Category Archives: Vintage gear

How to pack a vintage turntable

So there are lots of vintage turntables to be found on eBay and other reseller sites.  They were, after all, the primary way to listen to music until the advent of the compact disc and subsequently MP-3s.  Trouble is, precious few will come complete with their original packing materials and without them, great care must be taken for these often delicate relics to ship safely.  It’s really not that complicated, but vintage turntables can be intimidating to many, especially the pricey ones.  So lets look at some  simple steps necessary to ship them safely.

First, many turntables have transport screws.  These are much the same as those found in washing machines that secure the tub for transport.  They typically secure the power transformer in a similar way, since during operation it is usually hung off some sort of suspension for acoustic isolation purposes.  If you don’t have the original transport screws, find some at your local hardware store.

Second, both the platter and the dust cover must be removed and packed up separately.  The platter can often be heavy and it should be carefully packed in the bottom of the box in bubble wrap or something similar.  The dust cover hinges will almost certainly break or the dust cover will crack where the hinges attach if you ship it attached to the turntable, so remove it and pack it separately.  It usually slides off the hinges and can be wrapped individually and packed on top since it’s light and fragile.  Be careful, it scratches easily!

Third, place a stylus protector on the phono cartridge and remove the head shell from the tonearm if possible.  If the tonearm doesn’t have a removable head shell (many don’t), then remove the phono cartridge from the tonearm and carefully package it separately, in it’s original packaging if you still have it.

Fourth, remove the tonearm from the turntable if possible.  Manual turntables usually have an “arm board” that allow you to use different tone arms, often purchased separately.  High end manual turntables often allow easy removal of their tonearms, even if they are originally sold complete with the turntable (see the Denon in the photos), then remove the counterweight and pack these parts separately as well.  This is the best way to protect these delicate parts, but it won’t be possible with automatic turntables.  But… automatic turntables are contrary to high end audio reproduction anyway so are best avoided.  But… if you have one and need to pack it you probably won’t be able to remove it’s tonearm.

Fifth, pack your plinth, being careful with any isolation feet or springs it may have.  If you have a “sprung” turntable (Acoustic isolation for turntables – to couple or decouple?…) you most certainly will need those transport screws to hold everything in place or your turntable will likely arrive with tweaked springs at best and in pieces at worst.

Finally, take all these parts that are packed individually and double box them.  This will result in a very large box for the size of your turntable, but it’s the only way to ship it safely.  If you have the original packaging, you will notice the manufacturers found clever ways to keep the packaging small, like insets in the styrofoam for the platter and/or tonearm, but you won’t have this luxury.

I’ve successfully shipped two turntables this way, both Denon direct drive models that came complete with Denon tonearms.  One was transported as checked luggage on the airline and the other I coached the seller how to pack and successfully shipped across Canada via Canada Post.


Vintage preamp shoot-out, tubes vs. solid state

So, after having the Acoustic Resarch SP-9 (I may be a purist, but…) in my system for about a week, then the Threshold FET Nine (Threshold FET 9 Preamplifier) for about a week, I finally did an A/B  comparison into my Maggie MG-12s – which are frigging PERFECT for my room (w/o tweeter attenuation) driven by the Nak PA-7.  The front end was reference quality vinyl and both preamps got proper warm-up  times..  The Acoustic Resarch SP-9 beat the FET Nine hands down (for my speaker/room combo anyway).  Subtle, but very significant differences.  Still need to do the A/B of the line stages with an SACD source, but the phono stage of that Acoustic Research is pure magic.

Headphones, Earspeakers, or whatever you want to call them…

So Stax has been making headphones, or earspeakers as they prefer to call them, since 1960.  That’s right…  55 years and counting as I write this.  They have been the de-facto standard ever since, and most still consider them to be the best you will find if you need to throw some “cans” on your head.  Interestingly, their technology has changed very little since their inception, which is why I’ve also included them in the “vintage” category, even though I purchased a pair that were manufactured in 2014.

They are still manufactured exclusively in Japan and if you want a pair you need to purchase from a dealer who imports them or import them yourself.  I purchased the 4170 system, which ships complete with a tube headphone amplifier and the SR-407 headphones.  But with Stax, nothing is as it seems and the headphones are actually mini electrostatic speaker panels (hence the terminology of “ear speaker”) and the headphone amplifier is not just an amplifier but also provides the high voltage these electrostatic panels need in order to produce music.

