Tech Talk Logo

Why People buy old Audio Receivers

Today, you can walk into a store and buy a stereo receiver that does 7.1 surround sound, is rated at 100 watts per channel RMS, connects to your iPod/iPhone/Android/other audio, connects to the internet to allow you to use Spotify, Pandora, or any number of other audio apps, supports Dolby Atmos to give you that third spatial dimension to your sound, and all sorts of other bells and whistles, and this all at a price under $400. Given that, why in the world would anyone spend $600 - $2000 on a stereo system that was made in the ‘60s or ‘70s that has almost none of the features of today’s systems?

A Relevant History of Audio Receivers

Today’s receivers are, in large part, a quite different technology than their older counterparts. I’m not going to go back to the beginning, because there is just way too much to cover, but since the dawning of the stereo age, there have been a few technologies that have changed the way our music is reproduced on receivers. I’m also not going to discuss the differences between tube and solid-state amplifiers, because that is not what most of us are dealing with. Instead, I want to look at the differences between modern and vintage solid-state audio systems, and what might make them different.

There are many differences between today’s receivers and those of 40 or 50 years ago that have nothing to do with audio quality. 40 or 50 years ago, stereo was the thing, and it was unheard of to connect your audio system to your television. Music was also different back then. Bass, while still an important part of the audio signal, was not near as desired as it is in today’s music. Music was also mastered on analog media. Usually tape. It was then reproduced for consumers on analog media, such as records, cassette tapes, and even reel to reel tapes. Today’s music is pretty much exclusively mastered on digital media, stored in digital media, and distributed to consumers as digital media. All of these things have their benefits and drawbacks, but I don’t intend to get much into that in this discussion either. I simply bring it up to point out that what we ask of our modern sound systems is quite a bit different than that which was asked of older hardware.

The receivers of today are marketed to a different kind of consumer. In the past, almost the sole focus was on reproducing audio as cleanly as possible, with as little modification as possible. Today, as with all our devices, we want our audio systems to do everything they can, and audio reproduction has suffered as more and more features are added. Customers don’t complain though, because most people simply can’t hear the difference. Even I find it difficult to tell the difference between things like the sound of a CD and the sound of an MP3 unless they are played back to back, and I have been working in the media field for decades. One would think that if someone were going to be able to tell the difference immediately, it would be me.

Interestingly, as our tastes in video have gone from old tube type televisions with a resolution of around 640x480, to 4K flat screens, our tastes in audio have gone from high-quality reproduction, to lower quality reproduction. Instead, we focus on how much music we can have access to at our fingertips at any one time.

To round out this worsening of audio formats over time, we have sacrificed audio quality for other features. Manufacturers have noticed that people are willing to sacrifice some audio quality, but they demand more ways to get audio into their receivers. Because of this, they can spend their R&D budget more on new features, and less on audio quality, and nobody complains. Almost nobody.

There is a breed of audiophile that still longs for the days where audio quality was nearly the only concern, and they are willing to get that back by paying for older devices. And don’t get me wrong, there are some companies that still exist that are focused almost exclusively on audio quality while eschewing nearly every other bell and whistle that modern amplifiers generally have. The problem is, those systems, as expensive as older systems can be, are still much more cost prohibitive than picking up a vintage system. You can pick up a vintage “monster” system that is in great shape for several hundred dollars, and have it serviced properly, for between $200 and $600, and you will end up with a system that will last another 40 or 50 years for a quarter of the price of a comparable sounding modern unit.

What to look for

After hearing that there is a difference, you might decide you want to try an old receiver. There are some things to look for.

The first thing I see, when I am looking for a vintage receiver, is a silver face. In the mid-1980s, manufacturers started moving to pretty much exclusively black receivers. A black-faced receiver is not necessarily a disqualifier, but a silver face gives you a good chance that the system was made in the correct era.

After you see that silver face, check the brand. You may be surprised to find that brands you make look down at today were some of the best brands in the past. Sansui, for instance, is pretty much exclusively known as a bottom end television today, since they licensed their name to be placed on a whole ton of Chinese junk, but back in the early days of the company, they were at or near the top when it came to audio systems. Another name is Fisher. They sold out to Emmerson Radio company in 1969, who sold the brand to Sanyo in 1975, and we all know Emmerson and Sanyo as low-end brands today, but probably due to keeping Avery Fisher on as a consultant, they still produced highly sought after high-end audio equipment under the Fisher name into the 1980s. Some others that I tend to think have sullied their brand over the years are Pioneer, Yamaha, and Kenwood. They, especially Pioneer, were the top of the heap in the era of “monster receivers”, but today are known for mass produced junk more than anything, although they still dip their toes in somewhat higher end audio. Other good brands are obvious, such as Marantz, and McIntosh, since they still produce excellent equipment.

I have to admit that I am not fully up on all the models for these old receivers, so it is sometimes difficult to get a gauge on what they are worth. One thing that helps me figure that out is to take a look around the receiver. If there is a visible heat sink, that is a sign that it might be worthy of some money. Some receivers, such as extreme high-end Pioneer models, had a heat sink that covered nearly half the case, including the sides. Is the back end a steel panel, or is it a masonite wood panel? Masonite is always low end.

One really good way to tell whether you are dealing with a higher end receiver from that era is weight. If the thing comes up off the table as though it were made of cardboard, that means that it has a small transformer. If you start thinking that you might need a second person to help you pick it up, that means it has a large transformer. Transformer size is directly correlated to the amount of watts the unit puts out. Higher wattage, just as today, means more expense, and the more things cost back then, the more engineering went into them.

If you are lucky, you can enter it into eBay, and filter by sold listings to see what they are going for. Sometimes though, you might come across something so rare that it simply hasn’t sold anything recent enough for eBay to have a listing. At that point, if you are pressed for time, you just have to make your best guess and hope you don’t miss out by offering too little or screw yourself by paying too much.

Any way you go through, if you get your hands on an old gem, do yourself a favor, and put some music through it from the era of the receiver first. You will notice the difference, even if you have it only in a digital format. They just respond well to that music. Later, you can experiment with different types of music, and see how much of a difference you notice. One thing is for sure. You will notice a difference, and you may not look back.