How can vintage audio gear and formats sound so good?

I’d like you to consider something: we put men on the Moon in 1969, more than 50 years ago.

There are three key elements here:

Take a moment to process that, and no, it wasn’t a hoax. Do you reckon we could do it now..? I seriously have my doubts, but either way, it tells you a great deal about the state of design and engineering in the ’60s and ’70s.

I should add that Voyager space probes with their gold-plated records have already left the solar system. One of these probes still works, sending signals back to Earth from nearly 20 BILLION km away. Probes also landed on Mars. In the ’70s…

Think about these achievements. Ponder the materials, science, electronics and all-around engineering genius necessary to achieve these feats. Analog audio is fairly straightforward by comparison and a quick scan of the annals of hi-fi history shows that some spectacularly good equipment came out around this time and even earlier.

You see, people often incorrectly assume that all the technological improvements we’ve made since we put people on the Moon directly correlate with improvements in audio. Some do, but many, even most, don’t. We had the technology and engineering to make extraordinary equipment and recordings, way back in the 1950s.

Some of the very best recordings were made with valve microphones, direct-to-tape in the ’50s and ’60s. The audio spectrum is quite narrow and technically not that hard to reproduce. Dynamic range is where things get trickier, but magnetic tape running at 15IPS can do it and vinyl does an admirable job of reproducing it.

Sure, consoles and equipment have continued to improve, but the formats – reel-to-reel tape and vinyl – remain as good as they always were. Arguably the hardware, ie tape machines, valve microphones, cabling etc was better then.

There have undoubtedly been some major improvements in transistors, integrated circuits, DACs and so on. But there have also been increases in wages and conditions which have seen the need to automate and simplify production and move away from expensive metal and glass construction, in favour of cheaper plastic-based materials and machine assembly. Stuff costs less but doesn’t last as long either.

I’m not for a moment saying all old gear and formats sound better, because they don’t. The Compact Cassette is a good example. It’s fundamentally flawed and really only sounded good towards the end of its life. Vinyl on the other hand has always sounded great and always will.

I have a few of my Mum’s records from the ’50s and they are some of the very best recordings I own. Again, think about that. My system sounds unbelievable and some of my best recordings are from the 1950s. Extraordinary, but true.

High-resolution digital is where things have really come a long way, but even good old Redbook CD can sound excellent, with the right equipment.

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