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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” brings you joy Beginner's Electronics: 10 Skills You Need to Know Beginner's Electronics: 10 Skills You Need to Know Many of us have never even touched a soldering iron - but making things can incredibly rewarding. Here's ten of the most basic DIY electronics skills to help you get started. Read More at 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.

Why Vintage Audio?

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 60s all the way up to the late 80s, with a few exceptions to be made for early 90s models too.

Image credit: Jim Whimpey via Flickr

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) smartphone with a streaming service, or old MP3 player. Getting hold of old tuners, CD players and turntables isn’t out of the question, but if you’re a digital convert with terabytes of music you 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 still prefer valve amplifiers for their “warmer sound” and higher dynamic range; solid state should not be ruled out.

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Image credit: Shane Gorski via Flickr
Image credit: Shane Gorski via Flickr

In fact solid state amplifiers run cooler, require less maintenance, are easier to transport and 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 at an affordable price. Better still, you might snag 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 Entertainment On The Cheap: The Most Affordable Ways To Set Up A Home Theater Entertainment On The Cheap: The Most Affordable Ways To Set Up A Home Theater While plenty of pricey pre-built solutions exist, there are a few ways to bring a streaming box of entertainment to your living room on the cheap. With the right some open source media software, a... Read More .

Be warned: collecting old stereo equipment can be an addictive hobby. Before you know it you’ve got more amps than you know what to do with, and the illusion of a bargain becomes more enticing than using your equipment to actually listen to music.

Digital Meets 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 Blu-Ray Technology History and The DVD [Technology Explained] Blu-Ray Technology History and The DVD [Technology Explained] Read More then you may be restricted to digital audio outputs. One thing that analogue amplifiers don’t know what to do with is a digital signal. The iPhone 7 is a recent example No Stereo Jack, No Problem: Why the iPhone 7 Sounds Great No Stereo Jack, No Problem: Why the iPhone 7 Sounds Great It's official -- Apple has removed the standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the iPhone 7. But don't worry, this is a good thing. Read More of how analog output will soon be a thing of the past.

This explains why top of the line AV receivers offer a huge amount of digital inputs, built for 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound with an emphasis on visual media rather than traditional “analogue” 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.

You then need to buy seven speakers and a separate sub-woofer and find somewhere to put them. For listening to music, two good speakers and a decent amp will do just fine.

Image credit: Stefan Kellner via Flickr
Image credit: Stefan Kellner via Flickr

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.

FiiO D3 (D03K) Digital to Analog Audio Converter - 192kHz/24bit Optical and Coaxial DAC FiiO D3 (D03K) Digital to Analog Audio Converter - 192kHz/24bit Optical and Coaxial DAC Digital To Analog Converter Buy Now At Amazon $19.99

Seeing as you’re probably on a budget, reading an article about budget vintage audio, brands like FiiO (try the $20 D3) and the slightly more expensive $50 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.

Black Tda1543x4 DIR9001+4X TDA1543 Parallel Connect Dac Muse with Power Supply Black Tda1543x4 DIR9001+4X TDA1543 Parallel Connect Dac Muse with Power Supply Package includes 1 pc Black Tda1543x4 DIR9001+4X TDA1543 Parallel Connect Dac Muse with Power Supply Buy Now At Amazon $55.50

Grabbing a Bargain

As with any eBay auction there are things you can do to improve your chances of a bargain 10 Tips to Shop on eBay Like a Boss 10 Tips to Shop on eBay Like a Boss These 10 eBay tips will help you optimize your searching and bidding to save you a lot of money on the items you're looking for. Read More . 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 Audio and Video” category is also a great place to look, and many bargains have been had due to the seller’s mis-categorisation.

Image credit: Michael Coppola via Flickr
Image credit: Michael Coppola via Flickr

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. Check out the same eBay categories in addition to “Vintage Speakers” and keep in mind there’s a lot of old car speakers to sift through while searching. Don’t forget to factor this into your available budget, 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. Most amplifiers specify suitable speakers on the very back of the unit, but a quick search online should also provide some information if you need it.

