Buying Used Audio Components
By Chuck Hawks
When buying audio components, the ultimate limiting factor for most of us is how much we can spend. Unless you are a millionaire, new "Class A" (excellent) components are likely to be beyond your financial reach. Equivalent quality used components can be purchased for about half the new price, often putting Class A or Class B (good) components within financial reach.
By buying used, you can choose components made in first world countries (the USA, Canada, Japan, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and other developed countries) by skilled workers for less than you might pay for new components made in Red China or other third world countries. There are many manufacturers of good components that are no longer in the home high fidelity component business, for example SAE, Crown, Bozak, Altec Lansing and Kenwood, so buying used potentially gives you access to vintage audio components not available new at any price.
Look for the brands you know and trust, but be open to suggestion. Sometimes classic audio components from highly rated manufacturers like Marantz, Luxman, Crown, JBL, Thorens and SME can be had used for surprisingly economical prices. They often sound better and are better made than new components from lesser manufacturers. An important factor is what components are available used in your local area, as all suitable models will be not be available at any one time.
The best stereo system I have ever owned was assembled entirely from used components. It consisted of Altec-Lansing A7-500 loudspeakers, Marantz 250M stereo power amp, McIntosh C26 stereo pre-amp, McIntosh MQ101 environmental equalizer, Marantz 125 stereo AM/FM tuner, Pioneer PL-41 turntable, Harman-Kardon CD-491 cassette deck and Sony CDP-620ES CD player. All of these were highly rated (Class A or B) components at the time and are still respected. I enjoyed that system for about 20 years. Since I purchased all of these components used, I paid a fraction of their new prices. Indeed, I could not have afforded to assemble a personal reference system buying new components.
I am still using the same Marantz power amplifier and tuner in my present reference music system, which includes (in addition to the aforementioned Marantz 250 power amp and Model 125 tuner) a Marantz SC-11S1 pre-amplifier and a McIntosh MVP871 SA-CD/CD/DVD player. The latter pair are current models, but they were both purchased used.
When looking for components, start at your local audio dealers and see what used components they have in stock. Most dealers take trade-ins and will guarantee their performance. Even better, you can audition before you buy.
Loudspeakers are where the sound comes from. They are the most important of all components. Buying used loudspeakers ensures that your entire system will sound better than it possibly could if you spent the same amount of money on new loudspeakers. Fortunately, speakers last a very long time and seldom degrade as they age. (The foam surrounds sometimes used on speakers 20-30 years ago would be an exception, or possibly the capacitors in the crossover networks.) Good speakers do not go out of date and many vintage classics are still as good as ever. Discontinued classics from the likes of Altec-Lansing, Klipsch, JBL, Bozak, Electro-Voice, Klipsch, Infinity, Warfedale, Tannoy, Quad and AR are especially desirable.
Listen for clicks and buzzes, as these indicate problems. A test CD with a full range sweep tone makes this easier. If used speakers look good and sound good at both low and high volume levels, you can reasonably assume that they are good. Remember that top quality loudspeakers require good program sources and amplification to perform correctly. Speakers that reveal subtle musical details will also reveal deficiencies in the rest of your system.
Pre-amplifiers, power amplifiers, integrated amplifiers, tuners and receivers are electronic components with few moving parts, normally just switches and knobs. Unlike CD players, tape decks and turntables, they have no motors or transport systems. Older models in good condition are often functionally as good as the latest models. If you are upgrading a receiver, don't overlook the possibility of purchasing a separate integrated amplifier and tuner instead, or even separate pre and power amps. Sometimes these are overlooked on a dealer's shelves by receiver buyers. You may be able to get inherently better components for the same price.
Check all the switches and other controls on amplifiers for silent function at high volume settings, particularly the volume and tone control knobs. Reject those with scratchy sound or crackles that indicate dirty or worn controls. Listen for hiss and background noise from amplifiers and pre-amplifiers with the volume set very high and no program playing. Do this with the controls set on "phono" and then on a "line" input. Put your ear right next to the loudspeaker. If all you hear at maximum volume is silence or a slight rushing noise, they pass the test. (Phono will always be noisier than a line input.) Then, with music playing, rotate the tone and volume controls to insure that they track correctly, with no dropouts or sudden volume changes that might indicate worn potentiometers.
