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The ugly truth behind hi-fi's growing infatuation with nostalgia

Fyne Vintage and Classic speakers
(Image credit: Future)

The High End Munich show has become the premier event for the hi-fi industry to show off its wares in Europe. After missing a couple of years due to Covid, the show returned to former glories this month with the usual mix of the outlandish, the odd, and the plain ordinary. Amongst all the outrageously expensive systems and clever technologies, I couldn’t help but notice that a significant chunk of the industry has embraced nostalgia. 

I’m not just talking of the number of record players that were being used this far into the digital age, or the relatively common sight of a valve amplifier in full glow, though these things are certainly part of it. Alongside all that, it now seems fashionable to throw away the modern hi-fi design textbook and replace it with the kind of design and engineering we would have seen fifty years ago. This was most obvious in the world of speakers where, after years of going slimmer and smaller, there’s now a glut of new models that are big and wide, and covered in the kind of wood finish that your grandparents would find familiar. If it’s possible to revive a famous nameplate, then so much the better. It’s as though the industry at large has decided that the best way to move forward is to look back. 

Mission 700

Mission's resurrected 700 speakers and 778 amplifier (Image credit: Future)

This was most obvious on the IAG stand where a number of its brands (it owns Audiolab, Mission, Quad and Wharfedale among others) showed products that were reinventions of past successes or new models that are obviously retro-themed in a bid to attract buyers.

Mission not only displayed the excellent revived 770 speakers but also surprised us with resurrected 700s and a new version of the old 778 amplifier. Never heard of the 778? We’re not surprised; it was a short-lived design that is probably best known for setting the design template followed by the original One and Two integrated amplifiers from the then-new Mission sub-brand, Cyrus. It’s as though any old product, almost regardless of impact, is deemed worthy enough to bring back to life.

Wharfedale Linton

Wharfedale's highly successful Lintons (Image credit: Wharfedale)

But IAG didn’t get off the nostalgia boat there. It also introduced the compact Wharfedale Aston and the rather larger, fridge-sized Dovedale. These sit either side of the company’s highly successful retro-themed Wharfedale Linton. Both take names of past Wharfedale successes, despite being thoroughly modern when it comes to sonic engineering. The IAG retro-love-in continues with Castle’s Windsor series; a two-model range of unfashionably bulky-looking standmounters with 6.5- and 8-inch mid/bass units (it seems right to talk about these things in inches rather than centimetres) that come clad in the kind of veneer that screams 1970.

It wasn’t only IAG that wallowed in the past either. Fyne Audio, a speaker manufacturer barely old enough to be out of nursery, revealed two new retro high-end speaker ranges, called Classic and Vintage. The range names say it all. These start off at around £3500 and go all the way to ten times that price; and, speaking to the company, both ranges racked up plenty of orders during the show. 

There are other examples too. The resurrected Epos brand comes to mind with its rather purposeful-looking new ES14N – name and inspiration taken from the 80s model that helped to establish the company in the first place.

Epos ES14N

The new Epos ES14N (Image credit: Epos )

Move away from loudspeakers and the industry’s fascination with older, seemingly outmoded technologies remains unshakable. There were plenty of new and exciting vinyl products on show from house-money propositions such as Wilson Benesch’s GMT turntable, right the way down to sensibly priced moving-coil cartridges from the likes of Goldring, with its Eroica HX. I could go on and talk about Vertere’s new reference tonearm or Nagras lovely phono stage, but you get the point.

It got me wondering why significant chunks of the industry refuse to move on and why there still seem to be enough customers to buy these products to make the effort worthwhile. Think about it: turntables were pretty much eradicated by the compact disc as a mass-market format almost three decades ago, and in turn, streaming has now doomed CD. So why is a music format that’s at least two generational cycles out of date still in demand?

Similarly, valves were superseded by transistors in everyday electronics almost half a century ago, and more recently the use of highly efficient Class D amplifiers has increased thanks to their superior environmental credentials. Yet record players, valves and speakers that look like 70s wardrobes continue to be made, sold and – most importantly – profitable. 

Audio Research I50

Audio Research's new I50 integrated valve amplifier (Image credit: Future)

Is it simply nostalgia that keeps these things alive? Or, as I am starting to believe, the fact that the path that mainstream hi-fi has taken, where ultimate performance is sacrificed at the altar of convenience and lifestyle, has left a small but significant minority feeling short-changed? Are these people reverting back to the kinds of products that got them interested in hi-fi in the first place? It certainly looks that way – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It does, however, have us questioning where the future path of hi-fi is heading. What I’d like to see hi-fi manufacturers do is to take a long look at the products they make and consider whether they are fit for purpose. A bursting features list and the kind of styling that would find its way into a Wallpaper magazine photoshoot is good, but does the product really connect the listener to the music? If it doesn’t, that product serves no real purpose. After all, the reason people spend money, time and effort on hi-fi is so they can listen to music they love in the best way they can access.

