On an Overgrown Pathé

[On an Overgrown Pathe]

What Goes Around Comes Around

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: March, 2018

Part IV of a Series: What You See Is What You Get

Group III turntables: largely limited to electrical recordings

Who needs a turntable from this group: Those interested, casually or otherwise, in 78s only from about 1930 forward; with some models, those with a primary interest in critical playback of LPs and only casual interest in 78s.

Who doesn't need a turntable from this group but might want one anyway: Those interested solely in LPs at present but thinking they might experiment with 78s down the road.

Who should look to one of the other groups: Those who wish to play substantial numbers of pre-electrical records for transfer or critical listening, regardless of other playback needs, should look only to Group I.

A quick flashback: Part I of this series set out ideal characteristics of a turntable for the 78 collector. Part II, supplemented by reader comments in Part IIA about Lenco turntables, explored some examples closely approximating those ideals, and Part III took one step away, focusing on some turntables with insufficient speed variability to contend with many or most pre-electric recordings. In this part, we'll move yet one more step away. As with the turntables discussed in the preceding part, these have a common shortcoming for acoustic 78s, here a fixed 78 RPM speed and no variability or variability designed for "set and forget" fine adjustment of the fixed speeds. Most are actually good for LPs and would be suitable for the collector whose focus is primarily there, with no interest in 78s before around 1930; a couple are just bad turntables with a 78 speed.

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Empire. Empire Scientific, to give the company the last of several names under which it operated, was best known as a manufacturer of cartridges, but it also made speakers; certain electronics; and, most pertinent to this discussion, a series of turntables in a line called Troubador, most offering three speeds. The last of the line to do so were the Model 598 variants 598-I and 598-II; the 598-III and 698 deleted 78. No speed selection knob or lever was supplied; as with any number of modern "high end" models, speed selection was accomplished by manually shifting the belt from one pulley to another, although accessing the belt of an Empire requires removal of a protective cover. Empire turntables were handsome components with idiosyncratic styling, often with gold hardware, and their system for pitch control was similarly idiosyncratic, calling on the user to turn a screw that would tilt the drive motor and thereby shift the drive pulley's position (closer to the platter pulley to reduce speed, farther away to increase it). They did include strobe markings, but, like Fons, Empire printed them on the surface of the platter, making them unuseable if a record was playing. As a practical matter, Empire's pitch variability was more in the nature of a "fine adjust" for fine tuning the set speeds during setup, not for regularly adjusting playback pitch on the fly. I don't know how wide a range it covered. Empire turntables also had their own unique headshell mounting design, said to be fragile and in all events not compatible with standard SME-style headshells. Replacement parts are difficult to find. For these reasons, despite their inclusion of a 78 speed, I'd assess the Empire turntables as not well suited to other than relatively casual playback of 78s.

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McIntosh. Storied electronics manufacturer McIntosh is best known for its amplifiers, but in the past few years it has dipped its toes into the resurgent market for turntables. First was the MT10; joining it more recently was the MT5. Both are visually arresting components that have received widespread praise in the press, albeit for their performance with LPs, not 78s. The most immediately evident difference is that the MT10 has a plinth twice as tall to include one of McIntosh's iconic blue meters on the front panel, here indicating the selected speed. No meter is present on the more compact MT5. The MT10's big, long-throw meter strikes me as a missed opportunity: if the turntable included practical speed variability, the meter would be a fine analogue display of the actual platter speed, much like a traditional analogue speedometer in a car. Alas, McIntosh turntables do not include ready facility for pitch adjustment. According to the company's literature, McIntosh turntables, like Empire's, provide for fine adjustment, but only as means of dialing in precisely the set speeds. Making adjustments supposedly requires special tools; the owner is directed to leave this process for an authorized dealer. Moreover, although I always want to encourage manufacturers to consider 78 collectors when designing turntables, I'm afraid, given the standard equipment provided with these units, I'm having trouble seeing why a 78 speed is there at all: both McIntosh tables come with pre-installed moving coil cartridges mounted to arms with fixed headshells, precluding the LP-playing user from swapping out to an appropriate stylus for 78s without dismounting one cartridge and mounting another, then reversing the process to return to playing LPs. (Note that playing a 78 with an LP stylus not only yields poor audio results but also can damage the stylus tip.) Nor would a collector sufficiently serious about 78s to make such an investment be likely to select one of these models and have it custom equipped with a 78 stylus as a dedicated player; in the first place, a collector at that level would want a selection of tip sizes, not just one, and in the second the lack of speed adjustment would cut off too much of the 78 universe for the tables to appeal to most in that audience. Alas, the company may well have reached the same conclusion: rather than addressing these issues to make the 78 selection practical, the most recently announced addition to the line, the MT2, deletes the 78 speed and plays only LPs and 45s.

