Alright, before you begin you should know that this is NOT your simple 4 paragraph ‘buyers guide’ so often seen everywhere else. This article contains reams of information and is very, very looong. If you wish, you can simply skip to certain areas but I strongly recommend reading this article in it’s entirety at least once.
So where do you start? Easy. If you are simply starting out in the audio hobby there is a massive market to explore with garage sales, flea markets, swap meets, thrift stores etc. Sometimes simply asking your friends or relatives if there is some stuff in their attic or garage they wouldn’t mind letting go of can yield surprising results! There are no rules at this level about what to buy as long as it works, and there is no smoke coming from it when it is playing, and it should not smell like the bathroom Grandpa just left. If you can buy an entire ‘system’ for around 50 bucks including speakers, welcome to the hobby.
Usually something of this caliber is a great starter system, one that you play secretly within a workshop or garage and is not loud enough for your wife to remind you of your middle age crises. There are of course those out there that consider a starter system as one boasting 1000 watts of ear bleeding power and simply cannot justify any speaker under 500 pounds and towering less than 6 feet tall as being ‘good quality’. Remember, this is a HOBBY, and is supposed to be fun. If keeping up with the Jones’ is more your bag, this is gonna get real expensive, really quick. The fact is that listening to your rig is the pleasurable end result, however getting there can be just as fun.
O.k., now you are ready to start. So what exactly do you need? A basic starter system can be anything from an all-in-one system to individual components. Here is the basic premise; the heart of any system is going to be either a receiver, an integrated amplifier or a combination of a pre-amplifier with a power amplifier. Hook up a set of speakers, maybe a turntable and you’re ready to go, baby! I know, I just threw a bunch of names at you and you were trying to catch up.
So let’s take this a bit slower.
A Receiver is basically a tuner (AM/FM Radio), a pre-amplifier (a device to plug your CD player, turntable, tape deck etc.) and an amplifier (the power for your speakers) in one convenient box. There are of course excellent receivers out there, and you literally have a massive selection to choose from.
An Integrated Amplifier is essentially the same as a receiver, only no AM / FM radio. This would be like having your pre-amplifier and power amplifier in one box. You can still plug in all your goodies, and your speakers attach right to the unit. Again, integrated amplifiers are quite common, but not as much as receivers.
A Pre-Amplifier is simply the unit that all your other components plug into. Depending on the model you choose, you can get some really great features that can let you add a second turntable, or maybe a second amplifier. Pre-amps can be a tad pricier than integrated amps and receivers but this will largely depend on the make, model and quality of the unit.
The Power Amplifier. Ah yes, the mighty power amp. Probably the most mis-understood of all the components in the audio realm. These units have broken more marriages and caused more problems than religion and politics combined. The power amplifier receives a stereo signal from the pre-amplifier and sends the then amplified signal to the waiting speakers. So why so many problems? Because MATCHING a good power amplifier with speakers is a bit trickier than people like to let on. For further info on this, click here.
A Tuner is an AM/FM radio in a separate box. Again, it can also be gussied up to have shortwave, multipath, and all sorts of fancy add-ons but they will all still be in the same box.
Oh, and did I mention that all of these items mentioned above are available in either solid state circuitry or with tubes? Just thought I would scare you there.
Alright, you’re ready to go. Have some fun, enjoy yourself, and hit those yard sales.
What? Sorry? Oh, I forgot! This article is on How to buy vintage audio not just know what it is! Ok, thanks for getting me back on track.
Alright, lets pretend that you came upon a garage sale in your neighborhood and upon inspection you found a couple of items. In some cases it is very difficult to determine the age of equipment when you are not sure. In most cases, the equipment itself is giving you clues:
- Does it feel very heavy?
- Does it have wood sides or cabinet?
- Are the knobs on the face of the unit feel like solid metal and not plastic?
- Does the unit have a metal case and not plastic?
- Does the unit have a two-prong electrical cable?
- Does the unit have a good ‘build’ quality?
- Is the unit big?
If you answered mostly ‘yes’ to each of the above questions then it is a safe bet the equipment is what you want.
So, here is where it gets a bit dicey. If the item is at a good price and decent condition, say, $5.00, simply pay up and take your prize home. You did good. Even if it does not work at $5.00 you got a great item to tinker with. If the item seems to be priced out of your ‘comfort zone’ (you did remember that as a hobby to budget accordingly, right?) then really check the item over carefully and ask if you can plug it in to test it.
*CAUTION!!!* If the unit has tubes in it or you see tubes DO NOT PLUG IT IN!
For more info on tube equipment click here. If the item is already hooked up and playing then first ask the owner if you can try the controls. I found that the more you ask permission to do something especially IF IT DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU the better the possible sale can be. By asking you can also know if the unit has already been sold, or on hold or is just there for the seller to listen to.
