Thursday, July 9, 2009

Vintage Audio Gear: More Hype Than Hi-Fi?

Given that the laws of progress dictates that the latest technology is surely better than yesterday’s, are some audiophile’s obsession with old / vintage audio gear beyond common sense?

By: Ringo Bones

Since the 1970s, people who buy aggressively marketed 500 dollar audio gear then listen to them with 10,000 dollar audio analyzers had been ridiculing us audiophiles who buy reasonably-priced audio gear of several years vintage then listen to it with our own two ears. Sadly, this vulgar act of “bullying” resulted in a minor – albeit tragic – disaster of vintage audio gear being diverted into the Far Eastern markets. This “disaster” affected mostly American and West European audiophiles and it took twenty years – more or less – to mitigate.

It is safe to point the blame at mainstream consumer electronic manufacturers who probably discovered during the 1970s that audio gear that measures perfectly on the test bench is far cheaper to manufacture than a really good sounding one that measures slightly worse. Thus, the mainstream consumer electronic manufacturers began aggressively marketing their latest audio gear – especially audio amplifiers – based on specs like total harmonic distortion, power output, etc. instead of ultimate sound quality and / or musicality.

During the 1980s vintage audio gear – especially vacuum tube-based audio amplifiers – began to skyrocket in price, especially in America where vintage audio gear manufactured during the Golden Age of Stereo began to appear in garage sales and weekend swap meets. It is not just trusty tube-based receivers, like the venerable Fisher 500-C that gained sacred cow status. Not to mention McIntosh tube-based audio gear. Even vacuum tubes, especially new old stock (NOS) versions of 12AX7 pre-amp tubes, Western Electric 300B tubes, KT-66, KT-88, EL-34 output tubes. And even the 7591A output tubes used in the Fisher 500-C receiver began to skyrocket in price soon after because American electronic manufacturers find that it is not economically viable - during the Reagan Administration - to manufacture vacuum tubes in quantities that would only cater audiophiles and electric guitar players. Exotic capacitors, like Sprague Vitamin Q paper-in-oil capacitors, also followed suit into cult status. Add to that the inherent unreliability of tubes manufactured in t People's Republic of China during the 1980s when compared to NOS American types - thus producing the Perfect Storm of "criminal pricing" of vintage audio gear from the Golden Age of Stereo.

Sadly, your typical Far Eastern vintage audio enthusiast had been busy swallowing up these under-appreciated aspects of Americana – if you’re willing to believe the hype in the hi-fi press anyway. Not just American-made vintage audio gear, even tube-based ham radios and electronic test equipment had already become hot collector items in Japan and other affluent parts of the Orient. Maybe there are plans in Japan for a musical based on the movie Frequency. You know, that move where James Caviezel’s character managed to contact his father played by Dennis Quaid using a tube-based ham radio 30 years in the past due to a freak solar storm.

But in reality, not everyone in Japan is a vintage audio enthusiast. Only those who have the time, money, and living space to indulge – and enjoy – choose vintage audio gear as their hobby. Because a typical pre-global credit crunch salaried employee in Japan who earns a middling income usually lives in a cramped 425 square-foot apartment. Thus very unlikely to invest – and indulge – in a vintage stereo system that costs more that a third of his annual salary and takes up most – if not all – of the space in his living quarters. So PX25 tube amps and 1950s-era Tannoy horn loaded speakers are out of the question.

The good news is that from a financial perspective, indulgence in vintage audio gear is no longer comparable in cost to a two-week working vacation in the International Space Station like it did during the 1980s – it is much, much cheaper now. Not to mention the availability of solid-state amps that sound just as good as tube-based amps since the mid 1990s – well, good enough if you consider the retail price anyway. But the primary reason why vintage audio gear had become a way less expensive hobby during the 21st Century is that some well-meaning folks and manufacturing firms have restarted making vintage audio gear and their associated parts – not to mention better-sounding audiophile-grade compatible replacement equivalent parts – at very reasonable prices. Like the Electro-Harmonix version of the 7591A output tubes by Sovtek of Russia so that everyone can restore their Fisher 500-C receiver without having to spend family car prices.

Looks like 2009 is going to be a very good time for the vintage audio enthusiasts. Unless some speculative swine starts to create hype over discontinued and rare solid-state components, like the AN214 IC amplifier, or the XR2206 Monolithic Function Generator IC and its related kit. And the bad news is that it has already begun because since 2001, the AN214 IC – if you can still manage to find one – was being sold at prices above what a Telefunken 12AX7 pre-amp tube used to sell. Maybe you should hold on to that Sansui AU-a707DR integrated amplifier before selling it to this Sunday’s garage sale.


