More than mere nostalgia: why vintage technology still has appeal

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Kim Elliott, who shares a link to this CNN Business article that briefly explores why consumers still invest in vintage electronics:

New York (CNN Business) – That beaten up Walkman buried in your basement might be someone’s hot new accessory. The retro tech market is alive and kicking.

In May, Apple refreshed the iPod touch for the first time in four years. Vinyl record sales clocked in at 400 million on average over the past four years, according to data from data tracker Statista.

[…]Other gadgets that have stayed the course: camcorders, radios, clock radios, desk phones, and DVRs. Millions of these are still in use in US households in 2017, according to Statista.
What drives people to continue purchasing vinyl records, instant film cameras, and iPods, long after new products have made those objects irrelevant?

Older gadgets have a lot of staying power because they allow people to unplug from the constant ping of smartphones and tablets.[…]

This short article and accompanying video are worth reviewing. I for one, can certainly relate.

When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, shortwave radio was simply wireless magic. Even though the medium had been around for many decades, when my friends learned about what I could receive at home with my Zenith Transoceanic (which by then was a good 15 years old) they couldn’t wrap their minds around it.

Today, of course, international communications are effortless and nearly free via computers, tablets and smart phones.

And, I don’t know about you, but the shock value of what new technologies can do has worn off. A phone app that can control the lighting an appliances in your house? Sounds useful. A voice-activated wireless home camera system that allows you to talk to and feed your dog while you’re at work? My neighbor has one of those. A car that can drive itself? Sure. Why not?

Major technological leaps are happening at such a rapid pace that innovation is hardly appreciated…it’s expected. Ask any Apple stockholder.

And digital technologies are often incredibly affordable–but I would argue there’s a directly relationship between affordability and a loss of privacy.

As the article points out, vintage electronics have appeal because they effectively do their job without monopolizing your attention or personal space.  “Vintage” tech can be with you for the long run and doesn’t necessarily rely upon an app developer or company that may or may not exist tomorrow.

Maybe this article struck a nerve…

Like TV, digital devices tend to monopolize your attention. Almost all new apps, for example, default to “push” notifications that beep, buzz and effectively turn one into Pavlov’s dog. Human beings are wired to respond to this stuff!

It’s sad to have lunch with a friend that is constantly checking their phone because it’s pinging them with notifications. It’s like having an attention-deprived two year old in the room while you’re trying to carry on a meaningful conversation.  I have a rule: the only time I’ll answer a text or call when I’m with someone is if I’m expecting something urgent. Even then, I usually mention the possibility in advance and apologize when it happens. It’s an intrusion and I treat it as such.

Besides the nostalgic factor, I turn to “vintage” technologies because they lack the insidious nature of internet-connected digital devices.

When I turn on a radio, it’s on. When I turn it off, it’s off. It’s not listening to me, not reporting my shopping habits and not sending me notifications. It’s a companion.

Photo by Steve Harvey on UnsplashListening to a vinyl record is a proper experience too–one that’s high-fidelity, has unique character and won’t stop what it’s doing to tell you that you lost an eBay auction or that a friend took a photo of their Tiramisu.

Am I shunning internet-connected digital devices? No. [In fact, I’m sure I’ll get called a big fat hypocrite when I review the Google Nest Hub soon!] But I do advocate taming these devices and educating yourself about what they can do while they’re in your home.

Consider turning off their notifications, their microphones, their cameras, and even creating a single-use throw-away user account to tie to devices. Do what I do and unplug them when not in use.

I’m sorry for the Friday soap box and what seems to be an issue of Thomas’ Pet Peeves, but I’m willing to bet other radio enthusiasts feel as I do. Do you still use vintage tech in your daily routine? Do you attempt to tame digital devices? Or do you embrace notifications, automaton, and all things connected?

How do you strike a balance?  Please comment!


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16 thoughts on “More than mere nostalgia: why vintage technology still has appeal

  1. Blues Dude

    I’ve been around a long time, and I enjoy both the analog and digital “worlds.” Playing records from the 1970s on my manual turntable brings back lots of great memories. But playing CDs in my car is way more convenient. I enjoy taking close-up nature photos with my Nikon FM film camera, but I need my cell phone to keep up with my fast-moving granddaughter. I could use an SDR for SWLing, but I have more fun with my Tecsun PL-660. I just can’t figure out how they packed vacuum tubes in that small radio!!