Image credit: Michael Pieracci via Flickr
Image credit: Michael Pieracci via Flickr

Speakers are the most important link in the chain, and a good amp will still sound bad with if the speakers aren’t up to scratch (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 Keep An Eye On The Best Deals With The eBay Extension For Google Chrome Keep An Eye On The Best Deals With The eBay Extension For Google Chrome While it is always advocated that you compare prices and discounts across multiple online shops, it is also true that some of the best deals can be had on eBay. After all, (with due apologies... Read More 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. You can really cheap out on speaker wire if you haven’t got a particularly grand setup — even Amazon Basics will do the job.

AmazonBasics 16-Gauge Speaker Wire - 100 Feet AmazonBasics 16-Gauge Speaker Wire - 100 Feet 100 Feet of 16-gauge speaker wire Buy Now At Amazon $10.99

Finally you might find that your new amp requires a bit of 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.

Hosa D5S-6 CAIG DeoxIT 5% Spray Contact Cleaner, 5 oz. Hosa D5S-6 CAIG DeoxIT 5% Spray Contact Cleaner, 5 oz. Cleaner Buy Now At Amazon $10.75

For cleaning dust a soft, new paintbrush and careful use of a vacuum cleaner should remove most undesirables. As is the case with many electronics, you should 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.

Image credit: Chung Ho Leung via Flickr
Image credit: Chung Ho Leung via Flickr

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? Let us know all about it in the comments, below.

  1. Ben
    July 14, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    I have been addicted to retro audio for many years, have had plenty of garage "walls of sound" worthy of neighbourhood disputes..
    Currently I'm running my sharp gf 777z into a Technics SU-810 with very loud 70's 4 ways. Home made.. I can't crank it over 4 without the neighbours complaining. Lmfao.
    It's perfect, takes the ipod and microphone for karaoke.
    Just perfect

  2. Ian
    April 3, 2016 at 10:07 pm

    I'm using an Acer Netbook as my source running dead-beef which outputs through a Cambridge audio DAC MagicXS. Then into 40 year old Marantz 2215b which I purchased for £20, 30 years ago. 2 pairs of speakers are connected (a pair of Memorex 205's and a pair of Pioneer CS353's) as the Marantz can power 2 pairs. I added the Memorex and constructed a simple crossover to give the sound a little more bass response as\the Pioneer's were a little bass light. Positioned the Memorex's under the Pioneer's (which are on wall brackets) the sound is nothing short of very good, to be honest I don't think I could improve on the sound without spending loads of hard earned money. My Flac collection now sound as good if not better than my CD collection (think the DAC may have something to do with that) and I can also enjoy my mp3 collection without the use of headphones. I've grown up with the Marantz , and it still looks good, (just given it a makeover and all it's sexy blue lights have been restored as well as all the switches cleaned, a good clean inside and she was good to go). will we be saying that about modern gear in 40 years time i wonder? Great write up BTW. Imop For anyone on a budget Vintage is the way to go.

    • Tim Brookes
      April 4, 2016 at 1:33 am

      Hi Ian,

      Thanks for contributing to the thread. I've been looking for a cheap but not terrible DAC for a while, would you recommend the MagicXS? I see I can get it for a decent price, but most people I've spoke to tell me that the DAC (specifically a cheap DAC) is the weakest link in the chain.

      I read an interesting article recently (I forget where) about how modern manufacturers put a lot of their R&D dollars into adding new technologies (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi etc) rather than actually improving sound quality, which is why vintage audio is such a good option. Unlike good sound quality, many of these technologies will eventually be useless; so for this reason I doubt we'll see today's "affordable" audio equipment in such a positive light in 40 odd years!

