The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XLVII: Everything Old is New Again
That was my friend Art's one-word e-mail response when I asked him what he thought about a 1963 H.H. Scott integrated amp I was considering. Art lives out in Baltimore. He's a vintage audio enthusiast. He comes out to California once or twice a year, and we meet with a couple of other audiophiles. We take turns listening to each other's systems. Art never seems quite satisfied with anyone else's set-up but his own, and until recently, I thought he was a bit nuts; "I know what this guy has," I told one of the other audiophiles, "and it's all thirty, forty, fifty years old. I think that's just what he's used to."
Then one day, while cruising through some audio classifieds, a lightning bolt struck me. It was an ad for an old Scott 222 integrated amplifier, completely restored by an audio dealer in Northern California. He was selling it on eBay, but wanted to stir up interest on some of the more knowledgeable audio forums, because the bidding was less than spectacular. He seemed anxious, because no one seemed to understand how special this amp was, nor could they comprehend its value (considering the way things work on eBay, potentially a lot of people knew and were hoping for the deal of the century). The dealer said he'd been listening to this 45 year-old amp in his system, and it rivaled or surpassed anything else he'd ever heard. Even though it was only rated at 13 watts per channel, he was still able to piss off his neighbors. What finally intrigued me, though, was the hyperbole surrounding the phono stage. He swore up and down that Scott phono sections were the very best. I was skeptical. I feel phono stages, unlike amplifiers in general, have come a long way in the last few years, especially now that phono preamps are mostly independent components, sold separately from amps and receivers.
I'd been considering a new amp for a while now, since I made the decision to start using tubed amplification, but the search had grown frustrating, because every integrated amp I looked at offered something unique and appealing. I loved the sound of low-powered single-ended triode amps, but I was concerned that my speaker choices would be limited. Some of the higher-powered tube amps could fix that, but that usually meant more money and, in some cases, less than stellar sound quality. After a while, I had it narrowed down to five excellent, very different amps: the Manley Stingray and the Audio Research VSi-55 (moderately-powered tube amps made in the US), the Unison Unico SE and the Pathos Classic One (Italian hybrids that use tubes and transistors), and finally, the McIntosh MA-6900, which is solid-state all the way. It has loads of features and tons of power, yet manages to sound like a tube amplifier.
Then I saw this Scott 222 selling on eBay for a piddly $265, when the five amps I was considering ranged from $2200 to $4600! Was it possible that a mass-market tube amplifier, one that sold for $150 back in 1959, was really in the same ball park as my high-priced shortlist? I had to give this guy a call. "It's a crime to listen to vinyl on anything other than tubes," the seller – Adam – told me, after finding out that I owned a Michell Orbe SE turntable. It sounded like more hyperbole, but I knew there was some truth to what he was saying: I'm finding fewer and fewer audiophiles listening to vinyl with solid-state amps. I've said before that once you accept that analog sounds better than digital, it's an easy leap to appreciate what tubed electronics can do to improve one's appreciation for music. From there, it's easier to appreciate mono recordings, and even 78s. It makes sense that an old tube amp from the 50s or 60s would still sound wonderful.
Why? While there have been many technological advances in speakers, digital components, and even turntables, tonearms, and cartridges in the last few years, amplifier design remains fairly stable. Some of the single-ended triode amps that have been so popular in the last decade are based on circuits designed in the 1930s, even earlier. And quite a few audio objectivists argue that the only advances made in the last twenty years revolve around build quality, such as the thickness of the aluminum faceplates! Accusations of snake-oil often revolve around these "overbuilt and overpriced" amplifiers, but unfortunately, "objective" enthusiasm for simplicity doesn't stretch back to tubes, which many feel are obsolete and full of measurable distortion, like analog. Give these guys a $79 CD player and a $300 A/V receiver, they're happy. I need more.
I need it to sound like a live event, and measurements don't really guarantee that. In fact, maybe the added distortion in analog and tubes is what makes it sound so friggin' good. This kind of thinking is what drives techno-geeks crazy, because it delivers a nice roundhouse to The Scientific Method. I actually mentioned that I was going to buy a vintage Scott amp to a couple of these guys, and their eyes turned to spinning pinwheels. "The fact that you think a common commercial amp from forty years ago is now a gem tells me everything I need to know about your supposed knowledge of audio," one of them told me. This from a guy who, when asked to detail his stereo system, starts with the soundcard in his computer.
I talked to Adam for a couple of hours about vintage tube amps. He had many available, all ready for restoration. The downside is that a full restoration takes months; the upside is that it's like going back in time and buying one new off the shelf. In fact it's even better, since many vintage amp restorers perform modifications on the amps, like using higher-quality capicators and larger power transformers (we have learned a couple of things about amplifiers in the last forty years). At first I decided on a Scott LK-48, with a beautiful, chocolate brown faceplate. The LK-48, made from 1963-1964, is considered one of the two best amplifiers ever made by Scott, which makes it one of the best vintage tube amps, period. But as restoration proceeded, a few problems cropped up, such as a hum that just wouldn't go away, so I switched to a Scott 299B, which is the other great Scott amp. It was actually Adam's personal amp, but he felt so bad about not getting the LK-48 up to spec that he substituted the cosmetically superior – and potentially more valuable – 299B, just to make me, the customer, happy (I also had a chance to get a Fisher 400 receiver from the same era, which would have given me a decent tuner and a headphone jack, but, consensus dictates Scott is the better-sounding amp).
What should one look for in a vintage amp? For starters, the Scotts and the Fishers are safe bets. In the 70s, both of these companies were producing Japanese-made mid-fi dreck, but all the old-timers still wax nostalgic about the Golden Age of Audio, when Marantz and H.H. Scott and McIntosh and Eico and Fisher and Dynaco meant something special. I've been told by more than one vintage audio enthusiast that the normal pattern for the hobby is to start with a Scott or a Fisher, like I did, and then to move on to a separate power amp and preamp combo, with something like a McIntosh MC40 or a modified Dynaco ST-70 mated with a comparable preamp. Eventually, all roads point to the Holy Grail of vintage electronics, the exalted Marantz 8B power amp and 7C preamp. Sold primarily in the 60s, this combo represented the very best in amplification until solid-state took over. When I first heard of these amps back in the late 70s, it was rumored that Japanese audiophiles had snapped them all up as soon as they were discontinued, that they were extremely rare as a result and sold for the price of a decent used car. Now it seems they're everywhere, but they're selling for around $3000 each, which still the price of a decent used car. One of my audiophile buddies told me to skip the Scott and head straight for the Marantzes, since I'll eventually wind up with them, but something tells me the journey is part of the fun, so I'm sticking with the Scott for now.
How much did the Scott 299B cost me? $500 ($250 for the amp, $250 for the restoration). Sounds like a lot of money considering it sold for $210 back in 1960, but you have to consider that no $500 integrated amp sold today sounds anywhere near this good. Also, someone sweated over this amp for a couple of months, squeezing out the best performance possible, not to mention the cleaning and polishing. You can find a 299B for $100 or less on eBay, but you have to deal with scary admonitions, that "due to its age, this unit will be sold as is." Deal with someone like Adam, and you get a warranty. It's the deal of the century.
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