Vintage hifi buying guide

Buying Vintage

Is every single piece of vintage stereo equipment superior to modern audio?  Is there no high quality stereo equipment made anymore?  Do all tube amps sound better than all transistor amps?  None of these statements are correct.  In fact, the high end audio of today, outperforms most gear from the past.  Of course, at much greater price.

What is true is that the mainstream audio amplifiers, turntables, and receivers, do not compare to the same main stream components from the mid 20th century.  In many cases, the same money spent on vintage gear will often yield better results.  Why is this?

It should be no surprise that to match a turntable that sold for around $150 in 1975, you would need to spend somewhere around $500 to $1000 for a comparable turntable today.  You could buy a new car in 1975 for about $3500, and a nice one for $6000.  A nice home could be purchased for around $50,000.  A good lunch could be had for around $3, and a full dinner for around $5 at a fine restaurant.  You can buy a turntable today for $99.  Would you expect it to be of good quality?

The Turntable

First of all, an important distinction.  A “turntable” (or a record deck for our european friends) is incomplete without an amplifier (or receiver) and a set of speakers.  A “record player” on the other hand, has all of this built into one box.  Sometimes very large furniture enclosures, as with the consoles of the 1960’s.

It is very important to note that most modern amps and receivers have no phono input.  A cost cutting measure, as a phono input requires a significant number of additional parts.  By the 1990’s, many manufacturers chose to spend the saved money on video capabilities, surround sound, and other features.  If you already have such an amplifier or receiver, a separate preamp device can be added at about $50 or more.  A preamp on the order of what  would be expected from a built in unit, will be around $100 or more.

Belt or direct drive?

A common source of confusion.  Much of the main stream stereo industry held up direct drive as the best approach when it was introduced in the 1970’s.  In fact, the majority of the very high end turntables are actually belt drive.  In short, there are many fine examples of both.  Belt drives turntables will eventually need a new belt, but in almost every case, this is easily replaced.  Direct drive turntables require complex electronics to manage speed, and are more costly to service.

Automatic – Semi Auto – Manual

All turntables fall into one of these categories.  A manual turntable requires you to move the arm over, and then retrieve the arm when the record ends.  Most turntables have a cue lever that aids in lifting the arm.  Semi automatics require you to move the arm over, but will automatically return it at the end.  Fully automatic turntables can be operated without ever touching the tonearm.  Technically there is a fourth version called a “changer”.  These could play up to six records one after the other.  Dual is probably the most respected and best example.  No changers were produced after the early 1980’s.   The vast majority of turntables sold today are fully manual.  If you don’t like the idea of having to getup when the record ends, a vintage table may be your best option.

What makes a good turntable?

It might surprise some that this is very much a matter of common sense.  The job of a turntable is to rotate the record at a constant speed, and support the stylus with the least possible amount of friction, while holding it as still as possible.  The vibrations in a record groove are only a few microns wide.  It should stand to reason that a flimsy lightweight plastic turntable, with sloppy poor quality arm bearings, and a platter that wobbles,  would not be the best choice here.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that the heaviest turntable is the best, but that is generally closer to the truth than not.

Phone Cartridges and “needles”

A phono cartridge is the little device on the end of a tonearm, and includes the stylus or “needle”.  Movement of the stylus in the record groove generates a small electrical signal.  Rated live is typically 500 to 1000 depending on manufacturer and model.  We have seen much greater use without significant wear.  The take home here is that skimping here is going to limit the sound of your vinyl system, no matter how big the amp, or how large the speakers.  If you have an old turntable with a bad stylus, or have purchased a used one that needs replacing, make sure the cartridge or stylus has the brand name logo.  Many resellers today are selling chinese counterfeit clone replacements.  We recommend avoiding these completely.

Amplifiers and Receivers

Amplifiers (amps) take the tiny electrical signal from the turntable, and magnify it many times to move the magnetic coil in a speaker enough to make audible sound.  Amplifiers may be in a single box, or may be split into two or more boxes.  Like high end cameras, separating portions of the amplifier this way can yield better performance.  A receiver is simply an amplifier with a tuner (radio) built in.  Conversely, a tuner is just the radio portion that requires a separate amplifier to produce sound.  In the mid 70’s, the bottom of the line name brand receiver was around $179.  Today, that would be nearly $800.

How much power do I need?

This is often misunderstood.   It’s also complicated by the fact that mainstream amplifiers sold today are rated differently today than in the 1960’s and `70’s, when methods were more regulated.  A modern receiver claiming to be 100 watts per channel today would probably rate at 40 or 50 watts if the old methods were used.  A mid century 50 watt per channel receiver is actually quite powerful, and a 100 watt per channel Pioneer receiver from that era is a monster.  Many listeners with a small space would be fine with a 25 watt per channel vintage amp, while those in large spaces, and/or seeking to recreate sound levels as in a club or concert, should seek a large amplifier.

