Rod Easdown is worried. Very worried. His oasis of hi-fi tranquillity is being violated…
In a world beset by Kardashians, road rage and Donald Trump, hi-fi stands as an oasis of tranquillity. Hi-fi is a place of the serious, the passionate, the uncompromising, a place of reason. Amid storms of fake news and Twitter rants it is a rock of reliability. There have always been those who press their nose against the windowpane seeking any credibility they can rub off, the ‘inventors’ of little black boxes that will widen your soundstage or bottles of gloop to prevent the leakage of laser light, but mostly such folk evaporate soon after they materialise and hi-fi stands strong, resolute, and steadfast as ever.
Lately, however, I worry. Three developments coming in rapid succession may be the start of an alarming trend.
First one: Two guys in Lithuania are trying to make tape cassettes sexy. I’d say ‘sexy again’ except even when they were brand-new in the early 1960s cassettes weren’t sexy, they were reel-to-reel tape thinned down, slowed down, dumbed down; easy enough for numbskulls to use. They were the MP3 of their age, rubbish until Dolby came along and even then they still weren’t as good as open-reel tape. But these two guys figure the world will beat a path to their door because they have come up with a clever piece of kit to play cassettes.
It’s called the Elbow and it’s surprisingly compact and technically ingenious; its only problem is that it plays cassettes. Right now it’s at prototype stage and when I asked the guys for details (Specifications? What specifications?) they asked me for the names of likely investors in Australia.
Second one: Everything has been going so well with the rebirth of vinyl. We can talk about record stores again, we can once more buy direct-to-disc recordings. And a whole new generation of terrific turntables has emerged, many for less than $1,000. So what’s going wrong? The Spinbox, that’s what’s going wrong.
The Spinbox is a DIY turntable. You assemble it yourself. Did you get that?
You assemble it yourself! And the target market is people who know nix, nada, nothing at all about turntables. But that’s not the scariest thing. The scariest thing is that it’s cardboard. Did you get that? Cardboard.
It has been created by a Taiwanese vinyl star, of whom I was blissfully unaware until now, called DJ QuestionMark, a man who spends much of his performance time in a gorilla suit. When he released his first vinyl album a few years ago he noticed that although many of his friends bought it, they couldn’t listen to it because they didn’t have a turntable to put it on. Which may tell you enough about DJ QuestionMark’s friends to make certain assumptions about DJ QuestionMark.
‘ I’ve been DJing and collecting records for over 10 years,’ he asserts on the Spinbox website. ‘ When I spoke with people about vinyl I found that many were interested but felt that setting up a turntable was too complicated or expensive. I decided to create a more approachable way to experience vinyl—a turntable that’s fun, affordable and easy for everyone to use.’
Fun, affordable, easy to use. Remember that. So tell me which sounds easier and more fun to you; setting up a turntable or assembling one from scratch with bits of perforated cardboard? Affordable? You can buy a factory turntable, complete and ready to roll, for less than DJ QuestionMark is asking you to pay for his Spinbox.
Here’s another scary thing. The cardboard box in which the Spinbox is supplied actually forms the plinth of the finished turntable so if it arrives at your place with any damage or crimping compliments of the various postal and freight services by which it has journeyed, your turntable may turn out to be permanently off level. Or in terms DJ QuestionMark’s friends may better understand, it will be a bit wonky. If this doesn’t matter to you then you likely occupy exactly the demographic Spinbox is targeting.
Please forgive my cynicism but it’s hard to get excited about any turntable supplied with a ceramic stylus and a slip mat for performing groovy DJ tricks, let alone one made of cardboard. So how are your precious records going to sound when this spins them up?
And so to the third one… and this is the really, really worrying one because it comes from a known, trusted and serious brand. KEF, no less. It has unveiled a new $4,799 variation of its very, very good wireless bookshelf speakers, the LS50Ws. They are called Nocturnes and that’s because… um, maybe prepare yourself for what’s coming. For example if you have a mouthful of red wine, best to swallow before reading on so as not to risk untidiness. OK, you’ve been warned, I shall continue now: These are called Nocturnes and that’s because they glow in the dark. Rod Easdown
Rod Easdown is worried. Very worried. His oasis of tranquillity is being violated…