Audio Milestones: The March of Technology: Years and Years of Record Playing (Audio history part 2)

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I was almost 70 years ago that I heard my first phonograph record, and it is a moment that I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life. It was a Sunday morning, and while my mother was preparing one of her fabulous Sunday dinners my father busied himself carrying a rather large box into the dining room. There obviously had to be something very special in this box, because he had a look of anticipation on his face that I had never seen before. He placed the box on the dining room table, and after he had unpacked it my brothers and I looked with awe upon this beautiful machine of polished wood and shining metal.

But what was it? If it were a toy, how did it work? My father smiled and proclaimed with all of the pride he could muster, “This is a phonograph machine. It talks, it sings and makes wonderful music.” We all laughed heartily; he was joking, of course—how could people fit into that tiny little machine?

ABOVE--A Scully record-cutting lathe.

ABOVE--LP records were harder to break than 78s, but when RCA made some so thin they could be bent, skepticism reigned.

Seeing our confusion, he sat us down and explained to us: First he would crank up the machine. Then he would put the flat black disc on the flat metal plate with the green velvet pad, and when the black disc was turning, he would put the shining metal tube (the needle), which was attached to the great horn, onto the disc, and voices and mu sic would fill the room with sound. So with great ceremony he cranked the phonograph machine while watching the looks on our eager faces. He then very carefully placed the black disc on the green velvet pad, and then, with the greatest of precision, he set the needle onto the disc. The first sound I heard from a phonograph was the voice of Enrico Caruso singing “Celeste Aida.” It was the most beautiful sound I had ever goal, for mediocrity begins only when things are good enough.” This credo is still my guiding light to this day. For all of us, money was never the goal. If we had enough to pay the bills and some left over to pay for more research (in those days it was actually tinkering and experimenting), we were satisfied. The dealers were also manufacturers of sorts, since in the early days of high fidelity, loudspeakers were supplied primarily as component drivers, so the dealers had to design and build their own speaker systems from scratch. Every body was an engineer, and everybody was a manufacturer, but mainly everybody was a devoted audiophile obsessed with the quest for better sound. In essence, everybody who loved quality sound, every fellow who made components in his garage, along with the music lovers at home who helped guide us with their critiques, were part of the creation and growth of the high-fidelity industry. Dealers, like the new audiophile consumers, would audition every new product, and only the best would be chosen for sale to the ever more critical audiophile. It was this upward thrust for absolute quality of performance that was and is responsible for an almost trillion-dollar audio/video industry today.

But here I am off the beaten track. Audio magazine asked me to write an article on the evolution of the phono system from 1947 or so until the present day, and here I am reminiscing. But how can one really tell about the present without at least describing a little about the past?

ABOVE-- Shure’s Dynamic Stabilizer brush helped cartridges track warped discs; sweeping the groove was a secondary benefit.

ABOVE-- For CD 4 quadraphonic LPs, cartridges needed high output above the audio band as shown here for Shure M24H.

ABOVE-- The Grado Micro-Balance arm was made of walnut and originally cost $29.95.

ABOVE-- An early version of the tamed SME tonearm.

The monophonic 33.3-rpm vinyl phono disc survived little more than a decade but yielded a cornucopia of engineering information to show us what was necessary to create better, better, and even better sound. It was about 1955 when the high-fidelity industry was get ting very serious about something now called stereophonic sound. (It had once been called bin aural.) This stereo sound, as it quickly be came known, was supposed to be the magic carpet to the ultimate sound reproduction, and indeed it was for a while. But like any thing else in life, the new knowledge created as many problems as it solved.

Stereo was a bonanza for some manufacturers but a nightmare for the phono industry. While speaker, microphone, and other manufacturers simply doubled their production and profits, phonograph manufacturers had to design a new and infinitely more complex phono pickup, manufacture it, and sell it for the same price as the old mono pickup.

Phono pickups, as they were called for several decades, were a real challenge for conversion to stereo. But allow me to correct myself: The mono pickup could not be converted into a stereo pickup; a stereo pickup required a totally new design. In a mono pickup of the day, the cantilever had to move only in the horizontal plane and to achieve an upper-frequency response of 20 kHz with a distortion level of about 2% while tracking at 3 grams. A stereo pickup cantilever has to have a 360-degree range of motion and achieve a frequency response beyond 20 kHz with a distortion level of 1% while tracking at 1.5 grams or less. This indeed presented some monumental problems to the designer, be cause to achieve a perfect 360° vectored compliance was virtually impossible—the application of any sort of vertical tracking force made the compliance asymmetrical, thereby causing the pickup performance to deteriorate.

ABOVE-- Controls to set disc size and select speed as on Garrard’s SL95 changer, were notably absent from most single-play turntables.

