It’s the time of year for saving money!
It is very possible by the time that this article is published I will have been “un-friended” on Facebook by CNET’s Steve Guttenberg after my comments on a recent post. My argument: it’s misleading to suggest that retro (usually 1970s) audio gear sounds better than today’s state-of-the-art gear. Unfortunately he’s not the only audiophile who is carrying the “old is better” torch. Simply put, today’s audiophile components are superior in pretty much every meaningful way to the gear of the past. Retro certainly has its appeal. But that doesn’t mean it’s better.
What is it that encourages audiophiles to believe that old technology is better? Nostalgia? OK, I can see that. Perhaps an association with the great music that we grew up with? Old gear can be a time machine back to an era when everything in our lives wasn’t so digital, connected, social, voice controlled. I’m down with that…
What I am not down with is the idea that old technology is somehow higher-fidelity than today’s cutting-edge offerings. That argument has about as much validity as saying that we are being controlled by the Illuminati via additives put into jet fuel and spread around the world via the ensuing jet trails. If you believe that stuff, you’re not just silly–you’re also a dangerous wacko.
Let’s dive into this “older is better” argument looking at source components first. In recent months/years, I’ve beaten vinyl to death over its limited maximum dynamic range of 65 dB (about half of the volume of a snare drum snap), its high levels of harmonic distortion, the fact that the discs wear from the first spin. Also used vinyl sales doesn’t benefit the artist. Vinyl sales make up a mere fraction of the disc sales in the U.S. in 2017 according to the RIAA.
Don’t get me wrong: there is one upside to vinyl playback in 2019 – you get to hear the record in with the order and cadence that the artists, producers, and engineers wanted–unlike iTunes, which is as I type this shuffling between Rush’s “Limelight” and a deep track from Thievery Corporation. Vinyl is an analog audio format in an overly digital world that has its appeal for digitally burnt-out people.
I will acquiesce to the concept that you can buy scratched up and used vinyl on the cheap at the last remaining record stores, but nobody who understands the math and science of audio reproduction is going to tell you that an HD stream (like from Tidal or Qobuz) or an HD 96/24 file (like from HDTracks.com and elsewhere) isn’t the state of the art of music playback.
There is no way to argue against the fact that 2019 technology offers us access to nearly all of the music ever created in CD to HD resolutions for a little more than the cost of one single Compact Disc per month. Sorry, the past isn’t better here. Even with an unlimited budget and a new, fully stocked Tower Records store opening down the street from your house, it just isn’t better than what we have today as music lovers and audio enthusiasts. These are the best of days–not the 1970s.
Let’s move onto electronics with an eye to the argument that old is somehow better than new. Steve’s post had a photograph of looks like a vintage 1970s integrated amp or receiver. I can’t tell the brand, but it is something retro. Big, bulky, and packing cool meters, knobs, and gauges. I love the old-school appeal, but please don’t tell me that such a low-powered relic can compete with a modern-form-factor integrated amp or receiver with modern amplification, 24 bit (or higher) internal DACs, even nicer knobs, meters, and controls? Take a look at what Technics is doing in the world of new-school-but-retro-looking electronics and tell me that if you are looking for the best performance (remember, that’s the argument here: old stuff sounds better) that you wouldn’t take the new Technics rig over an old Sansui, Yamaha, or whatever.
Wanna dive into speakers on the “old versus new” front? You think loudspeaker drivers haven’t improved in 30-plus years? They have, big time. The rise of neodymium to make better, lighter magnets is only a start. How about the use of rare Earth materials like Beryllium in tweeters, which, while a little expensive overall, deliver stunning, modern high frequency performance on the high end.
How about the mountains of research done by people like Floyd Toole and others in the intervening decades? Yes, there are kitsch-retro products out there, like the soon-to-be-reviewed JBL L100 (the speakers from the legendary Maxell ad), but note that JBL Synthesis didn’t just remake the L100 exactly like the past. They redid the speaker. See, even JBL knows that when selling the past that consumers who are in the know demand performance that meets 2019’s higher standards.
