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Do You Long Nostalgically for Retro Tech? Part 1: Audio cassettes, LPs, and Vacuum Tubes

One of the many things that have happened to me as I age is that the tech toys of my youth are now coming back into vogue. A recent PBS NewsHour segment on the “revival” of Philips audio cassettes triggered this article. In that PBS NewsHour segment, Stephanie Sy discussed the growing use of audio cassettes by the underground music scene. Independent music artists distribute their music on cassette because it’s a convenient music distribution medium. Sy interviewed a Los Angeles artist that goes by the name Miral, whose 2019 music project sold out its first run – of 200 cassettes.

This is small-batch art, to be sure, but Sy said that mainstream artists including Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and Taylor Swift have all capitalized on the fad by distributing some of their music on cassette. In the world of streaming music megaliths like Spotify, the rebirth of cassettes stupefies me, especially because I am quite certain that the audio extracted from cassettes is acoustically inferior to streaming music or CDs. As Sy noted in her PBS NewsHour segment, “Tapes have shorter life spans, and things like heat and recorder malfunctions can cause parts of the cassettes to degrade faster than other mediums.” Sy interviewed a music journalist, Marc Masters, who is writing a book about the history of cassettes, and the topic of inferior sound quality came up in the interview. Masters explained, “For a lot of people who have collected them for years, some of the anomalies and imperfections are part of the charm of listening to tapes.”

This revival is possible only because a few cassette manufacturers remain in business. Sy interviewed one, Nick Keshishian, who retired in 2018 but kept his manufacturing equipment.  However, Keshishian was retired for only a month because requests for new manufacturing runs continued to stream in. In his heyday, Keshishian’s ENAS Media produced 60,000 cassettes per week. Now, he’s down to 15,000 cassettes per month.

The revival in cassettes mirrors the longer trend: the vinyl revival. In the last 17 years, music albums on vinyl LP records have made a comeback. That’s great news for me, because I’ve hung onto about 400 LPs for the last 25 years while not listening to a single LP. I was reminded of the LP’s return to popularity just the other day when I walked into the local Barnes & Noble bookstore and saw a large section devoted to LPs in the very center of the store, so that you wouldn’t miss it no matter which door you used to enter the store.

I can sort of understand some of the nostalgia for LPs. The cover art and the back-cover notes are clearly superior to those provided on CDs. Streaming services provide none of these. Also, there are long out-of-print records with music tracks I still long to hear, although I frequently do so on YouTube these days. For example, after returning from a recent Elton John tribute band concert – the 4-person, cross-genre chamber music group named Warp Trio from New York City – I wanted to hear a very early Elton John cut that they did not play. It’s the title song from the 1971 movie “Friends,” which came out just two years after Elton John’s debut album, “Empty Sky.” YouTube gave me several choices for listening to that deep cut. I listened to the track and smiled.

In related news, the sales of used record turntables have jumped, and turntables with nosebleed prices have appeared. You can pay more than $100,000 for a turntable if your wallet allows. (Of course, you can pay that much for a pickup truck too these days. I wouldn’t, but you can. What a world!) For example, the Dereneville VPM 2010-1 turntable from AVDesignHaus will set you back a cool $600,000. (Nope, that’s not a typo. More than half a million dollars to spin your vinyl.) Too rich for your blood? The transrotor Artus FMD (shown below) is more reasonably priced at $150,000, but what price art? These modern turntables make the Dual and AR turntables from vinyl’s heyday, or my Panasonic Technics SL-23 belt-drive turntable, look downright cheap. All of these prehistoric platter spinners are available on the active used-equipment market, either as neglected wrecks or fully restored.

 

The Transrotor Artus FMD turntable sells for $150,000. Image credit: Transrotor

This LP revival may be self-limiting, however, because big-name artists like Taylor Swift can completely consume the world’s LP manufacturing capacity with a new release when they decide to release their latest album on vinyl. Like the cassette industry, the number of vinyl LP pressing plants has severely declined over the decades since the medium fell out of favor.

LPs share another characteristic with cassettes: inferior music reproduction. I’m sure I just stepped on a lot of people’s toes with that comment. LPs reproduce stereo sound far better than cassettes, and many people claim to prefer LP sound to CD sound, and certainly to the compressed sound of streaming services. However, I’m not sure that these same people realize that the sound they hear from LPs is highly equalized and somewhat compressed, to compensate for the medium’s physical shortcomings. I suspect it’s the same sort of preference that some audiophiles have for tube sound over solid-state sound reproduction. (Oops. I just stepped on another bunch of toes.)

And so, the nostalgia movement has rediscovered vacuum tubes as well. Actually, the high-end audiophile market has long preferred tube-based equipment to solid-state equipment, and many high-end equipment vendors have relied on old stocks of vacuum tubes and on European, Russian, and Chinese tube makers. With old stockpiles dwindling and sourcing from Russian and Chinese vendors becoming increasingly problematic, entrepreneur Charles Whitener has re-opened a vacuum tube manufacturing plant that had been based in Kansas City, Missouri after convincing AT&T to sell him the necessary manufacturing equipment and the even more valuable Western Electric brand license for making vacuum tubes in 1995. Whitener later had to move his manufacturing operation to Huntsville, Alabama and then to Rossville, Georgia when AT&T sold the building in Kansas City.

This new incarnation of Western Electric focused on making one particular vacuum tube, the 300B triode, because Whitener set his commercial sights on a larger market than audiophiles. As a big fan and self-described fanatic of the rock group Led Zeppelin, he initially zeroed in on making vacuum tubes that would be readily snapped up by guitar players for their vintage guitar amplifiers.

 

The Western Electric 300B vacuum tube triode is now back in production, thanks in part to nostalgia. Image source: Western Electric

Since then, Western Electric has started to build audio amplifiers for the audiophile market, and, later this year, the company plans to roll out several more tube types including ECC83/82/81 triodes, SN7 octal-base tubes, KT88s up to KT170s, the 6L6 beam tetrode, the 6B6 double diode-triode, and the EL34 power pentode.

In the conclusion to this article series, coming soon, I’ll discuss visual retro-tech, including film photography, and my favorite retro-tech, gas-discharge numeric indicators, aka Nixie tubes.

 

References

Stephanie Sy, Madison Staten, Lena Jackson, Cassette tapes make unexpected comeback in era of music streaming, PBS News Hour, June 1, 2023

Becky Roberts, 10 of the world’s most expensive turntables, What HiFi?, June 26, 2020.

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