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The Ultimate Guide on How to Shop for Luxury Hifi

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Introduction

Looking for ways to finance your audiophile dream product? If so, you may be in for a pleasant surprise. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a bunch of links to Amazon products :)

Like most of you, I love shiny audiophile gear from Accuphase, Burmester, Pass Labs – you name it. Unfortunately my wallet simply won’t allow me spending this kind of money. I’ve been visiting the Munich High End show for years now just to find that prices of high quality gear are way beyond a music lover with average paycheck sizes. It’s not uncommon to see speakers over 100.000 Euros and even “entry-level” quality products have multi-thousand Euro pricetags. That’s pretty much out of reach for many music lovers.

The Biggest Secret in High-End Audio

So what if you want the best but haven’t got an oligarch’s budget? Here’s the solution: buy pre-owned audio gear! Similar to cars, luxury goods quickly depreciate in value so you can buy a fantastic pair of loudspeakers in pristine condition for 50% off or more. Many first owners prefer having the latest gear or just want a different component that supposedly synergizes better with the rest of their system. So they sell of their gems. Sometimes it’s simply the result of life circumstances such as needing the funds to pay an unforeseen bill. It’s definitely a win-win situation for both the seller and you.

For instance, I bought my own Martin Logan Request electrostatic speakers for little over 1.000 Euros which is crazy value. A comparable loudspeaker will cost you at least 4-5 times as much in today’s money. The previous owner needed to down-size living space and had no room for such large speakers. I also bought my STAX headphones second-hand for less than half the shelf price from an owner who rarely used them in daily life.

You can also find stellar deals in electronics. High End amplifiers turn up for sale, too. I found the sweet spot to be around 3-5 years of age. If the previous owner took good care, you should be able to dig up an amp that looks and works like new. CD Players or digital-to-analogue converters depreciate even quicker in this day and age. So it may make sense to go back in time. Turntables, tonearms and accessories are also great candidates if you desire better quality for less money. That fancy cable you always wanted? who knows – maybe someone is giving it away for a discount.

Where do you find such great deals? Forget eBay. I would personally look for more specialized niche sites instead. If you live in Europe, audio-markt.de is an excellent place to shop for anything related to high-end. Also check out Audiogon. Also check out the private “For Sale” ads on audio forums. Those places are potential gold mines. I met some really nice and passionate individuals.

Local communities or “Head Fi Meets” are also great places to spend time at. First of all you get to interact with others about your hobby. And who knows, you may eventually exchange audio gear.

Even professional audio retail stores now feature second hand gear sections on their website. Mostly this helps their customers who have traded in a product for something else. One particular advantage of going through a dealer is that you may be entitled to a warranty.

Downsides?

You certainly have to know exactly what you’re after. I don’t recommend starting out with no prior hifi experience. Just buying a bunch of good deals without afterthought may cost you more in the end. Unlike buying from a brick and mortar store, you pretty much can’t do head-to-head listening comparisons. For speakers this can be truly challenging. And of course no personal counsel is available to help you with your choices. Although honestly, I don’t think this is such a big deal anymore. Trade shows, local meetups etc now make it easier than ever to get a clearer idea of what sonical ideal you’re after.

Warranties are often an issue. Although warranties for “newer” audio products are often transferable to the new owner (I believe B&W allows this), you may have to take somewhat of a risk. Personally I haven’t had any issues yet but this is just something you should be aware of. If you buy from non-private sellers there’s often some sort of warranty which justifies slightly higher prices.

Last but not least, electronics can fail so there’s a bit of risk involved. However, so far I have personally never experienced any problems. More complicated products such as digital-to-analog converters involving surface mount parts are extremely challenging to fix. In addition, parts have defined life spans. Especially power amplifiers are under thermal stress with the risk of electrolytic caps running dry. Just something to be aware of.

When You Still Need Your Local Hifi Retailer

At this point I’d like to remind you to respect your local hifi store. Please DO NOT go there to pretend interest, let them do all the consulting work and then leave looking for a cheaper supplier on the internet. A good hifi retailer can save you thousands by helping you stay away from bad decisions.

Ok so is there stuff that you shouldn’t buy used? I would personally stay away from second-hand turntable cartridges. Although it’s tempting to buy a lightly used Lyra Atlas for much less money, styluses wear out and you have no way of verifiyng actual play times. In addition, MC cartridges are fragile and damages are not easily detectable. For digital-to-analog converters or network streamers it is more of a mixed bag. As a rule of thumb I wouldn’t buy anything that’s older than two years. Techology is developing at a rapid pace. Software may not be up to date anymore. Also approach power amplifiers older than 8-10 years with caution. These have not many moving parts but electronic components such as electrolytic caps may have run dry and mechanical potentiometers may have exceeded their lifespan. If you are looking at a very expensive brand such as Accuphase, it may be worthwile to invest in a professional overhaul. Make sure your budget has room for that.

Alternatives

If you have some electronics knowledge, why not check out the DIY audio community? Start with a simple project like a portable headphone amp and work your way up to more serious audio projects. Electronic parts – even the ones used in ultra-expensive brand name products often cost only pennies. You may find that you can build a world-class phone preamp for 100 Euros that will destroy a 1000 Euro commercial product. That’s because you don’t count your hours and you certainly don’t need to budget dealer margins. And did I mention it’s a lot of fun, too?

If you feel, you are rather ham-handed, look no further than China for high-end audio gear. China has a number of fantastic brands that offer you world-class performance for a lot less money. I have had great experiences with Gustard, SMSL, Topping and Hifimediy. Granted, there’s tons of garbage out there, too but just see how my own Gustard X20 rocks. It’s still in use in 2020 and I have no plans for upgrades unless it breaks (then I’ll buy another Gustard, I guess).

Enjoy the music!

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