The Empires Strike Back

Strange Currencies Blog

I don’t come from a family of musicians. I have memories of my great uncle and uncle (neither blood-related) playing guitar at family gatherings, but – aside from a keyboard that I had as a young kid – it wasn’t until my older brother bought a guitar and drum set during my seventh grade year that I was a part of a “musical family.” In fact, of the three sons in my family, I was the last of us to have a guitar – but the only one who stuck with it.

While I don’t have musicianship in my bloodline, I can at least claim to come from a lineage of music fans. I suppose that’s not exactly rare, but as a kid, it did seem like my dad was into music more than the average adult. While he wasn’t keeping up with new releases beyond listening to the radio, he referenced music a lot. Working in construction – often as the only person on location – he was able to soundtrack his own workday. It was rare that a family visit to his worksite didn’t involve us having to yell over his “tunes” in order to determine his location, followed by my mom insisting that one of us turn the volume down. I can still picture his silver “ghetto blaster,” covered by construction plastic, but speckled with drywall mud regardless.


My dad didn’t listen to music a lot at home, at least not inside. He’d have the radio on if he was out in the garage, and perhaps if he was working on the lawn. For him, music was mostly listened to as an accompaniment to work, or while driving. This was understandable, I suppose. With a wife and three sons, he didn’t have a “dedicated space” to listen. I generally only remember him turning on the stereo if my mom was out running errands.

It seemed as if his stereo only had one volume setting – maybe two. He never listened to much music that could be described as “loud,” but it didn’t really matter. Bob Dylan. Loud. Charlie Daniels. Loud. Gordon Lightfoot. Really loud. These listens usually ended around the time my mom got home. The stereo would be shut off, and a certain “peace” would return to the house.

That stereo was an object of intrigue for me as far back as I can remember, probably a combination of its prominent placing in the living room and its relatively rare use. The amplifier was a 1970s model JVC, black-faced, with wooden side paneling. A bit of photo album/internet sleuthing leads me to conclude that it was likely a 5540 model. I remember that the tuning and volume knobs had enough weight to them to feel substantial. His turntable was a solid, dependable Pioneer – likely a PL-117D, based on photo/online comparisons.

Christmas, 1989. My dad’s receiver and turntable can be seen over my right shoulder, as I check out my brand new Mongoose Decade.

My dad was proud of those components – enough to hold onto their original boxes through several moves – but both artifacts were lost to antiquity around twenty years ago. By that point, they had been relegated to the garage, where they were tossed into non-original boxes, and eventually lost among the clutter of bikes, hockey gear, and seasonal holiday decorations.

At one point, as a teen in the late nineties, I tried to resurrect them. The amp was a lost cause. There were pieces of hay protruding from the casing, which was odd, since my family never lived anywhere near a farm. The Pioneer deck got a little bit of use during my first semester of college, while I was still living at home with my parents. However, when the time came to replace the cartridge, it faced an uncertain future. My dad talked to our neighbor – a stoner in his late-twenties, who either owned or managed a car stereo store – to ask about a replacement cartridge. “Can’t find parts for those,” he said, referring to turntables in general. “No one uses them anymore.”

The amplifier and turntable met their end shortly thereafter – unceremoniously placed alongside several other items for “bulky trash” pickup. Had we asked someone more knowledgeable – or waited a year until we got dial-up internet service – we would’ve been able to locate a compatible cartridge with minimal difficulty. 


There had, of course, been another element to my dad’s stereo system – the most intriguing of all. After all, in the mind of a young kid, it’s where the sound really came from. The pièce de résistance of Dad’s stereo was a pair of Empire 6000 speakers. Two feet of walnut veneer concealed three speakers inside of a hexagonal cabinet. The mid-range driver and tweeter were hidden behind an aluminum grille, and there was a 12-inch woofer in the base that pointed straight down, but projected sound outward by way of a conical plastic housing. Topping them off – literally – were heavy, round marble tops. These were more than a piece of stereo equipment. They were furniture. Badass furniture.

A much earlier Christmas – perhaps 1984 – and a different, but equally awesome, ride. One of the Empire 6000s can be seen looming in the background.

