Are you looking for decent home audio? Unsure about spending upwards of $100 for a “reasonable” sounding iPod dock or 2.1 speaker system, but not got the money for a brand new stereo amp? You might just find yourself blown away by the second-hand market.
For the money you put in, an old vintage audio amp has the potential to provide way more bang for your buck than a modern active speaker system. If “character” excites you and the thought of a “project” invokes delight at the thought of hours in the garage, inspecting capacitors and cleaning connectors then you will fit right in here.
Here are some tips for the newcomer looking for quality audio on the cheap.
The vintage amplifier market can be very kind to you if you keep an eye out for a bargain. Usually the word “vintage” refers to antiques, early sports cars, tweed jackets and strong cheese but I’m going to apply it more loosely here to describe old audio equipment from the late 60s all the way up to the late 80s, with a few exceptions to be made for early 90s models too.
In order to build yourself a decent home audio setup you will need at least two components – an amplifier and a pair of speakers. For source audio you can simply use a computer, TV (more on this later) or even MP3 player or smartphone. Getting hold of old tuners, CD players and turntables isn’t out of the question, but if you’re a digital convert withyou are unlikely to invest in a cassette deck any time soon.
As home audio began to drastically improve in the late 60s, the 1970s heralded a golden age of audio equipment. Solid state amplifiers established themselves as affordable high-fidelity equipment, and while many prefer valve amplifiers for their warmer sound and higher dynamic range; solid state should not be ruled out.
In fact solid state amplifiers run cooler, require less maintenance, are easier to transport and to a newcomer will sound great compared to cheap PC speakers. Remember that a high-end valve amp will show just about any solid state up for what it really is, but a second hand solid state amp has far more chance of coming into your possession as an absolute bargain.
To determine if an amp or set of speakers is worth your money you will need to sharpen your search skills and check out forums like AudioKarma and AVForums. Certain brands (Sansui, Luxman and Marantz to name but a few) hold their value better than others (Teac, Sanyo, Onkyo) but aren’t necessarily “better”. Even an unheard of model sitting at the back of a thrift store might delight you with a light and clean performance worthy of any entertainment system. Oh yeah, be warned – this is addictive territory.
Digital Meet Analogue
Before continuing it’s worth pointing out one potential problem we have now that everything is digital, rather than analogue. If you have a recent television, games console and even DVD or Blu-ray player then you will probably be dealing with digital audio. One thing that analogue amplifiers don’t know what to do with is a digital signal.
This explains why top of the line AV receivers offer a huge amount of digital inputs, but most deal with a 5.1 or 7.1 setup with an emphasis on visual media rather than traditional stereo. While there’s nothing stopping you searching for a used AV receiver that’s digital-ready, these devices have not been on the market for anywhere the same amount of time and thus you won’t be able to find such great bargains (and then you have to buy seven speakers and a separate sub-woofer).
To get around this problem you will need to convert the digital signal to an analogue one using a device known as a DAC, or digital to analogue converter. These range from cheap-o $20 eBay models to hi-fi components that cost thousands. The truth of the matter is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get decent sound, though the more you spend the better it gets.
Seeing as you’re probably on a budget, reading an article about budget vintage audio, brands like FiiO (try the D3) and the slightly more expensive Muse will do the job, just make sure you’ve got the right output on your TV or other equipment as well as the necessary cables to connect everything.
Grabbing a Bargain
As with any eBay auction there are things you can do to improve your chances of a bargain. Late bids are always recommended to avoid pushing the price up early, but also mis-categorised items tend to be overlooked by many bidders. eBay has a lot of categories that can fit an amplifier, so be sure to check in “Receivers” and “Hi-Fi Systems” as well as “Amplifiers”. The “Vintage Electronics” category is also a great place to look, and many bargains have been had due to the seller’s mis-categorisation.
Vintage audio electronics, particularly solid state amplifiers, are heavy. In fact you’ll be hard pressed to find a silver-faced 1970s model that weighs less than 5 KG, and that might end up costing more in postage than the final auction price. Limit the competition by looking for used items, within your locale, that specify pick up only. This isn’t a sure-fire way of getting hold of what you want, but it will definitely reduce the number of potential bidders.
Once you’ve found a bargain, you will need speakers too. Don’t forget to factor that into your final price, and it doesn’t hurt to know a thing or two about impedance which is measured in ohms. For a detailed explanation check out this article, but you’ll basically want to match the recommended impedance of your amp (say 8?) to speakers of the same rating. Doing it wrong can (and will) damage the amplifier, so be careful. Similarly, connecting speakers designed to handle less wattage than your amplifier provides might result in blown speakers.
Speakers are the most important link in the chain, and a good amp will still sound crap with rubbish speakers (though the opposite is also true). The second hand speaker market is often just as compelling as the vintage amplifier market, and again your likelihood of a bargain depends on locale, market and your ability to spot something others have missed. When it comes to speaker cable, they’re virtually all the same (shock horror) and unless you’ve got a pair of $30,000 floor-standing behemoths you will want to use the following guide:
- Under 4.5 metres – 1.3 mm (16 AWG)
- Under 9 metres – 1.7 mm (14 AWG)
- Over 9 metres – 2.0 mm (12 AWG)
AWG stands for American wire gauge, and is a standardised system for measuring the diameters of wire that conduct electricity. The further away from the amp you place your speakers, the thicker the wire you will need.
Finally you might find that your new amp demands a clean. Crackling volume or tone controls mean a dirty connection and for that something like DeOxit contact cleaner (or equivalent) will do the trick. It’s not cheap stuff, but once purchased it can live in the garage and you can use it to clean all sorts of electronics. For cleaning dust a soft, new paintbrush and careful use of a vacuum cleaner should remove most undesirables, and you should ideally avoid canned air due to the temperature at which it leaves the can and the number of contaminants it contains. According to some, a leaf blower works too.
A decent vintage amp and capable speakers are bound to provide more bounce, joy and volume than a similarly priced new pair of laptop speakers. With a DAC you can export the digital signal from your TV, Blu-ray player or even laptop and enjoy far better sound than what your TV can provide.
Before long you’ll be trawling eBay on a nightly basis, looking for decades-old stereo equipment as your significant other laments the loss of attic, living room and garage space. You have been warned!
Have you got a vintage home setup or the eBay bug? Let us know all about it in the comments, below.