Falling in love again with ancient audio gear


Back when I was a freshman in college, I tried to build what was already legendary audio gear: a Dynaco PAS-3X preamplifier, and a Stereo 35 power amplifier. Both were available only as kits, and I screwed them up. I mean, I wasn’t bad with a soldering iron, but I sucked at following directions.

So my cousin Ron (that’s him on the left) came to my rescue, fixing all my mistakes and ron-apgarmaking both chunks of iron sing like bells. In the process he decided to build a PAS-3X of his own, along with a Heathkit A111 power amplifier.

I wore out my Dynacos by the late ’70s. (Along with my KLH Model 18 tuner and AR turntable with a Shure V15 Type II Improved phono cartridge.) Ron’s worked at his Mom’s place for a few years, and were retired eventually to a cabinet where I spotted them a few years ago at her house in Maine. When I asked about them, she said “Take ’em away.” So I did. After that they languished behind furniture, first at our apartment in Massachusetts and then at the one here in New York.

So a few days ago, after my old Kenwood receiver crapped out, I decided on a lark to give Ron’s old gear a try. I had no faith it would work. After all, it was fifty year old iron that hadn’t been on in forty years or more. Worse, it wasn’t solid state stuff. These things were filled with vacuum tubes, and had components and wiring that had surely rotted to some degree with age.

So I plugged them in, made all the required connections between the two units and a pair of Polk speakers (which date from the ’90s), and then fed in some music from the collection on my iPhone.

Amazing: they work. Beautifully. Some knobs make scratchy sounds when I turn them, and every once in awhile the right channel drops out, requiring that I re-plug an input. But other than that, it’s all fine. The Heathkit, which has the size and heft of a car battery, could heat a room, even though it only produces 14 watts per channel. When it’s running, it’s too hot to pick up. But the sound is just freaking amazing. Much better than the Kenwood, which is a very nice receiver. I’m sure it’s the tubes. The sound is very warm and undistorted. Vocals especially are vivid and clear. The bass is tight. The high end is a bit understated, but with plenty of detail. (Here’s a test report from 1966.)

My original plan was to sell them eventually on eBay, since these kinds of things can bring up to $hundreds apiece. But now I love them too much to do that.

I mean, these things make me want to sit and listen to music, and it’s been a long time since any gear has done that.

They also connect me to Ron, who sadly passed several years ago. He was my big brother when we were growing up, and a totally great guy. (He was also cool in a vintage sense of the word, at least to me. And you had to love his red ’60 Chevy Impala convertible, which he drove until he joined the Army, as I recall.)

So I gotta keep ’em.

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  1. Ole Eichhorn’s avatar

    I love this … had an old Healthkit receiver I built myself at one point (4-channels, remember that!), replaced it to get optical audio inputs, and now I miss it so much. Tube are the best.

  2. Mihai Pintilie’s avatar

    How would you call it? Luck or quality? I’d vote for quality. Both equipment and job. Nice story, guess you’ll never change your mind and sell it on eBay, it’s now more valuable then ever.

  3. Jonathan Peterson’s avatar

    I have a Macintosh 1700 tube amp that my dad spent more for than I’ve ever spent on any hunk of home theatre gear. It’s been gathering dust in the basement for more than a decade. Your post and this article coming in the same day, kind of make me want to create something for the living room. http://www.fastcodesign.com/3057202/wanted/this-company-retrofits-glorious-vintage-hi-fi-systems-for-the-spotify-age

  4. Farley’s avatar

    Great story. Never sell that gear. Pass it down if you can.

  5. Carly Grant’s avatar

    Wow, this article brings back some memories! I originally got into programming as the result of my father’s HAM fascination. At weekends he would take apart, “fix” (although there was often nothing wrong) the broken radio and then put it back together. His tinkering lead to my absession with radio frequency cryptography and steganography… So I guess it wasn’t all bad. Ron, thanks for the huge grin I had while reading this.!

  6. Fars’s avatar

    Great story! If anyone has any 50 year old gear it might be worth brining it up on a variac auto transformer the first time. It might be the difference between having some usable gear and a blown capacitor.

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