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Inside the Nostalgic Audio Trend

Grace Dobush

Whether it’s a sweet portable record player, a tabletop wooden radio or a full-size jukebox, the market for vintage-inspired electronics remains strong.
Nielsen numbers from this year show that vinyl record sales rose 260 percent between 2009 and 2014, and sales for 2015 are on track to beat 2014’s total vinyl sales of 9.2 million units. It’s not just Baby Boomers replacing worn-out copies of the White Album: top sellers are a mix of classic catalog selections and modern indie rock hits. According to CEA's Detailed Forecasts, there were 61,000 turntables shipped to the U.S. in 2014. By all accounts, teenagers are embracing that old-fashioned experience of interacting with music in an intentional way and rediscovering the joys of album art.
Aside from record players, the vintage trend carries over to radios and speakers. The humble radio is certainly not dead, but its utilitarian ubiquity lets us take it for granted. Every alarm clock and car has a radio, so why do you need another one? In a word: aesthetics. Customers want the things they own to make a statement.
Since Corey Lieblein founded Innovative Technology a decade ago, the nostalgia lines have become 60 percent of his sales, and this year it’s up $35 million. “It’s my favorite thing to work on because of the emotional response people have,” he tells me. “What’s incredible about music is that it is the ultimate time machine.”
Innovative Technology’s vintage-inspired audio lines focus on three time periods: 1920s and ’30s, the 1980s and soon the 1950s. The company will reveal its retro diner audio line at CES 2016, including full-size and tabletop jukeboxes, neon clocks and vintage phones. The jukebox music centers will include AM/FM radio, Bluetooth and vinyl-to-CD conversion equipment in addition to turntables.
Though what seemed like a sure bet to him wasn’t necessarily an easy sell to buyers at first. “Their first reaction is, ‘No, that’s old technology. My customers don’t want it,’” Lieblein says. But when retailers give nostalgic audio items a chance, a small test can turn into a big business within 18 months, he reports.
The motivation for buying a record player has shifted over the past 15 years, says Ty Mattheu of Crosley's product development team. When the company started making reproduction turntables, customers were essentially looking for a novelty item or to record vinyl digitally. “About five years ago, we started to see a movement toward people buying record players for themselves, simply to listen to records.” 
The name Crosley itself is nostalgic. Inventor and businessman Powel Crosley Jr. was a pioneer in the radio, TV and home appliance markets in the early 20th century. The namesake Crosley brand’s bestseller today is a portable suitcase-style record player called the Cruiser that comes in more than 50 colors and patterns.
Personal style is of the utmost importance. “Ten years ago, we would see one really nice record player in three colors do thousands of units,” Mattheu says. “Now, it’s not unusual for us to sell a single SKU in 30 or 40 colors, patterns or materials.”
On the small-batch side, Ryan Boase is an entrepreneur who sells vintage speakers paired with handmade smartphone docks under the name ReAcoustic and Speaker Block online and in stores around the world. When he got his first iPhone in 2011, Boase was surprised at how much power the little speaker had. “I noticed that people would just have their phone playing music from the speaker instead of wearing headphones,” he says. “I thought it would be cool to amplify the small speaker and started with using musical instruments to amplify them and then expanded to antique horns and phonographs.”
Since 2011, he’s sold more than a thousand handmade speakers to customers in more than 30 countries. “People love the contrast of the old technology with the new,” Boase says. “The horns give even modern-day music a vintage sound and feel.”
Trends in consumer technology come and go, but “nostalgia is the one category in the last eight or nine years that has not declined one bit,” Lieblein says. “We’re picking up new customers, but we’re not losing the customers of the past.”
“If you look at the devices that are integral to our lives today — cell phones, flat panel TVs, computers and tablets — they all look the same,” says Mattheu. “Vintage products defy that trend. They have character and style, something sorely lacking in electronic design today.”
The best explanation I’ve found for America’s ongoing love of all things retro comes from Kurt Andersen in Vanity Fair in 2012: “Ironically, new technology has reinforced the nostalgic cultural gaze: now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past. … In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out.” 
You can see more audio innovations at CES 2016. Register today