Obsolescence is an unfortunate part of our digital lives. My first-generation iPad is now too old to benefit from OS updates. Windows 8 looks to be a lot less fun if you’re not using it with a tablet device. Whatever top-notch phone you buy today will be replaced by something better in six months.
The audio realm defies all of these rules. While you would never use a “vintage” cell phone (Zack Morris costumes excepted), vintage audio gear not only stands the test of time, in some cases it’s highly prized. Let’s take a look at some old-school listening devices that have escaped the clutches of time.
PlayStation (SCPH-100X Model)
Why they’re great: Fidelity. And, yes, the original PlayStation console is now a vintage device.
Surprisingly, certain models of the now 18-year-old PlayStation pack CD players of incredible quality. The hardware on these models – those with RCA jacks on the back of the unit – is so good that the playback quality has been compared favorably to CD players that cost several thousand dollars. Audiophile magazines like 6moons and Stereophile have given PlayStations very positive reviews, along with many others.
Nothing vintage is perfect, though, so there are some drawbacks. First, the PlayStation must be left turned on for best results. Apparently, it can take as long as a week to reach peak audio quality. That may put it out of bounds for the environmentally conscious. Leaving your PlayStation on for long lengths of time will also put strain on already ancient hardware. I know there are a lot of original Nintendo consoles that still soldier on, but I doubt many were left on for weeks or months at a time. If you get hooked on the PlayStation’s sound quality, it may be a piece of hardware you’ll need to replace often.
Luckily, these devices are pretty cheap. At least three were available on eBay at the time of this writing, and none cost more than $22.99. That is a phenomenal price for the sound quality they afford — to say nothing of the shock value for your audiophile friends.
Why they’re great: Even better fidelity. No matter how great your PlayStation sounds, it will never achieve sound quality of a good, clean vinyl record played on a quality system.
The problem is that CDs are digital media. Vinyl records are analog. Without getting into the details, analog media preserve sound as a contiguous analog wave. This is more similar to the way that sounds exist in reality than digital media, which instead preserve sound in a way that resembles a series of steps. The original analog wave is sliced into extremely small segments, and each of those segments is represented by a number. During playback, the sequence of these numbers then reconstructs a waveform similar to the original sound. No matter how finely the original audio is sliced, however, the digital representation will never be quite the same as the original analog wave. If you want access to even greater audio fidelity, you will have to look to vinyl.
This could mean buying a record player. You have many options. Vintage turntables can be highly desirable. Both Sound and Vision Mag and Turntable Kitchen have suggested models to keep an eye out for. Don’t shy from contemporary models, though. The New York Times recently suggested several, in addition to providing a host of other tips for new fans of vinyl. Additionally, Stereophile.com offers reviews of many other recent releases.
Tape cassette player
Why they’re great: Access and cachet. You might be surprised how much excellent music is being released on cassette tape these days. In Portland alone, Apes Tapes, Eggy Records, and Gnar Tapes all release new cassette tapes on a regular basis. Many of these tapes are extremely affordable. Take, for example, the And And And / Woolen Men Split Tape from Apes Tapes, which costs just $5 and contains full-length releases from two of the best bands in Portland. These tapes can also be exceedingly rare. Those in the Gnar Tapes catalog are limited to 100 units, making each a collector’s item for a small but dedicated group of tape devotees.
Cassette tapes are also, somehow, cooler than vinyl. This may be due to their exclusivity. Not only are indie tapes produced in very small quantities, but not many people have working cassette decks. This makes the ability to play tapes a mark of distinction. The current hipness of cassette also comes from the people running the tape labels. The operators of Apes Tapes, Eggy Records, and Gnar Tapes are key members of bands like Radiation City, The Woolen Men, and White Fang respectively (among others). While tapes may not have superior fidelity, their exclusivity and the small communities involved with making them can lead listeners to very interesting content.
If you want to pick up a tape deck, the Tapeheads.net Cassette forums look to be a great place to start your research.
Don’t toss that tech
A computer from 1994 makes an interesting curio, but isn’t as useful today as a record player, cassette deck, or even an original PlayStation. Though technology continues to advance in all sectors, vintage audio gear retains its utility in a way very different from other tech.
Maybe I should have held on to my MiniDisc player and Sir Mix-a-Lot tapes.