Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: February, 2018
Group I turntables: close to ideally suited, with most of the desirable features.
Who needs a turntable from this group: Those who wish to play records of every age, including substantial numbers of pre-electrical records, for transfer or critical listening.
Who doesn't need a turntable from this group but might want one anyway: Those who wish to play electrical 78s and LPs for transfer or critical listening and possibly some records from the acoustic era more casually.
Who should look to one of the other groups: Those interested, casually or otherwise, in 78s only from about 1930 forward, particularly if they prefer dedicated separate turntables for 78s and LPs.
The first installment of this series, if you'll cast your mind back, spilled a considerable number of electrons and pixels discussing the general qualities that make a turntable desirable for the 78 collector. Now it's time to start applying those observations to some real world examples.
If I were starting over from scratch and had reasonably substantial means, I would look seriously at a current producer called Sound Hi Fi, which has an enticing array of products for the 78 RPM collector at http://www.soundhifi.com/78rpm.html. I say "look seriously" rather than "run out to buy from" because I have never bought anything from this source; in fact, as recently as a week ago at this writing I had never heard of this source, and thus I can't speak to how it does business in practice. What I can say is that whoever put together the array of products displayed in the 78 RPM section of its Web site has a good grasp of what features the collector of old records needs, and the company has taken steps to ensure they are on offer. In particular, approximately $5,500 will procure a refurbished Technics SL-1200 turntable equipped with an outboard speed control box whose digital display goes to two digits past the decimal and that provides for user-adjustable speeds from 14 to 170 (!) RPM. I know of no disk record that rotates that fast, but 170 is enough to cover at least the majority of cylinders; I wonder if Sound Hi Fi contemplates releasing a cylinder player in the future? No way of knowing, but I'd keep an eye open. Meanwhile, as an aside, the company does offer an add-on electronic player head for fitting to antique, clockwork cylinder machines. That same unit, or one like it, can be had elsewhere, but its presence on the Sound Hi Fi site does suggest the company is at least interested in that long-defunct format. Also offered are a number of premium products aimed at the 78 collector, and the prices, if not exactly "cheap," seem no worse than moderate by the standards of audiophile gear in general, especially considering that they are aimed at a niche market.
As noted, I have done no actual business with this company, but I did inquire by e-mail whether the outboard speed control could be fitted to a different brand of turntable. I received a response within an hour or two, very good considering (a) the answer was "no," (b) I sent my question on a weekend, and (c) Sound Hi Fi is in England, whereas I am in the United States, meaning there was a time difference in effect.
Sound Hi Fi looks very promising, but what if you aren't starting from scratch, or if a sum north of $5,000 far exceeds what you are willing to spend? One option is a group of modern turntables, bearing labels like Esoteric Sound and Rek-o-kut, that offer wide-ranging speed adjustment centered around a number of fixed points (for example, one such current model offers 7% variability with set points of 71.29, 76.59, 78.26, and 80 RPM, yielding an effective range of about 66 to 85 RPM in four overlapping bands). I don't have much to say about these for several reasons. First, and most importantly, I have no direct experience with them. I know many satisfied collectors enjoy them, but I have never owned or even played with one. Second, while it obviously isn't grounded in personal experience, I can't escape a nagging suspicion that working with overlapping speed bands would be something of a nuisance compared to having a single continuous range around the nominal 78 speed, and none of these tables, as far as I know, has a built-in digital speed readout. Third, most of these units appear to be aftermarket modifications of conventional Japanese commercial models, not original production designed from the ground up to function as they do. Build quality may be at least a bit shaky. Fourth, I have the impression there's a lot of turnover in this market, meaning anything I write about a particular model now is likely to become obsolete fairly quickly. Fifth and finally, I have my doubts about most of these turntables as optimal LP players, and I prefer to have a single turntable that excels at both tasks. That said, some have begun to emerge that strike me as more appropriate (see, for example, the Esoteric Rondine 3).
