of the body. Power comes from a single 1.2 volt AG12 button cell, which is replaced through a removable cover on the back panel. The LCD watch is a completely separate module, powered by an A63 button cell. It has basic time and date display, with all functions controlled by a mode button and recessed set button on the right side of the case. The case and strap are fairly typical of cheapie LCD watches of the time and my guess is that it cost no more than around £10 to £15 when new.

 

I came across this one on ebay recently; the description didn’t sound very promising; the seller said it was in poor condition and not working. No one else was interested and I was the only bidder, securing it for 99 pence plus £2.00 postage. If fact it was just a bit grubby and the only thing stopping it from working was some very slight corrosion on the battery contacts. It scrubbed up really well and both the clock and radio powered up and worked first time. I didn’t have much hope for the performance of the radio but it turned out to be remarkably sensitive, and selective, able to pull in more than half a dozen stations, and all bar one with decent volume levels. The only small problem is a minor intermittency somewhere on the watch module and if the case is pressed it goes into set mode; it should be an easy fix, and I really will get around to it one day…

 

What Happened To It?

Wrist radios never took off and my guess is that by the time they were cheap enough to go mass market – around when this one appeared – the personal stereo was becoming the technology of choice for music on the move and to be honest listening to hissy AM stations, in mono, just isn’t that entertaining. In recent years wrist watches have become a lot more sophisticated and radio apps are just one of the myriad of functions available on the new generation of smart watches now coming onto the market, but it’s not the same. Digital media streamed over mobile broadband and wireless networks is all very well but it lacks the magic, not to mention the hiss and fade of proper radio… The comparative scarcity of wrist radios means that they’re potentially very collectible. There have been few exotic high end models over the years and these are worth a very pretty penny but in general prices for modest 70s and 80s designs like this one remain fairly reasonable and can only increase in years to come, so watch out for bargains (pun intended…).


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                        1980?

Original Price                 £10 - £15?

Value Today                   £5 - £10 0513

Features                         LCD display, 3 function (time, day, date), 3 transistor reflex AM receiver 500 – 1600kHz, rotary tuning dial, 3.5 mm jack socket

Power req.                     watch A63, radio AG12, 1 .2 volt button cells

Dimensions:                   50 x 35 x 11mm

Weight:                          29g

Made in:                        Hong Kong?

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Sinclair X1 Button FM Radio, 1997

You can’t keep a good inventor down, and at one of the lowest points in his career, habitual miniature radio designer and electric vehicle pioneer, Sir Clive Sinclair, came up with this little gem. Back in 1997 Sinclair’s various enterprises were struggling to survive with mounting losses, but never one to give up, Sinclair Research – by now virtually a one-man band -- announced the X1 Button FM radio. I will have to dig out the ads of the day but I am fairly certain Sinclair reprised claims made for a previous generation of minature radios and billed it as the ‘world’s smallest’. It was priced at £9.50 and it was indeed tiny, just 30mm across. It almost certainly wasn’t a record breaker but to put it into perspective it is only slightly larger – in diameter – than a 2 pence coin. The idea was that it was worn or rather hung on the ear, by a springy detachable plastic clip (for left or right ear use), with a foam-cushioned earpiece pressed against the user’s ear canal.  

 

Cramming an FM radio into such a small space would have been quite a feat, were it not for the development of a new generation of single chip FM tuners (Philips TDA 7088), which as in the past, Sinclair was quick to exploit. He has a track record in this area and Sir Clive’s early mini radios (Micro 6 and Micromatic) were amongst the first to use new fangled transistors, and he regularly beat the big boys to market in the 70s and 80s, utilising new components and being one of the first to launch a pocket calculator, digital watchwristwatch radio, personal computer, pocket TV and even electric vehicles. Interestingly he has been threatening to revive the X1 name with a new wacky electric two-wheeler, though true to form, the planned launch date was supposed to be 2012 and at the time of writing (spring 2013) it had yet to appear.

 

Titchy FM radios are two a penny nowadays, well, 99p in our local bargain store, but it was definitely a novelty in 1997. It looked impressively teccy, thanks to clever cosmetics, but the reality was it was a fairly basic design. There are only three controls, an on/off switch and a pair of buttons, one for scanning up the FM band (88 – 108MHz), the other to reset the scan. FM receivers need good aerials and Sinclair’s solution was simple, though not especially elegant, a 900mm length of thin black wire, which dangles from the underside of the receiver. On the plus side it was quite effective and reception of the main stations was pretty good, even in fringe areas. The main drawback is the lack of a volume control; it’s all or nothing, and it’s not that loud. It goes without saying that the quality is pretty dire, but for listening to the news or a talk station, say, in quiet surroundings, it’s not too bad. The scan tuning is also okay, once you get used to it, though if you miss a station it’s a bit of a pain as you have to keep on scanning or reset and start over, and if the station is weak, or you are moving it can be difficult to stay tuned.

 

Another unusual feature is the power source. It runs on a single CR 2032 3-volt button cell. It was claimed that this could last up to a year, which was probably true if you never switched it on, but you would certainly have got a several weeks and maybe a month or three out of one, with moderate use. I seem to remember that these cells were quite expensive back in 1997, costing up to half as much as the radio, though nowadays you can buy a card full of them at your local pound store.

 

Now we come to a bit of a mystery, where was it made? Previously most Sinclair products were built in the UK, by subcontractors, like Timex and Thorn EMI, but there are no tell-tales or marks on this one. The circuit board uses surface mount components – still a little unusual in 1997 -- but the quality of assembly is surprisingly poor, it looks almost hand built, so my guess – and I am happy to be proved wrong – is that it’s Chinese in origin (they’ve got a lot better since then…), though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was locally made, so if anyone knows, please let me know. 

