Should I buy a Vostok Amphibia?

The Vostok Amphibia is an iconic watch with a cult following, but a lot of people who buy them end up disappointed.

To appreciate a Vostok, or really any Russian watch, you have to be prepared for something quite different to what you get from the Swiss, Germans and Japanese. Russian watchmaking, like the sterotype of most Russian engineering, is about simplicity in manufacture, simplicity in maintenance, and incorporating technology only where necessary. Refinement and technological excellence really don't come into it. Think of them like a Soviet tank or the AK-47.

A lot of people assume, because of the price and the cult following, that an Amphibia will be like a Seiko but with a quirky visual design. That's not really the case at all.

To begin with, the core physical design of the Amphibia hasn't changed much since it was first developed in 1967. The aim was to create a Soviet-produced 200m dive watch for the Soviet military. The Swiss were achieving 200m through manufacturing cases and casebacks to very tight tolerances; the existing Soviet watch factories could not match that precision, and could not afford to re-tool in order to. This constraint led to some innovative design choices that are at the core of the Amphibia.

The first is the caseback. A traditional screw-down caseback has an o-ring seated in the thread. When tightening the caseback, this o-ring is squashed into the thread, creating a watertight seal. The o-ring has to be fairly thin, and the tortional force of screwing in the caseback distorts it, meaning that it has to be replaced regularly.

The Amphibia's back, however, is held by a screw-in retaining ring, which pushes the back onto a thick gasket. The genius of this design is that under higher pressure, the caseback gets pushed harder into the gasket, creating a stronger seal. The gasket also has a much longer lifespan.

It's a similar story with the crystal. The engineers found an acrylic that has just the right properties under pressure that cause it to distort and push into the case, increasing water resistence, while being firm enough to provide protection under lower pressure.

The other noticably quirky design is the crown, which people often think is broken when they first use it. Unlike a traditional design where the crown is always coupled to the stem, the Amphibia has a clutch mechanism. This means that, when screwed in, any shocks to the crown are not directly transfered to the centre of the movement. This is why the more traditional case designs did not need to incorporate crown guards.

So that's some of what makes the Vostok cool. What may let you down is the simple case finishing, the bracelets (which are complete garbage) and the bi-directional friction bezel. The bezel in particular gets people's knickers in a knot, because we all "know" that a dive watch must have a uni-directional click bezel. Back in the 60s though, Blancpain held the patent to that technology, and almost all dive watches used a bi-directional friction bezel. And remember, the Amphibia design has not changed in 50 years.

While we're talking about bezels, you'll rarely see a Vostok in the wild with the bezel that came from the factory. That's because, for the most part, they're pretty ugly, and replacing them is a really simple and relatively cheap way to customise your watch.

Likewise, the movement is designed for robustness and servicability, not accuracy or looks. From the factory, it's likely that the watch will run 20-60s/d fast, but with some simple DIY regulating it's easy to get them to about +5.

So if you like quirky, practical, historically significant design that hasn't really changed in 50 years, an Amphibia might be for you. If you want something that's well finished, cheap and robust, get a Seiko or an Orient :)


Favourite Albums of 2016

2016 has been a pretty great year, music-wise. I've put together a playlist of songs from my favourite albums, which (I think) works pretty well as a stand-alone entity as well as giving a taste of the albums.

There's a YouTube and a Spotify playlist.

Oathbreaker - 10:56/Second Son of R.

Oathbreaker are on Deathwish Inc, the label run by Converge's Jacob Bannon. On Instagram, he mentioned something about their intensity. I checked out their latest album, Rheia, and my God, it's wonderful. The mix of haunting clean vocals and primal, animalistic screaming might have been a bit too 'emo' with a male vocalist, but Caro Tanghe nails it. Not really in sound, but in feel, Rheia reminds me a lot of Converge's Jane Doe.

Gojira - Silvera

Gojira are one of those bands that I like whenever I hear them, but never really give any time to. I'm guilty of that with thier latest album, Magma, too, though I'm starting to recitfy that.

The Dillinger Escape Plan - Wanting Not so Much as To

This is TDEP's last album, and they're kicking off a huge final tour which hopefully will see them back in Aus. They're one of my favourite bands, and this is a pretty solid way to end things. As with all Dillinger albums, it'll take me another 100 listens to start to fully get it, of course.

Devin Townsend Project - Secret Sciences

Devy is awesome, and DTP are such a weirdly joyous prog metal band. The new album, Transcendence, is a whole lot of fun and still heavy AF. Secret Sciences isn't my favourite song, but it's so damn catchy.

Plini - Inhale

I saw Plini support Ne Obliviscaris last year. I smiled throught he whole set. Technically amazing and joyful, yet like DTP still heavy AF, Plini's one of the few prog/dgent instrumentalists that I've really gotten into.

The Black Queen - Secret Screen

Because being one of the best frontmen in metal isn't enough, Dillinger's Greg Puciato has a few side projects. One of them, and my favourite, is The Black Queen. Think Nine Inch Nails cross Depeche Mode and you'll be in the right ballpark. This whole album is so good, it's close to the my top pick of the year.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Girl in Amber

Always haunting, Nick Cave is just devastating on this album.

It Seemed the Better Way - Leonard Cohen

In high school, a friend played Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits for me, and I've loved it, and him, ever since. It was weirdly early in his career for a Hits record, but every song on that album is a killer. Possibly because I think almost every song he ever wrote was. This new album, where he's clearly preparing for his death, is wonderful.

Cloud Cult - Time Machine Invention

Cloud Cult are a left-field new discovery for me. I guess they're alt-folk, or something. But they're so, so good. Listening to their Light Chasers album is pretty much like mediation for me. I haven't put a lot of time into their latest album, but it's got some great stuff on it, like Time Machine Invention, which is fun and poignant.

David Bowie - Lazarus

Bowie, man. If I'm honest, Leonard Cohen making a 'death' album isn't that surprising - he seemed like the sort of guy who'd get a kick of it. But I didn't expect it from Bowie. Black Star is an excellent album, and Lazarus is my favourite track off it.


New Music

Ne Obliviscaris

These guys came through town a couple of weeks ago. I'd listened to their albums a couple of times, but wasn't really familiar with them. I decided to take a chance and see them, and it was one of the best performances I've seen. It was tiny (though intense) crowd but they played like they were in front of 10,000.

The more I listen to their latest album, Citadel, the more I like it. Technical, melodic metal with a lot of atmosphere and enough clean vocals to draw you in. Oh, and a violin. A very metal violin.

Seven Impale

These guys describe themselves as "progressive jazzrock", and that's about as good a description as I can think of. Their latest, City of the Sun, is so much fun to listen to.

Son of Aurelius

This is another prog metal band that's just put out a great album, in Under A Western Sun.

Leonard Cohen

I've been listening to Leonard Cohen since I was in high school, but really only his very early stuff. I've started listening to his more recent work, like Old Ideas, and it's just flat out brilliant.

Beyond Creation

These guys were the main support for Ne Obliviscaris, and after they played I already thought I'd got my money's worth. I was a little worried about NeO being able to follow them, actually. They're definitely more towards the death-y end of the prog-metal spectrum, which I'm not usually all that into. But their latest, Earthborn Evolution, is really solid, and really listenable. Plus, they're Canadian. Everyone loves Canadians.