    Reply
  2. Robert Gulley

    Interesting article, Thomas, and interesting comments. For me (like most) life is a mixture of old and new. This has become particularly significant in my photography. I recently came back to photography as a serious hobby/part-time profession after a number of years away, or at least out on the fringes.
    The digital technology is amazing in many ways, and the quality of inkjet printers has reached a point where I am happy to hang prints from it on my wall. However, I find I am using/buying lenses from 30-40 years ago for their quality and “soul” – something which seems to be lacking from the super-sharp lenses of today. A bit like CD vs. Vinyl.
    At any rate, I make use of what helps and try to dismiss that which doesn’t. I am not always successful, but I work at it.

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  3. David Shannon

    I’m conflicted between what new technology gives us but still want that tactile experience when it comes to things like my HF setup. So I have an Elan FDM DUOR along with a Cross Country HF Preselector and a Wimo QRM Eliminator all leading to a Wellbrook. Plenty of knobs to twiddle and fiddle with, now all I have to do is work out how to load the software onto my PC and that is where my ability comes crashing to a halt. Anyhoo remember that the greatest technological invention ever made was the off switch.

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  4. 13dka

    Like a friend from across the pond would put it, “if it ain’t fun you’re doing it wrong”. 🙂

    My personal “balance” recipe is easy: I embrace everything “digital” that gives me new opportunities and capabilities, that enables me to do things better, that enhances the stuff I’ve been doing all my life like radio and recording. OTOH I reject everything digital that could disrupt these (or any other) activities or annoy me any other way. I don’t use Whatsapp, FB, Twitter or whatever could make my phone constantly try to get my attention because someone found a stupid pic he deems funny and I don’t have to share every aspect of my life with everyone else and then some. I know that I’m a lucky bastard because my job, family or friends don’t suck me into that kind of needlessly disruptive “always on” virtual social life and I pity anyone who didn’t learn that there are much less annoying and intrusive alternatives to stay connected, or anyone who didn’t even think of looking for such alternatives, then finding themselves both tied to and annoyed by technology they paid for.

    “Digital” has brought mind-boggling benefits for everything e.g. “radio” or “music – I have a recording studio in my computer that would have cost millions of $ to put up in the analog days and I can “fly in” whole orchestras (plural, and if need be real ones!) if I want. I (we all!) can access 400+ remote receivers all over the world and I can put up spectrum surveillance systems for a few 100 bucks that would have made intelligence agencies drool 30 years ago. I’m incredibly thankful that all these things have become so accessible and they still keep blowing my mind every other day. Hence I don’t fully understand all of that “retro” craze, how people can end up being so stressed and annoyed by their digital multi-function devices that they get a craving for the simplicity of clearly inferior things, and being an audio engineer I have a somewhat different perspective on the never-ending “analog vs. digital” discussion anyway.

    However, some old things can’t be replaced easily (the RF-2200 is a great example for that) and I understand very well how losing the tactile sensation, the tangible quality of non-virtual devices affects and even hurts things. Aforementioned virtual studio is a good example, you can have mind-blowing technology for cheap but you’ll pay a lot of extra money to give that a tactile “hands-on” quality by means of control surfaces with physical knobs and buttons. Or if we talk radio: Even though I could sit at home and play with my radios and the 400+ remote radios all day, I prefer going outside with a portable for many reasons. The most compelling reason is that I can get even better results (than the local SDRs) out there of course, but I enjoy focusing on and playing with just one radio (vintage or not, most of our modern portables are “hybrids” anyway) as well.

    But then my smartphone is my companion too – it enhances the whole “remote listening post” thing *on demand*. I can use it to chat with my fellow radio enthusiasts about nice things to hear, to record interesting things, I can quickly look up a frequency schedule, check the DX cluster or use a remote receiver to compare performance or fire up radio webstreams to help IDing a station. If I happen to find myself somewhere bored without a radio (which is very unlikely to happen anyway), I still have said 400+ radios in my smartphone. It will, however, never disturb me needlessly while I do that.

    I appreciate that some don’t have that much of a choice when it comes to joining certain stupid “social” platforms. If you’re forced to be on one of those stupid platforms, you’ll have to learn how to limit notifications to certain people and that’s often needlessly hard, that’s why I call these platforms “stupid”. Still, why are people thinking they must react on every beep in realtime? It’s probably part of the learning curve coming with pretty much all technology, either you master it or it will master you. Chose what you like and delete everything you don’t, if you have to live with something stupid set it up for minimum annoyance. It’s not the technology that haunts you, it’s how you use it. If it ain’t fun, you might be doing it wrong indeed.