 

What Happened To It?

I have no actual dates but I am fairly sure the X1 was on sale for at least 3 years, though this may simply have been a single production run and overly optimistic predictions. However, two years after launch Sinclair Research came up with yet another micro radio, the Z1. This was even smaller than the X1 and got around the troublesome wire aerial by being an AM only receiver – but that’s another story for another day.

 

If memory serves the Z1 was also around for two or three years but it marked the end of Sinclair’s radio days. X1s are not that common, maybe one or two a month turn up on ebay. Occasionally there’s a tussle between two keen bidders and the price gets pushed up to £20 or more but typically they sell for between £5 and £10.  

 

I was sent one to review when it first came out and I recall getting some strange looks whilst wearing it (at least I think it was the radio…). Nowadays you probably wouldn’t get a second glance with half the population wandering around with garish Bluetooth earpieces stuck in their ears. I have no idea what happened to it but over the years I have bought a couple of X1s, probably costing no more than £3 or 4 and they are still in great condition and good working order. The original foam earpiece cover crumbled to dust long ago but modern earphones covers are a near perfect fit. In design terms it’s not especially significant and there was a Japanese hang-on-the-ear radio at least decade earlier, but it’s a must-have for Sinclair fans and a cosy reminder of the days when little radios were still a bit of a novelty. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                            1997

Original Price                     £9.50

Value Today                        £9.50 0313

Features                              88 – 108MHz mono FM, scan tuning, on/off, scan & reset buttons, external antenna (wire)

Power req.                          1 x CR2032 3v button cell

Dimensions:                        30 x 25mm

Weight:                               11.6g

Made in:                              China?

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


Yupiteru MVT-8000 Radio Scanner, 1992

It might not be much larger, or thicker, than a paperback book, but back in the early 90s this was, and possibly still is, one of the most versatile analogue radio receivers ever built. Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration but back then you could say with some conviction that if it was transmitted over the airwaves, you were close enough or you had a good enough antenna then you could almost certainly pick it up on a MVT-800, and not just plain vanilla radio broadcasts, it could also receive TV, all manner of weird and wonderful coded messages plus Ham radio, CB, emergency services, military, marine, aircraft, even mobile telephones.

 

The label on the top says it’s a multi-band receiver but to anyone interested in the more offbeat side of radio communications it was more affectionately known as a scanner. The idea is essentially simple; basically the MVT-8000 is a fancy radio that can receive signals over a huge range of frequencies, practically the whole broadcast radio spectrum, from the middle of the SLF band (super low frequency) to the upper end of the UHF band (ultra high frequency) or between 100kHz and 1300MHz. These can be AM or FM (wide or narrow band) signals and it can be set to automatically and silently tune or search through the frequencies until it finds a transmission.

 

In practice it would be impractical to use that way, so to make things easier, and more manageable, you can preset up to 200 frequencies or channels, which can be bundled together in blocks or ‘banks’ of 10 channels. Channels, or banks of channels can then be scanned at up to 15 channels per second. So, for example, if you were interested in listening to the comings and goings of aircraft, you would tune in and store the channels for your local airport’s approach, radar, weather frequencies etc., to one or more banks, and set it to scan them and you would hear pretty much everything that was going on. Similarly you could use it to scan your local police channels, or those used by taxi companies, army bases and so on, but the real point was you could use it to listen to a whole lot of things that you couldn't hear on a ordinary domestic radio, and to spice it up, much of what you might hear was private, secret, or even illegal to listen to, in the case of police and military transmissions.

 

You could also stumble upon mobile phone conversations, completely by accident, of course. The old analogue system was open and unencrypted and from what I can remember, conversations (though mostly you only heard one side) could sometime be quite entertaining. Cellphones were still a bit of a luxury back then, a lot of them were paid for on company accounts, and you may be surprised at how often they were used to make and take smutty phone calls late at night…).

 

It’s a slim and elegant design with a sloping front panel. On the left there’s a large backlit LCD screen showing frequencies, along with all of the other info you need, including mode, signal strength, channels etc and to the right of it is a bank of buttons, covering the multitude of functions and presets. On the far right are three rotary controls, the top one is a combined on/off volume and squelch (the latter mutes the sound when it falls below a preset threshold) and below that is a manual frequency selector. On the back there are sockets for the antenna, earphone and power and a switch for the aerial attenuator, to reduce the strength of very strong signals. The built in speaker is mounted on the underside of the case.

 

What Happened To It?

The MVT-8000 is not especially easy to use, and I had a struggle to remember how to drive it after not having played with it for the best part of a decade. Fortunately I still had the instructions and it soon came back but as I quickly discovered, scanning is nowhere near as much fun as it used to be. Back in the early 90s you could be reasonably sure of eavesdropping on an interesting message or two-way conversation within a few seconds of switching it on. But now the vast majority of those private and pleasurably illicit transmissions have disappeared or migrated to closed and encrypted digital systems. There are exceptions, most routine aircraft and air traffic control exchanges can still be heard, you may also stumble across the occasional ham radio enthusiast and die-hard CBer but now vast swathes of the airwaves are occupied by just an annoying hiss, punctuated by bursts of meaningless data traffic. 

