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Interested in vintage audio gear? The team behind ISC HiFi takes you through the basics and shares a few of their favorites.
It’s a hotly debated topic when upgrading or investing in hi-fi gear: Do you buy vintage or go new? New components offer superior technology, argue some. The classic stuff exudes a warmth lacking in new models, offer others. Each argument has validity. What you buy depends on what you need, and the better informed you are the easier it’ll be to draw your own conclusions.
Part one of our intro to hi-fi audio series took you through the basics of setting up a home audio system. The following primer will dive into the basics of vintage gear, things to consider before purchasing and a few brands and models that we recommend.
Among the biggest selling points of going vintage is cost. It will be way cheaper going used when assembling your dream set-up, and you can find surprising deals if you know how to look. Whether via an online auction site such as Ebay, a reputable online marketplace like www.audiogon.com, reverb.com or www.usaudiomart.com, or even a lucky thrift store or Craigslist find, these units can be pretty easy to procure at a good price.
It will take more effort, though, and buying used stuff is a riskier proposition. In more cases than not, a component won’t come with more than a handshake agreement, and repairs to might run a few hundred dollars. But because your initial investment will be lower than a newer alternative, this risk is somewhat minimized. Still, with online auctions, secondary market marketplaces, thrift shops, buyer beware. If you’re not careful you could wind up with a piece that shorts out after a few months or needs a total refurbishment.
Don’t let this discourage you. Online audiophiles on forums such as Audioholics, AVS Forum, or Audiogon have opinions on virtually any brand or model of note, and many love sharing information.
Many reputable ‘after market’ dealers do stand behind their products and guarantee them with a limited warranty. Expect some general wear and tear, but usually a quick cleaning, tune up or ‘recap‘ can get this gear up to speed.
Receivers and Power Amps
The 1970’s saw peak demand for stereo equipment, and a range of mass-market receivers built in this era are highly coveted. Because most everyone had a stereo in those days, there are a lot of models out there and companies including Pioneer, Marantz, Harman Kardon, Sony and Kenwood heavily invested in making stuff sound good.
Stereo receivers had an outstanding build quality, and remain as solid state as they come. Vintage Pioneer, Harman Kardon and Marantz units have a deep sound: smooth, balanced, incredibly clear and pleasing to the ear. While the midrange frequency curve is not as precise compared with some newer amplifiers, what they lack in precision and finesse they make up for in bass depth, rolled-off sound and value. Throw in the streamlined, classic ‘70s aesthetic — the sublime orange, blue or green glow of the meters, the tactile feel of the knobs, the resistance in both the tone controls and balance, the giant flywheel tuning knob — and these machines are pure art. For what they are and what they currently cost, the ability to develop a relationship and live with these audio machines can bring endless listening pleasure.
A few other incentives to going used: many vintage units were built with moving magnet phono pre-amps that are on par with, if not better than, many stand-alone phono pre amps being sold today. As well, most vintage receivers come with built in AM/FM tuners, a big selling point back in the day that’s more bonus these days. Not only is it fun to wheel through the radio dial again on these rigs, but more important, it’s a good idea to have a working radio signal in the house just in case the internet goes down. Most people don’t even realize that they don’t have a radio receiver in the house, and in emergencies they are essential.
Don’t forget, though: vintage amps don’t have remote control, have limited auxiliary inputs and no digital capacity to speak of. That said, such issues can be easily resolved by adding a relatively inexpensive DAC streaming device.
A quick diversion: In the 80’s, the audio business shifted with consolidation and manufacturing shortcuts; the sector became as much about advertising, looks and wattage stats as quality sound. Cheaper materials were employed and solid state transistors were abandoned for microchips. With these shifts, much of the sound vibrancy, explosiveness and depth was lost. In essence, life went out of amplifiers in the 80’ and 90’s. This is why, if you’re thinking of going vintage, it’s best to stick to something from the 1970’s heyday.
The major evolution across the past 50 years has been in the resolution and imaging of today’s components. Whereas old-school vintage equipment seems to produce a more intimate, subtle sound, new amplifiers from companies such as NAD and Cambridge Audio are more aesthetically minimalist and often lack the warm glow and the smoothness of vintage. They compensate for this in precision, particularly the overall spatial separation and soundstage. New-build high end amplification gear tends to have much more wattage to drive any set of speakers. They have built-in modern adaptability features — such as a plethora of inputs, digital capability, Bluetooth and remote control.
The major selling point for vintage speakers are the cabinets, usually made of solid wood for a wonderfully dynamic, room-consuming sound. The best are beautifully crafted and, in some cases, can be as big as pieces of furniture (See: Klipschorn corner speaker).
Most vintage speakers have a paper-cone woofer with dome metal tweeters. This construction creates an airy resonance that results in a live-sounding acoustic warmth. Their wide-ranging frequency response remains up to today’s standards and they can be driven with pretty much any amplifier. This is one reason why speaker companies like Klipsch still use many of the same materials as a half-century ago — for that spacial feeling that’s both balanced and responsive. But know that you’ll need some space in your listening room for the most massive of them.
Also know that buying vintage speakers more than 20-years-old will often require replacing the foam around woofers. The process can be complicated and expensive, so before buying always ask when they were last refoamed.
Newer speaker models are generally, but of course not always, smaller — see bookshelf speakers — and come in a variety of finishes. Some are built from solid compost materials — high density plastics and lacquer consistent with a tighter, more precise sound path and better sound separation. But these modern beauties, in spite of their technical merits, can sometimes sound a little sterile and synthetic when compared with their wooden-cabinet counterparts.
While some of the newer speakers (Martin Logan, Paradigm) blow the frequency response of older speakers out of the water, they often require a lot of power and can only perform with mega-wattage modern amps. Which is to say, be careful with your pairing.
Turntables are the exception here. Things have changed in favor of more modern players. Because turntables have more moving parts, acquiring fully intact used turntable requires hunting; chances are you’ll have to replace something — the tone arm lever, belts, the footers to level properly or a cracked dust cover. Given the scarcity of some parts, replacing broken systems can be tough.
If you’re hellbent on classic ‘70s design to round out the look of your system, though, when shopping for old turntables make sure you look for one with an adjustable tone arm that fits standard cartridges. Ninety-percent of a turntable’s sound quality comes from the cartridge (the other 10% stems from a turntable’s quietness), so if the sound coming from your turntable isn’t working for you, upgrading the cartridge will more likely solve the problem.
Which is to say, spend less on the turntable and more on the cartridge.
With audio gear, most of time the main factor in getting quality sound is the combination of equipment you team together. If you put the wrong vintage amp with the wrong modern speakers, you could be disappointed. The trial-and-error process of matching audio gear will really affect the sound of your system. If in doubt, find someone who knows what they’re doing. Audiophiles are an opinionated lot.
Also know that there’s nothing wrong with mixing and matching pieces from different eras to find the optimal sound. Just don’t be sucked in by the bells and whistles of newer gear — and pay less attention to wattage and sampling bit rates, two metrics that can be very misleading.
More important is the emotional pull and connection you get when you’re intensely listening to music. If your system’s sound relaxes you and delivers contentment and a smile, then you’ve reached the summit of hi-fi listening.
In the following weeks, we’ll be diving into specific gear mentioned in this piece with detailed information on suggested price, sound, pairings, and more. Stay tuned!
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