HOW RETRO CAN YOU GO?
As we turn 60, it’s all about analog. Who’da thunk?
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.”