Vintage vs Modern Audio : Which is right for you?

This topic comes up so very often in web forums and blogs usually sparking strong opinions. Which is better to own, vintage audio or modern audio gear? There are pros and cons to both and maybe I can put some questions to bed on the topic. Whenever you are making a decision to buy a new piece of equipment the dilemma usually comes down to price, quality, reliability, specs, and value. As an example let’s use an integrated amplifier since they have been produced for over a half century. Being a preamp and amplifier, sometimes including a phono stage in one unit they are an excellent starting point for any audio setup.

First up in terms of debate is how much you are spending on your new piece of audio equipment. There are vintage amps ranging from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars. With modern you will likely be spending more for a new unit, likely several hundred to start but can also climb to several thousand on the higher end. Obviously vintage sounds like it has the advantage since, you can at thrift shops, yard sales, and flea markets buy units for literally ten to fifty bucks. However, keep in mind, you are purchasing an amp that is quite possibly 40 years old. It is extremely rare, unless your buying from someone who is knowledgeable about repairing these units and testing them, that you are buying an item that works flawlessly. There are likely some issues, and you hopefully either have the skills to repair or know someone who can. On the other hand buying a new amp from a store or even second hand privately, the chances of an issue are much less. And if new you may even have a warranty backed by the manufacturer. This brings up the next big considerations in your audio purchase, the quality and reliability of your new piece of gear.

The old saying “They don’t make them like they used to” is never more true then when it comes to audio equipment. But much like automobiles does older always equal better? That’s where the debate comes in. Vintage audio equipment for the most part is very overbuilt and was made to be serviced on the component level if repairs were required. In a vintage amp you can change out components like capacitors, resistors, diodes, transistors, and repair a failed circuit with the knowledge of troubleshooting the amp. Most models have schematics and service manuals all over the internet. This is of course if the unit even needs repair after decades of use since it was engineered to last. Most modern equipment that you find in big box chain stores are in my opinion not made to last. They are not engineered to be serviced, more often to be replaced. However, not all is lost in modern quality, there is a step above in companies that are producing modern gear built to last. This comes though with a hefty price tag usually. 60’s and 70’s vintage equipment was not cheap when it was new, and neither is good equipment today. Buying a quality modern piece of gear that is say five to ten years old can be a great idea since like cars modern audio does suffer rapid depreciation. So the quality to price and reliability are important factors to consider when you decide to take the vintage or modern route with your purchase.

OK, so now let’s say you have taken the above into consideration and decided on what decade your amp is going to be from. What about the capabilities and specs of this amp, and do these change with modern versus vintage. Short answer, depends what you need from your amp. Most vintage integrated amps will have inputs for a tuner, tape deck, auxillary source, and a turntable (usually labeled phono). The tuner, tape, and aux are called line level inputs meaning the source such as a CD player or mp3 player have a high enough output it is ready for the preamp to accept the signal and amplify it. A turntable is not a line level output it is actually very low since the phono cartridge does not produce gain to feed the preamp. The signal from the cartridge needs to go through a phono stage or phono preamp to be amplified, before entering the preamp. The signal leaving the phono stage will be line level like the signal coming from your CD player. Most amps from the 1960’s to the early 80’s all have phono preamps built in since turntables were so common. In the late 1980’s and to the present manufacturers of equipment saw a sharp decline in turntable use with a bigger use of cassette tapes and CD players so they decided to not include a phono preamp in their amps. With very modern gear there is a change occurring since the resurgence of vinyl listening, higher end manufacturers are seeing the need for a phono stage built in their amps again. An external phono stage can always be purchased and used between the turntable and preamp as well.

Watts… How many watts do I need, or does my speaker need and what is a watt anyway? A watt is a unit of energy, which in an amplifier represents the amount of current the amp can produce to send to your speaker which is basically a resistance. Your amplifier sends an alternating current to your speaker, which in turn makes the drivers of your speakers move in and out to produce sound. A watt is a unit that is a ratio of the voltage to the speaker’s resistance. This is why you will see wattage of an amp shown as X watts @8ohms. So how many watts do you need depends on what speaker you use and how loud you want to be able to play your music. Speaker efficiency is a later topic of discussion but plays an important role in power needs of an amp. Most moderately efficient speakers, in reality only require 30 watts to really produce very loud playback. Amplifier ratings from the 1980s to modern took a deceiving turn. In the years of vintage audio, to rate your amplifier at a certain wattage there were several requirements. The amp needed to produce the power continuously and across a range of frequencies. This encouraged companies to produce amps that were bigger and more powerful then their competition for boasting rights. Ratings in my opinion were true to their claims and made sense. As decades went on the way manufacturers were allowed to test and represent power ratings changed and brought along false claims. Many modern inexpensive amps cannot produce the power the amp claims continuously. The manufacturer needs to show the amp can produce this claimed power for a split section at a single frequency to advertise it as capable. Car audio is riddled with these fallacies of power ratings. However, in the modern HiFI market amplifiers are held to a much higher standard when it comes to power ratings. Companies in the middle to higher end are concerned with their reputation and advertise respectable power ratings.

The other heavily used number to represent an amp’s quality is distortion. Distortion is a tough unit to cover without getting too much into the physics of an amplifier. Modern gear for the most part produces much less distortion then vintage amps. The type of distortion though is very important. You will see distortion displayed as total harmonic distortionor THD. When a frequency is fed into an amp there are secondary and many other harmonics or “distortions” produced. Some of these harmonics are pleasant sounding and others are notso pleasant to the ear. A modern amp producing 0.001% THD produces less distortion then say a vintage tube amp producing 1% THD both at their maximum output powers but what type of distortion it is producing is just as important. Many feel this is what folks mean when they say tube amps sound “warmer”. The type of distortion they produce is pleasing to theear. Yes, distortion can sound good. Arguably though producing far less distortion can sound more accurate and detailed. This is one of those factors the listener needs to see what they enjoy for themselves.

Wrapping up the vintage versus modern debate let’s touch on value of pieces of equipment. This is the one aspect I feel vintage gear has a huge advantage. Vintage gear is well respected and sought after. Daily, vintage gear is thrown away which decreases the number of units in existence. Much like any collectible the less of them around increases value, if they are collectible in the first place. With the return of vinyl collecting and listening the vintage market has taken a big upswing. On the other hand if you can afford middle to higher end modern gear the reliability and maybe someday collectibility may be your best path.

There are a tons of forum type websites discussing audio gear both vintage and modern. I think to say vintage or modern one is better than the other is too much of a blanket statement. One really needs to listen to both and form their own opinion. Just keep in mind there is a wide variety in both categories and should be sampled well. Please leave a comment below, and feel free to voice your opinion.