The Lure Of Vintage Hi-Fi
Article by Jeff Rabin, The Ecumenical Audiophile
Source: Alan Puckett
Whatever people say about classic Vincent motorcycles and
many have waxed poetic:
Said Red Molly to James that's a fine motorbike,
A girl could feel special on any such like
Said James to Red Molly, well my hat's off to you
It's a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952
And I've seen you at the corners and cafes it seems
Red hair and black leather, my favorite colour scheme
And he pulled her on behind
And down to Boxhill they did ride
-- Richard Thompson
No one suggests that a '52 Vincent Black Lightning will outperform a 2002 Kawasaki ZX-12R.
The same can not, however, be said about NOS (a great oxymoron that continues to bring smiles) Western Electric
300B from the same
period as compared to a modern mere 'replica' or, gasp, transistor. And aficionado's (or should we say
nutters) of vintage hi fi do not limit themselves to old bottles either.
There are those out there who swear until to they are blue note in the face that no modern bit of kit will touch will touch their Marantz 8b, their McIntosh MR71 Tuner, their Western Electric Amp, or Quad ESL 57 (a speaker that appears to be resting on broom sticks) for sheer listening pleasure.
And you know what, I am liable to agree:
Modern amplifiers may have more wallop, spec out better, and run cooler and more reliably, but the nutters who exchange Western Electric
monoblocks on Ebay for the price of a decent used car will not have it any other way-other than price. For them, there is no better. There can be no better. And while I will admit to the possibility of their being 'better,'
I would gladly light up Western Electrics every evening of the week to listen to Opera through RCA
LC1As... if I had them.
That said, there is (of course) great hi-fi out there today. To completely bury your head in the sand of the past is also to miss out.
It is different for admirers of old bikes. A Vincent Black Lightning might be great engineering for 1952, and something great to be seen on at the café, but you will not find many used as daily drivers unless you are a Jay Leno. By contrast, Tannoy Golds are playing day in, night out, and thousands of Leaks, Quads and Dynaco's keep audiophiles heating bills down in the winter.
Why is it that a reasonable priced Nissan 350Z will out run an early sixties exotic such as a Ferrari 250, but people believe that the ESL57 has not been bettered. Nostalgia? It's certainly a part. Nostalgia for simpler times and simpler technology where you could build an amplifier with your dad from a design in a wireless rag in an era where there was nothing so mysterious as an integrated circuit.
(Editor's Note: The Ferrari is much more alluring visually and, as we
are indeed "music" lovers here at Enjoy the Music.com™,
the Ferrari will sound better too. If one drove both the Ferrari 250 and the
Nissan 350Z, i would estimate that 90% of enthusiasts looking for true
driving pleasure would give the nod to the Ferrari. Motoring in not
necessarily about ultimate speed in a straight line or just getting there. There
is much more to the equation. Also note my first job was working for
Heathkit... and i have an intimate knowledge of Ferrari sports cars.)
Moreover, the Tannoys, the Heathkits, the Klipschs and even Garrards of the sixties actively encouraged hobbyists to build and take part in the process by supplying cabinet designs, kits and help for their products. It could not have been a cynical marketing exercise if you imagine the customer support nightmares that such a business model would have had to entail.
(Editor's Note: i grew up enjoying Dynakits, Marantz, Garrard and 1969
Tannoy 12-inch dual-concentric Gold monitors in custom cabinets. As much as i
have tried, my dad will not sell nor trade the Tannoy loudspeakers to me. They
still sing sweet melodies to this day.)
In truth, it must have had more to do with accommodating fellow travelers on the road to musical nirvana than milking the experimenter for their very
penny. It was also for the reason that the great designers did not understand themselves as very much different from you and me and that there was a market for it. Those at Bottlehead and
Pass Labs keep the tradition alive.
But Nostalgia is not the whole story, but it is of course the easy answer. Some are convinced (without
ever really listening) that those who listen to tubes or vinyl or what's probably worse vinyl through tubes are luddites of the highest order. This
can not really be true insofar as some of the greatest development and revival in tube technology is directly because of the internet. And for people who like dragging rocks through vinyl furrows, we are a surprisingly well acquainted with the modern PC.
Moreover, the great hi-fi pieces develop through time a historical aura all their own that new products cannot hope to match, though they sometimes
attempt to in the way that the triode amplfiier manufacturers look to pre-thirties, pre-hi fi designs for their inspiration and marketing. Why not go
then after the real thing?
Many collectors admit to buying now what they lusted after when they were young and penniless. Now that they have the pennies, they spend them on what they would have then. Make of it what you will, but there are far more dangerous ways of living in the past.
And where familiarity breeds contempt, rarities like Tannoy Backs breeds reverence. And where there is reverence magic is bestowed. Who cares how they sound? It's not
Quality? There's that. Much, but not all, of the stuff then was built, both in terms of design and execution,
like, well, you know the term that involves, bricks, houses and what bears do in the woods.
If you flip a Leak amplifier over, there is much to admire in the neatness of the wiring looms, the solidity of the chassis, and the weight of the transformers. One thing they are not, however, is beautiful. But an EMT turntable will spin
well into the next century, long after its designers have ceased spinning in their graves about MP3s.
And the stuff certainly was not cheap at the time and as such attracted the best designers of the time such as Saul Marantz, Peter Walker, Guy R. Fountain, et al. Had these greats started their careers twenty years ago, they would probably be out of work in the valley today.
Jorges Luis Borges
Jorges Luis Borges wrote that anything remembered was of value. He did not mean that what was valuable could
not be forgotten. Only that if it was remembered, it must be worthy of being remembered and that is as much the case with classical poetry as it is with push pull
But what I think it comes to down to is variety, listenability, value and because it brings the impecunious hobbyist back into the fold. During the golden age, various
parishioners were pursuing different routes to Hi Fi. Some with push pull, others triode, different cartridges, horns, electrostatics, reel to reel and even Quadraphonic sound. Everything sounded a bit different and this difference in sound is to some people's taste.
Now it is more, but not exclusively, about 'neutrality,' but people do not always want neutrality and this lack of neutrality
appeals. Too much Hi Fi today, except at the extremes, is all too similar and because of its newness does not invite the user to enjoy differences in execution and design hi fi as does vintage equipment for much less money.
And I do not know how we can judge without a time machine, but I think as with wine, much of the equipment has mellowed in time, making it
even more listenable. And who really cares anyway? As we have said before, and as we will say again, Enjoy The Music, Enjoy the Hobby,
Enjoy Chinese New Year.