turn! turn! turn!
—there is a season—
turn! turn! turn!
—and a turn for every table under heaven.
(with apologies to Pete Seeger, the Byrds, and who knows how many others)
The longest journey, we are told, begins with the first step, to which I'd add, the longest article begins with the first cliché. Leaving aside cylinders, with their own set of unique demands, for another time, the first step of a journey into pre-LP records via relatively modern playback gear is selecting the appropriate turntable. The choices can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make them. At the extremes, the simplest solution is fine if your goal is casually playing records from the period between the advent of electric recording in 1925 (or, in practice, a couple of years later) and the ascendency of the LP in 1950, leaving later releases for a different system. On the other hand, if you want a single unit for critical listening to everything from the first flat disks of the 1890s to the latest audiophile LP pressing, you'll need something much more flexible. Needless to say, there are plenty of shades of grey—granted, not necessarily fifty!—in between.
When I started writing this article, my idea was to take an “additive” approach, starting with simple and working up from there. Upon reflection, and a certain amount of writing that you happily will be spared reading, I've decided to take a “subtractive” approach, instead: start with the most capable options known to me and gradually work down to the simplest (and least capable). What you might call the “Istar Variations” method.
Taking my cue from Julius Caesar and his celebrated description of Gaul, for purposes of playing 78s, I'd divide the turntables I know by personal experience, hearsay, or reputation into three parts: close to ideally suited, moderately well suited, and minimally suited. Mated with an appropriate arm and electronics, those in the first category will play most or all the 78s you're likely to encounter in practice. (Caveat: with their broad, shallow, round-bottomed grooves, vertical cut Pathe sapphire records can challenge the best turntable and arm.) Moderately suited tables, by contrast, will play most or all electrically recorded 78s but are flexible enough for only some acoustic records. Minimally suited turntables can do justice only to electrically recorded 78s, and not all of those. In all three categories, I give “extra points” if the turntable is also a good LP player; after all, who wants to devote space to two turntables for different speeds when one can do the job?
As outlining the virtues of turntables is a big subject, this article will be the first in a series. In it, I'll discuss the qualities I'd consider desirable and why they are valuable. In future installments I propose to outline some specific options with attention to how many of these qualities they embody.
Naturally, the qualities that are desirable depend heavily on the idiosyncracies of the records to be played. So what are characteristics of a turntable for playing as wide a range of "78s" as possible? I'm sure every collector has his own ideas, but here are some features I would expect:
A strong, well-regulated motor. 78s are heavy, some very much so, and when worn or heavily modulated they can exert a lot of drag on the playback equipment. The turntable, then, needs a motor that can maintain steady, high speed when subjected to substantial, varying drag. For the same reason, a heavy platter is generally helpful.
A precision-manufactured tonearm. As demonstrated by the video above, to play 78s the arm must be able to negotiate warps and lateral eccentricities at high speeds (in the case of the video, 79.5 RPM), yet for a universal turntable it must be sufficiently lightweight and delicate to play LPs without harm. It should swing freely with capacity to play record grooves an inch from the spindle (the 5" Little Wonder records can play that far in), 7 to 8 inches out (some Pathe and rare Victor records were 14" in diameter, and broadcast transcription disks were 16”), and either from the label to the record rim (for center-start etched label Pathes) or from the rim to the center (just about everything else). In general, turntables with this sort of flexibility will be purely manual designs, as automatic stops and automatic changers can easily trigger when one is trying to cue up an inside-start record or before the end of a more conventional disk cut unusually close to the spindle. Note that Pathe did make some 20-inch discs for use on specially designed machines in bars, restaurants, and the like; in theory, the “ideal” table should be able to play those, too, but in practice you are unlikely to encounter one of these vanishingly rare disks, and fitting an arm long enough to handle them would greatly increase the expense and probably compromise at least some functionality for the records you are likely to play every day.
The turntable should offer infinitely variable speeds from 60 RPM to something over 100 RPM. In brief, for records cut before the advent of electric recording, it sometimes seems the one speed at which 78 RPM records do not turn is 78 RPM, and deviations from the stated speed continued for a few years into the electric era as well; I'd say things truly standardized to 78 RPM only around 1930. Throughout the company's history, for example, Victor claimed its records were all cut at 78, but in the acoustic era frequently the actual figure is 75 or 76; I have one that claims 80 RPM on the label, and naturally, that one actually plays at 78! By contrast, some of the earliest Victor records, including the first by Enrico Caruso, can spin as slowly as 61. At the other extreme, Pathe etched label discs ran at up to 100 RPM. Paper label Pathe discs, on the other hand, play nominally at 80 RPM, as do Columbia and Edison diamond discs (unlike most other labels, Edison was reliable in this regard). Not too long ago, I did a transfer for myself of a concerto recording on the English Edison-Bell label; for reasons known only to that company's engineers, for correct pitch the records ran at 84 RPM. If you intend to play records from the acoustic era, then, you need a turntable that offers a similarly wide range of speeds, easily adjusted, just as was the case with most clockwork phonographs in those days.
