The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc PhillipsIs it me, or is That 70s Show the coolest show on TV? I'm not sure what blows my skirt up the most- the fact that the opening theme is Big Star's "In The Street" or that the kids all smoke pot without the whole shebang turning into an Afterschool Special or that the redhead who plays Donna, the girl next door, really has my hormones in an uproar. I think the real reason I love the show is because I was almost exactly that age back then, a teenager in the late '70's. And the show is pretty authentic, down to the smallest detail. I especially like looking at that BSR record changer the kids keep down in the basement, not to mention those nasty looking Cerwin-Vega speakers in the corner. All the kids back then had that kind of setup. All of the kids, that is, except for me.
Part XXI: That '70's Sound
Yep, even back then I had a pretty serious stereo. All my friends came over to my house to listen to records. And they were all impressed with the sound. Some of them even took the cue and bought pretty decent systems themselves. Dual turntables. Kenwood receivers. Infinity speakers. And cassette decks. Lots of cassette decks, for your car, of course. And of course, having a cassette deck meant having to make a dozen tapes for your friends whenever you bought something really cool like "The Wall" or Parallel Lines or Armed Forces. Now, when someone asks me to tape something, I bark, "Support the artist...go out and buy it yourself!" But back then, I was constantly buried under a pile of Maxell UDXL-IIs, with an Allsop Head Cleaner perched on top like a bright red Maraschino.
I talked about this last time, the magic I felt with audio components back in the late 70s. Modest little receivers seemed to sound much better than the bland-looking bell-and-whistle collections that pass for receivers these days. And turntables were cheap, and good. They were made of wood, not plastic, and they lasted forever. And speakers... well, they were big and loud and they really pissed off your parents. Yep, those were the days.
I can remember shopping at my favorite stereo store, too- Pacific Stereo, not too far from Angel Stadium and Disneyland. They loved me, this goofy fifteen-year-old kid who spent all his paper-route money on stereo gear. Amazingly, they treated me with a lot of respect, too- that's why they got all my business! (Dennis Wright, master salesman, where are you now?) I loved the way they organized the store, with all of the receivers (they were big on Sansui and Kenwood), speakers (they were big on AR and Infinity), and turntables (they were REALLY big on Dual), placed into little alcoves, system by system, dozens of them lined against the perimeter walls. Of course this is no way to really listen to a system to see if you like it, but I loved the mix-and-match philosophy, and the almost endless variety. In England, they still do it this way, with lots of integrated amps, CD players and speakers, and you choose the combination and then get the "system discount."
Well, for the last few months I've been thinking about recreating one of these systems for my bedroom. At first I thought I'd stop trading in old equipment when I upgrade, and let the old pieces filter into my bedroom. But I've spent a lot of time on e-bay this past year, and I've openly salivated at the sight of so many vintage pieces of stereo gear being sold for so little money. So I thought I'd give it a shot to see if I could "live" with the final result, and if I could, well, wouldn't that be a great alternative for those people trying to get back into vinyl only to find it has now become a "luxury" hobby? I think so!
Of course, I'm going to begin here, because your source component is the most important, whether it be a turntable or an (ahem) CD player. If you buy a crappy source component, then all of the great amplifiers and great speakers of the world won't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. I've already talked about your choices here extensively in Everything Old Is New Again, but I thought I'd go into a little more detail, since I'm trying to get the whole system for just a few hundred dollars at the most. So the Garrard 301 and 401, perhaps the best "vintage" turntables in existence, are out. I've been seeing them fly out of e-bay for the better part of a grand lately.
In other words, let's stick to AR and Dual. Armed with a little info, I think you can walk away with a near-mint specimen for about a hundred bucks. There are other turntables you may consider for this kind of money- Thorens, Ariston, and Philips come to mind, but I'm going to stick with these two because there seems to be a steady supply of them on the used market, and both have an excellent reputation for reliability, which is very important when you're buying something mechanical that is older than you are.
