The Case For Old Gear

These days much has been said about purchasing NEW. It’s a no-brainer. Fresh, unused, unmolested. Warranty-laden and the guarantee that if you dont like it, you have the option to return it. There is no question about satisfaction – you WILL be satisfied. Sometimes there is simply no alternative BUT to buy new. That being said, we focus on why it makes sense to buy used, old, vintage, and/or second-hand.

First and foremost, price. In most cases older or second-hand items cost less than the same item in new condition. The fact that someone else had it at one time means its not new anymore, and therefore cant be sold at the same price as a new item. This is when the item is still in wide abundance. Most of the time, its cheaper, but there are times when it can command a higher price, as in the case of discontinued items that are now hard-to-find, or have become unavailable. It doesnt matter if the item is not “vintage”, it may just simply be a matter of a few years, but if demand is high for an item thats not readily available, cost goes up.

Second, its what people now call “green”. Though the concept isnt new and has been around for decades, recycling or reusing of older items always makes sense. Its one less item that goes in a landfill, it’s not taking up space and collecting dust anymore, and youre giving the item a sense of purpose – it still has its use. Its one less tree that’s cut down.

Third, durability. Think about it, that amplifier or guitar that sounds great is about 40 years old,  and is STILL WORKING. We all know about today’s products, and how they break down easily. Disposable has become the norm. People often say “they dont make ’em like they used to”. And they dont. Regardless of where theyre made from, things arent durably made anymore. “Made in USA” doesnt mean much if the workmanship is shoddy, and means even less if priced out of reach. Most people do not have a lot of money, and the most logical thing to do is to stretch the dollar further by buying cheap, which usually means imports. “Made in china” doesnt always mean its bad quality – its just the stigma of the press generating the negative connotation attached to imports. Though it has to be said that some manufacturing processses overseas still leave a LOT to be desired. Cheap underpaid labor, poor working environment, copyright infringements still happens, though not as much or as blatant as before, thanks in part to the globalization and freedom of the press. This has brought about improvements the recent decade with not only the manufacturing process and the prducts that are turned out, but treatment of the workers in those far-flung factories.
Manufacturers have clued in to two things: less material brings manufacturing costs down, which in turn brings up profit. “How thin can we make this before it breaks?”. Also, if its made cheap enough, people wont mind buying a new one. This keeps the cycle of disposability full circle. This is indicative of pretty much ALL medium to large-scale manufacturers.

Lastly, there’s the “mystique” of owning an old piece of gear. Much like the quarter in the movie “No Country For Old Men”, that guitar and/or amp has traveled forty some odd years to get to where its at now. There is so much history tied to that old gear. Someone has owned it and played with it, wrote songs on it, saved someone’s rent by getting sold. It’s probably traveled across the world, and got stolen and pawned, and a kid bought it to start learning music, to write a song about a girl he loves, or broke his heart. That ding or scratch or rip is a testament that it’s been used well, and enjoyed well. There is a bit of good karma and spirit infused in it (as well as other intoxicants of legal and nefarious nature). Who knows what wild and crazy stories it can tell if it spoke. By owning one, you can add on to that. All those years and stories and songs add up to the soul of that instrument. It may be inanimate, but it comes alive when its played. With a new gear, you have to start fresh – theres no soul to it until youve crafted your own stories and songs with it.


I guess this one can fall in either Tube Amps or Records. Ive been bitten by the Vintage Bug – anything old and classic looking, i take a liking to. Its not surprising that from vintage tube amps, i would move on to records, and from there using tube amps to play the records thru.

Its not even a matter of getting the best and clearest sound possible – you can easily get that from a digital music player, or even the cheapest of amplifiers these days. Solid-state technology has come a long way, giving us 7, even 8.1 channel surround sound, Hi-def, enhanced clarity. But there’s nothing more attractive to me than sheer simplicity, and the non-nonsense function that gives you little to tweak, so you dont have to spend too much time fussing about, detracting you from your main goal. All you need is for the record player to play, and let yourself listen and enjoy the music. All that hiss, pop, and crackle-y goodness warmth of vinyl.

About a month ago i got myself a curious record player dating back from the late 50’s/early 60’s. Its a Magnavox Custom, portable suitcase-type stereo record player. It’s two-tone gold/brown fabric cover evokes those suitcases of its era. Though portable, the record player does not run on batteries – you still need to plug it in to a wall outlet.