To assist in setting those wildly variable speeds, the turntable should include a built-in real time speed display, preferably showing two digits after the decimal point. I know of no turntable ever made that perfectly meets this requirement and of only one that comes close; for the exciting “reveal,” please see the next article in this series!
Provision for minimizing the effects of eccentric pressings. In the early days, precision manufacturing of the sort we take for granted in the era of computerized machinery was a rarity, and you will frequently encounter pressings that are a little, or even a lot, off center. Moreover, sometimes the eccentricity is not a mere failure of centering but rather a groove that is not smoothly circular. Something like Nakamichi's famous TX-1000 or Dragon CT self-centering turntables would be ideal, but as far as I know no such technology was ever applied to a 78-capable model. In the absence of automation, a removable spindle at least allows for manual centering.
Interchangeable headshells. Yeah, I know, the current fashion is that fixed headshells are preferable to minimize tonearm mass and connections in the signal chain. Nothing could be further from the truth with 78s. You'll want to be able to swap cartridges easily, either because one or another happens to track a challenging record best or because you've assembled a set of custom-sized styli and would rather mount each in its own cartridge body than handle the fiddly, fragile little stylus assemblies separately. Not to mention that you may prefer one cartridge for 78s and a different one for LPs.
Built-in switching to select vertical or lateral cut. I wrote of these two recording systems in an earlier TNT article; suffice it to say, in each the modulation in one direction is nothing but noise. A switch to select between them is a real convenience for those who have a diverse mix. Note, however, that switchable headshells can substitute if you're willing to devote at least one cartridge solely to vertical cut: if you swap the right "hot" and ground leads and set your preamp to "mono," you'll get a pure vertical signal.
Provision for automatic continuous variation of rotational speed between user-specified values for any two points on the record's surface; for example, 78.26 at the rim and 81 two inches from the spindle. This feature is a dream, offered in case it might pique the interest of some turntable designer who happens to read the article; I've never seen it implemented in any turntable that actually exists, although I've read of one mechanical phonograph that was designed to play special records cut at constant surface speed (like CDs) rather than constant RPM. Those disks are rare, but not uncommon are records that were intended to play at constant rotational speed but don't: some early electric cutting lathes had weak motors, and with drag from the cutting stylus dropping as it progressed from rim to center of the blank, the speed would gradually increase. Played back at constant speed for correct pitch at the rim, such records end flat, and if you try to copy at constant speed and join sides of multi-record sets for continuous playback, you'll get a sickening pitch lurch at each side join. English Columbia records from the years immediately after the introduction of electrical recording are particularly prone to this problem. For this reason, HMV and maybe others relied on mechanical motors driven by heavy weights long after the recording apparatus had switched to electricity.
Easy adjustment of tracking angle. The thickness of individual 78s can vary widely, ranging from fully a quarter inch for Edison diamond discs down to that of a piece of shirt cardboard for Hit of the Week.
Low price tag. Need I say more?
A comely, affable, minimally clad assistant to change the records for you and provide other entertainment as appropriate—or not! (I'm afraid I've never seen a turntable with this feature, either.)
In light of Mark's recent article about how preconceptions color our reactions to equipment, a few words about the perspective from which I'm approaching this whole issue. I'm writing from the perspective of a 78 collector who wants one turntable to do everything. The world of the 78 collector is firmly centered in pragmatism: what is physically capable of playing the record? If more tracking force is needed and a dime on the headshell solves the problem, be ready to pony up ten cents and a bit of adhesive tape; don't worry about audiophile "purity."
If a record is dished and you can guide the tonearm's vertical position effectively with the cuing lever, do it. If you can stop a tendency to skip by selecting a wildly excessive anti-skate setting, go for it. If your finest truncated elliptical styli distort like crazy on peaks but a cheap conical plays "clean," go with the latter. Concerns like "which one of these has subtly better soundstaging" or "this plinth is a little more 'live' than that one" or "does this turntable have a little better PRaT than that one" get swamped in more pressing issues of just getting from the rim to the label--or, sometimes, the label to the rim!--without skipping, with appropriate playback equalization, and with as clean a signal as possible; accordingly, my "ideal qualities" list focuses on "functionality," not subjectively perceived niceties of sonic quality.
That said, nearly all the turntables I'll discuss are at least good, solid players for LPs, and some of them, especially in the first group that I'll take up in my next article, are far, far better than that.
OK, now we have the lay of the land. The next article will take a look at some turntables that can claim to approach the ideals.