Back in audio’s Jurassic Period (pre-digital early 1980s), a friend in Boston showed me his latest acquisition. He’s been driving in Upstate New York, and in stopping at a roadside shop had spotted what was tagged as “oriental-style room divider screens.” The shop owner explained that the dividers were priced to reflect the fact that someone had “replaced the typical printed fabric with plain white cloth”—which is how my friend snapped-up a pair of near-mint KLH Model 9 full-range electrostatic loudspeakers for $80 (the shop owner even knocked $10 off each “divider” if he’d take them both).

For readers unfamiliar with them, the KLH Model 9 is ranked by The Absolute Sound magazine as one of the “12 Most Significant Speakers.” A restored pair typically changes hands for several thousands of dollars—when you can even find one. A bit later I got to house-sit for my friend for several weeks when he got married and went off to Europe, so briefly lived with his pair of Model 9’s, and I can verify that TAS was, if anything, understating their capabilities. Aside from an indelible audio experience, the Model 9’s imprinted a belief on me that a sort of audio “El Dorado meets Treasure Island” exists around the corner if only one can be in the right place at the right time.

That time ended up being several years ago, when I found two pieces I always wanted sitting in a thrift store: a Yamaha T-1 tuner and a Sony ICF-9740 table radio. Both were in great shape, both were tagged “old radios,” and combined both set me back less than $20. I was hooked, and have been systematically scouring thrift stores on a quest for cast-off audio classics ever since. They are probably the one retail outlet where you can pick up a high-performance component and never pull out a credit card.

The key is the word “systematic.” The best results come from having and sticking with a manageable system for scouting, testing, and cleaning-up any finds. During the past two years I’ve picked up over 15 receivers, five tuners, untold numbers of integrated amplifiers and CD changers/players, five pairs of good speakers, and several more high-end table radios (people love that Sony and constantly ask me to keep my eye open for another one, including a former Sony division president).

I give much of it away– a non-profit organization I work with has a great multi-zone office music system for example, and several newly-single friends starting over now have a new used stereo to keep them company. It’s a fun hobby, and, as a mid-life crisis hobby goes, more dignified and cheaper than growing a pony-tail and buying a Porsche. Something I remind my wife every time I bring home a new pile of old audio gear and start spreading the newspapers to commence cleaning.

The interesting thing is that the more gear you collect this way, the more uses for it you find. It’s nice having an office music system that’s the envy of the entire floor, and hearing “hey, if you ever want to get rid of that Sherwood with the brushed-aluminum finish…” at least twice weekly. Working on the cars over the weekend is a lot more enjoyable with a killer garage system. A late-1970’s high-end receiver is just the thing for powering outdoor deck/patio speakers from a kitchen on in-wall/ceiling speakers in a bedroom, eliminating the need for multi-room wiring. Speaking of multi-room, if you have such a system and amplifier a stack of six or eight separate FM tuners from thrift stores will still run you less than the cost of the IR kit to control them remotely. For someone interested in vinyl and adding a turntable to a modern system, an old receiver’s phono-preamp is likely superior to many of the much more expensive add-on versions sold today.

So if you’re interested, read on for strategy and tactical tips that can put you on your way to getting nearly free gear now that you couldn’t possibly afford in your youth.

What would become their ES line started with Sony’s STR 800-series receivers in the late 1970’s which consisted of the flagship 7800SD, 6800SD, 4800SD and this 5800SD recently picked up at Goodwill for $10.00. The dial lamps were the only thing wrong with it, and it turns out replacements were available at the automotive parts store down the street.

This isn’t about Craig’s’ List or E-bay. They have their fans; I am just not one of them—too much overpriced junk and you have to deal with shipping, auctions and risk. I’m talking about thrift stores, which come in three flavors:

Charity-Operated Chains—Goodwill is the Wal-Mart of the genre, with The Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul stores close behind. No judgment intended, they all do great work. And that’s a nice bit of added value—the twelve bucks you just scored a pair of British mini-monitors for will actually go to a good cause. And that’s no hypothetical example. It’s what I paid for a pair of Mordant-Short LS 3.10’s at a thrift. Goodwill is the best for audio in my metro area (Seattle), but all of them are worth covering. The only downside is that the locations are not always convenient since they often operate in more out-of-the-way places in real-estate that’s past its prime, such as old supermarkets.
Non-Charity Chains—by that I mean chains not operated by a charity organization. Value Village/Savers is a national example, and kind of the Target to Goodwill’s Wal-Mart. It’s all good, since these chains still plough profits back into community assistance groups. They are also usually easier to get to regularly and in better locations.
Independent Thrift Stores— these are usually located in strip malls or operate out of older downtown storefronts, sometimes out of donated or distressed space. Often they are run by a church, advocacy or charity group. The electronics selection is usually narrower but not likely to get picked-over as quickly as the bigger stores either. A four-dollar pair of mint-condition NHT SuperZero speakers from such a store convinced me to keep the place on my list.

Goodwill Industries and ValueVillage/Savers stores are the Wal-Mart and Target of the thrift-store channel. The Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul stores along with a number of local independents make up the rest.

The big chains have their own transportation and pick-up systems in place, and regularly replenish their inventory. Smaller operations depend on donations made at the collection locations. I’ve found that early evenings in the week are best, while weekends are usually the worst. But a lot of people drop off at thrift stores late Saturday afternoons and evenings after a garage or basement clean-up, so Saturday night is a good time to score. It helps to have a friend there who can check the back-room for anything interesting that hasn’t been put out yet. A colleague who works for a non-profit printing company and is into the same hobby swears that Thursdays are his prime-time, and arranges his business stops accordingly to hit his favorite thrifts on that day between business deliveries and pick-ups.

