Old School Gold (or Headache)

Old School Gold
On those occasions (or daily) when you go to a thrift store, what items do you gravitate toward? Is it the vintage clothing, the furniture, the old toys, the old tools? I always head to the junked electronics heap in the corner. I go there to see if I can spot a gem from "the golden age of audio"; that is, high-end audio equipment made from about the 1950's to the end of the 1970's. The virtues of vintage audio gear, as generally discussed on Internet forums, is a certain tone or sound quality that you will not find in new audio gear (the cause of which I will reveal later), as well as incredible build quality (better days when no cost-cutting was actually used) - and looks! In short, qualities you cannot buy new today (as I write this I feel like someone explaining their love of classic cars as the reasoning seems almost identical).

Growing up in the 1980s I never thought much at all about the quality of audio equipment. By then, every last piece of audio gear I could buy new was made largely of plastic as a cost-cutting measure - no matter the sound quality. It all looked the same (black plastic looking boxes with cheap push buttons endlessly), so I thought it probably all sounded the same. Instead of being concerned with the equipment, I only thought about the quality of songs themselves and how to get them. Accessibility to songs was the only concern: what were the best songs or albums by an artist and how and where to find them. Web 2.0 effectively ended those concerns for me and for everyone else in the world who ever cared.

In today's ambient world, interconnectivity and convenience are paramount when it comes to advertising or selling home audio gear. Will it work with my phone and every digital file format I have songs saved in? Alas, sound quality, appearance and build quality seem almost an afterthought.

Below are some basic things to consider when you first bring home a vintage piece of audio gear from a thrift store, yard sale, etc:
  1. Expect the stereo/radio/amplifier you bought to sound "scratchy" if it plays at all when you get it home and if it has not been in use very recently. Over time, the "pots" (short for potentiometers, which are the tuning knobs) develop oxidation and crud on them, especially if they have not been twisted in a long time. To fix this, use a contact cleaner, such as De-oxit, and spray into some of the holes of the suspect potentiometers (e.g., Volume, Balance) while turning the outside knobs on the front of the face-plate. If you do not feel comfortable doing this, by all means have the device serviced at an electronics repair shop, or call one first and ask for advice.
  2. Vintage audio gear that runs on vacuum tubes – do not even try to service them yourself or use them until they have been professionally serviced. Vacuum tube equipment has capacitors that store a very large charge which can be extremely dangerous to work around if you do not know what you are doing. In addition, large electrolytic capacitors (common electronic parts that look like cylinders) dry out over time and must get changed before they begin to leak voltages and fail. Even solid state radios/stereo receivers/amplifiers from the 70s need to have their large electrolytic capacitors replaced by now. Leave these service issues to a professional electronics repair person!
  3. You can play your digital music on old audio gear by connecting your music source (a CD player, an mp3 player, etc) to the AUX inputs on your vintage audio gear with RCA cables.
  4. Do not spend too much money on vintage audio equipment finds. Eventually you must have restoration work done which will cost a pretty penny.
  5. Old automatic turntables you find might appear to be completely dead or stuck - the platter will not spin at all. In many cases all you need to do is clean up dried up grease where you find it in the mechanics of the underside of the turntable – once done the turntable will spin freely again. I have used Isopropyl alcohol and q-tips to do this.
  6. Old speakers need to have their drivers re-foamed. You can find kits online to do it yourself.
  7. Google search whatever vintage audio gear you find to learn more about it. You will immediately find relevant, useful forum discussions. If you need a copy of a service manual, instruction manual or a schematic, you can find one here.
  8. Get to be familiar with certain brands from the Golden Age of Audio that were synonymous with great quality. The real biggies include: Sansui, Marantz, Pioneer, Luxman, Dynaco, Fisher and Accuphase.
A lot of people are happy enough to buy, say for example, a vintage stereo – cheaply - and play it and enjoy it until it eventually fails. And then they throw it out. And that might be the healthiest approach to buying vintage gear. All electronic devices fail eventually. Some cannot even be repaired because certain components are no longer available and there are no replacement parts available (but often repairs are possible with newer replacement parts). Again, classic car lovers face similar realities (2 weeks ago I spoke to a young man who sank 30 grand into a DeLorean – do you want to be that guy?). I guess what I am saying is - be sensible about buying vintage audio equipment. Do not let your heart drain you wallet.

Oh, and lastly, the reason that vintage audio equipment has a particular “tone” has a lot to do with distortion caused by the original parts used – yes distortion, but it is beautiful sounding distortion! And hey, the stuff looks really cool too!

-Jay Oliver


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