At $6,500 for the MT5 and $8,000 for the MT10, these tables may be fabulous for LPs, but for 78s the Sound Hi Fi adapted Technics SL-1200 would be a far more flexible choice for substantially less money.

Music Hall, by contrast, offers the buyer of newly manufactured turntables two 78-capable models, the MMF 1.3 and the MMF 1.5, at an "entry level" price. I have no experience with any of this popular maker's wares, but on the basis of what I've learned by reading, unfortunately, neither appears suited to records predating 1930.

Pro: Each model includes an arm accepting interchangeable SME-style headshells and probably well enough engineered to contend successfully with 78s. As modern production by a maker with good "audiophile" credentials, either should be dependable and capable of doing service as a modest single turntable for the LP collector wanting some 78 capability. Each includes a built-in, defeatable phono pre-amp and a basic pre-mounted cartridge--Audio Technica AT 3600L for the 1.3, Music Hall Melody for the 1.5--allowing for easy addition of record playing capability to any amplifier having a line input. An inexpensive 78 RPM stylus assembly is available for the Audio Technica cartridge.

Con: Each model has a little pitch variability, but it obviously is of the "set and forget" persuasion aimed at fine tuning the set speeds: the adjustment controls are inaccessible, on the bottom of the 1.3 and the back of the 1.5; the controls in both models appear to be somewhat fussy to operate; neither turntable provides a speed readout to assist in making adjustments; and the adjustment ranges, as best I can tell, are very small, +/- 1% for the 1.3 and +2/-1 % for the 1.5.

Negation: The built-in phono preamps have no mono option and make no provision for applying playback curves other than the now-standard RIAA. Preamp characteristics are outside the scope of an article focused on turntables, but suffice it to say that for better than the most casual of 78 playback, these turntables will need a suitably flexible external phono preamp. Fortunately, each does provide a bypass for that purpose.

Uncertainty: I've found no sign of a 78 stylus specifically for the Music Hall Melody cartridge premounted on the 1.5. The Melody, however, is an Audio Technica product made specially for Music Hall, and in photos it appears to share a body with the AT 3600L of the 1.3; accordingly, the 78 stylus for the latter cartridge may fit it. If you are contemplating a Music Hall MMF 1.5 for 78s, unless you plan to mount a second cartridge for them on a separate headshell, be sure to investigate that question carefully.

Dual 410, CS-5000, CS-7000, Golden Stone. The 410 was an early idler-drive model that falls outside Dual’s regular model numbering schemes. It should not be confused with the belt-driven CS 410, a 33/45 only model currently available from the successor company operating under the Dual name. The original 410 was a four-speed unit, but its rather primitive arm and ceramic cartridge make it unsuitable for LPs today. Oddly enough, the ceramic cartridge would not necessarily be a bad choice for acoustic 78s, because, unlike that of their magnetic brethren, ceramic cartridges’ output does not rise with frequency, theoretically making a truly “flat” playback curve possible. (Rather than fully open that can of worms, I’ll hold it for a future article.) Unfortunately, with only a fixed 78 speed, the 410 is not sufficiently flexible for that purpose.

The CS-5000 and 7000 and Golden Stone, by contrast, were Dual’s last-gasp top-end units released as the CD devastated the market for turntables. Each was belt-driven with electronic or quartz speed control. Their marketing was directed at audiophiles, and I can only presume their inclusion of a 78 speed setting was intended primarily for show or promotional purposes; like McIntosh with its MC5 and MC10, for the granite-plinthed Golden Stone Dual recommended a moving coil cartridge, which would not have been available with a 78 stylus or, if custom fitted with one, would not have been useable for LPs. On the other hand, unlike the McIntosh tables and, for that matter, the Dual 10xx and 12xx turntables discussed in the preceding article, these three rear-guard components apparently took standard headshells, meaning interchanging cartridges would be more straightforward. I never saw one of them myself, but a collector friend had a 5000 for a while. He was never happy with it, mainly because the supplied Ortofon cartridge tended to pick up electronically induced noise from the motor. I should add, however, that he listened almost exclusively over headphones; the noise issue might have been unnoticeable over speakers.