What follows in this and succeeding articles, then, centers around "vintage" types, the world of turntables, many of them quite elegant, produced up until the CD essentially wiped out the turntable market, although I'll make a few forays into today's models when I think I have something potentially useful to say. One caveat: as much as possible, these are turntables with which I have personal experience, and while I've played (with) a fair number of turntables over the course of my checkered past, I can't claim personal familiarity with everything. I will sometimes include others, when I think readers would benefit from awareness of their existence or when I think I can offer potentially helpful guidance on the basis of what I've read about them or seen in causal encounters. In such instances, I'll make a point of disclaiming any personal experience, and you should take what I say there with at least a reasonable pinch of that NaCl stuff.
And so, with a nod to the Old Scribe's Greek Chorus, stage left, we raise our metaphorical lamps and begin our search, not for an honest man, but for the ideal turntable for the collector of LPs and 78s.
Strathclyde STD305D. You never know as much as you think you do. Until February 2015, I was under the impression I had a pretty good grasp of what “vintage” turntables were capable of playing 78s, and if asked I would have placed the Fons CQ-30/International Mark I at the top of the heap.
Then, one fateful day, I was killing time browsing an old online discussion about turntables, and somebody or other made a tantalizing, oblique reference to the name “Strathclyde” as good for 78s. Thought I, “Strathclyde? Never heard of it. I wonder what that could be?” The answer, of course, proved to be as close as the nearest Google search, which revealed that Strathclyde Transcription Developments, like Fons (which I'll discuss shortly), was a short-lived Scottish turntable company active from the late 1970s until it succumbed to a poor economy, the ascendency of Linn, and the advent of CDs in the early 1980s.
The Strathclyde tables came in three flavors, all belt-driven: the STD 305D, the STD 305M, and a somewhat stripped-down variant called the STD 305S. Even more quickly than we can dispense with silly, off-color jokes about the "STD" model designators, we can dispense with the M and S, which offered only 33 and 45 RPM speeds. The 305D, however, is another beastie entirely, offering the 78 collector just about all the important features: a purely manual design optimized for the SME 3009 arm, which is readily available in variants accepting standard interchangeable headshells; wide, infinite speed variability; ability to accept records of pretty much all sizes up to 14 inches in diameter; and, setting it off from all its "vintage" and most "modern" competitors known to me, a built-in digital readout in RPM, albeit with only one digit past the decimal. One other thoughtful feature, a built-in spirit level, is a convenience no matter what speed records you play, and with its brushed aluminum styling the 305D looks like nothing else. About all that's missing from the “ideal qualities” list is a removable spindle; a vertical/lateral switch; automatic adjustment in play; and, alas, that rare last item, the personal assistant—but were she present, she'd certainly be a bonnie wee lassie with a gleam in her eye! The price tag, of course, is a matter of negotiation on the used equipment market.
Strathclyde's “build quality” is fully commensurate with the demands of LPs, making it a true single component solution to the problem of playing records. The heavy plinth is 2mm thick extruded aluminum with a 6mm alloy top plate and steel baseplate, to all of which vibration damping treatment was applied, and the suspension is of the damped-spring subchassis variety, in this case built of reinforced steel and secured by four attachments. A stout brushed 9V DC motor provides motive force to the 12-inch solid aluminum platter, which rests on a smaller subplatter rotating on what is said to be a highly polished bearing machined to fine tolerances—I'd guess the same as or similar to the one that had Fons, Ariston, and Linn tied up in patent litigation knots at the time, eventually resolved in Linn's favor. (I will studiously refrain from grumbling over how Fons, which made an absolutely top-notch 78 table, lost out to a company that has never shown one iota of interest in 78 collectors!) Records rest on a distinctive mat bonded to the platter. Basic speed selection is by large touchpads, which must have seemed positively space-age in their day, with infinitely variable adjustments by small wheels set in slots in a well that also is home to the tonearm base and the speed readout. Unusually, the arm must be mounted below the surface of the plinth, because the platter's surface is nearly flush. The unit rests on three adjustable screw-threaded metal legs with rubber tips.
But to return to my own story, luck was with me the day I learned about Strathclyde, because a 305D with SME 3009 arm proved to be listed for sale on the Canadian Audio Mart classified site, and I lost no time responding to the advertisement. Enter a series of communications glitches that need not detain us, but within a month I had bought and taken delivery of this rara avis. Somewhat sheepishly, I retired the Fons that had been my workhorse table for years to a second system downstairs.