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  5. Mario

    You’re doing perfectly fine on your Friday soapbox Thomas. At this QTH vintage radios are the norm including a Panasonic RF-2200, vintage Sony Walkman AM/FM headphone radio, Tempo One ham transceiver and most recently a 26-year-old Yaesu VHF/UHF handie talkie (with no digital capability to complicate matters) to name a few. Guess part of the draw is nostalgia and thoughts of yesteryear to a time when life was simpler and appliances did not multitask. A radio was dedicated to being only that, just like cameras and video recorders were. Never needed perplexing and frustrating software/firmware upgrades either. However those who crave modern, high tech devices like smartphones that achieve a number of tasks all in one package, go for it. I’m just as happy in my time warp existence.

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  6. TomL

    Real experiences –

    1. About two months ago, a twenty something was totally shocked that I can pick up digital TV for free with an “old fashioned” TV antenna. There is an ongoing social phenomenon of losing the know-how of the previous generation/civilization. Future Anthropologists are going to have a field day with all the ignorance bifurcating our times.

    2. Vintage tech was based on how the natural world gave up its early secrets, and inventions based on fundamental things like wavelength, wire resonance, filters, mixers, etc that mimicked nature, so a lot of what was discovered has fundamental value. The digital techniques try to mimic nature and are getting better. For instance, I stopped by CD’s because of the harsh sound, same with MP3’s. I have a bunch of SACD’s but have not added anything new. Maybe when the resolution gets higher than 384k it will approach that of a very clean vinyl. Admittedly, I don’t own any vinyl either, so I do not have a lot of skin in that game. I also think that in the future, one’s “multi-media room” will be controlled by a super computer and the sound will emanate directly from the skin of the walls of the room, in any sound and visual shape you want. But that is my point, digital tech is naturally evolving and creates dead end, incompatible formats that cannot be supported commercially because of the very fact that programmers have moved on to the latest popular format/platform. Analog lingers on and on.

    3. Not all digital tech is bad. I recently purchased a used Kenwood TS-590S transceiver which has a digital IF but ample RF and power sections. It is 10 year old tech but it has a very nice sound, non-fatiguing to listen to and I have been favoring its sound compared to the AirSpy HF+ on the computer. Some peoducts can blend the two technologies in a pleasing and high performing way. And it does not listen to me, report on me, or spew advertisements at me. I have to agree with others here, the lack of interruptions is a Major reason why I like older tech!! I am soooo tired of the interruptions at work (due to technology) that I consider my radio hobby a welcome and calming focus.

    Happy listening!

    Reply
    1. Laurence N.

      I’m going to have to disagree with point two of your post. Partially, this is because I’m a programmer and I’m bound by having a friend of mine telling me I should, but I also think there’s a lot of failure to consider real history.
      If your goal is to be able to render media from a while ago, digital media is almost certainly your best bet. Of course there exist formats that have been lost, and we lack the software to play them. However, we also have tools that emulate all kinds of historical hardware and are capable of understanding plenty of obscure formats. If you’re thinking about audio or video, for example, there is a transcoder, ffmpeg, which understands hundreds of crazy formats that, in some cases, have ceased to be used after the 1990s. We can go back further and render music from the days of custom sound chips of the 1970s and 1980s, because some people who like that sort of thing have written programs to perform the actions of the chips.
      Now let’s consider analog. Of course, we have a few nice examples for long-lasting formats: the vinyl record, the eight-track tape, the cassette tape, and the CD (I’m going to include CD here even though it’s technically digital because it was mentioned in the article and sort of falls into the old tech nostalgia). But how easy is it to play those things? The machines can be easily obtained, but most historical media is damaged. Records and CDs get scratched, the oxide falls off tape, and they can be easily damaged. In the land of digital formats, we can back things up to multiple devices and send copies over the internet. Not so with analog media. But fine, if they’re properly preserved, you can still play those. Can you still play the less well known types? The strange tape cartridges that were made at some point? The wire recorder spools? The wax cylinders that weren’t made by the leading manufacturer but that competitor who died off because their cylinders weren’t compatible? For that matter even the mainstream wax cylinders unless you have access to extremely expensive retroactively-designed digital copiers that they only really have at massive museums?
      I would contest that we programmers have as good a record if not better at preserving historical data than did the realm of analog technology. Of course data is still lost, and sometimes it may be found but in an unreadable form. But there is less of that than there is of analog data on media that has been lost without backup, destroyed, or thrown away when it couldn’t be made available.

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    2. Zack S

      It is amazing that many people don’t know that TV is still broadcast over the air. A while back I had an argument with a “tech” at an Xfinity office who told me that no TV was broadcast over the air! And then she proceeded to that she had something like 20 years experience as a tech.

