Vintage stereo isn't exactly a booming business, but it's growing, says Jeff Brucker, owner of Tucson's Stereo Hospital. Nine years ago he moved from working out of his home, strictly repairing old gear, to a space inside Metrognome Music where he and fellow vintage-audio fan and tech Tom Higgins now do repairs and sell vintage gear.
"Our typical customer," Brucker says, "is a person who wants an affordable sound system, either to buy one or repair what they already have."
The store's shelves are stocked mostly with the middle class of 1970s and 1980s audio: receivers, cassette decks and some power amps by Japanese Pioneer, Sansui, Onkyo, Sherwood, Yamaha, Sony, JVC and Kenwood. There's the occasional older vintage gem, like a gold-faced 1960s Fisher 500C receiver with a $599 price tag. And there's the audiophile's dream, a Macintosh power amp and tuner, a Thorens turntable or Klipsch speakers. But most of it is affordable stuff, in the $200-$300 range.
Some repair customers search Tucson's thrift stores, score at yard and estate sales, or inherit vintage gear and then bring it to Brucker and Higgins for reconditioning.
Brucker says he prefers the sound of old analog gear. "The thing about digital audio files (MP3, iPods, nearly all portable audio devices), it's all compressed." He says digital files lack audio information that analog, old stereo gear whether tube or solid state, conveys to the listener's ear.
The loss is both in detail - sound that is missing but implied and supposedly replaced by our brains - and in dynamic range, the difference between the loudest and softest sounds.
It doesn't help that we listen to most of it on wretched sounding little earbuds that couldn't reproduce the full sound, even if it was there. He says the missing sound information is important.
"There are harmonics" he says, the product of combining audible musical notes, that are eliminated from digital files. They have an effect on the total sound, Brucker says.
And certainly not all the gear is for audiophiles, much of it is the Chevrolet and Ford of '60s, '70s and '80s stereo. There's even a Toshiba "ghetto blaster" on the shelf - but it costs $199 now, not the $100 it sold for 30 years ago.
Brucker and Higgins say parts are available for almost anything, tubes (often from Russia or China), transistors, resistors, capacitors, belts for tape drive units.
"We're still repairing cassette players and reel to reel" tape recorders, Brucker says. If people have old tapes, they've got to play them on something.
"Parts are not the big issue," Brucker says. It's knowing how to do the work. He said he learned electronics in the military.
Much of their repair work is on speakers with torn cones or surrounds - the part that attaches the speaker cone to the speaker frame. When the surrounds get old, those made out of foam or plastic disintegrate. But Brucker says it's no problem replacing them, although people tend to think their speakers "are blown" and throw them out.
He's a fan of the speakers of the 1960s and 1970s because they more accurately reproduce the recordings of the time. "Most of the music was designed with stereo speakers using a woofer, not a subwoofer," Brucker says of the exaggerated ultra-low bass of modern speaker systems, particularly those made for home theater use.
"But the big thing is receivers," Brucker says of used audio equipment sales. "And turntables have a certain mystique to them right now."
Some customers, he says, like them for the look, others to play old and new vinyl. Just outside Stereo Hospital's store within a store, Metrognome music has added an aisle of vintage vinyl, mostly 1960s and '70s rock. Some current bands are releasing recordings first on vinyl, sometimes only on vinyl, and their fans - often born long after the gear Brucker sells was made - need a turntable to play it.
"Young people today listen to music that's 50 years old. We didn't do that," says Brucker, 64. "Kids today relate to it."
But in other cases, the retro charm is in the eyes of people who were around when the gear was new.
"We were both born in 1951," says Jim Doherty of himself and his wife, Nikki Westra, the owners of a 1964 Drexel Motorola Declaration console "hi-fi" (high-fidelity) that Stereo Hospital restored. The simple wood cabinet is a centerpiece, establishing the midcentury décor of their Catalina Foothills home's living room. The low, modern wood cabinet conceals a Motorola AM-FM receiver, power amp, turntable and speakers.
Besides the console, Doherty and Westra scoured the thrift and used-furniture stores and bought roughly a dozen other midcentury pieces to complement the stereo.
"I think there's a bit of nostalgia," Doherty says. "It's all the stuff that we saw people had, that people in our lifestyle couldn't afford growing up."
Westra recalls having a boyfriend in the 1960s "who had those giant speakers" that were fashionable at the time. She prefers the look of the console. "It's the centerpiece to what we changed our living room to be. It's been wonderful finding these pieces and bringing them back."
"We like listening to music more than watching the news," Doherty says. "We really like Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, and we've discovered quite a few thrift stores around town that carry albums. We've picked up a few. Jackie Gleason believe it or not, had quite a good orchestra. Peggy Lee... Julie London is another one of our rediscovered favorites. And Dave Brubeck. Lots of Dave Brubeck."
Doherty says the old music and the vintage hi-fi console put them in a peaceful mood. "We'll put on some music and we'll read and we'll talk."
• Amplifier - The amplifier, aka "power amp," takes the still relatively weak signal from the pre-amp and boosts the volume.
• Midrange - The speaker that carries the bulk of the sounds on a recording, most of the human voice, most instruments; the sounds between the highs and the lows.
• Pre-amp (pre-amplifier) - The weak signal produced by the turntable's cartridge, tape deck or tuner is amplified and passed on to the next component.
• Receiver - Combines the tuner, pre-amp and amplifier in one unit.
• Solid state - Transistors, miniature solid state devices that could amplify signals, replaced tubes in most audio gear by the 1970s, and as early as the 1950s in portable radios. Integrated circuits that combined a few transistors - and later hundreds, thousands and millions of transistors, capacitors and resistors on one chip - replaced individual entire circuit boards in more modern audio gear and most all electronic devices we use today.
• Speakers - Usually made of real wood, often finished like expensive furniture. Most speakers were actually boxes with two or more speakers: a large diameter woofer for low frequencies, a smaller midrange speaker for voices and the range of most sounds made by most instruments, and a tweeter to handle the very high frequencies - the highest part of voices, the sizzle of cymbals and other high-pitched sounds.
• Tape deck - There were three main formats for recording and playing back music stored on magnetic audio tape: Reel-to-reel, two plastic reels that fed 1/4-inch tape between them; cassette, a small plastic box enclosing a pair of tiny tape reels; and 8-track, a dark memory for those who experienced this finicky technology that was mainly used in car stereos in the 1970s.
• Tubes - Vacuum tubes were used in the earliest components and some receivers, and are still preferred by many audiophiles. Tubes had to be replaced as they aged and the sound they produced degraded.
The glowing glass bubbles amplified signals and handled other chores that were later taken over by cheaper and more efficient transistors. The glowing vacuum tube is the iconic image of vintage audio for most fans. They are still produced, mostly in Russia and China.
• Tuner - Radio signals, AM and FM, and sometimes shortwave, are picked up with an antenna (a long wire, or pair of thin metal "rabbit ears" on a plastic base) connected to the back of a tuner.
• Turntable - A motorized, rotating horizontal disc for playing vinyl recordings. The turntable has an arm that holds a needle (stylus) which follows the records grooves and is connected to a cartridge (usually a magnetic coil) which turns the vibrations produced by the needle in the groove into an electrical signal.
• Tweeter - The speaker, or horn, that reproduces the highest frequency sounds on a recording - the sizzle of cymbals, the "s" sounds in speech, the far right (treble) notes of a piano, the highest notes on a trumpet.
• Woofer - The speaker, usually the largest in diameter, that reproduces the lowest frequencies on a recording - bass drums, the lowest strings on an upright bass.