An interview with Gordon Sauck, founder of Innovative Audio

A pioneer in the vintage audio business tells why the older gear is better.

By Brent Butterworth contributing technical editor of Sound + Vision and former editor-in-chief of Home Theater


What's innovative about Vancouver, BC's Innovative Audio isn't the products it sells, but the products it refuses to sell. Instead of offering brand-new, state-of-the-art products, Innovative Audio focuses exclusively on vintage audio gear.

Innovative Audio founder Gordon Sauck with Brent Butterworth

 

It wasn't always this way. Innovative Audio started out selling new home theater gear, but founder Gordon Sauck soon realized his customers were more interested in the classic used gear on the back shelf than they were in the complicated new products in the front of the store. Sauck took the bold move of eliminating all the new gear from his store, moving to a new and larger location, and specializing entirely in vintage audio. In a few short years the store grew from a modest-sized retail outlet to the largest vintage audio facility in Canada.

Innovative Audio now gets calls from audio enthusiasts all around the world who seek out the rarest and most cherished pieces of vintage audio equipment. The store's success reflects the general public's embrace of classic audio-and it has helped introduce countless new customers to the charms and character of great audio gear from decades past.

I interviewed Sauck while he sat at his store's reception desk answering phone calls, replying to e-mails and chatting with the many customers who walked in during our chat.

 

How did you get into the vintage audio business?

I had a home theater store that did custom installations, and my clients often gave me the old equipment they were replacing. The gear started piling up in my garage, so I set up a vintage audio section. People then started trading in their old gear when they bought new gear. Then people started coming in specifically to buy vintage gear. Soon the home theater products were practically rotting on the shelves. We realized there was a huge market for good, clean vintage audio equipment, regardless of the size or age of the products. So we made the risky move of switching gears to tap into this niche market. Since we already had a full repair department on site, we were able to restore this gear to its former glory and keep our shelves filled. When people can get vintage gear that's been checked over and has a warranty, they'd rather buy that than the home theater gear.

Don't people miss all the modern features you can get on home theater products?

In essence, it's a relief because they find the home theater stuff is too complicated. People like walking up, seeing the function they want, pressing a button and having it work. Another comment we hear all the time is that older audio products have class. The glow of lights, the meters moving-it's all great eye candy. And yes, the majority do say the older gear definitely sounds better.

Why do you think that is?

Look at all the technology they pack into the new receivers. You have HDMI, video scaling, Dolby and DTS lossless audio, automatic room EQ, maybe Internet radio, an iPod dock … and seven or more channels of amplification! Yet the new receivers typically cost less now than they did 30 years ago, even without adjusting for inflation. Something's got to give, and usually what gives is the quality of components. Look at the specs of old gear and in particular the weight. You can't tell me a unit today boasting 1,000 watts of power and weighing 12 pounds can compare with a receiver having 100 watts of power and weighing 60 pounds.

The rear of the Pioneer SX-1980 shows its large power supply transformer (large cylinder) and storage capacitors (four smaller cylinders)

 

What's the reason for the big weight difference?

Much of that difference is due to the power supply, which is the key to the sound quality of an amplifier. The old receivers tend to have huge power transformers and storage capacitors, while on the new ones those parts are usually much smaller. That's why they rate the power of so many of the latest receivers at 1 kHz only, with just one channel driven, at maybe 1% distortion. The old receivers were typically rated at 0.1% distortion or even less, with both channels driven and across the whole audio band from 20 Hz to 20 kHz.

Has the switch to more modern, compact technologies in the latest products had any negative effects?

The audio products of the last couple of decades are based around generic integrated circuit chips. Everybody's using more or less the same digital signal processors, the same radio tuner chips, the same op amps, etc. By their very nature, chips have a lot of compromises in their design in order to fit all those components into such tiny packages. The older gear has more discrete circuits made up of individual transistors, resistors and capacitors instead of chips. A well-designed discrete circuit can easily outperform a chip.

How does the value of vintage audio gear hold up compared with newer products?

Go on eBay, search for vintage audio and you can see the prices that are being paid. I'll do it right now [pulls up eBay on his computer]. Here's a vintage Western Electric 16A horn speaker from the 1930s that sold for $35,100. Here's an Altec 604 + 605A speaker system that sold for $14,100. It's common for old tube amps to sell for thousands of dollars. Even just the parts can sell for a lot-the crystal tweeters on the old JBL L300 speakers I have upstairs go for more than $500 each. Compare this to the newer stuff, which isn't even selling for half its original price. Even a Meridian system doesn't get as much as a lot of the old gear.

Is there a "golden era" for vintage audio-a span of time where the gear was especially good, or that collectors value the most?

The "value time" depends on the product category and the manufacturer. McIntosh tube amps from the 1960s are worth a fortune, but other tube amps from that era, not so much. With receivers, the golden era was 1977 to 1982.

I didn't expect you to be so specific. Why that era?

