Had you asked what the most exciting trend in high-performance audio was, say, three years ago, I would have told you it was the increasing adoption of room correction in two-channel audio systems. Had you asked me the same question three years before that, I would have told you one of the things exciting me most was that audiophile headphone manufacturers were finally embracing Bluetooth in a meaningful way.
Ask me what the most exciting thing going on in the audiophile world right now is, though, and, well, I’d ask you to give me three years or so to mull over the question. Hindsight and all that. But press me for an answer now and I’ll tell you this: I think nostalgia for—and appreciation of—vintage audio gear is reaching some sort of critical mass.
Not that this is a new trend, mind you. There have been vintage audio groups on Facebook for almost as long as there’s been a Facebook, and the r/vintageaudio subreddit has been going strong for more than a decade now, establishing a firm hold on this subset of our hobby before most people had ever heard of Reddit.
But look at the stats for said subreddit and you’ll see that things have changed in the past couple of years. From its establishment in 2011 until 2017, r/vintageaudio managed to accumulate a respectable 10,000 subscribers. Between 2017 and the beginning of 2020, it garnered an additional 20,000 followers. Since then, the subscriber list has ballooned to an incredible 70,000 subscribers, putting it far ahead of similar subreddits like r/audio and r/diyaudio, although admittedly behind less-specific subs like r/audiophile and r/BudgetAudiophile.
So why the sudden spike in interest for older gear? I’ve read speculation that points to everything from the pandemic and stay-at-home orders to subsequent supply-chain issues to the fact that modern audio gear is simply getting too convoluted, too much of a hassle for the aging men who dominate the base of this hobby. (That last one is particularly ironic given that the phrase “complicated as stereo instructions” has been around for as long as I can remember. But whatever.)
Where video games and audio intersect
I’m not discounting any of those possible explanations, but I have a few ideas of my own that I think deserve consideration as contributing factors. Firstly, the uptick in interest in vintage audio didn’t follow too far behind a retro revival in the world of video games. Back in 2016, Nintendo released the NES Classic, a revamped version of the Nintendo Entertainment System from the 1980s with 30 built-in games, HD upscaling, and HDMI output, but not much else to differentiate it from the original. It retailed for $60, but nobody—especially Nintendo—was prepared for the demand for what appeared at first to be a novelty product. If you could get your hands on one, you might expect to spend upwards of $500. Sites like ThinkGeek held raffles for a chance to win the opportunity to purchase one at MSRP, but only if you also bought a lot of add-on crap.
Why all the hullabaloo over old games like Super Mario Bros. and Ninja Gaiden? Sure, nostalgia is a factor, but I think it also boils down to the fact that the modern video game market has changed as much as the modern audio market. It’s more vital and more profitable, to be sure. But it’s also just as frustrating. These days, you can’t buy a finished video game on day one. Many gamers (myself included) have given up on buying new games until they’ve been on the market for a year or so and have benefited from oodles of patches and revisions and expansion packs and other downloadable content, at which point they start to feel like fully fleshed-out products.
And if you’ve purchased an A/V receiver in the past few years, you’ve almost certainly experienced the same. Look at the features list of a new AVR, and a good number of entries will probably have asterisks and disclaimers reading “via future firmware.” As with gaming, it’s difficult to buy a finished product on the audio marketplace these days, although admittedly it’s a little easier with stereo gear than it is in the home-theater domain.
A chance to disconnect . . .
As with gaming, there’s something to be said about the relative (and I do mean relative) simplicity of vintage 1960s and ’70s audio gear, as well as the fact that what you’re buying is a complete package that, at most, probably just needs to be repaired and refurbished, which is a heck of a lot of fun. It doesn’t need to be patched, updated, or even connected to the internet.
And I think that last point is a bigger one than many of us are admitting. In an increasingly connected world where every app is begging for our constant attention, where social media platforms are literally destroying the fabric of society by way of algorithm-driven attempts to increase engagement, where it’s next to impossible to simply jam out to Black Crowes’ Amorica without being blasted by notifications about the outrageous thing your racist aunt just spewed into cyberspace, there’s something edifying and detoxifying about disconnecting and interacting with a piece of kit that comes from a time when Walter Cronkite was the only news personality most people could name.
Mind you, that cannot be the whole story. Otherwise, you wouldn’t see people restomodding Marantz Model 2230 stereophonic receivers from 1972 to add Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. Why on earth would you go through all that effort in lieu of simply buying a modern, connected stereo receiver? I think some of it boils down to nostalgia, sure, but there’s also something to be said about the aesthetic appeal of old gear.
Image courtesy of AH-Fix-It on YouTube.
Mike Gaughn of Cineluxe recently published a four-part interview with Leon Speakers’ Noah Kaplan, in which the two dug into the impacts of Dieter Rams’s design philosophies on consumer electronics back in the day and design trends like the wooden cases made for old Marantz stereo receivers. The point is, even mass-market audio gear back then was designed to be displayed out in the room. There was an undeniable design language and not a lot of reliance on chromed plastic and drab black pot metal.
And it’s true that you can still find design sensibilities of that sort in high-end audio, but what about mass-market offerings? How many affordable stereo receivers are there these days that can hold a candle to the design of something like the $9500 Technics SU-R1000 stereo integrated amplifier?
Build me a $1500 stereo receiver or integrated amp that looks anything like that thing, and I think I could turn a lot more uninitiated music lovers into high-performance audio enthusiasts. And I’m not just talking about old codgers who were around when that was just what stereo gear looked like. There’s something about the design of the SU-R1000, or the McIntosh MA5300, that looks decidedly non-disposable. And the same could be said of vintage favorites like the Pioneer SX-1250 or Yamaha CR-2020 or Sansui 9090DB. Those things simply look like they were built to last.