So, as long as we are pretending lets have some fun. The item for sale at this sale just happens to be a Pioneer SX-1980 receiver and the seller wants $50.00 for it. (This HAS happened, trust me!) Now if you already know what this item is than you should have 3rd degree burns to your fingers and hand getting your wallet out. If you do not know then it’s fair to say this bad boy is big – really big. And it is heavy – reallllly heavy. And is simply gorgeous. And at $50.00 it’s like buying the winning lotto ticket while on a date with Cameron Dias while driving your friends Lamborghini that he gave to you for the weekend. But let’s continue.
So the unit is running, and is still for sale. After getting permission from the owner to try the receiver LEAVE A DEPOSIT WITH HIM/HER as a token of good faith that you want to buy it. I strongly suggest this as it lets the seller know that they have a serious buyer and not just someone wasting their time. Also, and more importantly, this protects you from the dreaded ‘sniper’. The ‘sniper’ is the garage-sale-aholic that can detect a smoking bargain from 100 feet away and will buy an item literally out of your hands. Snipers have been known to start ‘bidding wars’ on items they want and will almost do anything they can to get it.
So, you’re now sitting in front of this beast, here’s what to look for:
A great and logical place to start is to check the overall condition. This is a little more than a casual cursory glance. Take the time to look all around the item, like looking at a car, checking for dents, scrapes, scratches, broken knobs or terminals and also rust. Yep, you bet, rust. If the unit has extensive rust on the metal plates on the outside, you can only imagine what it might look like on the inside. Rust occurs when items are stored improperly, like damp basements, crawl spaces, garages or attics. Rust also occurs from having plants sitting on the unit and over-watered. You can usually tell if this has happened with the tell-tale ‘ring’ left behind as a stain in the wood on top. If the unit looks like it has been well cared for then move on to the next step. If not, you have to decide if it is too far gone to continue. But lets say that it looks good, that the wood is a bit faded but no serious nicks or gouges, the faceplate looks bright and clean with nil or very few small hairline scratches, and all the knobs are still attached. The knobs, dials and switches should appear to be straight, and should move smoothly with no wobble or rubbing on the faceplate. If there are minor issues such as scratches on the knobs, or dead bugs in the faceplate area, these are trivial and can be remedied. Again, any defects at this point should be noted in your budget.
Oddly enough, as the world becomes smaller quite a few items are cropping up from other countries that have different voltages. These are more common than people think and even though they may still work great, they do require an additional piece of gear such as a transformer (or voltage converter) to operate properly. Voltages can be 100 – 220 volts depending on where in the world the item was originally purchased. Please do not assume that an item rated at 100 volts can operate on 120 volts. Even though in some cases they can, it is still best to use the proper converters. An easy way to check the voltages is to simply look at the back of the unit. In almost every case the wattage and voltage required to run this unit is on a tag right at the point the power cable enters the unit.
PLEASE NOTE! People often confuse these numbers as the power output of an amplifier or receiver. They read “300 watts” thinking this is 300 watts total or 150 watts into each channel. This is the power that the unit draws from the wall in order to operate properly. But here it gets tricky, as the higher the number is in wattage, the more power the unit can produce overall. If you find an amplifier that draws 1400 watts, it means it is going to be a power house. For more on this, click here.
First, check the speaker control on the front panel. This may be buttons or a dial. Ensure that the dial is on ‘A’ speakers ONLY. If there are buttons, only have the ‘A’ button depressed. Since there is sound coming from the speakers try moving the balance control to the right and left. The sound should ‘move’ from one speaker to the other. It is perfectly fine if the balance does not match the speaker (move to the right but left speaker plays, move to the left and right speaker plays), the seller may have simply attached the speaker wires backward. If there is a bit of ‘scratchiness’, again, this is fine and can be solved later. If the sound of one speaker fades when moving the balance control then stop – check the speaker connections on the back to insure that perhaps the seller may have hooked one speaker up to ‘A’ set while the other speaker was hooked into ‘B’. If the speakers are hooked up properly and the sound fades either left or right you MAY have a problem. In some cases a ‘DIRECT’ switch may be engaged (if the unit has one), disengage and try again. If the problem persists then look for a ‘MODE’ control dial or switches. This is a dial that will have ‘L’ (or LEFT), ‘R’ (or RIGHT), ‘L+R’, ‘STEREO NORMAL’ and ‘STEREO REVERSE’. Check to make sure that that dial or switch is on ‘STEREO NORMAL’ only. If it was on a different setting switch it over and try the test again. If the problem still persists you have a problem internally and need to have the unit professionally checked. But let’s say the test is good and the balance control works fine.