What is perplexing is how audiophiles revert to the past when the audiophile hobby has thrived during decades of meaningful and positive technological change. NOS DACs are all the rage all of a sudden in a world where digital audio has had 30-plus years to improve each and every aspect of audio reproduction.
Today, we live in a world where you can have access to all of the music in the world for $20 per month.
We live in a world where audio gear is completely evolved to new, far higher levels of excellence in performance.
We have technologies like digital room correction that can solve real-world room acoustics issues in ways that even five years ago was unthinkable. Read Dennis Burger’s review of the Trinnov Altitude 16 AV preamp specifically focusing on what this company is doing in room correction, or Myron Ho’s review of the $4,000 Anthem STR stereo preamp with ARC room correction, and tell me today’s products aren’t offering technology and performance that wasn’t in anyone’s most ambitious dream in the 1970s–or even a few years ago…
I’m wondering if it comes from the over-reaching comment “they don’t make them like they used to.” There may be certain products that used to last longer – like when clothes dryers (forgot the brand) would last 30 years. But, for the most part, the older counterparts paled in comparison.
Car enthusiasts fondly speak of “muscle cars” from 1968-ish era as being the epitome of the driving experience. But if you read articles now about those cars, they were considered “death traps” due to their handling. My 2011 Nissan Altima could probably keep up with a 1968 Camaro and I’d be able to stop way sooner than that car could. (Yes, I know…my car is *not* cool; but it handles way better.)
I wish we could put a 1970 “fill in the blank piece of audio gear” against today’s stuff, same price point (adjusting for inflation). I think the “older is better” feeling would be quickly dismissed.
I’ve always wondered if all the proponents of muscle cars live in places like Texas where roads are straight for miles, because on twisty mountain roads, they sort of suck…it’s as if handling and road feel don’t matter… 🙂
I am with Steve here.
My wife’s 2008 Mercedes ML550 handles like CRAP compared to my 2014 ML550 which handles like a modern S-Class thanks to electronic power steering.
Muscle cars no handle so good. Fast yes. Handling? Yikes.
Ask me to tell you the story of my test drive in a 1984 Countach so we can discuss a “dream car” versus the reality of 15 inch wheels and even smaller breaks.
Muscle cars are part nostalgia, part personal statement. I have owned one for the last 30 years. It’s loud, brutish, has chrome, and is shiny. People come up to me from all walks of life and even multigenerational families come chat when I park. When I drive it around town it’s like I’m in a parade. When I see another we wave because we know it’s a labor of love.
Driving experience? Rumbling along at 30 miles per hour and looking like I am going 100 mph is a rare treat. Now, on the handling side, what you say is true – they are like lead sleds, but I added disc brakes, coil over suspension, rack and pinion power steering, etc. to make at least the handling a lot more civilised.
Either way, it’s the difference between being completely anonymous in a Nissan Altima, or getting the “winner circle” parking at hotels versus the backlot – for similar money.
No sure if the car analogy works for your argument because from a pure driver’s standpoint, there isn’t a car made today that is more rewarding to drive than some of the greats from the past, be it a ’57 Jag XK-SS or the mighty McLaren F1. Electronic steering has stripped away all feedback and road feel, turbocharged motors lack responsiveness and linearity, and don’t even get me started on E-brakes. Are today’s cars faster around a track? Yup. Are they more fun and as rewarding? Not even close.
Oh, please. A 40 year old Hill Plasmatronics literally blows away anything from today’s offerings in the high end, including your precious rare earth magnets.
Yes that includes your entire Stereophile Class A Recommended list. Picking and choosing doesn’t make a cohesive and rational argument.
It’s hard to even buy a stereo kit today in most suburban towns.
