Vintage Turntables

By Chuck Hawks

B&O Beogram 3404 from ad.
B&O Beogram 3404 illustration from period advertisement.

Between roughly 1960 and 1985 there were lots of turntables, LP records being the primary program source, but relatively few audiophile/professional grade turntables. Today, with vinyl records a niche audiophile market, there are relatively few turntables, but practically all of them are intended for audiophiles. Both turntables and LP records have made a surprising comeback in the decade after their nadir at the dawn of the 21st Century.

Probably the most ubiquitous turntable brands found in component music systems of the late 1960's and early 1970's were Garrard (UK) and Dual (Germany). Both brands used radial (pivoted) tonearms and had record changer capability. The upper models of both the Garrard and Dual lines were typically used in single play/semi-automatic mode with automated tonearm lift/return at the end of the record. Most of the Dual and Garrard models used an idler (rim) drive system. Dual was probably the most common turntable found in upper-middle category stereo systems, while Garrard dominated in most low to middle class component systems. The cartridge heads of both brands accepted standard �" mount cartridges and most users chose from a large selection of cartridges made by Elac (they invented the moving magnet cartridge), Shure, Empire, Pickering, Stanton, Ortofon, Grado, Audio Technica, Signet, B&O and others. All of these cartridges were moving magnet types, except for the moving coil Ortofon.

The top of the line Dual turntables of this period were the Model 1019 and its successor the Model 1219. The primary difference I remember was a full diameter platter on the 1219. The platter weight was about seven pounds. Dual turntables came with relatively low mass tonearms, especially the top of the line models. These Duals were well made and highly reliable; many are still in service today. To give an idea of the performance of a good turntable of this area, here are the specifications for the Dual 1219, which are representative:

  • Speeds: 33-1/3, 45, 78 RPM
  • Motor: Isolated, synchronous, continuous pole type
  • Platter: 12" diameter, non-magnetic, dynamically balanced
  • Platter weight: 6.8 pounds
  • Wow and Flutter: +/- 0.06% (DIN 45)
  • Rumble: 45 db unweighted, 60 db weighted
  • Tonearm: 4-point gimbal suspension
  • Cartridge head shell: Skeletal, removable, accepts cartridges weighing 1-12 grams w/1/2" mount screw separation
  • Features: Multiple play, adjustable anti-skating, pitch control (+/- 6%), cue control
  • Manufactured: 1970-1972
  • 1971 MSRP: $185

The later Dual CS505-1, a single play turntable, was introduced in 1981 and became highly rated. It was upgraded in 1983 (505-2) with an improved tonearm (easily identified by the two cartridge mounting screws in the headshell, instead of one) and later the CS505-3. The remained a standard through the 1980's. A slightly improved version is still available today (505-4, street price about $1023). Reader Chuck Pollock wrote this about the CS505:

"The CS-505 is a semi-automatic type, meaning that it lifts the arm and shuts off the motor at the end of the record. Two versions of the CS-505 were available, the CS-505-2 with the standard head shell and the CS-505-3 with the ultra-low mass (ULM) head shell. They are otherwise identical. Other notable features of the CS-505 include 33 and 45 RPM speeds, adjustable anti-skating, gimballed low-mass tone arm, a suspended chassis and belt drive. Mine has performed as intended for the past 22 years and sees weekly usage. If I recall correctly, it was the least expensive turntable on the Stereophile Recommended Components list for many years."

The early Garrard RC88 and RC98 (which featured a better, counter-balanced tonearm) were sort of the stone axes of turntables, but they worked. If you can find a used one in decent condition today, it probably still works. Since they tracked best at around three grams, a stylus with a conical/spherical diamond tip was best. I used Shure M7 cartridges in mine.

Introduced in 1964 to compete with other semi-automatic transcription turntables with record changer capability, particularly the Dual 1019, was the Garrard Lab 80. This was a very solid unit with a metal motor board and wood base that is still occasionally seen today. Around 1970, the Synchro-Lab 95 arrived in an attempt to keep pace with the Dual 1219. The Synchro-Lab 95's most notable and criticized feature was its plastic plinth. These were quiet turntables with aformosia wood dampened tonearms.

The top of the line Garrard was unique and relatively expensive (about like a Thorens TD-160). This was the Zero 100 model, introduced in 1971. It featured belt drive and an innovative, gimbaled tonearm with an articulated head that changed angle as a record was played to achieve zero tracking error in a pivoted tonearm. This was a complicated, relatively massive, tonearm and it was rendered obsolete when very low mass tonearms became the norm. However, the Zero 100 was an exceptionally neat and attractive turntable and I always wanted to own one, but never did.

