All I Want For....

Written by Bill Leebens

If you could ask for one piece of vintage gear that you once owned and regret getting rid of—get it back again, crisply new and fully functional,  neatly wrapped with a bow for Christmas or Hanukkah, what would it be?

Or, to broaden the field, if you could ask for one piece of vintage gear of any kind as a gift to yourself…what would that be?

I’ve owned a lot of vintage gear, most of it bought for almost nothing. It’s not that I’m a particularly good gear-hunter, it’s that I was and am cheap, and I kept my eyes open. Most of the gear was picked up in order to turn it for a profit. Sometimes, a major profit.

Yes, I regret that, and wish I could’ve kept some of the gear. Most of the transactions occurred early in my married years, and we always always always needed more money. Rent, or another piece of gear piled up? The choice was pretty simple.

It’s probably just as well: if I’d been able to keep everything that passed through my hands, you’d probably see me in sweatpants and a dirty Batman t-shirt on an episode of Hoarders. Sheesh.

So: of all the stuff that passed through my hands, what would I want back?

Thorens TD-124 with Grado tonearm and Ortofon SL-15E cartridge (built-in transformers). The table and arm were a trade-in to a  dealer, and I paid $60. The cartridge was a factory rebuild, gathering dust at another dealer. $30, I think. Total investment: $90. Replacement cost now? What, $1500? More? And yes, it would need a better plinth. 

Marantz/JBL console. A lifetime of glancing behind farmhouses as I drive past —ostensibly looking for the lost Dymaxion—has left me with pretty spectacular peripheral vision and a hyper-vigilant set of internal alarms: WAIT! What the hell was that?? As I drove home down Central Avenue in Memphis one day, thirty years or so ago, I noticed a ’50’s-style custom mono console on the front porch of an antique dealer. A champagne gold faceplate caught my eye. Could it be…?

Yep. Console had a Marantz 1 preamp inset in the face, above a crappy Garrard RC-80 changer, and next to a Sherwood (S2000?) tuner, complete with magic eye. Looking in the back, I saw a Marantz 2 power amp bolted down, and a JBL D123 full-range  driver. The dealer told me they’d cleared out a houseful of effects, and “had to take  it with everything else. I was gonna trash it.” I said, “I’ll give you $15,” brandishing all the cash I had in my wallet. He snagged it out of my hand almost faster than I could see, and said, “get that junk out of here.”


The color, typefonts, logo, and layout of the Marantz 1 still influence gear, over 60 years later.

I lugged it home and had in my garage for several years, next to the broken Apogee Stage and nonfunctioning Kloss Novabeam. Unlike those trash-heap refugees, everything in the console worked, and worked well. Fed from the tuner, a cassette deck (the ’80’s!!), or the Thorens, the console produced a sweet and coherent sound that beat almost anything I’d heard up ’til then. Unfortunately, I eventually broke it up and sold the Marantz pieces, the tuner and the D123— I think for over $1000. It’d be worth more today, but not as much as you’d think. Marantz stereo units go for a lot more, and the D123 lives in the shadow of its bigger brother D130—which is a shame, as the ‘123 has a sweeter mid and high end.

-JBL Paragon. Having grown up with House Beautiful and Sunset magazines in the early ’60’s, I was and am a fan of what is now called “mid-century modern” design, as exemplified by Charles Eames, Dieter Rams—and Arnold Wolf, who designed the Paragon, several other spare and elegant JBL models, and the famous ’50’s JBL logo. The Paragon is a landmark design, a massive nine-foot console containing two complete speaker systems, a stereo speaker system in one sculptural sweep of wood (that curved center panel drops into a groove in the two separate speaker cabinets, allowing transport in three pieces; the panel acts as a diffusor for the mid-horns, which bounce their signal off the panel and create a panoramic soundstage).

When I entered audio around 1970, the Paragon was acknowledged as the ultimate speaker system. Unbelievably, it was in production from 1957 to 1983. Mine was a rather worn unit, a trade-in to the same dealer from whom I bought the Thorens. He viewed the Paragon as a white elephant, and I managed to get the price down to $600. I sold it soon afterwards for $1400, never even getting it out of my parents’ carport—so I can’t really say I’m familiar with the sound. Most say the design impresses more than the sound, and that wouldn’t surprise me. Good ones these days start at around $10,000, and rapidly go up to as much as $50k. It would be interesting to be able to play with one and really optimize it.

Western Electric stuff, lots of it. For a number of years in the ’80’s I pulled Western Electric and Altec gear out of old theaters (I was too stupid to recognize the worth of the old RCA systems, but that’s another story). The most memorable experience was pulling a WE system out of  the attic of an old moviehouse converted to a porno theater; I was guided around by the manager, an elderly, chainsmoking  woman, while “action” movies ran on the big screen. Like I said: memorable.

That theater yielded a complete speaker system including 4181 woofers and full cabinet, a 555 mid/tweeter with horn (which model, escapes me). I don’t recall if there were amps, but I only paid $200 for everything. I was paid ten times that when I sold, and felt I’d made out like a bandit. These days, even broken 555s sell for $5k and up, and 4181 reproductions sell for $15k. Real ones? I can’t recall the last time I saw one. Through the years the quantity of WE gear I handled would buy a decent house today, and would probably have paid for my son’s college on top of that.

Oh, well.

Oh, there was a lot more cool gear through the years. I’d love to have my Nakamichi Dragons back—both tapedeck and turntable. Other things, not so much: a triamplified Audio Research/Tympani system was unreliable and a constant source of headaches. Its modern equivalent would be fun, though.

Of all the gear I haven’t owned, what would I like to have?

Somehow I’ve never owned the original Quad ESLs (often referred to as ESL 57s, reflecting the year of their initial release). There was a near-miss of a minister’s complete Quad system in the mid- ’70s ($300!!). In recent years, Robin Wyatt of Robyatt Audio  has performed very impressive demos with rebuilt Quad ESLs. Despite their reputation, they can provide decent bass, if not of the Master and Commander variety. The clarity and palpability of the sound is as impressive as it always was. Yes, the sweet-spot is narrow. Yes, there are some dynamic limitations. I would likely grow weary of the limitations of the Quads, but it’d be fun to try them.

Next time we’ll look at what vintage audio gear folks would like to have back/have. We’ll hear from a number of folks in the audio biz about their lost loves and dream dates. What would you want? Let me know!

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