When I got started a few years ago and began my vintage audio journey, I did a lot of reading and research about Marantz, Pioneer, Harmon Kardon, Sansui, Nakamichi, and high-end brands like McIntosh and Revox. One brand that never crossed my radar was Realistic. RadioShack’s infamous house brand that was sold next to the pulsating disco balls, wire strippers, and TV antenna.
RadioShack was started in Boston by two brothers in 1921 with the goal of supporting the growing number of people who were operating ham radios, and radio officers on ships. The “Radio Shack” was the official term for the room onboard ships where radio operators communicated with others ships and the various ports that they operated out of.
The company got into the catalog business in 1939 and entered the high-fidelity market in 1954. The initial plan was to sell their equipment under the “Realist” brand, but legal issues forced them to change it to “Realistic.”
Not very creative on their part but I suppose it was a way of describing the sound of their equipment if you listened hard enough.
Realistic had some very successful products in the CB category, along with a few 8-track tape recorders from their TR series that made money for RadioShack and Tandy.
The Tandy Corporation (which started as a leather goods manufacturer) acquired RadioShack and the rest is history. Tandy, along with Apple and Commodore revolutionized the personal home computer market which made their retail locations a major destination.
The Realistic brand benefitted from this level of exposure to hobbyists, computer nerds, and consumers who made RadioShack one of the leading retailers of consumer electronics. Tandy also consolidated the rather substantial catalog from 20,000 items to 2,500 items – focusing on the 20% that actually sold.
Around 500 RadioShack locations still exist (all independently owned) but the company that most of us grew up with is long gone (maybe…no, it’s gone). The Realistic brand was changed to Optimus, which is going to be the subject of a future article about budget vintage loudspeakers.
I’m sure many of you are wondering – “Is he really going to recommend Realistic as a vintage audio brand worth looking at?”
Indeed I am. But with some real caveats.
Realistic did not manufacture their own equipment. It was farmed out to OEM manufacturers in other countries, specifically Japan and Singapore. One of the manufacturers is a brand that will perk up the ears of a lot of audiophiles.
Especially those who purchased very expensive high-end CD players and transports when that market was quite big in the category.
We’re going to look at 4 specific components that were sold and marketed under the Realistic brand that offer decent build quality and surprisingly good sound quality. They’re not replacing my vintage tube Pilot or Fisher equipment, but I do own 2 of them and have access to the other two products I’m recommending.
The Realistic LAB-400 Turntable
I can hear the snickering from New Jersey all the way from here. Considering the time period when RadioShack sold a lot of audio equipment, it made sense for them to offer a lineup of turntables. Not all of them were very good, but the LAB-400 proved to be the exception to the rule. As I mentioned earlier, RadioShack had other OEMs manufacture their components. For this turntable, they selected C.E.C. — same company who made some of the most expensive audiophile CD players and transports. C.E.C. manufactured audio components for a significant number of audio companies including Marantz, Grundig, Sony, Sanyo, Toshiba, Alpine, Mitsubishi, Kenwood, and Teac.
Not a bad group of clients.
The Realistic LAB-400 is a direct drive fully automatic turntable and I’ll scare some of you by stating that it is almost as good as my Technics SL-1700. Turntable aficionados will stop reading, but I’m confident that they’ve never heard it. I’ve listened to it a lot. There are moments when I laugh because it’s hard to believe RadioShack offered such an affordable turntable like this that actually sounds good.
It features a simulated wood plinth, with dark grey metal accents, and an S-shaped tonearm with removable headshell. Audio-Technica cartridge users should delight in that knowledge.
The LAB-400 was sold with a factory-mounted Shure R-100E moving magnet cartridge; a really inexpensive cartridge that offers excellent depth, detail, and stereo separation. My neighbor, (@Hifi_neighbor on IG) uses the LAB-400 as his daily driver and having listened to it on a regular basis, I have to admit that I’m not sure he could replace it with something better at the same price that he paid. Very impressive vintage turntable for the money spent.
These turntables are highly regarded and the word is start to get out and build demand. A good example of the LAB-400 will run you around $150-250. It is a great starter turntable in the used vintage category.
Realistic STA-960 Receiver
The STA-960 was a bit of an interesting find. The silver finish makes the unit look far more expensive than it really is, and the solid metal knobs feel like they were machined with precision. What makes it really work is the beveled glass front cover which allows the warm orange glow of the tuner dial and meters to really stand out. I turned the lights off multiple times just to enjoy the effect.
The receiver is actually reasonably powerful and can deliver 50 watts/channel (8 ohms) and drive a lot of affordable vintage loudspeakers quite well. I’ve compared the STA-960 receiver to comparable Pioneer units from the period and I preferred its tonal balance and sense of drive.
The Marantz 2245 is the logical competitor here – even though the Marantz has a cult following and has a genuine edge in the industrial design department.
Sonically – it’s pretty close but I can see a lot of people listening to both and picking the Realistic model. The differences are not huge, which amazed me and other listeners.
The downside is that these receivers are not very common and are quietly sought after by those who know the quality lurking behind the faceplate. A good working example will now run you in the range of $250-400, which is still a lot cheaper than a Marantz 2245.
The APM-200 is a VU meter that connects via the speaker binding posts, rather than through one of the standard RCA output jacks. So if you have a receiver with an A/B speaker output and love the look of VU meters (and who doesn’t), then this is right up your alley. The display features both illuminated VU meters and LEDs which is very uncommon as it is usually one or the other with the exception of the Luxman M-4000 which is very rare.
The front has two switches; a power switch and the “2w/200w” switch which allows you to set the meter between the 2 – 200 watt range if you’re playing the beginning drum solo of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” For average listening levels, I leave it on 2 watts. There is a cheaper APM-100 model, but that model does not have the LEDs, wattage switch, or VU meter backlights.
VU meters have disappeared from most amplifiers; McIntosh, Yamaha, and Luxman still offer them on their products, and I know that most people who love vintage audio amplifiers almost demand this feature. The APM-200 has a serious following with people who collect these types of components and don’t be surprised to find one in the $150-250 range. They are rare and hard to find in pristine condition.
Realistic Minimus 7 Loudspeakers
I could spend an entire article just writing about these loudspeakers. The Minimus 7s are diminutive over-engineered 2-way speakers that have developed a cult following. It’s almost amusing how animated some people get on audio forums debating the merits/drawbacks of these very affordable loudspeakers. Ok – it’s somewhat pathetic how angry some audiophiles become fighting about this product. It’s a pair of loudspeakers. Made overseas.
Realistic offered several different models; the vast majority were made in black, white, or in this offbeat silver metal encased cabinet. A real walnut-veneered version; the Minimus 7W was rather popular.
Each model had two different versions; with the primary difference being the size of the capacitor used in the crossover. Regardless of which model you find, the crossover can be repaired or rebuilt rather easily with rudimentary soldering skills. Upgrading the capacitor can make a huge difference with this loudspeaker. The Minimus 7s actually require some power. I would recommend between 30-50 watts to really let them open up. The obvious downside with such a small woofer and cabinet is the absence of any real low end. This is not a bass monster for your parties. Realistic managed to get decent midrange and treble performance out of these loudspeakers. I have them set-up in my dining room connected to the Fisher 400 and I’m consistently amazed at how well they do with Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, the Avett Brothers, and other acoustic music.
You can find a pair of the Minimus 7s in decent condition below $50 which is actually a deal in this scenario.
RadioShack is back in business. For real. Their operations appear to be mostly online at this point but I’m hearing some online chatter about a return of Realistic or Optimus. I would stick with these rare components if you can find them.