Elac Miracord turntables (Made by ELECTROACUSTIC GmbH in Germany and Distributed by Benjamin and later also Radio Shack in the US) were well known from the 1950's into the early 1980's. The Model 50H was powered by a hysteresis/synchronous motor and was equivalent to the Dual 1219 and Garrard Lab 80 models in both performance and quality. This was was a high-end, idler/rim drive turntable with a square-tube aluminum tonearm adjustable by counter-weight for tracking force. The tonearm head shell accepted standard 1/2" mount cartridges and incorporated an anti-skate mechanism. The full diameter platter was made of aluminum. The motor board was metal and it came with a wooden (I believe walnut) base. The Miracord 50 could be used as a record changer or, more typically, as an automatic single play turntable. I owned a Miracord 50 in the late 1970's and it was a fine turntable. I wish I had kept it.

Bang & Olufsen (B&O of Denmark) offered their very stylish Beogram turntables, the best of which were single play with automated tonearm cueing and return (semi-automatic operation). Most B&O turntables were designed specifically for B&O cartridges, which were excellent and plugged into the end of the tonearm, rather than being secured by a pair of screws and nuts in a tonearm head-shell. (There were also adapters to allow the installation of B&O cartridges in conventional head-shells.) This design allowed a low mass radial tonearm that was ahead of its time. B&O turntables were very well isolated from external bumps and vibrations via a floating platter/drive mechanism. They would play on through hard knocks when others would skip.

In 1972, Bang & Olufsen introduced the breakthrough Beogram 4000. This was a semi-automatic turntable with an electronically controlled, tangential (straight-line tracking) tonearm for zero tracking error. Record masters are cut with a straight-line cutting head, making a straight-line playback tonearm a sort of Holy Grail among the nuttier audio nuts. The elliptical diamond tip of a cartridge mounted in a tangential tonearm reads the left and right channels simultaneously. The tracking error inherent in most pivoted arms means that the right and left sides of the groove are actually read at very slightly different times, which causes distortion. The B&O tangential tracking series was produced until 1995 when the final version, the Beogram 7000, was discontinued. These linear tracking B&O's would have to be considered among the all-time best turntables.

Sometime around 1990, I acquired a Beogram 3404 (used) as a second turntable. (See ad clip at top of page.) It was a slick turntable produced for the US market in the mid-1980's. At the time, this was B&O's top model with a radial tracking tonearm. I later gave it to a friend and the last I heard it was still in use. My only critical comment is that these turntables must be used regularly. If allowed to sit for an extended time the lubricants dry out and the tone arm does not lift correctly.

Among fully manual turntables, the top of the line brands I found most impressive during the 1960's were the Audio Empire (USA), Rek-O-Kut (USA), Thorens (Switzerland) and Pioneer PL-41 (Japan). These were the most expensive turntables commonly available between about 1965 and 1970 and they were very precise, high quality components. They featured heavy, dynamically balanced, machined platters and belt drive. My favorites were the gold-finished Empire 398/498/598 series, but I never owned one. The Empire 598 still ranks as the most physically impressive turntable I have ever seen.

Rek-O-Kut turntables were made for professional use and dominated the radio station market for a long time. There were idler drive Rek-O-Kut tables intended for radio station use. Idler drive allowed easy back-cueing. My Rek-O-Kut's platter was so precisely machined and polished that, looking at its side from my listening position, I could not tell if it was turning or stopped. For belt drive models, Rek-O-Kut belts were deep frozen solid and then machined to specification.

I owned a Rek-O-Kut and later a Pioneer PL-41. I purchased both used, since there was no way I could afford a $225+ turntable in 1970. This 1960's vintage Pioneer replaced the Rek-O-Kut around 1974 and I continued to use it until I closed-out my record collection and went pure digital, around 2007. The only modifications I made were to remove the outer tonearm counter weight and fit a lightweight head-shell to lighten the tonearm; I also fitted a homemade, SME like, anti-skate counter weight system. I gave it to a friend and it is still in use as I write these words in 2011. These were heavy duty, professional grade turntables!

The Swiss answer to these deluxe American and Japanese manual turntables was the Thorens TD-124 (introduced mid-1950's), TD-125 (successor to the TD-124) and TD-126 (successor to the TD-125) transcription series. Very fine turntables, these vintage belt drive Thorens models are still highly prized. They could be purchased with or without tonearms. The TD-125 and TD-126 were powered by 16 pole synchronous motors and boasted 12" diameter, seven-pound platters. The 9" long TP-25 tone arm was an "S" curved, tubular, low mass arm. Its tracking force could be adjusted between � and 4 grams. Like the other manual transcription turntable arms, they generally tracked best (with premium cartridges) at 1-1.5 grams. Less expensive and less sophisticated, but still very good, were the more budget oriented TD-150 and TD-160 models, which were supplied with less expensive tonearms.

Acoustic Research (AR), the New England speaker manufacturer, introduced a budget priced manual turntable in the 1960's. It was a basic, belt drive unit with a plastic tonearm head shell and no convenience features, but it worked well and established a good reputation, both sonically and for reliability. It became quite popular and may well have been the best performing turntable available for the price. Some of these are still in use and there is a tiny cottage industry in the US involved with upgrading these turntables. However, I understand that replacement parts are no longer available. During the 1970's, AR imported the AR-11 idler drive turntable from Japan. This was completely different from the simple, American made original. Still later, in the early 1980's, AR turntables were produced in the UK. I believe these were again belt driven, but I never encountered one. The one thing all AR turntables had in common was reasonable price.

