Going backwards…

One of the running themes of this blog is the observation that the hi-fi industry is going backwards: it reached sonic perfection (almost literally) in digital audio, yet most audiophiles now aspire to own ever-more ‘retro’ hardware (“My digital system is OK, but not as good as vinyl, obviously”, as one person told me) and they want to hear recordings via the media of the past. We have had valves and vinyl for a while, then the mono cartridge, and we may be seeing the first stirrings of the mechanical-only movement that I thought I was predicting a while ago.

In this piece, the writer is squarely in the hi-fi mainstream in his certainty that vinyl is superior to CD:

Maybe I’ll buy an inexpensive CD first to see if I like his albums a lot and then upgrade to the vinyl…

But he then goes on to describe the joys of the mechanical-only playback system:

When I play 78s for friends, I sometimes see a look of confusion on their faces as they somehow expected a high fidelity stereo recording to come out of the monaural gramophone. Instead they hear this loud-but-small music which somehow punctuates and fills the room, much in the same way my 5.1 surround system does.

I have to remind them that this is a different medium and you have to listen differently. You have to be involved with it, getting up every few minutes to switch discs, needles and cranking up the motor.

I can enjoy a mono 78 RPM disc of Duke Ellington from the 1920s just as much as Steven Wilson-produced 5.1 remix of Yes’ Close to the Edge or Beck’s Morning Phase on 180-gram vinyl made at a fancy European audiophile pressing plant in 2014.

Clearly, people are craving less ‘sterile’ experiences in their lives, and I think the actual music may only be tangential to this; the collecting of 10,000 LPs and the messing about with old hardware is the bulk of ‘the experience’.

There may also be something else: at the real technological cutting edge (not that many audiophiles ever get anywhere near it at overall system level) absolute progress in audio quality is now more-or-less impossible. By going ‘retro’, a very attractive prospect presents itself to high end manufacturers and hobbyists: the chance to apply modern techniques to technology that was developed using slide rules and old school manufacturing methods. If, at a stroke, we simply define vinyl as inherently better than digital, then absolute progress is suddenly back on the agenda! Technology has progressed in the few decades since vinyl was ‘put on hold’, so we can now start designing and manufacturing low cost turntable parts using CAD/CAM, regulating platter speed with microcontrollers, making things out of carbon fibre… because we can. And so on.

Many ‘retro’ audio products are amenable to this ‘progress’. For example, speaker horns can now be 3D printed to exact mathematical shapes derived from simulations (- it doesn’t mean they’re valid, however; they will no-doubt still sound wrong!). It is an engineer’s playground that can be extended as required by simply re-defining various old technologies as inherently superior to the misperceived sterility of solid state, digital audio.

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