London Calling

Written by Ken Kessler

Ending this series with a description of the UK hi-fi scene circa 2016 will bore you to tears, so apologies in advance: globalization has seen to a great leveling, and the differences between territories have all but disappeared. Most marked a change is the availability in the UK of just about every make of hi-fi one can consider, but that’s true everywhere else. No longer does nationalism rule the marketplace with near totality, though British brands do maintain a home advantage.

Preferences? The UK needs to be looked at in a global context. Japan still remains the most avant-garde in its tastes (huge horns, single-ended triodes, etc, still maintain their cults), while Japan, Italy and South Korea have the most fevered, fanatical collectors of vintage gear. They come to the UK to snap up old British valve amps and record decks and classic speakers. Eastern European countries have played catch-up to narrow the gap as their standards of living improve, so attending hi-fi shows around the world means a commonality challenged only by the local languages. Homogenization is complete.

As for the UK manufacturers, nearly every brand from the revolutionary 1970s has now become establishment to some degree – out of necessity. There aren’t enough hobbyists left to put up with poorly-made, unreliable flavors-of-the-month.

Linn, the ringleader of the 1970s turmoil, still makes the LP12 but is now committed to distributed sound, streaming, custom installation and other pursuits. Naim, Rega, Arcam, Cambridge, Musical Fidelity, and dozens of other survivors solidly carry on with a mixture of innate Britishness and the acceptance of necessary commercialism, all enjoying respect and credibility – a sure sign that they have outgrown their rebel status of 40 years ago. Meridian remains aloof and inventive. B&W is a massive global player. Plus ça change….

But the UK has also seen nearly all of its major brands end up in foreign hands, including the pre-WWII founding fathers: Tannoy and Quad. This hasn’t happened to the same degree in the USA or Germany, and Japanese brands resist this resolutely.

As for the local audio “culture,” much hasn’t changed at all, so the UK remains as cottage industry/hobbyist/staunchly amateurish as ever. The world’s best audio flea market takes place twice yearly in the UK for precisely this reason – not just bargain hunting. DIY still has its followers, though kit building will never return to the levels of the 1960s because the cost of entry-level hardware is so low that there’s no longer any savings by building it one’s self.

Attitudes? Again, it’s a global thing. Vinyl is strong in the UK, which absorbs – I believe – 10 per cent of the current global LP production, after the USA and Germany. The hi-fi shows that remain are filled with the same faces, only older, but here the UK has lost out to Germany for the best consumer shows. The UK has nothing on a par with Munich High End – but then neither does the USA, Japan or anywhere else. Why is no longer important, but suffice it to say, the UK hi-fi sector has nobody to blame but itself for killing off its hi-fi shows. That story is too recent to be told…

And the future? The British have been flushing their traditions down the crapper for 50 years, yet the country continues to be a major player. Meridian’s MQA, the influence of the British press (especially in the Commonwealth and former colonies), the unmatched supremacy when it comes to making small loudspeakers … as long as SME makes tonearms and London (Decca) makes cartridges, there’s still hope for the Village Green Preservation Society.

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