On an Overgrown Pathé

[On an Overgrown Pathe]


[Italian version here]

Product names: Edison Triumph Model B, Pathephone Concert Model 20, Victor V
Manufacturers: National Phonograph Co., Pathe Freres, Victor Talking Machine Co. - USA, France (all defunct)
Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: March, 2022

OK, I'll admit right up front: I coined the word “copucornia.” It's a play on “cornucopia.” A cornucopia, of course, is a horn of plenty. Today I propose to sample plenty of horns!

This article comes about because I thought it would be fun to compare the sonic qualities of acoustic phonographs and records produced by three major players in the early 20th century recorded sound industry. I'll outline below how I tried to keep results comparable, but suffice it to say, my goal is to take you back by a century and give you the chance to assess choices available to the audiophile listener in the early days of recorded sound. In short, I've shot a video in which you can listen to recordings of the same singer reproduced by a top-end machine from each of Edison, Pathe, and Victor in turn and decide which you prefer. How is each stronger or weaker than the others? You be the judge! Introductory Musings

Nowadays, a surefire way to start an audio argument is to state an opinion about horns. Some folks love horn-loaded speakers; some hate them. Nobody seems to fall in the middle. Up to the middle-to-late 1920s, by contrast, the sole controversy over horns would have been between those who liked them visible and those who didn't: aside from a few exotic machine designs, horns were the universal means of projecting music at room volume. The watershed came in 1906, when Victor introduced its first Victrola. Until then, a horn was always “on parade,” unless the owner of a record playing device bought an expensive after-market cabinet to house a stock machine with some sort of provision for concealing its standard horn behind a grille. Such pieces seem charming today, and they draw substantial prices from collectors, but when new they compromised ease of use while blending poorly with typical home decor. The genius of the Victor design was to squish the horn into an enclosed cabinet housing the rest of the mechanism as an integrated unit, making it part of a piece of nice furniture designed for easy access to the playing mechanism. Those enclosed horns didn't sound as good as the larger exposed models, but they did have the virtue of what we today call “higher WAF,” and they very quickly drove open horn machines out of the parlor, although some remained in service in schools and like institutions, where volume took precedence over domestic aesthetics. Among the three primary manufacturers in the United States--Edison, Victor, and Columbia--Edison ceased production of open-horn models in 1913; Victor nominally offered them through 1920, but by then the enclosed-horn models made up the overwhelming majority of its sales, with open horn machines mostly produced as export models; and Columbia last introduced an open-horn machine in 1915. Pathe, a major force in Europe but a second-tier maker on the other side of the Atlantic, never offered an open horn machine in the United States.

[morning glory horn] Horn Designs

During the era when horns were prominently visible, they fell into two broad classes. First, and earliest to appear, were those in the form of cones that jutted out into the room. In the case of cylinder machines, these could be small, supported entirely by the reproducer, or so long as to need a separate crane for support. Standard equipment for most Edison cylinder machines, for instance, was a 14-inch conical horn, black with a brass bell, to which collectors today refer as a “witch's hat” style. These little horns had the virtue of being small enough to require no extra support, and they imposed little cost or shipping trouble on the manufacturer, but they gave poor reproduction and volume. Therefore, a lively aftermarket sprang up to supply larger, often more ornamental horns. Which is to say, upgrades! Audio hobbyists have always been the same.

Sometimes, these replacement horns were just witch's hat types writ large, but often they were more decorative. An example is to the right: a so-called “morning glory” type horn, nickle plated, with decorative hand-painted roses inside and smoothly flared sides ending in a scalloped edge rather than straight sides ending in a sharply angled circular bell. This particular horn was made by a company called Hawthorne & Sheble, a major supplier of phonograph accessories and appliances that had started out in the bicycle business. Another major horn manufacturer was the quaintly named Tea Tray Company; I imagine you can guess what it made before getting into phonograph horns. Phonographs were big business, and everybody who could figure out a way to get around the Edison, Victor, and Columbia patents wanted a piece of it.