Thorens TD 170, TD 190, TD240 II. These turntables are all current products of the reconstituted Thorens company. I commend their inclusion of a 78 speed, even less an expected feature in today’s market that it was during the LP’s heyday. That said, what a shame they don’t include at least some speed variability! Knowing what we do today about the wildly inconsistent speeds of early disks, manufacturers taking the trouble to incorporate a 78 setting really should go the extra mile and provide a speed control system as well. If we take them as they stand, however, these models might well be a good choice for those seeking a good LP turntable that can also handle 78s from 1930 on.

Rega RP78. I have no experience with it, but Rega's entry strikes me as a bit eccentric. It has only the single 78 RPM speed, meaning those who already have a good turntable for LPs and 45s might consider it to add the extra speed. In its literature, Rega stresses a minimalist approach: "Omitting unnecessary gimmicks allows us to concentrate the manufacturing costs on the high quality parts necessary to reproduce records accurately." Unfortunately, the company has gone a little too far in trimming away "unnecessary gimmicks"--the RP78 is a 78 RPM only tuntable with no speed adjustment, leaving it unsuited to records made before about 1930. With that limitation, I'm not quite sure what market this well-intentioned offering can fill in practice: those who are serious enough about 78s to spend about $650 for a separate turntable to play them likely will insist on widely adjustable pitch, while those who want to play 78s at a more casual level probably won't want to spend that kind of money to add a second, dedicated turntable to their setups.

[Garrard turntable built into KLH compact stereo]

Garrard. The preceding article in this series touched on the models 301 and 401, currently much sought after as candidates for modification and modernization. Those two models, of course, are just the tip of Garrard’s iceberg. As I mentioned earlier, through much of my childhood the turntable in my life was a Garrard, included as part of my father’s KLH compact stereo system, much like the one pictured to the right (shown with the short manual spindle; the automatic one was much taller and had a notch about half an inch down from the top). Like contemporary Duals, it was a solidly built idler drive changer that could also be operated as an automatic turntable, but unlike the Duals its changer mechanism could handle stacks of mixed-sized records. It also had a less sophisticated tonearm, permanently fitted with a respectable Pickering magnetic cartridge but relying on a spring counterbalance, and it lacked a cuing lever and any provision for speed adjustment. Not bad by the standards of the 1960s, but probably not a particularly good choice for LPs today, and strictly limited for 78s. (On the other hand, KLH systems were designed with what we now call “synergy” to perform better than the sum of their individual parts, and with their doped cloth surrounds the KLH speakers, designed by the legendary Henry Kloss, sounded good and were immune to foam rot, albeit prone to tweeter issues; if you’re on a budget, you could do a lot worse than a KLH compact system like my dad’s, if you can find one in good shape.)

Most other 78-capable Garrard turntables that I’ve seen appeared to follow much that same pattern: solidly built, good if perhaps a bit staid designs for their day that have not necessarily aged especially well, without any provision for records running off their stated speeds. (The Zero-100, with its elaborate articulating arm, is anything but a “staid” design, but sadly none of those ever included a 78 speed.) One point in their favor is that at least some, like my father's, had removeable spindles; the idea was that the owner could operate them as either automatic changers or single play turntables by plugging in a tall or short spindle, but by omitting the spindle entirely one can, with care, center eccentric pressings. Whether Garrards are prone to the same “stuck changer” problems as Duals I can’t say, but on the basis of my extremely limited experience, I’d say a Garrard turntable in good order could be a reasonable choice as a supplementary 78 player for an LP collector with a good modern two-speed turntable and some post-1930 78s to play. Otherwise, I suspect there are better choices. Of course, there are also far worse (see BSR and Crossley below).

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BSR. Here we officially take up residence with the bottom dwellers. Hard as it may be to believe today, BSR (also known as BSR McDonald) at one time was the world’s dominant manufacturer of turntables by a huge margin, having something over 80% of the market—all the cheap end of the market. The things were everywhere: at Radio Shack as separate components, in department stores, built into seemingly every console stereo and dime store all-in-one compact on the face of the planet, incorporated into every bargain package deal separates system, and on and on. And oh, were most of them cheaply made, with flimsy plastic platters; if they weren't built into some sort of all-in-one, minimal plastic plinths; crude, spring-counterbalanced tonearms; as with Dual, a complex array of cams, levers, and gears underneath to drive a changer mechanism, but more cheaply made; and frequently bottom-end flip-over-stylus ceramic cartridges.