These ear speakers offer what is arguably the finest transient response, imaging (more on that later) and detailed frequency response available in a pair of “headphones”.  Interestingly but not surprising, they also lack emphasis in the bass department, just as similar planar loudspeakers also lack it.

I’ve never been a fan of listening to music on headphones and was hoping these “ear speakers” might change that.  I’ve always maintained that any high-end audio system starts with the room, and room acoustics are the single-most important “component” therein (Planars… The room is the enclosure and In a nutshell, the big Maggies (3.7Rs) are a fantastic speaker, but are very dependent upon room acoustics).   I’ve met many listeners who seem content to listen to audiophile quality music on headphones but, much to the chagrin of my neighbors, I’ve never been one of them.

Unfortunately these Stax didn’t change my mind.  No matter how you slice it there is absolutely no “sound stage” with headphones.  They simply can’t project a stereo image in front of the listener wearing them so all the “imaging” happens between your ears and it feels and sounds like that.  Not to mention that they are never gonna vibrate your listening chair.

Filling a room with music is a double-edged sword, in that room acoustics can very dramatically enhance or detract from the listening experience.  But when properly set up nothing beats it.  I can only speculate that those who prefer headphones likely have nearly impossible rooms to work with (which almost none are if loudspeakers are selected for the room – Why do speakers need to be matched to room acoustics?…) or their systems aren’t set up to take advantage of the room acoustics.

Another detracting factor of listening to music on headphones is the far greater potential for hearing damage, especially with an electrostatic version such as the Stax.  It’s far easier to exceed the threshold to try to get better quality out of them.  I noticed my ears ringing after a short session of listening to them at what I considered moderate listening levels by loudspeaker standards and haven’t worn them since.  Try as I may, since it would be far more convenient with headphones, I’d rather just wait for opportune times to sit down in front of my loudspeakers.


The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier

This legendary solid state preamplifier is the mate for the Nak PA-7 power amp (The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier).  It is also designed by Nelson Pass and follows the same precepts as his Threshold (and later Pass Labs) preamps and power amps, which is simple, short circuit topology with nothing but the highest quality fully discrete components in the entirety of the signal path.  It lacks anything non-essential to that end, including tone controls of any kind (Why I prefer analog preamplifiers that lack tone controls).  Nakamichi later released the CA-5AII, replete with tone controls, which makes the original CA-5A widely recognized as “the one to get”, even though the CA-5AII has a defeat switch it still adds additional, sound sucking and sound altering tone control circuitry.

One look at a “nude” photo of the CA-5A tells the whole story.  Three beefy copper power rails running down the middle of it’s “dual mono” circuit board (which is important to reduce crosstalk between left and right channels, which compromises the stereo imaging), very short wire runs, very few circuit board traces, and nothing but top quality parts, including all ALPS for the controls (ALPS analog volume controls and rotary switches), and you can really feel the quality when you use them.  Nelson Pass went on to separate the power supply into a separate chassis, which is the design in his Threshold FET 9 preamp.

The Nakamichi CA-5A cartridge loading options
The Nakamichi CA-5A cartridge loading options

The photo above shows the cartridge loading options I look for, including provisions for moving coil cartridges such as the Denon 103R (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…).  In fact, cartridge loading is the only slightly complex circuitry in this entire preamp, but is essential to top notch phono playback.  Audio Research went so far as to eliminate the cartridge loading circuitry entirely in their SP9 Mk II preamplifier (I may be a purist, but…).  Instead they, ship the resistors and capacitors necessary to change it with the preamp itself.  While I agree with this approach in theory, in practice it’s a real pain in the ass to have to remove and replace (by soldering and desoldering) resistors and capacitors just to optimize your phono section for your chosen cartridge.

Beauty in simplicity best describes the Nakamichi CA-5A circuit topology
Beauty in simplicity best describes the Nakamichi CA-5A circuit topology

If you look at the schematic in the photo above you can immediately see how simple the circuitry in the Nak CA-5A is.  The blocks labeled on the schematic diagram are even labeled on the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) itself.  The Nakamichi CA-5A clearly subscribes to the “less is more” approach.

The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier

I’ve lusted after this power amplifier ever since it came out in 1988.  It just looked so damn sexy.  It originally retailed for $1,595 which isn’t a lot by today’s standards but certainly was back then, especially for a recent college grad trying to get ahead in San Francisco.   So I never owned it and instead settled on the lessor Nelson Pass design in the form of the Adcom GFA-555II to power my Martin Logan Sequel IIs at the time.  Well, I ultimately ended up with two GFA-555s powering those Sequel IIs and still wasn’t satisfied, but that’s another story (It’s all about reducing mass for the transducers).

