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What do we mean “Complete Restoration” and Why is it important?

If we are going to talk about “vintage audio” we are talking about machines which are at least twenty years old and older. Isn’t it amazing that equipment of that age was so well put together that it is now very popular and much sought after. The better vintage audio pieces were wonderfully designed and built. Of course the fact that present day consumer-grade audio/video components are cheap and sleazy doesn’t hurt the comparable desirability of good vintage audio. Glowing statements aside though, don’t presume that it is simply a matter of extracting the baby from somebody’s closet and experiencing sonic bliss. Most older machines come to me after years of neglect. Even if they are electronically sound—that is to say, not completely broken—they still need a fair amount of attention before they are able to approximate their former glory. This fact applies the most stringently to the fancier or more collectible pieces. Suppose you have a something like a Marantz or McIntosh tube preamp from the ’60’s. You would be completely out of your mind to simply plug it in and use it. It would not only perform well below its capability, there would also be the possibility of damage to critical parts by running it without it being restored first—for example, if the filter capacitors fail due to normal aging, they can destroy the transformers. Clearly, you should do what is necessary to preserve your equipment if it has value.

Damn pretty, I'd say

So what do we mean by “complete restoration”? Simply put, our “complete restoration” is the level of service needed to bring a piece of equipment back to its original performance and reliability…to make it perform as much like it did when it was new as is possible without replacing every single part in the unit. It is this level of service which creates happiness of ownership and use. After all, if a lovely old piece “almost works” or works part of the time you will be less than thrilled. You bought it to enjoy it, and enjoy it you will…if it works well and looks good, which is the whole purpose restoring it.

In order of importance and process, it goes like this. First you repair any overt failures which the unit may have. After that, you replace any parts which experience has shown to be prone to fail in this unit. This is done even if they check ok. The mere fact that they have a high failure rate is sufficient to warrant this, largely because of the age of these units. Then you do the “housekeeping” which would be to clean and deoxidize the controls and switches, to resolder bad or suspect joints which crop up over time, to do alignments and tighten up loose things, etc, etc. When all of these things are done, the performance of the unit should be at or near original. To finish things off, you do a complete cosmetic so it looks good. After everything is done, you run it a while so you can confirm that it does indeed work well and that it remains stable in normal use. Only after all of these things are done is the unit ready to go back into service.

You don't usually see this part.

The restoration job is not the same for every piece of equipment. There is quite a variety of vintage audio out there and available for use, and different models do different things. The restoration depends completely on the experience of the technician doing the work. Any unit that is worthy of consideration has by now a pretty full “case history” file. Over the years, with any particular model, certain problems have shown up over and over again, and as they age, new problems begin to appear. The trick here is to know what these problems are, and to know the countermeasures specific to each model. Some of these countermeasures are absolute no-brainers. You can anticipate that switches and controls will become oxidized, that rubber parts will go soft, that mechanical linkages will become gummed up as the grease hardens. Other countermeasures are not so obvious. Certain parts have a habit of failing or becoming marginal, but it varies from model to model, and the technician must be familiar with all of these. For example, if you are working on a Pioneer SX-980 (a receiver of the late 70’s), you will be concerned with different problems than an SX-1080, or even more so if it is an SX-780. If it is a McIntosh MA-6100 then you have an altogether different set of concerns. All in all, there is a really wide range of usable machines and they are all different and do different things so it is critical to know just what has been failing over time, and what to do about it. The technician has to know what fails, and has to care enough to do a solid and permanent repair. If you gloss over something, or leave something out, it will always come back to bite you.

It will work better when reassembled

I see a great many machines which have been procured on the promise of good performance. Sellers will sometimes represent them as very functional, and many probably do so in good faith. After all, most people will turn it on, and if it works at all and has a decent appearance, they will consider it to be and say it is perfect….they just don’t know how untrue that is. I also see many machines which have been represented as “recently serviced” or some similar phrasing. What is usually found inside these is that they have been somewhat crudely patched back together and that most of the subtle problems that would be only too plain to a specialist have been ignored. I suspect there is a whole generation of technicians out there—mostly working on newer stuff—who will consent to do vintage audio, but with little enthusiasm. Their belief is that the unit has only limited value, and that the owner wants to just “get it going.” Consequently, they spend as little time and effort as possible on it. So they will do precious little and assume that everyone will be pleased. Of course, the unit works like hell and no one is happy. This style of technician frequently uses wrong parts or bad judgement and leaves the unit in worse condition than he found it.

Very pretty piece, y'all

Since the Complete Overhaul is usually more comprehensive than lesser service jobs, it tends to cost more. I think a good way to look at this is to calculate your cost over a period of time. A cheap repair that lasts 90 days is not really much of a bargain. If technician A charges twice as much as technician B, but the unit has better performance and lasts four times as long, then technician A is actually the more economical option. This obviously applies more to better quality equipment than to the lesser stuff. Let’s face it, the lesser stuff should perhaps be retired, but the real gems, the real good stuff deserves very high quality treatment. Good collector pieces are easily worth the cost of a real restoration, and in fact, it is just a shame to do any less.

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