Ferdinand said...

Back in the early 1990s, when the 7591A output power tubes - or valves as they say in Merry old England - used in the Fisher 500-C receiver became virtually extinct. I was fortunate enough to discover a hi-fi store in Hong Kong that specializes in vintage audio gear. The name of this establishment is New Era Audio and Vision Center. They happen to stock a wide-range of American made new old stock (NOS) tubes back in those tube-starved era of the 1990s. The last time I went there was back in May 2001. I think they are still located at Unit 8 Ground Floor Basement, Causeway Plaza I, 489 Henessy Road, Causeway Bay Plaza, Hong Kong.
Due to the increasing availability of Svetlana-manufactured Electro-Harmonix 7591A output tubes being sold on the Internet, I've been doing most of my vintage audio gear purchases on-line for sometime now. As part of the "older" generation of audiophiles, I never ever used tubes up to their "expiry date". I tend to upgrade the tubes whenever a better sounding one becomes available at a reasonable price. Like the Svetlana Electro-Harmonix series of tubes. I even still have tube brands that are used to be produced by now extinct companies. like Radiowealth PL-519 tubes.
On the solid-state front of vintage audio gear, semiconductor manufacturing firms should start making back those military-grade EMP-resistant 2N3055 and MJ2955 transistors in non-ferromagnetic cases. You know, the one then in use in Vietnam War era B-52Gs used to carpet bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Nixon Administration's Operation Linebacker.
P.S. Don't you think that the AN214 IC-based audio amplifier could reach cult status due to its increasing scarcity?

VaneSSa said...

New Era Audio and Vision Center of Causeway Bay, Hong Kong has been the primary destination of audiophiles here in the Philippines due to the utter lack of local "real hi-fi" stores. We have a thriving Ukrainian Yiddish and Uyghur community here, but it seems that "real hi-fi stores" on Philippine shores is something we Filipinos can seem to live without.
Though I'm too young to have experienced first hand the 7591A output tube - or valves according to Brits - back in the 1990s, we - the global audiophile community - should be commending Svetlana of St. Petersburg for remanufacturing the 7591A power tube for those of us who still have working Fisher 500-C receivers. I wonder if there is a guitar amp around that uses the 7591A tube?
Other discontinued solid-state devices and ICs that we could badly need include the MM5369AA/N IC by National Semiconductor used to generate precise 60-Hz square waves from a 3.58-MHz color TV crystal. Support AN214.

David said...

Like the Fisher 500-C receiver with it's 7591A output tubes, the AN214 IC-based amplifier has managed to gain cult status over the years as a low-cost gateway to audio nirvana. I currently use circa 1995 Mission 731 LE speakers with my AN214 amps. Looks like good-sounding rare solid state audio gear is fast becoming to gain vintage audio gear status.
Speaking of rare solid-state parts no longer produced by mainstream manufacturers. The 2N6449 300-volt JFET that was often used to replace the tubes in tube-based Ham Radio / RF equipment back in the 1970s it would benefit us "Ham Geeks" if someone made these again. Or do you - like me - find tubes more "sexy" like in the movie Frequency.

Ringo said...

New Era Audio and Vision Centre's current address is at Unit 8 G/F and Unit 2 Basement, Causeway Bay Plaza 1 489 Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. This venerable hi-fi store has been a prime destination of Filipinos who can fortunately afford to indulge in vintage audio. Other than the Philippine embassy in Hong Kong, this is probably the only place there that working Filipino ex-pats can't do without.
Due to the relatively low cost of living here in the Philippines, a typical "Water Closet Maintenance Engineer" working at Hong Kong earns enough money to indulge in purchasing top of the line vintage audio gear. One of my audio-buddies who works in such a field uses an EMT 927 broadcast turntable, a PX25-based integrated amplifier connected to an Air Partner Tone Scout horn loudspeaker as his main system. He frequently borrows my Japanese pressing of Iron Maiden's Run to the Hills 45 RPM single - the one with Total Eclipse as the B-side - and I can say that his system is the most rhythmically-correct audio set-up on the planet.
Speaking of "extinct" and "endangered" tubes or valves, did our major tube / valve manufacturers started making the 8417 beam tetrode again? It was used in Quicksilver's monoblock amps back in the early 1990s and the tube became virtually extinct back in 1995. Those with info on the 8417 beam tetrode tube / valve, please drop me a line.

