It's a jungle out there. Even if you grew up around this gear, it can be tough to sort the treasure from the trash in today's resurgent market. So, what's it worth? Perhaps the most common questions we hear are about determining value. We have some experience we can share, even though volumes could be written about the subject, and we'd be no closer to the answer.
WHO MADE IT?
There are a few brand names that you can almost always consider a good buy, but for the vast majority of HiFi names, recognizable doesn't always mean valuable. The old hands in the room will nod while we rattle off McIntosh, Marantz, Luxman, and Audio Research – components from those brands are almost certainly interesting. Ironically, you'll have to dig a little bit deeper with well-known names like Pioneer, JBL, Harmon Kardon, and Klipsch – almost every brand has a unique product line or era that's particularly valuable. For example, Fisher is ignored by collectors – unless it says "The Fisher" on the front, which could fetch a pretty penny. You could grab a pair of JBL earbuds for a few bucks, but a JBL Paragon is a five-figure conversation. In vintage HiFi, it's generally safe to avoid decisions on brand alone. We've compiled a history of important vintage HiFi brands to help get you started. Another easy mistake is to assume that a lack of search results means something's rare – perhaps, but in our experience anything rare and collectible has been written about ad infinitum.
WHAT IS IT?
Whether you’re considering buying or selling, don’t overlook the market! Just because something seems old, doesn't mean it’s valuable. Yes, that is a really cool VCR. No, they don't make them anymore. That’s because there's no market for them anymore. Today, speakers, amplifiers, receivers, and turntables are in demand. The lowest price tags usually hang on tuners and tape decks, but this is where brand comes into play – a McIntosh tuner or a Nakamichi tape deck are easy exceptions to the rule. Reel-to-reel decks have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, but collectors are only looking for a handful of models.
Whatever it is, start with the make and model, and see what pops up for a web search. Go through the top few posts to see what kind of reputation the piece has. Next, pop over to eBay and see if you can find similar pieces that have sold recently. If you don’t see many results online, and not much on eBay, consider donating it. On the other hand, if you can’t find evidence of many recent sales, yet the piece has been written about extensively, you may have something special.
Mid-century stereo consoles and cabinets can hold quite a lot of value, with the right look. Rack systems from the 80s - gear stacked in a cabinet with a glass door - are rarely valuable. Generally speaking, the cutoff for vintage HiFi is around the mid-nineties, when nearly every electronics manufacturer started chasing the internet. Black plastic components from then on are most valuable when recycled.
HOW DOES IT LOOK?
One key reason for the vintage HiFi revolution is repairability. A lot of this gear was built solid as an ox, and easily repairable, but cosmetic parts can be hard to find. A single missing knob will usually torpedo the value of a piece. Cracked glass, which may seem simple to replace may cost more than a unit is worth. Damaged or worn lettering could be even more of an issue. If you’re considering buying a piece to restore, part of your research should include availability of cosmetic pieces like faceplates and knobs.
If you see any sign of rust, do your best to understand what might have caused it. Oxygen, right? Yeah, yeah. We’re talking about damage and repairability here. Did some of the finish chip off, exposing raw steel? That’s a different calculus than if a piece had water damage – those usually end up in parts bins. On the other hand, some pieces are naturally prone to pitting and rust, like the chrome chassis of many early McIntosh amps. Dust would collect on the chassis, and gradually absorb humidity, leading to pitting and speckles of rust. That pitting will affect the value, but not the performance, and sometimes such honest character can make a piece more attractive.
Can you see any signs of previous repair? Service stickers on the back might reinforce the notion that a piece was well-cared for, but won't usually offset signs of obvious disregard, and cosmetic issues. You still have to use your judgement with thing like a frayed power cord or chipped wood.
With speakers, or any component with wood trim, examine the wood closely for damage or previous repair. Water rings, chips, and any scratches that you can catch your fingernail on will probably cost more than you’d imagine to fix, so they should deeply affect the value. With speakers particularly, the color of the finish can affect the value. Some veneers were premium offerings, and some manufacturers produced black speakers from their seconds, hiding the flaws in the veneer. Also with speakers, carefully examine each of the drivers. Make sure there are no tears or damage to the cones, that the rubber “surround” ring on each of the drivers is intact and supple, and that the dust caps in the center of the speakers haven’t been pushed in. All of these things would lower the value as well.
In the vintage space cosmetic repair can be more costly than electronic work. Internal components like capacitors are easily replaced, because they're widely used (and better) today. Often the cheapest path to owning a collectible piece is to find one in great condition, but needs a little electronic love.
HOW DOES IT RUN?
Anything that's been fully serviced or refurbished is going to fetch a premium price. The unfortunate reality is that perhaps a third of the gear remaining in the world has been well-cared for, so whenever possible, test any equipment before buying or selling. A piece may have been working when it was put in storage, but time takes a toll. Simply powering up a receiver that was stored for 20 years can sometimes damage circuitry, so we recommend a more gradual procedure, using a device called a Variac, to slowly introduce power to a unit and condition the circuits for regular use. Remember, a beat-up piece that runs might not be as valuable as a gem that isn’t.
Marathon not a Sprint
Any buyer looking to keep their costs down should consider the long game. That could mean waiting for your internet searches to find a unicorn, or it could simply mean finding the right piece and having it restored. Remember, cosmetics are often more expensive than electronics. If you're having a piece shipped, make sure the seller knows how to pack HiFi gear. Conversely, if you're the seller, the original packaging and boxes can substantially increase the value. A seller looking to get top dollar should consider refurbishing a piece as much as possible before selling. The other advantage sellers can create is by offering multiple pieces at once, to target more qualified buyers with deeper pockets. If you’re considering selling your collection, but still unsure of your next steps, Aural HiFi will be happy to provide a full appraisal free of charge.