And, to their credit, usually a 78 speed. You may be tempted to buy a BSR for 78s. In their favor, they sold so well in their day and are so far out of favor with just about everybody now that you should be able to pick one up for next to nothing; indeed, when I was getting started, part of my college student war chest to buy my original Dual 1218 was, as a trade-in, a BSR McDonald (two-speed, as it happens) that I’d been given when its former owner upgraded. Even then, BSR got little respect, and unlike a fine wine it hasn’t gotten better with age! Nonetheless, I understand that with proper cleaning and lubrication at least some BSR tables actually can perform better than you might expect. While certainly not suitable for LPs, a BSR might just do as a minimal supplementary turntable for casually playing post-1930 78s; just make sure it runs true to speed, as I understand BSRs were prone to be off even when new, and they seldom if ever offered any kind of fine adjustment. On the other hand, if you are going to put in the time and effort to clean and restore a turntable or the money to have it done, a good, solid Dual would be a far better choice, having been of much greater quality from the outset, offering a bit of speed variability, and being likely to bring back a better fraction of your investment should you later decide to sell it.

Califone and other school-type record players. Here in the States, at least, Califone was the best-known maker of portable record players for schools, but there were various others, like Audiotronics, Newcomb, and Hamilton. No matter the maker, they always followed much the same design: a stout box, usually covered in some sort of drab but sturdy fabric, housing a mono amplifier and a speaker sounding from the front and, on top, an undersized idler-drive turntable and heavy metal or plastic tonearm with, generally, a flipover ceramic cartridge. The on-off lever, speed selector, tone controls (if any), and power switch jutted from the motorboard next to the turntable. A matching lid, sometimes lift-off, sometimes hinged, snapped onto the box with trunk latches to cover the turntable and controls, and a hard plastic carrying handle was hinged to one side. At least for those of us old enough to have grown up with record players in schools, mention of these things inevitably dredges up harrowing memories of the dread unit on square dancing in gym class, when lame recorded travesties of folk music, always played on an accordion, assaulted our little ears from the speaker of a Califone; the gym teacher lackadaisically read calls from a card (“Swing. Your. Partner. [pause] Dose-aye. Doe. [pause] Round. and round. and round. you. go.”); and, worst of all, our unformed little selves were forced to—shudder!—touch girls (or, for those few out there in AudioElectronicsLand who once were girls, to—cringe!—touch boys). I still remember that awful year when my school, in an ill-advised bid to show cultural awareness, made us all dance a troika at the spring festival, meaning I had to touch two girls at once. Ewwww!

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Well, as Ogden Nash so perceptively put it,

The problem with a kitten is that
Eventually it becomes a cat.

Kittens grow up to be cats, little boys grow up to be men, and little girls grow up to be women, and men and women will occasionally accumulate some 78s and want a casual way to play them. (Cats usually don't show much interest in 78s, but even they may include the occasional exception to the rule--see image right.) If you are in that group, or if for some reason you need portability, there are things to be said for the homely Califone. First and foremost, these workhorses were designed for use in schools, to be dragged unceremoniously from gym to language lab to classroom and back, operated at best by school staff with the same tender care they would have given their lawn mower, and serviced maybe once a decade or so whether they needed it or not. Rugged? You bet! I’ve already mentioned portability, or at least “luggability”; if you plan to play 78s at a local nursing home or for a theme party at the high school gym, bringing a Califone will be a lot easier than disassembling, transporting, and reassembling a full-blown component rig. (Mind you, copying the records to an iThing and connecting it to the venue’s PA system would probably be easier still and much less likely to result in broken records.) A Califone or like player can also be a good friend if you are trying to sell 78s at a record show and want a way to let potential customers sample your wares. Let me add that for 78s some of the school machines actually can sound pretty decent, with their limited top end acting as a crude scratch filter of sorts and their overall tonal balance being a reasonably suitable average for post-1930 78s. They won't give you sound for critical listening, then, but on their own terms they can give you casual pleasure, rather in the way that a Leica with battery of exquisite interchangeable lenses isn’t always necessary for snapshots of a weekend getaway with the kids to show your co-workers on Monday. Moreover, because schools bought them by the truckload, Califones and their ilk are in plentiful supply, and unrestored models can be inexpensive; reconditioned units, not surprisingly, cost more, but being self-contained they provide for playing records at a minimal level without any additional gear.

Cons? Like the other turntables in this group, with their lack of pitch control, school machines are not well suited to acoustic 78s, and their unsophisticated arms and ceramic cartridges are not things I would inflict on LPs. Moreover, even restored units have a tendency to run off speed, it seems generally a bit fast. Unrestored ones are heir to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune visited on them in the institutional environments they once inhabited and probably will need potentially pricey service or restoration in short order. Were one to come with an assistant as specified in the first article's list of ideal features, she would be dour, middle-aged, and prone to correct your grammar and give you arithmetic assignments.

