How To Find Vintage Audio Equipment
Learn some general tips to search estate sales for used audio equipment.
Finding the right item and knowing when to buy can be difficult when dealing with audio equipment. But, if you have the right mindset and a little bit of knowledge, building your home entertainment system from scratch can be a lot of fun!
Having Fun With It
The most important thing is having the right expectations about why you're looking for audio stuff. For the most part vintage audio is all about the fun of building a system made from vintage equipment, it's not a quest to make the best system ever. It's all about finding things you haven't heard of or seen before and messing around with them in your system. For instance I had a vintage United Audio Dual record player that I bought for $20 at an Estate Sale that was also my first record player. I bought a needle for it and replaced the tone arm wires because they had worn out. The end result was a nice sounding record player that allowed me to listen to tons of old records I found at Estate Sales. We had a lot of fun messing around with it and learned alot about record players through owning it.
Now that I have owned a record player I have a much better idea about what to look for when I see one at an Estate Sale. And that really defines the process of learning through experience and remembering that if you don't have fun with it you won't do it long enough to find something good.
The Lucky Finds
Of course, what everyone hopes for is that they'll stumble across someone's long forgotten dusty old amplifier and take it home to find out it's worth thousands of dollars. Well, it's probably not going to happen, but it very well could happen, it happened to me! One day as I was sleeping I got a call from Kate saying she had found an amp that looked cool at an Estate Sale and it was called 'McIntosh' or something like that. Since I knew what McIntosh was in the audio world I said, buy it! What she knew nothing about but thought looked cool ended up being an MC2505 McIntosh Amplifier worth about $1,500 on Ebay. And the only reason we got it was because Kate thought it looked good, which is one of the keys to finding the really good stuff.
The Really Good Stuff Looks Really Good
This is probably the #1 reason you won't find hardly any audio stuff that's 'really good' at an Estate Sale. The good stuff generally looks as impressive as it sounds so there's little or no chance that it will get sold at the sale. But, even if you don't find that perfect item there's still a lot of quality audio equipment at almost every home sale that seems to sit unsold till the last day. If you're curious about it, give it a shot, it's part of the fun to just try things out.
Since you're probably not going to find a brand name item that is worth a lot of money, there are still some lessons to learn from all this that can help you find quality equipment.
Lesson #1 Build Quality
There are many facets to build quality but a few key things will get you started. If you're not sure about an item check the connectors on the back. Higher quality amplifiers and speakers will use gold plated binding posts to connect the speaker cables. Higher quality amplifiers tend to be heavier and better built because they tend to employ large toroidal transformers which on their own can weigh over 20lbs. They also will have a large amount of capacitance for power filtering which adds to the weight. In general weight is probably the most obvious and easy to test predictor of quality. For instance there is the Sony SCD-1, a vintage SACD player from the late 90's which weighs 55lbs. Whereas you're typical Sony CD player probably weighs 5-10lbs... Hmmm, why is this so heavy?? Because heavy = expensive!
Lesson #2 Name Recognition (Or lack of)
We've all heard of Sony, Bose, Beats by Dre and other major brands. But have you heard of Martin Logan, Krell, Magnepan, Parasound, or B & W (no not the car)? A lot of high end brands are niche items as you might expect due to their cost and impracticality. As such you've probably never heard of them. There are many rarities and one offs out there as well that you might just get lucky enough to stumble across, so don't do what we all do and be a brand snob when you're looking.
Lesson #3 It's Broken (can it be fixed?)
If it's big, heavy and broken, it might be relatively cheap, and you might walk away because it doesn't work. Well, it might cost a few hundred to repair, but it could easily be worth it even with that investment. Just think about what all your friends will say when they see your new 150lb amplifier taking up its own corner of your living room! It might be a little but of a hassle, but when I got my McIntosh amplifier it didn't work. It also took a long time to have it serviced. It works now, it sounds good and I still only paid $240 total on an amp worth $1500.
Lesson #4 Do you like it?
For many fans of home audio the look of the components is as important as the sound they produce. While they may seem outdated in some ways large amplifiers can be conversation pieces and they represent unique moments in the evolution of our understanding of electric circuits. In many ways the sound that older amplifiers produced was more a work of art than a scientific pursuit. So you can think of these as art pieces both visually and sonically. It's just one of the many ways we can enjoy the hobby of vintage audio and find treasure where others find trash. Sometimes you like how something sounds partially because you like how it looks, its just how the psyche tends to work.
Lesson #5 Component Matching
A really important consideration when building your system is matching components properly. You may find that a certain amplifier sounds a little bright and thin, well, try matching it with a source that has a darker more rolled off sound, like a record player. The quality and accuracy of sources and the quality of studio recordings has changed signigicantly over the years. Not to mention overall tastes in what sounds good. It's a good idea to have a component you know is very neutral to try and get a feel for the rest of the component in your system sound. Doing this can help you tune a system to sound exactly how you want it to even with components that don't have the perfect sound signature on their own.
One of the coolest things about audio as a hobby is that an amplifier from 50 years ago will work perfectly with a pre-amplifer/receiver from 2017. And the opposite is also true. To me that is cool and it makes vintage audio shopping all the more fun and practical. It's pretty amazing when you find something decades old and it actually still sounds great.
So remember to just have fun and don't worry about whether it's 'worth it', get it because you like it and all will be well with the world.
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