Manufacturing today is not what it used to be. People are getting tired of brittle plastic, cheap DC motors, throwaway circuit boards, and components that fail in a year.
Many folks are now aware that planned obsolescence is quite real. It's a deliberate, open policy in many companies. And it's producing mountains of e-waste that are often ending up in developing nations.
It makes sense to keep vintage electronics working. Not just because it reduces waste, but also because yesterday's electronics were generally better-made than the stuff today. (And often, they look cool, too.)
This is a short guide to buying vintage electronics.
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In This ArticleFirst Things First
Powers On But Untested
Great Repair Project
Special Notes for Some Devices
First Things First
Uninformed buyers and sellers do not set the market value of something.
Vintage electronics are fun, but there's also some overpriced stuff out there.
This article will help you become an informed buyer.
Powers On But Untested
Many times you'll see something advertised as "powers on". That's helpful, but it doesn't mean there aren't problems.
Many old components are on the verge of failure. Some have already failed, leaving you with a device that will "power on" without working properly.
Sometimes, "powers on" is nothing more than an indicator light. Core functionality might not be there. Even a radio that plays static ("it works!") might not actually work.
If someone wants "fully working" prices for a "powers on but untested", they're asking too much money. That is a good rule-of-thumb to keep in mind when shopping. It might seem obvious, yet many buyers ignore it.
If you see a lot of bubbled components, that's a pretty sure sign of widespread damage.
That doesn't mean they're OK if there are no bubbles, though.
Don't throw something like this away, but it's also probably not worth a lot (unless it's really rare).
Donate it, or sell it in a yard sale for a couple dollars; maybe someone can fix it, maybe not.
Rebuilding one of these is probably not cost-effective. It might be good practice for an electronics hobbyist, if it's cheap.
"Great Repair Project"
Many sellers will advertise "Great Repair Project" for something that's $50 or more.
Unless you're looking at something very rare, that's probably too much money.
Being able to repair something is not a foregone conclusion, even if you have a lot of experience.
Some vintage electronics are basically unfixable. Or, they might be fixable only with such an expenditure of time and money that you might want to pass. Some people like those projects for fun, even if it's not all that cost-effective.
There are devices that will remain flaky even after a complete overhaul. It could be the circuit design. You will also encounter "great repair projects" that were damaged by power surges or spikes; these are basically total-rebuild projects. This, again, might not be something you want to deal with. I usually don't.
Don't overpay for "great repair projects". Shop around and you'll find all the "great repair projects" you can handle, for anywhere from zero to a few dollars. Or, if you want to shop online, you can often find "vintage radio lots" for sale. Sometimes they're reasonably priced.
There's a yard sale down the road where someone's selling an old SLR film camera.
It has some obviously-broken parts in the shutter assembly. It looks like it's been stored in a dust bin. And as you look closely, you see hints of fungus.
The person has a printout from an online auction. Twenty-five dollars, it says. So, that's what the price tag says here, too.
It's not worth that, obviously. Especially not at a yard sale.
Sometimes the clueless price will be at the ceiling of what the item would have been worth, had it been in top condition. Or, the price doesn't leave enough headroom to do the repairs. If you pay fifty bucks for a broken cassette deck, and it's worth $150 in fully working condition, that could be a net loss by the time you invest in repairs.
A lot of the vintage electronic stuff at thrift stores is becoming overpriced this way. Often, the staff don't know enough about electronics to spot clueless pricing; they just copy the prices they see online.
Special Notes for Some Devices
Here's a short guide to some specific kinds of electronic devices, and their main considerations if you're thinking of buying them.
Cassette Decks. Today there are a lot of way overpriced decks that don't even work. Or, sometimes they'll sound good for five minutes of testing, but the belts will quit after a few days of use. Take note here: The seller described the cassette deck honestly; it really did work at the time.
No one can predict how long an unrestored, un-serviced piece will last. Yet again: that's why you have to figure this into the pricing.
I once purchased a Pioneer dual deck that "worked flawlessly". Well, it did. Then, after a few weeks of light use, it started crinkling tapes. Permanently.