My dad bought the Empire 6000s, new, in the mid-seventies – around the time that he and my mom were married. He held onto them for twenty-five years, though for the last five of those years, they played a severely diminished role. A built-in cabinet in the living room of the last home that we lived in together as a family meant that they ultimately joined the amp and receiver out in the garage – the marble tops wrapped in blue U-Haul moving blankets. Despite their curtailed prominence, the “Empires” gained a sort of mythical reputation among me and my friends. Their time in the garage had created a perception that their value was limited to “project” status, but they were still a respected item. 


I moved out of my parents’ house in the summer of 2001. My younger brother had just graduated high school, and I was about to get married. My parents took that as an opportunity to sell the house, and move to Hawaii for a few years, where my dad could make better money as a union worker. My fiancé and I had signed the lease to a small, one-bedroom apartment, and I had convinced myself that “minimalism” should be a priority. I was a year away from graduating college, and neither she nor I had much interest in staying in Arizona for much longer, so I decided to take a “less is more” approach to home decor.

My biggest sacrifice was the Marshall half-stack that I had purchased just before my senior year of high school – a beautiful JTM-45 head with small, “tasteful” lettering, paired with a silver-screened slanted cabinet with similarly small lettering, and four Greenback speakers made in West Germany. I sold it – with no prompting from my now-wife – to J. Long for a ridiculously low price in order to keep it “in the family.” He has taken great care of it ever since. 

My Marshall on the eve of its departure – with its Fender combo replacement by its side.

I wasn’t the only member of the family to let go of a beloved item that summer. It was at that point that my dad parted ways with his Empires. They were first made available to my brothers and I. Neither of them seemed to have any interest, and I – in my commitment to minimalism – offered them to George Budney, who kept them in the extended family by giving them a home in his Tempe apartment.

George held on to the speakers for several years, even doing some “refurbishment” on them along the way. But eventually, as they seemed to do, the Empires found their way to a corner of his garage – replaced by smaller, more modern speakers. In the summer of 2008, after my wife and I purchased our first home, George offered my family heirlooms back to me. I accepted them, but they only found use as end tables in our garage that had been converted to a family room. 

When I moved to Oregon in 2012, the Empires were among the final items placed in a U-Haul trailer, hastily attached to a 26-foot Ryder moving truck. Had my dad and I not found space for them, they may have remained in the garage for the next owner of my house to deal with, but given a new lease on life in the Pacific Northwest, the speakers became nightstands in the master bedroom of our suburban rental home. They remained in that capacity when we bought a new home in 2015.


For my 40th birthday last summer, my wife and kids bought me my first good turntable. I had been using a Radio Shack model for fifteen years, so my superb new U-Turn deck was a much-appreciated upgrade. Its hardwood walnut plinth immediately reminded me of my dad’s Pioneer turntable, and I decided, out of curiosity, to see if the old Empires might still be useable. Fortunately, their original owner was in town visiting.

We pulled the base off of the first speaker and saw George’s “handiwork” from many years back. Stripped wood screws loosely held a replacement of the original woofer in place, but – other than two decades worth of dust – everything appeared to be in working order. The second speaker was in similar shape. Some original hardware had been replaced – as had the woofer, again – but all systems appeared operational.

There was one “bonus feature” of the second speaker – a pair of vice grips that George had mistakenly left inside of the cabinet and which had become attached to the magnet of the driver. This wasn’t actually a surprise; the vice grips had become yet another part of the speakers’ lore. Apparently, after a marathon session of replacing the woofers, circa 2001, George realized too late that the vice grips had been left inside. He didn’t feel like disassembling the speaker again to retrieve them, so they remained. Having battled the stripped-out screws myself, I don’t necessarily blame him.

The optional “add-on” feature, and my dad, helping to resurrect his speakers.

Once they were hooked up, the Empires sounded surprisingly good, especially once I complemented them with a subwoofer. While the pair of Klipsch bookshelf speakers that they replaced sounded conventionally better, I was willing to accept a slight tradeoff in sound quality for the sake of sentimentality. Forty-five years after my dad had splurged on them, the Empires were once again being put to real use. They’re not going anywhere any time soon, but I have a feeling that their story is far from over. In fact, I just ordered an early pressing of Astral Weeks – my dad’s favorite album – that I think will pair nicely with them.

Author

  • Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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