After reading the first two installments of my column, I’m sure it’s become obvious that I have a penchant for used and vintage audio. With the exception of a new phono cartridge that I recently added from Audio-Technica, I have never purchased a new piece of home audio equipment. Not ever. We did take the home theater plunge at one point, but the room was not well suited for all of those loudspeakers and we gave it away.
That being said, I have sourced used and vintage audio from almost every place imaginable. We’re going to go on a bit of a buying road trip this week in search of audio treasure but also discuss some of the important ground rules when you decide to take this path to audio nirvana.
Vintage and used high-end audio sounds like a really good idea to people; aside from the cost savings (although the prices for some used high-end components can be extremely high), people crave nostalgia. Not all nostalgia is all that it is cracked up to be, however. There are plenty of lemons in the vintage category. You need to do your legwork.
Before we hit the road, let’s talk about used audio equipment.
Remember to use your common sense when purchasing used electrical equipment. Always test the equipment if you can, and with a level of knowledge about the product or you’ll end up with an expensive doorstop. Just because it looks expensive, doesn’t mean that the product didn’t suffer a catastrophic malfunction at some point or was dropped during a move.
Do your research on the component so you know how to test it. If you have no testing skills or desire to learn how to test equipment properly, do not jump when you find a 60 year-old tube amplifier and just plug it into the wall. Older equipment that has not been tested or serviced in decades can be very dangerous.
What you should be looking for when you find an amplifier or receiver
- Does it power up and power down properly?
- Do both channels play?
- Do all of the inputs still function?
- Does the unit come with working switches, knobs, and buttons?
- What is the overall condition of the chassis, faceplate, loudspeaker terminals, power cord or IEC jack?
- Does the unit smell like smoke or mold?
- Is there any evidence of leakage inside?
- Are the power and output transformers in good condition?
- How secure are the jacks and have any connections broken free inside the chassis?
- Does the unit have any bonus features like a working equalizer, phono stage, tape input/output, and a pre-amp output so you can connect the unit to an external power amplifier in the future?
- If the unit utilizes vacuum tubes, are the sockets properly labelled and clean?
Even if you are comfortable and experienced enough to repair your own equipment, these are all things you need to know before agreeing to a transaction.
What you should be looking for when you find a turntable
Used or vintage turntables require a lot more investigation and you want to make sure that the following items are addressed before you decide to buy.
- Does the motor work properly? If the turntable is belt-driven, what is the condition of the pulley?
- What is the condition of the plinth? Has it suffered any physical damage?
- What is the condition of the feet and are they adjustable?
- Can you remove the platter without much difficulty?
- What is the condition of the sub-platter?
- Is the bearing in good condition? Once you place the platter on the bearing and give it a free spin, does it seat itself properly?
- Are replacement belts available?
- How does the turntable allow you to change speeds? Do you have to remove the platter and switch the position of the belt on the pulley, or does the turntable change speeds electronically?
- Do all of the switches work?
- Does the tonearm work? Does the unit come with instructions for setting the counterweight, and anti-skate?
- Does the tonearm come with the proper counterweight or multiple versions for different cartridges?
- What is the condition of the headshell? It is fixed or removable? What is the condition of the tonearm cable (both at the headshell and output jacks)?
- Is there a dustcover?
I know this sounds like a lot of items to investigate when buying a used or vintage turntable, but if you have to fix a lot of these items – it might be cheaper and less frustrating to buy a new one.
What about loudspeakers?
- What is the condition of the cabinet? Is it superficial damage or are there physical issues that could affect the sound quality?
- Is there any water damage or weird smell? Pass on these if there is.
- What is the condition of the drivers and do they work properly?
- If any of the drivers are broken, can you find a replacement?
- If the surrounds are damaged or brittle, are you willing to refoam them yourself?
- What is the condition of the binding posts?
I heard that audio cassettes and reel-to-reel are making a comeback like vinyl
I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but a lot of people still have a collection of pre-recorded tapes or mix tapes they made and want to play them or record new ones. Not everyone can afford a used Nakamichi Dragon or RX-505; restoring one of these high-end decks is expensive and finding parts may not be that easy as collectors are hoarding them – but there are some quality tape decks out there that might be worth checking out. You need to check the condition of the belts, motor, tape heads, and all of the buttons and functions.