So fast forward 26 years and I’m on the hunt for an appropriate  power amplifier for my chosen Maggie MG-12s.  This baby had been on Kijiji (Canada’s Craig’s List) for a few weeks for exactly half the original retail price, not bad 26 years later but still a friggin bargain for anyone comparing it to present new offerings.  But it was in Edmonton, a 3.5 hour drive from Canmore.   I ultimately decided to make the trip to have a look at the PA-7 as well as a couple other vintage high end audio components, which I also purchased (An Edmonton audio-venture (names changed to protect the guilty)).

So what first caught my attention about the PA-7 was it’s gorgeous build quality and industrial design, a fine example of industrial art (thank you Nakamichi).

The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier - amazing circuity topology and components meet gorgeous industrial design.  Beauty and the (high current) beast.
The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier – amazing circuity topology and components meet gorgeous industrial design. Beauty and the (high current) beast.

I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I set eyes on this baby.  It’s mesmerizing and belongs in a museum of industrial design.  Let’s face it, brute strength power amps aren’t usually a thing of beauty, but this one is truly “beauty and the beast”.  Everyone already knows that Nakamichi made it’s name on the very best quality home audio cassette decks in the late 1970s.  So they had cash to burn, and wanted to become a major player in the high end audio market, which was dominated by US designers and manufacturers.  So what do they do?…  They recruit Nelson Pass (of Threshold) as a “hired gun” and combine his designs and circuit topology with their deep pockets and efficient production techniques.  The result?…  What is essentially a Threshold power amplifier but way better looking and less than half the price.

They were supposed to just license his STASIS technology, which combines the benefits of Class A amplification without the drawbacks (runs stupid hot = very low reliability) into a hybrid Class A/Class AB power amplifier with optical bias.  Well, they didn’t just license STASIS.  Rather, the first generation of the PA-7 is a direct copy of the equivalent Threshold amp.  A lawsuit ensues, then Nakamichi releases the PA-7II with an altered design providing 25 more WPC (watts per channel) and a higher price tag.  But everyone knew then and knows now that the original PA-7 was, “the one to get”.  As a side note I also sourced a Nakamichi CA-5A pre amp of the same era which was also designed by Nelson Pass and executed by Nakamichi for my Maui system (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier).

I found an interesting review on the now legendary PA-7 in Tone Publications, an online magazine I’d never heard of but certainly agree with the author’s findings.  It’s interesting, since he ended up pairing the PA-7 with an Audio Research SP 9 Mark II preamp and a pair of Magnepan loudspeakers, just as I did.  It all makes perfect sense in retrospect.  I found myself there by time spent in the listening chair, not reading reviews, much as I suspect he did…

How to get a moving coil phono stage for free.

Step up transformers (SUTs) and pre-preamps for low output moving coil (LOMC) phono cartridges can easily exceed $1k, but that’s part of the beauty of some vintage gear of a certain era when moving coil (MC) phono cartridges were popular, manufacturer’s almost  threw in the MC phono stage for free.  There are many variants from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including offerings from some of the major Japanese players of the day such as Yamaha, Nakamichi, Sansui and Sony.  The Nakamichi CA-5A (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier) is unique in that it incorporates a USA designed phono stage (schematic shown above), but is manufactured by Nakamichi.  Which translates to a Nelson Pass MC phono stage nearly thrown in for free, which is exactly why I acquired it.

Doing a little research on vintage Sansui…

I had a friend interested in this integrated amplifier, the Sansui AU-9500 and I passed it off as yet another mediocre amplifier of the era.  But my knee-jerk reaction to it was kind of bugging me so I did a little more research on this baby and even examined the circuit topology from the schematics (Circuit topology, why less is more).

Upon further investigation, this looks to be one of the best integrated amps the era offered and quite possibly the best integrated amp Sansui ever produced, hence the strong following.   This amplifier was released when the owner and founder of Sansui (Khosaku Kikuchi) was on a quest to offer the best solid state amps in the world and this was his “no holds barred” TOTL (top of the line) flagship integrated model.  In that respect it is a brilliant piece of audio history, probably why my friend was so drawn to it.

