L.A. Audio File's

Components That Withstand The Test of Time


So, now it’s L.A. Audio File’s turn to reveal its cards on recommended components. Actually we’ve done it in the past, albeit infrequently. Around 10 years ago, Roy did “A Cynic’s Guide to Audio Equipment Purchases” for The Sensible Sound. It was written in response to the “component of the month” syndrome that seemed to plague all too many audio magazines. At one moment, a product will ride the crest of the consumer audio wave. The next thing you know, the company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy or, at best, has gone into hibernation.

Five years ago, the topic was revisited in L.A. Audio File under an article entitled “How About A Recommended Components List That Can Withstand The Test of Time?” Well, it’s now 10 year after the original, so we thought now is as good a time as any to revisit the subject.

Audio publications often fail to emphasize the investment risk that you take whenever you purchase high end equipment. If you try to sell the equipment you just bought, you’ll probably end up with a very small fraction of what you originally paid. So, here’s the question we ask: Is it possible to choose equipment based on factors that increase the likelihood of good resale value? Is there a “profile” of a product that can withstand the test of time? We think there is. There are at least four factors that people can use for profiling a product with good, long term resale value:

Factor 1 - The first question to ask is “how long has the manufacturer been in existence?” For the most part, long-established manufacturers are less of a risk than new manufacturers. With hall other factors being equal, it is more likely that a twenty-year old manufacturer carries a greater-expectancy than a start-up company.
Factor 2 - How long has the particular product been in production? For instance, a product such as the LS3/5A, which has not undergone any major changes for 20 years, holds its value better than similar products that undergo model designation changes and revisions every other year.
Factor 3 - Is (or was) the product a big seller? Big time products usually do better at retaining resale value. The good resale value of the Dyna Stereo 70 is due in part to the fact that so many units were sold. Even though the Stereo 70 is no longer in production, spare parts are available.
Factor 4 - Has the product been praised by the audio press for more than five years? Audio journalists tend to be rather fickle about their recommendations. A product can receive a heap of praise for two years by two magazines. In the third year, another reviewer decides that the product is not really all it’s cracked up to be. Soon thereafter, it’s orphaned by the press. Five years, then should be the minimum number of years for a heap-full of praise—even more time wouldn’t hurt.

Given these preceding parameters, here is a non-exhaustive list of components that pass muster under the test of time:

Advent Model 300 Receiver - Here’s one product that’s dirt cheap and quite decent. It’s the one that put Tom Holman on the map, incorporating his famous phono preamp. If nothing else, you can use it for its phono section. Around $125 should get you one.

AR XA/XB Turntable
- Another cheap but sound design with a lot of history. The AR turntable was the inspiration for the Linn Sondek LP-12. Robert Clifford did a restoration article for it awhile back in L.A. Audio File. Mods also are available. Should be obtainable for around $100 on the used market.

B&W 801 Matrix Loudspeaker
- The 801 design has been around since the 1970s, but the Matrix Series is the one that passes muster, now in Series III configuration. The 801 represents the pinnacle of orthodox, enclosed, dynamic-driver engineering. The price has held steady at $5,500/pair.

LS3/5A Loudspeaker
- Despite its many flaws (a fat upper bass and limited dynamic range), the LS3/5A remains a benchmark for mini-monitor speaker design. Several would-be LS3/5A-beaters have come and gone, but the old BBC design just keeps on ticking. Used units are the best buy. New ones are outrageously priced (15 years ago, a pair of LS3/5As could be had for around $450/pair; today, a new pair goes for $1,250).

Dynaco PAS-3x Preamplifier
- It is not uncommon to be able to pick up a used PAS-3x in good condition for $50-100—a price that has held for the last 15 years. Units in mint condition can be much more. The out-of-production PAS is a favorite among audiophiles for modification. However, even in unmodified form, audiophiles have always had a soft spot for this quite decent-sounding vacuum tube preamplifier.

Dynaco Stereo 70 Amplifier (the original)
- Anyone who reads L.A. Audio File needs no introduction to this unit. The Dynaco Stereo 70 is carved out of the traditional tube school of sound—i.e., a fat and rather ill-defined on the bottom, very three-dimensional sounding in the midrange, and a little bright in the upper midrange. On the used market, the Stereo 70 goes for around $75-175—about the same price range it sold for when new. The Stereo 70 is certainly not the most accurate sounding amp around, but it’s the best vacuum tube show in town for under $500.

Linn Sondek LP-12 Turntable
- Keeping a turntable on this list may be akin to committing editorial suicide. On the other hand, if any turntable should be considered, it is this one. While low-to-mid fi turntables may be sent to the graveyard en masse in this age of the Compact Disc, there will still be place for high end turntables in the minds of high end people—and there is no better turntable candidate for longevity than the Linn Sondek LP-12. All of the improvements offered to the LP-12 are available to purchasers of even the earliest units. We don’t recommend buying new ($1690-3045, depending on options). A good used one can be had for much less, although probably a bit more than the original price of $300.

