What to Consider When Buying Vintage Audio Electronics

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What to Consider When Buying Vintage Audio Electronics

Vintage audio electronics was once mainly the purview of serious collectors, however, there is an increasing movement towards recapturing a type of depth – famed musician Neil Young refers to it nowadays as the ‘soul’, the experience of listening to ‘real’ music as it actually sounds when performed, without having been sanitised – that people are now beginning to realise is lacking in digital content. And so, consumers have begun turning their eye back towards owning those very vintage electronics they happily tossed out a few decades ago. More and more, such purchasers who relish the sound of vinyl playing on a turntable are gathering friends of an evening for the sole purpose to sit and listen to records of bygone musical greats.

It is important to understand that, when considering the purchase of vintage audio electronics, not all vintage electronics on the market necessarily work or work optimally. That is because there is an established market for those who not only are collectors but also for those who like to tinker and repair such pieces. The key here is simply to be aware of that fact and ensure that, if tinkering and repairing is not where one’s interest or talents lie, that the electronics being purchased are in satisfactory, working condition.

In addition, changes in technology, such as analogue to digital, can affect and even limit the general usage of such electronics. A good example of this is old valve radios. These have become increasingly popular with buyers, however, many radio stations have moved from long, medium, and short wave frequencies onto FM or even DAB (Digital Audio Broadcast), so an old valve radio is not able to receive the signals from these stations. Most valve radios do not possess an FM receiver.

Vintage Valve Radios

By far the most popular form of vintage electronics is the valve radio. From the early 1920s onwards, and with increasing sophistication, the valve radio became the main source of entertainment in homes everywhere. Very early radio sets were ‘Crystal Sets’ or ‘Cats Whisker Sets’. These required no batteries or mains power as they had no valves to amplify the weak radio signals. Instead, they relied on the power of the radio waves themselves to power high-impedance headphones. As a consequence of this, they required huge aerials, often in the tens of meters long, with a good, sound, earth connection.

By the late 1920s, with the invention of valve technologies and their increasing complexity and sensitivity, most radio sets were sold to lower income families through a weekly payment plan. What had been almost exclusively the domain of the wealthy was now affordable to the masses. With this increased accessibility came an explosion of manufacturers, all offering the public access to this new medium of entertainment and information.

With the advent of modern, digital-only radio stations, and the moving away from the ‘traditional’ long, medium, and short wave transmission frequencies, it is understandable that older vintage radios lost their appeal. However, it is now possible to upgrade an old valve radio with a DAB receiver. This means that in addition to picking up the old time traditional long, medium, or short wave transmissions, the valve radio can pick up the modern digital-only stations, playing them through the old amplifiers and speakers of the original radio and thereby leaving the classic, warm, sound of the radio intact. There may be a long waiting list for these companies’ services, as each set is repaired and upgraded by hand, taking many hours of patient work.

Other classes of audio electronics that are considered to fall under the vintage umbrella are early Hi-Fi (high fidelity) sets, originating in the 1950s and ’60s. While many of these early Hi-Fi’s were powered by valves, increasingly, they had transistors incorporated. The advent of the transistor was an important milestone in the development of domestic sound reproduction equipment. It meant that equipment could be much smaller in size, making it exceedingly more portable, it required less power to operate, and it switched on immediately, rather than having to wait several minutes for the valves to warm up.

The 1970s saw an explosion of manufacturers as the transistors in Hi-Fis became cheaper, and production was transferred from the West to the Far East, where labour costs were much lower. Although the cheaper transistors meant that manufacturers could cram more into their designs, meaning more features and benefits, the early transistors, like their older valve cousins, suffered from reliability and noise issues.

Today, if repairing an old transistor Hi-Fi, the owner has the option as to whether they want the older transistors and capacitors replaced with modern components, which greatly improve the set’s noise and reliability issues, but affect the set’s original sound quality. While original transistors, from the 1960s and ’70s, are still available for sets needing repair, they will be costlier than their newer equivalents.