This amplifier was released from 1972 to 1973 only, and Khosaku Kikuchi subsequently retired in 1974.  Although circuit design may have progressed in later Sansui integrated amps, it remains highly doubtful that sonic qualities improved, especially if such circuit designs implemented high negative feedback loops in the “THD wars” of the time (The THD wars. Why lower distortion often doesn’t equal better sound quality).  In fact, the rather high THD of .1% on this model actually bodes well for its musicality and sonic potential.  I doubt they subsequently made an integrated amp with better build and/or sound quality.  And Khosaku Kikuchi’s goal to make solid state sound like tubes was certainly an admirable one, though that wasn’t really realized until the MOSFET amps of the early 80s came out, with the exception of the high slew rate/low TIM Audionics of Oregon CC-2 driving certain speakers (The Audionics of Oregon CC-2. More distortion, more better.).

The Japanese and US approach has traditionally been polar opposite in regard to the “less is more” or “more is more” approach, and Sansui obviously believes that by adding more tone controls you can achieve better sound quality.  Hence the elaborate tone controls on the AU-9500, while US designers were going the opposite direction.  Of course which is better is purely subjective, as are all things high-end audio.  I am of the later camp and prefer not to have any tone controls at all, even just the usual “bass” and “treble” (Why I prefer analog preamplifiers that lack tone controls), which is the main reason I choose the Nak CA-5A (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier) over the Nak CA-5A II.  I’ve always found graphic equalizers, that became so popular in the late 70s, to be flashy tone suckers.  But once again that’s just one guy’s subjective opinion.

It’s worthy to note that Japanese owned and operated Nakamichi contracted an American (Nelson Pass) as a hired gun for their circuit designs when they endeavoured to provide the world with the best amplifiers of the era in the early to mid 1980s, following their huge success in the cassette tape business.  His circuit designs have always been extraordinarily simple, so that’s an indisputable indicator of where the chips ultimately fell, as are nearly all the modern high-end audio components that followed.  I consider the Nakamichi amplifiers designed by Nelson Pass to be the best of both worlds from that era – fantastic circuit topology combined with Japanese build quality and stunning industrial design (The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier).

So the main concern I would have in regard to the Sansui AU-9500 would not be in regard to sound quality or its ability to drive just about any speakers desired, but rather due to its age combined with its complexity combined with the difficulty of finding places to get it competently serviced and it’s weight to ship.  I would consider it a roll of the dice and while it may run another 40 years, I seriously doubt it.

As a side note the AU-9500’s direct coupled design is a rather bold move, indicative of their emphasis on utmost sound quality at that time.  What it means is that without DC servo protection to shut things down in the event of a DC power fault feeding the speakers, it will destroy them in very short order.  It probably has a DC servo  protection circuit somewhere, but I couldn’t locate it on the schematics.  The direct coupled design omits DC filter capacitors on the output stage due to their potential to adversely effect sound quality, which I find ironic given the proliferation of what I consider to be unnecessary circuitry in the circuit design to begin with.

I initially had concerns about the early 70s AU-9500 possibly being behind the design curve that came in the late 70s.  But as previously noted, the high THD figure, coupled with the fact that they even mentioned TIM distortion in their specs, tells me that they were “on it” (in a good way) and trying hard to avoid that “first-generation transistor sound”, which makes sense as it was one of their stated objectives, to have a “tube-like” sound.  I found this interesting since I thought Robert Sickler at Audionics of Oregon was one of the first amplifier designers to look at how negative feedback adversely effects sound quality and strove for high slew rate (What is “Slew Rate” and why does it matter?…)/low TIM distortion amplifier designs.  The entire industry followed his lead, but maybe he was just one of the first American amplifier designers to look at it.  Robert Sickler was also onto MOSFETs way before their time, but Nelson Pass later picked up that ball and ran with it to great effect.

The vintage “crap shoot”

Long story short, vintage electronics can often be a crap shoot, especially if you leave in a remote area, far away from service facilities (like Maui, for example).  But mid-fi modern electronics, with their inferior build (and sound) quality are guaranteed to be crappy – they were designed and built in our “disposable age”.

That leaves a couple options.  Pay exorbitant prices for quality modern gear, which will easily run well into five digits for each component, or try your luck with some extraordinarily high quality vintage gear from the “golden age”.   Don’t get me wrong, vintage gear isn’t for everyone.  I’ve done tweeter surgery (Trust your ears), retro-fitted cabinets to accept spec’d tweeters since the originals are no longer available, blown two power amps beyond repair, and fussed around with isolation platforms for turntables since their original vintage ones are grossly inadequate (Denon DP-790W turntable review).

