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Why Vintage Audio?: Exit to Vintage Street

My ecoustics colleagues and I often field questions about why we like vintage audio gear or prefer it to modern equipment. Let us explain why.

Exit to Vintage Street audioloveyyc hi-fi stereo system today

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. 


On loudspeakers

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.”

On amplification

There are great modern budget amplifiers too. Promoting distortion-prone vintage gear does not help good hi-fi shops that are under stress.”

On turntables

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. 

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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. 

KEF Calinda Loudspeakers
KEF Calinda: My “poor-man’s Linn Isobariks.”

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.

Price

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.

NAD 3140 Integrated Amplifier
NAD 3140: A throw-in when I bought Klipsch Quartets. I no longer own the Quartets, but I kept this

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.

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Sansui AU-555 Stereophonic Amplifier
Sansui AU-555: Passed on from my brother, who was given it by his boss in high school.

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. 

Klipsch KLF-30 Loudspeakers
Klipsch KLF-30: Bought from my friend Scott. We’d never have met in person and become friends if not for these.

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?

Define “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? 

ESS PS4A Loudspeakers
ESS PS4A: Second time’s the charm. First pair had after-market passives. Traded them for the perfect second pair.

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.

Style 

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.

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Denon DP-1200 Turntable
Denon DP-1200: Was looking online for a Denon, and this popped up on Facebook. The folks at the store are good people, and they always look after me.

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.

Craftsmanship

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.

Refinishing ADS-L1230 Loudspeakers
Refinishing: Bringing out the wood’s beauty on the new (to me) ADS L1230s, just like in the old days.

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.

Environmentally friendly

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.

DUAL 701 Turntable
Dual 701: Bought from an older gentleman downsizing before moving into a senior’s home. He threw in a Shure V15iii with busted stylus. No complaints!

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.

Supply

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. 

ADS L1230 Loudspeakers
ADS L1230: Found skulking in the corner of my local vintage shop. I sold the KLF-30s for these!

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. 

Story

I saved one of the best reasons to own vintage audio for last. 

Every vintage piece has a story.

Technics SA-500 Turntable
Technics SA-500: Given to me by my mom. Saved from 25+ years under her sofa.

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.

Technics SL-DL1 Turntable
Technics SL-DL1: Also, from my mom. Keeping it in the family.

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.

29 Comments

29 Comments

  1. Alan

    June 9, 2021 at 1:39 pm

    Great article. I stumbled into vintage audio after buying a Dynaco ST-70 at a friends estate sale. At the time I purchased it strictly as a piece of memorabilia, but my curiosity took hold and I just had to listen to it. Fast forward to many bargains found at thrift stores and I’m hooked on the chase to find the hidden diamonds that lurk out there.

    I’ve been blessed with some astonishing then state of the art finds in my journeys.

    1. A Nakamichi 1000ZXL Limited, the pinnacle of cassette deck technology. Found on an online classified site and purchased for less than $500USD.
    2. Sony SCD-777ES – One of Sony’s original SACD players, a behemoth weighing in at 55 lbs. Found at my local Goodwill for $75USD.
    3. KEF 105.2 speakers. Also found at Goodwill for $49USD.
    4. Nakamichi ZX-9 – Nakamichi’s flagship recording deck right after the 1000ZXL. Found on FB marketplace for $100.

    There are many, many more, but these are the jaw-dropping finds I have made. I included pricing because it helps illustrate that even after a full servicing you still come out ahead.

    Servicing is a key to this hobby and helps ensure that electronics repair businesses remain alive. It’s definitely worth establishing that relationship with a tech because it often turns into a fantastic source for leads on rare equipment. They know who owns what and can facilitate a conversation between those looking to buy/sell.

    While modern audio technology continues to evolve it tends to be heavily influenced by those seeking convenience and listeners in mobile or noisy environments. I’m unconcerned about a negligible (if any) amount of distortion if the main impediment to enjoyable listening is the noise around me or distractions in the form of multitasking. (Reading, web browsing, working)

    We’re at a technology point where the specifications are exceeding what our diminishing hearing can pick up. At a certain point the audio industry will have to come up with a new game to justify their prices. Whatever the source, format, or specification, I’m sure it will sound good to me when I record it on tape.

    • Ian White

      June 9, 2021 at 1:52 pm

      You found a Sony SACD player at Goodwill? OMG.

      Please share the address.

      Ian White

      • Alan

        June 9, 2021 at 2:36 pm

        It was the Goodwill off of 20th St in Houston, Tx. I randomly find high-end gear there.

        • Ian White

          June 9, 2021 at 2:56 pm

          Alan,

          I was in Houston all last week. Sigh. Great city.

