Speakers perform a great deal of continuous mechanical work, and for that reason many older speakers have been repaired or need to be repaired. For this guide we are assuming that you are not interested in taking up a restoration project, but are seeking vintage speakers ready for active duty. This means having to understand restoration and repairs to some degree, because many vintage speakers will have had this work done to them. This guide will fill you in on all you need to know to find the right pair of vintage speakers for you.
The most important thing to know before moving forward is that vintage speakers are not powered. Today, we distinguish modern unpowered speakers with the word ‘passive’. You will need an external amplifier.
For our purposes, “vintage” is roughly 25 years old. However, this guide will be useful when considering just about any pre-owned speaker.
Cabinet condition is not just an aesthetic concern — it affects sound too.
Cabinet condition obviously impacts the aesthetic experience, and many speakers feature beautiful woods, metals, and in some cases even luxurious leathers (e.g. Italy’s Sonos Faber). But cabinet condition is very important for sound, too, because a cabinet needs to be as inert as possible for the drivers to do their job efficiently.
Any speaker that has structural problems with the cabinet should be avoided, full stop. It may be hard to determine if a speaker cabinet has issues. Sometimes it’s quite obvious visually, but sometimes it’s a small vibration where panels are pulling apart, or some other hidden weakness. If your seller isn’t promising solid, inert cabinets, ask questions and be wary.
Good crossover condition is crucial, but they aren't too hard to replace.
Crossovers are (typically passive) electronic networks that divide the audio signal into different frequency ranges and send those signals to the appropriate driver in the speaker.
Sometimes the electrical components need to be replaced, especially capacitors. However, and surprisingly often, crossovers work fine after 50 years or more. There is no one answer here, as every speaker is a bit different, as is its usage history.
But if your seller isn’t telling you that the crossover is fine, then ask and be wary. Also, make sure that if electrical components have been replaced that the replacements are as close to original spec as possible so that the sound stays close to original.
Note, however, that most sellers do not address the crossover condition. That may be ok, as repairs aren’t always required, and repairs are not terribly involved or expensive. (They'r pretty easily DIY’d if you’re any good at soldering).
Rusty driver frames won't affect sound, but they're a red flag for other issues.
A driver's frame is the stamped or cast metal structure that holds everything. Often called the “basket.” It's typically in good shape on most speakers, though steel ones can rust. Rust on the frame, however, doesn’t hinder the performance of the voice coil, but rust may indicate that moisture was abundant in the cabinet, which doesn’t bode well for the condition of any components in that unit (unless it’s been established that the rusted frame was sourced from a different cabinet).
Tweeters are a little different than other drivers, but the basic concepts are the same. Forces are minimal in tweeters, so less structural strength is required. The frames are sometimes plastic, and can be very small.
If you have physical access, you can test the voice coil with your fingers.
The voice coil is a mechanism with a strong and often very heavy magnet that the small end of the cone, often wrapped in copper wire, fits into. Your amp sends voltage to the magnet, which causes the wire coil (and thus the whole cone) to move. That movement of the cone generates the sound waves we hear.
Voice coils stop working properly when the coiled wires begin to touch the magnet. This can happen for any number of reasons, the most typical being heat due to extended overexertion (we call this a “blown voice coil”). To test a voice coil, gently push the cone in (using all five fingers of one hand spread out) and then allow the suspension to move it back to the neutral position. You want to bounce the cone in and out, replicating normal travel of the voice coil. There should be zero scraping sounds, and zero rough sensations in your fingertips. If you hear anything and/or feel a rub, the voice coil is blown.
You can’t really do this test to a tweeter, because you’re more likely to put a dimple in the tweeter. Typically we use our ears, and the damage is pretty obvious, especially if you’re comparing a good and a bad tweeter side-by-side.
Voice coil restoration is possible, but you'll probably be better off replacing the driver entirely if possible. With tweeters, replacing the whole unit is the norm.
Reglued components are fine so long as they were done right.
A speaker's conical membrane, typically paper in vintage speakers but sometimes aluminum, hemp, kevlar, or sandwiched foams, is glued to the frame around the large circle at the very front of the speaker.
The spider — an accordion-folded piece of paper (or other material) that secures the narrow end of the cone to the frame — is also glued to the frame, as is the dust cover in the center of the speaker.
All this glue can dry and crack over time, and it’s pretty common to find that a speaker has been reglued. Reglued cones and spiders are fine, provided the work was done well. It’s a common repair on older speakers, and doesn’t sacrifice quality if done right.
Replaced speaker cones are fine, but you'll want to make sure they're the right type.
Sometimes, however, the cone itself is falling apart or has been damaged. This often happens where foams are used on the outer suspension (a.k.a. surround), because they dry out and deteriorate. Replacing a cone is fine (akin to changing the tires on a car), but make sure you’re getting the exact right brand and model of cone so the sound is the same. Sometimes a new cone sounds too “fresh” to work with an older cone, so some folks change them in pairs.
If you're getting repairs, consider doing both halves of a pair.
When restoration or repair work has been done, it’s usually best if repairs are done to both speakers in the same way at the same time. This is because material fatigue will change a driver’s sound over time. This is abundantly clear when we talk about break-in periods for new speakers, where we want them to “relax” and “open up.” It’s best not to have one “relaxed” speaker and one really new one, especially if the difference is decades old. I recommend “doing both sides” when repair work is done, though it is not necessary by any means.
Three Tasty Vintage Brands To Consider
Along with a slew of other companies in England, Rogers won the coveted BBC contract and began building for their studios. The BBC designs are still heralded by audiophiles, still built today (and often cost quite a lot, e.g. Harbeth), and often imitated (alas, often poorly).
The Rogers "house sound" is articulate, especially in the mid range. Zero harshness or frying-pan sizzle from the tweeters. Bass feels integrated into the overall soundstage, rather than feeling like a separate phenomenon (like many modern speakers).
American, innovative, and incredibly well regarded, vintage JBL speakers provide a cornucopia of options. But there are some superstars to consider.
“Balanced” isn’t the sexiest descriptor, but it is one of the sexiest sounds you’ll find. Often allowing you to adjust relative tweeter and mid-range driver levels, JBLs can achieve sounds tailored to the listening environment. Expect to hear everything, including articulate lower midrange, which is rare and which provides important texture to bass guitar, husky voices, piano, cello, and so on. JBLs reveal “interest” as audiophiles like to say.
Henry Kloss, who founded Advent in the 1970s, is an historical icon in the hi-fi world. After successfully running KLH in the 50s and 60s, he struck out and offered just two very basic models of Advent speakers, the boringly named Large and the Small models. However, these two simple two-way speakers helped take audiophilia from a niche interest to a mainstream phenomenon. As such, there are just countless pairs of Advents (and parts) out there from crapped out crossovers to NOS full speaker sets. Fun for hunting!
You’ll be surprised at the bass response, which is large and in charge, if not entirely articulate. The treble is clear enough, with just enough sizzle to bring a ride cymbal to life (think “Us Them” from Dark Side of the Moon). Expect an easy, all-Sunday-long listening experience. Unfussy, clear, relaxing.