The substitution of larger horns posed a problem for Edison dealers: what to do with the small, original equipment ones? The April 1903 edition of the Edison Phonograph Monthly house publication recounts how one ingenious dealer solved the problem. “One of the problems that all Jobbers and large Dealers have to contend with is to find a way of disposing of their stock of 14-inch horns, left on their hands when customers exchange them for larger horns. A Western Jobber cleaned out his stock recently in a very clever manner. A political campaign in his city made such a demand for tin horns that the supply gave out. Seizing the opportunity, this Jobber had a lot of tin mouth-pieces made to fit the 14-inch horns and soon sold his entire stock at a nominal but satisfactory figure. Quite clever, wasn't it?” As for me, I think I would have liked to be a dealer in earplugs!

[front mount horn]

Disk machines were nearly always equipped with some variation of the conical profile horn. Here, the horn would be attached securely to the machine rather than being stuck on the reproducer or connected to it by short length of rubber hose while suspended from a crane. Again, horns in the “witch's hat” and “morning glory” (or related “floral”) styles were common, the former predominating for so-called “front mount” machines (see photo, left), like the one in the “His Master's Voice” trademark, and the latter most commonly found with “rear-mount” machines (see photo below right).

[rear mount horn]

As modern audiophiles know, with horns larger is better. The problem with large conical-type horns, particularly the crane-supported horns for cylinder machines, was (and is) that they would stick out awkwardly into the room, taking up space, getting in the way, and always being at risk of being bumped. With disk machines, front-mount horns had this same issue, albeit to a lesser degree, but they added another: in this design, all the weight of the horn and its support structure would be imposed on the record at the point of a steel needle, causing ever more ferocious wear as machines were equipped with larger and larger horns. Rear mounting, with the horn supported on a bracket at the rear of the case and the reproducer mated to a relatively short tonearm, largely solved both problems at once, as the horn, starting at the rear, would naturally be above, or mostly above, the case rather than jutting out into the room, and the tonearm design would yield the same tracking force regardless of the horn's size.

In cylinder machines, Edison addressed the problem by introducing a second style of horn, known as the “cygnet” type. A cygnet horn was reshaped to extend vertically, with a sweeping curve to the rear leading up to a bell directly above the machine. Later, early radio horns would adopt the same configuration. A major manufacturer of these horns, both for phonographs and radios, was Musicmaster, the company that made the Edison machine's horn heard in the video. This design is commonly found only on cylinder players, but at least one European company, a German concern called Mammut, did equip disk machines with horns of a similar profile. The Pathe machine in the video has been fitted with such a German horn, although I don't know that it was a Mammut product.

Materials and decoration varied. Horns most often were made of metal, but wooden horns were also available, generally for an upcharge. When a machine sports a wooden horn, it ordinarily will be matched to the wood of the phonograph case, almost but not quite always oak. Other materials from which horns were made include, among other things, papier mache, cardboard, and even glass. Witch's hat horns were nearly always black, generally with a brass bell; metal morning glory type horns could be black, especially if they were sold as original equipment, but the aftermarket horns often were painted in bright colors, with or without pinstiping, flowers, or both. Occasionally a metal horn would be painted with faux grain to give the effect of a more expensive wooden model. True wooden horns might be smooth or might have ornamental insets, as with the “spearpoint” horns often found on higher-end Victor machines like the one in the video.

In the middle 1920s, a new type of horn emerged: the re-entrant exponential horn. This design, developed through scientific study of acoustic principles and introduced to accompany the newly developed electrical recordings, was a far cry from the acoustically compromised, usually squared off horn chambers of the older Victrolas and like cabinet machines, and with its greater effective length and better geometry it gave noticeably better response, particularly in the bass. It also would handily outperform most, if not all, older open horns. I've read anecdotal assertions that the cygnet horns have good sound because their proportions are mathematically not too far off those of the late exponential horns; you can take that with as many pinches of salt as you see fit. The most famous example of the exponential type was Victor's Orthophonic, but Columbia and other makers had their own equivalents. These horns, however, were always internal to a cabinet, whereas our concern today is machines that put their horns proudly on parade for all to see. Orthophonic horns and their ilk are something for a future article and maybe video. All of which leads us to...

