Nostalgia's not usually a factor when it comes to consumer electronics. Instead, it's a field where new, shiny objects tend to rule the day.
But a curious trend has emerged over the past few years. Alongside the ever-morphing form factors of smartphones and virtual reality headsets, a retro phase has quietly popped up among electronics companies as they try to tap into the never-ending fascination with the '80s and '90s — and test the strength of once-powerful but seemingly antiquated brands and products. In some cases, it appears to be working. But nostalgia's not cheap.
Here's a look at some of the most notable products that have taken a victory lap.
— By Chris Morris, special to CNBC
Posted 30 March 2016
In January, Kodak revived the classic Super 8 camera, hoping to tap into people's fond memories of the film style of home movies 50 years ago. The first Super 8 was launched at the 1964 New York World's Fair and later proved to be a launchpad for many Hollywood luminaries (some of whom — including Michael Goi, cinematographer for "American Horror Story" — still use it today).
A limited-edition version aimed at professionals will go on sale this fall at an estimated price range of between $400 and $750. (Processing each roll of film will run an extra $50 to $75.) A lower-priced, consumer version is expected to hit the market in 2017.
There may be no more iconic '80s product than the boombox, and Monster Products wants to bring it back. The $400 Monster Blaster, as it calls the new product, comes with an integrated subwoofer, allowing it to bounce the sound off of walls to fill the room. Don't try to play cassettes or use batteries in this update, though. Instead, it pairs with modern music players, like an iPhone or Android device, and is rechargeable.
"The best thing that I love is there are no D cell [batteries]," said Noel Lee, CEO and 'Head Monster' of the company. "We think we're going to get a whole lot of traction around this."
In 2008 Polaroid exited the instant-film market, having fallen victim to the digital age. But in 2010 the company thought enough time had passed that people might be interested once again in having physical prints of the shots they just took. So they rolled out the Polaroid 300, a $90 point-and-shoot camera. (It has since dropped to $80.) The high price tag of the camera (and the film, which charged $10 for 10 shots) limited the audience but still struck a chord.
Three years later Fujifilm rolled out the Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic, which immediately prints card-size photos, like the Polaroids of the '70s and '80s.
MP3s are a lot more portable and convenient, but digitized music often lacks soul. As a result, millennials and teens are embracing vinyl records. A new generation has discovered the warmth and depth of an LP's music (even with the medium's faults, like hisses and scratches) compared to the dulled highs and lows of a typical digital recording. That's why Taylor Swift put out an LP version of her latest album. And longtime audiophiles are turning back to it.
The love affair with vinyl resumed in 2007, and sales have been increasing steadily ever since, climbing more than 56 percent in the first half of 2015, to just under 12 million LPs sold. But don't expect them to once again become the de facto way to get music.
"In terms of turntables, there is a different sound to analog than digital that can be appreciated," said Barbara Kraus, director of research at Parks Associates. "In addition, albums are collectible and valued, not only for the music but for the album art and the inserts. Overall, [however], it is likely to be a ... limited audience. Having to buy a whole album for one song, and technical problems with vinyl records and turntables helped drive the digital migration."
The revival of vinyl created a new market for turntables. And many companies have rushed to fill that void, including one of the leaders in the field. Panasonic has resurrected its Technics line to bring back its flagship Technics SL-1200 — a longtime favorite of club DJs, which has been mothballed since 2008.
Panasonic and Technics plan to roll out two versions: a limited-edition $4,000 collector's model due this summer, and a more widely available (presumably cheaper) model later in the year. Other companies rolling out turntables (at more approachable prices) include Crosley, Audio-Technica and Onkyo.
Technologically, the Wurlitzer is as much an icon of the '50s and '60s as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. And while you're not seeing a revival of these systems on the same scale as some other retro items, there may be new life looming for the jukebox.
Spotify has teamed with Nightlife Music, an Australian company, to build a new kind of jukebox, called crowdDJ, a free app for smartphones that turns users into DJs by allowing them to select music from a playlist of licensed songs that will then play over the sound system at a venue. It's just a pilot program now but has already rolled out to over 250 locations in the land Down Under.
In some way, this technology never really disappeared. While most of us rely on our smartphones to alert us via text message when a friend or loved one needs us, the medical profession still uses beepers and pagers regularly, in part to save money and in part out of habit. Add in the fact that they're light, don't need charging (just swap out the batteries) and more secure and it makes sense.
But as for the rest of the world? Odds are, we won't be headed back to that era, though if the rise of vinyl records and Super 8 cameras shows us anything, it's that we can't rule it out conclusively.