When i got it, it was in fair condition. I would say it looked good for its age of over 50 years. There were some scuffs, and little tears on the thin fabric cover. There were surprisingly  few spots that had rust. Functionally, there were some problems though: the platter wont spin correctly, its like any weight stops it from spinning. And there was no platter mat! It did not come with a 45rpm adapter, and the slot where the adapter sits is almost in pieces.

The 2-prong cord was a little stiff, but not brittle – a good sign it hasn’t sat for a long while. This can probably use a 3-prong change later. The relatively TINY amplifier that runs in it uses only 3 tubes (2 50EH5 power tubes, and 1 12AX7 preamp tube), has 2 output transformers, and point to point wiring. There is no power transformer, which means it uses the mains to fire up the power tubes directly. This isnt so much of a big deal with amplifiers made to stand on its own and play either a radio, reel-to-reel tape, or phonographs. Its when you use an electric guitar to plug in that makes a output-transformer-less tube amp a Death Amp (case in point, those old Harmony amps).

The right speaker is wired close to the amp, while the left remote/satellite detachable speaker is connected via a very long RCA cable.  Both speakers are 8″ in diameter. Possibly just 5-10 watts, and maybe rated at 8ohms each. I wasnt going to know how they sound until i get the player running.

Plugged in, the amp tubes light up and glow, and running my index finger gently under the tone arm where the needle is produces sound. Thats a good sign, as it means it can still possibly play a record. The platter spins, but as mentioned earlier, it stops when any weight is put on it. I had to borrow a platter mat fro one of my other record players just to be able to try a record.

Glad to say there is a very audible sound coming out of both speakers. The music is there, but the platter had to be “coaxed” to spin to get it to sing for a short spin.

Opening the record player up, it shows that the mechanical parts seem all there, and its relatively clean. I didnt see any attempts at fixing it, though someone may already have tried, and decided not to pursue it. My original guess is that the motor was probably dying, causing it not to spin correctly.

It wasnt a big loss – i can part out the record player itself, ebay it, and use the stereo amp as a standalone amp to play… whatever. Maybe for an MP3, who knows. And the case – it looks nice and  big enough to house maybe a 12″ speaker, make an instrument cab out of it. So i put it away for a project some other time.

I did find a couple of similar (maybe even the same!) magnavox/ collaro phonographs. Many of what ive seen on ebay are cannibalized out of a home stereo console, those big players that takes up a huge space in old houses. Its so big its even considered a furniture. I thought,  maybe get one for cheap, and do a drop-in replacement of the defective player i got. So i got one.

I received it today, and decided to make the change. Then i realized as i inspected the clean-looking “replacement” – its NOT stereo! There were the power wires, and only ONE RCA output. wow, thats an oversight on my part – ugh!

But maybe, just maybe, i can use the motor? Heck, im using the mat from it to put over the first one, might as well try anything. Both record players have the same sized motors, the only difference is that the new one played only 3 speeds, the first one played 4 speeds. So off went my screwdriver, and wouldnt you know it, on the first phonograph i got i found a piece of dried up rubber nub that came from its long-gone rubber mat. It was sitting under one of the rubber wheels that spun the platter itself. This may have caused the platter to NOT spin correctly.

Sure enough a dry-run without that rubber nub allowed the platter to spin without hesitation, and yes, PLAY whatever record i put in.


That was it – one dried up separated piece of rubber that threw off the whole spinning. The past 3 hours ive been spinning and listening to several albums, and man! the highs are crisp, and the sound is gorgeous! It can get loud, but not ear-shattering. No need to blast it anyway, it can fill up the room quite nicely, without losing its fullness. This is a keeper! This will now be THE MAIN RECORD PLAYER in my house.

What to do with the new one i got? Back to ebay, for parts or project! I dont even know if it works or not, but all indications tell me it will still play when hooked up correctly. I did take the rubber platter off of it, and swapped out a rubber wheel. Thats it. I’m sure someone else can use it.

Now the future possible project for this is to separate the record player, and put it on a more displayable case, alng with the stereo amp. Maybe use a different set of speakers, something that can enhance the low end more. from 6 inches away, you can hear it, but step back, and it blends in too much you dont hear most of it.

Or just keep it in its suitcase… er, case. Keep its kitschy-ness going. Could make a decent conversational piece, while listening to some Ventures, or even Albert King record.

The satellite speaker does need some repair, as the side where it attaches itself to the main case is somewhat separating. it may have been dropped at one point, or stressed way beyond its weight capability. A simple wood glue, some nails and some metal brace should strenthen it (much in the same way i did my cracked Fender Super Champ XD, but that’s another repair story).

For now, lets enjoy some Planet Claire on vinyl!