Is Older Always Better?

Written by Bill Leebens

My daughter Emily has a habit of being brutally frank, direct, and unambiguous. I can’t imagine where she gets it.

She recently said to me, “Dad, when something sucks, saying that something else sucks doesn’t make the first thing suck any less.” That  quote came to mind when I started pondering a string of online audio forum posts which categorically and emphatically stated without restraint, “any piece of vintage gear is better than anything being made today.”

I’m sorry—WHAT?!?

As faithful readers of Vintage Whine are aware, I don’t go in for uncritical praise of vintage gear. I am fond of the sound quality and design aesthetics of many vintage pieces, but am pragmatic when it comes to their build quality (completely aside from the fact that many pieces are 50-60 years old, or more). Someday when I’m retired and have unlimited time, I’ll investigate the alleged sonic superiority of the flimsy stamped speaker terminals of Marantz tube amps (as on the 8b above), and explore the wonders of Orange Drop caps and Allen-Bradley carbon resistors. But please don’t tell me that components of that era were flat-out better-built than ANYTHING made today. That’s simply untrue.

I’d already been involved in audio for several years when I first encountered Mark Levinson—both the man and the company. I was fond of the Audio Research SP3 preamp, but did not yet own one. In many ways, the SP3 was the modern equivalent of a vintage product, with its ragged-edge perforated sheet metal top (again like the 8b above), rubber baby buggy bumper feet, circuit design, layout, post-Marantz 7 industrial design and logo…and on and on. You couldn’t look at the SP3 without feeling a hint of deja vu, flashing back to many components from the ’50’s and ’60’s.

When I encountered Mark Levinson at Opus 2 in Memphis (and RIP to old friend Ron Gilbrech, who tolerated tire-kicker Leebs for many years at Opus 2), sharp-dressed Levinson the man was sitting in a lotus position on the rug, in his stocking feet. That was certainly unlike audio folk I’d met before, in that era of polyester suits and double-wide ties.

Then there were those beautiful toys, the LNP and JC-2 preamps, made to aerospace spec or beyond, with beautifully-engraved casework, controls that felt like the steering of an Alfa-Romeo, those lovely milled knobs…even the circuit boards were PERFECT, worthy of framing and hanging on the wall of a gallery, like an industrial-era Mondrian. The Levinson gear looked as though the Bertone Carabo had driven into the showroom and pulled up next to the SP3…which looked like a ’58 Olds in comparison.

I digress. I just love the Carabo.

I’m not sure the Levinson gear of today is up to that same standard, but those products set standards of construction and raw aesthetic wonderfulness for every piece of audio gear that followed. There are dozens of hyper-built components on the market today that owe a debt to those pioneering Levinson products—and yes, I know there is a certain amount of silliness allied to that “milled from a solid ton of unobtanium, 3″ faceplate” school of design, but I can’t blame folks for trying.

The Levinson gear was designed for a lifetime of use at a very high level of performance: Rolls-Royce build, Pininfarina styling, Lotus performance. I apologize for all the car comparisons, but I don’t know how else to express it. (I’m sure I’ll be hearing from disaffected owners of those components with horror stories of expensive failures. Nothing made by the hand of man is perfect, and those components are now well over 40 years old. I don’t work as well as I did when I was 20, either.)

To circuitously return to Emily’s initial comment re: relative suckativity: during the same period as the SP-3 and JC-2, mass-market audio gear by Pioneer, Technics, et al, made up the bulk of the market. Aspirant audio snobs like me sneered at such products, just as we sneered at Chevies relative to Porsches, Alfas, Loti, and so on (those damn cars again!).

Today, many of my generation think fondly of those receivers and amps, as well as the “silver era” components that followed. In the rosy glow of nostalgic hindsight, they also have warm memories of their first car. That’s fine.

But: can we say that those mass-market pieces didn’t suck, relative to the Levinson gear? No, I don’t think so. A twenty-something might examine a hefty Pioneer SX-whatever and, familiar with the 7-pound,  7-channel AVRs at Best Buy, think that those Pioneers were the ultimate. Good for them.

In reality—per Emily’s axiom—just because those AVRs suck MORE than the Pioneers, it doesn’t mean that the Pioneers don’t still suck.

Sorry to pick on Pioneer. Many of those components offered impressive build quality and performance for the money, and they started a lot of folks on the road of obsessive audiophilia. We should be grateful for that. I think.

But to dogmatically say, as those forum posters did, that all vintage gear is better than anything made today? Yeah, no.

Normally-hard-headed Emily might go bonkers over the immense ’67 Impala from Supernatural—but I had one of those cars waaaay back in the day—and to put it kindly, it was not a good car. And while I might long for a vintage Alfa, I know that had I had my massive wreck in one, rather than my Saab…I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now.

So it goes. Poo-tee-weet?

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