      • Ian
        April 4, 2016 at 6:01 pm

        Hi Tim,

        To be Honest I haven't listened to too many DAC's, before I took the plunge I was using the Netbook's headphone output as a signal into the Marantz, and I was experiencing a little background hum on quiet passages, which I was not getting from my CD player. The Flacs I'd ripped from my CD's didn't sound as good as the actual CD. Now the Cd player is also getting on a bit at 17 years old and to be honest is probably not the best I've heard through the Marantz (it's a Sony XE220) but it was a definite improvement on the Netbook's soundcard. I tried outputing bit perfect through the soundcard to no improvement so I looked around for an affordable DAC, I chose the Magicxs mainly because it was asynchronous as well as a headphone amp and would playback 16 and 24 bit up to 192khz. I was not disappointed. The background hum has disappeared it has widened the sound-stage and added a little punch to the midrange. I'm also now able to play the few 24 bit files I have at their native resolution. On the Marantz it sounds good to me and better than the CD player. Whether it will improve to that extent on all vintage equipment I have no idea but for me it worked I'm one happy bunny. One thing though I find it sounded better on my linux Netbook than on My Windows 7 laptop, on that I use foobar 2000 but it was harder to set up the magicxs for bit perfect playback than it was on the linux machine using deadbeef. The real noticeable thing for me was using the Magicxs as a headphone amp it really hits the mark. Before I chose this route of audio playback I was surfing the Net hoping to find an affordable solution, I came across this site, it was after reading it I decided to try the route I took. So thanks to you in part I know have a sound system I'm happy with.

  3. Milton
    February 26, 2016 at 3:49 am

    Where can I fine online excellent quality vintage stereo component pieces to built my own rack system ?

    • Tim Brookes
      March 7, 2016 at 3:42 am

      eBay or dedicated second-hand retailers. You'll find the bargains on eBay though.

  4. Joe Bloggs
    June 6, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    I purchased a pair of 80's Warfdale XP2's and a Marantz PM44Se amplifier for about £75 from ebay, connected the amp to my desktop. Possibly not the best set-up in the world but I have access to all the music I could ever ask for and by downloading at 254 bps I can't tell the difference between my CD player and the music I've downloaded.

  5. darren donaldson
    March 9, 2015 at 5:05 am

    I gota Spec-4 pioneer amp, I've been through MANY preamps, I originally had a Marantz 3600 hooked up, and it had speaker switching, so the amp fed back into the pre-amp for speaker control, it was great, until it wore out. I can't find anything imilar to the bass punch the two made together. What would be a few preamps to try? I prefer a lot of thump to my music, so loudness is a button I want to see!

  6. sunrayjack
    January 10, 2015 at 1:28 am

    I started buying vintage gear on ebay, but my first buy was a pioneer sx-750------WOW!
    Bought at the flea market for 50 bucks and works perfectly.
    Sine then I acquired numerous speakers, Wharfedales,Klipsch, Vintage scott's rare and not the best sound.
    That is until I roomed the ton of insulation, put some batting in it's place and replaced the 15 inch drivers with Vintage 15 inch drivers off of e bay, now they will blow you away.
    Sometimes I buy the speakers just for the cabinets and mix and match with vintage speakers from the 60"s and 70's.
    You just can't beat the sound, I have found the old Kenwood receivers from the 70's sound the best to me.They have a mid range adjustment as well as bass and treble,along with several filter switches.
    There is nothing like walking up to the receiver with God Smack playing at about 4 and reaching out taking control of the sound with a knob between your fingers as you bring that bass down, adjusting treble and midrange at the same time, IT'S a religious experience you will not believe, if you haven't experienced it before.
    WARNING, this could be harmful to your hearing, you could suffer from great sleep deprivation, due to the inability to shut the system down and get needed sleep.
    Your video games could become obsolete and you are in danger of learning the truth, the truth that has been hidden from you----------------------MUSIC is for listening too, Not watching.
    By the way 4 is as loud as the 18 by 22 bedroom can handle.

  7. Joe Visconti
    March 5, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    I love my vintage audio. My setup, when it was new, would have cost me at least $1500. As it stands I got it all for around $200, receiver, turntable, speakers. The most expensive part was a DAC that I use to run my htpc through the auxiliary ins that I wouldn't really even need if I didn't want that connection. My bedroom rig ran me $60 (receiver, speakers and ipod line out cable) and completely flattens any cruddy dock.
    The best part (aside from how good it sounds) is that because of the metal and wood finishes, none of it looks out of place among our furniture.
    That said, if you can't fix it yourself, find a reputable tech, if you're buying the collector stuff like Marantz or Sansui.