For my system, I at first was leaning toward the Duals. At any given moment there are 40 or so Duals for sale on e-bay- great pickins! Unfortunately, there are so many Dual models to consider, that it becomes overwhelming. I was armed with the advice that the best Duals were the ones from the early '70's with wooden bases. I had a belt-drive 510 that I purchased in 1977 that had a plastic base, and I know now that that's a no-no. But another problem with Dual is that they experimented with so many types of drive systems (belt-drive, direct-drive, idler-wheel drive, gear drive) and I've always maintained the superiority of belt drive system. Unfortunately, some of the most highly coveted Duals, such as the 1229 and the 1218 (which will probably run you over $200 on e-bay), are idler-wheel drives, a strange method that sort of combined direct and belt drives and that actually require periodic maintenance. I was confused.
So what should you do? Well, Allen Moore's Classic Dual Website is still a great way to research the wonderfulness of Dual. (Click on http://www.compassnet.com/concept/index.html. But you may have to choose between a complicated machine that sounds great but requires a lot of care, such as the 1019, and any Dual model between the 1201 and the 1229, or a easy-to-maintain, reliable belt-drive model such as the 500 series, which may not sound quite as good, but will definitely be less of a headache to own.
That's why I finally decided on the classic AR-XA turntable, which was manufactured from 1962 to 1975. It's belt-drive, it's simple, it has a sprung suspension, and it will probably last forever. The problem with looking at an old AR-XA (or its slightly cosmetically different successor, the AR-XB) is finding one that doesn't look like someone took it to 'Nam and carried it around in their backpack. Some of the ARs on e-bay are a bit rough around the edges...disintegrated platter mats, cracked dustcovers, stained wood bases, missing badges. They probably spin LPs just fine, but who wants a 'table that looks like it's being held together with band-aids? Waiting for that very special AR-XA to come along on one of the on-line auction sites may require a bit of patience. But if you see a nice one, bid aggressively- they're worth much more than the $120 you'll probably wind up paying, and that's even with the somewhat primitive tonearm.
Finally, a word on cartridges. Most of the vintage tables out there come with cartridges. This may be a mixed blessing- how worn is that needle? How stiff is the tiny suspension? How much dust has migrated up the cantilever into the body? You want to make sure that the cartridge isn't going to re-cut some new grooves into your favorite LP. Cartridges, unlike a good belt-drive turntable, will not last for decades. Find out about the included cartridge when you buy- and keep in mind that most needles only last for about 500 hours of playing time. If you get a vintage 'table, you're better off buying a new, cheap cartridge, such as a Grado Prestige or a Shure or a Stanton. If you keep it under $100, you probably won't feel bad for spending the dough. And you'll save a few records in the process.
This is my new passion- vintage '70's receivers. I'm thinking about changing the name of this column to The '70's Receiver Ananchronist. Catchy, ain't it? I love old receivers. I love gyro-tuning knobs. I love linear tuning dials. I love meters with needles that jump around for no good reason. I love silver faceplates. I hate digital readouts. In high school I used to draw pictures of receivers, complete with dozens of tiny little push-buttons, on the covers of my Pee-Chees. Yes, I was a little freak.
Your choices are rather limited nowadays, which is a good thing. If a 70s receiver is still in good working order now, chances are that there are still many good years left. I've always hated Japanese mass-market components because many of them have a life expectancy of just five to eight years. But there are a few great receivers that still work great more than twenty years after they've been manufactured. And most of them, not coincidentally, sound good as well. Like I've said before, construction quality is usually connected to sound quality.
So what should you look for on e-bay? That's difficult, because when you punch up "receivers" on their search field, you get MANY matches. Probably close to a thousand. And 96% of that is crap, pure and simple. So I'll just throw out the names of some of the great, classic receivers, and hopefully you'll be able to snag a mint one for next to nothing.
Back in the '70's, Kenwood made great receivers. My brother owned one, a KR-4400, up until just a few years ago, and it performed flawlessly until it exploded. I almost purchased a KR-9600, which was the top-of-the-line monster in the late '70's, which was so big I could stuff my little brother completely into its chassis (he's married with three children now, I don't think he'd be up to the challenge). I see KR-9600s and KR-9400s on e-bay once in a while, and they'll wind up going for about $100-$150. In fact, any of the "KR" models will be a good choice.
Sansui made a couple of great receivers in the '70's- the 8080DB and the 9090DB, which were the first receivers to employ Dolby noise reduction. I remember having a Kenwood KR-9600 on layaway when I was fifteen, and I switched to a Sansui 8080DB because it was cheaper and sounded better. You can get these for less than $100.
