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  • Writer's pictureJim Cathey

An appreciation for vintage audio equipment

Vintage audio is known for its warm sound, which can be attributed to the vacuum tubes and components used in amplifiers and preamplifiers . Also known as valves, vacuum tubes are what make vintage audio so popular today. If you are drawn to history, it's rich with how the audio has evolved over the decades and the history of devices, designs, companies, formats and, of course, the people that made it happen. An educational appreciation if you're so inclined, but with practical use allowing you to leverage excellent vintage gear that in many cases can still outperform new-age systems.


Furthermore, high-end vintage equipment holds its value and often goes up while providing outstanding performance for the price. A vintage system or components are a great start where if you make mistakes, you can recover your investment. And the value furthermore allows for additional investments in power, cable, DACs, speakers and other items that need to be, in my opinion, a little newer and not so vintage. Collecting, refurbishing, and reselling vintage equipment and components like tubes and capacitors can also provide additional money to fund your stereo expansions and improvements. In summary, vintage equipment can be a bargain value for performance, protect and, in some cases, improve your investment and not eat up the entire system budget. Did I forget to mention that the retro look of a vintage system and or cabinet can also be a significant value add depending on the room decor?


I have enjoyed the history of the McIntosh and pressing the entire system's performance. The heart and soul are based on 1960s technology and design with the Macintosh MC275 and C22, both with tubes and no solid-state technology point to point wiring.

The performance value was great when I started and allowed me to try several types and sell what I did not want with no loss. It also gave me flexibility in buying some of the more modern surrounding pieces that would be better given age or technology improvements like speakers, cables, and power management. The vintage equipment also taught me the impact the right designs, capacitors, resistors, tube selection, and measurement had on the sonic signature.


Vacuum tube collection and rolling with tubes from the 50s and 60s requires understanding the tube design in detail, like the length of the plates, shape and positioning of the getters. And the expected current and end of life mutual conductance parameters and ultimately where they were manufactured. For example, I can tell you the best Telefunken tubes with the "S" extension, which indicated lower microphonics and best performance for medical and military applications, came from the Telefunken factory located in Ulm, Germany in the 50s and 60s. The Amperex Bugle Boy tubes, known as the 12AX7, U.S. numbering, came from the factory in Heerlen, Holland. And the RCA long black plate 12BH7 was another key tube in my system manufactured in the USA at that same time. Trial and error is one way to figure this out, but connecting with the global audiophile community that has already experienced a variety of tubes will shorten your path to finding the right combination.


Vintage audio can also have an exciting history. Case in point, how McIntosh successfully attracted customers through 'McIntosh Audio Clinics' starting in 1961 in New York via their dealer networks, where customers could bring in any amp and McIntosh engineers would provide free testing, fixes and of course, new tubes. It was a clever idea to drive the customer to the store where a deeper appreciation of the quality and design could be communicated, ultimately making McIntosh a premier brand with a large following that still exists today. You can read more about this here.


Some of the amps and preamps I have purchased had one owner with original "McIntosh Amplifier Clinic" measurements and notes from McIntosh; that is far more interesting than just the original owner's manual.


The McIntosh Amplifier Clinic started in 1962 and became one of the most successful and longest running marketing campaigns, proving capability of McIntosh amplifiers.
McIntosh Amplifier Test Clinic 1972
The McIntosh Amplifier Clinic started in 1962 and became one of the most successful and longest running marketing campaigns, proving capability of McIntosh amplifiers.
McIntosh Amplifier Test Clinic 1972
The McIntosh Amplifier Clinic started in 1962 and became one of the most successful and longest running marketing campaigns, proving capability of McIntosh amplifiers.
McIntosh Amplifier Test Clinic 1973
The McIntosh Amplifier Clinic started in 1962 and became one of the most successful and longest running marketing campaigns, proving capability of McIntosh amplifiers.
McIntosh Amplifier Test Clinic 1974

The McIntosh Amplifier Clinic started in 1962 and became one of the most successful and longest running marketing campaigns, proving capability of McIntosh amplifiers.
McIntosh Amplifier Test Clinic 1975
The McIntosh Amplifier Clinic started in 1962 and became one of the most successful and longest running marketing campaigns, proving capability of McIntosh amplifiers.
McIntosh Amplifier Test Clinic 1976



This unique history and more can be found at the late Roger Russel's website and also here

If you are interested in what seems to be an almost complete history of McIntosh vintage equipment by date and specs, this is an excellent reference .


What we have known about audio was mostly known already back in the 50s and 60s. In fact, 1950s saw commercial and personal acceptance of audio. The term 'audiophile' was introduced by then launched High Fidelity magazine. The evolution continued well into 60s and 70s. The 80s then saw increased demand and what changed was material science and the budgets that allowed for higher-end

designs and of course, digital sources. Digital has benefited the most, which now rivals analog and, in some selections, has surpassed it; yes, I said that. But the combinations of the equipment and the source material production can vary so much that's where you find the inconsistencies and the endless debates of Reel to Reel vs. Vinyl vs. Digital. Ultimately this is the real challenge in understanding the performance of your system. A strong dealer, club, or just friends and repair shops can be a big help in this regard. I had many friends/dealers in Tokyo, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, the USA and Western Europe to leverage. But as I moved to the newer technologies for the Amps/preamps, I looked for a deeper appreciation from the Stereo Shoppe in Boise, Idaho, Audio Salon in Santa Monica, and Alma Music & Audio in San Diego. This experience has been very helpful. Fabio with Alma has good insight into what works with what; the pairing discussion and understands where I am coming from regarding the vintage system and what would change. All 3 of these dealers understand the combinations possible and resulting changes to expect; the dealer is invaluable, as are the component suppliers. This will save time in your journey and provide a roadmap to where you want to drive your system to be enabled by their knowledge and accurate A/B comparisons with actual demo units in your system, in your room, with your content.


I will continue with the state of the art equipment but will also run in parallel with the vintage; I enjoy the history and the value continues to move in the right direction, albeit you must have the desire to continue the maintenance, which can often unexpectedly show up right after you sit down to listen and within the first 3 minutes you detect something is off and your testing tubes and digging through your tube inventory and checking cables and fuses…. 😊


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