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October 2010 editorial

Vintage craziness

Hi Lucio,
now there is one just-concluded ebay auction for a Naim Nait 1 amplifier but it seems 
to be overpriced to me at 350GBP, which is equivalent to almost a thousand Singapore dollars, inclusive of shipping. 
Is there any way to obtain an excellent condition Naim Nait 1 at a lower price, compared to ebay websites, 240v voltage?
Thank you very much in advance.
Best Regards,
John, Singapore
Few days ago one of our readers from Singapore sent this letter to me complaining how difficult was finding a Naim Nait 1 amplifier at reasonable prices. Actually, the latest Ebay auction of a Nait ended up at nearly 400 €! A quick glance at Ebay and I realized there are Naim Nait 1's offered for nearly 600 €! I admit prices of the Nait 1 have increased after my review appeared here on TNT-Audio few years ago. Before that article it wasn't impossible to find a Nait 1 for 200-250 € or so. I was well aware of the fact that a very positive review of a vintage component causes its average price to go up, for this reason I invited readers to avoid paying ridiculously high prices for that amplifier. It is still a nice component, somehow it represents the golden era for British HiFi, but it is low powered, has few (DIN!) inputs and, certainly, even if you can find one in apparently good shape, it requires a recap, to say the least.

On the other hand, it should be remarked that the usual quality/price ratio factor becomes less relevant when it comes to vintage gear. Hence, even if the choice of a vintage component can't be completely justified rationally, it still makes sense if referred to a piece of the recent HiFi history. If it sounded good then, chances are it can still sound reasonably good.
What's strange is that nowadays people are starting to search for modest, old HiFi gear, i.e. components with almost zero musical value. I'm referring to Japanese entry-level components of the '70s and '80s, for example. An entry-level component from mass-market production sounded bad in its days, and it sounds even worse today, especially if one considers 30-40 years don't pass in vain for caps, resistors, selectors and potentiometers. It is not like good wine that can become better after years: HiFi components simply become worse. For example, entry-level amplifiers from Technics, Akai, Pioneer, Sony etc. hadn't a good reputation then, go figure how can they be considered by today's standards! It is not sufficient to attach a vintage label to make them sound better. Even if you replace all the relevant passive components inside, if you deoxodize selectors and pots, the final result will be worse than any modern entry-level amp.

I started collecting HiFi gear when it wasn't fashionable: I was fond of '70s HiFi components because they reminded me my early days, when I was a money-less student, dreaming of becoming a real audiophile sooner or later. Years after, 70's gear, even the top stuff, became affordable and so I started buying my old dreams so nowadays I have a wall shelf full of vintage components. Some are quite rare and extremely fascinating (and still good sounding), others are just mid-class components that can't be seriously compared with equivalent mid-class modern gear but they look so cool that I don't think I'll ever sell them.

During my hunt for classics, I've always refused to pay nonsense prices. And this hunt wasn't motivated by anything else than a quest for owning cool gear I couldn't afford when I was a schoolboy. In other words I've never purchased a vintage component because I needed it for my main stereo system. For this reason I can't understand how can a novice, still searching for his FIRST HiFi system, look for old and basic vintage components. Considering how many good HiFi components are available today, at ridiculously low prices (T-Amp genealogy, Scythe stuff and so on) it is pure nonsense to focus one's attention on entry-level gear from the Seventies or, even worse, from the Eighties! To be more precise: how can a Marantz 1030 sound better than, say, a Trends Audio TA 10.2? Street price being the same the TA.2 puts the 1030 to shame, in any area. And it sounds embarassing even for bigger Marantz's of that era (I own a 1060, for example).
And how a basic direct-drive Japanese turntable can sound better than, say, a ProJect Debut? Consider that in the '70s and 80's most of the mass-market turntables were built having in mind stable rotation speed figures only. Nobody claimed even turntables could make a difference in sound. Western World Companies started to think different (the Sondek being one of the most controversial examples of that new era, in the late '70s) but mass-production from the Eastern World - apart from some notable exception - was focused on tech specs only.

When it comes to loudspeakers I'm sure there's no need to make comparisons: letting aside the giants and the real classics any entry-level loudspeaker of the '70s sounds worse than a contemporary competitor, especially if one considers that it is extremely rare to find a vintage speaker with its original drivers on, all in good shape. Suspensions dry up and become stiffer (hence the sound changes dramatically), internal wiring oxidizes, caps and coils fail to respect the design's specs. All of this notwithstanding, it is sufficient to attach the vintage label to any relic to make it appear (and sound) better than it is. If you look at how these items are described in classifieds sites, there's a phrase that gets repeated over and over as a mantra: "Things like these are no longer made!". Luckily, I'd add.

If you don't have a complete perception of what's happening, have a look at Ebay auctions, searching for a turntable or an amplifier, below a certain price tag: hundreds of luxurious vintage components will pop up, with starting prices so unbelievably high that sometimes I think the auction _has_ to be a joke. Of course, one can say that prices are high because there are people ready to spend that much even for crappy gear. Correct: prices are determined by buyers, not by sellers. I'm not against this, I'd just like to warn novice audiophiles about the risks of purchasing vintage gear: even the worst things are overpriced, they certainly need a total restoration that can be difficult and expensive: many components and parts are becoming unavailable and, for sure, you'd need a service manual to fully repair a vintage component. Service manuals are easy to find but are not free. Moreover, qualified technicians usually don't like to spend their time on vintage gear, though there are various vintage restoration services which specialize in classics. Anyway, do not expect to bring a, say, '70s Sony receiver to an official Sony service: normally they can reapir only modern stuff.
If you still insist in wanting a vintage system, don't expect it to sound as good as a modern one. This might be not true if you consider really good stuff from the past, but entry-level gear sound horrible. As a secondary system it can still make sense, though.

Now, speaking of vintage that just seems vintage (but it is not!) let me propose you this amazing song that seems a leftover from Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album: it is Vanishing girl by The Dukes of the Stratosphere (a.k.a XTC!), from their album Psonic Psunspot, a masterpiece of psychedelic Music with that irresistible Sixties flavour. Yeah, I know it seems The lion sleeps tonight but...it is different! A cute and amusing song from the most talented duo in Music history (Partridge/Moulding). Happy listening!

© Copyright 2010 Lucio Cadeddu - www.tnt-audio.com

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