Buying Vintage Audio Equipment

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I have had an interest in used audio equipment for quite a few years, mostly sourcing it from sellers here on eBay. However, this has not always been a good experience, so here I sum up a few things to look out for.

1) Beware fuzzy and out-of-focus images. Okay, not everyone is a David Bailey, but this can often also be a sign of a lazy seller. The item is also likely to be in worse condition than stated and will probably be packaged poorly, arriving with you in an even worse state! Sometimes, the seller claims that they do not want to be paying higher listing fees by putting more pictures up. Lets get this in context. Images cost pennies, and often the seller is asking considerably more than that! Beware! There should be several clear shots of the item from lots of angles—enough to give the buyer confidence in what they are buying.

2) Ignore opinions on sound quality. Whilst you may arguably state that certain equipment is much better than others, as you would with cars or other products, the case for the defence is much more complicated. As per the real world, their is plenty of room for those that want to drive a Kia as there is for those who want a BMW. Paying more does not necessarily mean better. If you like something, that is all that matters.

There are a huge number of variables surrounding sound quality, including the quality of components, the physical condition of the equipment, cables, partnering equipment, the decor of your room, the taste of your music, the ability of your ears, etc, etc, etc. Audiophiles (audiofools) will often make sweeping claims as to the sound quality of certain pieces. Simply ignore this! It’s meaningless, and quite frankly it is really only stated to try and sell. Many sellers are middle-aged at best, and as such their hearing is already impaired and cannot hear a full audio range anyway! After all, you would you list an item on eBay and state it that sounded awful? If the statements are qualified to a certain degree, that’s reasonable—so long as the seller states that it is their own (humble) opinion.

I have seen a listing recently for a set of ‘empty’ speaker cabinets where the seller waxes lyrical about the unique sound quality and unique build quality and how rare they were. In fact you see them regularly, but I never realised how good empty cabinets may sound!!! Amazing! Beware these stupid and disingenuous sellers! 

Potential buyers will often check out forums and other sites for advice on which model(s) to buy, but after a while you soon realise you can find as many people for as you can against… often not a lot to be gained. There are one or two prime sources that appear to provide lots of detailed assessment of amplifier and receivers in particular, but is fundamentally flawed as they only test with headphones—and are of an age of much reduced hearing! Moreover, they have  a rather over-inflated opinion of their own expertise.

Lastly, as this is quite a contentious field, we must all recognise that out hearing deteriorates with age. Fact! Point already made earlier, but worth detailing here. Vintage audio is very much a middle-aged male domain. I have visited a retired seller in the past, again waxing lyrical about the unique tweeters on his speakers that apparently he could tell were going well beyond 20Hz. At his age, if he could hear much above 10kHz, I would be surprised!! Occasionally, this can be excused as some systems or settings that bias the higher frequencies, just creating the illusion of more top end.  Only a very young person can hear sound between 20Hz and 20kHz. From your twenties onwards your hearing continues to degrade. Just beware and bear this in mind.

3) Ensure the seller knows how to package an item. You might be surprised at how often a seller states it will be well-packaged, to then receive an expensive item, with one layer of thin bubble-wrap around it! If it is arrives in one piece and un-damaged, that is more by luck than any effort of the seller. Despite popular myth, I personally find couriers save many sellers’ bacon, often taking more care than they need. Those that claim couriers damage items and are not to be trusted are often recounting experiences that reflect the fact they packaged it poorly in the first place. After all, couriers are box shifters, not antique furniture movers. Lots of bubble-wrap, foam, polystyrene nuggets, etc., all help ensure the item reaches you in good order. Personally, my test is after packaging an item and placing it on a sofa, would I be worried if I pushed it off on to the floor. If the answer is yes, then re-package.

4) Ask questions. Many sellers are lazy. Items will be listed as used, which according to eBay policy also means working! However, many sellers, often falsely, claim items are in full working order. Ask them what they have done to make that claim. At best, you will often find they have plugged in a iPod/MP3 player in to one input, a set of speakers, and heard sound come out. At worst, they saw the power light come on when plugged in! This is meaningless. Vintage equipment will always need some work doing. Sometimes they claim it was working when put in the loft 10+ years ago. Again, a worthless and meaningless supposition. Most lofts are not good places for vintage audio gear due to temperature and humidity fluctuations.

I have experienced a seller claiming a vintage receiver was in full working order, only to receive it and find out that the so-called radio only had AM, which is next to useless in this day and age. Whilst an FM facility was clearly part of the receiver, the decoder was missing from the item... conveniently ignored by the seller, despite claiming it was in full working order! Furthermore, another seller sent me a receiver with all bulbs out. Complete darkness befell the receiver on power-up. Apparently, the seller did not notice this, even though he ‘trades in vintage audio’! How he tuned it in and claimed it in full working order, who knows. There is no shame in some sellers, it seems. There are many more experiences I can recall, but I would suggest it is safe, as a buyer, to assume a greater degree of ignorance and incompetence on the part of the seller than you perhaps should. If a seller doesn’t answer your questions to your satisfaction, move on.

5) Beware ‘Seller Refurbished’ items. This is simply a call to be cautious. Many sellers are not really qualified to do work on audio equipment, so beware. Changing cartridges and belts on turntables is one thing, but carrying out electrical changes is something else! Unless a seller proves they are competent and qualified to do certain things, beware DIY refurbished items, especially as sellers often look to justify a higher price for the item. Moreover, if an item is refurbished it is reasonable to expect some warranty on those parts at least. More often than not, you will be scoffed at if asked. This simply provides good reason to avoid that seller.

A long time ago I bought some refurbished speakers, only to find that speaker cable had been hand-wrapped around the terminal! Of course, they did not work by the time they got to me. This was a seller specialising in refurbished audio gear! I have also seen sellers claiming that the turntable they have has been speed-tested to a Lenco chart. The fact that is was a Lenco speed chart is irrelevant, and it was also a turntable that had no speed adjustment anyway! Basically, all he was saying is that it operated as designed. Vintage audio is full of middle-aged hobbyists, often equipped with lots of enthusiasm but little real knowledge. Beware!

5) Research. It’s always worth doing a little research beforehand. Apart from technical information, look through the sale prices of completed items. Also use Google for this as it can sometimes still refer to listings removed by eBay, when eBay itself doesn’t show them. Current selling prices are not a reliable guide. Some sellers, once questioned, state there is another for sale at that price. In other words, acting like a lemming. Another seller claimed that a ‘by Royal Appointment…’ label mean’t he could add several hundred pounds to the price of some basic speakers! The point is there are a lot of sellers trying it on, trying to dupe that poor unsuspecting buyer (Forest Gump) in to paying well over the odds for something. Unless there is a history of sale prices at that level, it isn’t worth that! I have seen many such items stay for sale for months on end before the seller gives up. Usefully, eBay has now introduced a ‘trending’ price which, in time, will soon highlight these sellers more obviously.

6) Take your time. We have been in the age of mass manufacture for a long time. Claims of rarity are often false. eBay has a huge turnover of items and you probably will not wait that long for another example to appear. Moreover, even if something is ‘rare’, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is any good.

There are genuine and decent sellers out there. There are also lots of great and interesting pieces of audio equipment, but be cautious and take your time, and you will be rewarded.

Good luck!
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