As an industry, I think we should aim to make new products that become classics rather than try to relive past glories.

MORE:

22 debut speakers from iconic hi-fi brands

How is an iconic speaker resurrected for the 21st century? We asked JBL, Wharfedale and more

11 of the best products at High End Munich 2022

Ketan Bharadia is the Technical Editor of What Hi-Fi? He's been been reviewing hi-fi, TV and home cinema equipment for over two decades, and over that time has covered thousands of products. Ketan works across the What Hi-Fi? brand including the website and magazine. His background is based in electronic and mechanical engineering.

  • Jacore
    I find it astounding that an author for What Hifi does not understand is that a significant amount of the vintage gear sounds a whole lot better to many than newer products and certainly proposes better value. Surely there's a nostalgia element as well, but in the world of Hifi , especially High-end the quest for aesthetics has always been essentially tertiary - just think of those horns! I for one welcome the return of the vintage look. Definitely has the cool factor for me.
    Reply
  • the Splund
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    Why are an increasing number of manufacturers obsessed with past glories?
    Because a significant proportion of the Hi-Fi buying public have, rightly or wrongly, a desire for them - it's simple supply and demand.
    Reply
  • djh1697
    Jacore said:
    I find it astounding that an author for What Hifi does not understand is that a significant amount of the vintage gear sounds a whole lot better to many than newer products and certainly proposes better value. Surely there's a nostalgia element as well, but in the world of Hifi , especially High-end the quest for aesthetics has always been essentially tertiary - just think of those horns! I for one welcome the return of the vintage look. Definitely has the cool factor for me.
    I agree, my original Mission Cyrus one from 1983, had a phono stage that I would put on par with a Naim Stageline. Indeed when I had a Naim Nait 5i, I used the Cyrus phono stage until I got a Naim 202 and a Stageline, to my surprise the Cyrus phono stage was in some respects better/different than the Naim. The latter had more PRaT, the Cyrus was more open as far as I recall.
    Reply
  • Geoff-W
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    Why are an increasing number of manufacturers obsessed with past glories?

    The ugly truth behind hi-fi's growing infatuation with nostalgia : Read more
    I don't replace Hi-Fi equipment very often. I have an 18 year old Art Audio Quintet Integrated valve amplifer, 13 year old Spendor A5 speakers and an 11 year old Quad Elite CD player. Two years ago I got the notion in my head to replace the power hungry valve amplifier. Surely after 18 years, solid state would have developed to a point where it could out-perform my old amp? I home tested several highly-thought-of modern designs. None of them could hold a candle to the Quintet. They may have controlled the bass better or had more detail, but they all lacked one important feature - the foot-tapping involvement and mid-range presence that a valve amp has in spades. So I have abandoned the search for a new amp and have had the Quintet serviced by the manufacturer (New power supply capacitors and new valves where needed). So for me, it's not an infatuation for nostalgia, I never moved on from the older designs.
    Reply
  • Tinman1952
    Jacore said:
    I find it astounding that an author for What Hifi does not understand is that a significant amount of the vintage gear sounds a whole lot better to many than newer products and certainly proposes better value. Surely there's a nostalgia element as well, but in the world of Hifi , especially High-end the quest for aesthetics has always been essentially tertiary - just think of those horns! I for one welcome the return of the vintage look. Definitely has the cool factor for me.
    Well supposedly he's technical editor....
    but he contradicts himself by saying 'design and engineering from 50 years ago' and then...'thoroughly modern sonic engineering....' !
    Make your mind up....😣
    Reply
  • highflyin9
    I'd imagine with all the woes of the world lately that people want to recluse themselves to (what they perceive to be) a simpler time. As theSplund mentioned, manufacturers wouldn't be producing them if people weren't buying them, and not responding to market forces in a field this competitive would be self-immolating.

    I personally like the retro chic of some tube amplifier designs that harken the past, however I don't see myself going back to large square boxes with drab veneer. Thankfully in this sector no matter what you like, there is likely a manufacturer out there making it.
    Reply
  • PM@7
    Whilst the topic of the current trend for "hi-fi nostalgia" is interesting, this piece seems a little mean spirited to be honest. Lots of people enjoy nostalgia, and this is seen in almost every hobby going. Cars, fashion, gaming, design.... The theme of the article appears to be "in hi-fi, audio quality is sacrosanct, and must be pursued at all costs." This isn't always the case, as sometimes people have other drivers influencing their purchase decision. It's a little like saying anyone who buys a 1950s style 2022 Timex reissue (wind up) watch is a fool, as for the same money they could have a new G Shock. They'll buy the product they want, not the product which is technically "best". Finally, if this is an area of the hi-fi industry which is currently booming, it seems a shame to dismiss it so casually.
    Reply
  • nopiano
    Aside from class D, I’m not sure that any affordable amplifier designs have progressed the state of the art for decades. Some, iirc like Rega acknowledge that the designs date from Wireless World circuits from the 1950-60s, simply made with modern components. Most gains, if that’s what they are, are in streamlining mass-production to keep gear affordable.