That’s an interesting assertion, and I was intrigued so I looked them up. Apparently only somewhere between 52 and 70 pairs of these were ever manufactured. Given the relatively small number of speakers manufactured, very few of us will ever have an opportunity to ever experience them. It would be really cool to sit in on a head-to-head “shoot-out” with a pair of these against the current state of the art (ANY choice from the above-mentioned list).
There are some fun facts about these speakers at an enthusiast site: http://hillplasmatronics.com/ They mention helium, tubes and a rock. Also they have a copy of the review by JGH, quite a good and entertaining read.
Given the toxic nature of the Plasmatronics gas output, I’m not sad that this wound up as a technological dead end…
Who’s Stereophile list are you talking about?
I don’t own Stereophile. I don’t make their list. We have our own list at HomeTheaterReview.com and it includes video. But then again a Philco TV can out perform a 77 inch LG OLED – don’t you know? Better black levels, more colors, Rec 2020 color space.
I do like the word “off gassing” however.
New is better in audio.
Please. If you don’t know of what you speak- don’t yell it in a megaphone and pretend it is the truth. Attached is a graph you probably can’t match with any current commercial technology.
BTW, your power steering and car handling analogy is as wrong as wrong can be. But I’ll leave it to others to explain why.
And I suspect you might have some difficulty racing against a Porsche 917K/30, your new passenger aircraft might not quite match the speed of a Concorde and about another dozen or so comparisons that might make the statement questionable at best.
One might even struggle matching the lifting capability of a Saturn V rocket or F1 cars struggling to match the lap times of old on identical tracks.
Let alone why so many audio manufacturers use vacuum tubes long since out of production.
Look around- you may find the ancients have stolen your inventions.
you say “BTW, your power steering and car handling analogy is as wrong as wrong can be. But I’ll leave it to others to explain why.”
You remind me of a real estate agent who we deposed in a suit a few years ago. He told my neighbor that if allowed to spend $1,100,000 fixing up my home that my neighbor’s fully unrestored home in a premium location in LA with an ocean view would lose $300,000 in value. When asked what tools and resources to come up with said opinion he said on video in a deposition “I would love to tell you but I just don’t have time” so we made him sit there for the entirety of the day.
Facts matter in a Trump-loving world… My house has since sold for the record square foot price in our neighborhood.
Deal is facts buddy. It is safer. Pick on me all you want too but you look stupid defending the past, low-res, low-performance technologies.
I literally met with a client who is increasing their spend with us JUST to not reach 70-year-old subjectivists. But then again – perhaps you can explain to me how a 1957 historical classic Benz handles better than a 2019 SL65 AMG. I am sure this will be a good one.
I would like to see flagship products from the 70s reviewed directly against the current equivalent products (preferably by the same brand). That would be something worth reading because it will allow the reviewer to highlight how the specs translate to audible experiences. This could be done for amps, speakers, pre-pros, receivers, etc.
I think you would be very bummed out.
Speakers don’t hold up forever.
We dealt with this in trying to hunt down a pair of MartinLogan CLS’. There are close to none out there and the ones that ARE out there are basically dead (and can’t be fixed).
There are many older speakers that can be re-coned and they work fine. Same for amps and pre-processors that can be recapped. The basic appeal used to be that vintage pieces were cheap, but I am seeing prices for some of the older receivers going into the hundreds of dollars now based on the premise that they delivered higher than rated power, or something like that. I am not in the position to do such a listening and measurements test, but think it would be cool to test say, a 1970s Marantz amplifier against a modern one.
Sort of frustrated that I have nothing to quibble with in your analysis. Great commentary, thanks Jerry!
I will forward your comments on to my wife.
Thank you for the kind words. 🙂
Oddly enough I just bought a pair of JBL L100s off ebay yesterday with the intent of “resto-modding” ie replacing all the drivers with modern components, putting a true crossover in, and rehabbing the cabinets. Should sound modern and look retro. Same with the broyhill Brasilia console. It will look retro but will have new components.
