Lovers of retro come in two types. They are not mutually exclusive, but most of the retro-addicts I know are absolutists, one way or the other. There are (1) those brave enough to employ actual, vintage items, and (2) those who prefer the peace of mind offered by brand-new products which are retro in concept but otherwise modern. Examples include running an original Fiat 500 or Mini vs. buying a new one; wearing a 1940s British military watch or choosing one of the recent replicas; and, of course, listening to aged hi-fi equipment or only to current models.
What made me think of this dichotomy, which I repeat doesn’t have to be exclusionary in either direction, was staring in the window of a local hi-fi store as I queued to enter the supermarket opposite during Lockdown 3.0. I knew of but hadn’t seen (thanks to the current hiatus of the world’s hi-fi shows) Wharfedale’s reissues of its classics in its Heritage range, including the Linton and Denton, while Leak has been revived with the period-styled Stereo 130 amp and the deliciously anachronistic CDT CD player.
Anyone old enough to remember Leak and Wharfedale from the first time around would have thought, for at least a moment, that the shop had suddenly decided to stock second-hand gear, but no, one’s eyes were not being deceived. Aside from the Pro-Ject turntable in the display, it could have been pulled from the pages of any hi-fi magazine, circa the 1960s.
It was a much-welcomed breath of stale air. The UK price of the Leak amp (£699, or £799 with wooden sleeve to complete the look) seemed too tempting to ignore. Fittingly, countless Leak/Wharfedale pairings must have existed back in the day, especially in Great Britain, almost as default systems, so the shop nailed this perfectly.
Wharfedale and Leak are but part of this new/old wave. Also exhibiting such nods to the past are the reborn JBL models; the wildly successful Technics direct-drive turntables; the forthcoming versions of the reincarnated Thorens turntables, including the TD 124 DD in direct-drive form and the TD 150 as the TD 1500, to join the already released TD 1600 (née TD 160); PE (Perpetuum Ebner) and Elac Miracord turntables; Radford Revival amps; and no doubt others I’m missing. This proliferation of reborn hardware tells you that many audiophiles, like car and watch enthusiasts, find much comfort in the past.
While I and many of my anachrophile buddies do run aged gear, I also use “new vintage” equipment as, on occasion, I get to review such items. And why not? I remember the stuff when it was current, lusting after the original JBL L100 50 years ago, and then aspiring to the JBL Decade, but settling for a pair of small Scott bookshelf speakers within my teenager’s budget.
In the past year, I tested the Denon DL-103 moving-coil in its anniversary form, while I am overjoyed to be using the latest Falcon Acoustics BBC LS3/5a. Those two products, however, represent a different sort of retro, because they are not “tribute” statements per se, like the Leak and Wharfedale models; they have been in continuous production (or with short interruptions over the decades) and are therefore not paying homage.
Along with these two are numerous other components which have exhibited the same longevity, such as to separate them from reissues. These are perfect alternatives for those who demand provenance, even in brand-new items, so I suppose there are three types of retro: genuine vintage gear with years of wear and tear, reissues in the style of classics, and those like the DL-103 that have been available since their inception.
Of the last category, too, one swiftly thinks of Ortofon SPU and London (aka Decca) cartridges, both having been around forever. Should one wish to produce an authentic, vintage system with fresh kit, add to them the evergreen (literally, if you’ve seen how the tubes glow) McIntosh MC275 amp and the MC75 mono version; Klipschorns, Heresy speakers, and three other models in the Klipsch Heritage line; Linn’s LP12; and too many more to list.
What would I nominate for rebirth, with guaranteed sales success? Easy peasy: the Shure V15 cartridge; Quad’s original ESL speaker, aka the ’57; an exact replica of Dynaco’s Stereo ST-70 power amp; the Acoustic Research turntable and the AR-3a and AR-4xa speakers; most Micro-Seiki turntables and the Pioneer PL-12D record deck; Sennheiser HD 414 headphones; the Acos Lustre tonearms—enough! I could do this forever.
Nostalgia is like a cuddle. It’s stability, security, and something we cherish all the more of late. And that may explain part of the appeal of retro, especially for grown-ups who are now able to afford what they could only dream of when they were young and of limited means. Sorry, but you can keep your streamers.
. . . Ken Kessler