Reel-to-Reel has made a comeback in the high-end world, but the prices for restored Akai, Sony, Revox, Teac, Technics, and Pioneer decks are pretty scary in 2021. This is one area where you need to do a lot of research before you buy. You can find used decks in decent condition but expect to spend some money bringing them back into perfect working order; replacing tape heads, motors, belts…it can turn into a money pit.
Where to Buy
There are specialist used high-end and vintage audio dealers, but that’s not our focus for this week as we have something special planned for when it’s safer for us to travel. Ecoustics Editor-in-Chief, Ian White, and I will be visiting some local dealers in New York, and New Jersey – and possibly visiting a factory or two.
High-end audio dealers will almost always have trade-in products but don’t expect too many rare finds that they are giving away.
One thing I have to mention before we go any further is that bad pictures and poor product descriptions do not mean that a product is not worth considering.
Bear in mind that a lot of vintage and used equipment has been sitting in basements, garages, attics, and in storage units owned by widows, retirees, and their families. These people might not have any idea what these components are, and they may not consider it important to whip out the DSLR and create photographic montages worthy of Robb Report.
I’ve purchased some excellent components that were mislabeled as “speakers’ when it was clearly an amplifier.
So where should you look?
- Some of the best inventory around
- Obscure pieces tend to show up quite frequently and the pricing may be advantageous
- Generous return policy
- Actual seller feedback (don’t be seduced by a ‘99’ rating – actually read the comments)
- Fraudulent postings are rare, but they do happen
- Shipping costs can be expensive
- Clarify packaging before you bid or pay – if someone claims to have the original boxes, ask for photographic evidence, and demand double-boxing. Reputable dealers selling you something rare and fragile will not balk for even one second at this request.
Craigslist/Facebook Market Place/Kijiji
- Incredible deals – I’ve made some of my best purchases this way
- Great way to find regional hi-fi
- Can be tested before purchase if the seller is close enough to pick the product up
- Scammers on both platforms (Marantz shipping scam currently rampant)
- Refreshing the sites constantly for new postings may become addictive
Reverb/Audio Mart/Canuck Audio Mart
- A lot of inventory from individual sellers, retailers, and collections
- Easier to find what you’re looking for
- Prices favor the seller – there are plenty of buyers and your lowball offer will be ignored
- Shipping costs will be higher
Smart record stores have begun to sell both affordable audio and used/vintage. It only makes sense as they have a captive audience and it’s hard to listen to a record without a turntable.
- Opportunity to test the equipment
- Some stores will offer a limited warranty
- Prices are negotiable (nobody wants things sticking around forever)
- A great way to support your local store
- Limited inventory
No – not off the guy who called you names on Twitter.
Instagram and Facebook Groups have proven to be excellent places to find used audio and vintage pieces from individual sellers. Retailers often post items they are trying to sell quickly, and you may find a bargain.
- Equipment which caters to specific groups
- Prices can be negotiated
- Can interact with sellers – if someone refuses to answer questions do not proceed
- Scams can occur (check “Friends” or “Followers” to help validate account)
- Shipping can be pricey
Goodwill and other Thrift stores can be a great place to find equipment, but they have become much more aware of the market, especially because of the resurgence of vinyl.
- Incredible deals if you’re lucky
- Limited if any stock
- Market prices as the companies are doing more homework and pricing products accordingly
Estate and Garage Sales
People tend to liquidate equipment when someone passes away or when they decide to empty the basement or garage. You can visit 10 garage sales in a single day and come away empty-handed or visit a single one and discover gold. It’s a lot of luck.
Pro tip: Don’t be the kind of person who takes advantage of someone’s grief or financial situation and give them $50 for an amplifier or loudspeaker they could sell for $200 or even more. Actually be a mensch and do the right thing. If you find a working McIntosh amplifier or Thorens TD-125 MKII turntable for $100 – pay them more or let them know that they should sell it to a collector. Karma is a thing.
If a quality piece of equipment is being sold during a garage sale or estate sale – there is usually something more that might be of interest. Ask!
I hope this helps starts you on your journey to purchasing vintage audio. As your experience builds, you’ll be more comfortable with the hunt. Do your research, look what others are running, ask how they like it, join and participate in audiokarma.org. Look at the “sold” “completed” auctions on eBay to see what market values are. As a beginner, the vintage audio community will always be welcoming and willing to answer questions.