 

This MVT-8000 came my way during my time as editor of Citizens Band magazine and brief dalliance with amateur radio. It was sent in for review but never reclaimed so it ended up in my goody box and largely forgotten. I dug it out a few years later when I took up flying and played with it again for a while. It proved to be quite handy for getting automated aviation weather reports but it went back into storage and remained there until I came across it recently in the loft. It still works, and remarkably still remembers all of my programmed channels. Scanners like this are not especially rare and the classic vintage Bearcat – the preferred model for CBers and radio amateurs -- can often be found on ebay, typically selling for between £50 and £100, depending on condition. Yupiteru models are not so common and may command a few pounds more in tip-top condition. Given the lack of things to listen to there’s relatively little demand for multi-band scanners like this anymore, current models generally cover much less ground, and mostly  confined to VHF channels nevertheless older models like this make an interesting addition to any radio nerds collection..


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                      1992

Original Price               £150

Value Today                 £65.00 1212

Features                        frequency coverage 8  – 1300MHz continuous (100kHz – 8MHz reduced sensitivity)  in 5, 10, 12,5, 25, 50 & 100kHz steps, 200 channel memory organised in 10 banks of 20 channels, 10 banks Search with user limits, 15 channels per second scan speed, AM, NFM and WFM (narrow & wide FM) bands, backlit LCD display, switchable attenuator, external audio out (3.5mm jack) antenna socket (BNC)

 

Weight:                          685g

Power req.                     12VDC (external mains adaptor

Dimensions:                   165 x 45 x 155mm

Made in:                         Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  5


Diamond Rio PMP 300 MP3 Player, 1998

It was a close run thing but the Diamond Rio MP 300, announced in September 1998, narrowly missed becoming the world’s first personal MP3 player by just a few months. That honour belongs the Saehan MPMan, launched in April the same year but its arrival passed largely unnoticed and for several years afterwards the Diamond Rio was widely thought to be the first of the breed.

 

Diamond Rio became famous almost overnight, not for any particularly innovative features or technical prowess, but for a Temporary Restraining Order slapped on it by the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA, clearly rattled by what it rightly perceived to be a potential threat to the prospects of its members, claimed that it breached the Audio Recording Act of 1992, but the ban only covered a small area of California and the inevitable happened; news of the case hit the headlines, sales everywhere else took off and the world discovered the delights of downloading MP3 files, ripping CDs and online music piracy.

 

What makes this little box of tricks even more interesting is the fact that the first Apple iPod, launched in October 2001, looks uncannily similar to the Rio. Apple would also have been aware of the computer software that came with the Rio, which included a library management and jukebox program called Music Match and the option to download music from the Internet through services licensed by major record labels, not too dissimilar to iTunes in fact. Who can say where Apple found inspiration for its digital media players....?

 

Needless to say the specifications looks pretty dismal by current standards but it’s important to bear in mind that this was a ground breaking, first generation product and since its launch there have been seismic changes in the cost, complexity and performance of the technology. The storage capacity of this first model was just 32Mb (later increased to 64Mb), but that could be supplemented with a SmartMedia memory card, which slides into a slot on the underside. The LCD panel shows playback mode, times, track numbers, volume, battery level and equaliser mode but not track names or data; that sort of sophistication was still to come. The volume, track selection and playback controls are grouped together on the front panel and buttons for the menu, equaliser and intro-scan functions, along with the 3.5mm jack earphone socket are on the top. It’s powered by a single AA cell that provides around 10 hours of playback. 

 

On the left side of the case there is a proprietary parallel port, for the computer hook up. Back in the day this was pretty much the only option available to the majority of PC users, USB was still finding its way onto home computers and serial port connections were notoriously difficult to configure. Unfortunately this, and the fact that original software only works under Windows 98/ME makes it difficult to play around with a working Diamond Rio on a modern computer, but there are ways and means and several freeware programs  have been created that can communicate with the device on a PC running more recent versions of Windows (and Linux), with a parallel port connection.

 

What Happened To It?

Initially I was sceptical that MP3 players had much of a future. They were ridiculously expensive – this one would set you back almost £200 at launch -- the sound quality was often disappointing, capacity was limited to just a few tunes and the faff involved in installing and configuring PC software, ripping CDs and the limited downloading options was a real turn off. It didn’t last, though and within a year more user-friendly MP3 players were coming out of the woodwork. For a while there were even a couple of magazines devoted to the subject, though most of my MP3 player reviews were written for mobile phone, gadget and boy’s toys mags. Eventually the price/performance/capacity equation began to shift away from tape to solid state and Apple’s entry into the market in 2001 with the iPod and iTunes proved to be the game-changing events.

 

US-based Diamond went on to produce several more Rio models in the late 1990s and early noughties but it never made the break into the big time in digital media players once Apple and the major brands got in on the act. Diamond has since merged with other companies and is now largely concerned with producing computer components and add-ons

 

This Rio was an early review sample almost certainly the second one I had as the first failed quite quickly. It probably only had a few hours use before ending up in a box in my loft. It still works though, and the quality of the handful of really obscure sample tracks still in the memory show no sign of deterioration and don’t sound too bad through modern cans, but life is too short to mess around with parallel port adaptors to see how it fares with more modern material. As for value, that’s very difficult to say. Due to the high selling price first generation models are quite rare but when one comes up on ebay it is usually listed as an old MP3 player and gets snapped up for just a few pounds. However, I have seen mint examples, boxed and correctly described, along with a few words about its historical significance, sell for more that £100, so keep your eyes peeled for bargains. One day it will be on the Antiques Road Show, though probably not for a few years...


