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Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: October, 2019
Not infrequently, I see a question like this on discussion forums: "How do I go about playing these old 78 RPM records I just inherited from my parents/was given by a college buddy's dad/picked up at a thrift shop/rescued from a neighbor's trash/found abandoned on my doorstep in a basket, wrapped in a blanket/mistakenly conjured when I was trying to summon spirits from the netherworld?" Usually, the inquisitor goes on to ask, "Can I play 78s with my regular stereo? Do I need a special needle of some sort?" The hapless regular readers of my scribblings doubtless have some idea of the answers already, but I thought perhaps briefly addressing the topic head on might be helpful to those new to the subject, in particular those who, as in an example I saw earlier today, may not have record playing gear at all.
At its most basic level, the needed equipment for playing 78s is pretty straightforward. If we work backwards, from "noise in the room" to "signal source," it can be summed up as follows:
- A good speaker or speakers. Nothing special is required here, but 78s arguably benefit from good speakers even more than LPs do. Poor or mediocre speakers often have a way of emphasizing the limitations, deviations from modern practice, and noise of ages embedded in 78 RPM grooves. Vintage 78s predate the introduction of stereo; if you want to set up a rig just for their benefit, mono is a viable choice.
- A preamplifier and power amplifier. These elements may be separate components or collected together in an integrated amp or receiver. The power amplifier needs to be sufficiently powerful to drive the speakers; again, beyond that, 78s impose no unique requirements. The preamplifer or preamplifer section of an integrated amp or receiver, on the other hand, should have at least a few more dedicated characteristics. First and foremost, it must have a phono input. Be careful; most made from the ascendency of CD until very recently lacked this feature. If you plan to play through equipment you already own falling into that category, you'll need to buy a separate phono preamp. Moving on, you should have ability to select "mono" for record playback. Playing 78s in stereo yields massively increased noise. For more on this subject, see here. Another caution for those with or considering older gear: back in the '80s and '90s, the "mono" button of some receivers affected only the radio section; you need one that affects the phono output. Moreover, you will want at least bass and treble controls. Yes, I know, the modern purist ethos dictates that tone controls degrade the audio signal and must be avoided. To which I tactfully reply: bunk! Leaving aside the debate about whether every LP since the '60s has been a model of recording perfection, electrically recorded 78s (for the most part, those after about 1925) and early LPs were cut with a wild array of different recording curves, and their acoustically recorded predecessors were cut with no recording curve at all. Specialist preamps designed for setting different playback curves have been and remain available, as do equalizers, but to start you can make at least reasonable compensation for casual listening with the traditional bass and treble controls. Finally, if you anticipate adding any outboard signal processors like equalizers, expanders, analogue noise reducers, or the like later down the line, the preamp should have a tape loop (meaning a "tape monitor" button on the front and paired jack sets on the back labeled something like "tape in/rec out"). Good luck finding that feature in anything made since about 1985!
- A turntable with suitable arm. I have already belabored this subject in a series of other articles, to which I will refer you for more rather than repeating it here. Hey! No cheering, please!
- A cartridge with good tracking ability and interchangeable styli. A common misconception is that a special "78 RPM cartridge" is necessary for playing 78s. Not so, although a case can be made for playing them with a mono model (bearing in mind that most current "mono" cartridges are just stereo cartridges with a built-in jumper to sum the channels--in other words, they do the same thing as playing a regular stereo cartridge through a preamp with the "mono" button engaged). That said, a big "sorry" to their adherents, but generally moving coils need not apply; what is necessary is a different stylus, because the grooves of vintage 78s are substantially wider than their modern LP counterparts, and hence, at a minimum, you will need to swap between an "LP" stylus for microgroove records and a "78" stylus for--well, you get the idea. Later, if you get really serious, you'll want a collection of different "78" stylus sizes and geometries, and again you'll need the ability to change quickly and easily between them. Note that assembling a fleet of matching cartridges mounted on separate headshells, each with a different type stylus, is a practical but expensive alternative as long as your tonearm allows for interchangeable headshells. As to the importance of good tracking ability, see the brief video embedded in the article about turntables referenced immediately above. Unfortunately, Shure Bros., the manufacturer most noted for unflappable tracking, has exited the cartridge business, and as a result used or "new old stock" Shure cartridges and styli, including those airily dismissed in AudiophiLand as "dull" or "undistinguished" or "mass fi" up until Shure's disconcerting announcement, have suddenly become audio classics with prices that have soared beyond all reason. Stanton, the de facto standard for 78 collectors for years (although I'll confess I was always a Shure guy), also is largely gone, with just a couple of models left, both seemingly marketed primarily toward DJs. Grado makes good cartridges, and 78 styli of various sorts are available for them, but their idiosyncratic design makes swapping stylus assemblies fussy, and I've found them not to be especially tolerant of warped records spinning at high speed. Where that leaves us for the beginner I honestly can't say; I know Audio Technica, Ortofon, and Nagaoka are out there, but I have no personal experience with them.
- An appropriate stylus. As intimated just above, 78s require a larger stylus than LPs do. Hence, if you're just starting out, you'll need to procure a stock "78" stylus for whatever cartridge you select. Generally speaking, it will be somewhere between 2.5 and 3 mil, a compromise size that's pretty good for later 78s ('40s-'50s vintage), more or less OK for most electrical 78s from earlier years, and somewhat undersized but workable for most acoustic ones. Chances are it will have a conical, or spherical, tip geometry. For the beginner, such styli will serve well enough, but be aware that you often can obtain amazingly cleaner playback with other configurations reflecting some combination of larger or smaller tip size and elliptical or truncated elliptical geometry. Or, sometmes, not--I've had plenty of records, particularly those with some wear on them, that played better with the stock Shure conical "78" stylus than with any of my pricey custom-ground truncated ellipticals. As I've noted elsewhere, with 78s, practice trumps theory every time. Stick with what works, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense.
I hope the foregoing notes will be a help to those just starting out with 78s. I think it should be pretty evident they are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for more seasoned 78 collectors, but, to sum up, what you need for basic playback is simple: a 78-capable turntable with appropriate cartridge and stylus, amplification, and speakers. That's it. Nothing arcane; nothing calling for more conjuring of spirits from the netherworld. If you're setting off with 78s for the first time, good luck to you, and enjoy the voyage!
 - To the last two, my advice is usually that the records may well be a basket case and not to get too exorcised, respectively.
 - Er, sorry about that.
 - Yes, I know, footnoting a footnote is poor form, and I promise you that footnote 2 will be my last such gaffe.
 - Oops.
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© Copyright 2019 David Hoehl - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com
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