The Shock of the Old

Why do more and more people prefer the audio gear of yesterday to the state-of-the-art products of today?

As an electronics journalist, I’m around audio enthusiasts a lot. But I’ve never seen so many of them get so jazzed about a single piece of gear as I did when a 1978 Pioneer SX-1980 receiver recently came through the doors at Innovative Audio, a Vancouver, BC vintage audio dealer. Some offered to buy the Pioneer on the spot. Some joked about stealing it. Every one of them had to touch it, lift it (or at least try) and somehow connect with this 270-watt-per-channel monster.

Why did a 33-year-old stereo receiver get them so excited? When Innovative Audio founder Gordon Sauck placed the SX-1980 alongside a recent-model Yamaha RX-V1800 home theater receiver, the answer was obvious.

The SX-1980 measures 22 inches wide, compared to 17 for the RX-V1800. The SX-1980 has beautiful styling, with switches and knobs for all of its functions, and a tuning scale softly lit with incandescent lamps, in a beautiful walnut wood case and brushed aluminum faceplate while the RX-V1800 is a plain black box that hides most functions in onscreen menus. The SX-1980 is elegant, while the home theater receiver seems generic.

The story’s the same for other product categories, too: turntables, speakers, even reel-to-reel and 8-track tape decks. The old gear is simple and sexy. The new gear is hopelessly complicated, commoditized and condemned to premature retirement as soon as the next new digital technology comes along.

I got another glimpse into the growing vintage audio scene when I visited Innovative Audio’s annual “Garage Sale” in June, where the store spills out into the nearby parking lots to offer amazing deals on classic gear, and invites others to sell audio gear, vinyl records, tapes and memorabilia. I expected to see nothing but middle-aged audio geeks like me, but the crowd included all sorts of people. I talked with 18-year-olds who were turned off by the soulless sound of their iPods and computers. I talked with successful business execs and doctors who sought user-friendly alternatives to today’s audio products. And I talked with vinyl fanatics looking for classics that were either never released on CD or just sound better on record.

The annual “Garage Sale” at Innovative Audio

Garage Sale participant Paul Demara explained his interest in the field: “Vintage audio, for me, is all about buying equipment today that I simply couldn’t afford 25 years ago. For example, I just picked up a Sony digital-to-analog converter and CD transport for $2,200. They went for $8,000 in 1986. This gear is literally built to last forever and sounds amazing.”

Cam Steere, a regular Innovative Audio customer, agreed. “I have a home theater setup and it’s a lot of fun, but I prefer to buy vintage,” he said. And while Steere could easily rattle off the makes and models of the 20-plus pieces of vintage gear he owns, he couldn’t remember the model number of his DVD player.

A Trip Back Through Time

Sauck’s shop attracts a constant stream of customers, many of whom stop by once a week (or more) to see and hear what’s new. The first-floor showroom contains rack after rack of classic gear, most of it looking as flawless as it did when it was originally purchased 20 to 50 years ago. The second-floor offers a space to hear the gear: It’s equipped with plenty of speakers and a comfortable couch, as well as stacks of old hi-fi magazines. An adjacent room holds thousands of vinyl records as well as prerecorded audio tapes in practically every format ever invented.

It’s a little shocking at first, especially if you’re too young to remember what it was like to visit a hi-fi store before 1985. Instead of the shelves of lookalike components, you find products with personality. Vintage audio gear comes in an incredible variety of shapes, sizes and styles-and it offers a lot of features you probably never knew existed.

Kenwood KR-6170 “Jumbo Jet” receiver

“Take a look at this Kenwood receiver,” Sauck suggested, indicating a 22-inch-wide behemoth covered with controls, jacks and meters. “The model number is KR-6170, but they called it the ‘Jumbo Jet.’ Not only is it a great stereo receiver, it also has a built-in rhythm box, reverb, and inputs for two guitars and two mics, so you can use it to make your own music, too.

“This is my favorite feature, though.” He reached for the front panel and turned a large knob in the center, which started to make a faint clicking sound. “It’s a mechanical timer, like you might find on a heat lamp. If you want the Jumbo Jet to play you to sleep, you just turn the knob to, say, 45 minutes, and the receiver cuts itself off when the timer runs down. Some new receivers have a sleep timer, but you have to go through a bunch of menus to set it, so no one bothers.