          Ian White

    • Karl

      June 10, 2021 at 2:27 am

      Incredible finds! I’ve also found some treasures at Goodwill and on Craigslist: Harmon/Kardon PM655 integrated amp and matched TU915 tuner with champagne face for a total of $23 (GW), H/K CD91 cassette deck working and spotless for $6 (GW), a Yamaha DX7s synthesizer for $25 (GW), Opera Terza IIIa loudspeakers for $100 (CL), Rotel RT-830 tuner for $5 (GW). I also passed on some Magnepan speakers for around $50 which I kind of regret.

      After that first big score it truly is addictive, although I had to visit my local Goodwill once or even twice a day for a couple of years to get that “lucky.”

      I agree with your other points about building a relationship with a tech and making connections for buying and trading rare gear. It’s a really fun hobby for anyone who really appreciates music and great sound.

      • Karl

        June 10, 2021 at 2:33 am

        UGH, no way to edit comments! HARMAN / Kardon. That’s an inexcusable typo.

      • Eric Pye

        June 10, 2021 at 2:54 am

        Wow, some really great scores! And real dedication to the cause as well. Sad for collectors that the charity shops seem to have cottoned on to the prices good vintage can fetch, and in many cases aren’t even letting vintage out onto the floor, opting to sell on auction sites instead. At the same time, good for them and their causes.

  2. Jason Vega

    June 9, 2021 at 4:45 pm

    I’m a Sansui guy so what I do is purchase the gear and have been shipping them to qrxrestore.com for a complete restoration. My 9090DB is my most prized piece. I pit an ad on Nextdoor.com seeking vintage gear and a guy had it with the matching speakers he purchased them while stationed in Germany. He sold me all of it for $250 and threw in a vintage Akai microphone. 1k for the restore of the 9090 and I’d say it was a damn good find/investment!

    • Eric Pye

      June 10, 2021 at 12:55 am

      And there’s another great story!

  3. Jeremy Sikora

    June 9, 2021 at 5:49 pm

    My favorite comment regarding vintage turntables is from Bill Neumann, small business owner of FixMyDual a shop that restores/updates vintage Dual turntables. I asked “how do your vintage restored Dual 701’s compare with modern turntables?”….his simple response, “they don’t.”

    I love that answer

    • Ian White

      June 9, 2021 at 8:37 pm

      I’ve had similar conversations with Dave from Vinyl Nirvana. I know that $2,000+ new tables with the same cart are probably better than my 2 Thorens tables but I don’t care. They have lasted 30-40 years, use new arms, and sound utterly sublime to me.

      Ian White

    • Eric Pye

      June 10, 2021 at 12:55 am

      Am going to have to send my 701 in to Bill soon. Local repairs keep missing the mark…

  4. Darrin Behm

    June 9, 2021 at 9:10 pm

    Running 90s B&K gear, Thiel CS2.2 and a Thorens TD125/SME3009. very happy with it all. Well my new Marantz CD6007 really shines in the system.

    • Eric Pye

      June 10, 2021 at 12:51 am

      Vintage and new can play well together. My Oppo BDP-93 fits in with all the pre-’80s stuff very nicely.

  5. Ellen Pye

    June 9, 2021 at 10:55 pm

    I was delighted to see the reference to the present-day mantra for the circular economy, to ensure the survival of this wonderful planet: Repair, Restore, Re-use and appreciate before eventually recycling an item only if all else has failed.

    • Eric Pye

      June 10, 2021 at 12:50 am

      I’m certainly seeing benefits on the re-use and repair side. From you to me 🙂

    • Alan

      June 10, 2021 at 2:10 pm

      The ticking time bomb with vintage gear is the unobtainium of certain niche parts.
      There’s always work arounds for capacitors with strange specifications. Same for diodes, resistors, etc. What gets tricky is specialty ICs, logic items, laser opticals, tape heads, etc. You end up having to find and buy a “parts car” to have on hand and heaven help you if it’s a highly sought after item.

      A good relationship with a repair shop can help in finding these rare items.

      If you go my route and seek out complete, but broken items to have repaired I’d recommend immediately contacting a specialist to get in their repair queue. Case in point: A few years back my favorite Nakamichi tech had a 12 month backlog of work based upon the renewed interest in these decks!

      • Eric Pye

        June 11, 2021 at 2:57 pm

        Truth. My one worry with my ADS L1230 is that the soft-dome midrange goes. Sounds like replacements have become rare as hen’s teeth.

  6. Jimmy Ball

    June 9, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    Great article. I’m 48 and had no appreciation during my teens and early adult hood for vintage audio. I like many others, grew up with brands like sansui (my parents had a complete system) but I certainly didn’t appreciate it when new tech like CD formats were just around the corner. Now I have fully realized what I was missing after collecting a few vintage McIntosh pieces as well as some high end (for the time) speakers. It’s changed the way I listen to music. I feel more engaged with it plus it’s a great investment as vintage electronics rarely lose tremendous value over time.

