Old hardware of any sort often carries a certain cachet. But vintage audio gear, produced from the 1950s through the 1980s, has become an obsession for many music enthusiasts. Stereo receivers that might have once sold for $40 at a garage sale now run more than $10,000 on eBay, and vintage Pioneer and JBL equipment even showed up in a recent Spotify promo video featuring the 19-year-old singer Billie Eilish.
When I asked Gordon Sauck, proprietor of vintage audio gear retailer Innovative Audio in Surrey, British Columbia, about his recent experiences in the field, he confirmed that his business is up about 35 to 40 percent over the last five years, and has been especially good since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“There’s some element of nostalgia, where people want the same audio gear they had when they were kids,” Sauck said. “We’re also seeing parents coming in with their kids. It’s appealing to young people because they see this gear has been around for so long and it’s still working, which they won’t be able to say about their iPhones. They also like the way it looks.”
But while buying vintage audio gear can be fun and affordable, it’s a daunting proposition for those who know little about it, because the knowledge can be hard to come by.
Checking Out the Oldies
While it’s easy to find information about most audio gear going back 25 years or so, information on audio components from the pre-internet era can be scarce. Search for a model number on the web and you’ll likely find someone asking about the component on an audio forum and getting only sketchy replies.
Not surprisingly, Sauck recommends buying from a dealer with experience in refurbishing and repairing vintage gear. When I asked how a jazz fan who doesn’t have a nearby dealer might gain enough knowledge to make an informed purchase from Craigslist or a garage sale, Sauck’s wife Susan, who helps him run the store, suggested: “Start small. Until you learn more about it, stick with lower-cost items so you’re not losing a lot of money if you buy something that turns out to need $500 in repairs.”
Besides simply keeping the budget low, there are some basic tips a neophyte should remember when buying old audio gear from questionable sources.
Vintage stereo receivers work just fine with modern equipment such as a Bluetooth receiver, an Amazon Echo Dot, or a digital-to-analog converter. However, they also have proprietary speaker cable connections; it’s best to buy one with standard spring clips or binding posts for speaker cables. Sauck suggests, if possible, to connect the receiver to speakers, try all the controls and lights to make sure they work, and spin the volume and tone knobs to see if they make scratchy sounds.
“In receivers of that [’50s-’80s] era, the heavier the unit, the better the value,” Sauck observes. “That means it has a big transformer, big filter capacitors in the power supply, and big heat sinks. If you go to a garage sale and you find a $50 receiver that nearly gives you a hernia when you pick it up, buy it.”
Most modern speakers easily outperform vintage models, but there’s no denying the aesthetic appeal of 1970s speakers with huge woofers and elaborate grilles. If you’re buying from Craigslist, a pawn shop, or an audio dealer, you should insist on a demo of the speaker to make sure it’s working. At garage sales and swap meets, Sauck relies on the time-honored “nine-volt battery test”—touching the terminals of a battery to the ends of a cable connected to the speaker to see if the speaker makes any noise. It’s not a thorough test, but at least it tells you something’s working.
“Make sure the surround [the ring of material that connects the woofer cone to its frame] is in good shape,” Sauck advises. “The old foam ones tend to deteriorate, and even butyl rubber ones can come unglued.”
Turntables are typically a low risk, because most are simple mechanical devices that are easy to repair. As long as you get one that accepts a standard phono cartridge, it’s not all that difficult to install a new cartridge and adjust the turntable; instructions are readily available on web pages and YouTube.
“Stay away from overly frilly turntables with all sorts of little doodads sticking out, because they tend to be delicate,” Sauck cautions. “Look for turntables that have some weight to them. That usually means they’re rugged and the resonance in the plinth [the base of the turntable] and the platter is minimized.”
Buying vintage gear may seem time-consuming and a little risky, but for anyone who remembers hearing A Love Supreme or Bitches Brew for the first time on a big set of JBL, Pioneer, or Technics speakers powered by a huge, elaborate stereo receiver, recreating that experience will likely be well worth the effort.