Tuesday, February 10, 2015 10:08 PM / cfi.co
The news of its death was greatly exaggerated. Sales of vinyl records are spinning through the roof. According to Nielsen – an American company that monitors global media usage – sales of records are on track to exceed six million in 2014, up fully 40% over 2013 – the year in which digital music sales, peddled by the likes of iTunes, took its first dip ever, sliding 5.7%. The only media segment growing at a higher rate than vinyl is on-demand streaming (up 42%).
In Britain, the resurgence of vinyl records reached a milestone in November 2014 passing the one million mark for the year. The British Phonographic Industry (BPI), a trade association, predicts that vinyl sales will amount to 1.2 million for the entire year. Worldwide vinyl sales revenue has exploded from barely $55m in 2007 to well over $210m in 2013. Though representing only about 3-6% of total music sales, vinyl is now firmly back in business with most major recording artists releasing their work on long-play records as well as on CDs.
The vinyl record is not the only timeworn technology currently being resuscitated. Valves (aka tubes in the US) – glass bottle-like devices from a distant era when semiconductors were yet to be fully developed – are also making a rather unexpected comeback.
Connoisseurs swear by the combination of these two analogue audio technologies. Playing vinyl on a turntable hooked-up to a valve amplifier has – reportedly – no equal in the digital domain. It requires something of a ritual as well. Lowering the diamond needle onto the spinning long-play record, a dry plop comes through the speakers followed by soft scratching noises giving way, eventually, to a majestic soundstage.
“For the generation that grew up with sterile CDs and MP3s, the music captured in vinyl is nothing short of mesmerising. This explains why record sales are mostly driven by young people. They have embarked on a voyage of discovery and found that not all forms of progress necessarily lead to improvement,” says Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note, a UK company that designs, builds, and markets high-end valve-based audio equipment.
While contemporary digital gear boasts impressive technical specifications, the numbers do not necessarily translate into listening pleasure. In fact, a small but vociferous fringe of the growing “bottlehead” movement insists on employing 1920s technology for sound amplification.
Considering that the perfect amplifier would be represented by a wire producing a gain in amplitude, “single-enders” base their gear on a design first proposed by engineers EH Loftin and SY White in the January 1929 edition of Radio News. In its most basic version, this Loftin White circuit has but four components: two valves, a capacitor, and an output transformer that couples the circuit to a loudspeaker.
The specs of the Loftin White amplifier look rather unimpressive. Its power output is positively feeble at only a couple of Watts, distortion is nothing short of horrendous, while the frequency range is only slightly better than that of a telephone receiver. Yet when hooked up to a suitable speaker, this flea-powered amplifier brings music to life as few other devices can, creating a massive soundstage in which an exquisite sense detail is not drowned out. In a words: valves swing in a way that is both unique and captivates listeners.
Audio engineers are mostly at a loss to explain why equipment that underwhelms in the lab, outperforms kit of impeccable specification. In its 1998 study The Cool Sound of Tubes, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) draws attention to a few lesser-known technical parameters that may help explain the resilience of valve technology. Higher operating voltages tend to result in a wider dynamic range while valves also do not suffer from excessive clipping at high volume levels. Instead of clipping into raw distortion as semiconductors do, valves smoothly adapt and cope gracefully when faced with overloading.
Though these technical contemplations may extend far beyond the interest of even the most dedicated music-lover, they may help explain why valves – an ancient technology – have not been remanded to museums. UK valve amp manufacturer Audio Note finds ready buyers for its kit. Hand-build amplifiers costing up to £100,000 are being shipped regularly. Even “entry-level” kit goes for multiple thousands of pounds and finds many eager buyers.
In Switzerland, venerable record player manufacturer Thorens has been resuscitated – after its 2000 bankruptcy in Germany – and now stand once again at the apex of turntable technology. Business is good and getting better by the year. An entire new range of record players has been launched ranging from budget models to exotic and massive high-end models.
Another classic that simply refuses to fade into oblivion is British SME (Scale Model Equipment) in West Sussex. In the 1950s, the company successfully moved into precision engineering. With designs that have remained unaltered for almost half a century, SME tone-arms still are state-of-the-art.
The British excel in timeless design. A few years back, sound equipment manufacturer Quad reintroduced a range of classic gear to great acclaim and with results surpassing all expectations. Established in 1926, Tannoy is another well-known name in British audio equipment manufacturing, famed for its loudspeakers designed specifically for use with valve amplifiers. Tannoy’s proprietary dual concentric speakers – using a single driver for the entire frequency spectrum – power systems that have not changed since the late 1940s and still have but few peers.
In even the world’s most advanced recording studios, bristling with digital paraphernalia, audio engineers still make ready use of valve-equipped microphone amplifiers, limiters, expanders, gates, and whatnot from the 1950s and 1960s in order to get the warmth that modern devices are just incapable of delivering in bits and bytes.
The back-to-the-future trend in audio has been noted in China as well. Originally a source for tooling machines for the manufacturing of valves – equipment carted to the scrapyard elsewhere in the world – China has now become the world’s largest supplier of both valves and valve-based equipment. New valve manufacturing plants have sprung up, old designs dusted-off, and retired engineers invited back to share their almost-lost knowledge and skills in the rather darkish art of sticking anodes, cathodes, heaters, and grids into a glass bottle.
Electronics shops in Hong Kong now feature their apparently timeworn products alongside the latest miniature gadgets and other devices of digital technology. In Tokyo, an entire shopping district is dedicated to hi-fi enthusiasts with a penchant for the nostalgic. The Akihabara District is advertised as the audiophile’s dreamland. Shops as Kounan Denki, Akizuki, Sato Musen and many others cater to the discerning listener and are now seeing business boom thanks to the renewed interested in retro technology.
The remarkable resilience of both vinyl records and their equally old-fashioned ancillary gear poses some interesting questions regarding the uses of technological progress. While today’s equipment offers unparalleled ease of use and convenience – streaming vast libraries of digital music, controlled by smartphone apps, around the home – sound quality has, in fact, deteriorated. Most of today’s manufacturers no longer seek to compete on high fidelity – a concept originally coined to describe the quest for equality between live and reproduced sound – preferring instead to offer ergonomic advantages.
While not likely to become mainstream anytime soon, or indeed ever, both vinyl and valve technology have retreated from the brink of extinction, saved by the curiosity of a generation of music lovers increasingly bored with existing technology. As retro becomes hip, out goes the new, and in comes the old.