The Stars of Today's Show

[three horns]

Everybody loves a good format war, right? The video features horns of both broad classes in the two dominant materials, with a wooden true cygnet horn, a metal cygnet-style horn, and a wooden horn in the conical family. The machines involved, each being at or near the top of its manufacturer's line, represent players for each of the major recording systems that were in contention at the time: cylinder (Edison), vertical cut disk (Pathe), and lateral cut disk (Victor). If you need a refresher about the difference between the two “cuts,” see here. Without further ado, here are the players:

Edison Triumph phonograph, Model B, with Musicmaster oak cygnet horn. (Leftmost photo above.) The Triumph, which grew out of Edison's original Spring Motor Phonograph of the mid-1890s, went through Models A through G during its product lifetime. When introduced in 1906, the Triumph Model B was the top of the company's regular line of cylinder players for the home. Its successor, the Model C, was introduced in February 1908. The Model B was for two-minute cylinders only, as Edison had not yet marketed the four-minute type,[1] and it would have been fitted with a morning glory type horn supported by a crane. Since leaving the factory, this one has been updated with a four-minute converter kit and the wooden cygnet horn, first offered in October 1908 and August 1910, respectively, but of course both could have been added anytime between then and when I bought the machine a few years ago. In the video, it plays a four-minute Blue Amberol celluloid cylinder. Edison would have recommended the later, louder Diamond B reproducer for this record, but that model is unsuitable for wax cylinders, and many at the time would have opted, as I have, for the Model O reproducer, with flip-over selectable styli, because of its convenience as an all-in-one solution for every type of cylinder. The horn actually is something of a hybrid. From its metal collar to the bell, it's made of oak to match the machine's case. That swoopy segment from the rubber connector to the collar, on the other hand, is metal painted to resemble woodgrain.

Pathe Concert Model 20 Pathephone with cygnet profile brass horn. (Middle photo above.) The Concert series machines were Pathe's top line, designed to play 120 RPM 20" records in settings where volume would be at a premium, like cafes or bars. Unlike the triple-spring motors of the Victor and Edison machines here, those of the big Pathe machines had only a single spring, but that spring was unusually powerful, as becomes all too clear when winding one. Pathe deviated from the other two makers in another respect, too: during the period of these records, all Victor and Edison products were direct-to-medium (disk or cylinder, respectively), whereas Pathe recorded to oversized cylinders and then pantographically dubbed them to make production masters for everything, commercial cylinders and disks in varying sizes alike. But to return to the machine heard in the video, how it came to be on my side of the Atlantic is something of a mystery. In Europe, Pathe Freres was an industry pioneer, establishing itself as the leading machine and record company in France and a major presence on the rest of the European continent, so much so that I understand to this day “Pathephone” remains a generic term for phonograph in Russia. In the United States, on the other hand, Pathe was a latecomer, opening its US branch only in 1914. By then, open horn machines were distinctly out of fashion, and US Pathe never had any in its catalogue, nor does it appear to have sold 20" records in this country. Moreover, the horn on this machine is not original Pathe equipment, which would have been of a flared conical profile, like Victor's; it's an immense[2] but relatively fragile German horn, shaped in a configuration akin to but larger than the Musicmaster cygnet, and transporting it and the large, heavy machine across the Atlantic unharmed would have been no easy task. That said, the horn is of the correct period for this machine, and their mating at that time is plausible given the machine's focus on generating loud volume.

Victor V talking machine with oak speartip horn. (Right photo above.) Like the Edison Triumph and, presumably, Pathe Concert 20, at its introduction in 1903 the Victor V (V being the Roman numeral for 5, not a letter) was its maker's top-of-the-line model, and it remained so for a year, until Victor added the Victor VI to its lineup. As a matter of performance, it was tied at the top even then, as the differences between the two models were largely cosmetic: nickel vs. gold appointments, oak v. mahogany, but the same motor, reproducer, tonearm, and horn design. Moreover, it outlived the VI in the catalogue by three years, finally being discontinued in 1920. Note, however, that both the V and VI, although superior performers, were promptly eclipsed by the internal horn Victrola, which made its debut at around the same time as the Victor VI but initially cost twice as much. (Less expensive models would follow quickly as the concept proved itself.) For its first three years, although always a rear-mount design, the Victor V had an elaborate case along the lines of the earlier, turn-of-the-century-styled front mount machines; the one here was made after a restyling to simpler Mission lines in October 1906. Its horn is Victor's top-line speartip wooden model. Although an extra-cost upgrade from the metal horns that came standard on the Victor V, the speartip must have been quite the popular option, as the metal horns don't seem to turn up nearly as often on this model. In the photos, note how the configuration differs, with the speartip horn having a shorter straightforward flared conical profile in comparison to the long, swoopy outlines of the cygnet types.