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                       1998

Original Price                £200

Value Today                  £25.00 1112

Features                        32Mb internal memory, SmartMedia card slot, LCD screen, MP2/MP3 file support, Play, Pause, Repeat, Random modes, A-B repeat, Intro Scan, 4-mode equaliser (normal, rock, classic & jazz), 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, belt clip, proprietary parallel port, Windows 98 support

Weight:                          84g

Power req.                     1 x AA cell

Dimensions:                   92 x 75 x 18mm

Made in:                        China

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Thunderbirds Drinks Can AM Radio, 1992

In spite of there being only 32 television episodes, made between 1964 and 1966, and two full length feature films (we’ll draw a veil over the terrible 2004 live action adaptation…) the TV puppet series Thunderbirds continues to amuse and entertain kids of all ages. I remember it the first time around, but it has been continually repeated over the years, not to mention the VHS and DVD box sets so generations of children have grown up with Jeff, John, Scott, Gordon, Alan, Virgil, Brains, Parker, Lady Penelope and the rest of the characters..

 

Thunderbirds was also notable for being one of the most prolific generators of merchandising. The futuristic Thunderbird craft were a natural target for toy and model manufacturers. Who can forget the great Tracy Island shortage of Christmas 1992? This followed a hugely popular repeat showing of the series on BBC2 and demand for the island was so great that even the plans for a DIY version, made out of papier-mâché and washing up liquid bottles, devised by the BBC Children’s programme Blue Peter, were in seriously short supply.

 

This rather tacky Thunderbirds radio is of the same era and undoubtedly a rushed attempt to jump aboard the bandwagon. I suspect it was an existing ‘drinks can’ radio, simply decorated with cheap printed Thunderbirds labels.  The quality of the cartoon images isn’t too bad and it has ITC licence and copyright markings so outwardly it appears to be an ‘approved’ design. However, then as now, far-eastern manufacturers were churning out knock-offs like there was no tomorrow. Since there are no manufacturers marks or country of origin anywhere to be seen, inside or out I have serious doubts over it’s legitimacy but no matter, it is what it is, an authentic piece of memorabelia from an iconic 1960s TV series.

 

The 5-transistor AM radio is actually not half bad. The 50mm speaker, mounted on the top (hover your mouse over the picture for an internal view) produces a decent enough sound, and there’s enough volume for a kid’s bedroom, and an earphone socket for some covert listening after lights-out. It is powered by a 9-volt PP3 type battery, which fits into a compartment on the base and there are just two controls, for on/off volume and tuning. The circuit board and components don’t give much away but I’m reasonably sure it hails from Hong Kong or possibly China. The original price is a complete guess, and the only thing I can say with any certainty is that it cost me £10.00 on ebay. 

 

What Happened To It?

There is a vast amount of Thunderbirds/International Rescue memorabilia and merchandising out there, from the eye-wateringly expensive, to the obscure, like this tape recorder and of course plain old tat. Serious collectors probably consider peripheral items like this radio, dating almost 30 years after the series first aired, and almost certainly of dubious authenticity, as beneath them. Ironically its lowly status probably makes it quite rare. Radios like these were cheap, easily broken and eminently disposable so relatively few lasted more than a year or two. This one is in great condition – and it works too – but I have no illusions that it will ever be worth more than the £10.00 that I paid for it (and that was over the top…) but if I and my fellow vintage gadget fans don’t seek out and save these humble technological knick-knacks from the dump, who will? 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1992

Original Price                    £5.00?

Value Today?                    £10.00? 0712

Feature                              5-transistor AM superhetrodyne radio, 50mm speaker, rotary tuning and volume on/off controls, 3.5mm mono earphone jack                 

Power req.                        1 x 9v PP3 battery

Weight:                             109g

Dimensions:                      124 x 68mm

Made in:                            Hong Kong?

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):      6


MPMan MP-F20 MP3 Player, 1998

Mark my words, one day the MPMan MP-F20, and its stablemate the MP-F10 will be ranked alongside the first radios, televisions and tape recorders, it’s that significant!

 

In April 1998 MPMan became the world’s first portable MP3 player – the great granddaddy of all iPods and personal digital music players. Purists and pedants may namedrop earlier devices but none of them really count as they never made it past the prototype stage or ever went into production. Contrary to some accounts the MPMan also pipped, by several months, the Diamond Rio PMP300, another strong contender for the first-ever title. It was certainly the one that made the headlines, but that’s another story for another day.   

 

MPMan players were made by a largely unknown Korean company called Saehan and sold in the US under the Eiger brand. Two models were launched simultaneously, the MP-F10 and MP-F20. Both of them had 32Mb of on-board flash memory; the F20 additionally has a slot for one of the then, new fangled Smart Media memory cards and could support up to 64Mb in total. Of course such meagre storage capacity is laughable by today’s gigabyte and terabyte standards and the best you could hope for with 32Mb was around 8 tracks. But it was a start, and in its day a genuinely groundbreaking development.

 

The big breakthrough, though, wasn’t so much the technology, that had been around for several years, as you can see from this Seiko EF302G from 1980, but the idea of downloading music from the Internet, something that was to shake the music, recording and entertainment industries to their cores and re-define the way we purchase (and steal…) our music. We can’t ignore the technology, though, and one of the biggest selling point for this and all of the digital music players that were to follow is that it’s a solid-state medium, no moving parts and therefore nothing to jog, hop, skip or jump when you listen to your favourite music on the move. Up to that time companies had expended almost as much effort trying to increase the stability of cassette tape and CD deck mechanisms as improving sound quality. It also helped that the MPMan was small and light, had a frugal appetite for batteries, and came with everything needed to move files to and from a Windows PC.

