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Friday, September 29, 2023

How to Build a Vintage Audio System That Will Last Forever

I frequently browse the r/buyitforlife subreddit. As a reviewer of oft-frivolous things, I'm impressed by still-functioning, ancient items like cast iron pans, insulated thermoses, and hundred-year-old sewing machines. I also agree with the philosophy of the movement; buying well-made stuff that is repairable saves everyone money in the long run, and it means less junk in the landfill.

Cooking eggs and keeping liquids hot for hours is great, but I'm most thankful for the human nerds who figured out how to accurately reproduce sound waves. Unlike TVs, computers, or other electronics, stereos that produce lifelike audio haven't changed too much in a few decades. If you know what you’re doing, you can buy an old amp and speakers that sounds as good as the latest and greatest options.

The best part? If you know what you’re looking for (and are willing to perform some maintenance about once per decade), your kids will get as much enjoyment out of their retro-futuristic trap music as you did out of Taylor Swift. Here are classic components that we audio nerds swear by, and a few tips on what to look for when buying old-school equipment. If you choose wisely, it will last a lifetime.

Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and even the music-instrument reselling platform Reverb are great places to look for cool vintage audio gear. I also like meandering around local estate sales and pawn shops, though you'll want to take proper precautions in the Covid era.

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Amps and Receivers

The amplifier is the heart of your system. It's the thing you plug your turntable, CD player, or streaming device into, and it's what powers your speakers. If you want to save money and headaches, skip the finicky vintage tube amps in favor of something more durable from the post-tube, solid-state era of the 1970s and '80s. Also look for receivers, which are usually (but not always) an amp with a radio tuner built into it.

There are a number of great brands that made excellent-sounding solid-state options from the disco days, but the one that I keep coming back to is NAD. The company's black boxes aren’t the prettiest, but you can find iconic vintage amps like the NAD 3020 (introduced in 1978) for under $200 used, and they blow many modern amps out of the water. When I was at conservatory, there was an NAD amp in every room.

I also like old amps and receivers from Kenwood, Pioneer, Marantz, Sansui, Naim, and Audiolab. The thing to look for is quality knobs and components. Make sure your amp feels relatively heavy; if it feels flimsy on the outside, it’s probably flimsy on the inside too. (Quality transformers are heavy!)

Non-Powered Speakers

Passive loudspeakers—the kind you plug speaker cables into and are powered by an external amp—are super durable. They're different from powered speakers, which have their own power cables and are commonly found these days with AirPlay or Bluetooth capability. Nope, a passive speaker is just a box with a speaker cone or two. They're simple, and they're far less expensive than their powered cousins. You can get insane deals on fantastic old passive speakers on Craigslist or at local vintage shops—often under $100 for an excellent pair. Most finds will just work straight away, but if a speaker needs a repair, the job is usually very basic.

In general, be on the lookout for solid wood speaker cabinets and brand names you recognize. Just like amps, quality speakers are heavy. Also check the foam that surrounds the conical drivers. In many cases, this foam is the thing that degrades first, and if it has holes, cracks, or other wear, the foam will need to be replaced. Luckily, this process is remarkably easy, and most major speakers have readily available refoaming kits.

Vintage speaker brands to look for include Klipsch, JBL, Harman Kardon, Bowers & Wilkins, Bose, Boston Acoustics, Acoustic Research, and Advent, though there are many other great brands from the prog rock era and later. Again, a quick Google search is your friend; it can easily tell you what something is worth and how easy it is to fix.

It's worth noting that there's no reason vintage speakers can't compete with modern counterparts. Sure, they might not have the latest waveguide technology, but they still sound amazing. There’s a reason companies like Klipsch and JBL still reissue these old designs regularly.

If you’re not sure how long it’s been, it’s also worth changing out the crossovers in the speakers—the component that tells the speaker at what frequency to start sending information to the tweeter instead of the woofer. The capacitors that allow this to happen wear out over time, but they are easy to replace on most speakers. It’s a common misconception that older speakers sound "warmer" than newer speakers. In a lot of cases, that’s just the old capacitors not doing their job and coloring the sound.

Long-term maintenance is so simple it’s almost an afterthought. If you buy a pair and get the caps replaced, you’ll want to redo that every decade or two. Refoaming will be required less frequently. It’s extremely cheap maintenance: A refoaming kit will run you about $30 for most speakers, and capacitors are a couple dollars each.


Because they’re handled so frequently, there are fewer options when it comes to buying vintage or used headphones.

I’d suggest buying a “classic” pair of headphones with decades-old design, but buying them new, allowing you to maintain them throughout their lifespan. I particularly like options from Grado Labs, Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, Sony, and Audio-Technica, though there are plenty of great wired headphones out there.

As far as options that will last forever, I suggest only buying wired headphones with replaceable cables, earpads, and headband pads. If you want your headphones to last more than a few years, you’ll want to avoid anything with a battery or computer chip.

Looking for earbuds? Those too can be bought for life! Check out options from Ultimate Ears and Shure, which both sell models with replaceable ear cables and even custom-molded eartips on the high-end buds. The name of the game for high-wear items is replaceable components!


Vintage turntables abound, and they're often better than modern models that cost the same. When shopping vintage, look for models from Technics, Pioneer, Sony, and other still-in-business brand names. Make sure you get a vintage turntable properly serviced, including a look at the middle bearing (which needs oiling about once a year) and the belt, which can get stretched out over time.

Another option, if you don’t want to buy used, is to buy a reissue of a classic model like the new Technics SL-1200. The 1200 is the most famous record player ever, having made a name for itself as the hyper-durable favorite of DJs around the globe. Put simply: They’re basically unbreakable, requiring only occasional maintenance and cartridge replacements. You can also find used SL-1200 turntables; just be sure to check them for signs of worn-out bearings and other mechanical issues. Many of these were workhorses for decades—they're the preferred model of hip-hop and techno DJs—so they might look beat up and still work great.

Cables and Accessories

Don’t buy expensive cables! Audiophile web forums might try to convince you to spend big on speaker cables, but you can ignore them. Buy 100 feet of thick, 14-gauge (or lower/thicker) speaker wire from Amazon or your local hardware store and a pack of banana clips. These cables will last a lifetime.

I suggest buying surge protectors for all electronic equipment, though. A power spike or sudden outage can sometimes mess with older components, and surge protectors are so cheap, it’s a no-brainer if you’re trying to keep your equipment in tip-top shape forever.

Fix It Up

I recommend searching Google for the name and model of any component you come across. There are hundreds of articles on internet forums with nerds debating the qualities of each piece and detailing common issues or tricky repairs. Oftentimes, you can find a nonworking amp or record player at a vintage store or Goodwill and make a small repair to get it working again, if you’ve got a soldering iron and enough time to study up. It’s also worth looking up a local repair shop. In most cities, finding an electronics or audio nerd isn’t too difficult using local listing sites.

Even if you’re not capable of repairing this stuff yourself, much (but not all) of it was designed before planned obsolescence was much of a thing in the audio world. So any repairs you or your local expert can make should keep the piece working for another decade or two.

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