Classic Vintage Components

By Chuck Hawks

Are vintage components, dollar for dollar, better than new components? By asking that question, I am not implying that, say, a Marantz component made in the 1970's is superior to the latest Reference Series model from the same manufacturer. However, a high-end used component is likely to be superior to a new component selling for a similar price and a far better investment.

For example, Stereo Online technical advisor Nathan Rauzon recently purchased a used Marantz Model 16B dual mono power amplifier in excellent condition for $370 at a local stereo shop. This is actually two mono power amps with a common faceplate. It was made in the USA by Marantz at a time when Marantz and McIntosh were competing to build the best audio components in America. Ironically, they are now sister companies, both owned by D&M Holdings. ("D&M" originally stood for Denon & Marantz; presumably, the "M" now also represents McIntosh.) The Model 16B is a very solid unit, weighing 30 pounds. Here are some original specifications:

  • Produced: 1970-1971
  • MSRP: $450
  • Channels: 2 (dual mono design)
  • Power: 100 watts RMS/channel, both channels driven, 20-20,000 Hz
  • Harmonic Distortion: less than 0.1%
  • Frequency Response: 10-60,000 Hz +/- 2db
  • Hum and Noise: -90db at full power
  • Damping factor: 150 at 8 ohms

These are impressive specifications! Admittedly, while some modern power amplifiers can "out spec" the Marantz 16B on paper, few offer the same reserve power or sound better playing music and none can approach its level of quality and workmanship at anywhere near $370. The equivalent modern Marantz stereo power amplifier, the Reference Series Model SM-11S1 (110/110 RMS), carries a 2011 MSRP of $4000 and is itself an excellent value for the price!

Of the same vintage as the Model 16B is the McIntosh 2100 stereo power amplifier (105/105 RMS). The 2100 is similar in power and quality to the 16B, but usually costs more used. (McIntosh probably retains the highest resale value of any audio brand.)

Want more power? The Marantz Model 500 (250/250 RMS) is perhaps the finest high power vintage amplifier of them all. Don't need high power, but want top quality? A vintage SAE Mark XXXIb power amplifier (50/50 RMS) and companion Mark XXX pre-amplifier were recently for sale for $350 the pair. SAE, long defunct, never achieved the international recognition and prestige of McIntosh and Marantz, but they were fine, made in USA components of high build quality and excellent performance. The McIntosh MC250 (50/50 RMS) and Marantz Model 15 (60/60 RMS) are comparable, but will probably command higher used prices.

Another top amplifier brand is Crown International. USA made and very high quality, Crown, now owned by Harmon, is still in business. However, they currently offer only professional amplifiers for sound reinforcement applications. The vintage D-60 (30/30 RMS), D-150 (75/75 RMS) and D-300 (150/150 RMS) are classic Crown stereo amplifiers.

The same situation pertains to tuners and pre-amplifiers. For example, a used McIntosh C26 pre-amp should set you back $400-$500. This is a top quality, full-featured pre-amp that was made in the USA throughout the 1970's. Comparing a C26 to new pre-amps in that price range is like comparing a battleship to a tin can. There is simply no comparison in quality or workmanship. Similar in workmanship, quality and performance was the Marantz Model 33 pre-amplifier.

Comparable in quality to U.S. made Marantz and McIntosh components is Luxman (Lux) of Japan. I recently saw a used Luxman C-02 control amplifier (Luxman and Marantz call their pre-amps "control amplifiers") for sale for $299. The original MSRP of this model was $799. The least expensive Luxman control amplifier, the Model C-600f, now carries a MSRP of $8500.

McIntosh, Marantz and Luxman tuners are also top flight. I have personally owned all three brands. Perhaps the most exotic of all tuners are the Marantz models with a 1" tuning oscilloscope built-in, such as the top-rated Model 150. The Model 125 was similar, but with dual meters in place of the O-scope.

Kenwood has been a driving force in amateur ("ham") radio for decades. Based on their radio expertise, Kenwood built some excellent vintage tuners. Any top of the line Kenwood tuner in good condition is going to be a stellar performer and usually less expensive than the more prestigious audio brands.

I have mentioned Marantz, McIntosh, Luxman and Crown electronics for good reasons. They are among the best vintage components in performance, quality and workmanship. In terms of name recognition and prestige, Marantz and McIntosh, at least in the United States, share top billing in the Pantheon. An U.S. online poll of "favorite" vintage component brands I recently saw had Marantz in first place, followed by McIntosh in second; both were far ahead of all other brands.

Other, less prestigious, manufacturers are also worth considering. I have already mentioned SAE amps and pre-amps, as well as Kenwood tuners. Harman-Kardon, Dynaco (factory wired), Hafler, Audio Research and Denon, depending on the individual model, come to mind. Of these, the H-K Citation series and impressive Dynaco Stereo 400 power amp (200/200 RMS) are perhaps the most sought after on the used market. JBL once offered a very nice little 60 watt/channel power amplifier and Altec-Lansing built an excellent tuner/pre-amplifier. Both are rarely seen today.

The field of vintage loudspeakers is especially rich. Among the best vintage brands are JBL, Altec-Lansing, Klipsch, Bozak, Electro-Voice, Infinity, Warfdale, Quad, AR and Cerwin-Vega. All of these manufacturers offered classic loudspeaker systems that are among the best. Some of these brands have disappeared, some now only offer professional loudspeaker systems and others (Klipsch, Cerwin-Vega, JBL and Quad in particular) are still building a range of high performance home speakers. Because their best models perform so well, even used these vintage loudspeakers are not inexpensive. However, classic floor standing speaker systems from any of these manufacturers are a fine investment and far less costly than new speakers offering similar performance.

Turntables are another rich field. Top of the line models from Dual, Garrard, Elac, Empire, Rek-O-Kut, Pioneer, B&O, Kenwood, Linn, Thorens, Miracord and Technics immediately come to mind. I have written an entire article devoted to vintage turntables, so I will just refer you to "Vintage Turntables," which you will find on the Audio Online index page.

Tape decks, both reel-to-reel and cassette, are obsolete in home entertainment systems. For those interested in reel-to-reel, the top vintage names include Crown, Revox, Tandberg and Nagra. In high-end cassette decks, Nakamichi, Harman-Kardon, B&O and Advent built notable models that were top rated in their time. Teac, Sony and Pioneer also offered good decks, generally at less stratospheric prices. Today, used stereo tape decks can be had for pennies on the dollar.

Are classic used components, dollar for dollar, a better value than new components? The answer to the question posed in the first sentence of this article must be a resounding "Yes!" That is not to imply that there has not been any progress in audio design between the 1970's and 2011, because there clearly has been. Only the latest components can deliver cutting edge technology. However, top build quality and very credible performance can be had from these older components for mere hundreds, rather than thousands, of dollars. If you appreciate quality, but cannot afford a new McIntosh, Marantz or Luxman amplifier, a used model might be your best alternative.

My closing suggestion is to avoid shopping for audio classics on e-bay or similar online sources. It is far safer to buy vintage components from an audio dealer willing to guarantee the performance of their used components.

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Copyright 2011, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.