I will never forget my first sense of being bamboozled in life, after coming home with the scratched-up old '70s speakers I had bought at a neighbor's garage sale for $10.
Ten dollars was a lot of money to a 10-year-old, and I thought what I had scored was really sick: a pair of vintage Acoustic Research AR3a speakers designed not by Ed Villchur but by Roy Allison. They represented some of the best of the "East Coast sound" speakers of the '70s, and I was excited.
But when I pried the grills off to have a look, the wind came out of my sails faster than it blows up there off the Indian Peaks.
The foam surrounds — that little roll of suspension material ringing the outside of the speaker cone — were all gone. Just totally gone.
Tears in my eyes, I dragged the speakers back to the garage sale to complain. The neighbor hosting it clearly didn't have time for this and just gave my $10 back and told me to keep the speakers. Elation once again.
But I found that as a youngster with no Internet (yes, I'm old), fixing these awesome speakers wasn't an easy task. After refinishing only one of them, I eventually gave up, but that episode remains a great memory for me.
Buying old speakers can carry risks. In the '70s, and even into the '90s, some speaker companies used a foam material that ended up rotting after a decade or two. But it's important to note that much of the science and technology behind these speakers was and still is excellent. Vintage speakers can be awesome — better, in fact, than a lot of offerings on the market today for similar price.
Make sure you get a peek at the woofer surrounds, but also be aware of what foam surrounds might be lurking inside the cabinets, invisible from the front. Vintage KEF Reference 107 speakers, for instance (awesome, btw), each have two internal woofers that each contain two flimsy foam surrounds. Do the research and know what's in there.
Cones on old speakers tended to be made of paper. Another thing that will hurt bass performance is any sign of the cones having been wet, like really drenched. That also includes oils — I've found old speaker cones with oil stains before, and the moisture locked in there made the cones flexible and worthless for bass. Cones need to be rigid to move like a piston to create good bass waves.
When it comes to tweeters, a common blemish is the dome of the little driver having been pushed inward. I've gently popped out many tweeter domes, either with sticky tape or a gentle vacuum and a soft silicone hose. If you want to try that too, it's good to know first if the tweeter material can actually be popped back out. Most metals won't budge with reasonable pressure, so be aware of the tweeter material type when you're looking at a potential vintage speaker purchase and you see a dent.
Avoid these potential pitfalls, do your research and you will likely end up with an awesome set of vintage music makers.