On the whole, I've been very happy with the Strathclyde. With its built-in digital speed display, it greatly simplifies playback of acoustic 78s; indeed, that feature has proved helpful even with some very early electric Victor disks carrying forward the company's bad old practice of deliberately mastering records at 75 RPM and then stating they ran at 78, the idea being they would sound more “brilliant” in playback. Of course, they also play sharp at standard speed, and sopranos often end up sounding more like tweetie birds. With the Strathclyde, resetting from 78 to 75 is a straightforward process and greatly simplifies making notes in my catalogue for future visits with a given record. While not really a substitute for automatic variance between two points, as outlined in the first article of this series, the combination of speed adjusters and the digital readout makes a manual simulation possible, if challenging.
Combined with the SME arm and a good cartridge (in my case, Shure V15Vx-MR fitted with the corresponding Shure stylus), the Strathclyde is also a fine choice for playing LPs. Owning few 45s, I can't speak to those, but I can see no reason they would be more of a problem beyond the need to allow for the larger spindle hole by adding adaptors to either the records or spindle.
Of course, nothing in this world is perfect, and my Strathclyde has displayed a few character flaws worth noting. The most minor is the speed adjusters' design as rather fussy little knurled wheels, barely emerging from the top plate, that travel left (slower) or right (faster) in slits as they are turned. The turntable covers a wide speed range, but setting any given speed and not something a tenth or so of a revolution off can be challenging.
Of more concern is that the speed display can drift out of calibration. As measured with an external digital tachometer, mine was correct when I received the turntable, but after a few weeks it had begun reading noticeably low. So off it was to the shop for the Strathclyde, which incidentally needed some other work not really its fault (including the permanent mounting of the tonearm, which proved to be floating free when I received it). Upon its return, the speed readout was spot on, but then, after a couple of months or so, it drifted off again. This time, remembering that the service technician had mentioned adjustment pots, I decided to try self-help and removed the bottom plate of the turntable, revealing a circuit board. After a bit of headscratching, I finally figured out that the speed adjusters were three little horseshoe-shaped devices, each with a slotted screw head in the middle. I got each speed to display to within less than a tenth of an RPM, and so far—knock on wood!—the adjustments have held.
A more mysterious issue resolved itself at the same time. When I received the turntable and on through the period after I had it in the shop, the touchpad controls generally would not respond unless I first shuffled my feet on a carpet! My system sits on a bare wood floor, but I first solved that issue by setting a little carpet sample next to the rack that holds the turntable. Even then, shuffling worked better if I wore rubber soles rather than leather. The seller claimed he had never experienced such a problem, and the service technician was unable to duplicate it, but when I opened up the bottom plate to adjust the speed calibration, I must have done something else as well—since then, the touchpads have responded just as they are supposed to nearly all the time, the exception being that once in while I they refuse to recognize my right hand but work perfectly with my left. Go figure.
Finally, the touchpad problem raises a matter that, while not exactly a flaw, is still a concern: the “time bomb” issue. Strathclyde 305D turntables are well into their fourth decade of service, laden with what were then pushing-the-envelope electronics, not widely distributed outside Europe (perhaps even outside the United Kingdom), and now orphans. When new, they seem not to have sold in large numbers, or at least they don't turn up all that frequently on the used equipment market: as I noted above, I've long kept a pretty close eye on the world of “vintage” 78 RPM turntables, yet I had never heard of Strathclyde until early last year, and since buying mine, I have seen only two pass through eBay, maybe two through hifishark, and none but mine through Audiogon or the US or Canadian AudioMarts. (The M and S variants seem to be slightly more common.) If you want to buy one, be prepared to do some patient hunting and join me in hoping you never need to chase down spare parts!
All that said, the Strathclyde has become my new standard of comparison for 78 RPM-capable turntables. In the discussion that follows, I'll try to reference the others against it.
