The answer is entirely subjective, based upon your own perception of what you yourself prefer.
Value-wise & considering your budget constraints, I believe that you might be better off with some older equipment, compared to the price you would have to pay today for equal or better performance. Ie: what you can buy new today for $400 price point probably won't be able to come close to the performance level of the same $ invested in some older gear that was previously priced at around $800 to $1200, even when factoring-in the advances in technology.
The considered opinions of many members here, in fact, place a higher value on the performance of selected pieces of older equipment vs. today's offerings.
I have a big ol honkin' Sansui G-7700 120W reciever that I use for ambient music in my business. That thing cost about $1000 new back in the 80's. I sat down one day and compared it to my Creek 4330 integrated (about $350 used here) and the Creek sound is much better, to say the least. The big Sansui would be great for loud rock, but much of other music's nuances are masked by an overly dark sound. There are certainly different sounds in older gear, so you might find a Marantz you love, but some of this newer solid state gear is really better than what I grew up on in the 70's, and it doesn't have to cost a fortune. Good luck, and be sure to look in the archives for advice by using buzz words like "budget" "beginner" "starter" etc.. Charlie
One problem with older equipment is that the electrolytic capacitors start to dry out and lose their capacitance. They are also likely to begin leaking current. I'm talking about stuff that is 20 plus years old. But if you are looking for a way to get in on the cheap, older stuff is definitely a good place to start.
In my opinion, there's much value to be had in certain, vintage equipment, provided the technology is mature. I've got Threshold S-series amps (around fifteen years old) and love them to death. However, when I upgraded my CD player last year, the improvement wasn't hard to detect. I started with a Yamaha CDX-910 (eleven years old) and went to a Micromega Stage 2 (five years old).
I agree...older stuff can sound better for the money, but like usual, there are exceptions. Old receivers are a good buy for a cheap 2nd system. I think preamps have improved over the years, but I say that based on my experience with an old Luxman C-1010...it's very smooth and fun to listen to, but not necessarily neautral or extremely transparent.
On the other hand, I was once in a used audio shop that was running an early 80s (late 70s) Pioneer preamp (huge, and probably their top at the time), with two Marantz THX monoblocks (the very small, long ones), and a pair of homemade monitors (Rogers copies). They played "Take Five", and it sounded great. Huge soundstage, and very transparent. I was surprised.
I think if you stick to amps and preamps, older equipment can represent a great bargain. CD technology has changed so much, I'd recommend a current or at least recent model. Speakers are problematic. Besides the possibility of foam surround rot (if they had foam surrounds), you never know how they have been treated. So it's more of a gamble.
I am a big fan of older gear. Regulars on this forum have heard me wax poetic about my recent discovery of the tube sound in an older CJ Premier 2 preamp. I also have found my older Adcom 555 to be a tremendous performer ... Digital and speakers seem to be a bit of a sticky wicket. On one hand late model very high end processors can be had for peanuts ... but there are also new processors in the same or near price range that may have performance advantages. I have yet to decide a path on this subject. I have and will always buy my speakers new from a local dealer. Used speakers freak me way out ... Hope I helped.
The same dilemma exists with buying both old, new and recent gear which is - will you like the sound? To be truly satisfied with your purchases (unless you get lucky) it will be necessary to audition the components first. Much of the quality sound that any system achieves comes from the synergy between the components and between the components (mostly but not restricted to the speakers only) and the room. Another consideration is if an older component can still be repaired, if needed, (are the parts still available?), some odd ball resistors and such are not. In your price range I, personally, would consider a relatively new/used integrated amp (an easy/out I know). I own a Musical Fidelity (now discontinued) X-A1 amplifier that I purchased new, on close out, for $500.00. It sounds as good (to me) as much more expensive SS gear that is in current production. To find out if you agreed with my assessment of the amp would, once again, require an audition. When in the past I have been unable (or too lazy) to audition equipment, I at have at the least discussed the component with people that have used it in a like or same system (I recently did this with power cords and got lucky:-). This is also a great thing about the Net and these types of chat rooms, which make this information available to those who don't mind typing a little bit as well as reaching out to complete strangers for feedback and info, which you are already doing and which you might even want to take it a little further with the names and models of the gear that you are considering for your system. If you don't get many replies, don't feel bad as I doubt if the combined masses here have had experience with every component ever manufactured, but we might also be quite surprised at the number of pieces that have gone through this mass of hands.
I am facisinated by the older equipment from the 80's, which is an outright bargain compared to "mid-fi" new equipment. I would not go back to the tube equipment of the 70's or 60's personally being worried about capacitor problems and such. But in my view you can definately get a better system cheaper if you go with older used equipment. (since you are around $400 for the preamp).
Thanks for all the responses. I am looking at getting a marantz 7t preamp around $300 on ebay, but I have also been reading about Audio Alchemy DLC(around $200) which sounds like it would be pretty good except for I would need a phono section. I would pair it with PSB Image series speakers still undecided between 4,5 or 6t and I am using right now a dynaco 410 amp so I might keep the amp until I get more money. This is what I am looking at purchasing so if anyone has more comments that would be great.
It is hard to answer this in general. Here are a few personal impressions. I still have acces to a fairly large amount of Marantz, CJ and ARC equipment that I owned from the late 60's onward (sold to friends, moved to second system). Yes, there are capacitor problems after awhile and you may want to replace them if you are handy with a soldering iron. However some very good ARC and CJ stuff from the 70's that I know is still quite good can be had for cheap (check ebay). I think the advances in very high end power amps have been less than in other electronics. I would never buy an old CD player. Preamps from the early 80's are still decent but unless you want a phono stage built in, the CJ and ARC preamps do show their age compared to newer designs. I think a significant amount of progress was made in speaker performance during the 80's and would be leary of older multi driver systems unless you are pretty sure of the performance. Just my opinion.
Musiclover, Keep in mind, that the purchase of a $400.00 amp brand new today, yields about $80.00 in parts costs including chassis. I dont know about you, but I would much rather have ,say, a used Aragon or Perraux Amp that sold in the 12 to $1500. region, when new, for the same amount. I am reminded of the time I purchased the original, famed NAD 3020 integrated amp, new for $175.00. We tried improving the sonics by attaching very short MIT interconnects between pre-out and amp-in. The rca phono plugs were soldered directly to the pc board, rather than mounted directly to the back chassis. The pressure of the wire eventually cracked the rca jack right off the board. Just an example/lesson, that cheap will always yield cheap....Frank
Dekay is right on the money about the need to audition equipment. One possible way around this may be to buy an older piece of gear, try it, and then re-sell it if it doesn't work out. The going price of a 10 year old amp shouldn't change much in a few months, whereas a new amp loses a lot of value once it becomes used. Buying, trying, re-selling seems like a lot of hassle, but it could save you some serious money.