Well, "Open Mike" is back. Last week I tried to write about climate change. That's why there was no "Open Mike" last week. Abort! Abort! Danger, Will Robinson.
This week, a mild and friendly question: Is vintage audio any good?
I've discovered a splendid (if expensive) vintage audio store near me, Audio Ventures, run by Bill Waara and his nephew Andy (they just have a basic website and don't do much online). They specialize in rebuilding old JBL speakers, but that's really just the tip of the iceberg: first of all, Bill is a bonafide speaker designer if you ask me. Many of his "rebuilt" speakers are essentially all-new designs, with carefully selected modern drivers and completely rebuilt crossovers. And he's a very good speaker designer, too. Occasionally, Bill builds one-of-a-kind custom speakers from the ground up. In my second post about him (link above), I published a portrait of him standing next to his grandest Waaras yet. I got to hear those again the other day, always a treat.
The store also traffics in vintage audio: selected rebuilt vintage components from the 1960s to the 1980s. The Golden Age, mainly, the 1970s. Lots of McIntosh stuff, old silverface receivers. Bill and Andy go through everything, test it, and replace all the parts that need replacing. In fact, with many of the fancier components (a truly stunning Harmon-Kardon Citation tube amp for example) there is a little baggie sitting on the shelf next to the component that contains all the old parts they replaced! In fact the only problem with that store is that its following tends to suck the best pieces out of it at a rapid rate, and I don't get to go back and reacquaint with them. (Sniff. You mean it's not actually a museum?)
The best book about vintage photography is this one, which is a delightful read even if you're never going to buy an older camera. I note, sadly, that dear old Ivor has gone out of print, but used copies are still cheap. A nice title for any cameraphile's library.
I was never a true nut about it, but I liked dabbling in vintage. I'd never shoot exclusively with a Zeiss Contessa or a Leica IIIf, but I sure enjoyed getting to know them. Vintage photography has suffered a mighty axe-blow recently. So many of us have migrated to digital that "vintage" isn't really much of an option any more, because all vintage equipment is film equipment. If you don't do film any more, then you don't do vintage, either. I miss that.
Not so with audio. There's a good-sized subculture of people who love old '70s equipment, some of whom collect it. And there seems to be a healthy number of both professional and amateur restorers, "techs" like Bill who specialize in breathing new life into old electronics.
As with many old cameras, there seems to be one basic problem with vintage electronics. Namely, they're old, and old things need to be revived—and the reviving, if you're not competent to do it yourself and don't want to learn, is expensive. And then, the rebuilt piece doesn't necessarily hold its value. There's no guarantee to a future buyer that the restoration was done competently or extensively. Lots of pieces on Ebay say "completely restored!" when what they mean is that somebody opened the top, blasted the dust off, and spritzed the controls with DeoxIT. The really good techs tend to be either very expensive or very busy—one famous Marantz restorer in Montana closed his waiting list when it exceeded four years! And of course the restored piece is competing on price with unrestored pieces, which can run the gamut in terms of condition, from fine to trashed and inoperable.
Sansui AU-717, 1977. Photo by Lloyd Naftolin.
So let's say you buy a pre-amp for $100. You then pay $300 to have it rehabilitated by an expert professional electronics technician who specializes in that brand. You then have a piece that's worth...$100, more or less. Maybe $200, to someone you can convince of the worthiness of the servicing.
Same thing with most old cameras. It really only makes economic sense to restore things when the restoration cost is a relatively minor component of the entire cost.
So why do it? Well, there's one other reason for restoration: so that you then have a restored vintage component that you can enjoy.
The big Q
And here we come to my question. How good is that old stuff really?
What I've found is that there are an awful lot of empty claims online, but very little in the way of definitive comparisons. Lots of enthusiasts say the stuff is good "for the money"; some think everything old is better than anything new; some assume that everything new is better and that the old stuff is junk.
