Classics and Classicness

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I remember, when I was a little kid, being given a ride in a British Racing Green 1948 MGTC roadster owned by one of my parents' friends. It was thrilling and it was gorgeous and, that very day, I started saving whatever small amounts I could from my allowance in hopes that I would eventually be able to buy one of my own.

A similar thing happened in 1951, when the owner of a nearby gas station bought a brand new black Jaguar Mark V Saloon. That became my new standard of automotive beauty and, like the "TC", I vowed with all my then nine-year-old heart that someday I, too, would own one.

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I've had the same kinds of experiences with audio gear: The very first high fidelity speaker system I ever heard was a Bozak B-310a ― a refrigerator-sized thirteen-driver behemoth that made real 24 Hz bass even in the middle of the last century and was pretty enough to sleep with. It was powered by a McIntosh 60 Watt amplifier, another wonder and glory for its day, and hearing them play pipe organ - even in mono -- was enough to curl my twelve-year-old toes and make me an audiophile for life.

It wasn't just those classics that got me, either, there were all the other great McIntosh, Marantz and other tube gear, and there were the horns: the Klipschorn, the Electro-Voice Patrician, and the James B. Lansing (now "JBL") Hartsfield for home use; the Altec recording studio monitors; and the massive Western Electric and RCA theater systems for the movies. I even got into recording, and when RCA closed down their Sycamore street recording studios in Hollywood, I bought a pair of their legendary 44bx ribbon microphones (the ones that the famous Frank Sinatra caricature was modeled after) for the princely (to a kid my age) sum of $50 each.

I'm not the only one to fall in love with those ancient wonders. Like classic cars, classic audio gear and even classic-inspired audio gear have a solid and growing fan following, and the market value - at least of the genuine articles -- seems to be increasing almost exponentially.

Although the transistor boom in the late 1950s and early '60s was feared to mark the doom of vacuum tube electronics; the "perfect sound forever" of the CD was supposed to do the same for LPs in 1982; and new techniques to make more bass from smaller, cheaper, more "Wife Acceptable" speakers promised to make the giant horns and infinite baffles of earlier times go away, none of that has happened. Horns and other massive classic or classic-style speakers are once again proliferating; phonograph records and their associated playback equipment are enjoying a real renaissance; and, although I did no actual counting, tube electronics seemed, at the recent 2013 Newport Audio Show, to have its solid-state competition solidly outnumbered.

But why?

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No one can deny that the MGTC and the Jaguar Mark V Saloon - those old cars that so moved me, really were classics. Even now, well more than a half century later, many regard them as among the all-time greats and see them as both a triumph of early postwar automotive design and as the last, and perhaps best, bloom of a whole way of thinking about how a car should look. Inspiringly beautiful though they were, however, neither I nor anyone else could ever call either of them - except perhaps for their own era - any kind of great performer. By modern standards, both were slow in top-end, lacking in acceleration and braking, and, at best, undistinguished in their handling -- hardly the kind of cars that, like a Mini-Cooper, a Lotus Seven, or even the best of today's sedans, you would want to throw around corners or even drive at any particularly brisk pace.

The fact of the matter is that modern cars are simply a whole lot better and, in their own way, many are just as beautiful.  Does the same hold true for audio?

The classic audio designs are certainly beautiful and a great many people certainly like and are willing to pay for the way they sound, but how do they rate in terms of real performance? Are they as good as modern designs?

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To answer that poses not just one, but two real problems:  The first is to try to come up with some universally acceptable standard of "better" as it applies to music and the playback of recorded sound.  With cars, that's easy: Performance standards can be specifically defined and the degree to which they are achieved in terms of top speed or cornering g-force, or speed around a track can be accurately measured and everyone will agree on the findings.  With audio, though, where the most significant factors are subjective and the measured differences between what is subjectively great and what is subjectively unacceptable may be tiny, how can you do that? How can you even define which standards to measure against? The last decades of open warfare between the "subjectivists" and "objectivists," doesn't make it look easy.

And even if "better" could be defined and a "better-ness" standard set in place that would satisfy everyone, what would it show?

The second problem regards the very idea of "progress". If classic designs, like horns and Williamson-or-other-classic-circuit tube amplifiers, and vinyl or tape analogue playback formats and equipment are proven really to be better, as the classic-lovers insist them to be, what does that say about all of our so-called "progress" in the last sixty years since the mid-1950s? And if they AREN'T better under our new definition should somebody tell that to all those people who own and love and have paid good money for their classic gear?

Personally, I think the whole issue is bogus. I still want a "TC" or a "Mark V", regardless of how it stacks-up against more modern cars.  What they do best - winning the hearts of their owners, and maybe some smiles from the ladies - no modern car can match. (And if it can, I want one of those, too!)

It's the same thing for audio. I have solid-state and electrostatics for one kind of enjoyment. For another I have analog, tubes, and my lovely, albeit modern, horns. They not only sound great and are BLOW-YOUR-HEAD-OFF dynamic, they even create a believable image!

Problem solved?

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