If possible, have the dealer open the case and visually check the parts inside for leaky capacitors, burned resistors, cold or corroded solder joints and chassis rust. Some components may have been used near the seashore or stored on a shelf in an unheated garage for years and corrosion can set in. Classic brands, such as Marantz, McIntosh, Luxman, Crown, SAE, Harman-Kardon, Hafler, Kenwood, Denon, Quad, NAD, NEC and factory wired Dynaco components in good condition are usually excellent used values.
CD players incorporate a motor and transport mechanism and the technology has evolved rapidly in recent years, so it is wise to get a recent model with (presumably) less wear. A CD player is the one component I would consider buying new if I could not find a used model in "like new" condition. Current manufacturers of good to excellent CD players are the brands to look for used. Marantz, McIntosh, Luxman, Sony ES, Technics, Rotel and Yamaha are among the respected CD player brands you are likely to encounter used. When auditioning a used CD player, make sure to test every function for proper performance, including the remote control. If a CD player looks as if it has had a lot of use, look elsewhere.
Turntables, like CD players, incorporate a motor and transport mechanism. They are therefore more subject to wear than purely electronic components. Avoid record changers; you should be looking for a good manual turntable with belt or direct drive. Unlike CD players, turntable technology has not changed that much and excellent turntables from the 1970's, 80's and 90's are still very good performers when working correctly. Added benefits are the sheer number of used turntables and the generally low prices. A used turntable is likely to need some set-up, cleaning, lubrication, probably a new stylus or cartridge and possibly a new drive belt. Fortunately, these are minor fixes and easily accomplished. Empire, Rek-O-Kut, Pioneer, Kenwood, Rega, Thorens, Linn, Technics and B&O, among others, produced now discontinued, high-end turntables.
Before turning the unit on, set the tone arm tracking weight and anti-skate at zero and check that the tone arm floats and moves freely throughout its range. Manually turn the platter, checking for glass smooth rotation. Twist the head shell gently; movement, if any, should be very slight and you should not feel a "detent." Try to rock the platter on its spindle; excessive play indicates a worn shaft and a "click" feeling indicates a worn bearing. Inspect the tone arm wiring.
Set the tone arm for the proper tracking weight and amount of anti-skate, ensure that the cartridge is properly installed and the stylus is in good condition (you can check a stylus for wear with a low power microscope), then switch the unit on. First, play the silent lead-in or final groove on an LP, listening carefully for rumble (motor or transport noise--you should not hear any). Play a record with which you are familiar that has notes that are held for a long time to check for audible wow and flutter (slow and rapid speed variations). A record with test tones is excellent for this, as cyclical changes in pitch when playing, say, a 1000 Hz test tone should be obvious. Play test records with difficult passages to check for tracking errors. You can check for platter rotation at the correct speed with a simple "hash mark" disc and an incandescent light. Many top turntable models have a variable speed control you can use to "dial in" the correct platter speed. Ensure that the cueing and all other controls work correctly.
Here are examples of the prices of identical new and used component systems from my article "Buying Your First Component Music System":
A typical basic component stereo system purchased new might look something like this (all prices MSRP):
Total purchase price = $1150.
Total purchase price = $644. Remember, these are current components, purchased from dealers and guaranteed to perform correctly. The savings will likely be greater if you buy discontinued models in similar condition.
It took me about 30 minutes to find these used components online. There is nothing magical about these particular models, although they are reputable brands. I chose them for comparison simply because I was able to find used and new examples online without much effort. Many other used brands and models deserve consideration. See the "Brands and Manufacturers" articles for the various types of components on the Audio Online index page.
Buying a used component music system is easy and fun. Take along a few CD's that you particularly like when you visit your local specialty Hi-Fi dealer. Audition used components before you buy and go for quality rather than features.
Copyright 2011, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.