 

The F10 and F20 are roughly the size of a pack of 20 cigarettes and maybe half as thick. There’s not much to see; on the top there’s the headphone jack, a handful of transport buttons (rewind, play/stop and fast forward), and volume up and down keys. On the front there’s two buttons marked Mode and Info plus a tiny LCD. The display might be small but it packs in a lot of information, including track number, time, bitrate, battery condition, mode (repeat, all, shuffle), and equaliser (normal, middle and high bass boost). There’s a DC supply socket on the right side and on the left side a Hold button and a hatch for the optional memory card (F20 only). On the base there’s a parallel port socket for the PC connection and the battery compartment, which holds a single AA cell. The case is covered in a rubbery material and all up weight (ex battery) is just 96 grams.

 

My first encounter with MPMan player was at the low-key launch at a German consumer electronics trade show. Shortly afterwards I managed to get my hands on a review sample. I was initially sceptical about the capacity to store just half a dozen tracks. I also baulked at the retail price, which was the thick end of £250. You have to remember that at the time you could get a very decent cassette player or portable CD for around a third of the price, and the sound quality of (then) low bitrate MP3s was less than inspiring. I was also concerned that you needed a PC to use it; they were nothing like as common as they are today, and you had to have Internet access, which was mostly via slow dial-up connections. The only music available on the web back then was almost all illegally pirated material, and you had to know your way around the nether regions of the Internet to find it.

 

It was another couple of years, a generation players and the advent of broadband before I saw the potential and changed my mind about digital portable music players. The player shown here isn’t my original review model; I lent that to someone around 10 years ago and never saw it again. This one came up on ebay a couple of years ago and since no one else was interested I snapped it up for £5.00; I would be very surprised (and delighted) to find another in such good condition, or as cheaply ever again. It’s a runner and still capable of half decent playback quality, though as with all of these devices, much depends on the performance of the headphones or earphones you use it with. 

 

What Happened To It?

Saehan never made the big time in MP3 players. The company is still going but these days more concerned with textiles and information systems. A number of MPMan models followed the F10 and F20 and the name lives on, on a range of media players and tablet PCs but I don’t think they’re made by Saehan any longer.

 

History has tended to overlook the MPMan and it’s pioneering contribution to the personal stereo market. Contrary to popular belief Apple didn’t invent MP3, players and music downloading were pretty well established by the time iTunes and the first iPod captured the limelight in late 2001, but all credit to them for making the market what it is today with the clever pairing of a thoroughly well designed player and legal paid-for music downloading.

 

F10 and F20 MPMan players are pretty rare and make only occasional appearance on ebay, reflecting the small number that were sold in those early days. The odd thing is that when they do come up for sale they still tend to go really cheaply, often for just a few pounds, so there are bargains to be had and a real investment opportunity in a future collectible. I’ll stick my neck out and say that good boxed examples could be worth a very pretty penny one day.


GIZMO GUIDE  Manual

First seen:                          1998

Original Price                    £200

Value Today?                    £10.00 0312

Feature                              MP3 player, 32Mb capacity, expandable to 64Mb using Smart Media memory cards, LCD display, parallel port interface, Windows 95/98 software           

Power req.                         1 x AA cell

Weight:                              96g

Dimensions:                       68 x 90 x 17mm

Made in:                             Korea

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):       8


Fleetwood Globe AM Radio, 1963

Japanese transistor radios from the late 50s and early 1960s are now attracting surprisingly high prices, especially if they are in pristine condition, but don’t let that put you off. There are still plenty of interesting bargains to be found, like this novelty globe-shaped model, which like many radios of the era was sold under a number of different brands. This one is badged Fleetwood but the same design also appeared as the Vista NTR-6G, Raleigh and Marc, and there are probably others as well.

 

The first thing that strikes you, when you see it in the flesh, is how big it is. It’s a far cry from the pocket size trannys we’re familiar with, and that’s a good thing when it comes to sound quality. Mounted in the base of the globe – roughly where the Antarctic should be -- there’s a chunky 8cm/3-inch speaker that doesn’t sound half bad, Inside the globe there’s a fairly ordinary 6-transistor AM radio but it does have an unusually large tuning capacitor. This is coupled by a simple pulley system to a sliding tuning lever, mounted on a chrome plated strip on the back, running from, east of Australia, across the Pacific right up to the Arctic circle. The on/off volume knob is at the North Pole and there’s a 3.5mm mono jack headphone socket on the base. This is also houses 6 x AA cells, covered by a removable panel.

 

A chrome trim strip, running around the equator, holds the two parts of the globe together; the globe halves are made up of an inner shell with the stylised map of the world, protected by a thick transparent outer shell. Sadly it doesn’t rotate or do anything interesting but it is superbly well made and it looks and feels like a quality product, though I suspect the selling price was probably quite modest.

 

I paid £10.00 for this one on ebay recently, which was less than it could have been because the seller misspelled the word ‘transistor' ('transister'). This almost certainly reduced the number of people viewing it, and there was only one other bidder. You would be surprised how often this happens… In tip-top condition this model could easily sell for five to ten times as much, though even without the spelling mistake I doubt that this one would have gone for more than £20 to £30 as it was sold as not working and with a couple of cracks in the outer shell. There’s quite a big one in North Africa going from Morocco to The Gambia, and another stretching from Iceland to Newfoundland, but they’re only noticeable close up and do not detract from the radio’s overall appeal. There was a fault in the radio’s tuner section but nothing that ten minutes with a test meter, soldering iron and a spray can of contact cleaner couldn’t fix

 

What Happened To It?

