There are many ways to purchase vintage speakers. They can be purchased from a retail audio shop used or from a trade-in. Speakers can be purchased from social media marketplaces, thrift stores, and of course Craigslist. This week we’re going to focus on inexpensive speaker projects someone at any skill level can work on and end up with a solid sounding pair of loudspeakers.
The good thing about vintage speakers from the 1960s and 1970s was that the majority of them were very well made; most with solid wood or wood veneer cabinets. There are good vinyl examples as well. Contrary to a lot of budget and mass market equipment sold today, these speakers were designed to be serviced and not get tossed into landfills.
It is not just nostalgia that is driving the newfound interest in vintage components and speakers – companies built products to a very high standard and while parts have to replaced due to age, there is something to be said about products that last.
The most important thing is to purchase the right speakers. Inspect the overall condition; scratches are fine but crushed corners or major veneer damage most likely isn’t worth the effort unless it is a very desirable loudspeaker.
Look for water damage and/or mold and smell them. I’ve tried with great effort with cleaners to try to remove the cigarette smell from vintage speakers and been forced to throw them out when every attempt ended in failure.
Check the drivers for sound, and if the foam surrounds are intact. If the foam surrounds are cracked or suffering from dry rot, it’s not a deal breaker but remember to price these speakers accordingly.
Some great speakers to look for are 1970s models from Ohm, Burhoe, EPI (Epicure), Advent, DCM, and KLH; I’ve seen project versions of all of these brands from under $150.
Refinishing the Cabinets
Vinyl can be cleaned with the household cleaner of your choice. When dealing with wood speaker cabinets, there are several different routes that you can take depending on the condition of the wood.
In the “best” case scenario, we find a cabinet that is in great condition; no scratches, discoloration, or fading. Wood that is exposed to sunlight for long periods of time will certainly fade.
In this particular scenario, I recommend using Howard Products Feed N Wax. Over the years, I’ve tried other products but the results with the Howard wax have been uniformly consistent; the ultimate testimonial is that I use this product on my beloved Ohm F’s.
The next level involves fine scratches, sun fade, or years of neglect. It’s fair to say that this describes a lot of the vintage speakers you are likely to find. For these type of loudspeakers, I use Howard Products Restor-a-Finish which is applied lightly with ‘0000’ steel wool.
An antique dealer gave me a lesson which I’ve been using ever since. It is very easy to apply and extremely forgiving of mistakes. The first step is to select your color (I’ve accumulated a stable of 5 different shades – Cherry has become my default finish) and rub it on with the steel wool going with the grain. It is important to let it sit for a few minutes before wiping off the excess with a clean rag.
It’s also important to let it dry in a clean and cool room; humidity is not your friend in this scenario. Once the drying process is complete, you can seal the cabinet by applying some Feed N Wax.
Finally, if you find a vintage speaker with deeper scratches, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to sand. I’ve seen some people go crazy with sanding and forget that applied veneer is not very thick.
Do not get overly aggressive with your sanding and remember that you have to sand every surface of the cabinet if you want to achieve color consistency. Do not forget to sand the bottom of the cabinet (I know you can’t see it, but it will affect resale value).
The amount of time that you can invest in this scenario can be considerable, but a combination of sanding, staining, and finishing will pay serious dividends.
If the tweeters are both working, you’re in great shape. If that is not the case, open up the speaker and check the connections first as clips break and solder joints fail. You may need to swap out each tweeter and also check to see if there are any issues with the crossover.
If you need to buy replacement tweeters, it is not a big deal as there many online options like www.humanspeakers.com and of course eBay. If you decide to purchase new tweeters or midrange drivers, it’s always the smart decision to purchase a matching pair.
Bass drivers/woofers are a very different story. If your pair of vintage speakers have drivers with rubber/cloth surrounds, the easiest advice is to play them for a while at moderate volume levels to get them moving again.
They will continue to break in with use. If the surrounds are foam and brittle, I recommend a refoam. It might sound like a difficult process but it’s really not that hard if you practice first. There’s a company called Simply Speakers that I cannot recommend enough. Their refoam kits run about $20-25 and come with enough glue to do several sets.
There are other refoam kits available as well; I’ve just had 100% success with all the Simply Speakers kits so I’ve only used them. Their glue is slow drying and tacky which gives you some time to get it right. They also have videos on how to refoam and they are the best I have seen which makes them a great place to start.
The only thing I would add to their method would be to use a window glazing tool (can be found at a local hardware store or here) and/or a Dremel with a wire brush to remove the old surround and glue from the metal speaker frame. Saves time and a lot of elbow grease.
If your speaker has switches or dials to adjust the treble and midrange, clean them with Deoxit while you have it opened up, you’ll be glad you did.
I normally leave the binding posts original only adding “right angle spade forks” if the posts are the old school screws. These make it easy to attach cable or banana plugs without a screwdriver and a lot of hassle.
Grills and Emblems
I start by spot cleaning the grills. Sometimes that’s all you need to do. If they are ripped or permanently soiled don’t worry, recovering a grill is not that difficult. Again start by watching this video. Grill cloths can be found online, and original cloth comes up on eBay as well. As for emblems, stick with eBay.
I’ve found both original and near original reproductions there for just about every loudspeaker manufacturer.
Some are stickers that you just press right on, but others require the type of glue I recommend for the refoam process.
While it’s possible to find vintage speakers in excellent condition, there will be a much higher price tag associated with that purchase. There is a lot that you can do for less than $150 to bring a vintage speaker back from the dead and restore it to its original glory.