Getting Back Into Vinyl – Part 2 – Equipment

Part One was all about building your vinyl collection.  Of course no record collection is really worth much unless you have something to play those discs on.  Again, I’ve reached out to my Facebook friends and they have come through with heaps of advice.


You’ll hear that the first issue to deal with is new versus used.  You’ll quickly notice that those in favour of used refer to it as “vintage”.  I’d suggest even before the new versus used debate, consider your budget and the space you’ll be setting up in.


Budget


There are varying opinions on budget and how the budget is divided between the three primary components: turntable, amplifier and speakers.  When I asked my on-line community for advice, I set an arbitrary $1,000 budget.


“$1,000 won’t get you a good system in the new market.”


Versus


“For just starting out, I think $1,000.00 is quite a bit of money to put toward a system.”


This has to be your call.  What did come out loud and clear – you’ll always get more bang for your buck buying vintage.


How you divide your budget between the components is another area of varying opinion.


“Rule of thumb, 1/2 of your budget goes to your speakers.”


Versus


“My advice is don’t blow it all on speakers. If you’re just starting, allocating the majority of your funds on speakers and going with budget amp and source components doesn’t work out so well. Split the budget into thirds or spend the majority on turntable and amp. You want an integrated amp with phono and a good phono stage is very important. Same for the turntable. Don’t underestimate the importance of any one component. It all matters.”


I tend to lean towards spending a higher percentage on your speakers.   This is also because I lean towards buying new speakers.  I bought my speakers new, my turntable used and have had both new and vintage amplifiers.


Space Considerations


Be aware of the space you hope to set up in.  Amplifiers and turntables are reasonably consistent in their size.   Amplifiers are usually 17 inches wide and about 14 inches deep.  Heights vary more ranging  from 4 to 8 or more inches.


Turntables generally start at a 17 inch width and 15 inch depth, but these can vary upwards.  Give yourself 20 x 20 and you should be OK.


Speakers are the wild card.  I’ll assume you are going with a two-channel stereo system thus requiring a left and right speaker.  Assuming you are not opting for built-in wall or ceiling speakers or powered Bluetooth speakers such as Sonos, you’ll be choosing between floor standing and bookshelf designs.  Keep in mind that bookshelf speakers do not have to be placed on a shelf or existing piece of furniture.  There are many options for dedicated speaker stands.  Alternatively, you could mount a small wall shelf about the size of the speaker footprint.   This would probably be less expensive than a pair of dedicated speaker stands.


Whether bookshelf or floor standing, speakers should usually be placed at least a few inches from the wall.


The distance between the speakers varies, but generally assume 1.5 to 2.5 meters (5-8 feet).


Where you expect to usually be listening is ideally half way between the wall the speakers are closest to and the opposite wall – the wall behind you.  This is often lot possible, so at minimum distance away from the speakers should be equal to the distance between your speakers.


If you’re going with floor standing speakers, you should be able to place them so there is nothing in front of them except your ears.  You shouldn’t tuck them behind a sofa or chair and expect to have good sound.


Buying New


The up side to new is the relative ease of purchase.  You can walk into a retailer today and come out with a brand new turntable, amp and speakers, and be up and running in a few hours.


It is easier to do comparison shopping when buying new since you are not dealing with the condition of the product and issues of use or abuse.  You can do serious price comparisons from the comfort of the sofa that will soon be your favourite vinyl listening spot.


New products come with a warranty, so if there are any issues with the functioning of.your purchases, you have some recourse.


Depending on where you buy, you may be able to return the equipment which allows you to test-drive the equipment in your own home.  This is most likely the case in the big box stores, so your options are a bit limited.  If you are dealing with a smaller independent audio retailer, ask them about their return and exchange policies.  Ask if they have any in home audition options.  The up side to these smaller independents is they will often set up and allow you to listen to the exact system you hope to purchase.  This is usually in a room designed specifically for this purpose.


Don’t be afraid to ask your independent dealer if that is the best price they can offer.  They usually have a bit of wiggle room with their profit margins.  Also ask about their trade in and upgrade policy.  They may not provide full refunds, but in some cases if you’re not totally happy with your system within a specified time, they my offer a full credit providing you are spending a bit more.


The obvious down side to buying new is the cost.  New will always be more expensive.


