Vintage hifi buying guide & FAQ
Vintage Stereo Equipment
We believe that many of the amplifiers, receivers and turntables from the 1960’s and 1970’s are superior to their modern counterparts. Especially in terms of build quality, sound quality, reliability, and serviceability. Brands like, Pioneer Sherwood, Sansui, Technics, Yamaha, Kenwood, and Sony were some of the leaders in this era. Not only was this equipment well built, but this equipment was designed to be serviceable. After about 1980, higher end audio would continue to excel, but the typical affordable amplifier, turntable and receivers would continue to fall in quality for years to come.
There were all sorts of configurations of stereo systems from the 1950s going forward. Portable record players, consoles, consolettes, and so on. The finest quality systems separate each component into a individual unit, and these are what we focus on. A typical basic component system consists of a amplifier, turntable, and speakers.
What to know about buying vintage
A good turntable is the most important choice for a vinyl system. Many vintage tables are better than entry level modern offerings. Unrestored vintage direct drive turntables will usually need more extensive service. Simple belt drive turntables often are a safer bet, and often need only a new belt. Something that can easily be changed by the owner. There is a third type, the idler drive. Turntables like Dual, Garrard, Rek-O-Kut and others used this design. If left unused, these turntables usually require a significant amount of work. Long periods of zero use will usually lead to problems. Regular use, especially for a automatic turntable is key for long term reliability.
Amps and receivers on the other hand are another story. If you are buying a forty year old amplifier or receiver, be sure to check it out completely. Noise produced by moving controls is usually relatively minor, but spontaneous noises, especially loud pops, can be signs that the amp is overdue for restoration. Ideally, it's best to buy a amp or receiver that has been restored or "recapped". Otherwise, you should budget for service that will likely be into the several hundred dollar range. Even more for very large receivers like the Pioneer SX-1250. Restoration for this receiver is over $1200.
Vintage speakers on the other hand, can vary quite a bit. A vintage set of Klipsch Heresy speakers for example have "lifetime" woofer surrounds. The crossovers use capacitors of a type that are very reliable, and often test in spec after 40 or 50 years. The most Bose speakers on the other hand, have woofers with a foam material that deteriorates over time. Many speakers from this era and beyond use this same material, and suffer from this issue. Unfortunately, the Bose 901 has 9 of them per speaker. Plus the electronic crossover will need recapping as well. If buying vintage speakers, be sure to examine the woofer surrounds, and beware of cracks. Listen to them and beware of even the slightest sound difference between the two speakers. Some early model speakers featured level controls. These can be very problematic on some speakers such as the early Acoustic Research speakers, or simply require a cleaning as with many early JBL units.
Maybe you've just found a vintage amp or receiver that has been untouched and untested for many years. We recommend against just plugging it in. You might get lucky, or you might destroy parts that may be irreplaceable. If the amplifier or receiver has been in constant use, and shows no obvious problems, it may in fact provide even more years of service. If it's never been serviced or restored, you should expect to do so sooner or later. If you encounter symptoms like loud pops, that are unaffected by the volume control, or a missing or distorted channel, you should unplug it and discontinue use. It’s time for service.
Amplifiers and receivers in particular that have had little or no service, require a good deal of work to bring back the original performance and reliability. Replacing 30 to 40 parts, to as many as 80 to 100 parts in a large receiver will be a significant cost. Primarily electrolytic capacitors.
Consoles, "Record Players" and all-in-one stereos
Generally speaking, a "record player" refers to a self contained unit that can play records with no additional components. Many varied examples have been produced over the years, often in a portable suitcase style form. While some quality portable units were produced in years past, most modern faux replicas are of very poor quality.
Large pieces of furniture known as a console, typically included a turntable, amplifier, tuner and speakers, all in one big box. And we mean big, often over 7 feet long. Some even included a tape machine, either 8-Track, cassette, or even reel to reel. Some mid century consoles actually matched the quality of component stereo systems. In general however, most all-in-one stereos are a compromise over a component system. In the majority of consoles and portables, the included turntable in these systems use a ceramic phono cartridge, which is damaging to records. For this reason, as well as others, Austin Stereo does not service any of these items.
It is important to note that most modern amplifiers 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 “bells and whistles”. If your amplifier has no phono input, and you wish to use a vintage turntable, you must purchase an external phono preamp. There are new turntables, such as the Rega Planar 1 Plus, that include a built in phono preamp.
Belt or direct drive?
