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Is Vintage Better than Modern for Audio Equipment?

by December 03, 2015

Vintage muscle cars, old stereo receivers, speakers from the ‘60s, and other cool relics are enjoying a resurgence. But are they better than the new stuff?

Having been a teen during the 1960s, I became very enamored with audio gear and muscle cars. I owned some classic examples of both. I had my share of tube electronics, the obligatory Big Hi-Fi Speakers, and I even raced big-block Fords at the drag strip. (Never on the street, of course; certainly not. Cough.) Those of us who lived during this period often had a love of cars and hi-fi that could make a Venn diagram that looked like a total eclipse.

Vintage muscle cars are works of art, and I love them. But despite their lofty performance reputations, hyperbolically augmented with the passage of time, they were slugs by today’s standards. The nicest muscle car I owned was a new Chapman Automotive-tuned black 1969 Mustang with a 428 cubic inch engine. It had no luxury options, but it had every performance option offered that year. It ran a 14-second-flat ¼ mile, which is, shockingly, the same as a pedestrian Volkswagen Passat V6 or a recent Nissan Altima. My Mustang rattled, handled poorly, and got around 11 mpg on leaded premium. It was unreliable, uncomfortable, it reeked of raw gasoline, yet I loved it and I wish I still owned it. Most performance cars of that era were similar in that as cool as they were, they weren’t very good machines.

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1969 Classic Ford Mustang Muscle Car

In contrast, over the past twenty years, I’ve owned four new cars capable of running 11.6 to 13.2-second ¼ miles. They all have yielded 25-33 highway mpg, and they’ve done it safely and reliably. Recently I read that the 2016 Mercedes AMG GLA45 SUV, with a diminutive 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine, will be rated at 375 horses. The current 355 horsepower model does 0-60 in a scant 4.2 seconds and the ¼ mile in 12.8 seconds, which is faster than any stock vintage muscle car, whether it be a 426 Hemi Challenger, Yenko L-72 Camaro, L-88 427 Corvette, or Boss 429 Mustang. Newer may be better, but not necessarily cooler, and I’ve found this also applies to audio gear.

I belong to a few vintage audio pages on The Interwebs. I expected to see posts of cool audiophile pieces from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and yes, there have been many interesting posts featuring the better components of the era. But much of the activity features yard sale, thrift store, pawn shop, and found-at-the-curb five-buck junk. And, truthfully, even many of the most respected vintage pieces were terribly flawed and of laughably poor quality. Like classic muscle cars, vintage audio gear is truly wonderful, magical, lovable stuff, but the performance is, on average, way below what you can buy new today. (There is one category that is a notable exception, and we’ll look at that one later.)

Loudspeakers from the ‘50s and ‘60s ignored many of the laws of physics, but so what, as long as they were made with real walnut! Big speakers with 15” woofers rarely extended much below 50 or 60 Hz. The woofers used flimsy paper cones, stamped baskets, small-diameter voice coils, and inefficient “Alnico V” magnet structures. Tolerances weren’t tight. Enclosures were not considered especially important, and they were generally made of cheap pressboard or even plywood. The cabinet walls were often thin and resonant, and rarely was any internal bracing used. If any acoustical material was used in the enclosure, it might have been a small bit of cheap batting or fiberglass, but not enough to control the back waves within the enclosure. Those unmitigated back waves, unabsorbed, tended to exit the enclosure through the undamped walls or, even worse, through the paper speaker cones, adding to distortion. The worst offenders were the big, cheap Japanese speakers, but American loudspeakers weren’t much better. In fairness, of the Japanese speakers of the period, Yamaha, Onkyo, and Pioneer had some really decent products, especially at the top of their lines.

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Vintage Pioneer Speakers

Drivers of vintage speakers were usually attached to the enclosure with wood screws, something you won’t see even in a modern entry-level speaker. Crossovers had electrolytic capacitors in the signal path, right up until (and after) Walter Jung published his seminal papers on distortion in cheap caps. Electrolytic and ceramic disc capacitors had poor tolerances over time, and generally had harsher sound, possibly due to saturation. Sometimes three and four-way speakers didn’t even have crossover circuits; they just had a single capacitor on each mid and tweeter to filter out lower frequencies at 6 dB/octave. One of the most famous three-way speakers in history utilized the woofer full range, high-passed the midrange, and then high-passed the tweeter. Throughout the midrange, all three drivers were simultaneously reproducing the same frequencies, and the result was an annoying, blurred mess. My friend Scott Lowell has made it his mission to modify vintage Bose, Infinity, and JBL speakers by replacing the caps (and even some drivers) with higher-quality components, yielding better sound. We certainly have learned a great deal over the past decades.

