The Old Ways

Written by Bill Leebens

There is a certain pleasure to be found in driving a vintage car. Many have a purity of purpose and directness of response that are absent in the overweight, safety-cage vehicles of the infotainment era.  On the other hand, practical concerns rear their ugly heads:  if I drive that 50 HP Beetle, can I merge into traffic without being obliterated by a semi? Or—having recently been through a wreck in which the airbags in my Saab deployed—how would the vintage Alfa I covet do, if that semi hit me? Would I live?

With blessedly few exceptions, such concerns don’t exist in our listening rooms…and if they exist in your listening room, you may want to re-think your domestic arrangements!  When it comes to using vintage gear, a few caps may need replacement in order for amps to work up to snuff, or speaker drivers may need new surrounds. Unless you’re dealing with some mad-scientist homebrew rig slewing kilovolts, your home stereo will probably not kill you. Probably.

There are folks who delight in refurbishing old gear, replacing those caps, gluing surrounds, cleaning up solder traces, filling the air with a cloud of Deoxit. Just to be clear: I am not one of those people.

As is the case with cars, I’m a really good diagnostician…but when it comes to hands-on repairs, things happen. Those one-in-a-million freak accidents become almost a certainty. So while I appreciate the joys of vintage gear, the putzing and fussing around is not a thrill for me. I like to come in after things have been brought up to snuff.

For the non-DIYer, then, what are the benefits of going vintage? There may be pride in owning something that took more effort to obtain than a readily-available new component. There may be a certain aesthetic satisfaction in the styling of older equipment, finding gear that blends into that mid-century modern home, rather than sticking out like that giant flatscreen does. There may be pleasure in the heft and mass of an old Sansui receiver, compared to today’s plasticky mass-market AV receivers. There may be pleasure in something that is simply built to last. Finally, as is often the case with vintage cars, there may be the fulfillment of a longtime lust, dating from the days of penniless teenagerhood.

Some combination of all those has led me to own half a ton of vintage speakers, ranging from the freakish and justifiably-rare (Plasmatronics) to the weird but wonderful (Spica Angelus) to big and brutish but kinda-mainstream (Altec Valencia). I admit that both the Spicas and Altecs appeal to my Eames loungechair-loving side, apart from their sound. There can be no such justification for the Plasmatronics, which look as though they barely escaped from the lab of a defense contractor…as was indeed the case. The Plas will never be daily-drivers; I approach them with them same wariness I’d have when firing up a large laser.

But: vintage electronics? No thanks. Not interested. There are enough excellent amps out today that I just don’t want to bother with old electronics, given my aversion to upkeep, tweaking, and so on. Yes, I can appreciate the joys of  vintage Marantz, Mac, H-K, Fisher, even Western Electric gear. I’ve owned them, and they can be lovely indeed.

But just as I would no longer tolerate a daily driver with a hand-choke or an iffy starter that required me to park on hills (both of which I lived with in my younger days), I want things to be enjoyable. And for me, part of that is just not having to worry about the equipment.

Your mileage may vary, of course. I envy those with enough zen in their makeup that they can build amps from scratch, or rebuild old gear. Maybe someday. Maybe when the memories of that wreck are farther in the past….

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