My ecoustics colleagues and I often field questions about why we like vintage audio gear or prefer it to modern equipment. We love it, but not everybody does.
Our Editor-in-Chief, Ian White, got the following message (paraphrased) in response to a recent social media post on LinkedIn from someone in the high-end audio industry.
“Modern high-end speaker manufacturers have excellent budget models with up-to-date technology. Vintage speakers are boxy and highly colored. We don’t buy music to listen to our speakers; we buy speakers to listen through them.”
“There are great modern budget amplifiers too. Promoting distortion-prone vintage gear does not help good hi-fi shops that are under stress.”
“Most old turntables are also sub-par performance-wise. Steering people to the used gear market is not progressive or helpful.”
I won’t argue that there is some really great modern, budget audio equipment out there; we feature it on a daily basis on this website. More than any other consumer A/V website if we’re being completely transparent.
Affordable audio and vintage audio were the two most popular categories on this website for the first 5 months of 2021. By a huge margin.
The same people upset that we’re writing about vintage audio are the same people promoting $20,000 loudspeakers, $3,000 Ethernet cables, and $5,000 power line conditioners as “affordable” high-end audio components that offer great value.
Some people need a reality check.
I will also agree that some vintage speakers, amplifiers and turntables are lacking in quality. But to paint all vintage equipment with that brush is plain wrong.
It’s ironic that the same generation of audio reviewers who told consumers in the 1980s and 1990s that it was perfectly normal to spend $10,000 – $20,000 on Mark Levinson, Krell, Spectral, Threshold, Wilson Audio, Apogee, MartinLogan, and Conrad-Johnson equipment are suddenly having issues with a new generation of audio reviewers trying to help newbies enjoy music in 2021 with equipment from 1960-1990.
Many of the products that are considered “modern vintage” are incredibly good; they were considered state-of-the-art at one point by every major stereo magazine in the world.
Is it a brand thing? Are certain vintage brands not considered part of the cool club?
I don’t think it’s a snob thing as most of these high-end reviewers thought highly enough of these vintage products to own them themselves.
Raise your hand if you would prefer to own a multi-room Sonos system over a pair of iconic Quad ESLs, a Linn LP-12, or a vintage Luxman, McIntosh, Audio Research, Aragon, Croft, or Mark Levinson amplifier.
The silence is deafening.
A big reason for featuring vintage equipment on ecoustics is to help those drawn to older equipment make wise choices. We want to help consumers of both modern and vintage equipment select quality pieces that meet their needs and avoid mistakes when pulling the trigger on a purchase.
Buying vintage can mean sacrificing sound quality. Not always though. Not if you know what’s up.
Here are some of the reasons this audio lover chooses vintage equipment over modern. I’ll talk mostly about amplifiers to keep things focused, but much of the logic described here applies equally to turntables and speakers.
Vintage is often cheaper than modern, even when considering “entry level” modern equipment. With modern two-channel amplifiers for example, the entry point for anything audiophile is probably in the $400-$500 range. Pretty much anything cheaper is going to bring sacrifices in sonic quality and features.
Pickings in the entry-level amplifier tier are slim once you get through products like the NAD C 316BEE V2, or Cambridge Audio AXA35, and then there’s a pretty big jump in price to the next tier, and an even bigger one to the next. Pretty soon you’re looking at silly money. Car money.
With vintage there’s a huge variety of quality equipment available at budget prices. Our Contributing Editor Jeremy (aka @budget_audiophiler on Instagram) has written extensively about his hunts and finds — and some of the quality pieces he’s picked up. Yes — there are exceptions with hot brands like Marantz, McIntosh, Sansui, Luxman, Accuphase and Pioneer commanding substantial premiums, but there is some real quality flying under the affordability radar.
Focus on analog and doing one thing well
In the “golden era” of (now vintage) audio from the mid/late ‘60s to the early/mid ‘80s, amplifiers had to do only a limited number of things. They took in signal from a turntable or two, a tuner, and perhaps a tape deck, amplified it, and sent it to speakers.
Manufacturers used quality transistors, capacitors, and other parts in relatively simple circuit designs. Advances year-to-year were incremental, and it took a few product cycles for a piece to become “obsolete.”
Not to mention there was no need to update firmware.
Modern amplifiers are the equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife. Even ignoring multi-channel and focusing on two-channel amps, current equipment has to deal with far more than amps of old: RCA or XLR, eARC HDMI, digital inputs, DACs, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, headphone amplifiers, phono stages, internet radio, and streaming.
