HOW RETRO CAN YOU GO?

As we turn 60, it’s all about ana­log. Who’da thunk?

Sound & Vision - - TRACK ONE - BY ROB SABIN, EDI­TOR

There’s some real irony in this is­sue, and it wasn’t planned. Well, a lit­tle maybe. I men­tioned last month in this col­umn that as we came upon this 60th an­niver­sary of our launch in Fe­bru­ary 1958 as HiFi & Mu­sic Re­view, I had it in mind to cel­e­brate by tap­ping our ar­chive for some tid­bits that might re­mind us where we all came from. The first of these flash­back fea­tures, a primer from that first is­sue about a brand-new thing called “stereo,” ap­pears on page 42. As it turned out, we also hap­pened to com­plete our re­view of the re­cently re­vamped and re­launched Technics SL-1200, ar­guably the most pop­u­lar turntable of all time with more than 3 mil­lion sold since 1972, just in time to stick it on the front page. It is, of course, a prod­uct that we re­viewed in its orig­i­nal hey­day, one which was un­doubt­edly much beloved by our read­er­ship then and per­haps some por­tion of it now. How very retro, and fit­ting, to honor it with an an­niver­sary cover that could eas­ily be mis­taken for an is­sue of our pre­de­ces­sor Stereo Re­view from the early ’70s.

Then, as we put the is­sue to bed, I no­ticed other things pop­ping up in the edi­to­rial mix that, co­in­ci­den­tally, harkened to our yesteryears. Tech­nol­ogy fu­tur­ist Shaun DuBravac, in­ter­viewed for our Per­fect Fo­cus sec­tion, talks about the resur­gence of vinyl and “a num­ber of retro ana­log tech­nolo­gies.” Our own Ken Pohlmann, for this is­sue’s Sig­nals col­umn, ar­bi­trar­ily chose to write what amounts to a love let­ter to his old ana­log au­dio gear. And the sub­ject of vinyl came up again in our Let­ters sec­tion this month as a reader went off about who’s buy­ing records now...and why.

I won’t read too much into this, but there’s some­thing rich in the fact that the phoenix-like rise of vinyl is top­i­cal at a mo­ment when this mag­a­zine, which did as much as any to pop­u­lar­ize high fi­delity from its hum­ble begin­nings, is en­joy­ing its 60th birth­day. It’s more than the nos­tal­gia and the old “what goes around, comes around” thing. What makes it spe­cial, for me any­way, is that as you look out to­day on all the other en­ti­ties that re­port on con­sumer au­dio and video equip­ment, all the web­sites and the few re­main­ing print pubs out there, aside from the U.K.’s HiFi News & Record Re­view (founded two years be­fore us in 1956) none can lay claim to be­ing there at the in­cep­tion. What we have done for six decades is act as ob­servers and ad­vo­cates, ex­cit­edly re­port­ing on de­vel­op­ments that were each, in their own mo­ment, new and rev­o­lu­tion­ary be­fore they be­came passé. My edi­to­rial an­ces­tors, a full two gen­er­a­tions older than our youngest read­ers, sat in the same cat­bird seat I in­habit to­day, spy­ing the au­dio (now au­dio/video) land­scape through squint­ing, skep­ti­cal eyes, but never, I like to be­lieve, los­ing their boy­ish en­thu­si­asm for that new, beau­ti­ful, gleam­ing com­po­nent, or their abil­ity to feel a surge of adren­a­line or the sweet ca­ress of goose bumps when some freshly minted speak­ers un­ex­pect­edly brought them a notch closer to the mu­sic.

We owe them some grat­i­tude for build­ing this plat­form that has prob­a­bly lasted longer than any of them might have imag­ined. And we are for­tu­nate to carry on their tra­di­tion at a time when tech­nol­ogy is mov­ing so quickly ahead...and si­mul­ta­ne­ously back­wards. Oh, well. Whichever way it goes, we’ll be there. Just like al­ways.

Our Top Picks of the Year list ap­pears in this is­sue, re­flect­ing prod­ucts we re­viewed for print or web in the 2017 cal­en­dar year

(up to and in­clud­ing this Fe­bru­ary/March is­sue). I’ll spoil the sus­pense here and tell you that LG Elec­tron­ics’ late-gen­er­a­tion OLED UHDTV took the prize for our prod­uct of the year. You can read about why it was cho­sen in our fea­ture on page 36. But it’s worth not­ing here that it’s the first 4K dis­play to be given this honor, de­spite it be­ing more than five years since the launch of Ul­tra HD. Up through 2013, we’d typ­i­cally given the top spot of the Top Picks to the lat­est and great­est flat-panel dis­play, which was, to that point, a plasma from ei­ther Pi­o­neer or, later, Pana­sonic. The in­tro­duc­tion of each new gen­er­a­tion of those tele­vi­sions was an an­tic­i­pated event, and they never failed to push the state of the art to new heights. When the plas­mas ex­ited the mar­ket, it ush­ered in a kind of LCD waste­land where even the best of what was of­fered never quite lived up to what pre­ceded it. In 2014, LG dropped the price of its en­try-level 1080p OLED to some­thing the mass mar­ket could af­ford, and that caught our at­ten­tion. But that set quickly be­came out­dated as UHD took over the mar­ket. Then, from that mo­ment on, ev­ery UHDTV we tested, re­gard­less of its im­age qual­ity—even LG’s spec­tac­u­lar-look­ing OLEDs—was at least par­tially ob­so­lete from the sec­ond it got to the mar­ket. The in­dus­try’s snail-like, sev­eral-years roll-out of emerg­ing HDMI and HDCP copy pro­tec­tion stan­dards and crit­i­cal fea­tures like HDR and wide color gamut meant that an en­thu­si­ast couldn’t re­ally pur­chase an ex­pen­sive set with cut­ting-edge im­age qual­ity that he wouldn’t re­gret buy­ing a year or two later. How could we get be­hind that?

I’d be the last guy to tell you that 2018 sets won’t be bet­ter than the 2017s, or that you wouldn’t be well served by wait­ing till the 2019 models and what­ever they might bring. It’ll al­ways be that way. But 2017 was the first year I could hon­estly say that UHDTV, in all its glory, had fi­nally ma­tured to where we could feel good about award­ing one our Top Pick of the Year. And a damn good one it is, too.

For six decades, we’ve acted as ob­servers and ad­vo­cates.”

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