And indeed, many of them have. Another recent favorite YouTube video is an hour-long deep-dive by Vintage Audio Addict in which he restores a 50-year-old Kenwood KA-5002 he purchased for $45 (not a typo), shows you how to replace transistors and caps that need replacing, puts the restored receiver on the test bench, and provides a thorough listening evaluation. As I’m looking at my stereo system now, I’m curious how many of the products would still be viable in 50 years, much less functional or reparable—with the exception of the speakers, of course.
Image courtesy of Vintage Audio Addict on YouTube.
Granted, not everything in the vintage audio world is sunshine and roses. Many (although certainly far from all) speakers from the 1980s and before are unfortunate-sounding, to say the least. And there was also a lot more variation in terms of the performance of amps and receivers and such—at least much, much more than there is today.
These days, product reviews are mostly useful insofar as they let you know whether a product will work for your specific needs. When you get right down to it, once you get above a certain price point, you can probably safely assume that most modern audio gear performs relatively well within its constraints. That wasn’t the case 40 or 50 years ago, and SoundStage! wasn’t around back then to let you know which amps and receivers were safe bets and which ones you should have avoided. Sure, we occasionally riff on vintage gear from time to time, but we’ve only been around since 1995 and our review archive only extends back to 2009.
That means that finding well-performing vintage gear can be a bit of a hunt and a bit of a risk, especially if you’re on a budget, because as with any hot market, speculators have swooped in and inflated demand for some of the most beloved stereo gear from the ’60s and ’70s.
There’s one other argument against vintage audio gear, though, that I must admit doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve seen people railing against secondhand audio retailers like Audiogon in recent years, effectively arguing that every vintage amp sold to a new customer is a brand-new amp that won’t get sold at retail. In other words, products designed in the era before planned obsolescence was a thing are displacing the sales of disposable modern gear that will keep our current venture-capital audio manufacturers in business. Boo-freaking-hoo, I say. My primary interest is in turning people on to the experience of listening to music on a high-fidelity sound system, not to help some investment firm’s CEO make his next yacht payment.
If today’s audio companies don’t want to give up market share to 50-year-old amps, maybe they should figure out why these ancient products appeal to so many people (even young people!) in 2022. Of course, as evidenced by the fact that my headline is a question, not a statement, I certainly don’t have all the answers. But it seems to me that it must be some combination of design, aesthetics, build quality, and relative simplicity.
And some manufacturers are catering to those preferences without completely abandoning the modern world. The aforementioned Technics SU-R1000 and McIntosh MA5300 may look (and feel!) old-school, but they benefit from up-to-date connectivity and some innovations in terms of architecture. And companies like Leak Audio are coming back from the dead with vintage-inspired-but-digital-friendly designs and ads that look like they could have been pulled out of the back page of Playboy in 1969. And for not a lot of money, at that.
Look, I’m not saying that every amplifier should have built-in VU meters (although my heart would swell if they did). I’m not even saying that new gear needs to look like old gear to scratch this itch. NAD’s M10 V2 captures a lot of what I love about vintage audio gear, but it looks like it’s from the actual future.
When you get right down to it, what makes vintage gear appealing to me (and what will likely prompt me to just buy an old Marantz 2270 when I eventually retire, wrap it in a new walnut case, connect it to an iFi Audio DAC and streamer, and be done with it) is the fact that, whether reality matches perception or not, that old stuff—even the cheap stuff—at least looked like it was thoughtfully designed by people who legitimately loved hi-fi.
And if we want to reach the next generation of potential audio enthusiasts, I think that’s going to be the design ethos that has the best chance of working. Don’t believe me? Look at one of the most successful consumer electronics products on sale today: the iPhone. Apple has, over the years, been unabashedly influenced by the work of Dieter Rams. Furthermore, look at how Apple markets the iPhone. It isn’t about specifications and capabilities (at least not once WWDC is over and done). It’s about design. It’s about the interface. It’s about the ecosystem. It’s about je ne sais quoi. Apple never says you should buy its products because of performance or features, but rather because they’re cool—and because cool people buy them. (Of course, I say that while also acknowledging that flip phones are making a comeback.)
Won’t somebody please think of the children?!
It’s been pointed out that millennials and zoomers care much more about experiences than things. And while us older Xers and boomers can laugh at that, the fact of the matter is that we grew up in an era when things and experiences were way more synonymous than they are now. We didn’t have to choose between the two.
So yeah, if I were a young’un growing up in today’s ever commodified world, I have no doubt I’d be drawn to the audio gear of the past, what with its chunky volume knobs and funky readouts, more than the cookie-cutter gear that defines the mass market these days.
The thing is, today’s conglomerate audio manufacturers don’t have to relinquish the experiential aspect of the audiophile experience to the past, nor do they have to simply ape it (although that is undoubtedly the easiest route). What they need to do at every level of the market—not merely the high end—is steal a page from Apple’s playbook, hire some honest-to-gosh designers, and stop introducing silly new formats like MQA every few years. Keep innovating with room correction and more efficient, low-distortion amplifier topologies, of course. Keep pushing the envelope in terms of speaker design, sure. But most importantly, if our industry wants to be vibrant again, it needs to start building more products at every price point that look like actual investments rather than fleeting doodads.
. . . Dennis Burger