Exploring Tom Petty’s Stereo Setup

I’m a fierce advocate for everyone enjoying music however they like, the key words are joy and music, not gear. So I’m not one to judge, but as someone with a deep passion for the gear, I’m always fascinated by how people listen to music. So I loved this look into Tom Petty’s 1978 stereo setup as he shared with Circus Magazine in 1978. Let’s dive in.

Turntable: Garrard SL-95B
Cartridge: Shure M55
Receiver: Marantz 2270
Speakers: JBL-44
(Also a Teac 3340S Reel-to-Reel and Sony CF-550A cassette player but I’m not familiar enough to comment on those)

We’ll start with the Garrard turntable. Garrard was a leading turntable manufacturer starting in the World War II era, but started to decline in the late sixties, stuck with a parent company who refused to properly invest, and soon were surpassed by higher quality German and Japanese competition. When Tom Petty’s SL-95B hit the market in 1969, the company was about a year into the serious budget cuts that would handicap their development. They were no longer pioneers leading the charge in turntable innovation, but, for a very short time longer, were still building quality products and this model was the best of its line. You can see a couple of minor cost-motivated sacrifices, namely the choice of a cheap plastic plinth with that truly hideous woodgrain paneling, which also negatively impacts the sound compared to the real wood plinth included with previous Garrard models.

Of course Tom Petty used a decade-old idler drive turntable at the peak of direct drive units’ popularity. Idler drive units may not match the best direct drive and belt turntables in terms of specification measurements, and can be more prone to rumble or external noise, and had pretty much been eliminated from production by the mid-seventies. But there’s a reason those of us who love them go crazy collecting, they also provide an unrivaled liveliness and thump to the music. And speaking of thump to the music, I simply love his choice of a Shure M55 cartridge, a personal favorite of mine but a distinctly uncool choice in 1978. In Shure’s 1978 catalog, they literally list the M55 all the way at the bottom, even spelling out, ‘They are intended for economy systems’. Hardly the choice for a rockstar.

But when first introduced in 1964, this was actually a top of the line model, and after years of neglect, is once again revered today. The popular narrative today is that DJ’s revived this forgotten cartridge, digging them out of clearance bins and bringing them into the nightclubs in the eighties, where their high output and rock solid bass shined. But here was one of the biggest rock stars in the world rocking this distinctly out of fashion product a few years earlier, on his appropriately outdated idler wheel turntable. And it sure makes sense, given the man’s tastes. I just threw it on a Garrard table while I write this, playing the Stax/Volt Revue Live in Paris which features Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd and Otis Redding… and man, these voices just sound different through this cartridge. It’s not a perfect cartridge, lacking a bit in detail and depth of soundstage, but the bounce of the boosted bass and vocal emphasis are just too much fun. Especially when listening to that sixties rhythm & blues and rock & roll that forged Tom Petty’s musical identity. Eventually Shure would come back around too and, in the end, the M44/M55 series became the best-selling and longest-produced cartridge in the company’s history.

Hooked up to that vinyl setup is a Marantz 2270, on the shortlist for the very best receiver ever manufactured. The Marantz 22XX series of receivers is deservedly legendary, and this model is towards the very top of that series. From the moment Saul Marantz started the company until it was sold to Phillips in 1980, Marantz produced the absolute top-of-the-line components, employing the best engineers to constantly break new ground and deliver peak sound quality.

So what is the Marantz sound? The adjective you hear constantly is ‘warm’, which is frequently associated with an increased bass and slightly rolled-off highs. It’s a fair description for much of that era’s gear, but Marantz is distinct from the competition with improved clarity, instrument separation and soundstage while reaching that warm sound by emphasizing the mids. And it performs with simply a certain explosiveness… Marantz watts are just different. My Marantz 2230 can match Harman Kardon 930 in volume despite possessing only 2/3 of the technical wattage power. So the power and explosiveness of 70 watts per channel… mmm I can only dream.

With all those magical watts, Petty powered a pair of JBL L44 Lancer Speakers. While I don’t believe in designating speakers for specific genres of music, JBL’s are legendary as THE rock speaker. Tom Petty always seemed like the lovable Robinhood pirate of the music industry, so it’s amusing that he obtained the top-of-the-line receiver and speakers by stealing them from his producer.

In the end, it’s a system that really highlights his love of rock & roll, rhythm & blues, and music with a really strong pulse and backbeat. Very much makes sense with his history as a bassist. Idler wheel turntables and the Shure M55 cartridge in particular are renowned for capturing the explosiveness of that pulsating beat, and when teamed up with substantial Marantz power and speakers voiced for rock music, paint a clear picture of the sounds he admired and chased in his own work. And like the music he listened to and created, his system had a decidedly vintage feel that ignored current trends.

Eventually, he acquired a stunning Grundig console from 1959, which had to be one of the first stereo models ever produced, and showcased that beauty in this fun Hypnotic Eye promo video below:

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