Vintage Stereo Buying Guide & FAQ
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.
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. Especially the cheap plastic faux lookalike junk. Suitable perhaps for a small child. Not only do these things deliver poor quality sound, some will actually damage your records.
Unless you have the budget for a new Rega or similar, a good vintage turntables is a great option. Unrestored vintage direct drive turntables may need more extensive service than belt drive turntables. Often, an old belt drive turntable can be put back in operation with not much more than a new belt and a drop of oil. Something that can easily be changed by the owner. A new stylus might be needed, but beware of off brand replacements. If a brand name replacement cannot be found, go with a new cartridge. It's usually best to have this installed by someone who is experienced.
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. We feel that Dual of Germany was best in class for record changers. 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?
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. Also, they must resist vibrations from the sound in the room. The back and forth movement in a record groove is only a few microns wide. 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". Like any other mechanical device, a well made turntable to a high level of precision is key to good sound from your records.
Phono Cartridges and “needles”
A phono cartridge is the complete unit mounted to the head shell on the end of the 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 styli, but again, we recommend avoiding cheap generic replacements. If a name brand stylus isn't available, it's best to just replace the cartridge.
Periodic stylus cleaning is important, and you should invest in a stylus brush. 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
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, and can be remedied by cleaning with a product like Caig "Deoxit". Often, a temporary remedy is to move the control or switch rapidly back and forth a number of times.
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. Much more for very large receivers like the Pioneer SX-1250. Restoration for this receiver is well over $1000.
Vacuum Tube Amplifiers
Mainstream receivers and amplifiers transitioned to solid state in the late 1960s. A handful of high end manufacturers continued to make vacuum tube based amplifiers. By the 1980s there were an increasing number of companies making pure or hybrid (part tube, part transistor) amplifiers. Tube gear became so popular McIntosh and Marantz have produced modern era reproductions of 1960s tube amplifiers. In short, a well designed tube amp sounds warm and wonderful. The downside is that they require periodic maintenance, and depending on the model, can be expensive to operate. A McIntosh 275 can cost hundreds to re-tube for example. Depending on use, this would be required every two or three years.
Vintage speakers can be all over the map. Some will still sound better than what you can buy new at the same price. Many fall well short of modern speakers. If you're building a system of both old and new, modern speakers are a fine choice. Unlike vintage turntables and amplifiers, modern speakers compete with or often exceed the performance of vintage ones.
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. Make sure you hear sound from each element, or "driver". Some early model speakers featured level controls. These can be very problematic on some speakers. As with controls on amplifiers and receivers, these can usually be recovered with cleaning. Unfortunately, for some early stereo speakers, notably those from Acoustic Research, these controls are highly failure prone, and will have to be replaced.
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. Otherwise, you risk damage that may be unrepairable.
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.
A turntable on the other hand, requires an amplifier and speakers in order to produce sound. In some cases, the amplifier might be contained inside the speakers.
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.
If you're using a modern amplifier that has no phono input, and you wish to use a vintage turntable, you must purchase an external phono preamp. These vary in cost from as little as $25, to hundreds. The quality of the preamplifier has a large influence on the sound quality of your records. This isn't a concern for vintage amplifiers and receivers, as all were manufactured with phono inputs.
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.
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 to 40 watt per channel vintage amp.
No, not the chant, it’s an electrical unit of resistance. Speakers are typically rated either 4 and 8 ohms. The latter is the most common. 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. A great infographic on how speakers work is here.
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 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. Especially important if you’re looking to fill a large space with sound. Ironically, a more efficient speaker does not necessarily mean better quality sound. Some of the most accurate speakers in the world are actually inefficient, and require a high performance amplifier.
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.
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.