Used Gear: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

When I was in high school, I used to hang around and probably bother the owner of a used car lot. In the summer he would take me along every Thursday to a dealer-only auto auction where he bought used cars. My job was to drive a car back to the lot to have it prepared for sale. "Mr. Roy," the owner of the car lot, used to tell me that when you bought a used car you basically bought someone else's problem.

Used-Car.jpgWhile that may have true in the early 1970s, it is not necessarily the case today. Automobiles nowadays, generally speaking, are much better built than in the 1970s. And anyone who currently leases a car is essentially forced to keep it in excellent condition or face additional expense at the lease's end. That leaves outright purchases and there, the quality of used vehicles varies. Despite all this, I have never purchased a used car because I still hear Mr. Roy's words ringing in my ear. That same voice, whether rightly or wrongly, basically extends to most other used things as well.

To say that the used high-end audio market is robust is a profound understatement. Used audio gear enjoys healthy sales and many audiophiles have built an entire system around that sales model. Many would not buy equipment any other way. Some have added certain components based on availability, a desire for something specific, and obviously cost. Others shy away from the practice for fear of being swindled or buying something that does not, in some way, live up the claims made by the seller.

On the surface, used gear, like used cars, makes a lot of sense. I have four friends who come to immediate mind, who will only buy a low-mileage, one- or two-year-old car. I helped a good friend set up a nice entry-level audio system, with both new and used components, and with exceptional results. However, not only was the seller known to me, he was an audio dealer and the used components were demo units.

What about buying a piece of pre-owned equipment from one of the more popular online used high-end audio resources?

Buying used gear from an unknown, online source has two basic types of sale: buyers with positive experiences and those who received less than they expected. Admittedly, not every buyer who has purchased equipment that failed to meet expectations bought from someone with malicious intent. It is possible that the seller wasn't aware of any problems.

Used-Amp.jpgAnytime a piece of equipment is purchased used the buyer must assume some risk that the product has been misrepresented in some way. Perhaps that "minor scratch" on the back of the speaker enclosure, the one that is "hardly noticeable," actually extends around the side of the speaker not shown in the picture.

Or maybe the capacitors on the amp have significantly more that just the "few hours" the seller claims. You buy the amp thinking that you have years of use only to discover unexpected problems a few months after purchase. By then it is too late and your recourse for a refund has essentially vanished. I've even heard of instances where someone made a used purchase, the equipment was never shipped and the seller was suddenly nowhere to be found.

Read any of the audio forums and all these types of stories exist. And conversely are positive experiences. Many audiophiles buy a piece of used gear, find it works exactly as promised, and get years of enjoyment from their purchase. Because happily, there are honest sellers of audio equipment who would never think to misrepresent their equipment or its condition. The trick is learning how to recognize those who don't.

I have a friend who always sells his used cars on Craigslist. Given the horror stories of how sellers have been robbed and murdered, I think he is taking a huge risk. Yet there are scores of people who have had nothing but positive experiences buying and selling used cars in this fashion, my friend among them. There are also right and wrong ways to approach buying pre-owned audio gear. Be sure you take sensible precautions before sending a certified payment. Because once done, you will have considerable difficulty securing a refund if the seller is less than honorable.

Personally, I am very leery of used audio gear. My one and only time doing so is when I bought my current music server. In this instance it was a dealer's demo unit, I had heard it on several occasions before buying it, and I knew the dealer. Despite this, I had it only two weeks when I returned it to the manufacturer for some minor repairs, a full modernization and to install some key upgraded internal components. Today I am very satisfied with my purchase but in all honestly, I'm still quite hesitant towards used gear.

Maybe I live with the wisdom of Mr. Roy's 40-year old caution. Maybe I've read too many horror stories how audiophiles have been cheated. Perhaps I like the "new car smell" of new equipment. Maybe I'm basically distrustful. Maybe I'm blinding myself to a good deal and being unnecessarily concerned.

Buying used equipment can be a rewarding experience and can also be pandemic regret. Regardless, it will continue to be a thriving practice and one that will leave some overjoyed and others hopelessly cheated. Hopefully, anyone buying used gear won't be the latter.

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