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Buying vintage audio equipment

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Now that my vintage audio acquisition has turned into a major illness, it's time to put 'pen to paper' and bequeath my observations and advice to the general public.  Previously, I had written a guide entitled 'Buying Pioneer Silver Receivers', and while I collect those models, I have also purchased many different brands and years.  The patterns I have learned hold up across the brands....so here we go.

Why vintage audio?

In a nutshell it's better.  The units themselves are constructed far sturdier than today.  Real steel, real wood, real aluminum slab faceplates.  To get a vintage unit beat up looking, you practically need to hit it with the car.  A modern unit?  Bounce a stuffed animal off of it.

The units are more aesthetically pleasing to look at.  I don't know who decided that we want all of our equipment in black pastic, or (gasp!) silver plastic, but whether the vintage is silver faced or half silver/half smoked glass - they just look better.  I for one like needles bouncing to the music.  While it's true I favor Pioneer flouroscan, it beats by orders of magnitude 5 segment LED meters.

And most importantly - sound quality.  There are three things to consider:  power, range and distortion.

Anyone can (and apparently does) build 110w+ units today.  Heft alone tells me there are no large transformers or power capacitors in there so I question where the power is coming from.  You might think the 110wpc (watt per channel) Pioneer from Circuit City bests one of my 'middle of the road' 45wpc units.  Think again.  That is a 'Pepsi challenge' I will take any day using the same set of 2 speakers.  (Obviously I cannot compete on a 5.1-7.1 encoded program, but that is not audio - aka music - it is movie sound effects)

Why?

Well we can assume from the documentation that the new unit and my old unit cover the 20-20000hz frequency range.  So on that point they are on equal footing.  However consider this:  recently I looked at the specs for the top of the line (TOTL) pioneer.  It was 110wpc and 1% THD (Total Harmonic Distortion).  1%.  That is CAR AUDIO range!  As an example, my 45wpc SX-780 or SX-3700's are .03% THD.  1/33rd!  Is this a big deal?  Well if you are not damaged from too many drunken Oz-fests then yes.

Let me use a recent example of how noticable this is:  Not too long ago I finished repairing a 1974-1977 Sansui 771, rated roughly 40-45wpc at .5%.  From the sound, it needed something and I noticed a few swollen capacitors so I 're-capped' the entire driver board and EQ board.  The difference was night and day.  I ended up thinking - "wow, this Sansui sounds great!".  However, on the last day I worked on it I was listening to a Pioneer SX-3700 (.03%) tuned to the 'Nights with Alice Cooper' show.  As I finished putting the Sansui back together I hooked it up to give it a final test.  I heard, with no ambiguity, the difference between a .03% amp running well, and a .5% amp running well.  And here you have an opportunity to listen to the most modern Pioneer A/V receiver who comes out of the box, fresh from the factory, with a distortion level twice that of a machine 30 years old.

You might find on some audio sites people stating that after a certain year range, the equipment used certain types of chips or whatever.  Wrong.  You have to look under the hood.  The very well respected Pioneer Sx-780 uses 'STK power packs' which are essentially 'single channel amp sections on a chip' and the more modern SX-3700 uses discrete units.  You have to do some research.  My last 'modern' buy was a 1993 Pioneer VSX-D602S who pumps out 100wpc at .03%THD.  It took a lot of spec reading to find it, but I narrowed down to the Pioneer and the Technics of the time, while ignoring the Sonys and Kenwoods.  When the bias and feedback are on this mystical 'chip', its easy to create a DC-servo to constantly adjust the idle current and DC offset, but in many cases the price is tightly packed components on a wafer that thermally distort and if they go - they are gone.  It seems the A/V craze today has begat units that are so automated by remote that they can sort your sock drawer, but no one paid attention to how it actually sounds.

So aside from any nostalgia, this is why we persue vintage audio - it looks better and sounds better.  But, you are reading this guide on ebay so we can assume you are contemplating bidding on an auction.  I will now discuss what to buy and how to buy it, as well as caveats.