Here again, you run into the condition issue. If you find a Sansui receiver at a yard sale, hook it up, listen to it, then conclude that it sounds bad, you really haven't learned anything. It can be working without working well; capacitors just don't last thirty years. To know how a vintage component really sounds, you have to evaluate a restored one. One that is known to be operating in optimal condition.
And there's such a market for this stuff that the more famous pieces are actually getting quite pricey. I saw an old direct-drive Sansui turntable offered on eBay yesterday for nearly a cool $1,000! The kind of thing people used to brag about finding for $80 at a thrift store. And then, of course, you're getting close to competing with new alternatives. You can buy a pretty good new turntable for a grand.
So you can buy the integrated amp that my brother and I both owned in the '80s, a Sansui AU-717, which turns out to be a pretty well-regarded piece, almost a high point for Sansui. But then after factoring in the cost for professional restoration, why not just buy a new NAD, for instance, or the nifty new PM6004 from the revived Marantz, which seems to have everything I want in an amp and modern binding posts and an IEC power cord socket to boot?
If all this sounds ominous to you, it does to me too. My friend Oren Grad introduced me to the concept of "demystification," which is like the ultimate Pandora's box for rationalization. His idea is that to really get a handle on something, you just have to experiment with it yourself and try out all the various alternatives—and that that's all part of the education and the fun. That's why Oren has 29 old view cameras...and why I might just need to try out a few pieces of vintage audio gear, just to see what I can find out for myself.
Stay tuned for Part IV of my audio adventures, at some unspecified point in the future.
Oh, and if you happen to want a vintage McIntosh piece, or a glorious Citation V, or a Pioneer receiver the size of a coffe table that has more lights and silvery metal bits than a Starship, call Bill at 262/896-9000. Tell him I sent ya.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic posts by Yr. Hmbl. Ed. that appears only, but not always, on Sundays.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Dave: "While I am no audiophile, I do note a difference in the tonality of sound from vintage equipment. To me, it has a deeper, richer sound, particularly in the bass, than modern digital sound technology. Is it so much better that I am wiling to invest in vintage gear? Speaking personally, no, but I can see why someone would.
"Besides, with all these vintage cameras piled up on my shelves, where would I put audio equipment?"
Nigel: "Love this sh*t. It's certainly not about the money—I've spent a couple of hundred on fettling an old Pentax LX which is probably worth now what I paid for it before getting it sorted. But now it works. So what? If I buy a new camera tomorrow, it's not going to be worth more than a percentage of the purchase price within twelve months. Why would something a few decades old be any different?"
erik: "Affordable, pretty good turntables start at even lower prices. It's not in the RP3 league, but not that far off. So, it starts at around $400."
Mike replies: I agree...I got a lot of enjoyment out of a Music Hall MMF-2. Quite obvious flaws, but the sound was alive and deeply enjoyable. Those have risen steadily in price but they aren't much more than $400 either now. Of course inexpensive turntables mostly make sense if you already have a bunch of records....
Martsharm: "I own a decent example of that Sansui turntable. It sounds pretty good, but I wouldn't pay $1,000 for one. Mine cost £150. It is, however, something of a technical tour-de-force. The quartz-locked electromagnetic drive unit uses a micro-slotted disc with an optical feedback loop to give a torquey, solid timing lock, the main advantage of the sadly almost-defunct direct-drive design philosophy. The disadvantage to such a design is the drive electronics being directly underneath the middle of the platter—use of unshielded cartridges means an unpleasant hum intrudes the closer the tonearm gets to the centre of the record! The other disadvantage to the turntable is the non-removable tonearm and audio cable: although these were touted as being high-quality items at the time, they seem like so much so-so '70s design in hindsight. The turntable is susceptible to external vibration so benefits from an isolation platter...failing that a couple of tennis balls cut in half would do! It's a solid thing which engenders a warm sense of ownership—it was a flagship product at the time and weighs a fair bit—but there's always the niggling doubt that one day it will simply refuse to switch on due to a dry joint or similar, and I'll have a very large paperweight on my hands. But I'd much rather live with that frisson of excitement than spend much more on something modern, reliable, yet with far less soul."