A common source of confusion. Much of the mainstream stereo industry held up direct drive as the best approach when it was introduced in the 1970’s. In fact, the majority of the finest modern turntables are actually belt drive. In short, there are many fine examples of both. And some poor examples of belt and direct drive turntables. Much like there are good and bad examples of front and rear wheel drive cars. Belt drives turntables will eventually need a new belt, but in almost every case, this is easily replaced. Often, no other service is necessary.
Direct drive turntables use electronics to maintain correct speed, and most are either a frequency generator servo, or a quartz lock speed control. While this technology is typically accurate in terms of regulating platter speed, it adds electronic complexity and potential failure points. Most notably, multiple electrolytic capacitors.
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.
Some fully automatic turntables also function as a “changer”. These could play up to six records one after the other. Dual was best in class for these. Record changers disappeared altogether in the 1980’s. The vast majority of turntables sold today are fully manual. If you want push button operation, and a well made turntable, there are many fine vintage turntables that offer these options.
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. Much less than a human hair.
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 often closer to the truth than not. The arm bearings should be near friction-less, and have no "play" or "slop". Platters should not be made of steel or plastic. Glass, such as used by most Rega turntables, is an excellent material for the turntable platter.
Phono 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. Most cartridges do have replacement syli, but we recommend avoiding generic replacements. We recommend new cartridges from Ortofon. Skimping here is going to limit the sound of your vinyl system, no matter how big the amp, or how great the speakers.
If while playing a record, the sound becomes "fuzzy" or distorted, it is probably due to a dirty stylus. Never touch the stylus tip with your fingers. Instead, we suggest a stylus cleaning brush. A small artist's paintbrush will do in a pinch.
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. A "receiver" is simply an amplifier and radio in one box.
A single chassis amplifier is also known as an “integrated amplifier” and when we separate it into two pieces, these are known as a “preamplifier” and “power amplifier“. Separates are usually more expensive, but offer greater performance due to the dedicated power supplies, as well as other optimizations. Much the same as the finest cameras have separate lenses, flash units, and so on.
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.
No, not the chant, it’s an electrical unit of resistance. Speakers are typically rated between 4 and 8 ohm. The lower number is more demanding on the amplifier. This is normally not something to worry about, at least with most vintage gear. Unless you intend to run two sets of speakers. If this is the case, you should choose 8 ohm models.
The majority of modern amps and receivers only support 8 ohm speakers. Using a four ohm speaker can potentially damage such an amplifier.
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 benefited the consumer in recent years in speaker options.
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 Speakers - Potential Issues
In the 1970’s, a foam material was introduced to connect the woofer (big bass speaker) to its metal frame. This became very popular, and is still used by current speakers. The foam is light, and very flexible, and offers some performance benefits. Unfortunately, it deteriorates after about ten years. In most speakers it can be replaced, kits are available for many speakers for DIY folks. In most cases, it’s wise to have an expert take care of this.
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. Some speakers use electronic components internally that degrade over time. These to can be replaced. The typical result is often 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. This could not be more wrong, as an amplifier turned up until it distorts can easily damage many speakers. Speaker power rating is simply a rough guideline.
Ironically, efficiency rating is commonly overlooked, and easily as important if not more so than power rating. 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, or unusual designs will outperform speakers with more common drivers is yet another one. Some of the most listenable speakers ever made using basically 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 can simply 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. Surprising to many quite a few small speakers will yield better voice and higher pitched sound at much better quality than many big counterparts.
If you already have small speakers, and seek to extend the bass performance, a popular option is to add a subwoofer. Small monitors and a good sub can produce the full audible spectrum. While the combination of small speakers and a subwoofer has some advantages in terms of space and placement, they often fall short of a good set of full range speakers.
For most of us, price IS 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, headphones, existing stereo, or powered speakers. You can later add a receiver and speakers to complete your system. If the turntable is not up to the task, no amount of power, or exotic speakers can overcome this.
What about Bluetooth, WiFi? and streaming audio?
The fact is that it's easy to add or integrate streaming audio into any stereo system. A vast array of devices, many of which are inexpensive, are available in to today's market. Streaming via Bluetooth and wi-fi, as well as multi room audio can be accomplished with any stereo system, old or new. We offer Bluetooth adapters and streaming devices in our shop.
The Bottom Line
One thing 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. Is a warranty included? In the case of amps, receivers, and direct drive turntables, ask if it has been “recapped”. Some sellers offer units that know need work, and neglect to share this fact. Others are simply ignorant of this fact. It is foolish to buy a piece of equipment that is nearly half a century old that has not been serviced, and expect trouble free operation.
Buying a well restored vintage audio component, or even a complete system, will lead to many years of enjoyment, and quite possibly outlasting present day counterparts. Austin Stereo continues to offer a curated selection of restored and guaranteed amplifiers, receivers and turntables.