How To Buy Old Vintage and Classic HiFi Stereo Audio Equipment
Finding great deals on vintage and classic hi-fi Stereo equipment.
It is a widely held belief among many audiophiles and stereo enthusiasts that standard consumer grade vintage and classic hi-fi equipment is, in many respects, superior to their modern counterparts.
There are many reports and reviews that confirm (and some that refute) this, so we won't go into that debate here.
We will assume you fall into the category of preferring (or looking to get into collecting) vintage and classic stereo equipment, and cover some of the things to look for, some things to look out for, and where to find components for your vintage or classic hi-fi system.
There are plenty of places online to find vintage hi-fi equipment, either for outright purchase or by auction. The caveats of buying from these venues is that you will nearly always pay a premium for these, as there are thousands of enthusiasts searching for the same components on these sites, they know the worth, and more than likely, the seller has searched the same site for similar items and noted their selling price.
The only saving grace of this method is that many of these sites have protection for the buyer, so that if the item is not shipped as described, the purchaser can often be refunded their money.
There are also vintage audio boutiques in many cities. Purchasing your equipment from such an establishment has both positives and negatives. The negative being the inflated cost of being a retail brick-and-mortar store. They must meet overhead and pay their employees, so the price of the items will be higher than online auctions and private sales.
Many of these boutiques, however, often have a qualified technician that has tested and repaired the items they sell, and often give a warranty with the sale.
I'd like to make a note here about buying vintage vacuum tube equipment. Buying used tube powered components can be tricky. If a somewhat recent receipt for service on the vacuum tube powered component is not available, before running it, the component should be inspected and repaired by a qualified individual, such as the technicians that work at the boutiques mentioned above. Purchasing vacuum tube equipment from boutiques may, in the long run, end up costing less overall, because the item has already been serviced.
Where, then, should you look for vintage and classic hi-fi equipment?
- Thrift stores
- Yard and garage sales
- Local classifieds
- Swap Meets
Thrift stores are my favorite place to look for vintage stereo equipment. Many people replace their old, out-of-style equipment with newer equipment, and donate them to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or other local thrift stores. The staff that price these generally do not know the value of this vintage equipment, and set the price very low. In addition, the thrift stores are generally well-organized, so one may go directly to the electronics section, and see all the available items at a quick glance.
Find out the schedule for the display of new items for your local thrift shops and try to schedule visits to them at those times.
Yard and Garage Sales
Drive around your neighborhood on Weekend mornings and look for yard or garage sale signs. Your neighbors may be clearing out the stereo they packed in the garage years ago, and likely have no idea of it's potential worth, or it's quality.
Quite a bit of classic and vintage stereo equipment can be found on craigslist. Sometimes they are good deals. As often as not, however, if a person is posting an ad on craigslist, they've checked the auction sites for the current 'going price' on these items, and are usually priced similarly to these, without the protection of the boutique warranty or the buyer protection of the online auction sites.
Your local classifieds may have similar items to those listed in craigslist. They were likely posted by those less savvy with computers, so may not be as aware of their current market price as those who post ads online.
The classifieds are also a good way to locate yard and garage sales in your area.
Similar to the yard and garage sales, but sellers often know a bit more about their products and their value. You still run similar risks concerning their state of repair and the lack of buyer protection and warranties.
What to look for when shopping for bargain vintage Hi-Fi system components
Let's talk about amplifiers first.
There are, for our purposes, two kinds of vintage Hi-Fi stereo amplifiers:
As noted above, vacuum tube amps should be serviced by a professional if no receipt of service in the last few years can be shown.
Solid state amplifiers have been around for quite a while, but the process of amplification in solid state amplifiers has evolved and branched out over time.
The op-amps, or circuits that amplify sound, can vary a fair bit.
The difference in transistors over the years are quite audible, with many of the older amplifiers having a 'warmer' sound, due to attack rate, crosstalk, signal to noise ratio and their possible 'coloration' of a sound signal.
You'll learn to spot vintage amplifiers from a distance. Many of them have brushed aluminum face plates, an analogue AM/FM tuner, large aluminum knobs, and toggle switches, as opposed to the sleek black, digital, soft-touch buttons of modern components.
Being able to spot these from a car or with a quick glance at a rack of electronics is a skill that will be developed with time and experience.
Vinyl has gone out of mainstream popularity, but for vintage audiophile entusiasts, the turntable is often the crown jewel of their hi-fi system.
Many vintage and classic high-end turntables can now be bought used for a song at thrift stores, yard sales and swap meets.
There are two types of turntables you will most often see, direct-drive and belt-driven. The belts on the belt driven systems are made of rubber which hardens and turns brittle with age.
These belts will more than likely need to be replaced.
Direct-drive turntables have the spindle attached directly to the motor. Less expensive direct-drive turntables can suffer from compromised audio reproduction due to motor vibration.
The more expensive direct-drive turntables have better motors and steps taken to preclude distortion from vibration, and typically have higher quality motors than the their belt-driven counterparts.
It's a good idea to do some research on vintage turntable brands and models before purchasing one, as quality and cost of service vary wildly.
A new needle should be purchased for your used turntable to protect your vinyl collection from damage.
Reel to Reel
Reel to reel tape recorders and players are a surprisingly hi-fidelity addition to your vintage stereo setup.
This analogue recording medium is a very good way to preserve your record collection. Being able to record both sides of a few of your favorite records on the warm-sounding, analogue nature of hi-fi reel to reel tapes allows you to listen to your favorite albums in their rich analogue sound without wear and tear on your vinyl, and without having to get up and turn the records over.
Reel to reels do take up a bit more space than most components, and as with turntables, the motors are subject to "wearing out."
There are tens of thousands of different makes and models of speakers from the 1950s through the 1980s.
As with all other vintage stereo equipment, there are periods of time with nearly every manufacturer where quality may be at a low point. Research these periods at places like www.audiokarma.org or similar before paying too much money for a set of classic or vintage speakers.
When inspecting speakers, if possible, remove the grill or covering, and inspect the drivers visually.
Check for crushed 'dust caps', torn surrounds, or liquid stained or torn cones.
Check also to see if it appears the drivers may have been replaced. Unless replaced by a professional, the characteristics of the new driver and the enclosures may not have been taken into account, and a mismatch in driver and enclosure design may have occurred. There are many parameters that must be taken into account when selecting a driver for a specific enclosure.
If the speakers are of a high quality nature, but have damaged surrounds, cones or caps, they may still be a good purchase.
Surrounds can be replaced by qualified persons, as can cones and coils. Do not discount a set of very good speakers solely on driver condition. The few hundred dollars it may cost to repair them may be well worth it.
Many older speakers have one or more potentiometers attached to complicated crossover systems that help tune the frequency responses, generally cutting treble and/or mid-range. Potentiometers are subject to oxidation and corrosion, and may have to be serviced.
Condition of your components
All vintage and used components should be checked by qualified technicians to ensure the continued longevity of your components and listening pleasure.