Friday, July 17, 2015

Vintage vs Pre-Owned

As it has turned out for many reasons, I purchased relatively few of my audio components brand new through an audio dealer.  I often buy used components precisely because I can (often) get exactly what I want at reasonable prices.  The real high end components I have lusted after, such as the Krell FPB 300 I have now, were just too expensive at their original prices for me to have even contemplated buying (or so I thought) and I had even less spare cash way back through the 70's, 80's, and 90's.  It's really only been during the past 5 or so years I've had the kind of money to imagine buying such things, and since then I've been more preoccupied with making my house into a more livable castle…so I still haven't had the money for truly high end gee gaws (though, through a series of steps last year I ended up spending about $3500 on 6 turntables of which all except for one are still in "project" or "spare" status…and I coulda gotten one pretty nice one for that much cash, much nicer than the actual working one I got and am now using--though still not the kinds of ones I lusted after and what my project-phase tables will represent when and if they are finished or at least brought to a good plateau…the plan is ultimately to have a hot rod Technics in the bedroom and a hot rod Lenco in the living room, and backup tables for each one).

I ok with this general approach, and actually I very much like getting super fancy pre-owned stuff from much richer people who have already taken off the biggest chunk of the original price for me.  I like good sounding stuff but I'm also a sucker for features and and the right kinds of fanciness.  I get no thrill out of finding the $19 portable CD player that blows away all the heavyweights from Wadia, Theta, and Krell.  My brother-in-law goes about things more that way, and I followed him for several iterations of that search.  By his lights at any given time, I wouldn't have to search, he had already Found the one that blew away every expensive DAC he had ever heard.  But by the time I actually bought the each of the $19 players he was bragging about, he had already moved on to the next one, preamp-of-the-month style.  Not only were his judgements not the ultimate judgements claimed, I myself couldn't really be sure any one was better or not than anything else I had.  Meanwhile, I was stuck with a growing pile of flimsy cheap looking, cheap feeling, and often cheap sounding and marginally reliable stuff* I really didn't care for that much.

And I still lusted after the brushed or anodized metal heavyweights.  I very much like the High End audio magazines (Stereophile, The Absolute Sound) and endless webzines covering the mega expensive equipment few people, including me, can afford.  Because I'm just reading about the stuff I could be buying in 10 years with a zero or two lopped off the price.  Or I can think about how I am achieving the same or better things with my stuff, or perhaps could with a tiny bit of adjustment.  And anyway, it's escapism, the higher the prices the more we can simply ignore any feeling that we MUST buy this, and instead appreciate the vicarious experience, often saying to ourselves we have better for much less.

(*To be clear, often the anodized heavyweights that look like you could drive a truck over them fall ill at the first chill and must be sent back for repair.  In fact things are all too often precisely this way, the heavyweight equipment is designed for Performance first and reliability isn't something that necessarily comes from overbuilding and most often doesn't, but from having a well tuned design and production process--often making the same boring stuff year after year--which values reliability more than novelty.)

I believe now a person could easily convince themselves quite easily that a $19 CD player is "the best sounding" even when it isn't true.  In fact, I go much farther, and say that almost all of the "listening tests" and comparisons audiophiles do and have done are utterly useless or worse, and that generally speaking, except for speakers or phono cartridge it isn't necessary to do listening tests at all…since good amplifiers, CD players, and the like are likely audibly indistinguishable in DBT, and such differences as there may be between two pieces of equipment (other than speakers and phono systems) can be much more reliably be ascertained with measurements.  So then what do all your listening tests mean?  They are most likely just random events of perceptual self-fooling but tend to lead to false belief and superstition.

But I simultaneously reject the idea that I therefore must buy the cheapest unit that DBT cannot find to be any worse than the best.  Though there is a nagging voice, though, that does tell me I shouldn't be contributing to the general level of bullshit even by playing along with Audiophilia and even creating my own strain of Endless Philosophizing or something like that.  At least other people may believe they are performing useful experimentation, though sighted and not level matched and limited to one or a small number of trials.

Anyway, I maintain that in the long run, a slightly better device whose difference can't easily be discerned in systematic comparisons might (and this is a lack of impossibility) lead to an epiphany that the other doesn't.

Since we can't really be sure which devices is better through either sloppy or even very careful listening tests--the thing to do is use reasoning first, and then measurement to confirm.

One way another, my ultimate standard is Harry Pearson's "The Absolute Sound."  I am seeking perfect recreation of the experience.  But I know I can't really advance much even by exhausting listening tests.  So I do what I do, some of which you can read in these pages.

I'm not interested in going back to a smoother, silkier, rounder, less aggressive, etc., sound simply because it is pleasing.  However it turns out that The Absolute Sound is almost entirely non-irritating anyway, so irritation is not correct.

Some audiophiles, perhaps having also given up on the technical (logical, measurable) aspects of performance to explain their preferences, sometime seek an actual "Vintage" sound, the recreating of earlier sonic performance, through carefully restored Vintage Equipment.  This is not what I do, though it does turn out I don't see that much value in newfangled equipment and especially at the newfangled prices.  I own speakers from the 80's, and amp from the 90's, etc.  But this is a judgement that I can get what I want often better as well as affordable from a slightly earlier era.