  8. Ian Hart
    March 3, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    I have hooked up my 70's Hi-Fi via a M-Audio 2496 sound-card, Line in/out with RCA's going into an Audiolab 8000A Amplifier and Tannoy Mayfair speakers.
    The sound card has a digital line in and a midi interface for musical instruments.
    Sounds amazing!

  9. Ivan Tomasovic
    February 28, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    cant have a proper man cave without this kind of equipment!

  10. Scott Macmillan
    February 28, 2013 at 9:44 am

    This is the way I buy.I have a superb system that would have cost me high thousands when it was new.The sound is exceptional and everyone who visits gushes over it and wants to fiddle with it.

  11. Réy Aétar
    February 28, 2013 at 8:24 am

    beast with a beauty

  12. Nevzat Akkaya
    February 28, 2013 at 7:03 am

    I don't miss the old equipment, I don't even like them comparing to newer devices, they seem bulky and beast.

    • dragonmouth
      February 28, 2013 at 5:24 pm

      "they seem bulky and beast."
      That they are but as in automotive engines "There's no replacement for displacement." The less displacement an engine has, the harder it is to get horsepower out of it. When was the last time you have seen a rock band using breadbox-sized speakers?

      I have a pair of Wharfdale speakers that are about 40 inches high and weigh close to 75 pounds each. With a good amplifier driving them, they will literally blow the doors off most "modern" speakers. I use them only at very low volume because at higher settings the air vibrations become painful.

      Thanks to people like you who insist on miniature everything, the great audiophile equipment of the last century can be obtained for next to nothing.

      • Nevzat Akkaya
        February 28, 2013 at 5:44 pm

        Well, you made a very good point dragonmouth. It seems everything has a proper place to use.

      • Scott Macmillan
        February 28, 2013 at 8:04 pm

        I totally agree.

    • Scott Macmillan
      February 28, 2013 at 8:03 pm

      New ones are unable to even come close to reproducing the sound of a very good receiver and speakers.

    • Tim Brookes
      February 28, 2013 at 11:55 pm

      You're right to an extent - they're bulky, they're heavy, they take up a lot of space and there's a chance they might die at any moment.

      Then again, they sound incredible for the money you put in and there's always another bargain waiting round the corner at a charity shop, on eBay or at garage sales. When you compare what you can get second-hand to most Best Buy/PC World 2.1 systems the difference is unbelievable.

      In fact the worst thing about buying old hi-fi equipment is that it becomes rather addictive...

      • Oiche_Shamhna
        March 5, 2013 at 10:35 pm

        I agree this is the way to go. I started with a vintage NAD system and got good money on the resale but with 2 channel only, I wanted more to make a home theater.
        I would say there are exceptions and you have to think what are you going to use it for. Just stereo music? Or Movies and surround I had a very nice system that was huge and sounded great. It had 5.1 and was made in the early 90's the Amp alone came in at a whopping 75 pounds. I loved this system and started to put together stuff around it. I got lucky on a pair of Magnapans that were on Ebay and happened to be in my area so since they are very expensive to ship I won the auction because shipping was not part of the consideration. I got these for much cheaper than I thought and I love them. Next I got a good deal on a pair of Polk rears and picked up a used Klipsch 15" powered sub for 75.00. Vinatge but still works great and it can shake the house.
        I bought a stereo on ebay to power a haunted attraction at halloween and I won an auction for a VSX-55TXI for 129.00. I put it in and really liked it, the sound as well as options. I thought hmm I wonder how it would sound as my main and hooked it up and liked it better. So I bought a matching DV47ai sacd/DVD/dvd-a player for 49.00 on ebay and man oh man is it the stuff. They hook together using firewire and this gives it a huge data path and the ability to adjust to whats being played you pop in a SACD or DVD-A and it will drop your jaw. So many people come in and ask how many thousands I have in it and I tell them barely over 1000.00 for all of it. The previous system I sold for more than that. now this is equipment that is now getting old at 10 years but I bought it for next to nothing and it sounds amazing I researched the best way to put a system together made some bids got lucky and have a great system for half what t would have been new. For example the VSX-55TXi new 1700.00 MSRP. The DV47ai 1200.00 MSRP and I didn't pay 200.00 for both.

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