When I was much younger, and still in school, I found and bought a used 1953 Siata Spyder at A.J. Risley Sports Cars in the San Fernando Valley. It was — even to this day — one of the prettiest cars I’ve ever seen, and this one was special. It had been built as a factory team car for the Targa Florio road race, and was fitted out with all sorts of performance extras, sporting an aluminum body, a tiny racing windscreen, a truly lovely faired headrest/rollbar, and an aluminum racing tonneau cover over where the never-to be-used-while-racing-but-still-required-for-sports-car-classification passenger seat was hidden.
It was gorgeous, viciously fast, and I loved it. However when my father (who drove a whatever year red-and-white Pontiac four-door) saw it, the first words out of his mouth were “My car will do 55 miles an hour (the then speed limit) at exactly the same speed as yours. Other than being impractical, what’s so good about it?”
Obviously, he wasn’t in love and, at the time, I found myself both furious and ashamed that he — my own father — could be such a blind, heartless Philistine.
Lately, however, I find myself leaning toward thoughts and feelings very much like his. These pop up in all kinds of areas, but one that specifically involves hi-fi is the whole issue of what — for lack of a better term — I’m going to call “steampunk hi-fi.” I suspect you know what I’m talking about, but please allow me to clarify, anyway. What I mean is the whole, apparently growing, trend that I’ve seen in recent years of hobbyists and even established (or hoping to become established) manufacturers doing things the hard way, the weird way or both.
Tubes and turntables (can there be some cabalistic significance to the fact that both begin with the letters “t” and “u”?) seem to be the things most likely to fall into the steampunk category. As long as they are gigantic, glow with a nice or unusual color or brightness, are odd-shaped, or are peculiar-looking in some other way, tubes are being pressed into service for audio with no regard whatsoever for what their designers or manufacturers may have intended to be their purpose. Exotic tubes like, but certainly not limited to, the T1610, used by the Czech company, KR Audio, in its Kronzilla amplifier (shown in the photo above) are certainly interesting, but are no longer a surprise — not since the 300B (introduced in 1938 to amplify telephone signals) first reappeared some years ago, only to become the darling of everybody and his brother as the basis for a chic and hip-looking low-power tube amplifier.
And, in what may be another form of negative snobbery, low-power amps — especially violently expensive ones like the Audio Note Ongaku — are, instead of the “megawatt specials” of years gone by, becoming the new hip thing for a growing number of audiophiles. Incidentally the Ongaku uses one VT4C/211 high-output triode tube per channel, which “…produces about 27 watts per channel. These are very large tubes that operate very hot and [italics added] produce light the equivalent of a 25-watt light bulb.“
Perhaps an even better example of “hard way/weird way” steampunk design is to be found in LP turntables and their related tonearms. Here, as in so many other high-end audiophile products, there seems to be no limit to possible expense. Unlike tube electronics, however, where triodes rule and the clarion cry seems to be for “simplicity,” in turntables complexity, size, and weirdness — both of design and materials — seem to be high among the designers’ goals.
I have seen turntables of just about any configuration imaginable. I’ve seen them with platters just the size of a record label or ranging all the way up to 16 inches. I’ve seen them with almost any mass imaginable, from feather-light to hugely heavy, or even stacked double hugely-heavy. I’ve seen them made from almost any material imaginable, from platters made of aluminum, to vinyl or acetate, to granite, to wood; to composites of anywhere up to several materials. I have seen turntables with anything from direct, to puck, to magnetic, to belt, to multiple-belt drive, and I remember one that was so complex and had so many towers and moving parts that it looked like a miniaturized small city or the opening mock-up for Game of Thrones. And it’s not just the platters and their drive mechanisms; I have seen plinths and bases ranging from thin, lightweight and unsprung to huge and floor-standing, and even with active, motorized vibration-canceling.
It’s the same thing for tonearms, which, whether radial, pantographic or tangential, cover a broad range of size, mass, and complexity, and seem to be constructed of just about any material known to man and to employ bearings of just about every kind, from conventional ball or roller, to air, to maglev, to (for one ribbon-shaped thin plastic arm that I remember, that was limp in the vertical plane), no (vertical) bearings at all.
Just about any hard or weird way to do things that anyone can conceive of has been tried, built, and (especially if it’s cool-looking) bought by somebody, possibly for an extravagant sum of money. And this seems to apply all the way across the hi-fi spectrum. Consider the flamboyant outright weirdness of some wildly expensive conical- or folded-horn speakers as just one final example. Can it really be that all of these things (especially the sometimes wild colors, textures, and materials employed in finishing them) represent real technological improvement?
Particularly when some of the “improvements” to different products of the same kind seem to cancel each other out, is it truly possible that both super-complex and super-simple represent real improvement? Or is it true, as my father said about cars so many years ago, that both “…will do 55 miles an hour at exactly the same speed”? Or is it a little of each or something in-between?
My initial thought was that, as with anything else, good sound should be made as directly, as simply, and at as little cost as possible, so that whatever resources one may have will be applied as prudently and effectively as possible. On further reflection, though, and after remembering my Siata and so many other things that have brought me joy fulfillment, and satisfaction over the years, I see that my father really was wrong: Hi-fi is not just for making sound any more than cars are just for making speed or transportation. Both are things that we invest not just our money and our efforts in, but also our dreams, our self-image, and our soul. They are far more than just tools or implements, they are artforms.