In an ever more mobile world, vinyl–the least mobile audio format this side of a symphonic orchestra–is making a surprise comeback. But short of a return to the 7″, is there any way to make vinyl more mobile, and less dependent upon a bulky home stereo? The RokBlok might just be the answer. This boxy little robot with a needle on its belly can play records on any hard flat surface, no turntable required–although a Bluetooth speaker helps.
The RokBlok is the brainchild of Logan Riley, an Apple, Pandora, and LearnUp alum who started a company called Pink Donut a few years ago to bring his notebook of self-described “crazy ideas” to life. His company’s first app, LookFor, allowed people to find their friends just by flashing colors on their smartphone, a couple years before Lyft baked that same functionality into their app to flag down drivers. His podcast, One City Under Karl, uses binaural spatial sound–or sound recorded with two microphones to simulate the way we hear–to transport listeners wearing headphones to actual physical places in San Francisco.
Riley says the idea for the RokBlok came to him during a day in the park with friends after record shopping. Riley says he wanted to share the records he’d just bought with the group, but there was no way to do so. “What was I going to do, invite half-a-dozen people back to my 300-square-foot San Francisco studio?” He went home and dreamed up a design for a little motorized speaker that could skate on the surface of a record, playing it without a turntable.
Then Riley stumbled into two road blocks. One was simple physics. As famously summed up by Calvin’s dad in Calvin and Hobbes, records require a turntable’s needle to travel at increasingly slower speeds as you get closer to the middle of the disc. Riley couldn’t figure out how to get his prototype RokBlok to slow down as it went along. Then there was another problem: His idea wasn’t as unique as he thought. “A friend of mine told me about the Soundwagon, this little toy VW bus made by a Japanese company called Tamco in the ’70s, that could play records by driving on top of them,” he said.
Riley despaired that his idea wasn’t original, until he realized that the Soundwagon had a big design problem. When speakers spin, as they do in the Soundwagon, they create the doppler effect, best experienced in the caterwauling of an ambulance siren. But by using wireless to pipe the RokBlok’s sound to a Bluetooth speaker, the RokBlok could bypass that particular issue. Not only that, but Riley realized that he could use the Soundwagon to backwards-engineer a solution to the RokBlok’s slow-down problem. It turned out that Tamco’s engineers had modified the gadget’s resistor to essentially provide less electricity to the Soundwagon’s wheels over time, allowing it to sync up to the speed of the record. He’s now using basically the same solution.
Now on Kickstarter starting at $59, Riley admits that the RokBlok’s not going to replace the turntables of dedicated audiophiles. But especially when paired with a decent Bluetooth speaker, it’s still a nice way to spin records no matter where you are, with no risk to the records themselves. Though you might want to spare your most vintage, hard-to-find vinyl, just in case. You can preorder it here.