    Retro-look speakers however, seem to be distinctly superior to their namesake fore-runners, as thank goodness for that. Most old Wharfedale and. Issuing were very coloured by todays standards, but that’s why buyers liked them - because liked that particular ‘flavour’. However, the appeal suggests to me that the majority of buyers are like me, of pensionable age,and happy to relive their youth!
    Reply
  • Mr. C Nation
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    Why are an increasing number of manufacturers obsessed with past glories?

    The ugly truth behind hi-fi's growing infatuation with nostalgia : Read more
    The music reproduction industry now has two options - 1] to make products which major on the latest technology, for these products to 'do more' in terms of connectivity, control, boil an egg, let the cat out ....

    As technology throws up more and more things that electronics can 'do', there's scope to design, make and sell such products. For example, who would have guessed 10 years ago that a sub-industry would emerge making sticks to hold a mobile phone at arm's length x2 from the holder? When the Walkman appeared, models suitable for joggers followed, as did models to use whilst swimming ...

    None of these things make music sound 'better' but they make money.

    2] Try to make music content sound 'better' than the product the latest one is replacing.

    Big problem here - content quality. This is the limiting factor for every piece in the chain of music reproduction.

    I have a pal who has written and performed the s/t music for a big-budget movie, , with access to the best in movie industry audio facilities. His own albums of the '70's and 80's were recorded with state of the art audio industry technology. He now releases music on-line, recorded at home on technology costing a few hundred pounds, not 100's thousands.

    No amount of money spent on a system is going to improve the quality of the home studio content to the level of that achieved by the studios of Island Records in St. Peter's Sq Chiswick or Olympic Studios, Wembley, audio studios dedicated to the movie industry.

    But for the listener, the music of the home studio recordings may be the music they enjoy, in preference to the music recorded elsewhere by the same artist.

    It seems the audio industry may have peaked. There's nowhere to go in terms of adding musical value to current content, so it is having a trip down memory lane.

    I would be interested to know the result of a blind test of 10 people dragged in off the street of the last 4 models in the Marantz stereo amp range, the latest being the PM6007. I have the 6006. Not long after that was released a model with the Union flag stuck to the front appeared. This was written up as 'better' than the original 6006 - but owners of that were told it was not worth 'upgrading' to the UK Special version.

    When I consider replacing any of my audio products, after a moment's thought I realise I would be doing this as 'retail therapy'. I don't even have a dedicated CD player. I play CDs on my BluRay player. It's true that CDs probably sounded better on the Marantz CD63 KI that I sold because it had no digital outputs but - I'll live.

    The 'hi-fi' industry is heading down the route that the guitar industry had to take, making 'specials' - whole ranges of specials, variations on the theme of the original which made the reputation of the model and the company, but adding nothing to the musicality of the instrument.

    'Blackie', Eric Clapton's Fender Stratocaster that sold for $1m some years ago, was a 'Partscaster' made up of parts of three Strats of six he bought off a wall in music shop in Nashville, TN.

    Music Center, the US music shop chain that bought Blackie, released a limited run of clones of Blackie, complete with cigarette burn at the headstock. The buyers of these guitars spent several thousand dollars on a nostalgia trip, the original having cost $400, to no musical benefit.
    Reply
  • leemccann1
    Bit of a daft article I think, not a great name either in the 'ugly truth' I think the nostalgic products we are seeing are a great addition to the world of HIFI and it gives us all the choice to choose what we want to buy, its not a replacement for new products more of a choice and good to see historic design with new technology. We have seen this for years with UV meters on amps etc, The part around 'As an industry, I think we should aim to make new products that become classics rather than try to relive past glories' is ridiculous, look at all the products we now have, DACs, all the AV amps tech, TV's etc etc, they are cleary moving the HIFI world on. Just look at KEF and B&W for moving the industry on, they may not be everyones cup of tea but again they are a choice, buy some Kef LS60's, B&W 805's or go the other way and buy some JBL L100's, thats the choice that we can make. I want to see the come back of tapedecks, for me in the 90's as part of an overall seperates syetms the tape deck with all its buttons and stuff to fiddle with was by far the best component...
    Reply