You'll never find a comparably equipped 1980 Corvette outperforming a 2011 'Vette, or a 1980 TV or computer blowing away a '11 model. Audio is a different matter; a lot of decades-old gear really does sound better than its 2011 equivalents. That's especially true when comparing 1970s and 1980s receivers with today's models. I covered why that is so in last weekend's "How can 30-year-old receivers sound better than new ones?" blog.
I chatted with Innovative Audio's Gordon Sauck to learn more about buying old hi-fi. Sauck started designing home theater installations in the early 1990s, and opened a store to sell home theater ten years later. He switched over to selling vintage gear four years ago. I may cover buying used audio on eBay and yard sales in the future, but Innovative Audio's services were too tempting to postpone to a later date.
The problem with buying old hi-fi, or old cars or old anything is judging condition, that is, is it working properly? Innovative Audio specializes in selling used gear, and has its technicians check out the product, and make repairs to bring the component back to factory specifications. Prices vary, but the store has a nice selection of stereo receivers going for between $100 and $300 (Canadian dollars), and some more expensive models as well. Receivers are sold with 30- or 90-day warranties, depending on the model and price).
I pressed Gordon Sauck to define the "Golden Age" for stereo receivers, and he thinks models made between 1976 and 1982 were best. Nowadays it's all about features, but thirty years ago all of the big brands put their energy into making great sounding products. Innovative doesn't just sell receivers, they also offer preamplifiers, power amps, tuners, tape decks, turntables, CD players, and speakers.
With that in mind there's an upgrade path open to anyone with a receiver of any age: add a separate power amplifier (just make sure the receiver has pre-out jacks on its rear panel). With surround receivers you'll need a multichannel amp; I covered that subject in my "How to: Double your home theater receiver's power" blog. With stereo receivers it's a little easier to do, and I noticed Innovative Audio has a legendary Crown DC300A stereo power amp going for $375.
For turntables Gordon Sauck thinks the Technics SL-1000, all the way up to the SP10 'tables are great, but again, there are a lot of options. Prices start around $75. Most turntables are sold with new phono cartridges installed. Speakers run the gamut, from Advent to Altec, JBL, Klipsch, and Pioneer models. Sauck has a pair of JBL 4311 speakers--the classic 1970s rock speaker--going for $200! You could put together a killer system with a turntable, receiver, and those JBLs for $500 or $600!
Home theater receivers can be out-of-date when they're five years old, but I picked out a Model 26 Marantz receiver for my friend Jack in the early 1970s, and he's still using it! Quality hi-fis have extremely long life expectancies, so investing a little more makes a lot of sense. You'll have better sound over the long haul.