Technics (made by Matsushita in Japan) introduced their revolutionary SP-10 turntable in 1970, sans tonearm. This was the first widely accepted direct drive turntable, the platter being powered by a motor that turned at 33-1/3 RPM. This minimized rumble and increased speed accuracy, while wow and flutter were dramatically reduced. After overcoming some initial skepticism, this became, perhaps, the premium turntable of the 1970's and 80's. Many were fitted with SME radial or Rabco tangential tonearms. The improved SP-10 Mk. 2 was introduced in 1975 and the Mk. 3 in 1981.

In 1971 Technics introduced another direct drive turntable, the SL-1200, this time with a proprietary, radial tracking, S-shaped tonearm. It used a high torque, magnetic drive system that has proved to be perhaps the most durable ever designed for a turntable. The SL-1200/1210 series was built in successive marks until 2010, when the line was finally discontinued. Over 3,500,000 were made and they became the world's premier DJ turntables. The majority of these are undoubtedly still in use and will be for many years to come.

In 1972, Linn (UK) introduced their seminal Sondek LP12 turntable, which became one of the most beloved and imitated transcription turntables in the world. This manual unit has been incrementally improved and upgraded over the years and is still available today from Linn Products Limited. Here is a brief explanation of the features that have allowed the LP12 to endure: "At the heart of the Sondek LP12 is Linn�s patented, low-noise, single-point bearing. This advanced yet simple bearing design ensures the smooth motion of the turntable and eliminates noise to ensure that all you hear is the music. The high mass, perfectly balanced, belt-driven platter maintains speed stability, while the solid wood plinth, suspended sub-chassis and stable arm platform combine to provide freedom from vibration and acoustic feedback." Today's Sondek is available in a variety of finishes and with your choice of Linn tonearms and cartridges.

The top of the line Kenwood (Japan) turntable appeared in 1980 with an ultra-solid marble base and became famous as "The Rock." This was initially a belt drive, single play turntable. (I believe that, as the line expanded, a direct drive model was also available.) The Rock models could be had with or without a tonearm. The Kenwood tonearm was an "S" shaped, counter balanced design with a lightweight, removable head shell that accepted standard 1/2" mount cartridges. Tonearm equipped models featured automatic arm return. These were among the handsomest turntables ever made and they became very popular with audiophiles in the 1980's. At least three of my close friends owned Kenwood Rock turntables.

The most highly regarded tonearm of the era was the SME (UK). These were very precisely made, pivoted, low mass tonearms. Their cartridge shells accepted standard �" spaced cartridge mounting screws. SME tonearms are works of art and SME is still in business, supplying tonearms to the modern niche market. I briefly owned a used SME tonearm, intending to mount it on my PL-41, but I never got around to it. A good friend of mine is using a 1980's vintage SME tonearm on his Kenwood "The Rock" turntable.

Another high quality radial tonearm of similar performance is the Ortofon (Denmark), which is still offered today. The Rek-O-Kut, Linn, Technics, Kenwood, B&O radial and Pioneer PL-41 tonearms were all long from pivot to stylus to minimize tracking error, but at about 12", the SME and Ortofon were the longest of all.

A well known tangential tonearm was the Rabco (USA) SL-8. This was a servo controlled, straight-line tracking tonearm adaptable to most high-end manual turntables. The Rabco SL-8 and improved SL-8E (circa 1969) were considered excellent performers. Great when properly adjusted and working correctly, but finicky. Despite their reputation for questionable reliability, some are still in use on modern turntables.

I always preferred the reliable, radial SME tonearm to the tangential Rabco SL-8E. In terms of drawbacks, I could accept the minor tracking error and attendant slight distortion of a good radial tonearm over the zero tracking error and lower distortion, but less reliable, Rabco.

Rabco also offered the ST-4 turntable, complete with a cheaper straight line tracking tonearm. I was told by a dealer that it was mechanically operated (rather than electronically) and an O-ring drove the arm, I believe powered by a belt. I have seen several of these, but where I lived they did not have a good reputation. I would have preferred a B&O or a Garrard Zero 100, had I been able to afford a linear tracking turntable. Rabco was acquired by Harmon-Kardon, who marketed a series of linear tracking turntables (ST-5, -6, -7, and -8). These were marked Harmon-Kardon on the turntable and Rabco on the tonearm, but they were reportedly quite different from the ST-4 design.

There are other good turntables and tonearms from this, the golden age of stereo LP records, but these are the ones I remember best. If, gentle reader, you have a favorite not mentioned above, send me a paragraph telling about it and I will consider adding it to this article.

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Copyright 2011, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.