Midrange drivers and tweeters ignored physics by being placed randomly on their baffles, disregarding the acoustical interaction among the drivers. Multiple midrange drivers, placed next to each other, or even a foot apart, induced comb-filtering effects. Often baffles were recessed with as much as a half-inch lip around the edge, which caused diffraction, which is, (duh), called edge diffraction. Beyond tuning the enclosure to the resonant frequency of the woofer, not much real engineering went into the design of many vintage loudspeaker enclosures.

There were manufacturers who did try to address some of these acoustical and electrical issues. In the early 1960s, Wharfedale used a double wall enclosure for many of their loudspeakers, and filled the void between the outer and inner walls with sand to damp the enclosure. This worked very well, and I’m a bit surprised this technique isn’t used more today. (Please note that I did not say “dampen” the enclosure, because that would have meant making it wet. Damp ≠ dampen.)AltecA7VoiceoftheTheater.jpg

Over the years, I’ve owned dozens of speakers, some of which are considered classic vintage. I owned a pair of Altec A7 Voice of the Theater horn speakers in the early ‘70s. They were used as P.A. speakers for one of my working bands, and they did a very nice job in that application. On a rare off week, I wrestled them up into my apartment, salivating in anticipation, and hooked them up to my vintage Dynaco tube electronics, expecting them to handily outperform the two Large Advents I owned at the time. Instead, I was shocked at how horrible the Altecs sounded. They had no bass extension (60 Hz at best), no treble extension (12 kHz at best), and they possessed a forward, harsh midrange, something that can be confirmed by looking at their frequency response curve. I happened to relate my saga of disappointment as my first post on a vintage hi-fi Facebook page, and I got pummeled by enraged enthusiasts who, unlike me, had never owned Voice of the Theaters. My observations are validated in this article. The fact that these speakers are pretty much unlistenable does not take anything away from their cool factor, though, much as a ’68 Dodge Charger with a 383 4bbl is cool…albeit with clumsy handling and lethargic acceleration.

There were some nice speakers from the ‘50s and ‘60s, actually, and some exception speakers from the ‘70s and ‘80s. While many had an appealing but unnatural sound, there were a few that strived for accuracy. I always loved the pure midrange of the original 1957 Quad ESL-57, an inefficient, fragile speaker that blew up solid state amplifiers due to its reactive load. I owned a single AR-4 (before there was stereo), and it was an accurate if not somewhat boring and subdued speaker, with surprisingly good bass. The AR-2ax and AR-3a models were much better, and they were probably the most accurate speakers of the period, if you didn’t consider dynamic range or high output very important. Other notable successes from this era were Bozak, JBL, Klipsch, and a few other designs that had an impressive and satisfying sound. I would rank the big JBLs near the top of my favorites from back then.pas-3x.JPG

Electronics, too, have improved markedly since the 1950s, with a few caveats. I remember the disappointment when I “upgraded” my Dynaco tube gear to their new solid state gear, an SCA-80Q. Bass performance was much more authoritative, but midrange and treble performance was like the proverbial fingernails on a blackboard. As with most newer technologies, transistor electronics rapidly improved since the first wave was introduced, and some of those vintage separates still sound decent when compared to today’s separates.

The component with the most checkered history is definitely the receiver, and this is the “notable exception” I referred to earlier. Early tube and solid state receivers didn’t offer much in power and sound quality. As time passed, we got into the “watts war” which was much like the “horsepower war” in the automobile world. Receivers got bigger and bigger, and more powerful, culminating in monsters like the 270-watt per channel Pioneer SX-1980. Unlike the receivers of today, this boat anchor weighed a hefty 78 lbs. It had a sophisticated (for the time) quartz-lock FM tuning system, and the robust amplifier stages used discrete output devices, just like the better separates. There were many formidable receivers of that period from Sansui, Yamaha, Marantz, Luxman, and others. Harman Kardon, NAD, and Proton receivers weren’t very powerful, but they punched above their weight class with high current and the ability to drive low impedance loads.

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Vintage Sansui Receiver

But then receivers took a step backwards in the early ‘80s, especially in their output stages. While the preamp and tuner sections continued to improve over the years, manufacturers figured out that if they eliminated discrete output transistors and big power supplies in favor of IC output devices, they could hit the rated output on a test bench and save money. The problem was those integrated circuit outputs wouldn’t drive a low-impedance load, they could fail spectacularly, and they didn’t sound especially good. And although receivers did get better sounding over subsequent years, when they became multi-channel products with five, seven, or more channels, most manufacturers went back to skimping on the expensive power supplies and output stages. This practice exists even today, which is why I often recommend separate components instead of a receiver, if economically feasible.  