One of the most curious of these Vintage obsessions of all to me is the fondness for Japanese made Marantz equipment from about 1970 to 1980.  I myself bought one of these first in 1973, a Marantz 2270, the original Japanese series (insiders called it the "B" line, often as derogatory).  I was not very proud of myself for doing so…in fact I immediately regretted not spending the extra bucks to get the Model 19, which I truly lusted after.

Then I thought the switches noisy, I got a one month non-repair from the dealer but they ultimately fixed themselves through usage.  Then I missed the deeper bass of my Dynaco SCA-35, though I ultimately considered that to be a defect on the part of the Dynaco (which I couldn't stand anymore, the frying noise on that unit was just not getting fixed).  By about the 6th month I had gotten over my regrets, and felt I had the best thing in the dorm, and for a few more months anyway had that uber feeling.

It didn't last more than months, once again I was regretting not having separates, not having a direct drive turntable instead of a Dual 1209 small changer--which several years later I found definitively inferior to the library's Lenco.

So most of the time I was actually using my 2270 in college, and shortly thereafter, I had very mixed feelings about it.  When I started working as an audio technician, it wasn't long before I was measuring it, and ultimately seriously (and with no thought to aesthetics) modifying it beyond repair.

That process began in September 1977 when I joined Audio Directions.  By 1980 I had the Marantz upside down mostly, with the preamp board having been replaced by a simple board of my own construction which let me substitute different op amps.  I hated the original preamp because it couldn't be set flat without measurements.  The detents were fake and the controls really did not track all that well.  The worst of it was that this affected the midrange too because there was a midrange control.  So great flexibility had become a liability.  I cursed myself for not having bought the 2275 model, which I could have at the time for an extra $100 or whatever.  The 2275 had a tone defeat switch.  I had often felt inferior during my college days for not having that feature, but the though was academic.  I never realized that I was listening to significantly non-flat response, with almost 1dB (actually I can't remember how much it was, it could have been as little as 0.1dB)  of variation in the midrange, due to lack of a tone defeat switch.

I never really got around to doing anything about the rest of the 2270, in fact I pretty much thought the rest of it was fine, except for lacking a whole bunch of new things: fully complementary circuitry (as in GAS products), audiophile caps, Class A operation, and more.  But as I didn't expect to be able to have those things, I didn't think they were that important, and it didn't worry me much, I had replaced the capacitors in the line stage anyway (in fact, I may not have been using capacitors, relying on the capacitors in the power amp input).  Except that I gutted the front panel for some reason, filling the tuning dial in with damping material, and used my Kenwood KT-7500 instead.

Anyway, perhaps very sadly I dumped that 2270 around 1992 because I simply had too much stuff and I hated carrying it around because I sometimes cut myself on the exposed chassis edges.  I was making a move at the time.  Though I might have left it at the curb, and maybe somebody got it.  Anyway I had purchased a second 2270 around 1991 just so I could have a nice looking one in my collection (I didn't really plan to use it), and that's the one I still have today.  I don't use it much, but I did use the phono preamp when I was first testing the Lenco last year simply because I didn't have anything else.  It worked fine.  I've sometimes used the amp in a pinch, but never on the Acoustat speakers.  I do find it hard to part with stuff, the 2270 is nicely made if not perfect and if your not too fussy, and it features several usefully separable parts.  But perhaps I shoulda gotten the 2275 if not the Model 19….

Anyway, knowing it's imperfections I wouldn't use it (and I can't anyway) in my main system.  And yet this is what you see on eBay, endless 2270's I think I've seen them as high as $999, more than I paid new in 1973 ($499 if I remember correctly…they were being closed out and replaced with 2275's).

Though in some sense, generally, I don't see much wrong with using vintage equipment from the 1970's.  In fact it was an era, and perhaps the first, when the largely Japanese manufacturers got it right, and were making good (and better and better) and reliable audio equipment, equipment…that is still being used today (and in some cases, without ever having been refurbed, though that is likely necessary for something in actual continuous usage).

And according to DBT produced understand of what is audible and what is not…in many cases you would not be able to tell the difference between a good piece of gear produced in 1975, say, and one produced now.  So if it's not going to make any audible difference, or even much audible difference, why worry, just enjoy that retro feeling, the looks or whatever.

Even wrt my original 2270, even if it's measurable error say at 1kHz were as much as 1dB, how greatly in the negative (if not the positive) is that going to affect my experiences anyway?  Even 3dB might not make much difference to my pleasure.

Well, OK, but I simply try to have the most actually transparent.  I don't care if the difference has been proven to be audible or not, the ultimate traits I am looking for can be determined by other means.  And I don't necessarily enjoy retro, I just get what I can if it does the job and is the most transparent within affordability.


Meanwhile, subjectivist audiophiles and audio magazines at least put on a good show regarding the march of progress brought about through their unsound methods.  They create, exemplify, and harshly criticize those who don't follow the fashions they are promoting, which are ultimately shaped if not intended toward Selling More Expensive Stuff.

So it is by these standards that that the concept that old people are seeking something more of everlasting value through recycled stuff is going to be portrayed as going off the rails, at least slightly.

I tend to see things the other way, that what's basically good doesn't change much, and there hasn't really been much audible advance in amplification electronics since 1970 (despite all the techno wizardry and puffery).

But I get as much as I can from what little advance as their has been by catching the stream a little back from the present in pre-owned equipment.

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