“Indeed, user-friendliness is a major attraction for fans of vintage audio. When asked why he prefers decades-old audio equipment, Innovative Audio customer Mitch Purdy replied, “The simplicity to operate the gear without having to go through stupid menus or constantly referring to the 50-page manual just to do basic things.”

Still Rockin’ After All These Years

Sound quality and style aside, most people expect their electronics to be functional and reliable. After all, audio gear isn’t quite like an antique Italian sports car, where part of the charm lies in the fact that the engine sometimes doesn’t start. So I asked Sauck how reliable the gear he sells is likely to be. He didn’t mince words.

“In most cases, it’s extremely reliable,” he said. “These products have been around for 20 or 30 or 40 years and they’re still working perfectly. That’s not just luck, it’s because they’re built better than most of what you buy now. Where a manufacturer today would use plastic, the manufacturers of the 1960s or 1970s used real metal.

“Those were the days when you didn’t have some new digital audio innovation coming out every year or even every month,” he continued. “The manufacturers built these products with the expectation that you’d use them for decades. Now, with so many new technologies coming out and products outdated a year after you buy them, the manufacturers know you’re going to ditch a new receiver in three to five years, so why should they build it to last?”

Yamaha YP-701

Customer Cam Steere agreed with Sauck, “To get a new turntable that’s the same level of quality as one of the old turntables costs a lot more money,” he said.

“It’s more than just reliability, too,” Sauck continued. “It’s also a question of retaining value. The vintage gear commands a certain value and rarely falls below that as the years go by, whereas home theater audio gear now has a depreciation trend worse than computers, especially in the last 15 years.”

Still, I couldn’t resist recalling a few old audio products I’d found at garage sales and swap meets that seemed like great deals-until I brought them home and found that they didn’t work. “That’s never the case here,” Sauck said. “Everything we sell has been thoroughly checked out and comes with a full 30-day warranty, regardless of the issue. We take great pride in restoring these items and even offer to check items over for people before they buy them from online ads or yard sales to ensure they’re not going to have a boat anchor when they plug it in at home. This is one of the many things we do for free for our customers.”

To illustrate his point, Sauck took me back to the store’s tech lab, which has two large test benches and is fully equipped with test gear ranging from a brand-new Sencore audio test station to decades-old tube testers. On one bench, I spotted a 1983 Carver M-400, a product I’d seen only in ads. It’s a 200-watt-per-channel stereo amp housed in a 7-inch cube, an innovative design for its time and still pretty modern almost 30 years later. When I asked about it, Brian, the repair technician, described the amp’s intricacies and idiosyncrasies in incredible detail; I wondered if even Bob Carver, the amp’s legendary designer, knew so much about it.

A Passionate Clientele

After seeing how much cool old gear Innovative Audio had on hand, I wondered how Sauck could provide such a great selection of vintage audio components. Before I had the chance to pose the question, someone walked in with a beautiful 1970s Yamaha receiver that Sauck recognized from 10 meters away. “It was my father’s,” the customer said, “and I wanted to find out if it’s working right and if it’s worth anything.”

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

“A lot of people walk in with gear they want to sell,” Sauck said. “If I can’t buy it, I’ll check with customers in the store to see if they’re interested. Often we find that if the price is right the item will change hands quickly. We have a test bench for customers to try out any piece of gear we have-or even their own. We actually encourage them to use our shop as a meeting place to swap and trade. That way we can help answer any questions that may arise.

“And by the way, I don’t take a cut of any of this. If the customer is happy, I’m happy.”

In fact, some of Innovative Audio’s customers are so passionate about vintage audio that they’ll happily help out when Sauck and his staff are busy. “If someone needs help and I’m busy with another customer, often one of the other customers can tell them what they need to know. They’ll even answer the phone for me if I can’t get to it! Some of them are so into it they even volunteer to help out around the store.”

Sauck summed up his business-and the vintage audio scene in general-perfectly when he said, “We have a very different way of running a business than the big-name electronics stores. This is a place where people feel at home, where they can see and buy products that they really love and play with stuff they could only see in magazines back then. The gear of the past helps people connect with their own pasts-and enjoy the future!”