Fons CQ-30/International Mark I. Two names for functionally the same machine; the only difference I can see is that the CQ-30 has a nicer plinth. I've had it in both guises, starting with a heavily used CQ-30 that I bought from a collector friend at a record sale to benefit the Association of Recorded Sound Collections, and practically from that moment it became my top recommendation for playing 78s up until I discovered the Strathclyde. I'd size up its relative virtues and demerits as follows:
Pros—As with the Strathclyde, infinitely variable speeds over a suitably wide range. Fine tuning speeds is easier, with a small, easily grasped knob for each set speed. While not exactly commonplace, much easier to find, and I'd say performance is more or less on a par; with a good arm and cartridge—like the Strathclyde, the Fons was designed with the SME 3009 in mind—there's no reason this single table can't serve equally well for LPs and 78s. Entirely manual, and operation is by mechanical pushbuttons less prone to trouble than the Strathclyde's touchpads (but not trouble-free; see below). Smaller footprint. Likely to cost less.
Cons—No speed readout. Concentric strobe marks for 78, 45, and 33 RPM at both 50 and 60 Hz are painted on the platter surface, but the turntable has no built-in strobe light; because of their placement, the user cannot refer to them when setting the speed with the motor under load, and the record is supported by a series of small concentric rubber rings set into the platter surface, not a mat. Changing the belt is difficult, requiring a good bit of disassembly, and the control buttons have a tendency to come loose if allowed to pop up without restraint. Indeed, build quality is best described as “inconsistent”; Fons evidently put its money into engineering the critical performance components—the robust drive system and precision turntable bearing—with cosmetics, particularly in the International Mark I variant, being left as an afterthought. Accordingly, had it the personal assistant, she would be an efficient Scotswoman who brings you nice warm scones and tea with a friendly smile.
Despite its minor shortcomings and omission of a speed display, the Fons remains my second choice overall for a 78 RPM turntable, and for many or most collectors practical concerns of availability may well edge it into first. Certainly it gave me excellent, reliable service for years as my day-in, day-out turntable for 78s and LPs alike. If the speed readout is a powerful point in Strathclyde's favor, note that a handheld external digital tachometer, available for around $20 from Amazon, is essentially as functional, albeit considerably more cumbersome, and unlikely to present calibration issues.
Lenco. The Fons and Strathclyde are close relatives under the skin; Lenco is entirely foreign, being an idler wheel design rather than a floated-chassis belt drive and a product of the Swiss Alps rather than the Scottish lowlands.
I should hasten to stress that I'm discussing the vintage, Swiss Lenco turntables here, not the current production, which carries the Lenco name but is the product of an entirely different company headquartered in the Netherlands. As far as I can tell, none of these latter-day Lencos can play 78s.
The classic Lenco turntable, sold under the Lenco name with model numbers like L-70 and L-75 and rebadged in the United Kingdom as Goldring and in the United States as Bogen, is unusual even among idler drives. Most such can also be termed “rim drives,” because the idler wheel is set horizontally and drives the platter by running on the inside of its turned-down rim. In units of this type, the motor rotates the idler by means of a stepped drive shaft, its length limited by the depth of the platter rim, with two or three segments of progressively smaller but, within each step, constant diameter, one fixed speed per step. Lenco, on the other hand, set its idler vertically to run on the underside of the platter, leaving it space for a much longer “throw” for changing speeds; a long, constantly tapered horizontal drive shaft yielded an infinite array of speeds, because the idler could be moved seamlessly to any point along its length, and each position along the shaft was a different diameter from any other. Markings on the base showed where to place the control lever to set the standard speeds, and at least some Lenco tables added little U-shaped metal stops in the lever slot that could be adjusted to make the precise positions for each speed, once determined, easily repeatable.
So how does this very different approach to spinning a record stack up against the preceding two models?
Pros—Mechanical method though it be, the Lenco's drive system yields infinitely variable speed just as successfully as its electronically controlled brethren. Unlike Strathclyde and Fons, Lenco was a popular brand of turntable with a lengthy manufacturing history and, under several names, wide geographic distribution; therefore, Lenco turntables are readily available on the used market. Moreover, the “time bomb” problem is less of an issue with a purely mechanical system than with one incorporating aging proprietary electronics. Build quality is solid, probably better on the whole than that of Fons International and, if not as eyecatching as Strathclyde's, fitted with less potentially problematic controls. As a bonus, Lenco turntables came with interchangeable-headshell arms to begin with, unlike Strathclyde and Fons, which typically require purchase and installation of a separate arm (but see below), and unlike the others Lenco included four fixed speeds (16 as well as 33, 45, and 78); although very few musical recordings were ever issued at that extremely slow speed, it was standard for talking books for the blind, and if you have need to play such recordings the Lenco is an obvious choice over the other two. Lenco's is a totally manual design, like that of the others, introducing no issues when one plays a center-start or undersized record.
