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Audio Heirloom?

The speed of change has become daunting. Our personal lives have changed because of the computer, the smart phone, the creation of social media and the new ways in which people relate to each other. As I walk down the street in New York City, most people no longer look around, they’re busy with their phones. Even at nice restaurants many would rather be with their phones, taking pictures of their food or selfies, than enjoying the company of others.  On a larger scale, whole industries seem to vanish overnight, taking their jobs with them and creating a vague but persistent sense of insecurity, that nothing can be counted on. Everything can be rendered obsolete, and in the blink of an eye. The psychological effect of this cannot be underestimated, because the insecurity it generates is pervasive throughout our societies.

I just finished reading a new book by Stephen Witt, “How Music Got Free, The End Of An Industry …” which traces the downfall of the music industry because of the rise of digital music and piracy. The ceaseless drive of technology, of making things smaller, cheaper, easier and more convenient, also contained the seeds of the industry’s own destruction. The CD was a lot cheaper to make than an LP, and of course far more convenient, and the record companies knew how to make people dissatisfied with the existing technology (LP’s), throw their whole collection of music away and pay for it again in digital form. The LP had tics and pops and unless you had a good turntable, arm and cartridge you might not get great sound, but with the CD you got “Perfect Sound Forever”™. The player required no skill to operate or set up, and promised no worries in playing back a plastic disc which supposedly could not be scratched or harmed like records could. Right. But it was really the MP3 and its algorithmic progeny which opened the gates of hell for the music industry, creating an environment in which file sharing and then streaming destroyed the business of selling physical music. The only bright spot for actual physical sales of music is, ironically, the reinvigoration of vinyl, which long had been considered a deceased format. Witt closes the book with the confession that his own collection of over 100,000 songs, contained on multiple drives that spanned over a decade, have now been rendered worthless by streaming media. So he threw it all away (better, actually, he writes about watching the drives physically destroyed by a professional with a pneumatic nail gun). For many, the point was seeing how much free, compressed music could be accumulated. Listening to it was an afterthought.

This uncertainty and insecurity generated by what we call technological progress is not inevitable. It’s the outcome of our attitude towards technology, towards history and really towards life itself. When people visit our Brooklyn showroom they often comment that there is virtually nothing “new” to be seen anywhere. It’s true- most everything in the loft is an antique, or at least vintage. I’ve always figured that with the passage of time, the value of something finally reveals itself. It’s easier to pick out, after a period, the good designs, whether it be art, furniture, even appliances or common household wares. That period might be decades, or hundreds of years- good stuff lasts. I think this is exactly what is happening with people’s rediscovery of vinyl records, still in its infancy, but a noteworthy trend. And because the LP is not going to change, the record players that people buy also will be seen in a different light than buying an MP3 player, or any other digital device. You know the digital device is going to be worthless after a time, probably very shortly in fact. With the record player, you’ll figure that making an investment is a good bet- it’s not going to be obsolete in the future (as long as there are records to play) and you’ll get more pleasure from it too.

As I watch everything around me change with such alacrity, such as my neighborhood in Brooklyn (Dumbo looks different every week now) one thing I don’t ever worry about is what my company makes. In any other industry, I’d better be concerned that a new technology is about to seismically alter the marketplace and render our business model outdated. But we already inoculated ourselves- the DNA of OMA is in fact Old School. The value of our products, based on technologies that are so old they have been forgotten by the audio industry itself in most cases, derives from a quality that is largely absent today. It’s best described by the word “heirloom,” something which gets passed down within a family, or in the case of a plant or seed something good enough to not need further alteration or genetic manipulation. There is no reason our loudspeakers, amplifiers or even turntables won’t be running and playing music in a hundred years, just as the RCA equipment in our reference collection, most of which is 80 years old, still works just fine. That equipment, made for professional cinema use before WW2 and planned obsolescence became the norm in US industry, was built so well that it too could easily be running a hundred years from now, and that is exactly how we approach our own products. It’s been more than 50 years since anyone bought audio equipment thinking they would give it to their kids, let alone their grandchildren. But there is no reason it should not be so- sound waves can’t be miniaturized, and despite literally billions of dollars of industry research into how to make digital and solid state sound good, the earlier, more “primitive” technologies are still the absolute best in terms of sound quality. Nobody throws out a fine Steinway or Bosendorfer grand piano, or a good violin- if audio equipment is made from materials that age beautifully, like solid hardwood, slate, cast iron and bronze, it too will be handed down and cherished.