See: Trading Amplifier Quality for Features: A New Trend in AV Receivers?

An Atmos-enabled receiver can have eleven output stages, which take up a lot of real estate and add cost. This has somewhat been mitigated by receivers going from heavy, complex Class B or Class AB output stages that generate a lot of heat to more efficient and smaller Class D circuits. Now if only they would all drive a 4-ohm load, I’d be a happy camper. 

You may find the following two excellent articles by Steve Feinstein interesting:

Top 10 Most Influential Speakers of the Last 50 Years

Most Memorable Receivers of the Last 50 Years 

Conclusion

I fully understand the romance with old cars and funky old hi-fi gear. I even own some 1962 McIntosh tube stuff that I hook up once in a while. There are certainly exceptions, but nearly all cars and most audio equipment are far superior today than fifty years ago. Progress is generally a good thing, whether it’s cars or audio gear. We still need to remember and appreciate that cool, funky old stuff, but I’ll take today’s offerings over vintage, hands down.

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Recent Forum Posts:

Diesel57 posts on September 21, 2016 12:55
This is a great and enlightening article, I'll be “60” tomorrow and while looking at this number as I tap in letters to form words I snicker and shake my head with a smile because “GOD” have blessed me as well as others opportunities to embrace and experience the old which I prefer the word vintage to see and embrace along with experiencing the modern design & performance of cars and audio technology and be mindful that the journey along with the experience hasn't always been pleasant, however it's provided and given a appreciation and greatfulnes that can't be forgotten or removed…THANKS TO ALL…CHEERS
prerich posts on September 20, 2016 12:51
I'm a vintage guy…I own heavily modded Klipsch Cornwalls with ALK crossovers and Crites Tweeters, these speakers would certainly be considered vintage. However, what about the new vintage? High End speakers from the 90's before speaker prices went through the roof? That's what I'm using now - I'm using Infinity Composition Prelude P-FR's and I must say they are some of the best sounding speakers I've ever heard!!! I like them more than almost anything I heard at Axpona in 2012 (I put them right there in the class with Legacy Focus, JA Pulsars, and the Tidal speakers - only the Scanea's and a few others sound a bit better - but not for the money spent)! I believe that's the competitive point of “vintage” the 90's when many a great speaker was made and now is actually affordable!!!!
musichal posts on May 13, 2016 15:05
I could not choose any answer from the poll. I can't afford today's high end, but I can find middlin' high vintage toys affordably. I just acquired a pair of Khorns, which I'm thoroughly enjoying, and a custom-built tube amp based on the ST-70 is even now in shipment. Beefier power tranny with 4-8-16 ohm taps, updated driver with separate tube biasing, greater cap storage and a slightly larger chassis, all for which I have highish-end hopes, and a dated old Lexicon DC-1 and feel as though my money goes further with this approach. However, I am not so delusional as to believe “it blows the crap they make today out of the water” as a few of the more rabid vintage enthusiasts seem to believe. We all pays our money and makes our choices.
sterling shoote posts on May 06, 2016 19:30
I like how the term vintage is applied to old audio components which are on the used market for one reason or another, like the original owner passes and his adult children want to get rid of Dad's audio gear but they don't want to just toss it out.

A year or two after I purchased a Marantz 2230 Receiver back in 1973 my receiver was regarded as an antique. Now that same receiver in working order sells for more on ebay than I paid for it new over 40 years ago. Is it better than any of today's $300 dollar receivers? Its case definitely has a better look and feel; but, I don't think it performs better. It does make me wonder though how much one of these old receivers would sell for if produced today. I also wonder what my JBL L100t3's would sell for if still made today. I suppose they are not made today because few could afford them.

At any rate, I can see how the search for vintage audio components could be a very nice distraction. Some today, as I understand it, have a passion for the Sony ES components from the 1980's to the mid 1990's. I can appreciate their enthusiasm for a mint condition find from that period. It must give them great satisfaction.
KEW posts on May 06, 2016 19:11
gene, post: 1106686, member: 4348
Are the glowing memories of vintage audio gear and vintage automobiles justified, or were they just mediocre machines whose performance has somehow “improved” over the decades?

Both!

Glowing memories were justified because the quality of what you could get then vs 5-10 years earlier was dramatically improved. That kind of progress makes for a Golden Age!

Modern gear should have at least a marginal improvement over vintage, but you can't take away my fond memories of the gear I recognized as seminal in the development of quality sound.

I love it that there is a cadre of people buying refurbed/tweaked Dynaco/Hafler ST-70's which does make for a reasonable argument that good vintage designs still have value (though I'll stick with my Denon AVR).
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