An Introduction to Phono Fun:
Choices to Consider
By Peter Fraser
[Author's Note: Each section heading signifies a "fork in the road" as you travel down the acoustic phonograph highway! A brief discussion of each choice follows. - P.F.]
Format:Edison cylinders, Edison discs, "conventional" (lateral) disks, other oddballs
The Edison stuff has funkiness appeal and rarity, but you don't usually find the records in garage sales. Edison stuff plays (primarily, with exceptions) only on edison machines, too. The edison program material is usually pretty bad, also. Despite all this, it's my favorite - go figure. The other stuff, like Arentino disks with the huge center holes, and Pathe' vertical cut disks, are for people into orphan and oddball stuff. One needs "special" machines to be able to play them.
Machine Type:External Horn or Internal Horn
External Horns look cool, but are a pain to keep clean and safe, and they "get in the way." They sound better than most internal horns (except victor orthophonics and columbia viva-tonals). They also command top dollar, and even more when hand-decorated with flowers. Original decals and paint, or unusual configurations (esp. the cygnet, or goose neck, style) or materials (wood or nickel plated) also cost more.
Internal Horns came in about 1910 (with the Victrola, the generic "-ola" suffix signifies an internal horn machine), and were big sellers based on their inherent convenience - you had a box that made music rather than a complicated gadget you had to be careful of. The ultimate development in internal horns was Victor's Orthophonic horn (1925 - 1929) and if you plan to do lots of listening to conventional disks, this is probably what you should seek. Similarly, Edison went to internal horns on his cylinder machines about the same time (1912 or so) with the "Amberola" machines. His Diamond Disc Disc machines were all internal horn units.
Machine Manufacturers:Edison, Victor, Columbia, Other
Edison was the cylinder king, and owned the diamond disc concept lock stock and barrel. there are other cylinder machines (and record makers), especially Columbia, but edison is the way to go (at least from the purist's standpoint) if you'll only own one. They are generally hardy and well designed, and parts are readily available.
Victor dominated the conventional disk market until the early 20's, and the machines are pretty darn good, because they had the patents locked up and had money to put into development. Columbia disk machines are also pretty good (due to the patents being shared or licensed between the two). In the early 20's the basic victor phono patents expired, and a craze for recorded dance music swept the nation, spawning many competitor disk units. These are the "off brand" wind-up units you'll find today - generally you should avoid these, because the sound quality is undependable due to funky horn designs from these inexperienced or patent-limited makers. To beat the competition and restore market dominance, in 1925 Victor went to the Orthophonic horn (and Columbia to the similar Vivatonal horn). Then the stock market crash, radio's ascendance to popularity and RCA's purchase of Victor pretty much sealed the acoustic phonograph's fate by 1930.
There are other makers of lateral-cut disc phonographs, such as Brunswick and Cheney. If a machine of this category appeals to you on an aesthetic or price-based level, buy it, but don't expect performance up to the Victor standard.
To play an Edison Diamond Disc record, you'll need an Edison Diamond Disc phonograph. They have a specific design, including a gear-driven mechanism to draw the tonearm across the record as it plays and a specific reproducer and diamond-tipped stylus, suited to play the 1/4 inch thick Diamond Disc records made only by the Edison company. Lateral adaptors can be found, used to play "conventional" discs on an Edison, but for various reasons these generally provide disappointing results.
Special Note on Brunswicks: Many of these were equipped with the special multiple-reproducer tonearm, the Ultona, that was touted as being able to play "all" disc records, including Edison Diamond Discs and Pathe' vertical cut discs. Well, yes, they can - but if you think you'll avoid having to get a proper Edison machine to play your diamond discs by getting a Brunswick, guess again!
Diamond discs have insufficiently thick sidewalls to their grooves to support the tracking forces of a tonearm that relies upon friction alone to draw it across the record's face. Brunswick couldn't use Edison's patented tracking mechanism to drive the tonearm - and hence this use will cause wear and damage to diamond discs played on such machines.
Spring or Electric Motors:Spring Motor Machines are romantic and reliable, easily repaired and plentiful - but they wear out your arm if you play the machine a lot. And don't forget, you have to jump up every 3 or 4 minutes anyway to change the record and needle - so do you want to have to wind it too?
Electric Motors were available from the manufacturers on internal horn machines from the mid teens onward (some very early edison cylinder machines also had primitive battery motors), but usually only on the higher-priced models. Aftermarket electric crank winders were also available - you bolted it to the outside of the cabinet and it wound up the spring electrically. A very few Edison Diamond Disc machines were made available with electric motors from the factory but won't generally be found today. Lots of Victor Orthos had electric motors, as standardized current and voltage for electrification in the home became more common in the late '20's.
Electrical or Acoustic Recordings:Prior to the mid-20's, all records were made by folks clustered around a big horn which funneled the sound into a cutter which mechanically made a master recording. This was then used to press the records for sale. Since it relied on sound energy and dictated cramped recording conditions, there were adverse effects on quality. When electronics technology had progressed to the point where microphones and amplifiers could be used, recordings began to be made electrically, with resulting improvements in tonal response, the possible sizes of bands, and clarity and loudness of the recordings.
Victor electrical records are designated "Orthophonic" recordings and usually sport a little "VE" notation at the top of the label. The Columbia equivalent is the "Vivatonal" recording. Tied in to the simultaneous release of the superior machines of the same names, the effect was mind-blowing to the consumer, and sales took off. Other electrical records have lightning bolts or other clues on the label, but most records after 1925 or so are electricals. Even Edison went electric on his last diamond disks and cylinders (he quit in 1929), and you can hear the difference.
Often, electricals will sound harsh on earlier machines, likewise, acoustics will usually sound bland on an Orthophonic.
Questions? Fire away!
Return to the W.A.M.S. Home Page