Other Controls Test
Check the tone controls first starting with your BASS, TREBLE and MID if the unit is equipped with such. Obviously, turning these controls left and right SHOULD change the overall sound accordingly. If you do not hear a difference, check to see if the unit has a ‘TONE DEFEAT’ switch. If this switch is engaged, disengage it and try your tone controls again. These controls should feel smooth and some might have articulated ‘clicks’ when moving the controls left or right. What you are listening for is ‘scratchiness’ or the sound cutting out. ‘Scratchiness’ is actually common and can be dealt with later. If the sound cuts out or the unit suddenly powers off you have a serious problem. Actually, if the unit suddenly powers off at any time during any of these tests you will have to decide if it is worth the investment. When checking the other controls the sound should cut out when switching your ‘SOURCE SELECTOR’ dial or buttons to other positions from the one it was just on. This is perfectly normal. If your unit has lights to indicate what source you are on, check to make sure these are lit when on the appropriate input. Burnt lights are common and not a hard fix but it is one more thing to budget for. It is also normal for sound to cut out when switching to ‘TAPE MONITOR’.
Gently move the radio tuning dial so the meter travels fully from left to right – without forcing it to go further – and watch the tuning meter for any hesitation in travel. It should feel and move smoothly. Do not spin the dial madly and have it zing from one side to the other. Not only can this damage the tuning string / meter but it also makes you look like an idiot. Next, while moving the tuning dial again, watch the ‘SIGNAL’ meter for movement. It should move when dialing through radio stations and it should be straight up & down when on a strong signal. If your meter is barely moving through the entire spectrum then you may have to check to see if an antenna has been attached. If no antenna is available here’s a nifty trick; On the back of the unit (if it is convenient to get too), unscrew the two black antenna screws marked 300 ohm. Put a small amount of spit (eww) on your finger (we are talking just enough to wet it) and place it as close as possible to the exposed threads of now backed off antenna screws. With your finger firmly in place you should now be able to tune into stronger signals (your body is acting as an antenna and your spit is the conductivity between you and the terminals). Now check the meter again and also look for the ‘STEREO’ light to illuminate when a strong signal is detected.
So, if your unit has passed all of these tests you should be good to pay the balance and take this baby home. A note on carrying heavy equipment; always try to carry the gear with the faceplate facing away from your body. The reason for this is the faceplate or knobs can be scratched by belt buckles, metal buttons on your shirt or jacket, or even the fly on your pants. In addition, you may accidentally bend or snap off knobs, switches or dials off the front by having the weight of the unit pressed against your body. If possible, have a large towel or beach blanket in your car for such occasions. In addition to this, if you have bought more than one item, let’s say a receiver and a tape deck, place the heavier of the units (receiver) upside down on your car seat (move the seat belt buckles!) and place the tape deck right side up on top of it. The two units should now sit feet to feet so minimal damage can occur when transporting.
So you want the speakers that were also at the sale? O.k., let’s take a look at what you have. Remember, LEAVE A DEPOSIT WITH THE SELLER FIRST! (Be wary of the dreaded sniper!)
First, lets pretend the speakers are hooked up and playing when you found them. Again, like the receiver you just bought above check the overall condition of the speakers themselves. Are the cabinets’ real wood or cheap veneer? (Wood cabinets can be lightly sanded and oiled to bring back the luster where the cheap veneer can only wiped down). Some speakers have a better quality of wood veneer that can still be worked on and will turn out nice. Are they heavy? Do they look good with no chunks missing, or deep gouges, or even noticeable scrapes and scratches? How about the grilles themselves? Do they look like every cat on the planet used them as a scratching post? Are there any holes or rips? Do they smell? (Don’t laugh, as a great deal of owners have NO idea that speaker grilles may have suffered from cat spray or urine and the owners have simply been accustomed to the smell over time. Since they are outside you might not notice it right away but once they are inside your home, well, it may not be pleasant). Some manufacturers also gussy-up their products with ‘badges’ or logos that are affixed to the grilles. If a small hole or slight glue stain is found in one of the corners of the grille there is good chance a badge was once there. But let’s say both badges are present.
Now let’s check the drivers. Once the grilles are off inspect the surrounds. These are the bands of either rubber or foam near the outside of the driver. If the foam has cracks or is missing chunks the speaker needs new ones. Only your budget will say whether these are worth it or not. For the most part the woofer is the most common to have ‘foam rot’ followed by the midrange driver.