The Method to my Madness

I did my best to keep things comparable across the three machines. First, I chose records by the same singer in each of the competing formats, all made within about a five-year period. Candidates were not very thick on the ground, as many performers signed exclusive contracts with one label or another, and only a real commercial vagabond would have been likely to appear on all three labels under consideration here. Moreover, in those days before commercial aviation, performers with respectable careers on one side of the Atlantic might not be known on the other, meaning those who appealed to French Pathe might not appeal to US-based Edison or Victor and vice-versa, although (importantly for our purposes) the latter, especially in its early years, did draw extensively on masters waxed in Europe by its English affiliate The Gramophone Company, for a while known as The Gramophone and Typewriter, Ltd. Fortunately, I found records in my collection by one major figure who did cross lines to all three labels: Leo Slezak, born in Moravia but a pillar of the Vienna Court, later State, Opera; a successful actor in motion pictures as well; and senior member of an accomplished theater family across three generations. Luckily for us, he also was a prolific recording artist. For more about him and his talented family, see here.

[Leo Slezak portrait]

What he sings for us:[3]

Puccini: Tosca, Act III -- “E Lucevan le Stelle,” Edison cylinder 28146, about 160 RPM. Recorded ca. June 1909 and released as wax Amberol cylinder B 155 in November 1909; this copy is a reissue on celluloid Blue Amberol.

Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots, Act I -- “Plus blanche que la blanche hermine” (In German, “Ihr Wangenpaar”). Pathe B 60060, about 88 RPM. Recorded in Berlin ca. 1913.

Meyerbeer: Le Prophete, Act III -- “Pastorale,” (“Pour Berthe, moi je soupire”) (In German, “Kein's von allen Erdenreichen”). Victor 64112, about 78 RPM. Recorded in Vienna by Gramophone and Typewriter in July 1907.

From the technical side, I made all recordings with the same Tascam DR 100 Mk. II digital recorder in the same room while simultaneously recording video with a Lumix DMC-FZ300 digital camera, both devices being set up on tripods. I recorded the machines in action one at a time, having measured to place the Tascam at the same distance from the bell of each horn. Once the recordings were made, I transferred the individual audio files to my aging Lenovo X220 laptop, opened them with Ocenaudio software, and transferred all into a single omnibus file for simultaneous normalizing to preserve relative volume level. Aside from trimming off extraneous noises before and after the music, I did no further sonic processing before breaking them back into separate files to marry to the video. I discarded the audio tracks recorded by the digital camera, which were somewhat distorted on peaks and autoleveled. Video processing was with Filmora software, also on the Lenovo laptop. Hearing is Believing

Enough introductory discourse--it's time for some music. A link to the video appears below. I hope you'll find interesting the contrasting results obtained by different technologies and, more importantly, that you'll enjoy the show!


[1] - Recall that Edison's machines relied on a mechanical feed to carry the stylus across the cylinder at a rate matching its groove pitch. Accordingly, halving the groove pitch (and size) to double playing time from two to four minutes required not only a new, smaller stylus for the new cylinders but also retrofitting phonographs with new gearing to bring the feed system back into synchronization. The adapter fitted to the present Triumph added a gear shift and gearing to choose between two-minute and four-minute playback. A few open horn machines and all the enclosed horn Amberolas after the first model dispensed with two-minute gearing entirely.

[2] - Consulting a tape measure run along the twisty curves of this horn, I estimate the distance from reproducer to mouth is better than 5 feet, or a little more than 1.5 meters.

[3] - Recording data from Flury, Giocomo Puccini: A Discography; Arsenty and Letellier, Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Discography of Vintage Recordings 1889-1955; and the November 1909 issue of The Edison Phonograph Monthly, which also supplied the photograph on a page devoted to “New Grand Opera Talent.”

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