I have no doubt you can score great deals buying used or vintage audio gear. Choose wisely, and you might wind up with something that sounds as good or even better than the best new stuff. That said, buying used gear is not without risk, so I turned to High-End Audio Auctions' Adam Wexler for advice.
He makes his living buying and selling used gear, and he was adamant: when buying gear in person, always listen to it. Let me repeat that -- listening is key; even when the seller claims the speaker, receiver, amplifier, CD player or turntable is perfect, listen anyway. Listen at a fairly loud volume, and if you hear buzzing, hiss, crackling, pops, distortion, fuzz, or anything that sounds off, don't buy it. With receivers and amps, test all the inputs, speaker A & B outputs, the tuner, switches, etc. Inspect for scratches or bad smells, then ask a lot of questions. Inquire about the service history and the number of owners. If it's a store look into their return policy and if they offer warranties.
If you're buying online from a private seller, or the product will be shipped, ask if they have the original box, and just as important, original packing materials. If the seller don't the chances of the product surviving shipping in working order plummet. Wexler advises when you receive a shipped item document the unpacking process with photos or video...just in case the unit was damaged in shipping.
When buying from private sellers, Wexler prefers audiophiles over nonaudiophiles that are selling gear they discovered in the attic or basement. Audiophiles are much more likely to know what they're talking about; nonaudiophile sellers unloading a pair of speakers, amp or what have you won't be able to accurately judge condition.
Speakers and solid-state electronics are the least problematic things to buy used. CD players, turntables and tube electronics are riskier to buy from private sellers; better to stick with pros that have fully checked out, repaired and guarantee the products they sell. Belt-drive turntables are especially delicate devices and should be drained of oil or lubricants and disassembled before shipping, so the buyer will have to know how to put the 'table back together. These tasks are beyond the skills of folks who never owned a turntable before.
When buying vintage audio equipment more than 20 or 25 years old, there's a good chance the product will require service or refurbishment. If the company that originally made the product is still in business, check to see if they service their vintage gear. Sadly, Sony, Onkyo, NAD, Denon, Pioneer, JBL and so on rarely service their old products, but high-end brands like Audio Research, Ayre, Classe, Klipsch, McIntosh, Pass Labs, VPI, Simaudio, Vandersteen and Wilson Audio, to name a few, frequently do. When in doubt contact the manufacturer, and ask if they service their older products.
Summing up: ask the seller a lot of questions, when buying in person always listen for yourself, and when buying used gear from a store, ask about their return policy and if they offer a warranty. If you're buying online from a private seller, or if the product will be shipped, ask if they have the original box and packing materials. Speakers and amplifiers are the least risky to buy used, steer clear of turntables and CD players from private sellers, and stick with pros with excellent buyer feedback.
Of course, if you want to take a chance with a $10 receiver or speaker in a yard sale, sure, why not? Just remember that buying vintage gear (not just audio) can be a hassle -- proceed with caution.
I'd love to hear from readers with good and bad experiences buying used audio in the Comments section.