An accusation leveled at free market capitalism (or ‘consumerism’ for the truly disdainful) is that it compels us to buy things we don’t need by impressing on us the obsolescence of the equipment we already own. The promise of more features, more speed or simply more glitz lures into forking out money on the latest and greatest version. I’m not so stupid as to pretend that the audio industry is not so affected—there’s always something new being offered that promises to be the next best thing—but there are some interesting variations on the theme.
Firstly, as keen young types in technology journalism never tire of telling me, audio is a ‘mature’ category. Broadly speaking this means that it doesn’t require you to completely revamp everything you own every two years, but there are some other considerations too. In all audio formats, but with vinyl in particular, there is sufficient enough stability that products don’t really become obsolete. You only need replace them if they wear out or you’d like something better.
Beyond this simple fact of mechanics, there’s another dynamic to this industry. Most companies continue to update their product ranges in a reasonably consistent fashion- not at a breakneck pace but regularly nonetheless. There are a few concerns however that shun this process almost entirely. It’s not uncommon to find turntables that have been in production for five years and there are a reasonable collection that have celebrated a decade on sale. There are, however, a select few that have been around for a lot longer than that.
Take a turntable particularly close to my heart, the Michell Gyrodec. This iconic piece of equipment is one the most famous British turntables and can include owners of the caliber of Steve Jobs in its past. The Gyrodec is very fractionally younger than me having first entered production 35 years ago. In that time, it has seen performance updates and it has responded to the vagaries of fashion by offering a model that has no plinth but the basic design has remained unchanged. What is very important to point out is the Michell is not some curiosity or fossil. The basic design is sufficiently fundamentally sound as it still represents one of the best models available at its price point.
Neither is the Gyrodec alone in its extended production run. One of its current rivals at the price point, the Wilson Benesch Full Circle, has recently celebrated a quarter of a century in production. What makes this especially notable is that by the time that the Full Circle entered production in the early nineties, vinyl had already been read the last rites. Its entire lifespan has been in defiance of conventional wisdom. There’s a fair amount of wisdom involved in its construction too. The use of carbon fiber and composites that go into the Full Circle were incredible at the time it launched and are still exceptionally sophisticated.
Of course both of these turntables are adolescents compared to the Linn LP12. The Linn entered production in 1972 and has been in continuous production ever since. It’s important to clarify that the specification of the newest models has almost nothing in common with that original model but it is no less important to note that if you were to find an original model from the first year of production, every single part for the newer models can be fitted to update it. The LP12 has managed to go the best part of half a century as one of the most consistently sought after and popular turntables that the UK has managed to produce; it’s created a whole sub industry of companies that develop components that offer different upgrades for it in addition to the official Linn ones.
These products survived an extinction event and came out the other side better than ever.
These aren’t the weird exceptions you might expect them to be either. Across the industry, there are examples of tonearms, cartridges and turntables that have managed to defy any standard commercial ideas about product lifespan. Why is this? Part of the reason stems from the idea that vinyl was finished as a commercial medium, an idea that persisted for a period of well over a decade. When this happened, a number of manufacturers who felt that their products were selling perfectly well decided that for as long as that was the case, they would keep making them. Now that things are ticking over nicely again, these products have continued to appeal to a new generation of buyers.
What is more unusual still is that these products have influenced the way that new products have been developed. Having finished its own not inconsequential 38 year production run in 2010, the Technics SL-1200 has passed into legend. When Technics resumed production last year, the new model it came up with is actually very different to the previous iteration but whereas making almost any other piece of consumer electronics look like the preceding model is bad idea, Technics went out their way to ensure that the new model looked like the old one. Even with models that are regularly updated, some manufacturers go to impressive lengths to keep the family resemblance intact.
I don’t want to portray this state of affairs as anti-consumerist. The companies selling these products still want you to hand over money to buy them and they still expect to make a profit from doing so. Where the difference comes in is that rather than chopping and changing on a repeated basis and promising ‘the next big thing’, we now have an industry where some companies instead say ‘this is what we offer, we have total faith in it and it will be here until such time as you want to buy it.’ It’s a subtle difference but it is one that leaves vinyl apart from the crowd. You can have a dream deck in mind when you start out and many years later when you are in a position to buy such a thing, you can have the confidence that it will still be there.
This also points to the impressive resilience of vinyl as a format both historically and in the future. These products survived an extinction event and came out the other side better than ever. While I’m confident that the resurgence in vinyl still has more to give, even if the pessimists are correct, we have a precedent in these exceptional products to have a little faith that pretty much whatever happens, some turntables are just too damn good to go anywhere.