What to buy

Well the Receiver/Amp is where the sound comes from, and the speakers are how it gets to you.  We covered the reasons why the older amps are better, but speakers - it might not be neccessary to buy ONLY vintage speakers.  Speakers have improved.  In days of old, the massive woofers and heavyweight drivers used every ounce of those watts.  Today, the emphasis is on sub-woofers, which while they DO impart bass to the room, they dont do it in stereo - there is an audible difference.  For the most part, quality speakers today will sound well.  I recently got a set of Yamaha bookshelf units (has to be a mighty big bookshelf) that sound great and handle 70w RMS.  I have also seen modern towers in Circuit City that sound like crap.  You can have the best amp around, but if the speakers sound like they are underwater or made from corrugated steel....well do the math.

The best representation of what happened at the concert or in the studio, is was, and likely always will be a record.  Sound freqencies are nice collections of sinusoidal waves.  Good records on great turntables will always give you this.  Tape is second - analog tape STILL preserves the analog signal, but its detractor is the quality of the drive, the quality of the tape and the frequency response of the heads and op-amps.

That being said - look for good turntables and great tape decks.  The older TOTL tape decks sounded excellent before metal tape was invented.  Todays Maxell UDXLIIS tape is about the best non-metal Cr2O3 formulation you can find.  Shy away from 8-tracks, no matter how many you remember your parents as having.  In the very late 70's a couple manufacturers produced a few better quality decks with dolby and a frequency response around 15khz top end - but still a step down from the cassettes of the time.

If you can find them, and find the tape - look into reel to reel decks. (R2R's)  Pioneer, Teac, Sony, Akai etc all made some really great units.  Cumbersome to use and hard to re-supply, but the TOTL R2R's had better sound than the cassettes.

As for CD players - just buy a modern one.  Since they made their debut, the recording and sampling (reading) technology has improved, as well as additional circuitry to mellow out the sound.  The problem with digital is:  sure, it has a stellar signal to noise ratio, BUT, the perfect sine waves are stepped and no amount of oversampling, bit density or smoothing will ever fully take this away.  I have always found that given 2 blind programs of the same music, CDs might not have tape hisssssssss or record POP, but you can hear the distorted signals.

How to buy it

As always, you want to pay as little as possible.  This is getting harder to do, simply because of people like me.  We want the units, we like the units and what used to be Ebay bargains are getting harder to snag.  MOST, repeat, MOST of the units for sale on Ebay, REGARDLESS of writeup - are being sold by Ebay sellers who cover the gamut.  It is how they eat.  Over the last few months I have noticed that my Ebay ID gets followed around - I can at any time identify 1-2 dozen Ebay Ids that watch what I bid on, and then jump on it.  They invariably pay too much (IMO) and lo and behold, a week or two later the same unit is for sale, at a starting price of what they paid plus what it cost them to ship it.  I have seen crazy mad auctions and crazy mad money for stuff that yeah, I'd like to have - but not at that price.

So here are my tips:

1) CONSIDER SHIPPING.  For any item you come across, you can find the weight online easily, and then use the USPS shipping calculator.  Many, if not most of the ebay sellers add ridiculous amounts to the shipping totals.  This gets them extra money outside of the auction and not subject to final value fees.  Yes, these things are heavy and should cost a lot to mail.  But the actual and inflated shipping costs need to be considered or else it might not be a good value.

2) Look for like units.  If you are bidding on a Sx-880 and it heads into mad money, don't take it personal - search for MORE of them.  A favorite story I like to tell:  when I was going after a Sx-780 I got outbid at my max and I watched as it headed to $150 - twice what it is worth in any un-restored case.  By the time the auction ended it went for $255 - more than it cost NEW, and the sad part, I won the one I did get a few hours later for $52.

3) Know the value.  If you google up the unit you want, you will find a couple of places on the 'net that will give you an idea of what it is worth, typically in the form of Ebay low/highs.  Keep this in mind with shipping because the winning bid+shipping is what you PAID for it.  Yes, giant SX-1980s fetch $1200-$1600.  So do Giant Sansui QX-9900's.  But $1/watt is not a bad maximum bid until you REALLY do some research.  Totally ignore what the unit cost when new.  In the 70's, the items NEVER went for MSRP.  They were like cars in that respect.