World and globe shaped radios have been around for yonks, indeed a quick web search revealed at least a dozen different contemporary models for sale and I have no doubt that there are have been scores of others over the years. The only thing that really sets the Fleetwood/Vista/Raleigh/Marc globe apart is its age, and the fact that it was probably one of the first world-shaped transistor radios. There may have been earlier examples but I doubt that they were produced in large numbers, or were as cheap as this one. The Fleetwood Globe is very much a product of its time, coinciding with advances and a dramatic lowering of costs in plastic injection moulding, big strides and price reductions in transistor radio design and the Japanese electronics industry getting into its stride. Novelty radios, like this one, have tended to be scorned by serious collectors but I am seeing a steady increase in prices so if you fancy a flutter in the collectable technology market I wouldn’t leave it too long.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1962

Original Price                   £?

Value Today?                   £25? 0212

Features:                           6 transistor AM radio, 8cm speaker, sliding tuner control, rotary volume, 3.5mm jack audio output

Power req.                        6 x AA cell

Weight:                             1kg

Dimensions:                      210 x 160mm

Made in:                           Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     5


Satellite AM/FM Radio, 1988

Sadly this is not what it seems. It’s a simple analogue AM/FM radio dressed up to look like a miniature satellite dish, and that would be pretty much all there is to say about it, except that it has a story attached to it. This was one of what I suspect a small number of souvenir radios made to mark the launch of the first Astra satellite, back in 1988.

 

I first started writing magazine articles and books about satellite television in the early 1980s. Back then it was very much a minority interest and the satellites of the day were mostly low power communications types. Around half a dozen of them were receivable in the south of the UK. They were mainly used to carry relays for broadcasters and news organisations and feeds for cable networks and the signals they broadcast were not meant for public consumption. You also needed a seriously large dish to pick them up, typically 1.5 metres across, and it helped if it was motorised, so you could point it at different satellites. Home dishes were very rare, in fact you were supposed to have a Home Office permit for one and I suspect that I may have had one of the very few STVRO (Satellite TV Receive Only) licenses ever issued. Anyway, to cut a long story short, in the mid eighties a European consortium called SES (Société Européenne des Satellites) funded the development of Astra, a high-power, 16-channel satellite for direct to home (DTH) broadcasts, receivable on small sub-1 metre dishes. Astra 1A was launched in December 1988 and a little known media tycoon called Rupert Murdoch became one of its first customers, using it to broadcast his Sky channel (up until then only available via cable), direct to people’s homes, and I guess you know the rest. 

 

This little radio was given to me on one of several visits to the Astra operations centre in Luxembourg, or it may have been the Ariannespace launch complex in French Guyana in late 1988, either way it was meant to be a joke. You may be able to see in the photo that it has a label on the top of the dish that say’s it’s NOT compatible with Astra. This was a spoof of an official ‘Compatible with Astra’ sticker that was meant to identify the new generation of satellite dishes and receivers; there was some concern that the public would be baffled by the new technology and prevent hucksters from selling incompatible systems to unwary punters.

 

The radio’s one notable feature is the speaker, which is housed in the reflector, mounted at what would be the focal point of the dish. For the technically minded this is known as a Cassegrain configuration. Most home satellite dishes use what’s known as an offset design, with the receiver module or low noise block converter (LNB), mounted on a stalk stuck out in front of the dish, but I digress. Whilst this is a good arrangement for a satellite dish, it’s a really bad place for a small speaker, and you can take it as read that it sounds dreadful. Otherwise the rest of the radio is fairly unremarkable. It hails from Hong Kong and the receiver circuit is a simple superhet design, with a two transistor front end, and an early amplifier chip for the audio output. Power comes from a PP3 battery, which lives in a compartment on the base.  

 

What Happened to It?

I am reasonably sure that SES didn’t commission this radio especially for the Astra launch campaign. It looks to me like a lightly customised off-the-shelf product so it’s likely that many thousands of them were made. I doubt that many have survived though; they certainly wouldn’t have been kept for their audio capabilities… Examples like this one, with a ‘NOT compatible’ label are probably quite scarce but that doesn’t mean it’s worth anything, at least not in this lifetime. Nevertheless it is a reminder, for me at least, of a really exciting few years, when satellite TV was actually interesting and not just another bland technological commodity. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1988

Original Price                   £10?

Value Today?                   £10? 0112

Features:                          Analogue AM/FM radio, tuning and volume knobs, satellite dish shaped speaker

Power req.                        9 volt PP3 type battery

Weight:                             500g

Dimensions:                     200 x 265 x 150 mm

Made in:                            Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):      8


Panda and Bear Novelty Radios, 1970s

When it comes to shoehorning radios into novelty shaped cases, bears and pandas appear to be a popular choice. I suppose it has something to do with the shape. Stoat or antelope shaped radios, say, would be much harder to make,  with less space inside for the works and fewer places for knobs and buttons, and truth be told, they’re just not as cute or cuddly.

 

And so we come to this pair of bear-shaped AM radios, of which, I confess, I know little. The black and white bear looks a bit like the Misha (or Mishka) character, which was the official mascot of the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow, but it’s not quite right, and I don't recall it ever sporting an oversize maroon bow tie. There are no markings – apart from Hong Kong on the base – so my guess it that’s it’s a cheap or unofficial souvenir. The Panda’s origins are equally obscure, though again it hails from Hong Kong; maybe it’s based on a locally popular cartoon character? Either way I’m open to suggestions or a more detailed history.

