Re-Tales #41: Vintage Hi-Fi, Old and New, a Visit to Aural HiFi

Many audiophiles and serious music lovers are passionate about vintage. Vintage has become a popular “way in” to the hobby, especially popular among younger folks. Reasons vary. Many—perhaps most—are seeking more bang for the buck than you can get buying new. Others prefer classic sound and aesthetics: that special vintage vibe. At least a few inherit or receive vintage pieces from audiophile parents; others come across a beautiful bargain they can’t resist. An important niche in our hobby thinks vintage equipment simply sounds better than the new stuff.

Not every vintage piece sounds good, however, and not every piece is a bargain. Some can be quite expensive. And most that aren’t are in need of expensive refurbishment to look and sound their best. Even once restored, they usually require more care, maintenance, and patience than a new piece would require. It’s a lot to take in for those new to the hobby.

Jeremy Irwin, owner and “stereo archaeologist” at the vintage-focused dealer Aural HiFi in Denver, has been there himself. When I visited the store in late December, Irwin told me about his own audiophile journey, which started with “about 30 Sonos pieces” before he got hooked on vintage. “What really sucked me into this is truly being able to work with my hands,” he said. Also: “Vintage audio gear has soul.”

Irwin’s story isn’t your typical internet adventure story. He drove all over the country in a van, à la American Pickers, buying equipment. Much of what he brought home needed refurbishment or repair. He did the work himself. He enjoyed it.

Irwin took the time and learned—and now he wants to guide others starting out on their own paths. He aims to educate customers so that they make good buying decisions, whether they buy vintage or new.

That ethos is reflected in what Aural HiFi sells: not just vintage but also vintage-inspired components, mostly with a midcentury modern aesthetic. Irwin started the business about three years ago, online. Later, he opened his brick’n’mortar store and added product lines. The lineup now includes Audio Hungary, Blumenhofer Acoustics, DeVore Fidelity, Fezz Audio, KLH, Leak, Leben, Merason, Quicksilver, Pro-Ject, REL, SOTA, and Wharfedale, among other brands. He sells his own “house” cables as well as analog accessories, a few phono cartridges, and a selection of LPs. On the vintage side, you’re likely to see McIntosh amplifiers and tuners and perhaps a Threshold piece. Much of the equipment is displayed on racks and shelves made by Tactile Audio Furniture of Evergreen, Colorado.

Aural HiFi is located in “SoBo,” Denver’s South Broadway area. Aural’s space, which has a large showroom in front and a spacious workshop in back, once housed an antique mall. Windows take up most of the storefront and attract passersby.

Aural’s refurbishment and repairs are carried out by three staff technicians and a woodworker, though occasionally Irwin still grabs a multimeter and soldering iron. Due to the high volume of in-house restorations, the shop is currently accepting few repair projects. “We’ve moved away from customer repairs unless it’s full recapping or full restoration,” Irwin told me. The shop offers 30-day warranties on most vintage gear; new equipment, of course, carries the factory warranty.

Irwin asks questions to suss out the wants and needs of vintage customers. He tries to gauge their comfort level and abilities. He’s likely to ask, “Do you have a multimeter? Have you done some soldering? Are you comfortable with a schematic?” He is upfront with customers about the challenges of owning vintage hi-fi: It will need work. “Vintage electronics are like vintage cars,” he said. “They’re going to need service; things are going to go wrong. It’s part of their charm.”

Safety can be a serious issue with older gear, which may be in poor condition, sometimes with defects caused by previous inept repair attempts. Years ago, he told me, he “hooked a turntable up to the preamp, touched the tonearm, and magic smoke immediately came out of the amp.” A technician told him that power had leaked out to the preamp’s chassis. When he touched the tonearm, it closed the circuit, creating current that fried the amplifier. Fortunately, it was fixable, and Irwin wasn’t harmed. But the experience underscored the importance of teaching aspiring vintage owners what they should expect.

Safety concerns are especially serious with vintage tube amplifiers because they operate at high voltages. If you’re after a tube-based amplifier, as many of his new customers are, he’s likely to recommend buying new, not vintage. If a customer wants something that “looks cool” but doesn’t want the full hands-on experience, Irwin will guide them toward something new and user-friendly with a vintage vibe. Many heritage hi-fi makers—JBL, Mission, NAD, McIntosh, Klipsch, Wharfedale, others—have released reproductions of classic vintage components with new, more modern materials, features, and functions. Other manufacturers, like Leben and Fezz, simply embrace a vintage aesthetic.

One tip Irwin emphasized for owners of vintage equipment: “You should always have a backup amp. Have something, even if it’s a digital piece,” he said. “If you’re going to be rocking vintage gear, and it’s a big part of your life, it’s going to hurt when your amp’s down.”

Notice that he didn’t say “if ” your amp’s down, but “when.” With vintage hi-fi, there will be failures.

“I try to meet people where they’re at,” Irwin told me. “Not just put people in something because it makes us more money, but something they’re comfortable with and that’s right for them.” He wants to sell hi-fi—new or old—that customers will enjoy with their eyes and ears, in whatever way suits them best.

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