The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XIV: Everything Old Is New Again (August 1999)
I've been spending a lot of time lately on e-bay... you know, the on-line auction website. I've decided that I want an FM tuner in my system again. I sold my last one, an NAD 4155, back in 1990 after my divorce and I needed the $75 to buy something stupid like groceries. I can even remember putting on a front for the guy who bought it, saying something awful like, "If that's all it's worth, then I don't want it in my system." As a result of that arrogance, I've spent nearly a decade without FM in my home.
You see, most of the tuners I really want cost at least a grand. And while I'm still against "cheaping out" and buying some $200 unit from Hitachi or Sanyo or Panasonic, I balk at the idea of spending ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS just to listen to the radio. So it hit me... why not look for some beautiful vintage tuner from McIntosh or Marantz or Kenwood? You know, something with a big beautiful dial rather than some cheesy LED readout? Something that was built like a tank, built to last forever? Something with a GYRO-TUNING KNOB?
That's where e-bay came in. I've been bidding here and there on some downright gorgeous old units, lovingly maintained by fellow audiophiles for anywhere from 20 to 35 years. The problem is, I'm new to auctioning, and I always get outbid about twelve seconds before the auction closes. I'm feeling really lucky about this Marantz 105B I'm currently bidding on... it's a stunning tuner in an almost flawless walnut cabinet, and I've been the top bidder for several days straight now. As I write this, the bidding closes in twenty hours. My bid is... get this... $81. I'm willing to go $125 or even $150. And this tuner will perform nearly as well as all those $1000 units I've been looking at, and it's twice as good-looking to boot. Keep your fingers crossed for me!
Well, after a few days of looking up everything in the world I could possibly want, from Coca-Cola TV dinner trays to 1914-D Lincoln pennies, it hit me. Turntables! I get dozens of e-mails from people telling me that while they want to get back into analog, they feel that my recommended $500 expenditure for entry-level vinyl bliss is a bit out of their league. "Is there anything I can get for $300? $200? Under $100?" a few people have asked. That's when I recommend a used unit, and after I do so, I can easily imagine them saying to themselves, "I don't want some dusty, dirty old thing that's been sitting in someone's garage since 1984." And then they go out and get some cheap plastic direct-drive 'table from Technics or Pioneer or Sony, and they then lament, "This doesn't sound better than my CD player! What the hell is that Vinyl Anachronist guy talking about?"
E-bay, therefore, is analog salvation. As a rule, most of the turntables on the auctioneer's block are in great condition. And if there is a problem, the seller is usually up-front about it (missing owner's manuals, a scratch on a cabinet, a missing screw) and the unit usually sells for a lot less than if it was mint. The sellers, in fact, have to be up-front if they want to sell again on e-bay- they are subject to documented feedback on every transaction they make. Buyers, too, are rated for their conduct (I am still rated zero because I have yet to complete a transaction, dammit!).
So if you're one of those who think that $500 is an obscene amount to pay for a new turntable, here are three vintage turntable brands you should be looking for, whether it be on e-bay, at a great used store like High-Tech, which I talked about last month, or at one of those wonderful, magical garage sales we all dream about, where the proprietors are too dumb to know what buried treasure they possess.
Back in the heyday of analog, I never thought much of Garrard turntables, mostly because I associated them with their work with BSR. BSR record-changers were ubiquitous in the '70's- a lot of companies such as Soundesign and Garrard and Panasonic built the turntable base (called a plinth, for those of you who insist on calling things by their correct names) and they'd slap on a BSR changer mechanism because it was cheap and generally reliable. Back in the '70's, you could buy a new turntable made from a BSR changer for $49, or even less. Unfortunately, BSR changers were made from thin, crappy plastic, and they sounded dreadful.
Garrard, however, made several premium 'tables, using high-quality parts and decent engineering, and they've held up admirably over the years. Garrard 'tables such as the 301 and the 401 have wildly loyal followings even today- there is a thriving cottage industry based on modifying these rigs and bringing their performance up to today's standards. Yes, these old turntables from the '60's and '70's, when properly tweaked, can sound as good as the Linns and the Roksan's and the VPI's produced today. I've seen plenty of $2000 tonearms and $2000 cartridges stuck on Garrards, too. In fact, tweaking these 'tables has become so popular, Garrard is set to introduce their first new model in 25 years, the 501. I've seen pictures, though, and it is a substantial-looking turntable, so don't expect it to be cheap.
Unfortunately, on e-bay, most of the auctions on Garrard 301's and 401's close out to around that $500 mark that makes so many potential vinyl addicts wince. The Garrard tables that close out for significantly less turn out to be units that may be in poor shape (if you're handy with such things, this may be worth it), or the models themselves are not 301's or 401's and are so ancient that it's unlikely they offer anything more than adequate performance. But if you find yourself at a flea market staring at a serviceable Garrard 301 or 401, and you have enough in your checkbook to cover it, by all means do so! A few modifications down the road, and you'll have an analog system that will easily put your CD player to shame!