But for those reasonably handy with a soldering iron and willing to do some DIY modifications and/or repairs, vintage gear can be a veritable gold mine.  And, not all vintage gear requires tinkering, I’ve acquired three preamplifiers from the early 1980s (Nakamichi CA-5, Threshold FET Nine, and Audio Research SP9 MkII) and one power amp from the late 1970s (Audionics of Oregon CC-2) that are all performing just fine without any repairs or modifications what-so-ever.

Beware of over priced vintage gear however.  Marantz had a classic styling that is fetching prices that simply aren’t commensurate with their sound quality compared to other vintage gear of the same era.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Marantz gear and I also love their styling from the late 1970s, but you will be paying extra for that signature Marantz look and feel (see photo above).  If that’s important to you than by all means go for it.  A 1966 Jaguar XKE would totally suck on a race track by modern-day standards but is worth over $140k now since it is so collectable.

While a vintage Marantz receiver isn’t going to “totally suck”, it’s possible to find higher end components from the era at less cost.  And separate components will nearly always out-perform integrated (Integrated amps or separates?).  I used to sell these Marantz units back in the 70s when they were new and they were the bread and butter of my audio resale business (I was 16 years old at the time and worked at Audionics of Oregon after school and summers).

They have outstanding phono stages, great build quality, and descent power plants, were reliable and all wrapped up in very nice packaging with attractive real wood cabinets.  That’s why they have become collectable and some sell for nearly 10 times the prices they did back then, as does a lot of the gear of that era.  And… like so many collectable things, there is nostalgia associated with them and their distinctive styling.


An Edmonton audio-venture (names changed to protect the guilty)

So… I had an interesting day in Edmonton on the quest for high end audio gear.  For some reason Edmonton is a major Canadian hub for it.  Too bad it isn’t Calgary since that is a 1 hour drive and Edmonton is a 3.5 hour drive 🙁

Anyway, it’s really interesting to meet the people (all male of course) who are into this.  They all differ on their motivations and aspirations.  Every single piece of gear I’ve purchased here in Alberta (5 now) starts with meeting the wife in the nice cozy living room, then heading to the dungeon for “the goods”.  The wife always offers me coffee, beer (if it’s past 6 pm) then disappears.  It’s like this secret club or covert society.  Fascinating.  All good people, happy in their pursuit for what ever reason they are into it.  So here’s an account of the day going down that rabbit hole:

Stop number one – Threshold FET Nine preamp, circa late 80s, MSRP then: $2,595 USD

The Threshold FET 9 Preamplifier with attention to detail in spades
The Threshold FET 9 Preamplifier with attention to detail in spades

So I pull up to this newly built, large house replete with thee- car garage in the boonies outside of Edmonton, on acreage, terrible architecture – big, two story turret faces you from outside as you enter and once inside, the room therein is clearly never used cause it’s the antithesis of “cozy”, designed to impress rather than express (the interests of the occupants).   Classic example of what not to do from the book “The not so big house”, but I digress.

I’m greeted by the wife, who offers me coffee and I ask for water, then downstairs we go.  But this in no dungeon, this i a very well laid out home theatre complete with huge screen projector – the kind of thing you see in HT magazines.  He’s got a built-in cabinet on the left with a glass front that is filled from the floor to the ceiling with medium grade HT gear.  On a bench placed in front of the sofa, which is in the sweet spot, sits an old Macintosh SS (solid sate) amp, circa early 70s, and the FET Nine hooked up to a low end CD player.  The original box is off to the side, with hand written model and S/N on it, a good sign 🙂  He’s got some very nice Tannoy speakers, well positioned in the room (for a change) to listen to everything on.

So I start putting it through it’s paces, checking for crosstalk, hum, etc.  This thing is perfect!  I can already tell the phono stage has never been used cause there is absolutely no wear on the RCA jacks.  This is going well…  (unlike the Denon stuff I looked at in Calgary a week ago, but that’s another story).  When checking for hum in the phono stage I’m hearing hum… but identify it as not coming from the speakers.  He’s like, “oh, that’s probably the bar fridge” and I’m thinking to myself, seriously?!  But… he’s obviously gotten away from high end audio, and is only into HT now, that’s why he’s selling it, which is a good thing, for me 🙂

