How is it possible for vintage audio gear and formats to sound so good?

We put men on the moon more than 50 years ago, in 1969.

Three key elements there:

  • Men
  • The moon
  • 1969..!

Do you reckon we could do that now? I seriously have my doubts.

I should add that Voyager space probes with their gold-plated records have 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…

Just think about all of that for a moment. Ponder the materials, science, electronics, wire, magnets, and all-around engineering genius necessary to achieve these feats. Analog audio is pretty straightforward by comparison.

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. Many 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 15 IPS can do it and vinyl does an admirable job of reproducing it.

Sure, consoles, 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. 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. I have a few of my Mum’s records from the ’50s and they are some of my very best recordings. Again, think about that. My system sounds unbelievable and some of the best things I hear on it are from the 1950s.

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.