A Buyer's Guide to Classic Audio.
Over the past few years, the resurgence of interest in audio equipment manufactured some three, four or even five decades ago has been nothing short of astonishing. Equipment that 10 years ago would have ended up on some come-and-collect-it-for-nothing website, is suddenly worth hundreds of pounds. I've personally experienced this when an e-bay seller admitted to me that the record deck, for which I had just paid £400 (in mint condition incidentally), had been hours away from being advertised on xxxx at zero cost to the collector. It was the postman who had alerted her to check out previous sales prices on e-bay to determine it's value, if any. Well Posty, you're dog-meat in my book...
Whether it's the resurgence of interest in vinyl that has had a hand in this price frenzy, or the extortionate cost of some brand new gear, I know not. For myself, I've learned never to underestimate the performance of vintage or classic audio from companies like Denon, Technics, Yamaha, Sony - the list is truly endless. And what about all those wonderful amplifiers and tape decks produced by the likes of Revox, Teac, and Nakamichi in the 80's? The Brits excelled at speakers – think Tannoy, Quad, Celestion and Bowers and Wilkins. Never expect less of a unit just because it wasn't made two months ago. It's an error of judgement so often made.
There is of course another price to pay buying vintage, other than the initial outlay. The X-factor. Is this amplifier going to work properly, how long will it go on for and who will repair it if and when it fails? These are all valid questions, so the object of this little series of articles is to give the newcomer contemplating buying classic audio a few pointers.
This is by no means a comprehensive reference of what to look out for when buying vintage audio, and individual models will often have their own quirks and issues, (usually caused by a sub-standard component during the manufacturing process), but I want you to avoid being too hasty before parting with the readies. Before purchase, "Google" the make and model, and sooner or later you will hit a blog or forum that may give you some idea of any inherent weaknesses.
An interesting point about audio in the 70's and 80's was that there existed virulent rivalry between manufacturers. This wasn't just confined to any one particular type of component by any stretch of the imagination, but competition to produce the best sounding and visually striking amplifier, turntable, and so forth was rife. This is not unlike the competition we have today between smart phone manufacturers, but was a hundred times worse (or better for the consumer). Even if products were uneconomical to produce such as the B&O Beogram 4000 and Sony PS-B80 turntables, they were still manufactured to show off the company credentials. I suppose the thinking was that there was a trickle-down effect of unbridled consumer admiration further down their product line to units that the public could actually afford, and the manufacturers afford to make! The Japanese and the US led the way here, but the Brits had some stabs at this too. Look at the stunning Lecson amplifier below and have you ever seen a Gale turntable?
How much should I pay for classic audio components. Why do some items command such high selling prices on internet auctions and Hi-Fi broker sites?
Reputation. If a particular turntable or amplifier has acquired a legendary reputation over the years for excellent performance. This is more often than not carried on a wave of enthusiasm and nostalgia for the manufacturer, as much as the product itself. Whether or not the reputation is fully justified, it's what the market currently thinks that counts.
- Rarity. If the item rarely appears on the second-hand market and is from a respected manufacturer, this will be reflected in the selling price. There may have been a short production run for some reason-perhaps because the company folded! On the negative side, it’s quite possible that a particular visually stunning design has proved vulnerable to age so not many fully working examples exist. Think Lecson amplifiers here. If the unit employed a single substandard component for instance, it could be that otherwise good examples were regularly thrown out for not working properly for a relatively minor, fixable fault.
- Unused. Very occasionally, sought after audio components which have genuinely never been used or even unboxed appear on the market. NOS (New Old Stock) is the magic term to look out for. An unused Garrard 301 for instance will fetch in the region of £2,500+. A Garrard 401, not that far behind. Prices can go way beyond this for other rare NOS or never unpacked rare audio gear.
- Condition. Cosmetics are often more important than full working condition. Repairing an amplifier internally is generally much easier than attempting to repair a scratched and damaged fascia or casing.
- Beautiful design. If it's going to look good in your living room, everyone will want one - a bit like a fit dude or gal really. Enjoying your music on vintage audio and Hi-Fi is about the whole experience. My advice is don't turn the lights off if a stunningly attractive Bang and Olufsen turntable is playing, regardless of other human distractions….they can wait for a more opportune moment.
- If it's an amp or a turntable. These items generally fetch higher prices than tuners, and especially cassette decks. The demand for the latter is just no longer there, seemingly regardless of quality and condition, they're available at give-away prices. The fear of possibly losing the FM frequencies in the UK may lower tuner and receiver (tuner-amp) prices in the UK further. CD players are falling a bit out of favour too, primarily because of the increasing popularity of downloads and the difficulty or impossibility of replacing worn lasers no longer manufactured. A problem people would rather not face.
- A speaker with original unadulterated perfect drive units is a good start. Often the drive unit cone surrounds, typically made of foam rubber, have begun to disintegrate with age. These surrounds can be replaced, but the performance of the speaker may be impaired if this difficult job isn't done expertly. Before buying, remove the speaker grilles and be sure to check the cones visually, as listening doesn't necessarily reveal the problem during the early stages of decay. Electrostatic designs don't suffer from this plight, of course.
- Universal voltage. If the mains voltage can be easily user adjusted, there is a worldwide market out there. Some equipment has become extremely desirable in the Asian market, especially from companies such as Radford, Marantz, EMT, Quad, Leak and there is thriving second-hand trade in East European countries too.
- Boxed with manuals. It's not that you just acquire another box to put in your loft! If the seller has taken the trouble to retain the manuals and the original packaging, the unit itself is unlikely to have been abused. It could be that it was left boxed and unused for a long time, which could be good or bad. See/hear the unit working if at all possible before purchase. Potentiometer tracks (volume, e.q controls and the like) oxidize over time, regardless of storage methods. The result will be "crackles" through the speakers when the controls are adjusted. These can normally be cleaned with an Isoproyl Alcohol switch cleaner, but the problem may recur.
- Private or commercial sale? Prices are generally much higher if you buy from a commercial seller, but this is still much better value than buying brand new. An established Internet “ used equipment broker” or an actual shop should only be selling items in full working order. In addition, you should get a money back guarantee and at least a 3 month warranty if there is something wrong. Private sales are generally “sold as seen”.
These are just guidelines, and just because you pay a high price for something doesn't guarantee a good purchase. Be careful about becoming too hyped up bidding for items on Internet auction sites. Look carefully at the photographs provided and ask for more if you have any doubts.
My rough estimation is that, if you take care buying and with a fair wind behind you, every £500 you spend on good classic gear, will give you results equivalent to spending at least £2000 on new gear. No VAT, importer, middleman or big retailer mark-up to pay for. Not bad eh?
Four examples of iconic classic audio. R-L, The Nakamichi TX1000 turntable, JBL L100 speakers, Yamaha NS1000M speakers and the Lecson FM1 tuner.