Timing is everything for another reason. Unlike conventional retail, thrift stores operate on nearly unlimited profit margins since their inventory is donated and essentially free—that means the “cost of goods sold” or COGS on their balance sheet is basically zero. So thrift store managers have a lot of discretion and use it, and when things are slow often put up the “red tag items ½ price today” sign in the window. At a Goodwill store I was in not too long ago that kind of daily promotion included a pair of KEF 104/2’s in decent condition!

You do need to test potential audio rescues on-site, but you don’t need much to do it—everything can fit in a coat pocket. Carry a pair of lightweight headphones or earbuds (don’t forget the ¼- inch adaptor), a small screwdriver (for opening gear if necessary, prying off speaker grilles, and testing FM operation as a makeshift antenna), an audio source with RCA output cable, a few CD’s for players and changers, and a short pair of speaker wires for checking amplifier sections using speakers on-hand. The last item is really important—many receivers and integrateds with serious output problems may sound find just driving headphones. If you can’t check gear on-site with speakers make sure you know the store’s return policies.

Since this is a hit-or-miss proposition, it’s important to make as many hits as possible. So I try to make a regular circuit and cover five stores faithfully, and also make sure I get to the big urban central ones at least every two weeks. I find I can align thrift-store drive-bys with commuting and business meetings—it takes less than 10 minutes to park, run in and scout the electronics section, and leave. (I’ve also found that hitting thrift stores has high spouse approval factor, but the downside is that my better half needs ten times the amount of time to browse clothing than I do to cover electronics).

Being a frequent visitor has another advantage: you can build up a network. Some of the people working in these stores love chatting with customers who know something about products, and often will keep you in mind when something comes in. As happened to me at a Goodwill store not long ago, when one of the staff spotted the “stereo guy,” brought out a pair of just-received near-mint Polk RT-3’s from the back that had just came in, and slapped a $14.99 price tag on the pair for me.

Wheat and Chaff
Be warned—the ratio between trash and treasure in a thrift store can be of epic proportions. 95% of what you’ll see is rack-system junk, DVD players and VCRs. So be prepared to look hard and in the corners for anything with a dial, brushed-aluminum face, or analog meters.

Most of the gold will be buried under rack-system and multi-media junk, so be prepared to dig and keep a sharp eye out for anything with a dial or meters.

That’s a Kenwood surround-sound processor with amplifier on top of that non-descript Sony CD changer, a great find for upgrading a bedroom or kids’ room stereo system with surround.

That Sony boom-box [upper left] is hiding a very desirable Sony ICF-9740 hi-fi table radio [upper right]. I’ve picked up three of them, one for a former Sony division president.

The exceptions are tuners and CD changers. If you need them for multi-source distributed audio applications, rack-system “gutless wonders” are actually well-suited for the job. These tuners especially use a lot of blending and filtering, making them reasonably quiet for fore-and-background listening. Plus, they usually have remote-control inputs compatible with newer IR kits and universal remotes, making them ideal for inexpensive multi-room/multi-source use in a distributed system. And by “inexpensive” I mean that tuners and changers usually sell for $10-15—it’s hard to go wrong.

Often it’s also hard leaving something behind. I feel guilty every time I see a $10 Nakamachi, B&O or high-end Denon cassette deck with little wear looking for a home, but I hardly use the cassette deck I have now and the last thing I need is another one. But someone does. Over 7,000 cassette decks are still sold annually according to CEA’s annual forecast (January 2011 FC-104 Home Audio Report). A vintage machine that originally went for a week’s salary way back when may be just what someone needs today.

Same thing with MiniDisc decks, open-reel tape decks, laser disk players, VTR (that’s video tape recorders using open-reel tape to you youngsters), and even SelectaVision video disk players. The thrift store electronics aisle is the graveyard where old formats go to die.

Among the piles of surplus PC multimedia speakers you’ll come across some keepers, such as the Yamaha YST-M7’s of which the late Gordon Holt of Stereophile fame was fond. The active subwoofer sitting under my desk was another thrift-store Yamaha find at $7.00. Early Cambridge SoundWorks systems also hide out among this stuff if you’re observant.

Accessories and other tips
Keep in mind that any remote controls (if the unit even had one, not much stuff sold earlier than the mid-1980’s did) have long likely been separated from their companion components. And because anything old with a remote likely used a more proprietary system (old B&O components used ultrasonic remotes, for example) you aren’t going to have much luck with a modern universal or leaning remote. So if you think the unit came with one, check the big bin of remote controls nearby just in case—it may have been picked up with the unit and dropped there while the store personnel were sorting during receiving.

Same thing with power supplies, power cords, and connecting cords, especially the more proprietary types that go with multimedia speakers and subwoofers. See if they are nearby, otherwise you may end up hunting for some obscure cables to make the thing work. Big thrift stores receive a lot of stuff hourly, and no one is keeping track of what goes where.

On that note, it’s not uncommon to find one higher-end speaker without the other half of the pair. So ask the staff to check— the second one might be in the back, or even at another store, and they just may be able to find it for you. That’s how I got a pair of ADS L300c speakers in nice shape for 20 bucks.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 of this article –
Once you’ve found something worth taking home

Before 27 years in corporate marketing roles for Xantech, Leviton, Carver, Harman/Kardon-JBL, and Bose Corporation, Mark Cerasuolo worked in audio retailing going back to part-time jobs in college. A lot of his audio “new finds” in thrift stores are old friends he couldn’t afford way back when. In 2010 he became the “first fully online undergraduate student to deliver a student commencement address at a traditional four-year college or university” at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, proving that one can drop out to pursue an audio retailing and marketing career and still have it work out in the end. Mark is active in CEA, most recently with the Multi-Room Audio/Video group. He lives in Redmond, Washington, with his lovely and understanding wife Dawn.