Luxman introduced a series of receivers around 1977 that were the most beautiful receivers I'd ever seen (large, oversized knobs, champagne-colored faceplates, rosewood veneer cabinetry) and it turns out these are true classics because they sound wonderful, too. The models started at the R1040 and worked their way up through the 1050, the 1070, and, well, I'm not sure how far it goes up. A R1040 in mint condition will go for $150, though, maybe more. But there's a lot of pride in ownership with these babies, and you'll caress those big oversized knobs long into the night.
Advent, the well-known speaker manufacturer, made a receiver in the '70's which, while it wasn't much to look at, sounded fantastic, and now it is very collectible. If you're all into the sound quality aspect of collecting vintage stuff, the Model 300 receiver is the one to get and you might just be lucky enough to snag one for about $100. Ditto with the AR Receiver, which is fairly rare, but quite a prize, and would probably be the perfect match for your vintage AR-XA 'table.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention McIntosh, which makes arguably the best-looking, best-sounding, most reliable vintage equipment around. The problem is that McIntosh gear is very collectible, to the point where it's going to be next to impossible to find any piece, be it one of their wonderful tuners, amplifiers, preamps, or receivers, that can be had for less than $200. Much of the stuff goes for closer to $1000. But if you run into a bargain, by all means go for it.
Finally, we come to Marantz, which was the most amazing producers of receivers in the '70's. They had well over one hundred models in this time period, all part of the 2200 line, which the model number reflected the power output (the 2220 has 20 watts per channel, the 2265 had 65, etc.). Of course they had the wonderful, unique gyro-tuning knob for AM/FM, and they had the cool blue dials. But, as it turns out, Marantz receivers sound great, even by today's standards. And e-bay usually has more Marantz receivers on the auction block than Dual turntables. My own personal recommendation from the plethora of models: the 2238B and the 2252B are little gems that will still run you around $100.
This is where I'm going to crap out and disappoint you, because buying vintage loudspeakers from the '70's is a very risky proposition. Most speakers from that time period, and well into the '80's and '90's, for that matter, used foam rubber surrounds on the drivers (woofers, midranges, and even tweeters), that disintegrate over time. It's not terminal, and most stereo repair shops stock foam surround repair kits or will perform the service themselves for a reasonable price. So don't throw the speakers out if this happens! But who needs the headache? My suggestion is to either look for a vintage speaker that has been recently rebuilt, or to buy something new for a reasonable price.
There are exceptions to this, of course. A few vintage speakers from the '70's used real rubber for the surrounds (Dynaco immediately comes to mind). You can also look at speakers that do not use woofers and tweeters (which are called dynamic loudspeakers), such as electrostatics (Quads are the best example) or ribbons (such as Magnepans). But neither type goes for a song, and they require lots of TLC to keep running. Instead, there are many good small bookshelf speakers available now that will bring out the sparkle in your vintage gear for $200-$300 a pair. B&W DM302s, Mission 731s, PSB Alphas, Paradigm Titans, NHT SuperZeros and SuperOnes, KEF Q15s, and JPW Sonatas will all be musically satisfying provided you're not a bass-freak.
I will make one recommendation, though, for a speaker from the '80's that was quite exceptional...the Spica TC-50. These ran $550 a pair when new, which was a steal, and I've seen used pairs on sale for as little as $175. These do have foam rubber surrounds, so be cautious...but you'll really be knocked out by the sound of these great little speakers.
So what did I wind up with? I found a beautiful, near mint Marantz 2238B for $75, and an AR-XA for $100 that is in very good condition. And I had a pair of Spendor S20s in storage, so I just slapped them into the system (yes, they retailed for $1150 when I bought them in 1991, but for the purposes of this project, they were free!) So for $175, I have a system in my bedroom that sounds fantastic! No, it doesn't replace my reference system, but it beats the hell out of something like the Bose Wave Radio or any other "mini-system" that Circuit City peddles. It has soul, depth, and magic. And that's exactly why I WON'T add a CD player.
Now where's that redhead from that TV show? I want to show off my new stereo! Talk about reliving some of the magic from my teenage years...
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