- Vintage audio gear looks great and can sound great, but unreliable.
- Several Hi-Fi companies are reimagining their heritage products with new technology.
- It’s not cheap, but neither will it be obsolete in a few years.
Take a look at your local Hi-Fi store, and it might seem like you've traveled back in time.
In the old days, speakers were big and boxy, amplifiers had nothing on their front panel other than a few knobs and buttons, and vinyl turntables… well, turntables haven’t really changed that much. They were often beautiful and very easy to use. But what if you took the best of today’s sound technology and modern manufacturing and applied them to these old designs and concepts? You’d get some very popular products, is what.
“As a true audiophile, I admire the incredible quality and craftsmanship reflected in products by companies like Wharfedale and Mission,” Mario Almonte, an audiophile and president of Herman & Almonte Public Relations, told Lifewire via email. “Every generation is convinced that the products they grew up with were infinitely superior to the ones that exist today. But artistic taste changes with every generation, and that applies to audio technology, too.”
Brand New Retro
Take a look at some of the photos accompanying this article. All of these are current products, and all of them are aimed at the fancy home Hi-Fi market. They're not just the same junky Bluetooth speakers with a retro-styled casing. They're not even modern high-end Hi-Fi components, given a lick of vintage-style paint. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Instead, the makers have taken classic designs and reimagined them with modern know-how. The results are beautiful-looking objects with the characteristics of vintage gear but with the performance and reliability of modern designs.
“Loudspeaker manufacturers have taken that newfound interest in nostalgia and reintroduced updated versions of their most popular vintage audio speakers with a great deal of success so far,” writes audiophile and audio gear reviewer and journalist Ian White on his Ecoustics blog.
One popular product is Wharfedale’s Linton loudspeaker, a huge (literally) throwback to a model of the same name that first appeared in 1965. From the outside, it looks the part: a walnut cabinet with a classic (and currently rare) three-way (woofer, mid, tweeter) arrangement and even a matching stand that can hold vinyl LPs.
But inside, the Linton's speaker cones are now made of kevlar and built to modern standards. Reviews have praised the Lintons for their easygoing, vintage sound but mention that they offer "more detail, speed, and transparency" than actual vintage speakers.
Another example is the Mission 770, which pulls off pretty much the same trick, but is more expensive and actually made in the UK (the Wharfedale Lintons are manufactured in China).
The other part of this trend is in amplifiers. The brand-new Leak Stereo 230 amplifier is a reincarnation of the Leak Stereo 30 range, first seen in the 1960s. Leak is another British Hi-Fi brand, but unlike Mission and Wharfedale, it has been defunct for decades, brought back by parent company IAG Group (which also owns Wharfedale and Mission, among others).
The Stereo 230 follows the Stereo 130, which might look like a dead ringer for the original, but is loaded with modern tech. You can plug in your turntable and speaker and hook up digital gear via optical, USB, coax, and even HDMI ARC. You can even stream to it via Bluetooth, direct from your phone.
But from the front, you'd never know this. Instead of OLED screens, buttons, and poorly-designed menus, you get a few knobs and one button. And that button's only purpose is to disengage the tone knobs.
The trend here is pretty clear. It's a marriage of the best of old Hi-Fi, from its simplicity, through its aesthetic, to the actual hardware and circuit design paradigms from the past, with parts of modern day, including convenient mod-cons like remote controls and multi-year warranties.
And the appeal is equally clear. First of all, these things look gorgeous. It might not be the style for you, but that's fine—plenty of alternatives exist. But if you prefer your Hi-Fi gear to match the furniture rather than to light it up with blue LEDs, or if you like to be able to change the settings by twisting a knob instead of navigating a bewilderment of submenus, then it's good news.
Even better news is that you don't have to forego modern improvements in audio technology to get it, which is fantastic whether you remember the original models that inspire these new products or are coming to them for the first time.