So we listen to a CD for a very short while.  I’m not evaluating since I already know of what this preamp is capable of, I’m just checking for obvious faults.  Nothing so far 🙂  So I head out to grab my turntable out of the FJ.  The turntable has an average at best phono cartridge in it.  I assumed it was a throw-away but this is the first time I heard it and it sounded way better than I guessed.  He knew I was interested in the FET Nine in part (a very big part) because of it’s phono stage so he knew I was bringing my turntable.  I put on a MFLS OM (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs Original Master) of George Benson Breezin (one of my reference’s).  The opening sounds a little flat, but it always does, I know to expect that, then the steel guitar and vocals kick in and I bask in the goodness.  I look over at the seller and his jaw has dropped, gazing like a deer in the headlights in disbelief.  Then he looks over at me and stammers, “it’s like they are in the room with us…”  It wasn’t turned up very loudly, didn’t need to be – that’s part of the beauty of high end gear.  I head straight to the volume control (no remote here of course – Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control), turn it down and exclaim, “I’ll take it.”   I can see by the look on his face that he doesn’t want to sell it anymore.  He’s owned it for 25+ years and I honestly think this is the first time he’s heard what it’s capable of.  It’s certainly the first time this famous Nelson Pass phono stage has had a signal passed through it.  Amazing really.

I had brought a couple more MFSL OMs with me, but no need to break them out, I already know this thing is magic.  And I’m thinking time isn’t on my side anymore and he’s likely to change his mind.  Then, his wife walks down the stairs to check on us and offer refills of our drinks.  Thank god for the WAF (wife approval factor).  The seller says, “that’s amazing”, to which I reply, “yeah… but it’s a slippery slope and next thing you know you’ll be collecting records”.  I look over at his wife Laura and she has a look of horror on her face and when he glances at her I know it’s a done deal and this piece of audio history is mine.

Before we box it I ask to pop the lid and look inside.  I’m like, “there must be a cartridge loading dip switch in there or something”.  I hadn’t researched this, but figured there must be.  I also wanted to check for bulging capacitors, overheated resistors, crumbling diodes, etc.  This thing is 25+ years old, after all.  He had obviously never done this and it seemed sacrilege to him to do so.  I dig around in the box and find, in the original little plastic bag, the 1.5mm allen key provided to remove the eight tiny screws and very carefully remove the top cover.  I’ve been into high end audio for over 35 years and honestly have never seen prettier circuit topology or populated circuit board.  All hand made of course.  But obviously done so with complete pride and audio craftsmanship.  Both the mother and daughter board are gold plated, all the capacitors, resistors, and other components are of the upmost quality, and the entire package looks like a gem box.  Exemplary design, exemplary execution.  No wonder this thing is collectable.  We pack it up together and off I go.

Stop number two – Nakamichi PA-7, circa 1988, MSRP then: $1,600 USD

The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier - amazing circuity topology and components meet gorgeous industrial design.  Beauty and the (high current) beast.
The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier – amazing circuity topology and components meet gorgeous industrial design. Beauty and the (high current) beast.

I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I set eyes on this power amp.  It’s mesmerizing and belongs in a museum of industrial design.  Let’s face it, brute strength power amps aren’t usually a thing of beauty, but this one is truly “beauty and the beast”.  Everyone already knows that Nakamichi made it’s name on the very best quality home audio cassette decks in the late 1970s.  They had cash to burn, and wanted to become a major player in the high end audio market, which was dominated by US designers and manufacturers.  So what do they do?…  They recruit Nelson Pass (of Threshold) as a “hired gun” and combine his designs and circuit topology with their deep pockets and efficient production techniques.  The result?…  What is essentially a Threshold power amplifier but way more sexy looking and less than 1/2 the price. They were supposed to just license his STASIS technology, which combines the benefits of Class A amplification without the drawbacks (runs stupid hot = very low reliability) into a hybrid Class A/Class AB amplifier with optical bias.  Well, they don’t just license STASIS.  Rather, the first generation of the PA-7 is a direct copy of the equivalent Threshold amp.  A lawsuit ensues, then Nak releases the PA-7II with an altered design, 25 more WPC (watts per channel), and a higher price tag.  But everyone knew then and knows now that the original PA-7 was, “the one to get”.  As a side note I also sourced a Nak CA-5A pre amp of the same era and also designed by NP and executed by Nakamichi for my Maui system.

