Here on WWM, we watch a lot of movies and I at least listen to tons of different kinds of audio recordings and play different types of old software looking for insight into the recent past and how we ended up here.
When you spend that much time with media, a good playback set-up is crucial and can make for a huge quality-of-life increase if you’re like me and studying outdated media is pretty much your life. Thankfully, the massive overproduction and cycling out of consumer goods that has occurred in the last 50 years has left a lot of ways to get around paying enormous sums of money to get extremely high quality AV playback.
Since I’ve moved to a city where enormous quantities of used electronics are regularly remaindered and dropped off at thrift shops, I’ve embarked on a quest to set up my absolute perfect AV set-up for as little money as possible. Extremely cheap prices/people leaving stuff on the street has allowed me to finish it.
While I’m by no means suggesting everyone or really most people should own this much media equipment, I at least hope some of the tips and suggestions here are helpful. I’ve divided the article into separate sections for each piece of equipment that made the cut and why it made the cut/tips for hunting down your own in the wild/how I acquired each piece/any hardware or software mods I recommend.
Since its a big list, I’m breaking it into two articles, one for audio playback and one for video playback.
So lets get to it!
AMPLIFIER/RECEIVER: Yamaha VX-463
I bought this Yamaha receiver for $20 with a remote at a thrift store. While hardly the flashiest component I own, it gets the job done, can put out true 5.1 discrete audio (extremely useful for DVDs), decode Dolby Pro Logic II surround (which is 100x better than Pro Logic I) and I can turn off the internal Digital->Analog Converter chip. The only downside (if you can call it that) is the lack of a built-in phono preamp. However, this opens a lot of options for other phono pre-amps which frequently sound better. It takes HDMI, RCA, optical and coax, so I’m pretty happy. If you see one of these models from around this period, grab it. You can get them even cheaper if you only need one that can do stereo (and unless you plan on investing in a 5.1 set-up of speakers that’s all you’ll ever need.) I’ve never had a problem with a Yamaha receiver, but most receivers made by a large manufacturer with quality checks will probably work fine, especially if you only need stereo.
MAIN STEREO SPEAKER PAIR: Ohm Model E Pair
I found these unused in the box they came in from when whoever bought them and proceeded to never use them. They were free on the street on trash day. They were manufactured in 1978. They’re essentially knock-offs of the famous Henry Kloss AR-2 speaker design, and sound almost as good as a fully refurbished pair of AR-2s, which leads me to my next buying tip: Many fairly excellent knock offs of the all-time great vintage speakers have been made and can be had for far far less money than the originals. While your chances of also finding unused 1978 bookshelf speakers on the street is low, you can still pick up great speakers resembling the AR-2 through 4 models for very cheap at flea markets. Look for the Ohm brand or the Optimus brand (which is the branding Radioshack used to sell speakers for a long time.) Either of these will be fairly cheap and sound excellent. If you’re willing to hunt around a bit, you should be able to get pairs for the $10-40 range. Obviously if you see original AR or KLH speakers in that price range, they’re 100% worth grabbing too.
Playstation SPCH-1001 (modded)
CDs are great and definitely the cheapest form, for now anyway, to get verifiable legit physical copies of albums. If you’re anything like me and/or lived through the 80s or 90s, you probably have dozens laying around. Many come with bonus tracks and other nifty things. You can make perfect 1:1 copies. People have been quick to discount the CD as a format, but I still use it every day. If you want the quickest path to an impressive audiophile set-up that incorporates physical media while spending the least money possible, CD is the way to go.
Since CD players also tend to be incorporated in other common electronics, I’ve only included the three devices I actually play back CDs on in this entry. While many other devices I own can technically read CDs and/or SACDs (PS2, PS3, Dreamcast, Sony BDP-390 Blu-Ray), I pretty much never use them for playing music, since it puts unnecessary strain on the lasers and they don’t sound nearly as good as the three I chose. In an interesting coincidence, sound quality vs. ability to play anything whether its scratched or not had an inverse correlation. I’m going to go over them now in terms of sound quality from best to worst.
