Within the blinding glare of OLED, large LCD and ungodly large LCD displays at the Samsung booth of the IFA Berlin tech show was a softer light out of the past: the orangey glow of vacuum-tube amplifiers. They weren't nostalgia pieces to decorate the booth, but rather new smartphone speaker systems. On the device's right side, near the smartphone dock of the top-end DA-E751 (around $700), the tube pops out from a slick wood-finished box, creating a half-century of contrast. Inside is a Bluetooth chip for connecting other music devices wirelessly and support for Apple AirPlay technology, for beaming music from an Apple mobile device, a Mac or a PC.
Tube amps have been an audiophile fetish for years, but the combination with MP3 players is curious. Tube aficionados talk about the "warmer" and fuller sound from analog amplifiers. But how much subtlety and detail can be pulled from a highly compressed digital audio file, the kind at which most orthodox music lovers turn up their noses? (In short, audiophiles are picky about their audio files.)
A few halls away, Philips was showing off a new line called Original Radio, with several systems modeled on the Philips Philetta radio from the 1950s. There are no vacuum tubes in these gadgets, although there is an actual FM radio and a telescoping antenna on the back, as well as a digital radio. There is also an iPod dock and the ability for wireless audio connections to mobile devices. The top model, the ORD7300, will sell for around $300.
Other retro devices follow the Philips model — modern tech made to look old. Danish firm Scansonic does it with the 1960s-looking DA88 portable radio, which pulls in DAB digital-radio signals broadcast in Europe as well as traditional FM broadcasts. It costs about 100 euros (about $126).
German firm Soundmaster produces a wide variety of antique-looking radios and music docks. One of its models, a 1950s-inspired boombox in cherry-red and chrome color, is called the Retro-Kofferradio. It's equipped with a radio and hookups for digital music players and memory cards, as well as a CD player — the last perhaps qualifying by itself as a nostalgia piece. It sells for 99 euros (about $125).
To the cost of the Scansonic and Soundmaster devices you'll have to add airfare. Neither sells products in the U.S. But TDK does, and it just introduced the A73, a hulking, nearly monolithic boombox selling for $400. While the A73 is not strictly a nostalgia piece, its plain black case, thick handle and exposed pair of 5.25-inch speakers give it a made-in-the-garage look that harks back to technologically simpler times. That's only appearance, though. The A73 doesn't even have an iPod dock. While there is an analog audio jack, it's really meant to connect to audio gadgets like smartphones over Bluetooth wireless.