So… Enough history.  Now it’s time to describe the seller.  This time it’s a Polish guy who has a hobby building his own speakers.  Not exactly an audiophile, but he’s a cabinet maker and a craftsman.  He lives in a tiny one-story house and I’m greeted by him and his (hot) Polish wife, then downstairs we go.  This time it’s truly a dungeon, no windows, star wars memorabilia, the “man cave” big time. There’s speaker drivers everywhere.  No listening chair, a huge rack of gear that must stand 6.5 feet tall with a turntable on top that I can’t even reach and he’s almost a foot shorter then me – obviously there for show and not used (only a half dozen records on his shelves), all flanked by two pairs of huge home-made speakers.  The set which are his pride-and-joy sport two sets of 15” woofers, huge horns for mid-range, and dome tweeters for high frequencies.  I look over his design, all phase aligned and actually well executed, and offer (genuine) praise.  He’s selling the Nak PA-7 cause he can’t tell the difference from his Carver, to which I offer no comment.

So once again I’m not here to evaluate this amp, but rather check for faults.  I’ve already spoken with the previous owner and got it’s history and it’s all good.  Kris (present seller) has thankfully only owned it for a couple months.  Thankfully because I have the feeling if he owned it much longer something untoward would happen… to the amp, his house, or his marriage.  He asks, “what kind of music do you want to hear?” and I reply, “how about some soft jazz”.  He looks puzzled, as if he’s thinking to himself “what the hell are you looking at the PA-7 for then?!”, but just shrugs and goes over to play something from his “music server”, which I put in quotes since it’s a laptop playing FLAC files that originated from Redbook CD quality at best (44.1k/16bit).  I listen for a while, everything seems to be working OK and his speakers sound pretty good and I suspect would sound really good with a descent front end.  The only other things to do to test this power amp are to drive it to clipping and look inside, then I’m ready to buy it.  I figure I’m never gonna drive it to clipping with my Magnepan MG-12s, as I would likely shred the quasi ribbons if I did so long before this amp cried “uncle” (side note – I’ve subsequently discovered this isn’t the case and I easily drive this amp to clipping with my MG-12s), so I ask him if he’s ever seen it clip.  “Oh sure, he replies, you mean those little red lights?”  I nod and he says, “Well, we gotta listen to something different for that.”

He puts on Dire Straits, Brother’s in Arms (the SACD version of which happens to be one of my references – lucky coincidence), then cranks the volume and looks over proudly at me as his speakers deliver seismic bass response and actually hold their own to everything the legendary PA-7 can throw at it.  I’m starting to get uneasy as the room resonates and things start to vibrate off tables and shelves all around.  I think of his wife, trying to watch olympic figure skating upstairs with her fingers crossed that I buy it.  But… it’s still not clipping.  He sees that and yells at me to wait for it, then notches it up a bit and the red lights flash away as the next bass line kicks in.  I give him the thumbs up and he turns it down so we can converse once more.  I said, “holy shit” and complimented him on his speakers once again.  He was beaming and says, “yeah, I have to replace the light bulbs every few weeks since it rattles the filaments loose”.  I said I’ll take it but want to pop the lid first, and he says, “sure, just give me a hand getting it out of the rack.”  At nearly 70 pounds, this is a two person job.  I ask him if he’s every had the top off and he says, “no” and I think to myself that’s probably a good thing.  There a sticker on top that says “Lethal shock hazard.  Do not open!”

The two of us box it up, original manual and original double box 🙂  He says, “I’m a cabinet maker, trust me it’s easier and better for your back if one person carries it.  I’ll take it to the front door if you take it to your car from there.”  I thought I’d got the better part of the deal since I didn’t have to carry it up the stairs until I got on the icy sidewalk outside.

Stop number three – Acoustic Research SP-9 MkII, circa 1987, MSRP then: $4,000 CAD

The Audio Research SP-9 MkII - one of the finest tube preamplifiers ever made.
The Audio Research SP-9 MkII – one of the finest tube preamplifiers ever made.

Third stop is at a high end store who is the second largest Audio Research dealer in North America, according to the salesman at least.  I get inside and with seven listening rooms full of their gear, I’m not surprised.

He’s got the ARC SP-9 MkII sitting on the test bench, warming up nicely.  This thing is visibly perfect, not a scratch and almost no wear on the RCA jacks.  He pops the hood and shows me the inside.  He’s particularly proud of the new tube he’s installed in the phono stage, which is an upgrade from the original and he shows me a link to it on ebay for $150.  Now that the transaction’s done he proceeds to give me a tour of the store.

