Plastic Fantastic Retro-Tech

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Friday 15th October 2010
In this article
  • Welcome to the world of retro-tech.
  • Where to find the deals.
  • Comparing retro-tech to high-tech.

Are you the kind of SharpMan who skips over articles about ‘bleeding edge’ technology? A sneak peek at the newest Nano or Razr doesn’t quicken your pulse… even a little? How long before the PS3 comes out; and the PS4, or PS5.1? Could you care less?

If you’re not into high tech, then perhaps your inner SharpToy drummer would be more attuned to Retro-Tech. Read on for the SharpMan skinny on this not-new-at-all collect-fest…

Retro-Technology

Retro-Tech collecting is the cult hobby of collecting (at prices worth smiling over) older, outdated technology such as LPs, Laserdiscs and old style video games, all of which are still readily available online and in specialty stores.

Why Try Retro?

Two words — price and availability. With your money going out to everything from gas to disaster relief, the prices of second hand entertainment can’t be beat.

Imagine owning an original vinyl copy of The Beatles: Abbey Road for less than $5. (Retail price of CD $18.98). The Wild Bunch in wide screen, near-DVD quality copies for even less than that. How about a super stack of old school Nintendo games to get you through a weekend? There’s also the negotiating, shopping and trading with others. Who says you spend too much time alone?

CONSIDER: FOR THE COST OF AN IPOD, YOU COULD OWN A RECORD PLAYER PLUS ALL OF THE MAJOR WORKS OF THE ROLLING STONES, SIMON & GARFUNKEL, BOB DYLAN, JANIS JOPLIN, JOHNNY CASH, AND THE WHO.

How is this possible? It’s supply and demand. With hot new technology, the demand will always be high, along with the cost and possibly even buyer’s remorse. It’s a lot easier to blow off a movie that cost you $1 as opposed to one that cost you $20. Retro toys like Laser Discs offer an affordable dalliance -- a splurge that won’t break your budget.

Laserdisc was the first commercial optical disc storage medium used for the presentation of movies. Because Laserdiscs are read optically, they don’t suffer wear. But just because they’re built to last doesn’t mean you’ll win any arguments with DVD lovers. Collecting Laserdiscs is a labor of love… and budget.

The LD market began in the mid-‘80s; the cost of the original Discs was ghastly - $40 - $50 for standard films; $75 - $100 or more for box sets with few of the special features we’ve come to expect with DVDs. And, you have to flip films like Aliens five times to view the whole thing. The market eventually crashed and with the growth of consumer priced DVDs in the mid to late ‘90s, the cost of Laserdiscs plummeted. What was once $75 (the special boxed editions of Jurassic Park and Fantasia, for example) is now $1. At these prices it’s possible to start feeling the love, no? Start collecting and I guarantee you’ll find great bargains in abundance.

Best of all, there are certain titles available on Laserdisc that you cannot get on DVD. The original Star Wars Trilogy, not the work in progress Lucas keeps releasing in theaters and on DVD, but the version everyone fell in love with, is only available on Laserdisc. Or, the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner, with that crazy narration and lousy ending.

CONSIDER: FOR THE COST OF THE STAR WARS TRILOGY ON DVD, YOU COULD BUY A LASER DISC PLAYER AND THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY ON LASER DISC.

Records were, obviously, the standard music technology for nearly a century. All of pop music, every genre, grew to its current state on vinyl. Most notable modern albums are still released on vinyl for roughly the same price as the CD version. Outkast, Red Hots, Killers, Franz Ferdinand, even specialty acts like Ben Folds and Aimee Mann - all release vinyl copies of their albums in the $15-20 range. But if you’re looking for a bargain, you can still find meticulously maintained vinyl records for easy-to-handle prices.

I know what you’re wondering… what will I play them on?

Believe it or not, finding record players is not a difficult task either. Electronics manufacturers still produce new record players, which will run anywhere from $75-150 and on up. A new stylus alone can run $50. But at places like the Salvation Army and Goodwill, you can find record players for as little $5-10, or even towers that include speakers and tape recorders (watch out: MIX TAPES!!!) for just a little more.

The care one must take with records will be the largest culture shock. Don’t let some roommate get a hold of the stylus and try to figure out what song God hid in their fingerprints. I can tell you now. It goes KRURGHHHHHHH, it’s ugly and it will make all your records sound that way. Be careful.

Comparing Low Tech and High Tech

Audiophiles will tell you the sound quality of LPs is better. It is, in a theoretical sense. But after a lifetime of the clarity and convenience of CDs, records are almost strictly a novelty item, unless you get bitten by the collector bug.

Laserdiscs are more stable than video tapes, but larger and somewhat more delicate than DVDs. They often need to be turned over -- sometimes more than once — during the viewing. They also don’t have the volumes of extra features that distinguish DVDs. And yet there’s a certain something there for those who enjoy retro.

Old video games are perhaps the most unforgivably dated. Film and music have the benefit of great history. The first Nintendo and Sega systems were the pioneers of the art form. The world of video games has changed so much more than music or film in the last 30 years that cutting edge and retro hardly coexist in the same realm.

However there are simple pleasures to draw upon. Remembering which bush to burn or what boulder to bomb can be quite a thrill. New Age gamers have raised the level of appreciation for the games that started it all. They get together and play Space Invaders or The Legend of Zelda the way an audiophile listens to Sgt. Pepper or a film student watches Citizen Kane, both of which you could own for less than $5 on Vinyl or Laserdisc.

CONSIDER: FOR THE COST OF A PSP, YOU COULD BUY THE FIRST AND SECOND NINTENDO SYSTEMS PLUS 50 GAMES EACH.

Where to Shop

Laserdisc players are a little trickier to find. Online sellers can be unreliable, and the shipping can be costly enough to make the whole venture pointless. Your best bet is to find one nearby. Second-hand electronics stores will carry them for less than $50, and I found one at the Salvation Army for $10.

Old Nintendo systems are incredibly easy to find. First of all, you may already have one stashed away in the back of your parents’ garage. If you don’t, they range in cost from $10 - $50. Most people seem able to grab a system and cache of games for under $100.

Online, you can find all three for great deals. Ebay has Nintendo systems and huge loads of Laserdiscs for cheap. Laserblazer.com has a good selection, but the prices are a little steeper. The same could be said for Musicstack.com and Recordsbymail.com. And if price isn’t an issue, the true connoisseur can go to 45s.com to purchase a pretty comprehensive selection of 45’s and 33’s.

Locally, CraigsList, Recycler.com or PennySaver online to find your local publications may be a great source. Each is categorized by city, so it will be a great way to avoid shipping.

The truest enthusiast is a scavenger, though, and not a browser. And for that you need to find one of those great old shops out of the movie High Fidelity. For people in Los Angeles or the Bay area, Amoeba Music can fill all your LP and laser needs. For everyone else in the outer rings of existence, I suggest hitting the streets.

In the future, I predict there will not be items like these. You will not buy things like CD’s, Tapes, LP’s, or Cassettes. You will buy players and pay for rights. Thanks to rampant piracy, most industries are pulling for this switch within a few decades; according to WIRED magazine, as early as 2020. This can be a reason for celebration or sorrow, but it might also be reason to stock up!

This article last updated on Friday 15th October 2010
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