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Reviewer: Steve Marsh
Source: Nottingham Analogue Mentor turntable with 10" Anna tonearm, Roksan Shiraz cartridge; Vecteur D-2 CD transport, Audio Note DAC Kit 1.2 with upgrades (additional ps choke, Tantalum resistors, Black Gate capacitors, copper grounding bars on digital chips wired to central ground); Thorens TD-125 MkII; NAD 5000 CD player
Preamp/Integrated: Hovland HP-100 MC tube preamplifier, fully updated
Amp: Red Rose Model 2A Silver Signature tube amplifier; Marantz 5 monos
Speakers: Audio Physic Anniversary Step speakers & Audio Physic Luna active subwoofer; JBL Century L-100
Cables: Harmony Audio, Stealth Audio CWS (analog); Music Metre Fidelis (digital); homemade twisted pair of mil-spec silver cladded multistrand copper )speaker); Analysis Plus Power Oval, PS Audio Mini Lab (power)

Power Conditioner: PS Audio P300
Equipment rack: Michael Green equipment rack

Room size: 11' x 17' with 9' vaulted ceilings
Review component retail: $25 - $300 on eBay prior to restoration, $400 - $600 as reviewed (no new coupling caps)

Thumbing through my cherished collection of Allied Radio and Harvey Radio catalogs, I found a 1960 Allied Radio catalog announcing "two new stereo components", one of which was the first stereo Fisher receiver, the Fisher 600. The very next year, Fisher introduced the Fisher 800 stereo receiver, employing the higher-powered 7591output tube. The 32wpc from this receiver was a serious step up in power in those days, allowing consumers to drive the increasingly common acoustic suspension speakers. The power race was on!

Back in those heady days, at least one Fisher receiver could probably be found in every middle class neighborhood in America. Fisher was the "world's largest producer of high fidelity components," according to their sales literature. With their tasteful champagne-colored faceplate, cool tuning-eye tubes and solid build quality, they practically sold themselves.

1962 brought the Fisher 800B receiver, which is the earliest model in my collection and one of the subjects of this review. The retail price of the 800B was a whopping $429.50 at the time, plus an additional $24.95 for the optional wood case. For perspective, the flagship McIntosh MC-275 powerhouse amp was listed at $444 then. Aesthetically, the 800B is a beauty. The balance of the two EM84 tuning eyes, one on each side of the dial glass, Fisher bird logo in the center, was unsurpassed by later models.

The Fisher 800B is of historical significance since it incorporated an odd technology present only at the beginning of FM stereo. At this time, true multiplex stereo could be obtained from only a very few stations. The competing but short-lived, alternative to mpx stereo was "FM-AM Stereo". Stations using this technology would broadcast one half of the stereo signal on the FM dial and the other half on the AM dial. Setting the 800B's selector knob to FM-AM Stereo and tuning in the sister stations on the FM and AM dials produced the stereo signal. Fortunately for modern listeners, the 800B also included an FM multiplex section.

A side benefit of FM-AM stereo is that audio engineers needed to design the AM section to just as high a standard as their FM section. So whether your talk-radio needs bend towards Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken, the 800B is a great choice for AM listening.

My 1964 Harvey Radio catalog chronicles the first appearance of the Fisher 500C ($389.50) and 400 ($329.50) receivers. These are the other two models rounding out my present-day sampling of Fisher's popular receivers. The 500C also used the 7591 output tube while the 400 utilized a relatively new output tube for the times, the 7868. The RMS power ratings between these units were not that much different, with the 500C listed as 32 watts per channel and the 400 as 28. However, this lower power allowed Fisher to use somewhat smaller transformers as well as a bit smaller chassis, making the 400 a more economical offering.

Fisher proclaimed in their 1964 The New Fisher Handbook that the Fisher 500C was "the industry standard". I don't think this was an overstatement at the time. The first version of the 500C's tuner section used miniature tubes and was called the Golden Cascode RF design. The RF section in later production models featured nuvistors and was called the Nuvistor Golden Synchrode design. Some prefer the earlier version but I have not compared the two.