Cons—I'm wading into a bit of controversy here, but: rumble. Some argue that idler designs are just as quiet as, or even quieter than, belt-driven designs when properly set up, but that's just it, isn't it? Any purely mechanical system, as anyone who has ever played with clockwork phonographs knows only too well, can find amazingly numerous ways to go out of adjustment, and I can say with the authority of painful experience that a Lenco with, for instance, a drive shaft out of alignment can leave every record sounding as if an 18-wheeler were idling in the background. I'm not sure what the situation is today about replacement idler wheels for Lenco, but a decade or so ago they were difficult or impossible to obtain, and a hardened idler can likewise introduce immense amounts of noise. Even those who advocate for Lenco admit that it does not perform especially well until extensively/expensively modified, including installation of a new, massive plinth. (These complaints, mind, are from the LP-playing fraternity and may be of less concern for 78s, but recall that my “ideal” is quality suitable for LPs and 78s to avoid proliferating turntables in your system.) On another point, the speed is infinitely variable, but the turntable incorporates no way of measuring it, not even strobe markings like those on the Fons. Lenco did provide a little metal strobe disk, whether as an add-on accessory or included with its tables I don't know, but I dare say very few of those remain paired with the tables you're likely to find today.
Negations—A few of the “pros” listed above end up yielding less than they promise for various reasons. To begin with, I can also say that while Lenco sold its turntables with arms pre-installed, among turntables of my experience the only tonearm that performed worse than the one on a stock Lenco L-75 was the one on a stock Lenco rebadged as Bogen. The latter was a heavy steel contraption with a spring counterbalance, and set to anything like a reasonable tracking force for my cartridge it simply did not track at all. The former looked as if it should have been a decent performer; in general outline and design principles, it resembled the SME arms that I've fitted to my Strathclyde and Fons tables. In practice, however, it was extremely prone to skipping, and as I recall things it didn't have enough vertical play to handle seriously warped records. Moreover, its headshell was a massive steel box resembling a little coffin, which, with its proprietary mounting design, could not be replaced with any standard mount aftermarket model, largely nullifying the advantage of interchangeable headshells unless you're lucky enough to find spare originals. The upshot: if you go with a Lenco, plan on replacing the arm, just as you'd need to fit one to a stock Strathclyde or Fons. When setting speeds, those little U-stops, if fitted, do mark the fixed speeds nicely, but they also have a downside: they get in the way when trying to set slightly "off" speeds, and you may need to move them to accomplish that end. If you do, of course, you must then redetermine where to mount them when done or else just shove them aside permanently, in which case you'll need to measure every time you want to return to the set speeds precisely. Finally, because the classic Lenco tables have developed a strong cult following in recent years, while readily available they are no longer readily available cheaply. Over the years, I have given away at least four of the things to collector friends who needed an infinitely variable speed turntable for 78s. Oh, how I wish I had them back now!
Thorens TD 524, TD 738; EMT. I will mention these only in passing, as I have never seen, much less played one. What I've read about them, however, suggests they would be worth investigation by the serious 78 collector. Neither of the Thorens models was intended for home use; the 524 was aimed at dance studios and discotheques, and the 738 was in effect a variant of an EMT 938 broadcast turntable. My impression is that both are rare and expensive when found. They have potential as excellent 78 players, however, because they offered speed variability of up to 25%, meaning an effective range from almost 98 RPM down to below 60 RPM, good arms with interchangeability, and purely manual operation (at least in the case of the 524; I haven't been able to confirm for the 738). Rather than removable headshells, the Thorens arms feature removable “arm wands”: the headshell and most of the tonearm tube, which is made of a lightweight graphite composite material, form an integrated unit that disconnects from a bayonet mounting back by the pivot, reducing the effective mass of the system. The armwands are expensive but actually are a bit easier to handle than more traditional headshells. Ideally, you would want these tables to reach another couple of RPM up top, but in practice their range would more than suffice for nearly all records you'd be likely to encounter. EMT turntables were built for broadcasting and other commercial use and generally incorporated their own preamps as well as arms. Most comments that I've seen suggest these ancillaries are good but not up to modern standards, although some have argued they achieve “better than the sum of the parts” performance when working together as a system. The EMT tables have a reputation for insanely high build quality and utmost reliability, and some were able to accommodate 16” records. I've been unable to determine whether any had speed variability to match that of corresponding Thorens units.
