Thanks to the Internet, the market for used audio/video equipment has burgeoned in the last few years, with dozens of Sites offering used gear for sale. As with any choice one makes, the decision whether to buy new or used gear is a complex one that should be fully understood as there are both benefits and drawbacks to each alternative. This article seeks to inform and will discuss the issues so you can make an educated decision. I sell both new and used equipment, so I don’t have an ax to grind either way, but seek to inform my clients so that the ownership experience will be an enjoyable one. An informed client is a happy client!

I got into the audio business as a young lad in 1972 (I’m dating myself here). During the years since, I’ve seen allot of used gear come though my doors. I’ve had no end of conversations with people who have made purchases – many are satisfied, just as many are not. I hope the following information will give you some insight into the issue of new vs. used equipment purchases, and help you to make the decision that is right for you.

Many of us simply have a preference for new or used one way or another and won’t change regardless. Cars come to mind. I have had horrid luck with used cars and prefer to buy new. Since I take care of my cars, I like knowing that it has received my careful attention; an uncertainty if someone else has been behind the wheel. I also like the security of a warranty. My dad, on the other hand, liked searching out the “bargain,” and preferred to buy mostly used.

Why would a person choose to purchase new equipment? I think most folks find comfort in the knowledge their hands are the only ones to have touched their purchase. When you alone are the owner, you can be certain the component has been cared for. For others there is the satisfaction of having the latest state of the art equipment. All welcome the security of a factory warranty and the assistance of both dealer and manufacturer.

Why would a person choose to purchase used equipment? The obvious attraction for purchasing used is price. Often a used component can be had for half to two-thirds of its original retail price - a nice savings, assuming that no problems arise. Yet used gear carries a good deal more risk than new, so let’s examine the potential pitfalls.

Source: This may be the most critical issue of all, as so many of the problems we’ll discuss hinge upon the honesty of the seller. Can you trust the source? Is the supplier reputable? An individual seller has no reputation to protect, so you operate on blind trust that the fellow is honest and has a thorough knowledge of the component. A dealer that has been around for any length of time has a reputation to look after, thus it is much more likely that you will get satisfaction from a deal gone bad.

Individuals are selling much of the used equipment offered. While most audiophiles are great people, there are those out there who are less than trustworthy. Once the seller has your money, it may be very difficult (or impossible) to gain satisfaction if you are unhappy with your purchase. Try to get something in writing that will clearly delineate the details of the transaction and condition of the unit. While this is no guarantee, it may be of some benefit if push comes to shove.

Warranty: Check to see if you will have a warranty. Most manufacturers do not offer a transferable warranty. Thus, if a problem does arise, it is likely that you will have to pay for repairs. A dealer will sometimes warrant that a product will operate correctly on arrival.

Condition: Unless you can personally inspect the product before you buy (and you know what to look for), you rely completely on the seller to accurately describe the piece. A photo is great, but even that may not enough to spot many problems. Condition goes beyond the external appearance, and the internal workings should be considered. Indeed, the inside of the component is often a better indicator of how the unit has been cared for than the appearance of the exterior.

Misrepresentation: Much of this happens by accident, but misinformation is commonplace. Incorrect information can be the result of ignorance or downright deception and can range from misrepresenting condition, age or functionality, to the owner simply not being very well informed about the unit. It is important to know which version or revision of a component you are purchasing to accurately determine value. In many cases, pieces cannot be upgraded to the current version, so you may want to check with the manufacturer to be sure. If there is a question, get the serial number of the unit you are considering and call the manufacturer to verify the information you’ve been given.