 

What I do know for certain is that the Panda radio is the more conventional design, with a front-facing speaker and inside there is what looks like a standard 5-transistor superhet receiver board. It’s the sort that you’ll find in scores of 1970’s pocket trannys. The tuning and volume knobs poke out where the creature’s eyes should be, giving it a decidedly menacing robotic look. The bear’s PCB looks like a custom job. It’s a 6-transistor superhet design and the circuit board is an unusual circular shape, with a hole in the middle. The volume and tuning thumbwheels are concealed in the creature’s ears and accessed from behind. The speaker is built into the back of the head. The Panda’s battery – a standard 9-volt PP3 type -- fits into a compartment in the base, accessed through a removable hatch. The bear runs on two AA cells and to get at the holder you have the split the bear into two. 

 

What Happened To Them?

Bears, pandas and critters of many different and sometimes indeterminate species continue to be popular places to fit radios, though most of the modern ones I’ve seem tend to be more fluffy and cuddly, dressed up, heavily accessorised, or more clearly merchandised, which is the price of progress I guess… These two came as part of a job lot of old radios on ebay. I bought them a few years ago and I doubt that I paid more than £10 or so. These two were in good shape cosmetically and both work, though like many radios of the era they needed new battery connectors and few squirts of switch cleaner to de-crackle the volume controls. Radios like these tend to be of marginal interest to serious radio collectors, they were after all produced in fairly large numbers and they’re not that difficult to find. Collectors of bears and pandas and associated furry beasts, and not forgetting fake Olympic mascots may like this sort of thing but they tend to go for mint and boxed examples. Needless to say this is probably not an area for serious investment, but if you see one at a car boot sale, and it looks like it’s next stop is going to be landfill, do the decent thing and save it for posterity, even if it costs you 50 pence. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1970 - 80

Original Price                   £5.00

Value Today?                   £5.00 1211

Features:                          5/6 transistor AM superhetrodyne radios, rotary volume on/off & tuning controls, built-in 55mm (2.25in) speakers, wrist carry straps

Power req.                        Panda 1 x 9v PP2, Bear 2 x AA cell

Weight:                             Panda 156g, Bear 202g

Dimensions:                      Panda 145 x 125 80mm

                                         Bear 175 x 95 x 90mm

Made in:                            Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):      5

 


Franklin LF-390 Electronic Guitar and Radio 1969?

You’ve probably worked out that this is a novelty radio, but what you may not realise is that it’s also a working miniature electric guitar. It appears to be loosely based on the classic Fender Stratocaster; the plastic and metal case houses a fairly standard 8 transistor AM medium wave radio, with the sound coming from the speaker grille below the volume and tuning knobs. Flip a slide switch on the upper left corner and it goes into guitar mode. That’s a real magnetic pickup in the middle of the chrome-plated pickguard. The four strings are metal and the tuning headstock and bridge adjustments are miniaturised versions of the real thing and actually work. It’s debateable as to whether you could ever get a tune out of it, but pluck the strings and you can – just about – hear the twang it through the speaker.

 

I haven’t been able to find out much about it, but what is known is the model number, LF-390 and that it was made by Franklin Creative Products in Japan. The removable back cover also mentions that patents are pending in Japan, USA and UK. There are no other clues on the box or instruction manual so the date is complete guesswork and based on the design and components used in the radio (germanium transistors and a diode – definitely no chips or silicon here), and the very high standard of construction. I reckon it dates back to the late sixties, but it could be 5-6 years either way.

 

It’s a functional radio but clearly designed for display and to that end it comes with a metal stand with a fold out leg. Again the quality of construction is of a very high order. It is powered by a single 9 volt PP3 (006P) battery and as far as I can make out there’s nothing missing and it is in excellent condition.

 

For the record I found it on ebay and was surprised by the low number of rival bidders and the final price of just £20.00. They rarely come up for auction in the UK – I don’t think many were sold here -- but I have seen the exact same model, in not such good condition, selling on ebay US for over £50, and that was without the box or instructions. Perhaps the fact that the auction ended midweek at 3pm had something to do with it.     

 

What Happened To It?

Novelty radios made in the sixties and seventies tended not to be in production for very long. Fads come and go and I doubt that this one – probably riding on the back of early rock and roll, Beatlemania and so on -- was no different. As soon as sales started to dip the company would have moved on to making radios in some other trendy shape. My guess is that they were around for 5 or 6 years; tens of thousands of them were probably made in that time but radios, being essentially disposable items, maybe only a few hundred will have survived, which makes them quite collectable, and potentially a good investment if you can find one in a decent state for a fair price.


GIZMO GUIDE (Manual)

First seen:                        1969?

Original Price                   £5?

Value Today?                   £50? 1011

Features:                          8 transistor AM radio, magnetic pickup, working headstock and bridge, volume and tuning knobs, fold out display stand

Power req.                        9 volt PP3

Weight:                             346g

Dimensions:                      295 x 105 x 40mm

Made in:                           Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     8


International HP-1000 AM/FM Headphone Radio, 1982

Over the years I’ve come across several examples of small radios and other widgets shoehorned into headphones. In terms of technology and performance the International  HP-1000 is nothing special but it’s a neat design, even if it is fairly cheaply made. In the absence of hard evidence, such as adverts and reviews, precisely dating products like this can be tricky but there are clues. On the top and sides of the box are a couple of blonde models, proudly wearing their HP-1000s, sporting classic eighties mullet hairstyles. The blurb on the box makes a big thing of the ‘bright red’ LED power indicator; these started appearing on low-end consumer products at around that time. The circuit board uses all discrete components – no chips here – and the sound is mono only. Finally, the PCB is covered in wax, a favourite trick of Hong Kong and Taiwanese radio makers of the era. Back then circuit design and assembly could be a bit slapdash and the wax stopped RF components from moving around and upsetting the alignment.