The new ones look retro and they are perfect functionally. Why not buy those?
sheer stubbornness, an attempt at a fun home project, and a little self-flagellation. 🙂
The guy who built his own boat has to put up with all the draw backs and errors inherent in his build. But, he will enjoy his time with his boat way better than the guy who plunked down cash and dropped a boat into the water. Also, the thrill of records is in the hunt. Pushing a button and getting it has no satisfaction quotient at all.
Thought the old timey analogy was appropriate here.
I guess I’ll see when I start testing active speakers with digital inputs this summer. But as I like to say how much of the new stuff will play Pet Sounds?
As the sales manager at a company that has stood the test of time, Vandersteen Audio, I couldn’t agree more. I would gladly put up an original Model 2 against the current Model 2Ce of even better against a more modern Treo CT to show the sonic evolution of a design of 40+ years. That does not diminish the relevance of the early products, they were cutting edge in their day, as are many of the products you see gracing the dealer showrooms today.
I agree with this article 100%. Audyssey Room Correction, for one, which I used in my home theater, was either non-existent, or financially out-of-reach in my youth. I could go on and on using examples of components in my home theater that were not available in my youth. Minidsp’s, which I use as active crossovers, 7.4 home theater, REW software, the UMIK-1 microphone, internet based music streaming, my Marantz SR6007, which via a wifi to ethernet adapter, connects to my house internet, the cell phone app which controls my Marantz AVR, drastically improved loudspeaker driver technology, which I incorporate (all but two of my home theater speakers are self built, the Elac Unifi UB5’s, which serve as surrounds), I rest my case.
Room correction is THE BIGGEST factor in the hobby right now.
ARC, DIRIAC and TRINNOV are simply amazing and have progressed vastly in the past three years.
Do you see the print magazines talking about this? Nope. Because they are focused on vinyl and other topics that are retro so that the 70 year olds who read their zines are happy.
I have to agree with you on Speakers, that is an easy one.
But there are exceptions for example the 50 years old Marantz 10b, 7C and 8 amps have a rich natural sound that holds its own against many more costly modern setups. Maybe not in the lab, but I have owned the 10b and its musicality is simply astonishing. Vinyl on a good setup is also very life like and can me more involving than the average CD player. There are lots of vintage audio brands that still offers a lifetime of enjoyment. Audio Research, McIntosh Labs, Conrad Johnson, VTL + many others and offer fantastic value too, all can be repaired reasonably.
I wrote an article about how a buddy of mine in CT found a 1964 McIntosh 225 amp that I bought (original box, manual and even receipt) and had Audio Classics restore.
25 watts. Tubes. Restored fully. Performing to its potential.
How did sound? Pretty shitty. Nothing like a modern McIntosh amp.
I sold it to a collector in Japan and moved on having felt like I did the right thing for the amp and for me.
Jerry, you missed Steve’s point entirely. He did not say that the old equipment is better than the new equipment available to us today, he was pointing out that the old equipment is still pretty damned good and will not be embarrased by new products. Not that it is better. There is some very good old high-end stuff out there, and when assembled in a synergistic system, can produce very good results.
By the same token, I feel like rolling my eyes when I hear someone say, “Gee, I’ve never heard another speaker that’s better than my K-horns (or Martin Logan CLS, or Quads, or…)” Good for you, there are better speakers today, you happen to love the particular aspect of what your speakers do well, in your room. Good for you, I’m glad you enjoy them, but they’re not the best things out there.
Without unlimited funds and a great room, we all have to make tradeoffs that we want to live with.
Steve said “my 1970s system is better than your modern system” which is absurd and highly damaging to the industry and hobby.
If you’ve ever heard my pitch – I often talk about the concept of audio being an “OR business not and AND business” and by that I mean wine, watches, cars (to a certain level) you collect many of. You don’t sell your old products to get new ones. In audio if you have a Mark Levinson amp and want an Audio Research – you tend to sell the Levinson. With a meaningful lack of new audiophiles, these old Levinson amps ping pong around on Audiogon.com and YES they are fine.
