January 8, 2016
The tables are turning as record players dominate the news in early 2016. As Technics and Crosley triumph at opposite ends of the market, we ask what this all means for the future of vinyl.
It was a big week for turntables. As the year ticked over, the world woke up to the news that its largest online retailer Amazon.com had sold more turntables than any other home audio product in the final weeks of 2015. On the high street, HMV followed suit, shifting a turntable a minute over the Christmas period. Even here on the VF website, we felt a ripple as traffic consuming our guide to buying budget turntables spiked in the run up to Christmas.
Having been inundated with positive vinyl sales figures in the last few years, it makes sense that turntables would follow suit. At the start of last year we revealed that the factory behind the popular Pro-Ject brand was planning a huge expansion, while John Lewis posted a 240% rise in turntables sales in Q1 of 2015. The signs were there, but no-one really payed any attention.
Then CES 2016 happened. That Panasonic and Sony put turntables front and centre at the world’s largest tech fair this week is significant, not least because it points to a deepening confidence that vinyl is going nowhere any time soon. The nostalgic clamour for the return of the Technics Sl-1200 that fed this online petition for the last few years had nothing to do with it. The SL-1200 is back because the market is finally at the point where it can sustain it.
An audiophile deck built in the classic DJ mould, the rebooted Technics has since split the community, as hushed speculation degenerated into indignation at the $4000 price tag. The industry standard transformed into a luxury item, Panasonic going from hero to villain in an instant.
A cheaper deck may still follow, but did anyone really think that Panasonic were going to challenge an already booming low-to-mid range market? You don’t need stats to be sure that budding vinyl DJs were not on high on Panasonic’s list of priorities, despite still claiming to be largely aimed at them. Only 1200 people will get to own the limited edition first run when it arrives in the summer, but for most fans, the symbolism of a new Technics range is enough.
As that symbol, the Technics Sl-1200 screams authenticity, a badge of belonging in the world of vinyl. It’s no surprise then that nostalgia and ownership here are key to understanding why the hardcore of the community has tended to react with qualified enthusiasm for increased vinyl sales.
First the positive news that young people were firing vinyl sales was tempered by outrage that a third of them weren’t listening to their records. Then, following the huge sales this Christmas (presumably going some way to plug that gap), that outrage turned on the fear they were buying the wrong turntables – HMV selling Crosley’s carnivorous budget model, Amazon the light-weight three-speed Jensen.
While the arguments against all-in-one decks whose tracking weight can plough furrows through your records are well documented (there are plenty of models we recommend instead), there can be no doubt that entry-level decks have played a hugely important role in world where the internet has robbed music of its economic value.
In sating the curious who are invested enough to shun (or supplement) their £10 monthly Spotify subscription with a turntable, Crosley and Jensen have allowed people (largely kids) a foot in the door. That they can outsell home streaming devices in 2016 is nothing short of miraculous. Anyway, back when vinyl was all you could own, crap decks were ten a penny and you can bet that nigh on every one of today’s audiophiles ruined their records on them when they were too young to know any better.
Crosley, for all their sins, have stayed true to the brand that sold low-cost radios to the masses in the 1920’s – the Harko retailing for $7 at a time when most others were priced closer to $100.
Then there’s the second stage outrage of where these turntables are bought from. Most self-respecting independent record stores have left Crosley to Urban Outfitters, exempting them from comparison. As far as Amazon’s insidious deconstruction of the independent high street is concerned, the damage was done with the exploitation of Low-Value Consignment Relief, a tax loophole which was mercifully closed in 2012.
Back to this week, and just as we were putting together this qualified defence of the resurgent budget turntable, Panasonic went and blew the story out of the water with mouth-watering details of the revamped Technics Sl-1200-GAE. The internet swooned, the prodigal son had returned.
At one end of the spectrum you had business journal Fortune discussing the economic implications of the move. At the other even BBC Newsbeat (the BBC’s children’s news program) was getting hot under the collar, trying in vein to explain why this hulking silver platter should excite the nation’s pre-teens. For this audience the $4k Technics certainly puts a hot pink Crosley Cruiser in perspective.
What’s important to remember here is that Technics and Crosley are not, and have never been, competitors. Measure Technics’ UK MD Andrew Denham’s view that “The aim is they aspire to own a Technics 1200… There are different tiers, it’s a market, but it’s great that the whole culture has come back around to what vinyl delivers” against the words of Crosley Brands CEO Bo Lemastus, who also told WIRED that “The fact that they’re [Technics are] back just shows you how broad this thing is”, and it begins to feel like the the two polarised manufacturers are singing from the same hymn sheet.
Meanwhile, back at the world’s largest tech show, it was Sony’s turn, unveiling the sleek new PS-HX500, that promises to covert your vinyl to Neil Young-standard hi-res audio, and in turn prompting London’s populist morning sedative the Metro to proclaim The Vinyl Frontier of new technology had been reached.
Audio-Technica weren’t far behind, hoping to woo the CES with an entry-level deck that will play through Bluetooth speakers. Over at the Pro-Ject room, CEO Heinz Lichtenegger was busy telling Analog Planet’s Michael Fremer that turntables were lifestyle objects that should be considered as pieces of furniture.
What’s new about this? Well, apart from the sheer quantity of activity and the breadth of coverage, it illustrates just now far beyond its niche the turntable is reaching. Increased vinyl sales represent a rise in demand, but when turntables (and record pressing plants) follow suit, its the supply that expands.
Give someone a record and they’ll entertain themselves for a few hours, buy them a turntable and they’re sorted for years.
Or at least that’s the hope, whether Crosley or Technics.