 

Potential purchasers not blown away by the novelty of the bright red LED may well have been swayed by the ‘stylish, lightweight’ design. The two slim earphones have simple and accessible controls (volume and on/off switch on the left side) and tuning and AM/FM selector on the right. However, the big selling point is the hinges at either end of the headband; the whole thing folds up neatly and slips easily into a pocket. As it says on the box, ‘Take-anywhere sound can be yours’, placing it firmly in the rapidly growing market for personal music players, kickstarted by the revolutionary Sony Walkman just a couple of years earlier.

 

Other key features include a rather nifty 5-section telescopic aerial on the right side module – remember to duck when you go through doorways – comfy foam padded earpieces, and plenty of adjustment on the headband, for heads (and hairstyles) of all shapes and sizes. Power comes from a pair of AA cells, which fit into the left hand module. Needless to say sound quality is tinny, mono tinny in fact and FM works best within sight of a transmitter. Tuning is quite temperamental too, but hey, they almost certainly sold for less than twenty quid and were fine for catching the news or a bit of music when you were out and about.

 

What Happened To It?

The HP-1000 and its ilk was pitched at those who wanted, but either couldn’t afford a decent personal tape machine, or didn’t want the bother of lugging the player around and fighting with a tangle-prone headphone lead. However, by the mid 1980s personal cassette player prices had plummeted. They also became significantly smaller, lighter and easier to carry; quite a few of them also had built in stereo radios, and these developments will have reduced the already limited appeal of a not very good mono headphone radio. I suspect they lasted until the mid 80s and the survival rate was probably quite low, judging by the build quality and the few that turn up on ebay.

 

This one actually came from Brighton’s excellent Marina market a couple of years ago. I think I paid three or four pounds for it, mainly because it looked to be in good condition and had its original box. Unfortunately someone had left a battery in it, with predictable results. Luckily the damage wasn’t too bad and it was easy enough to find a replacement spring and fit some new contacts, but if I had thought to inspect it more closely I would probably have haggled. I doubt that it’s ever going to be much of an investment but I have a soft spot for small novelty radios, and it marks an interesting and less travelled backwater of the 80s personal stereo boom. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1982?

Original Price                   £10

Value Today?                   £5 0911

Features:                          Folding headphones with built-in AM/FM radio, mode & on/off switches, volume and tuning thumbwheels, 5-section telescopic aerial

Power req.                        2 x AA cells

Weight:                             160g

Dimensions:                     each module 105 x 48 x 38mm

Made in:                           probably Hong Kong, possibly Taiwan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    4


Clairtone Mini Hi-Fi Radio, 1970

The little radio on the left is a bit of a mystery. What isn’t in doubt is that it’s a very close copy of the Mk 2 Sinclair Micromatic (right), billed as the ‘world’s smallest transistor radio’ (which it wasn’t, incidentally). It’s also a fact that the Mini Hi-Fi was made by a Canadian company called Clairtone, almost certainly in 1970. Clairtone, once a prestigious Hi-Fi manufacturer, had gone bust by the time the Mini Hi-Fi was launched. The firm lost a small fortune getting into the colour TV market too early and had been bought out by the Government of Nova Scotia. This was one of its first, and as far as I’m aware, last products, under its new ownership. 

 

The odd thing is that it’s not an exact copy of the Micromatic. The circuitry is sufficiently different from the Sinclair original to avoid accusations of blatant cloning, yet the case and cosmetics are almost identical. I would have expected fewer differences if it were being made under license, which begs the question, was it an officially sanctioned product, or a rip-off? There’s very little about it on the web; one site suggests that it was produced as a promotional give-away for car dealers, but the packaging has the look and feel of a retail product so there is definitely a story to be told. If anyone can fill in the gaps I would be very pleased to hear from them.(Update -- see below)

 

Time for a closer look. The Clairtone Hi-Fi has all of the key features of the Micromatic. It’s a tiny single band AM radio, not much larger than a box of matches, based around a simple 2-transistor reflex circuit. Power comes from a pair of button cells and the audio output is via a 2.5mm jack to a magnetic earpiece. The radio is switched on by plugging in the earpiece. The circuit and PCB differ significantly from the Micromatic and it uses a more substantial tuning capacitor, rather than the crude postage stamp trimmer of the Sinclair radio. The cases could almost have come out of the same moulds, though the Hi-Fi has a slot in the top for a wrist strap and a notch cut around the earphone opening, which I suspect was to make assembly easier. Access to the battery compartment is via a sliding panel on the back, it’s a much snugger fit on the HI-Fi  – the Micromatic back has a habit of falling off -- and there’s a moulded recess that makes it easier to remove with a fingernail.

 

It was sold as not working but it was easy to fix. A couple of wires coming from the coils around the ferrite rod aerial needed resoldering and there was some light corrosion on the battery contacts that had to be removed. In spite of the changes to the circuitry there is little or no difference in the performance, compared with a Mk 2 Micromatic, in other words it’s pretty awful and can only pull in a couple of strong stations (and this was less than 5 miles from a main AM transmitter). 

 

What Happened To It?

According to Wikipedia Clairtone closed down in 1971 so this little radio was probably only on sale for a year or two but without knowing how many were built it’s impossible to say how rare it is. My guess a few thousand were made, and they turn up on ebay three or four times a year so there must still be a few of them about.

 

Not surprisingly my Mini HI-Fi came from ebay. It is in