Because those were the years of the power wars. All of the manufacturers-Yamaha, Marantz, Pioneer, Sansui-were clamoring to build the biggest, baddest and best.

There was a mentality with certain manufacturers to build the "end all, beat all" of stereo receivers. Each year the ante was upped until the magic 300 watts per channel was surpassed, and consumers were happily paying the price to bring home the best. Each company was trying to outdo the next when suddenly the economy tanked. Up until that point people were financially stable and companies knew consumers would invest in good gear. You were getting into massive speakers and receivers. A lot of the receivers from that era are huge. They easily dwarf the ones they make now, and they're a heck of a lot heavier. If you got a hernia hauling your new toy to the trunk it was a good buy.

Also, in the early 1980s there were a lot of new technologies on the horizon, such as CD, and manufacturers had to change their ways to accommodate that.

How did they change their ways?

If you compare Sansui receivers from 1979 and 1983, you can see the difference immediately. The top Sansui receiver for 1979 was the G-33000. Look at the build quality, the chrome, the power meters and the panel lights and it's obvious that is a really elegant piece. And it's 330 watts per channel!

Then look at the Z-9000X, which was Sansui's top-of-the-line model for 1983. What you notice is that they've hopped on the computerization bandwagon. The knobs and dials were phased out and pushbuttons were brought in. Alphanumeric displays replaced the analog tuning scales and needles. They got rid of the warm-looking incandescent panel lamps and put in LEDs.

The Z-9000X is newer, but it looks dated and cheesy. The G-33000 is older, but it looks classic and timeless. Simple as that.

That's the receiver part of the market….

Amplifiers, preamps, tuners, it's the same with those categories, too. They're all behemoths! So much of the gear from back then was built so solid and designed so well. Take the Sansui BA-5000 power amp. That was a serious, serious amplifier: 300 watts per channel, and it took two guys to move it!.

I know you have a lot of customers who are getting back into vinyl records. What kinds of turntables are they looking for?

They're not looking for plastic crap. They already have that with home theater and they're looking to get away from it. They want good build quality, good eye appeal and great functionality. Basically, they want their money's worth.

The classic Technics SL-120 turntable

 

How are the old turntables better than what you might buy today?

The old turntables were (and still are) precision instruments. They have full metal tonearms versus the cheap plastic ones you often find now. The old ones use heavy, solid-metal platters, which kept the speed more consistent and reduced wow and flutter. They're using plastic platters in some of today's turntables.

The real difference is that older turntables probably need nothing more than a new cartridge or slight calibration to keep them going for more years to come. Meanwhile, all the plastic stuff will get tossed into the garbage when it breaks in a few years. That's why people think nothing of dropping $1,000 on a really good turntable from 20 or 30 years ago instead of a $200 current-model cheap plastic turntable.

Having said that, I'll admit the new USB turntables do serve a purpose. If you're looking to simply transfer vinyl to MP3s and really do not care what the sound is like, then go for one of those. If you want quality transfers, you should run the recording output from a vintage receiver or preamp into a really good computer sound card.

Is there a classic era of turntables?

There's really no time frame except 1992 was the last time a good turntable was built, at least in terms of a mass-market product from a brand most people would recognize.

I've noticed a lot of your customers are into tape recorders: reel-to-reel, cassettes, 8-tracks, even exotic stuff like Elcaset. Why are they interested in tape in this era when any computer can make a theoretically perfect recording?

It's based on the hands-on mechanics of doing something, rather than pressing a button and moving a mouse. When you record on tape, you're putting mechanics in motion. You can see the result immediately and hear the results through your speakers. And of course, it's pure analog. Analog is the meat and potatoes of sound. This is a sound everyone can relate to. People into vintage gear like to tweak, and what better way than to make your own recordings where each knob and dial serves a specific purpose?

Can you still get tapes?

Sure. For example, Western Imperial Magnetics here in the Vancouver area carries blank reel-to-reel and cassette tape. You can find prerecorded tapes in all sorts of places: online, at swap meets, at garage sales, etc., etc. And of course we have them here, too. There's a lot of music out there on tape that never made the transition to CD. One report I read said that 40% of the music released on 8-track never made it to CD.

Akai CR-81D 8-track player and tapes

 

People are still into 8-track?

Oh, yes. There are websites dedicated to 8-track, such as 8-track-tapes.com and 8trackheaven.com. There's a certain sound that can only be attained through 8-track, much like using an original analog synthesizer rather than a digital keyboard that emulates the analog sound. It's like putting on a comfortable old pair of jeans or running shoes. It really brings the fun back into music. An 8-track tape can play on any 8-track machine, where if you have an MP3 or AAC or WMA file you have to have the right software on your computer to play it.

Speaking of MP3s, do people ever connect their iPods to vintage gear?

Yeah, that's quite normal. Vintage gear works flawlessly with computers and iPods. As long as there's an aux input, no problems. Pretty much any line input will work, except Phono … never use the Phono or bad things happen!

Do you do a lot of business in old speakers?