First we go to the uber-high-end room since I had asked about phono hum and how much was normal since it’s been so long I’d honestly forgotten.  He points at a stack of large steel boxes on the floor with massive power cords into them, “See that?  $20K worth of power conditioning, that’s how you get rid of hum.”  Then he switches to the phono stage on the rack of the TOTL (top of the line) Audio Research gear feeding a floor standing Mark Levison amp located squarely between two large but not overly imposing cone speakers with (by peeking behind their cabinets) what I determined to be acoustic suspension design – almost zero hum as he inches the volume up to 104 DB.  “I spent 4 hours setting these babies up” he beams as he turns the volume down, switches sources, and motions me to the capacious leather lounge chair located in the sweet spot and pulls up in an identical one next to it but just off centre.   I’m thinking to myself, “this is gonna be a treat!”  I don’t even know what he’s gonna put on and am especially pleased when I recognize Patrick O’Hearn chiming in at mid volume levels.

It sounds great, but then as I put my critical ear on I’m thinking to myself, “I expected more than this”.  Then I hear some mid frequencies come in a bit hot and harsh and am already start to experience listening fatigue instead of closing my eyes and immersing myself in the music.  I’m like, “Am I losing it?…  Do I not know what high end audio sounds like anymore?…”  Then I glance over at the rack and the huge ARC transport’s display says “CD” on it.   He gets up (he’s been doing this for 30 years and knows how to read a listener’s reaction), turns it down and says, “You know, I never liked these Mark Levison amps”.  The amp costs $30K and is not the problem.  I know it, he knows it, but we both remain reticent.  I don’t want to say anything and be insulting.  He has to sell this stuff so he can’t say anything, but the tour moves on in short order.  The only other source in the uber-high-end room is a floor standing turntable that sits about 4 feet high.  It’s obviously not set up so I don’t even ask.  No SACD player… strange.

I spent two more hours touring the remainder of the rooms, full of high end goodness, mostly turntables, and Mangepans everywhere.  I told him of my experience testing various Maggies in a similar sized to mine (small) listening room in Calgary and he agreed that he didn’t care for the 3.7Rs.  “Accurate to a fault”, I described them as, to which he replied, “exactly”.  He shows me the HT room and points at a 5 channel amp and says, “watch this” as the lights flicker as he turns it on.  “It runs off two dedicated 15A circuits.  We’re wired for this and it still does that”.  He shows me modern turntable designs and we go on about phono cartridge loading in preamps, and why the ARC SP-9 MkII he just sold me has fixed gain.  I said that I’d remain unconvinced until I listen to it.  I could have spent all day there, but it really is too bad the only thing we sat down and listened to was a CD player.

He liked that I knew about gear from the 70s and 80s and mentioned a pair of old Kef bookshelf speakers they had kicking around about a week ago.  “They didn’t have T-27 tweeters did they?,” I inquired, failing miserably at not appearing excited.  “They sure did.  Are you thinking of building a pair of LS3/5As?”.  He was on to me right away.  “Yep, but they’ve gotta be SP-1032 version of the T-27s and Rodgers only accepted about 20% of the drivers from Kef as being within spec” I countered.  That was true but I was primarily trying to drive the price down at this point as I knew he now knew he’d get top dollar from me for them.  “We might consider parting them out” he said to which I replied, “do your research and get back to me with a price”.  I already knew they are worth $200+ USD and figured why throw that price at him until he knows if he even wants to remove the tweeters from the speakers.  That might seem like a lot for a pair of 40 year old used tweets, but worth every nickel if he’d sell them.  I spoke of my Kef 104/2 restoration project over on Maui and of replacing the ferro fluid in the T33 tweeters on them.  He knew exactly what I was doing and why, and called me “brave to tear those tweeters apart to rebuild them”.  I told him I didn’t have them working again yet and was practicing on a pair taken from salvage 104/2s that were given to me by someone who was just so happy that someone actually knew what they are he didn’t care about the money.  And, the WAF was present again in that instance, she wanted them out of the house (or even the garage).

Driving home back to Canmore:
And so, home I drove with my precious cargo of vintage audio gear.  I was even careful over the bumps, like I had an FJ full of eggs in the back.  And now the real fun starts.  Where, finally after starting down this high end audio path once again around four months ago, I hopefully begin to reap the rewards of my efforts, and sit down and listen to music again.  Something I will do almost daily once I’m able.  And, what a journey full of interesting characters it’s been so far, even before I play (really play) my first record!