Just in time for this review, I picked up one of those cheap MDF stereo racks that everyone seemed to be using in the 1980s. It was perfect for housing all three Fisher receivers at once as well as providing a shelf for an NAD 5000 CD player and a Thorens TD-125 Mk.II turntable (although I later moved the turntable onto a sturdier stand where it sounded better). Speakers were JBL Century L-100s, not quite a period match but good for this review due to their excellent sensitivity and full-range performance.

Reviewing vintage equipment requires extra care to determine that the equipment is operating properly as originally designed. It is not like taking delivery of a freshly manufactured piece of modern equipment. While I have not taken out every resistor and measured it against the original spec, rest assured that I have gone through these receivers quite thoroughly. I have been learning how to do tube equipment repairs myself at the hands of the patient tutoring of my electrical engineer friend, Charlie King. Plate, filament and bias voltages were checked throughout each of these receivers.

There are a couple of web sites that give good information on the commonly needed restoration work. A particularly nice site is Antique Radio. This site also has good information on the comparative features of the 800B and 400 receivers. Many are also familiar with The Fisher Doc, Al Pugliese. He offers restoration services as well as Resto-Pak upgrade kits. Good luck getting a hold of him, though. The last time I sent him an email to purchase some replacement knob caps, I got no reply. For the knob caps, I've had much better luck with Paul. However, these are anodized aluminum caps and of definitely lower quality than the originals or the Fisher Doc's solid brass caps. Appearance wise, they are equivalent.

Some of the schematics are available for free at OldTech. I got the Fisher 400 service manual here. You can also check your closest city's main library for SAMS publications, which contain schematics for thousands of vintage electronics. The initial non-electrical restoration steps I performed on all three receivers were:

  • Clean the entire chassis with a damp rag and possibly some Simple Green or the like. An old toothbrush helps in corners.
  • Remove the aluminum faceplate and soak it in dilute ammonia to clean off dirt and any nicotine residue.
  • Install rubber feet sourced from Antique Electronic Supply (or CE Distribution if you are a registered business owner).
  • Install replacement brass knob caps, since there are always some missing. See the link mentioned above.
  • Check all tubes and replace as needed. For purposes of this review, I replaced all the old stock 12AX7 tubes with brand new JJ Tesla ECC83S/12AX7 tubes in order to eliminate any differences due to differential aging in the stock tubes. These 12AX7 tubes are the workhorses in these receivers, comprising all of the phono and line stage valve complements. Output tubes were well matched Westinghouse 7591s and Sylvania 7868s.
  • Clean all potentiometers (volume, balance, etc.) with Deoxit D-5.
  • Replace dial illumination and indicator lamps as needed.

The 500C and 800B required replacement of the selenium rectifier bridge with a silicon rectifier [avove]. This is a very commonly needed repair and must be checked, since it is what supplies both the preamp tube filament voltages and output tube bias voltages. The 400 measured fine so the original selenium rectifier was left in place. All coupling caps were left stock.

Looking at the technical specifications as well as the schematics of each of these receivers, it is apparent that the phono and line stage circuit designs are identical, with two 12AX7 tubes in each. Two more 12AX7 tubes are used as driver tubes in the output stage. One is left wondering how they could sound any different. However, this was part of the challenge as I saw it. Did they really sound the same, differing only slightly in features and power?

I started my listening by comparing the linestages. One of my favorite R&B recordings is Michelle Willson's Trying to Make A Little Love [Bullseye/Rounder 11661-9610-2]. This CD has a raw emotional energy that is rare among many of today's slick over-produced recordings (Patricia Barber anyone?). It's a great test for dynamics in a system. Also, Michelle's voice has a raw edge (I've heard her live) that can be a bit tough in some systems.