A note is in order here: the Thorens name still appears on turntables, but the company has been through reorganization and such and is not the original Swiss concern. Although some latter-day Thorens turntables have a 78 RPM setting, as far as I can tell none has any pitch adjustment. Accordingly, they, like an older Thorens I once owned, are more appropriate fodder for a later article in this series.
The Technics SP-10 Mk 3, originally designed for professional use in radio stations and the like, does nearly as well with its specified 20% variability, reaching up to about 94 RPM and down to 62 RPM. It also offers a digital speed readout on its separate speed control unit. I have no personal experience with this turntable, and at the price good examples command on the used market today I'm not likely to anytime soon, but it does appear to offer an advantage over all but one model that I'll be discussing: speed control capable of gracefully addressing records whose speed "creeps" as they play, as described in Part 1. In the SP-10, the user adjusts speed in .1% increments by repeatedly pressing pushbuttons, and the digital display registers the percentage deviation from nominal speed at each step. Therefore, after determining the difference in speed between the rim and center, the user can readily calculate how many seconds should separate each step in a sequence of changes to achieve a smooth transition. The process may be more involved than one would wish for casual playback, but it would be relatively straightforward for transferring records to tape or digital storage.
Numark TTX-1. If you want maximum 78 RPM suitability but don't fancy the treasure hunt and potential service issues that come with somewhat obscure vintage units like the Fons or Strathclyde, the expense of a professional market Thorens, or the fuss of rebuilding a Lenco, a number of more modern choices, often taking the form of DJ tables, are out there. This Numark is the sole such unit that I've owned (a most generous gift from my wife some years ago), and it does have some things going for it. Here's how it stacks up against the Strathclyde:
Pro—Speed adjustment is much easier, accomplished by a single long-throw slider with a selectable per cent deviation range. Speed selection is by push buttons; push one for 33, the other for 45, and the two together for 78; start/stop is a large separate mechanical button. Not as slick as the Strathclyde system, but likely more functional at this late date. The direct drive motor strikes me as more powerful and starts and stops more quickly than the Strathclyde's belt-drive. Like the Strathclyde, and unlike just about any other modern table known to me, the Numark has a digital readout, but see below. Like the Lenco, it comes with an arm, but that arm is far more serviceable. It tracks decently, swings freely to the center of the record, and accepts standard interchangeable headshells. Adjustment for gradual speed creep is possible, less easily than with the Technics SP-10 but more than with the Strathclyde or Fons.
Con—The flip side of having a more decent built-in arm is that you are stuck with it. It's certainly not bad, but it's no match for the SME, although in fairness it's almost certainly more suited for cartridges with lower compliance than my collection of Shure V15Vx-MRs (at that time, I hadn't learned about arm/cartridge matching). As noted, the Numark does include a digital readout, but for some crazy reason it, like that of the Technics SP-10, indicates per cent deviation from standard speed, not RPM, so figuring where to set it for a given "off" speed quickly turns into a math problem. A lesser transgression is that the Numark will not accommodate records larger than 12”. Then, surprisingly, there's the “time bomb” issue, something I would not have expected in a new production model. One day, the TTX-1 just up and stopped in the middle of a record side (don't remember if it was an LP or 78). Then it was fine for a while, and then it stopped again. And, after a shorter hiatus, again. And so on until it was stopping abruptly mid-side nearly every time I played a record. At that point, I gave up, retired the Numark,and reinstated the Fons. Old electronics may be vulnerable to failure, but in this case they actually outlived much newer ones. (Note: since then, I've seen accounts suggesting there was a design flaw in the TTX-1 that caused this problem and that Numark resolved in later models. Among the current Numark lineup, it appears the TTX USB is analogous to my TTX-1. If you are considering one, I'd recommend exploring this issue more thoroughly.)
For photo of the Bogen/Lenco turntable, many thanks to fellow collector Bryan Bishop, proprietor of the excellent 78 RPM oriented blog The Shellackophile
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