Belt replacement did not fix the problem. It was still damaging tapes. (Pinch rollers.)
I would have been better off looking for a Tascam 202 of recent make, since they were making those up until a few years ago. I'm still undecided on this, but one thing's certain. Of all the vintage electronics out there, old cassette decks can be the most problematic because of the moving parts that wear out.
How would you get to the belts?
This is going to require some serious disassembly.
Unless it's a rare or sought-after model, I wouldn't pay a lot for something like this if it doesn't work perfectly.
Actually: I wouldn't pay a lot for something like this unless the belts and stuff have already been replaced.
Console Stereos are bulky, heavy, and way expensive to ship. Some people want too much for ones that don't even work.
Sometimes you'll need to replace the record changer, or use parts from an identical changer. Or, you might need to custom-fit a whole new turntable in there. Any of these can be very time-consuming.
A good console stereo is worth having if it's restored. (Please shop for yours through this link. You may need to drive to the seller to pick it up, though.)
If it's not restored, then hopefully it will go for cheap to someone who will fix it up.
Overpricing broken stuff creates a log-jam of useless junk that doesn't get repaired.
Eight-track Players. I stopped at a yard sale where someone was asking $40 for a grimy old 8-track player that might not have even worked. The thing looked awful. Quite obviously, it had not been taken care of.
It wouldn't be surprising if they had an online auction printout somewhere. And probably, it was for one in much better condition.
The thing that will stop you from fixing these players, many times, is the precision mechanical parts. Motors go bad, and sometimes the heads go bad. Maybe you can find good parts for sale (or maybe not), but actually replacing them could be a lot of work. Some players are not even worth fixing.
Like cassette decks, many "tested working" 8-track players will go bad within days or weeks of use... after you purchase them. Count on needing repairs, unless a pro has already done a thorough overhaul.
Speakers with non-removable backs: don't pay as much as you would for regular speakers. When something goes bad, you cannot easily get at it to do the repair. Even in the Sixties and Seventies, some companies were already deliberately doing that. Yes, the "throwaway" stuff from 1970 was better than the throwaway stuff from today... but either of them can present obstacles to a service technician.
Opening these speakers without knocking them apart for scrap is so time-consuming that I doubt most repair shops would even want to bother, and if they did... expensive. One day I'll do an article showing you how to do this yourself, but the procedure is somewhat involved.
Transistor Radios. Early transistor radios often had low-quality tuners. The first transistors were not so good for audio. They were actually pretty awful compared to tubes.
Because they often used cheap parts, you end up having to replace a lot of stuff, sometimes even the transistors. Much of it was glued in with something that looks like wax. The throwaway mentality crept into our electronics a while ago; it's just that it's gotten so obnoxious today. (And they went from wax to something that looks like caulk...)
Restored or serviced ones can vary widely in price. It depends on rarity, difficulty of repair, and how much work actually had to be done. Also there's the fact that sometimes it costs more to service something than the piece "should" be worth.
There are many vintage transistor radios for under $20, and they still work. (Sometimes even less than $10 on-line.) There are some rare ones that bring $50 or even upwards of $100; here, condition is key.
Tube Radios. I had to include these, because repairing one can become very time consuming.
The underside of the typical chassis is a mess of point-to-point wiring. When they use disc capacitors with old codes that no one knows anymore... good luck with that. Disc capacitors do go bad sometimes, but usually it takes more than just ordinary use. I have a Zenith where the disc caps are bubbled and probably so far out of spec that the original values are anyone's guess.
It appears that lightning decided to take a little detour through the circuitry.
It's not always easy to get the schematic for an old radio. Even if you can, it's a lot of work to translate that to the tangle of point-to-point wiring.
Don't pay a lot for a non-working tube radio. Often, you won't have to pay all that much for a working one; this link will take you to a wide selection of radios right now.
Turntables. Yet again, precision moving parts can hinder repair. There are a lot of good vintage turntables out there, but don't assume they've all kept their impressive wow-and-flutter specs. Bearings get worn, spindles get worn; anything that moves can wear out. I'm not saying to skip vintage turntables; just make sure you're not going to get stuck with one of those "great repair projects" I mentioned earlier.