Financial Risk: More of an issue when dealing with an individual, this can be one of the most devastating potential consequences of the transaction. While the online payment systems offer some security, the buyer generally has little recourse in the event of a problem. A credit card purchase provides less risk to the buyer, but individuals will not be able to accept that form of payment. C.O.D. used to be the payment option of choice, but no more. The whole C.O.D. process is ripe for rip-offs. I’ve been ripped off myself, and I have spoken with countless clients that have lost huge sums to con artists. Carriers (UPS, FedEx, etc.) no longer accept cash and absolve themselves of any liability when collecting C.O.D. payments. What you receive is whatever the buyer gives the driver, and that could be a bad check or falsified Money Order or Cashiers Check (this has happened to me). I have clients that have lost Thousands of Dollars in a single transaction because of C.O.D. transactions gone bad. All I can say is be extremely careful. If you get a bad feeling, there is probably reason for it.

Trial: As any audiophile knows, synergy between components is everything. Just because a component is well reviewed doesn’t mean it will find a happy home in your system. The only way to know if a new purchase is right for you is to listen to it in your set-up. Better dealers will arrange for a home demo to insure your satisfaction. The likelihood that you will be able to audition a used component before purchase is remote, so know your direction well before you commit to a purchase.

Hidden Costs: Here is one most people never think about. As an example, tubed gear. People often forget how many hours are on a set of tubes, thus the  tubes are often more worn than they might think. Unless one owns a tube tester, it is impossible to know what condition they are in. Additionally, output tubes that have been repeatedly pushed beyond their limits, or incorrectly biased, age far more rapidly (or are irreparably damaged) than ones used responsibly. So, I suggest you consider the price of a new set of tubes as part of the purchase price of any used tube component. It may be a fairly small amount or, as in the case of a large amplifier, may represent a significant sum. The extra cost is worth the peace of mind that the unit isn’t being impaired by a bad set of tubes.

Wear/Abuse: Generally, audiophiles take very good care of their valuable investments. Yet with even the most careful among us, accidents happen, so be sure and check the unit carefully for any damage – inside and out. Of course, normal wear and tear is to be expected, but signs of abuse are reasons to reconsider. Not all abuse is visible however, and can include: 

  • Non-factory repairs that may be incorrectly performed or that utilize inadequate parts.
  • Output tubes pushed beyond their limits may be damaged or worn out even if they have relatively low hours.
  • Cables that are stressed (over flexed or have been stepped on) may have suffered internal damage to the conductors. Fragile gold plating may be worn.
  • A unit that has been operated in a poorly ventilated enclosure may have been overheated, potentially damaging some components or tubes.
  • Delicate bearings in tonearms and turntable motors may be compromised due to rough or improper handling.
  • Internal modifications that are not disclosed.

Modifications: I suggest great caution when considering the purchase of any component that has been modified. While the mod may actually improve performance, it may severely complicate or compromise reliability and/or future service. Under the terms of most warranties, any rights are forfeited when the unit is modified. Even if the unit is out of warranty, there can be problems. The manufacturer may require the component be returned to its original status before undertaking repairs. I recall a client sending a unit in for service only to find (unknown to him) the previous owner had modified it. The manufacturer charged not only for the repair of the unit, but tacked on a healthy sum to remove the modification. Ouch!

Assistance: If you purchase a used component from an individual, you are pretty much on your own if you have questions about connection, use or adjustments. While the manufacturer may be able to provide some assistance, they are often busy helping others with warranty related issues.

Dealers, of course, cannot and should not be expected to share their time and expertise if they will not benefit from the transaction.

Please do not call your dealer and ask him to compare various used items you are planning to buy elsewhere!

I get half a dozen calls a week, and numerous emails on this topic. I try to be helpful, but I must give priority to my own clients. Not only is it unfair to take someone's time with no intention of reward, it is not going to get you the information you need to make an informed decision. To  make accurate recommendations a dealer must first understand the specific needs of their client. Comprehending those needs takes time; request for a quick comparison will not insure your satisfaction. 

Many Audiophiles are constantly upgrading their systems. Their cast-offs are often a great way to get a nice piece of equipment that would normally be beyond your budget. Yet a purchase made from an unscrupulous source can sour the fun of hi-fi. So, consider carefully and decide whether pre-owned or brand new gear will best preserve your sanity!