NAD 3020 Amplifier
- This is, quite possibly, the largest selling integrated amplifier of all time. The 3020 originally sold for $175, and incorporated a Tom Holman-inspired phonograph preamp section (similar to the designs of the Apt-Holman preamp and Advent Model 300 preamp section), a power amp section that could play down to 2 ohm loads, and provisions for hooking the preamp to a more powerful amplifier. NAD produced the 3020A, 3020B, and 3120, which are all essentially the same integrated amp, give or take a few features or refinements. All remain excellent buys

 
Onkyo T-9090 Mk II Tuner - Back in 1991, this product made the honorable mention list for “products that withstand the test of time,” but didn’t make the primary list because we were sure it was about to be replaced by a Mk III version. That never happened. The Mk II is still with us. Onkyo has always been known as a good tuner designer, and their T-9090 Mk II remains a benchmark for modern tuner design. $790.

Original Quad Electrostatic Loudspeaker
- If you can find a pair in good condition, nothing new under $1,000 can touch the original Quad for transparency and low-level resolution. The ESL-57, as it’s apparently now called by Quad, can be had for around $600-800 per pair. Watch out for damaged units. Watch out also for a comprehensive article on purchasing used Quads expected to be published by The Sensible Sound.

Rega Planar 3 Turntable System
- Just about everything that can be said about the Linn regarding value pretty much goes for the Rega. In addition, the Rega is almost a bargain brand new. It comes included with an outstanding tonearm, the RB300. The arm alone use to cost an arm and leg, but Rega will sell you the whole Planar 3 package for $775.

Spica TC-50 Loudspeaker
- An LS3/5A-beater that came and went, but it still makes the grade. On the used market, it remains a good buy. It sounds a bit lean without a subwoofer system, but it’s a more accurate-sounding speaker than the LS3/5A. It’s now discontinued, but not a bad deal for around $400 a pair on the use market.

Vandersteen 2Ce Loudspeaker
- Vandersteen is a relatively young loudspeaker manufacturer. But, the 2C and the newer 2Ci and 2Ce have earned their stripes. Brand new, the 2Ce goes for $1,295 a pair. The price has held steady, and for that you get a very pleasant (”musical“), airy, transparent sound, with genuinely extended bass response. A used 2C/2Ci goes for around the high eights to the high nine-hundreds.

What about CD Players?
Given the proliferation of ”improvements“ to CD players, they are categorically excluded from this list. Even the Rotel RCD855, which got a lot of praise a few years ago, is gone from most lists. A true audio cynic will just go with a cheap unit for now, like a new Marantz CD63 Mk II or a reconditioned NAD 502—or even cheaper.

Honorable Mention
The Adcom amplifiers could have made it, but Adcom succumbed to replacing the old 535/545/555 line with new models. The B&K ST-140 amplifier did make the list five years ago, but B&K has ceased production on it and the press is not as enamored with the product as it once was. Still, a used one for around $300 is a good buy if you want smooth, tube-like sound, with solid state reliability.

The clean-sounding and very detailed Thiel loudspeakers certainly deserve mention, particularly the CS1.5 ($1995/pair) and CS 2.2 ($2,750/pair) models. Price creep keeps them off the list. The same holds for the Martin-Loggin CLS II, which is now $3,995, and the Quad ESL-63 USA Monitor loudspeaker, which is now $5,995/pair.

Another British speaker worthy of mention is the Spendor BC-1—one of the three legendary post-war British loudspeakers noted for midrange accuracy (the other two are the Quad ESL and the BBCLS3/5A). It’s now out of production, but a used ones go for just under $1,000.

Five years ago, we honorably mentioned the Magnepan SMGa loudspeaker, but predicted it would soon be replaced by a SMGb. It’s been five years, and it’s already now an SMGc. Still, at $690 a pair, it’s a great buy.

The Krell, Threshold, and Mark Levinson amplifiers hold up better than most of the other solid state high end amplifiers. They too, however, have a tendency to go through name and number changes more often than an audio cynic would like. They are also very expensive. Audio Research and Conrad-Johnson are the vacuum tube counterparts to the Krells and Thresholds. According, they also promise better than average holding power.

Speaking of tubes, we can’t forget the four classics from Marantz: The Model 7C preamp, the Models 8b and 9 amps, and the Model 10B tuner. They are rather expensive, but the do hold their value. Another classic holds its value is the McIntosh MR-78 tuner. It’s also very good and very expensive.

Another AR product with a lot of history and a Clifford favorite is the AR3a loudspeaker. 'Not the most accurate speaker around, but it has a nice personality (mellow, with a deep voice).

Certain accessories can probably withstand the test of time as well, like the Nitty Gritty record cleaning machine and the Stax Lambda headphones.

In a year or so, the Cary Audio Design 300SE single-ended, monoblock amplifier probably will pass all four prongs, but no audio cynic will recommend a 12 watt amp that sells for $3,795.

Some of the Wilson Audio speakers pass the four-prong test, but if you can afford Wilson speakers, you probably couldn’t care less about obsolescence.

So, there you have it: L.A. Audio File’s own extended-life recommended components list. What components will make the list five years from now? Home theater products? Given the fluid nature of home theater technology and the proliferation of changes that are occurring (e.g., AC3, Dolby 5.1, DVD), we doubt it. On the other hand, maybe some of the dust will settle on the CD player front. In any event, we’ll revisit the subject in another five years or so to see if this article has withstood the test of time.

- The Editors*

* Philip Richardson contributed some ideas to this article.

 

 


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