The 800B was first on deck. Good tonal balance was the first thing that struck me. This really is a hallmark of vintage tube equipment and one of the major reasons people are drawn to it. The bass was not super clean nor very well pitch-defined. However, substituting many other amplifiers in this system has shown me that this bass quality is largely a characteristic of the JBL speakers. I confirmed this by putting on a CD from local band Bassology, The Feeling That I Get [Reckless Music CD-1024]. David Chevan's stand-up bass is well recorded and it was easy to tell that this is not a strong point of these JBL speakers. What was evident was plenty of bass punch.

Veiling was not an issue either. Vocals were clear and alive, nicely centered without hyper-focus but neither fuzzy with overblown images - just a nice realistic image. The edge on Michelle's voice was there but not accentuated. Lateral imaging was good but image depth suffered some. The soundstage did not have that crystalline see-through quality of today's better high-end tube amplifiers.

Switching to the 500C caused a noticeable improvement. Everything seemed a little cleaner sounding. The bass was more tightly damped, the vocal was a bit more out front and the whole presentation seemed more 3-D and alive. I'm not talking huge differences here but clearly noticeable nonetheless. The initial impact of the drum set and Hammond B-3 in "I Would Rather Do Without It" has more contrast, to borrow photographic image terminology (something I know Srajan has done in one of his Auroville essays).

One aspect of bass quality that I have become more sensitive to over the years is how an amplifier lets go of a bass note. Is there a natural decay? To my ears, many solid-state amps just dry up the decay of bass notes as can tube amps with solid-state rectification. Playing the Michelle Willson CD through the Fisher 400, the bass decay seemed a little better than with the 500C. At the same time, the overall sound was a bit less tidy and the soundstage width was a little compressed. It could be argued that the 500C is more mechanical and that the 400 has a more natural portrayal. I know some who claim that the 400 is more musical for such reasons but my preference is for the 500C.

Also interesting was the change in overall presentation between 500C and 400. The 400 puts the lead vocal farther back in the mix rather than spotlit and out front. Some might find this preferable but I do not. Michelle's voice was a bit smoother and fuller with the 500C, too. The 400 can't quite match the authority and dynamics of the 500C. I think this is probably due to the larger output transformers in the 500C. The difference in presentation may more likely be related to the differences in sound between the 7591 and 7868 output tubes.

Last month, I scored a non-working Thorens TD-125 Mk. II with SME 3009 tonearm for $25. It was in need of a fair amount of work (new fuse, new cartridge, new belt, suspension repair, fresh bearing oil, lubrication of the tone arm's spring-loaded head shell pin contacts). The former owner had badly neglected this table but was not a total kludge. Hanging off the tonearm was an upgraded pair of the pricey Cotter Verion phono cables. This turntable is the perfect phono source for my vintage reviews.

Connecting a moving magnet phono cartridge to vintage receivers should be done through the phono low input rather than phono high, which is for ceramic cartridges. There is no ground lug so just connect the ground to the closest chassis screw. FYI, the Fisher 800B only has one phono input. Starting with the 800B, I gave The Modern Jazz Quartet at Music Inn/Volume 2 [Atlantic 1299] a spin. This is a live recording with Sonny Rollins as guest artist on two cuts (wish it were more!). Dynamics seemed weak so I switched my old Grado 8MZ for a better-condition Garrott P77 on hand. Things got a little better, but not much. Basically, dynamics do not seem to be a strong point of phono playback with the 800B.

Tonal balance was good again but there were other problems. Forget about a black background or other such high-end niceties. Undaunted, I decided to give some classical music a try. The excellent Mercury chamber music recording, Loeffler, Deux Rhapsodies [Mercury SR90277] sounded a little better. Imaging was good as it should be on the great Mercury recordings. The viola's tone was sweet, too. The phono stage seems to do a better job with simpler recordings. If the music gets too complex, things start to blur.