At a low volume (but loud enough for you to hear) place your ear close to each driver. You should hear sound from every driver in both speakers. Next, slightly turn the volume up to about ¼. If the unit has a ‘LOUDNESS’ switch engage it now. Next, use the ‘BASS’ control and turn it to the left or maximum bass. IF YOU HEAR A “CHUFFING” or “FRAPPING” SOUND FROM THE WOOFER BACK OFF THE BASS AND TURN DOWN THE VOLUME! The woofer should move in / out with much more exaggeration but should not be making the aforementioned ‘chuffing’ or ‘frapping’ sounds. If you hear these or other distorted sounds your speaker has a problem. If everything is fine on both woofers move the ‘BASS’ control back to top dead center (TDC) and now turn your ‘TREBLE’ control to maximum. Placing your ear next to the TWEETER and if equipped, the MIDRANGE driver you should hear clean crisp sounds and tones. If you hear a ‘buzzing’ sound or if the sounds are distorted you may have a problem. IF, AT ANYTIME DURING THESE TESTS THE SPEAKER SHOULD STOP WORKING THERE MAY BE SERIOUS ISSUES. Always check the wire leading from the speaker to the receiver / integrated amplifier / sound source. The wire at both ends should not have ANY frayed strands touching both terminals. Even a single strand can damage the speaker, the amplifier, or both.
A quick note – some speakers are equipped with a ‘reset’ button on the speaker somewhere to protect the speaker components, kinda like the breaker in the electrical panel of your house. If the speaker ‘senses’ that it is getting too much power, or distortion or just being over-driven in general the speaker will ‘shut-down’. Sometimes just pushing the ‘reset’ button will return the sound – sometimes not. If the reset button does not work, you may have serious internal problems.
If everything checks out let’s move on.
It was all fine and dandy to hear sounds coming from the speakers when the receiver was playing through them but what if they were just sitting there basking in the sun not hooked up to anything? There is no way to tell if they work or not. Here’s a neat little gizmo I found that works great. If you can, find an old device such as a radio, clock or even an old remote control and remove the 9 volt battery clip with about 6” of wires attached.
I soldered the ends of mine so they would not ‘fray’ after repeated use (called ‘tinning’). Armed with this clip and a 9 volt battery (carried separately! Always store your 9 volt battery with the protective plastic clip or wrap tape around the leads if you are toting it around attached to the clip!) I can test virtually any speaker. How? I’ll tell you.
The very first thing guys do (I still do not know why) upon finding a speaker is to immediately remove the grille. Why? I guess it’s like looking under the hood of a car. They are simply drawn to the vast complexity of the mechanics. So, let’s take the grille off the speaker (after getting permission from the seller) and take a good look.
*Note* – Some very cheap speakers have grilles that are permanently glued on and will not come off. In most cases these are simply firewood and should be passed by. In rare cases however, IF THE SPEAKERS LOOK REALLY OLD, or made from REAL wood, give them some consideration. You may have a treasure on your hands.
So after the grilles come off what do we have? Well, starting from the top we have a small tweeter, in the middle we have a mid-range driver and of course near the bottom is the woofer. Next, spreading your fingers as wide as possible gently push the woofer inwards but not far. There should be no sound at all. If you hear a “kkkkhhhhkkk” type of sound the coil may be damaged.
But, these speakers have no foam rot and there is no sound when pushed so they seem good, right? Well, let’s check.
Time for the gizmo!
On the back of the speaker is a terminal with a black and red clip / screw connector. In some older models there is simply two cheap-ass slot screws that have a ‘- / +’ above them. Simply TOUCH the battery terminals to the speaker terminals and listen. You should here a “tuk” or “pop” sound from EACH driver at the same time. The pitch may be slightly different from driver to driver but you want to hear that sound. If you can view the speaker drivers while touching the terminals or you have a second person assisting you, you will actually see the woofer move outward if the connection is + / +, – / -, (or red to red, black to black), or if the order is reversed the speaker will draw inwards. If you only do this for a few seconds IT WILL NOT HARM THE SPEAKER! This is of unless of course you try something really silly like using a car battery instead of the 9 volt. If you find a driver not producing sound the symptoms may include a loose wire, a bad solder connection, a damaged speaker or a problem in the crossover. Again, budget accordingly as at this point it is still a crap shoot, and depending on the speakers can lead to other issues later on. If everything checks out then pay the balance and load these up as well.
So there you go. Most of these basic rules can apply to almost all types of gear that you will find with the possible exception of turntables, reel to reel tape decks and of course tube equipment. These we will discuss later on. Now that you’re loaded up, take your treasures home and have fun!
I know, it looked like I was finished but I had to add one more tip. If you find yourself wandering around ‘pawn’ shops or stores that sell used equipment like second hand shops or thrift stores, ALWAYS USE CAUTION! In most cases these stores have cute ‘policies’ such as NO RETURNS, NO WARRANY and ONLY CASH SALES PERMITTED. These ‘policies’ simply scream WARNING, DO NOT BUY HERE! In addition, the ‘staff’ offer virtually no help in testing the equipment, knowing what the equipment even is, only that if you do not like the price they are offering they can get such and such on eBay for it.