It is 8.30pm European time and I am sat in the departure lounge of Berlin Shoenefeld airport- a structure which has the same sense of desperation as a detention centre and roughly the equivalent level of facilities. I have slept perhaps seven hours in the last 48 and flights are being delayed all around me. Despite all of this, I am happy- more than that, I am genuinely excited.
The reason for this has nothing to do with my surroundings and everything to de with where I have spent the last two days. The IFA show, held annually in the vast Messe exhibition complex has a few days left to run but I've seen all I need to see so I am heading back. What I have seen is an audio industry with a sense of purpose and a spring in its step and more than that, an audio industry that has reconciled the continuing existence of vinyl and learned to love it again.
You might be thinking, 'Big deal, go to any audio show and there are turntables everywhere' and you'd be right. The thing is though, IFA is not an audio show. It is instead, a vast and utterly unsentimental trade show. The major brands are here to show us what the next 6-12 months is about while smaller ones sniff around for distribution and routes to market. Nobody is here for fun, and nothing is on a stand for any other reason than to be sold. When I first attended the show in 2004, the only thing with a belt drive was a washing machine. Eleven years later and vinyl is here in force, not as a novelty act but as a serious element of the commercial hopes and aspirations of a number of companies.
I need to be clear that I have never doubted that vinyl would survive in some form as a format. Even through the times when it was officially 'dead', there were enough people that stuck with it to ensure that it would stay with us. Where I worried was that it was going to depend on the high end- thereby pricing many of us out of the game and otherwise need us to pick through increasingly elderly used designs. There have always been some holdouts against this trend but the last three years- and especially the last twelve have seen your options for a new, sensibly priced deck multiply.
Over the course of the show, I have been treated a variety of models breaking cover. I have watched as French Audio brand Elipson took the wraps off two models, designed from the ground up and using nothing but an Ortofon cartridge in the way of existing parts. Elsewhere, Audio Technica, a long term producer of cartridges and other accessories unveiled the AT-LP5, a home audio turntable that uses direct drive in contrast to the vast majority of its rivals and which manages to look both like a classic Japanese deck of yesteryear and entirely modern at the same time. Both decks are competitively priced and radically different from one another in terms of their engineering. Even five years ago, the idea of new contenders entering the sane end of the market looked unlikely and now they are doing so at a rate of knots.
If this wasn't enough, most extraordinary of all, in the middle of this, Panasonic. This is the same company that pulled the plug on the SL1210 only a few short years ago, saying that its time had passed. The same company that has been forced to adopt a much more ruthless attitude towards product categories in the face of relentless competition from South Korea and China. Sat prominently on their stand was a prototype of a bespoke, audiophile direct drive deck- a clear descendent of the legendary SP10- a deck which many people still claim with justification is one of the finest ever made. It seems incredible that at same time as launching 4k, OLED with high dynamic range, Panasonic is dusting off designs from the 70's and updating them but they are and they are doing so because the demand is there. This deck won't be as affordable as the others but that it exists at all should be a source of wonderment.
This on its own would be enough to put a spring in my step- or at least it would if I hadn't spent the last two days trudging for miles around exhibition centres- but there is more. Not only has vinyl returned to mainstream business models. the supporting electronics have adapted to working with this most anachronistic of formats. You can buy a turntable that has been adapted to work with the Sonos multiroom system. You can buy decks that are able to work with exclusively digital products. At home at the moment. I have a Roksan Xerxes turntable on test with the all new 'PUG' tonearm that uses a staggeringly sophisticated carbon fibre arm tube that works more like a spaceframe than a conventional tube, making it incredibly light and strong. Vinyl is adapting to the modern audio world and the results are truly outstanding.
In recent years, I will come clean to having some worries that the stereo audio business was going to disappear into high end irrelevance. It didn't seem to have any answers to the smartphone, to free music online and to our changing lives and habits. It seemed unable to make a qualitative argument in the face of relentless convenience What I've seen over the last year or so is manufacturers finally stopping fighting the inevitable and starting to work with the new rules of the game. After a few false starts, the patterns and the demands of the end user are becoming clearer and product is really starting to deliver on the promises new concepts offer.
Audio equipment is now all sorts of shapes and sizes. It handles a startling variety of formats and needs and it complements the technology we have taken into our lives. I have become a huge fan of streaming audio over network. My CD's are banished to a box in the roof and my collection is now one well sorted iPad ap away at any time. I can listen to radio stations from around the world and explore new music on demand for a fixed price- ironically in my case leading to me buying more rather than less music. It combines immense convenience with outstanding prices that- once adjusted for inflation- are lower than in the supposed 'golden age' of hifi in the 70's and 80's.
And despite all this, it still accommodates the oldest and greatest physical format of them all. To those of you reading this who kept the faith in analogue when CD ruled the roost and who have guided it from near extinction back to the mainstream should take a moment and congratulate yourselves that we've managed this unlikeliest of comebacks. I am a relative latecomer to Vinyl Me Please but becoming a small part of it has been incredibly satisfying. Music is not disposable and physical media done right, is cooler than any digital download regardless of the sampling rate or the exotic nature of the format. We hold these truths to be self-evident and it seems that the rest of the world is starting to realize that we're right. We will never be anything more than a small part of a wider machine but the VMP community is now an integral cog in that machine and there is more to come.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.
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