Everyone who listened to records in the '60's and '70's knows about Dual. This German company sold what must have been hundreds of thousands of turntables up until the time CD's appeared. Dual 'tables also offered very good performance at affordable prices. I owned a Dual CS-510 from about 1976 to 1982. I purchased it for $199. I loved it. Eventually I traded it in on a Technics linear-tracking 'table because the headshell assembly on the Dual was coming apart, and I thought at the time that linear-tracking tonearms were the wave of the future. This turned out to be the worst hi-fi purchasing decision I've made. The Technics turned out to offer inferior performance compared with the Dual (the linear-tracking tonearm, located in the lid of the player, had a two-inch-long armwand that was made out of plastic), and I wound up giving it away to one of my brothers after less than a year.
Duals, in fact, were so good, that many people still have theirs. And quite of few of these people have e-mailed me to ask what they can do about those pesky headshell assemblies that keep coming apart (again, High-Tech is your best bet). So what makes these 'tables so good? I think one of the main reasons Duals have held up over the years is that they were one of the first turntable manufacturers to realize the importance of the tonearm. Sure, they seem a little old-fashioned when compared to today's best from Graham, Linn, Naim and Immedia, but back then they were brilliantly-engineered marvels, and great values. The motor assemblies were also much better than the turntable's price would indicate.
Like I mentioned last month, High-Tech sells Duals in very good condition for great prices. You can also find a great Dual turntable on e-bay for less than $100. I'd look for one that was built before 1975 or so... by the time they introduced the 500-series (like my 510), the plinthes were made mostly from plastic instead of wood. Visit Allen Moore's Dual Classic Website, which I also talked about last month, at http://www.compassnet.com/concept/index.html, to get information on all the various models (there's nearly one-hundred!). Then get out on e-bay and bid like crazy! Just make sure the headshell assembly has been fixed.
One of the many reason I got rid of that crappy Technics linear-tracker back in 1983 was that AR re-introduced a turntable at that time. The original AR-XA, produced between 1962 and 1975, was a bona fide classic...it was the best-selling turntable of all time before Linn came along. It was introduced at a price of $63, and by the time its run had ended it was just a little more than a hundred. Dr. Cameron, whom I introduced in Life Without Vinyl, had one up until about two years ago, and he extracted some pretty decent sound out of that old rig. In college, when I decided to take Music 101, the turntable used in the classroom was an AR-XA. It was simple, well-built, but definitely retro. I still liked it, and I liked the sound it produced.
When the new AR turntable (called, simply, the AR Turntable) arrived in 1983 at a price of $300, I knew I wanted one. It was better looking than the original. It shared the same sprung suspension with the XA (when you touch the platter or the tonearm, they both jiggle) but the tonearm was new, or more, importantly, easily removed so you could swap it out with another (I chose a Premier MMT). That was the weak link of the old XA- the tonearm, while adequate in 1962, had definitely become primitive by the '70's. Many people found ways to put newer, better tonearms on XAs, but it was difficult, and also expensive. But you needed to do it if you wanted premium analog sound.
On e-bay I've seen plenty of XA's with original tonearms selling for around $100 or even less. And after all these years, that old tonearm is kinda cool-looking. For $100, you can't go wrong. I even think I prefer the look of the XA over its successor (I felt exactly the opposite in 1983, however). With an excellent, inexpensive cartridge such as an Audio-Technica or a Shure (don't use a Grado...that'll make for an unbearable hum), I think you can overcome the arm's shortcomings. I haven't seen the newer AR 'table on e-bay yet (it was good enough and cheap enough that most people, unlike me, held onto theirs) but if you do see one, it'll be worth bidding on, too.
I sounded (and felt) a little pessimistic about vinyl LP's and their future when I wrote last month's column. It seemed that things were winding down, that new analog product was dwindling. After spending some time on e-bay, I feel refreshed! Who cares about new product? I think the used market will carry us vinyl-loving folk well into the next century! (Could you say that back in 1986, for instance?) If the market is this flooded now with great turntables from Garrard, Dual and AR, just think about five years from now, when we'll have our pick of great used 'tables from Linn and Rega and Pink Triangle and Roksan and VPI and Nottingham and Immedia and Wilson-Benesch and Basis and Spotheim and Forsell and Amazon and Verdier and Goldmund and Walker and Rockport and Thorens and Simon Yorke and Voyd and J.A. Michell and Oracle and SOTA and Clearaudio and Kuzma and SME and Townshend and...
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