Seven vintage but affordable amplifiers to upgrade your listening setup.
Here’s a scenario that virtually anyone who has entered the home listening game by investing in a vintage power amp or receiver has likely confronted. You’re aware of the brands — Sansui, McIntosh, Marantz, Pioneer, Harman Kardon — but you don’t know where to start and you don’t want to mess up by buying something too old, battered or temperamental.
We hear you. Unless you’re lucky enough to be the offspring of a noted gearhead like Jimmy Carter, who taught his kids to listen to music through a McIntosh amp and high-end speakers, we all enter audiophilia and intentional listening as novices looking for answers.
The good news is that the internet exists, and so do very smart people who know how stuff works. Whole forums are devoted to which companies’ components still hum like Cadillacs and which turned out to be Saturns. For instance, we asked a populous vintage gear Facebook group this question: “We’re compiling a list of 10 great vintage solid state amps for $600 or so (or less). What models need to be on the list to avoid embarrassing ourselves?” The volume and variety of responses were overwhelming: commenters recommended both receivers and integrated amps, resulting in a drool-worthy bunch of potential purchases.
Below: Seven crucial amps that will boost your eardrum intake without denting your wallet too much.
One of the best-selling brands of the 1970s, Marantz’s receivers remain easy to find, for now. The 2270, which will run you about $1,000 delivers what the company described in ads as “a walloping 140 watts” per channel. If that’s above your budget, try the 2230, which runs about $700. If you don’t care about an AM/FM receiver, we’d recommend the Marantz 1060 integrated amp, which one commenter called “the most tube-like integrated amp I’ve ever heard.”
“The NAD 3020 Is a no-frills, moderately priced amplifier designed to provide state of the art performance and volume levels far in excess of what would be expected from its conservative 20 W per channel power rating,” reads the ad copy for the NAD 3020. A perennial favorite, it was a huge seller for NAD. As such, there are a lot of 3020s around. For a deeper dive on this amp, check out Eric Pye‘s article “The NAD 3020 and My Quest for the Holy Grail: Exit to Vintage Street” for ecoustics.
The original Stereo Review rave from 1970 described the Sansui 4000 as a receiver that “stands with a small, select group of receivers with sufficient power to do justice to almost any speaker system at higher-than-normal listening levels. The Sansui 4000 would rate as an excellent receiver at almost any price. Selling as it does for $379.95, it is clearly an outstanding value.” Indeed, this classic has doubled in price since then on the used market.
A company that earned a reputation for, in its words, “producing state-of-the-art power amplifiers at rock-bottom prices,” Hafler offered its models as both kits and finished products. This beast of an amp is a lesser-known gem, as are the other models in the company’s DH series, including the 220 and 500.
Phase Linear 400
Founded by hi-fi legend Robert Carver outside of Seattle, Phase Linear started in the basement of a grocery store in 1971 but within a few years was blowing away audiophiles around the world. A massive amp, it’s another easily found, immediately rewarding purchase.
Harman Kardon 730
Seriously. Trust us on this one: The Harmon Kardon 730 receiver is not only a beautiful thing, but it offers a warmth of tone that will transform the sound of any record for the better. In advertisements, the company characterizes its product as “beyond specifications,” which is true.
You may remember this amp from the second edition of our room recordings. The Eico Hf-81 was first introduced in 1959 and is a low powered 14W amplifier that pairs well with efficient speakers (they sound great with our vintage Klipsch Cornwalls). It’s a bit harder to find than the rest of these on the list and may take a bit of work to tune and maintain, but once properly set up, this unassuming amp will beat out most anything you’ll find in its $800 – $1,000 price range. There’s been a growing cult following around this one so grab it if you can find one at a good price!
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