The first release version of the original Sony Playstation has, by luck, chance or covert design, one of the best DAC chips ever made. A DAC (Digital-to-Analog-Converter) is one of the more expensive chips on the motherboard of a CD player and is the final step of processing between the 1s and 0s on the CD and the actual sound you hear from your speakers.
Think of a recording as a loaf of bread. A digital recording is that loaf cut into a bunch of very tiny slices, but for whatever reason your speakers can only eat full uncut loaves of bread. In an analog recording (like vinyl or cassette) the bread is unsliced but can get kinda moldy/nasty if it’s left out in a way digital doesn’t. However, with digital you still have the issue of reconstituting the bread. A better DAC reconstitutes the bread/audio more smoothly and evenly without a bunch of stitching and whatnot present. In my experience the quality of a DAC doesn’t tend to directly correlate with price range, and sometimes cheaper more common components will sound better than fancier or pricier ones. Which brings us to the Sony Playstation SPCH-1001, which can be gotten easily for less than $10 (mine was $8) but has one of the best sounding DACs ever made.
And it can play Metal Gear Solid!
But to get the best sound out of it, you need to take apart the Playstation and do some very simple modifications first. I have done all the ones in this guide, but I have done and can heartily recommend removing the capacitors and muting chips near the DAC and replacing them with jumper wires. The improvement in sound quality is immediately apparent-its the most even and balanced sound I’ve ever gotten from a CD player. It’s nuts. You can also add wireless remote functionality for $5-10. In terms of bang for your buck you can’t really beat it. However, be prepared to replace the laser assembly at some point (very easy to do and parts are on Ebay for $10-15.)
This is technically a DVD player but it also is an exceptionally nice CD player and it has the added value of playing pretty much every weird proprietary audio format you can throw at it (SACD, HDCD, DVD-A.) If you enter the code 90210 in the maintenance screen it will play all region DVDs too. The laser is strong and does a pretty good job reading scratched discs. I got mine for $10, but I put that in the “damn I got lucky” category more than the “I expect you can walk out the door and find one for that.” Generally these run $100-120 used. I’d say its worth it if you like collecting foreign language DVDs or run across one for cheap.
The 2nd to last model laserdisc player ever sold in the US (the last was the nearly identical DVL-919). This also plays DVDs. The CD playback sounds exceptional if not quite as good as the PS1 or Oppo. It has the added benefit of having maybe the most sturdy optical drive I’ve ever encountered. You can throw pretty much any scratched CD at this and it will play through fine.
I got mine for $25 but used these aren’t usually that affordable, sticking in the $350-400 range. They’re also enormous. I have a collection of laserdiscs, so it’s worth it for me, but I wouldn’t broadly recommend this as a casual solution to…anything really.
TURNTABLE: Technics SL-3200
Mid-range used Technics direct drive turntables are excellent and built like tanks. And you never need to replace belts. And the sound is awesome. I inherited mine, but they can be had generally for $100-120, cheaper if you look around since they’re fairly common. Anything Technics that says direct drive on it will be worth your time.
CASSETTE DECK: Nakamichi BX-300
The most renowned tapedeck of all time is the Nakamichi Dragon. Used, these go for $1000-1200. However, the BX-300 has all the same features as the more famous deck except for some azimuth adjustments, and can be gotten for a fraction of that price. It also is direct drive, so no belt replacement. I got mine for $10 and then spent $50 to have it repaired, but you can get a serviced used one on ebay for $200-300. Are there far cheaper tapedecks? Yes. Do you really need a tapedeck in 2019? Eh…probably not. But if you want one, this is the one to get. The sound is excellent, the playback speed is digitally controlled and basically perfect, and you get three heads instead of the usual two.
So far, we’ve covered options for speakers and playing back CDs, vinyl, cassettes, SACD, HDCD, and pretty much anything that’s not a reel-to-reel or 8 track, at very high quality. I’ve spent a total of $123, not counting wires or my Playstation controller.
Can I beat that on video portion? Tune in then to find out!
Do you have any audio finds you’d recommend? Leave em in the comments!