      I have a corner reflector TV antenna on our chimney in case the the cable goes out. Sometimes people walk by our house and notice the corner reflector, the Diamond 2/440 vertical above it and the Pixel loop nearby. Sadly no one has ever stopped and asked what the antennas are for. I think that I would say that I am not authorized to reveal that information. Also none of my neighbors have ever asked me what my 40 foot tall SteppIR BigIR vertical is for. Sad.

      Reply
  7. Mark

    While I will never be able to wrap my head around the idea that vinyl is better than CD, I do like my vintage electronics such as my collection of ‘pocket computers’ – little more than calculators that can be programmed in BASIC. They date from the early eighties and despite their limitations, were clearly good enough for a number of years. Likewise, my eighties radios.

    I think part of the appeal is the constant reminder of where we have been, and that old doesn’t mean going to landfill for no other reason than something else is in the shops.

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    1. Jack K.

      While I’m on board that the CD is “overall” better than vinyl, that format will soon give way to mp3 – which is far inferior. WAV and FLAC files for me – and a friend & I are trying to save as much music (and recordings in those formats.) And for good reason – while some masters are simply “lost,” others are gone forever through tragedy. Richard Carpenter wanted to remix (re-master) all the Carpenter’s catalog. No more… https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/magazine/universal-fire-master-recordings.html

      Reply
  8. April

    My boyfriend’s cathedral radio made in the 30s can still receive any shortwave and AM station (up to 1600 khz or so) if the right antenna is hooked up to it. My mom’s suitcase phonograph made to play 45s from the 60s can still play any 45 manufactured (not in stereo, of course). Meanwhile it’s not like I can (natively) run applications from a Commodore PET in Windows 10 or use a Bluray player to play Laserdiscs . . .

    Reply
    1. Laurence N.

      Your examples of how analog technology continue to work are pretty good, but your examples of modern technology failing don’t work. A Windows 10 computer can run plenty of software designed for lots of 1980s machines. People who like historical computers have built emulators for this exact purpose. Not everything works, but quite a bit does. You seem to know this, as you’ve included the qualifier “natively”, but I’d argue that isn’t really a factor. You’re running the code on your computer and it works. The fact that another layer runs below it is something of a nonfactor. If you wanted to get really technical, you could write a program that takes in a program in the assembly languages of yesteryear and outputs a new binary compatible with modern machines. It’d take a while, but it could be done. We choose to run in an emulator because that is more useful and a bit more fun. Your complaint that a blue ray player cannot play Laserdiscs isn’t really a valid complaint–it’s a player for a different format. I could likewise complain that the record player you mentioned couldn’t play cassette tapes. In fact, on the basis of playing old formats that aren’t the format the device was designed to handle, the blue ray player is much better than the record player. The record player can only play 45s, but the blue ray player can play video off and read (and maybe write) data from blue ray disks, DVDs, and CDs at the very least. I don’t think many Laserdisc readers still exist, because the format has mostly died, but if you got one that could connect to a computer, the computer could then play the media.

      Reply
  9. Bill

    I feel the same way you do Thomas. As a musician and vinyl collector, though, I was struck by the original article claiming that MP3s and streaming has better audio quality than vinyl. MP3s only recently began do you have decent sound quality. Streaming still has a lot of problems.This is a constant annoyance when listening to Sirius XM. The audio quality just isn’t always there. By contrast, vinyl can sound much better with good playback equipment and careful handling of the record itself.

    Reply
    1. Thomas Post author

      You’re right, Bill. I like SiriusXM for the variety of music and the potential for discovery. But the audio–even on the highest bandwidth broadcasts–is just not there. Since I listen in my car mostly, it’s not a big deal.

      And most digital music is compressed, so quite often low quality. Pair that streaming service with Bluetooth headphones? Yeah, scraping the barrel! 🙂

      Give me my vinyl! 🙂

      Reply
  10. Michael Black

    Ceramic filters are still available, for cheap radios if nithing else. Maybe less ch oice though, I don’t know.

    Collins announced a few years ago that they were going to stop Mark ng mehanical filters, too little demand. Those were synonomous with Collins, but expensive and the high end market has moved to SXR. There is probably old stock around still.

    It wasn’t uncommon to use good ceramic filters in radios, and offer mechanical.filters as an option. My Kenwood TS -830S transceiver does that, I just have the stock ceramic.

    I have been thinking of buying my first new transceiver, one with HF and up through 432MHz. Given the price, I should splurge on a mechanical fikter or twio, but they may be harder to get.

    Since the rigs are now general coverage receive, there’s more reason for a better filter.

    Of course, maybe I should wait and get an SDR rig.

    Michael

    Reply

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