Vintage Amplifiers

If the purchaser is looking to buy a vintage amplifier,, they must consider the impedance (an electrical measurement) of the speakers it will comfortably handle.  While most modern manufacturers have settled on an impedance of 8 ohms, many early manufacturers built their amplifiers to drive 4 ohms, or even 16 ohms or higher. Plugging a pair of 8-ohm speakers into an amplifier designed for 16 ohms is not recommended, as the amplifier will have to work twice as hard as it was originally intended to do. This could lead to problems with overheating and sound distortion.

Vintage Record Decks

Over recent years, there has been a resurgence of collectors and Hi-Fi enthusiasts who specialise in vinyl recordings. To this end, a new range of components, specifically designed for older turntables, has sprung up. These specialist suppliers include replacement cartridge and stylus manufacturers, and even specialist turntable belt manufacturers. If the purchaser is looking to buy a vintage record deck,, a careful check should be performed to see whether the turntable is a direct drive, belt-driven, or rim-driven, to make sure replacement parts are still available. Sometimes, vintage record decks will be advertised with a particular tone-arm or stylus, another item to ensure available replacement, if necessary.

Vintage Cassette Decks

Although from the late 1960s onwards, large, ‘open-reel’ tape machines were popular, the 1970s saw the introduction of the compact cassette. Originally designed by Philips of Holland, the cassette saw the first wave of devices that were able to faithfully record an LP into a small format, suitable for playing on portable tape players around the house and in the car. This was a revolution in home audio entertainment systems that led to the first wave of consumers who would buy an album on vinyl, then tape it for everyday playing, thus preserving the delicate vinyl as a ‘master copy’.

Today, many internal drive belts on vintage cassette recorders are likely to be worn or perished, and the delicate record/playback heads will often need adjustment for maximum levels of treble reproduction. Also, the chrome pinch and rubber idler wheels, located just to the right of the main record/playback heads, are vitally important in a cassette, as they control the wow and flutter – that is, the minor speed variations – in recording and playback of the tape. These wheels should be bright chrome for the narrow pinch wheel, and a dull black, not brown, for the rubber idler wheel. A visual inspection of the main record/playback heads is also strongly recommended. These should be bright chrome and they should bear no visible lines of wear where the tape passes across them. Old and damaged heads will achieve a much lower quality when recording or playing a tape. While replacement heads are available, replacing these should only be considered if the user knows exactly what they are doing, or has access to a qualified electronics engineer.

Type of Vintage Audio Equipment

Date Range

Valve Radio

1920s–1950s

Amplifier

1940s–1960s

Record Deck

1950s–1970s

Cassette Deck

1970s–1990s

Buying Vintage Audio Electronics on eBay

Browsing through the many thousands of vintage pieces of audio gear on eBay can be a nostalgic, entertaining, and above all, fun, way to spend time. All the vintage Hi-Fi gear you remember your parents, or even grandparents, owning can often be found if you look hard enough. Many people buy vintage Hi-Fi for nostalgic reasons, but a growing number are buying ‘classic’ sets, either as purely beautiful furniture, or as a conversation piece when entertaining friends and relatives.

eBay is an excellent and convenient source for finding hard to locate items. Before bidding on any item, do pay particular attention to the photographs of the piece, and if there’s something you’re not sure of, ask the seller a question – the vast majority will gladly answer your queries on a point, or respond to requests for further clarifying photographs. Remember that, if your initial search provides too many options from which to choose, you can very easily narrow your search down with additional keywords in your search query.

Conclusion

Vintage audio electronics is a field for collectors that is growing, year by year. All the sets that were, up until a few years ago, thrown out for being ‘old fashioned’ are now getting new leases of life up and down the country. People are realising that, while their audio equipment wasn’t completely up to date, it had a place in their homes, not only for the warm, rich sounds it gave, but sometimes also from the sheer pleasure of looking at it. It may not have had the number of knobs, buttons, equalisers, and all other fancy kinds of graphic displays that most modern Hi-Fis possess, but that was more than made up for by the warmth and richness of the tone.

Yes, a modern digital recording played on the latest digital Hi-Fi may be technically ‘perfect’, with no scratches, hissing, and occasional popping, but sometimes it is those very quirks that add instead of subtract from listening pleasure. Listening to authentic music on authentic, vintage audio equipment is a pleasurable pastime that is set to continue to grow in the years to come.

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