There are a lot of those out there. It can make the choices somewhat confusing. Well, I've gone ahead and narrowed it down for you. Get yours today.
And make sure the seller knows how to ship one properly, so that it stays in good shape. This is such an important issue that I'll probably cover the topic in a future article. Meantime, be sure to contact the seller before you buy.
You don't have to pay a lot for a good, vintage turntable.
Just make sure the seller knows how to pack it without ruining the spindle, bearings, tonearm, or anything else.
If you want to use online auctions as a price guide, look for consistency of pricing. If something constantly goes for high prices, almost without exception, that's a clue that maybe it's actually worth that.
Sometimes you can even find this in one sitting. Look at the "sold listings" and see if there's any rhyme or reason. Ask yourself: what do the expensive ones have that the others don't?
With a camera, it might be certain lenses. With a radio, it might be some special feature, or a truly scarce variant.
You might already have a handle on what's desirable. If you're just getting into vintage electronics, though, don't just assume every example is "worth money".
Even a cheap item could have a run where several people in a row pay too much for it. This should settle down after a while, though. Try to sort out the real value from the clueless prices.
If you just want functionality, don't rule out a high-quality modern set. (Avoid the ultra-cheap modern stuff, most of which is Pure Fail.)
It depends on what it is. For example, if you just want to hear radio stations, you might be better off getting a new radio like this one or this one. No repairs necessary; ready to use immediately.
Stuff that works is obviously preferable. There's at least one caution here. Old components that work now might not work tomorrow.
Parts that are forty years old, or more, could be in the early stages of failure. Electrolytics are not the only components that fail or drift.
Some stuff "works" for a little while, then starts to flake out. This might not be detected when someone tests the unit.
I picked up an old boombox-- not ancient, but not new-- for three bucks. It seemed to work great.
After about two hours of use, it would make an awful high-pitched squeal. It didn't matter what function it was on; it affected everything. The average seller would not have been expected to know this, especially if they're selling a radio they got from someone else.
Problems like these can become long-term repair projects.
Not even really "vintage", and already some parts are going bad.
Try to find electronics that have been serviced or overhauled recently. People who fix electronics will usually test them more thoroughly than your typical seller would do. Part of servicing electronics is the pride of doing a good job. That doesn't mean "service" will magically fix everything that's wrong, but all major issues should be corrected.
Just remember: much of the value in vintage electronics is in the labor (etc) required to get the unit working again. This once again is a reason not to pay too much for broken stuff.
If something works, just be sure it doesn't have any serious issues that were not fixed. The seller doesn't have to comb it with every test instrument known to man, but they can at least check the major functions.
Fully restored is a special category. The goal is to make something as close to "factory new" as possible, within the limits of practicality.
With collector value, price depends on the authenticity and skill of the restoration. Radios with incorrect knobs or wrong finishes will not command the prices. You and I might not notice they're the wrong ones, but some collectors can spot that immediately.
If you can find a seller who specializes in restoring a particular type of vintage item, so much the better. Some will specialize in a certain model of radio, or a particular brand of camera. Keep these sellers in business by purchasing from them.
Meanwhile, the so-called "great repair projects" can settle back down to more realistic prices.
Please purchase your restored gear through this link and it helps support my website. I hope you find something awesome on there.... and you probably will!
Vintage electronics are fun, but don't pay too much for broken stuff. Even when the electronics work, know that old parts can go bad. It could be tomorrow, or next week, or next year; no one can predict.
If it doesn't work, make sure you can actually fix it. Many people underestimate the amount of labor, time, and parts needed to repair a vintage piece.
If you need something for parts, then obviously get it if the price is right.
The most time-efficient strategy: buy stuff that's already fixed up. Buy from a seller who knows how to test it. Now go and find something cool!
That concludes this introductory article on vintage electronics. If you found this page useful, informative, or entertaining, please help me out by purchasing your stuff through these links, including this one. Your help is greatly appreciated; it allows me to keep this website on-line and adding more helpful articles to it.
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