Adding all of these features adds cost to the product; and do consumers even use all of them? In the case of AVRs in 2021, consumers rarely use even 1/3rd of the features included – all they want to do is enjoy their favorite movies, television shows, and music with a minimum of fuss.
Does modern really sound better?
Some audiophiles prefer a warm sound; some like greater transparency with an emphasis on detail. Some like full, thunderous bass; some prefer bass that is quick and taut. Some like tubes; some like solid state. Some like “coloured” (distortion); some like neutral. Some like West Coast; some like East Coast; and some like British.
Does “accuracy” always mean better? Some people will jump up and down screaming “it’s the only thing that matters.”
A greater degree of accuracy in regard to tone and the spatial characteristics of a recording are two very important things to listen for.
Nobody should pretend that those two things don’t matter.
But do you enjoy how music sounds on your system? Does it move you emotionally?
If you have a preference for one sonic signature or another, you can build a modern system to capture it. You can also build a vintage system.
This one’s a draw folks.
Something I’ve noticed of late is a resurgence in nostalgia, including among certain audio brands. Mid-century modern furniture is big. Barbers, straight razors, fountain pens, journaling, horn-rimmed glasses, diners have all made comebacks.
The mainstream media stopped talking about vinyl and turntables over 20 years ago – and now it’s a weekly feature in every publication.
Numerous audio manufacturers have reached back to the past for design ideas. JBL, Klipsch, KLH, Wharfedale and others have released modern versions of their best-selling vintage speakers in the last few years. Leak and Cambridge Audio have done the same with their current range of amplifiers. I’m sure there’s more to come.
And how much more nostalgic can you get with audio equipment than the real thing? A classic Marantz receiver and Thorens turntable on a Knoll credenza? Large Altecs on either side of your room under Sputnik lamps viewed from an Eames chair?
Bonus points for wall-to-wall avocado-green shag carpet.
Vintage audio equipment was built to last. In an era where an amplifier, turntable and speakers were viewed as investments, manufacturers built for longevity and owners cared for their electronic treasures.
Metal faceplates were buffed. Wood veneer was polished. Care and attention were paid when moving. Packaging and instructions were saved in attics. Many vintage pieces that come onto the market today are in pristine condition; barely changed in the 40-60 years since they were once new.
Sound quality, style, craftsmanship and price aren’t the only things dictating a preference for modern or vintage. Choice will also be influenced by more intangible factors.
I’m convinced that one of the attractions of vintage equipment for younger audiophiles (and a lot of us older ones) who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of 20-plus years of climate change, recycling, green marketing, sustainability, and environmental friendliness is the fact that purchasing a vintage audio piece means one less new item manufactured, and one less old one in the landfill.
There are a lot of plastic pieces of audio/video garbage in landfills all over the planet. Millions of products that were tossed for the next new thing.
And while buying vintage may mean jobs lost in manufacturing and sale of new products, it also means jobs gained in vintage equipment repairs and retail.
This is not a forever situation, but I took a look today on Amazon Canada for new integrated amplifiers. There were a lot, but the vast majority were out of stock. COVID has wreaked havoc on supply chains across almost every industry.
Then I went on eBay, Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace. eBay is national/international. Kijiji and Marketplace are local only. Searched integrated amplifiers. Pages of results, all immediately available. Some inexpensive and others overpriced, but the supply was there.
The situation will end when the pandemic is finally over, but for now there is no shortage of excellent vintage equipment available.
I saved one of the best reasons to own vintage audio for last.
Every vintage piece has a story.
It may be the story told by the grandfather of scrimping and saving and treasuring as he passes his receiver on to his granddaughter. Or the story told by the current owner of how she pulled an amp from a dumpster and repaired it and taught herself to solder and read schematics along the way. Or the story of the army veteran who bought speakers while stationed abroad, telling how he carved his ID number on the back to mark ownership. Or the story of the madcap, outside-the-box-thinking crazy man who designed a new pre-amp and couldn’t get loans to build it until some equally crazy benefactor happened along and backed him.
There are other stories, but you get the idea. It’s amazing to own something and know where it came from, who built it, who owned it in the past, and the path it took to you. That scratch on the case can be repaired or left as reminder. That nick in the faceplate adds character when you know how it got there. And you’ll pass on the story to friends and family and the person who gets it next.
Are you sold?
I am. This is why I’m a fan of vintage audio. This is why I’m happy seeking out and finding 45-year-old turntables and 50-year-old amps and 40-year-old speakers. This is why I love sitting in my basement every night spinning records, enjoying the shag, writing about it on ecoustics, and posting it on Instagram at @audioloveyyc.