Ohm

No, it’s not a chant, it’s an electrical unit of resistance.  Speakers are typically rate between 4 and 8 ohm.  Normally not something to worry about, unless you intend to use two pairs of speakers.  Many vintage amplifiers can power two sets of speakers at the same time, but they usually must be rated no less than 8 ohms.  This is a completely different animal that today’s surround sound A/V receivers.  Speaking of which, we favor spending the budget on two excellent speakers, rather than have a dozen mediocre ones.

Restored?  Original?  

Amplifiers from the 1980s and earlier in original condition will likely need some amount of service.  You can purchase equipment that has already been electronically “restored”, or find a good bargain in original condition that is still in working order.  Be careful, as that Craigslist or Ebay buy might seem a bargain at the time.  It may not when you discover the cost to restore it to full operation is $200 to $300 or more.

Speakers

It cannot be overstated how important it is to choose a good a set of speakers.  This does not necessarily mean the largest, highest power rating, or largest number of components either.  It also does not necessarily mean the most expensive ones are the best choice.  There are many good inexpensive modern speakers.  The corner cutting in recent years of turntables and amplifiers was not applied to speakers in quite the same way.  In fact, mass production and low cost overseas labor has benefitted the consumer in recent years.

Yes, there are many great vintage speakers.  Make no mistake, the fact that they a speaker is “vintage” does not mean in any way that they are superior to modern offerings.  Many speakers produced today, especially in the higher end of the range, represent the absolute state of the art.  A great infographic on how speakers work is here.

Vintage Speaker Problems

In the 1970’s, a foam material was used to connect the woofer (big bass speaker) to its metal frame.  This became very common, and is still widely used today.  The foam is light, and very flexible.  Unfortunately, it deteriorates after about ten years.   In most speakers it can be replaced, but at a cost.  Many mid century speakers had level controls.  Turns out, not such a great idea.  The controls are almost always a source of problems on these speakers.  A problem that can definitely be corrected.  Finally, some speakers use electronic components internally that degrade over time.  These to can be replaced.  The typical result is a significant performance improvement.

Power Rating and Efficiency

One of the biggest misconceptions is that a 100 watt rated speaker could not possibly be damaged by a 50 watt per channel amplifier.  Totally wrong, as an amplifier turned up until it distorts can easily damage any speaker.  Speaker rating is simply a rough guideline.   Ironically, efficiency is commonly overlooked, and easily as important if not more so.  A more efficient speaker will produce a larger volume for a given amount of power.  Important if you’re looking for the most volume for a given power.  A more efficient speaker does not necessarily mean better quality sound.

What type of speaker is best?   

There is a mind bendingly wide array of speakers produced over the past 50 years or so, large and small.  In short, there is no one best speaker.  It depends on your budget, preference, room size, amplifier, and so on.  Typically, speakers have two or three “drivers”.  Let’s get rid of a myth or two right away.  Speakers with more components are not automatically better that those with less.  High tech cutting edge components outperform speakers with more common drivers is yet another one.  Some of the most listenable speakers ever made use the same technology as those made over half a century ago.

Two things are pretty safe bets when comparing a small monitor or bookshelf sized speaker, to a speaker with a large woofer, or a tower type with multiple smaller woofers.  Well designed large speakers often produce fuller, deeper bass.  Larger elements typically move more air.  In most cases, large speakers can play safely at a higher volume, and/or fill a large space with full range sound much more effectively than small speakers.  If you already have small speakers, and seek to extend the bass performance, a good option is to add a subwoofer.  Small monitors and a good sub can produce the full audible spectrum.  Make no mistake however, in terms of clearly reproducing detail, the human voice and most acoustic instruments, you’d be better off a pair of fine small speaker than a middling pair of large ones, or a cheap satellite subwoofer combo.

Building a System

For most of us, price is definitely an object.  It’s a little confusing to decide on dividing your budget between a turntable, amp, and speakers.   One popular school of thought is to spend most of it on speakers.  We don’t agree, and instead suggest spending as much or more on the turntable.  If you’re on a very tight budget, you can add an inexpensive phono preamp, and just listen through your computer, existing stereo, or powered speakers.  You can later add a receiver and speakers to complete your system.  You can of course connect tablets, phones, mp3 players, etc. to these vintage amps.  As for playing vinyl, if the turntable is not delivering, no amount of power, or exotic speakers can overcome this.

The Bottom Line

The same is true of vintage gear, as it is of new audio equipment.  You should listen to it yourself, with music you are familiar with.  Especially with equipment that is over 40 years old, you want to know everything is working as it should.  For this reason, we suggest caution when buying from Craigslist or Ebay.  Ask if the equipment has been restored.  In the case of amps, receivers, and some turntables, ask if it has been “recapped”.  Many sellers sell units that need work, and neglect (intentionally?) to share this fact.  If you do buy from these sources, we suggest making sure you can return it, or buying with the knowledge that you may have to invest in servicing your new purchase.