Jacob said...

Thanks for posting the current address of New Era Audio and Vision Centre. The reputation of this Causeway Bay, Hong Kong based vintage hi-fi store had reached the vintage audio enthusiasts in Germany during the 1990s.
As one of those poor misguided folks who had hastily sold their venerable Fisher 500 C receiver during their college years in search of something "better" are forever grateful to vintage audio stores that stock reasonably priced 7591A beam power pentode type power tubes - and used Fisher 500 C receivers restored to their original working order.
The 8417 beam power pentode used in many a hi-fi amp during the "Golden Age of Stereo" has since gone out of production since the 1980s / Reagan Administration (take your pick). Scarce NOS types can still be bought at a reasonable price if you are lucky enough to find one although "Speculative Swines" are by far the easiest to find vendors of the 8417 tube if you can afford their over 100 US dollar retail price each for a Sylvania type 8417. The Sylvania version was the best according to those DIY hi-fi enthusiasts who worked with the tube first hand. Te GE version was prone to to grid overheating. Most 8417 based power amps had since been modified to accept the more plentiful 6550 tubes (tip use only Sovtek versions). The modified amp will produce less power unless the driver stage is extensively modified. 8417 based tube amps are very dynamic like Quicksilver audio's 60-watt 8417 monoblocks. and would have made it as a prime example as a "Flat Earth" tube amp if the tubes stayed plentiful during the 1980s.

Sherry Rashad said...

Maybe Vanessa should stay away from those shops with "No Uyghurs Allowed" signs written in Chinese characters on some shops in Manila that I saw as far back as 1998. I'm so intolerant of racist people that I'm too angry to find out whether such shops are selling hi-fi. The absence of "real hi-fi" shops in the Philippines probably resulted from the exorbitant "tribute" being asked by the disgraced and impeached former Philippine president Joseph Estrada during his administration. There was once a Linn dealer here in Cebu City back in 1992 being run by a Swedish national which closed shop back in 1999 due to the Estrada Administration's arcane taxation methods preventing the shop from making a profit.
Speaking of the Fisher 500-C receiver, can the power amp section with the 7591A pentode be reconfigured safely into triode mode for improved sound quality? Not forgetting to take precautions against parasitic oscillation of course. Has triode modification been ever done to the Fisher 500-C power amplifier section?

VaneSSa said...

Dear Sherry,
I tend to boycott such politically incorrect / racist proprietors - peacefully. Too bad Islamic militants haven't taken them out yet - maybe that's why they are called "terrorists" because they tend to kill innocent civilians as opposed to their real enemies.
Speaking of pentode tube / valve amplifiers connected in ultra-linear mode being converted to triode operation. Triode-connected pentodes normally will work well - in fact too well sound quality wise - so long as precautions are taken against parasitic oscillation which as all tube / valve enthusiasts know is the case with the Marantz and other leading tube amps made during the Golden Age of Stereo. Triode connecting usually results in the amp sounding more dynamic and musical. I haven't tried it though on my grandfather's Fisher 500-C receiver's power amp section due to lack of spare output transformers for me to use as an "experimental kit". the 7591A tubes are pentode type and could work in triode mode. Many had probably already done it in the past to make their Fisher 500-C sound better.
In my place, EL519 / PL509 tubes were often called Radiowealth tubes because such tubes like the EL509 / PL509 / PL504 were used as TV horizontal sweep tubes of Radiowealth TVs sold here during the late 1960s. Pl519 tubes taken from junked Radiowealth TVs are the primary source of this tubes here in the Philippines. I have amplifier construction diagrams that date back from 1955 from the Hugo Gernsback published Popular Electronics that show power amps using the PL519 tube.
As I've been using tubes for less than 3 years, our lone Quicksilver monoblock pair that uses 8417 beam power tubes still run ok. I wonder how long these tubes last?

Yvette said...

Quicksilver's 8417 Monoblock amps were rated at 100-watt RMS. It was a push-pull Class AB-1 design in fixed bias configuration with 35-watts of anode dissipation of each 8417 tube.

Madison Scott said...

Speaking of the EL509 / PL509 tubes found in Radiowealth black and white TVs. I think Radiowealth was a Philippine subsidiary of the American General Electric. Radiowealth was probably started by the Elizalde group of companies - a main crony of the former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos - which also makes cheap knock offs of the M-16A1 assault rifles via Elisco during the Philippine Martial Law era 1970s.