Absolutely. The interesting thing to note is, the bigger the speaker, the faster it sells. It's like buying an old Corvette with mega horsepower: It's big, it's bold, it's brash, you've gotta have it. Guys want speakers so big that they can kill a family of four if you tip them over.

How do the old speakers sound?

In a word, amazing. It comes down to quality. Craftsmanship is a term that doesn't get bantered about much anymore. With the vintage speakers, you tend to see better built, larger, heavier cabinets and more natural-and by that I mean non-synthetic-driver materials. Back then, manufacturers designed speakers to make a statement in the owner's home. When you walked into someone's living room, you knew at a glance their speakers were Pioneers or Altecs or Infinitys. Nowadays that distinction has become opaque. All the speakers are cookie-cutter. The old ones have personality.

Is a 30-year-old speaker still usable?

Speakers do age much more than, say, amplifiers. But 97% of all old speakers are repairable. Usually they just need the foam surround-the flexible part around the cone-replaced. Sometimes a few crossover parts need to be replaced, depending on how loud the speaker has been played, how many parties it has been through, and whether or not the owner let his kids use it.

Vintage speakers in Innovative Audio's second-floor listening room

 

Can you make the speakers sound as good as they did back then?

Yes, and sometimes even better. When it comes to actual speaker repair we use the best in the business-Vancouver Audio Speaker Clinic. These guys can not only bring speakers back from the dead but in some cases make them sound better than new. We do quite a bit of the woodwork detail with speakers, but Vancouver Audio handles all of the actual repairs. Hey, when they offer a three-year warranty on their work they gotta be good!

I know there are a few other companies that sell at least some vintage audio gear. Is there anything different about Innovative Audio?

I think the first and best way to answer this is with our commitment to our customers. Over the years, our customer loyalty has driven us to think past just profits, into the things that really make this a fun and cool hobby. The best quote I have ever heard is that we are the audio equivalent of "Cheers"-the bar where everybody knows your name. When you can deal with people as individuals, and not as "Joe Customer," things seem easier, less stressful and more fun for both you and them.

We also take extra steps to bring in the really good equipment, not the usual junk found at thrift stores or pawn shops, and we thoroughly test everything to ensure our customers get the best value for their money.

What we've found is, by starting locally and tapping into that demand, and providing the very best service we can, we've managed to expand our business to a national and even global level. People call us from all over the world, from as far away as Australia.

Do you have people who call looking for a certain piece of gear?

Sure. We keep a database of our customers' "wish lists." If I get in, say, a specific model Pioneer receiver, I can type that into the database and find out which customers are looking for that receiver so we can call them and offer them first dibs on it.

What are the most commonly requested items?

High-powered receivers, high-end CD players and really big speakers.

You mean even some CD players are considered vintage?

Oh, yeah. We sell models from when they were first made in the early 1980s-models that have real collector's appeal-all the way through to relatively recent stuff. Our customers like the big, heavy players, in particular: Sony ES models, early Philips units and certain Denon players.

How would you describe your customers?

Trick question. By and large we have found that people come into our shop as customers, but leave as friends. It just happens.

In some cases we get those who are tired of the mumbo-jumbo that the big-box stores dole out almost as a script. They want the bare simple facts. Sometimes we get those who have a love for this gear but have nobody to share it with. And of course we get the wives dropping off the husbands for a few hours so they can get the shopping done, like we are some sort of adult daycare. Really, we get people from all walks of life. The common thing is that they all have a passion for music and are looking for some way, somehow, to make it sound better. A lot just come in to talk audio. And you know what? I look forward to seeing them every day.

Last question: What would be your personal dream audio system?

The one I have at home already. I have often thought about the big Sansui G-33000 with some hefty amps, but I have to say I really like what I have built up over the past few years. To me the sound is almost perfect, no matter what type of music I decide to play.

This system is centered around a mint Pioneer SX-1980 receiver, with the vinyl spun on a Thorens TD-126 Mk. III limited edition turntable and a JVC QL-Y55F for the other turntable. Tape is played either on the big Akai GX-747 reel-to-reel, the Pioneer CT-F1000 cassette deck, the Sony EL-5 Elcaset for something different, or if I am in a truly nostalgic mood, the Pioneer H-R100 8-track player.

For CDs I have the obligatory Pioneer 300-disc Elite player, although that's just for background music. For serious listening, I use a Sony CDP-X777ES with the DAS-R1 digital-to-analog converter. Rounding the system out is a Sony MDA-JA33ES MiniDisc player.

Oh yeah, to keep everything in check I use a DBX 20/20 real-time analyzer/equalizer. Not only does it ensure the sound is perfect, all those dancing lights are really cool to watch! I have three sets of speakers: Klipsch corner horns, Altec Voice of the Theaters and one pair of Pioneer HPM-150s. No matter what type of music, the combination of these three sets of speakers make my little listening room sounds like a concert hall. To me, it's sonic utopia.

 

To read more of Brent Butterworth's reviews and insight on products, check out his blog on the Sound & Vision website by visiting here