    • Eric Pye

      June 10, 2021 at 12:49 am

      I appreciated it back in teens and early twenties, but not the way I do now. Back then it was just what was available. You’re right about not depreciating, and the quality is sure there!

  7. Jerome

    June 9, 2021 at 11:23 pm

    I am a shameless cheap bastard. Goodwill and garage sales for me. I found the sweet spot for cheap and abundant gear is anything name brand post-80’s. Silver face anything is way out of my price range. Receivers with 5-way speaker binding posts and decent watts (120wpc or better in 8ohms, 20-20). 8ohm, high efficiency speakers with, you guessed it, 5 way binding posts. Fault-free name brand turntables (automatic or auto-return bonus), CD players and cassette decks. Speaking of cassettes, pre-recorded tape prices are starting to climb but nowhere near where vinyl is now. CDs are where it’s at too, especially now that all these streaming services are fighting in the “lossless” market.

    • Eric Pye

      June 10, 2021 at 12:46 am

      A sound strategy (pun intended), serving you well it seems.

  8. John Phelps

    June 10, 2021 at 1:28 pm

    You make some great points, having owned both vintage a modern gear in my opinion turntable technology hasn’t evolved much if at all since the 80’s and amplification only incrementally.

    A few years ago, I bought a highly regarded, mid-priced modern integrated amp to replace my restored Yamaha CA-810 integrated from the late ’70’s. I was surprised to find that the sound wasn’t any better, I sold the new amp within a few months and kept the Yamaha.

    Although I certainly don’t want to see the few remaining hifi retailers struggle, they could definitely supplement their income by hiring technicians to repair and maintain vintage audio equipment, there is a huge pent-up demand for such services.

    • Eric Pye

      June 10, 2021 at 2:36 pm

      Couldn’t agree more about local shops diversifying into repairs. One of the most common question on many online audio groups is “Where can I find a good tech in (insert city name)?”

      • Ian White

        June 10, 2021 at 6:20 pm

        Some products need to go back to the company for service. That would definitely motivate my decision to purchase some vintage products.

        I’ve owned 5 pairs of MartinLogan ESLs over the years and I would buy an older pair of Aerius i again if I could get ML to replace the panels for a nominal fee. You need to do that with some speakers.

        Same deal with older Mark Levinson, Krell, or Naim amps. I would feel more comfortable knowing that a tech who can use the right parts and knows the products would do the servicing. Stores should have that level of expertise.

        Ian White

  9. Mark Kruger

    June 10, 2021 at 1:30 pm

    We are a brick and mortar audio/video store including two vintage audio service labs 25 miles South of Boston, Mass. There a number of things within the article I respectfully disagree with. The “quality” components manufactured in the 1960’s, 70’s were the basis for the demand of vintage audio we see today. In the past 10 years alone we have seen prices go through the roof due to this demand in all categories but amplifiers and receivers top the bill. Yes, some are plentiful but may need extensive service and restoration. Higher end speakers from AR, Boston Acoustics, A/D/S and numerous others do not “color” the sound as indicated within the article once brought back to factory specifications.

    We have three showrooms, vintage audio components can perform in harmony with modern day devices like the Bluesound Node2i family, AudioQuest cables and with our flagship brand of KEF speakers. The sound will blow you away!

    • Eric Pye

      June 10, 2021 at 2:34 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Mark. I agree with you on the quality of both ’60s and ’70s amps and speakers. I agree with you that a quality vintage speaker doesn’t colour sound. The quotes at the beginning of the article are ideas I was trying to counter; I certainly wasn’t agreeing with them.

      • Ian White

        June 10, 2021 at 6:17 pm

        Because the Quad ESL was so “colored” sounding. Sigh.

        Every loudspeaker has its own tonal balance and if you look at the best-selling “audiophile” loudspeakers like the Vandersteen 1Ci and 2Ce, they suffer from rather obvious colorations.

        I think we’ve touched a nerve with your column. Making people think about why they need to spend $20K on speakers vs $2K or $200 has some people upset.

        Ian White

  10. Ross Daisomont

    June 11, 2021 at 1:11 am

    I love the look and sound of the Vintage equipment. As a matter of fact I have 2 Bang & Olufsen Beogram 4002 linear tracking turntables for sale. I just have to get rid of them I’m so broke right now that I can’t even pay ..attention.
    These turntables are in perfect working order the plexiglass hoods are in perfect. The wood trim is ding free. They each come with an extra set of belts, platter and servo. A record clamp, and the needles are fine. You can also buy new needles for these turntables from soundsmith.com.
    They also come with synthetic oil for lubrication oh, and a quilted Bang and Olufsen cover.
    The re-release of these turntables were selling for $11,000 each. You can only one that works just as well for a fraction of the price. Please let me know if you’d be interested send me an email.
    Ross radioflyerband@hotmail.com

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