My point is: new gear is vastly superior to 1970s gear. Period. No debate. Today’s gear does everything better. Is moderately used audio a good value? Sure it is, that wasn’t my point however.
“…nobody who understands the math and science of audio reproduction is going to tell you that an HD stream (like from Tidal or Qobuz) or an HD 96/24 file (like from HDTracks.com and elsewhere) isn’t the state of the art of music playback.”
This is the sort of thinking that carefully ignores the pervasive hardness, brightness and digital screechiness that afflicts all digital sources. It may even be subtle in some cases, but it still is there, a totally anti-musical digital electro-mechanical coloration added to the music that stubbornly remains in consciousness like a low-level toothache. Addicts of the latest super-spec’d digital sources generally just get used to it and convince themselves that the super convenience of digital audio is worth it. Not so, as far as I am concerned. This is all supposed to be in the service of music, not selling the latest technology.
“There is no way to argue against the fact that 2019 technology offers us access to nearly all of the music ever created in CD to HD resolutions for a little more than the cost of one single Compact Disc per month. Sorry, the past isn’t better here.”
True, but at what subjective cost in musical enjoyment (especially in classical music and jazz)? Doesn’t seem worth it, as far as I am concerned.
I agree that the latest high-tech amplifier and speaker technology are vastly superior to what was available in the past.
In an absolute world – what is better sounding than having pretty much every song ever recorded in CD to “HD” quality for $20 per month?
I am curious (please don’t say vinyl)
HD downloads at $20 per album? Perhaps but WOW that’s a lot more $$$.
Know of any dealers who can install and adjust an Anthem preamp with room correction in a system consisting of Magnepan 3.5s, Bryston 4BSST2 power amp with an REL sub?
perhaps what people fantasise over retro gear is the DISTORTION it produced add a level of comfortable harmonics to the music people in their nostalgic malaise harken back to;
you already pointed out the wow and flutter and ridiculous dynamic limitation of analog records;
you might have included the harmonic and intermodulation distortion produced by tubes and out-of-control torrodial transformers, not to mention the fluctuations of signal strength that were allowed to seep through tuners of the time;
you were very correct to point out the inferior materials used for cones of speakers and the hideous crossovers of the period, but might have included the design and materials used to create the enclosures adding their own harmonics to the source signal;
lastly, the construction of the connectors and interface wiring between components virtually ensured the reproduction of a sound not better than E.T. used to call his parents;
for these reasons and more, even McIntosh will readily admit their esoteric gear of the period is primitive compared to today as an 8×10 film view camera is to a digital Hasselblad or Leica;
even though the equipment used by artists of the era introduced the comforting harmonic distortions so many have grown accustomed to as normal, it remains fact that distortion of any kind, however pleasant to the ear, IS NOT music;
an 8×10 view camera is still going to deliver higher resolution.
But with limited depth of field except at F64 or F128, at which point the shutter speed is slow, which makes an 8 x a0 view camera less than ideal for anything that moves fast, such as sports…8 x 10 view cameras, like muscle cars, have certain limited things they do very well…
but they are still one of the best tools for certain jobs. also using sheet film makes it way easier to develop with the zone system. and limited depth of field is a compositional element that you can use to your advantage. i really miss having access to a view camera.
Jerry, I have to agree with about everything you’ve said. The evolution of speakers over the past 10-15 years is an amazing thing – you can honestly get really good sound that is really affordable. Whether you want to spend $30,000 per mono amp, or $2,000 for a 5ch amp, the sound beats most anything from 25 – 30 yrs ago (or more). And I would think that everyone would agree that DAC/CD players today sound WAY better (actually, 1980s – and most 1990s – DAC/Players sound bad). Even my Oppo BP 203 trounces anything that I’ve heard from then. Is ultra high-end stuff getting way out of control, price-wise? Yeah – but there is a lot of good sounding, affordable stuff out there, too.