Moreover, there were dozens of different mechanical and electro magnetic concepts of phono pickup design, and the time allowed phono pickup manufacturers to design totally new stereo phono cartridges (from the industry choice of the Westrex stereo system to the introduction of stereo product to the general public) was virtually overnight. This made life for the phono pickup designer a virtual living hell. But, as always, the designers came through. And thank goodness, because without the phono pickup there would have to be a stereo postponement, since phono records were the main source of recorded musical entertainment.

During the 1960s, phono pickup performance improved steadily, and more attention was now being paid to the shortcomings of tonearm design. Tonearms at that time were of the large, massive studio type, barely capable of tracking at 3 to 5 grams. One pickup manufacturer designed a beautiful, light-mass tonearm made of hand-rubbed walnut and well capable of tracking at one-quarter of a gram. For the first time a tonearm was not only pleasing to the eye but truly functional. Its “into the future performance” allowed phono pickup designers using it as a design tool to make huge gains in the state of their art. That was how it was: One person would make a breakthrough in his product design, which helped others make advances in their products, and so on.

It was about this time that the phono pickup makers became somewhat irritated that their products were regarded as nothing but accessories and were being used as giveaway incentives, such as buy a turntable and get a phono pickup for a penny. One manufacturer started a luxury line of signature phono pickups made by hand by the designer himself, with guaranteed super performance and selling at five times the price of the then most expensive top-of-the-line phono pickups. These high-priced phono pick ups were such a success and of such consistently high quality that within a very short time the word “signature” became synonymous with top quality. The signature label was, and still is, used by some of the most prestigious names in the world, including Mercedes- Benz automobiles.

Other phono pickup makers followed suit and introduced luxury-line cartridges of their own. Phono pickups, which only a few years before had a top list price of $75, were now vastly improved and selling for as much as $3,000. The performance of phono pickups soared, and even with the success of CD, the phono pickup business remains healthy and the quality of record playback is still considered by many to be better by far than that of all other formats, including the CD.

ABOVE-- Early arms were comparatively heavy, yet this Rek-O-Kut arm and turntable were top sellers in the late ‘50s.

ABOVE-- Simple yet satisfying, the AR turntable offered high quality at a moderate price.

ABOVE--The Linn-Sondek LP12 revised people’s thinking about the difference a turntable could make.

I personally do not agree with this, however. What I find is that as I continue to improve the analog product and as I continue to improve the digital product, they are becoming one and the same in sound quality. I am sure there are new concepts being developed at this moment that will ultimately bring us to the point of one sound, the best sound regardless of format.

When the 33.3rpm long-play record be came an industry standard, manufacturers introduced some superb record changers and turntables. Removing the 78- and 45-rpm speeds from their products allowed them to concentrate on the design of 33 1/3 turntables. Eliminating the mechanical problems associated with providing unnecessary speeds resulted in a marked improvement in turntable performance. The puck-drive, rim-driven turntables and their inherent noise problems were soon almost entirely supplanted, and in their place came a new breed of belt-drive and direct-drive turntables. It was very quickly determined that the turntable suspension created a definite interface problem that affected tonearm and phono pick up performance at low frequencies. Although great strides have been made in this area of turntable design, the basic problem still has not been reduced to a truly acceptable level—and if any one would care to challenge this last statement, I would dearly love to have a good, old-fashioned (with love) wham-bang discussion about it.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned any names in this article. I’ve done this purposely, since I believe no one person should be praised more than another. We all had our moments of glory, and Lord knows we also had a solid attitude of competitiveness, but beneath it all was a common goal that we were all working to achieve, to make the best possible sound! It has been said that a small group of men started the high-fidelity industry. If that is so, we were not really aware of it at the time. We were just having such a great time doing the thing we all loved best, and one day we turned around and found that a new industry had grown around our efforts.

As you know by the heading of this article, I am Joe Grado, that so-called “pioneer” of the audio industry who still has a devil of a time finding his burro and pickaxe. I have been in this industry for the better part of 50 years, and I just want to take a few lines to tell you about someone among us in audio who was a real giant of a man. His name was C. G. McProud, a dear friend and colleague. C. G. McProud was the founder of Audio magazine, and as its longtime publisher and editor held a position of very high esteem and power, yet he never used his position of power for any other purpose but to help his fellow man, no matter how insignificant he happened to be. I know because I was one of those insignificant people starting out in audio whom he befriended and helped with no thought of repayment. It is people like C. G. McProud who were in a large way responsible for the growth of the high-fidelity industry. He brought the word to the public and did so with a great dignity. C. G., wherever you are, God bless you.

ABOVE-- Adapted from a jukebox this Seeburg held 50 LPs selected by your choice of local of remote telephone dials.

Adapted from Audio magazine (1947-2000). Classic Audio and Audio Engineering magazine issues are available for free download at the Internet Archive (, aka The Wayback Machine)

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Updated: Friday, 2015-08-14 17:32 PST