Some will also tell you that the quality of new equipment is inferior to vintage gear.  That is personal to some extent, but I agree that to match the quality of a 70’s or 80’s vintage amp you would need to invest five to ten times the dollars on new equipment.  I think the same is true for turntables.


I’m not convinced that vintage speakers are always a good investment.  Solid cabinets that have been well cared for will retain their value, but speaker cones and rubber are much more susceptible to deterioration, so be cautious.


Vintage Equipment.


For the vinyl collector, buying vintage equipment takes on many of the same “it’s a journey” qualities.  You’ve decided on a few brands and models and now the hunt begins.  Like buying vinyl, spread the word.  Let friends and family know that you are looking for used stereo equipment.  You may end up with a basement full of free equipment that isn’t great, but you may also luck into that dream amp.


“I would tell people that you’re looking for equipment.  A lot of good stuff is in people’s basements and a lot of times they are just willing to give equipment and records away..But you’ve got to mention records in conversations..It Works My 2 Cents.”


Beyond word of mouth, check out local used stereo dealers.  They will charge a bit more, but often have cleaned and refurbished equipment and may offer some warranty.  They may also allow you to preview equipment in your own home.  They can also be great resources for information about the best equipment for your needs.  Pawn shops are also another place to look, but you’re not going to get the same level of help.  Their goal is to sell you what they have.


Use on-line resources like Kijiji and Craigslist.  Also check out sites dedicated to used audio equipment.  I’ve used Canuck Audio Mart.  A feature in Kijiji that I love is “alerts”.  I can have Kijiji send me a daily message about any new postings for a specified search.  This may allow you to be the first to read the ad and move on it quickly if you know this is the piece of equipment you want.


Check out estate sales.  There are more and more estate sales being listed on line such as Maxsold.com.  Check out garage sales too.


For amps and receivers, these brands are mentioned frequently: Marantz, Pioneer, Onkyo, Denon, Sansui, Yamaha, Technics and Nad.  That covers most of the good quality but not necessarily audiophile manufacturers.  Much of this comes down to personal taste and it is tough to give a listening test to used equipment – especially if you are buying directly from the owner rather than a used dealer.  If you have the opportunity to listen to a friend’s equipment, do so.  Ask them what they like about it and whether this is the amp that they would buy again.  If not, what would they buy and why.   For my taste, I like Marantz and Nad.


For your turntable the best piece of advice I’ve received is look for vintage Technics – “They are built like tanks”.  There are many Dual models on the used market.  My first turntable was a Dual, so I’m a bit biased.  they are not audiophile, but generally very well built. For used but not vintage – maybe someone who bought a good turntable and is wanting to upgrade – Pro-ject or Rega are brand names to look for.   Here’s more suggestions from a previous article on vintage turntables .


Speakers are probably the most subjective component of your system.  We all experience sound differently and have varying preferences.  I wouldn’t buy anything that I have not had an opportunity to listen to.  That said, if I’ve heard a particular model in a stereo shop or friend’s home, then I don’t necessarily have to demo the same speakers if I’m buying on-line.


Things to look for include a solid cabinet.  Generally, heavier is better.


Some of the obvious things to look for are wear and tear on the cabinets.  Excessive wear on a cabinet does not mean the sound is of lesser  quality, but it may be an indication of how well the speakers have been treated by their owner which could indicate potential longevity issues.


Do a smell test if you can.  You’re sniffing for signs of mold and mildew and potential water/moisture damage.  This will have an impact on the longevity and sound quality of the speakers.


If you can see them in person, make sure you take the grills off and examine the speaker cones.  Look for dents, holes or any apparent damage.  Especially examine the foam between the cone and the frame of the speaker.  This is often the weakest point and one that deteriorates first.


If you can’t examine the speakers in person, ask the seller to send you photos.  Be specific about what you want photos of: cabinet and close ups of the speaker cones and foams.


If you are viewing in person, tell the seller in advance that you want to listen to them so they can be set up before you arrive.  Find out in advance if they have a turntable and/or CD hooked up to the system so you can bring your own test discs.


 “Don’t rush into anything, go EVERYWHERE you can access ( hi-end places, charity shops, freecycle etc), talk to as many people as you can, ideally in person.”


“Either way is great. Just don’t rush it.”


“Take your time and enjoy the journey.”


And the final piece of advice from the on-line community…


“Buy a house and get a new source of income. This year alone I bought 3 new turntables and over 100 LPs. I’ll soon run out of space and my money is finished.”