Cassettes, stereo amplifiers and systems: a look back at the launch of What Hi-Fi?

Back Issues 1
(Image credit: Future)

1976 was a memorable year in the UK. In the world of sport Björn Borg won the first of an astonishing five Wimbledon men’s tennis titles in a row; David Wilkie and John Currie took gold at the hot and cold Olympic Games; the mighty West Indian team started its 20-year domination of world cricket by leading a sorry home squad a not so merry dance over the brown, sun-baked outfields of England after a summer heatwave that is still for many the reference point for such meteorological events.

As for music, the Eagles released Hotel California; Songs In The Key Of Life by Stevie Wonder got to number two in the album charts; and there was already an ABBA Greatest Hits compilation selling by the bucket load. 

Number one chart singles that year included Mamma Mia by ABBA, Elton John and Kiki Dee’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, and the legendary Showaddywaddy’s Under The Moon Of Love (one of my very first vinyl purchases, if I remember correctly).

A new magazine

What Hi-Fi? issue 1 cover

(Image credit: Future)

And, of course, 1976 saw the launch of a new hi-fi magazine. What Hi-Fi? incorporating Popular Hi-Fi emerged after the success of the latter’s occasional guides to the market. The idea was to give the readership the best idea of what the hi-fi industry had to offer every month. 

The launch title editor, David Line, explained the magazine’s philosophy in his leader:

“We do not believe that a vast technical knowledge is necessary to either buy or enjoy hi-fi; as a buyer, your needs are as legitimate as those of the most advanced expert. What Hi-Fi? will aim to provide you with more buying help and information than any other publication.”

While the medium has changed somewhat, that remains the underlying philosophy of What Hi-Fi?, whether in print or digitally, in magazine form or via this very website online.

It's all there in black and white

What Hi-Fi? issue 1 test

(Image credit: Future)

Clearly, the means of communicating the information that people crave was very different in 1976. The magazine, black and white almost throughout with just an occasional colour photograph, claimed to provide the price of every piece of hi-fi equipment on sale in the UK, via comprehensive pages at the back. 

The ideas behind the testing undertaken remain very much the same, as you will see (above) from this remarkably ambitious collation of 50 (that’s fifty…) systems from issue one. What Hi-Fi? still regularly provides ideas for systems comprising products that go together particularly well, although it’s usually just a few at a time, gone into in rather more depth.

Let's go to an ad break

What Hi-FI? issue 1 advertisement

(Image credit: Future)

The amount of advertising is of particular note: nowadays, most people get information on the best price for a piece of equipment via a search engine online; in 1976, for hi-fi, What Hi-Fi? was that search engine. To that end, the first issue is packed with adverts for local dealers selling their wares, alongside the usual display ads one might expect from the bigger hi-fi manufacturers. 

Those prices make for some nostalgic reading.

The more things change…

What Hi-Fi? issue 1 amplifier head to head

(Image credit: Future)

The core of the brand, though, remains the same, as we can see by comparing the first issue with the latest one. In the October 1976 launch issue, the cover announces that it is testing 12 new top value items and matching the power on 500 hi-fi units. The new issue of What Hi-Fi?, just out in the shops now, is also a power issue, with our favourite stereo amplifiers for less than £1000. 

In 1976, we had a head to head of the Rotel RT624 stereo amplifier versus a Lux T33. In the May 2023 issue there is a similar clash, this time between Rega Elex Mk4 and Cambridge Audio’s Award-winning CXA 81. 

From the back, to the future

What Hi-Fi? issue 1 buying guide listing

(Image credit: Future)

The listings at the back of the magazine have become our pick of the top products in each category; whathifi.com is now the place for more extensive Best Buys for a far larger variety of products than the magazine covered almost half a century ago. Whether you want the best wireless earbuds, best record players or best OLED TVs, we have it all. 

The products may have changed, and the medium via which our readership gathers their information certainly has, but it is reassuring to see that the values of What Hi-Fi? have remained very much the same over the past almost half century.

MORE:

Why the 1970s were the perfect time to start a British hi-fi company

2023 is going to be a great year for hi-fi separates, and I couldn’t be more excited

Read our British Hi-Fi Week 2023 news, reviews and features

Jonathan Evans
Editor, What Hi-Fi? magazine

Jonathan Evans is the editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine, and has been with the title for 17 years or so. He has been a journalist for getting on for three decades now, working on a variety of technology and motoring titles, including Stuff, Autocar and Jaguar. With his background in sub-editing and magazine production, he likes nothing more than a discussion on the finer points of grammar. And golf.

  • DistortedVision
    Didn't realise that Russ Andrews had been peddling his snake oil for that long.
    Reply
  • nopiano
    Love this step back in time, and the prices and guides and reviews! :)
    Reply
  • nopiano
    DistortedVision said:
    Didn't realise that Russ Andrews had been peddling his snake oil for that long.
    To be fair, he was running a Hifi dealership then, as the ad makes plan.

    He was one of the first to reveal how badly set-up or assembled kit needed work. It was good attention to what mattered, and he wasn’t peddling anything except excellent service which many didn’t offer.

    He must be doing something right to meet customers’ needs after 50ish years, and nobody has to buy what he sells.
    Reply