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Crossley (and like “nostalgia” players). These things manage the unlikely feat of making BSR look good. Needless to say, I haven’t owned one, but those I’ve examined in department stores and such have been attractively enough cased but, from a mechanical standpoint, shoddily built, with undersized, flyweight plastic platters and short, at best spring-counterbalanced plastic tonearms that I would expect to be pretty much at sea when confronted with the demands of an even slightly warped record whirling around 78 times per minute. No speed variation, just a fixed 78 setting; some are equipped with a ceramic cartridges, but I wouldn’t hold my breath about finding a 78 stylus to fit the cheap magnetic cartridges included with the “higher end” ones. Finally, the comely, affable, minimally clad assistant who comes with the ideal turntable wants you guys to know that if you buy a Crossley, she’s going home to Mother!

Concluding remarks. Exhausting though this article and its predecessors may have been to read, they are not an exhaustive treatment of the subject. Rather, they set forth what I have learned in the course of years collecting old records and exploring equipment in the real world to play them. They also reflect my ideas, from the perspective of one devoted first to 78s and only secondarily to LPs, of where to strike a balance between playing 78s and LPs and what is a good choice for the latter; those devoted primarily to 33.3 may well beg to differ. A personal view, then, not a complete encyclopedia.

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The most glaring omission of which I'm aware is the stratospheric layer of turntables, the ones that collapse in fits of hysterics when presented with the "modest cost" ideal that is of concern to those of us who must pay for mortgages and school books on less than a Captain of Industry’s salary, the ones whose personal assistants are Miss Universe titleholders. One example is SME. Its line of turntables certainly would be superb performers with records of any vintage; has pitch variability in .01--yes, that's one one-hundredth, point zero one--percent increments; and, according to the manufacturer, offers a speed range sufficient for early records of all types, although I've not seen anyone quoting exactly how wide. As far as I can see, the SME tables lack digital speed readouts, which would complicate taking full advantage of the available minute speed increments, and with prices starting, without an arm, at essentially $6,000 for the most basic Model 10 and ranging up to nearly $30,000 (again, without arm) for the top-end Model 30/2, these engineering exemplars are reserved for those with pockets much deeper than mine. (Note, however, that the SME prices, at least in their foothills, actually would not be any worse than what you'd expect to pay for an aging Technics SP-10 Mk. III on the used market, and the SME will include a factory warranty. Were I in a position and of a desire to spend that much, SME would be on my short list to explore further.)

Other inhabitants of this rarified realm include high-end makers Simon Yorke (at the time of the company's demise in 2013, starting at in excess of 6,600 and ranging up to better than 15,000 pounds sterling; chosen by the US Library of Congress for archival transfers) and the AMG Viella 12 ($16,000; includes some speed variation with .1% pushbutton adjustment like the Technics SP-10 mk. III and SP-15, but I've been unable to determine how much; no speed readout). If you'll recall, I briefly mentioned makers like Esoteric in the second article when I was discussing turntables that offer speed flexibility in overlapping bands. The Esoteric Trovatore appears to be inspired by the Viella 12 but, while expensive for an Esoteric, costs a fraction of what you'd pay for the AMG, has "ideal" speed flexibility (alas, and also no digital speed readout), and with a long tonearm can handle records up to those vanishingly rare 20-inch Pathes that I mentioned earlier. Those who like the AMG's streamlined look might do well to explore Esoteric further.

Then there are the ones that came to my attention only after writing what has gone before. One example would be the recently introduced Technics SL1210GR; it includes 78 RPM and speed variability in selectable ranges of +/- 8% and +/- 16%. At the outside, then, it would be capable of approximately 65 to 90 RPM, covering nearly all the early, slow-revolving acoustics but only kissing the bottom of etched Pathe territory. That puts it somewhere between most of the tables in Part II and those in Part III--more flexible than, say, the Technics SP 15, but less so than the Strathclyde or Fons or Lenco. Another late discovery is that Braun, better known today for things like electric shavers, once upon a time put out a line of stoutly engineered turntables with model numbers PS-400, -500, -600, and -1000. I know little about them except that they seem not to have been sold in the United States; that they are said to be quite uncommon even in Europe; and that the 1000, at least, had only 3% speed variability, making it functionally equivalent to the Garrard 401.

I hope the foregoing musings have given you some good food for thought and that you have learned something from them. I know I did in the course of writing them. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me, and happy listening!

For photo of and information about the Empire turntables, many thanks to Wes Holt. Thanks to Tuomas Hakuri and Lenco Heaven member Paul Evans for alerting me to the existence of Braun tables and the Technics SL1210GR, repectively.

© Copyright 2018 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com