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Vintage Audio


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
February 8, 2010

Between craigslist and eBay, we are living in the golden age of used audio equipment. While 99% of the old stuff out there, like 99% of the new stuff, is junk, there is some great gear to be had at great prices.

The nature of audio technology makes it so that most equipment does not improve with age. While vinyl continues to grow in popularity, vintage turntables, tone arms, and cartridges themselves have very limited appeal. The typical turntable during the dawn of the vinyl LP was the Garrard. While some high-end Garrard turntables appear to be getting top dollar on eBay, most mass market Garrards are long dead. An ideal turntable resists vibration and spins at the proper, dead-constant speed. Few old turntables, and certain few of those with mass appeal, were good at either, much less both. Microelectronics and advanced materials make possible near-perfect turntables today that could never have been imagined in the past.

There are two categories of audio equipment that, unlike turntables, have stood the test of time: FM tuners and acoustic suspension speakers. The seemingly endless decline in the quality of FM radio has virtually destroyed the market for new high-end FM tuners, either as standalone units or integrated into a receiver. Nowadays, the tuner in a receiver (plain stereo or AV) is an afterthought that benchmarks so poorly that its capture ratio and other key specs are almost always omitted the marketing literature. Standalone tuners still exist, but languish in obscurity.

Vintage tuners, however, are still going strong. My sentimental favorite with a large cult following is the Marantz 10B. They currently sell for $1,000 and up (depending on condition) on eBay. Even if one ignores its supposedly outstanding sound quality (I haven't heard one in over 40 years), the 10B is an amazing piece of audio bling. That is because it uses small oscilloscope as its tuning aid instead of the linear signal strength meter that was standard of the day. (Contemporary receivers, including the flagship models, have no tuning aids at all, not even the line of LEDs that replaced signal strength meters some time ago.)

While I don't own the 10B, I still have the Yamaha CR-840 receiver that I bought in 1979. While the quality is a probably good two notches below that of the 10B and its ilk, its tuner easily tops the Yamaha AV receiver that I bought a few years ago to replace it. Lacking any form of remote control, the CR-840 no longer fits my lifestyle, so it resides in the attic awaiting an unknown fate.

That leaves acoustic suspension speakers as the vintage audio equipment of choice. My big audio acquisition of 2009 was a pair of Advent Loudspeakers (known as the Large Advents) from a craigslist seller for $30. They were purchased to replace a pair of Sound Research 1010 speakers that were the only remaining part of the first stereo system that I purchased in 1974. I got the Sound Research speakers along with a Harman Kardon 230A receiver (long dead from the episode where I learned not to block the air holes in electronic equipment) from the University Stereo near the Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, California. University Stereo and Pacific Stereo were the micro-sized Best Buys of their day in Southern California.

The Sound Research speakers were store brand knockoffs of the Advents, which in turn were descendents of earlier AR and KLH speakers. The common thread between AR, KLH, and Advent was they were all designed (or co-designed) by the late Henry Kloss. While I never met Henry in all my years hanging out in Cambridge, his head of research at KLH, Henry Morgan, was my dean for several years at Boston University' School of Management.

Despite holding onto these cheap knockoff speakers for 35 years, I finally had to admit that they sounded terrible and possibly had not sounded good ever since their original speaker foam disintegrated and I replaced the speakers with Radio Shack models. (Any 1970s acoustic suspension speaker that is not stored in a vacuum will likely succumb to "foam rot" within 25 years.) These had stopped being my primary speakers when foam rot set in and had been relegated to the family room.

It should be noted that while $30 is an amazing price for a pair of Advent Loudspeakers, they were in dreadful condition when I got them. One tweeter was completely blown and both woofers need to be refoamed. Quick and excellent repairs from Millersound (no relation) brought the all-inclusive cost of the speakers to just under $200.

What's so great about vintage speakers like the Advents? They were designed by human beings to sound good to human beings, and the discerning Henry Kloss, in particular. Contemporary speakers are designed by computer with humans somewhere in the loop. Vintage speakers are essentially monophonic speakers that are designed to make the direct reproduction of sound as good as possibly. Nowhere in the promotional literature for the Advent Loudspeaker does the word "imaging" ever arise. Good contemporary speakers are all about accurate imaging, even if the sound (for a human perspective) must be compromised in the process.

I have a single, specialized application for my Advents. I use them to listen to 1970s and 1980s pop/rock/alternative music while puttering around in the kitchen that is adjacent to the family room where they are located. Imaging matters not at all in this configuration, my listening position is extremely off-axis, but the overall quality of the sound matters a lot. For music of the 1970s and 1980s whether the source is vinyl or digital is a second order consideration relative to the speakers used to reproduce the sound. While admittedly, most American music of the period was mixed in the studio using JBL (so-called West Coast) speakers, Advents are a reasonable (and one might say, more sophisticated) East Coast equivalent.

By my reasoning, one should have different speakers for different music, which is exactly what I do. And it is possible to do so without spending a lot of money. My main system, which is put to more eclectic uses than the family room system, uses a Polk/Advent/Klipsch speaker set-up. The main four speakers are Polk bargain units from the newegg and Tweeter clearance tables. (Literally a table at Tweeter, figuratively one at newegg.) While Polks lack snob appeal, their "optimal" sound could only have been achieved by computer. My center speaker, which gets most of the vocal action, however, is a Small Advent that came with my house. (The subwoofer is a Klipsch, which is well on the way to being vintage itself.) I get the best of both worlds, the human touch of Advent for the most human part of the music, and modern technology of the Polks for the bulk of the sonic image. While conventional wisdom has it that the center speaker should "match" the other front speakers, this particular hybrid works seamlessly. My success with this configuration may have less to do with the inherent properties of the speakers than with my Yamaha receiver performing aggressive computerized equalization to make them match.

I do not see vintage speakers taking over the world any time soon or getting even a fraction of the attention that vinyl has. I only appreciate vintage speakers because I know what multi-tracked classic rock sounded like back in the day. I suspect that the "lack of refinement" of vintage speakers relative to the popular Polks and the like would seriously turn off most contemporary listeners. Indeed, the conventional wisdom on many web forums is that speaker technology has improved so greatly over the last 20 years that vintage speakers are simply not worth considering. With a seeming endless supply of Advents out there (millions were produced and they are not easily moved, much less disposed of), they should remain affordable as long as they stay out of fashion.

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