4) Learn the condition.  These units are averaging 30 years old.  Scratchy 'pots' (volume, balance, tone etc) are an easy fix in 95% of the cases with this liquid magic juice called 'DeoxIt', but you have to be brave enough to open the case.  Burned lights are also an easy fix - if you are brave enough to open the case and unscrew some stuff.  So some questions to ask are:

a) Any knobs missing?  I assure you they are not made anymore and some 'dealers' get $8+ PER knob!

b) Anything broken?  I assure you it is NOT available from the manufacturer, but some 'dealers' will sell you one for way too much.

c) How beat up is the case?  The peeling veneer CANNOT be fixed - ever.  But the nice thing about the wood case units is that you can EASILY have a new custom hard-wood case made - if you like it enough.  I love my SX-3900 TOTL.  If it were damaged I would have it in a solid oak case in a couple days.

d) Are the controls scratchy or lights burned?  For non-TOTL models in most cases means they should not sell for >$40.

e) Are they insisting that sound is not in one channel but its just some fuse?  Guess what, if the main fuse(s) is burned - then most likely an output amp is gone.  For some units you can get replacements (the STK-50's in the SX-780 are ~$8 each) but others - typically over 50wpc - tend to use something called 'ring-emitter transistors'.  Those models are most assuredly unobtanium.  (But, another story - I got this mint, and I mean mint looking SX-3700 for $20 because the seller thought a channel was gone.  I had an idea, took my chances (thinking that the face and case were so nice I could put a known good chassis from a beat-up body into it) and it turned out to be a corroded tape monitor switch.  It does not always happen that way - but it can.)

5) Learn the pecking order.  At any time you can search Ebay for 'SX-780' (yes I keep mentioning this model as it seems to be the most prolific one ever sold) and find sellers calling it 'rare' or 'TOTL'.  Yea right.  If it is so rare why are there 20 for sale at any point in time?  And if it is so TOTL why are there 880's, 980's, 1080's, 1280's and even 2-3 1980's for sale at the same time?  Truth be known, only the 580 and 680 are beneath it.  So much for the claims?

6) Don't pay handling fees.  Lets say a Kenwood KR-4070 is worth $40-50 unrestored/unmolested.  If it is going to cost $20-25 to ship, then $20-25 is your max bid.  If you find it is for sale just down the road, then you can factor in that you can pick it up, save some $$ and up your max bid.  Until you run into the 'dealer' who insists he has to have a $10 handling fee.  My favorite joke is:  Does McDonalds charge you an extra $5 to hand the Big Mac across the counter?  Take a pass.  Packing fees?  Depends on the situation.

7) Ask tough questions about the 'testing'.  If they claim to test it and it is being sold 'as-is' then they are not very confident in the product no?  Every worked-on unit I sell has a simple guarantee:  Shipping is non-refundable, but if the unit is DOA (dead on arrival - popular term) then I will refund the purchase price when I get it back.  You would think that a seller of large amounts of audio equipment would like to generate large amounts of trust.  Ask Ask Ask.  If they are too busy to get back to you, then be too timid to take the chance.  Unless you know how to test equipment and solder in parts, this can get expensive.

8) Don't use Ebay.  This sounds counter productive, but Goodwill industries tends to sell receivers for $20/$25.  They have equal chance of working as do units from whereever (and truth be known, most of the 'dealers' get them from goodwill to start with)

9) Get a guarantee.  If you see one advertised from a guy who has his own shop and is listing all sorts of gizmo-ey stuff he did to it, AND he will guarantee it?  Then the safety of a headache free purchase might be worth his elevated price.

Who am I in the scheme of this?  I collect vintage Pioneer and some others.  I get a lot of doubles and triples and I fix them up - cleaning, repair broken parts, adjust to spec - and them sell them for tiny profit to feed my habit.  Some day I might have all I want and just stop altogether.  With my ID being shadowed by the ebay dealers I don't get to pounce on many bargains anymore but you never know what you might stumble into.  But the only way we are going to maintain the market of vintage stuff for people who want the sound, is to educate the buyers such that there is no longer any profit in it for the 'dealers' to raid the auctions and jack the prices.

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