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A GUIDE TO PLAYING 78 rpm RECORDS

by Roger Beardsley

The idea behind this guide is to help collectors to get the best results from their precious 78rpm records. It is not exhaustive, neither is it highly technical. Whilst it starts from scratch, it is equally applicable to those with some sort of 78 replay system. This is probably the most suitable point to say that electrical reproduction with good, modern equipment is infinitely superior to original 78 gramophones, whether electric or acoustic. Even the EMGs cannot compete. And of course only modern lightweight pickups can be used on vinyl pressings such as those produced by Historic Masters: not even thorns can be used without damage. However, the advantage is that such pressings can produce quite stunning results when reproduced on good, simple equipment.

To play 78s you need the following equipment:

  1. A turntable with variable speed adjustment, covering a range from about 60 to 90 rpm. Several are available to do this.
  2. A good quality tone arm, containing a stereo cartridge and styli, which have been retipped for playing 78s.
  3. An amplifier, preferably one capable of selecting mono as well as stereo. Ideally, it should have a facility for reproducing the different equalisations used in the 78 era.
  4. High quality loudspeakers. It is easy to think that 78 rpm discs, with their limited acoustic range c.f. modern recordings, do not require good loudspeakers. The opposite is true.

 

Turntable:

The first item you will need is a suitable turntable with variable speed. This is because so many 78s were not recorded at exactly 78rpm: speeds of between 72 and 85 rpm are quite common, with a few higher or lower. Probably the cheapest option is a second-hand variable-speed Goldring-Lenco unit, one of the ‘GL’ series. They are still easy to find and relatively cheap. They always benefit from some basic maintenance, which will include a new idler wheel. (see end for details of suppliers). The biggest problem with the Goldrings is the incidence of rumble. That new idler wheel will help, as will removing, cleaning and re-greasing the main bearing. If you cannot tackle this yourself, many specialist hi-fi shops can do it for you. Other turntables types include the STD, which has a useful digital read-out, but which can be a nightmare to repair, since spares are hard to find. Many other types can be found that will play 78s, but not usually with the required speed variation. Garrard 301/401 as they stand only have something like a 3% variation, although can at some expense be modified by Loricraft to give very wide speed control. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Goldring and STD turntables are capable of almost infinite speed variation up to 90 rpm and are thus ideal if you play Pathé discs.

If a larger budget is available, and it is worth relating this to the cost/value of your collection, then probably the best option is the modified Technics SL1200. It is a high quality, ruggedly built unit, capable of seriously good results. In the UK the cost is likely to be around £400 and in the USA $600. It comes complete with arm and removable head shell, a necessary feature with the need for different styli (See next section). In its normally modified form, the speed variation is between 72 and 85. Sufficient for most purposes, but not all. However Digital Recording Services (see below) can alter if necessary, to give speeds of over 100 rpm.

For those wishing to spend more, the Technics SP10 Mk. 2 and EMT 950 are regularly available from firms dealing in ex-broadcast and studio equipment. These however require specialist skills in order to interface with domestic pre-amp/amplifier systems and in both cases, variable speed options may not be installed as standard.

Cartridge/Styli:

With a suitable turntable, the next item to consider is the cartridge/stylus. Ordinary hi-fi types are not really ideal for the harsh conditions of 78 playback. High surface speeds and recorded velocities, warped and badly centred records and heavier playing weights all conspire to upset delicate stylus systems.

Suitable cartridges are the Shure SC35, Shure M44, Stanton 500 series and Ortofon Pro range. All are very reasonably priced, under £40/$60, and come with LP stylus which can be re-tipped by specialist companies with a 78 type. 78 styli have a tip which is much broader that that used for LPs. All of these will track happily at 4/5 grams, the optimum weight given the groove-wall geometry/dynamics of the 78.

Ideally you will need more than one stylus type. This is because standardisation of groove dimensions did not happen until around the 1940s. Ideally, to cover the entire range from 1900 to 1940, you would need styli with tip radii of between .0015” and .0040” with probably something like 10 or more variations in between. However, to play most records well you don’t need more than two. The most useful are .0032” and .0028”. The .0032” will give good results on most HMV/Victor recordings from the period 1905 to 1940. The .0028” will give better reproduction on most Columbia, Parlophone and Odeon for the same period as well as being good for pre-revolutionary Russian HMVs. Remember, there are no fixed rules. If you have a range of styli experiment with which sounds the best: if it sounds right, it is right!

For those with larger budgets, a greater range of styli will be an advantage although the differences in many cases will not be great. Some early G & Ts and some Fonotipias do best with much smaller styli such as .0018” or .0021”. Quite a number of Odeons from the early electrical era will give a lower surface noise with a .0030” as compared with a .0028”.

These special styli can be obtained from Expert Stylus Co. The BBC, studios and engineers throughout the world use them. Price is approximately £44 to re-tip a stylus assembly, but it does vary according to type. Expert Stylus Co. is always happy to advise you on the most suitable stylus/cartridge.

Whilst you can have just one cartridge/head shell assembly and change the stylus each time you play a record requiring a different type, the day will come when a finger will slip and your expensive stylus will be useless. It is better to purchase extra head shells and cartridges and keep one stylus in each. To change stylus you simply change the head shell. The best/most suitable type of head shell is the Technics type available from Digital Recording Services in the UK and KAB in the USA.

Having arrived at the point of playing your records on a suitable turntable with the right stylus, you will need an amplifier. Actually, you need a pre-amplifier first, that’s the bit with the volume and tone controls on.

Here we run into difficulties. Virtually all pre-amplifiers (or integrated units with pre-amp. built-in) that have a disc (phono) input are pre-set to play modern LPs. However, 78s were recorded using very different characteristics and so the replay is different. In simple terms, there is more recorded bass on a 78 and less treble than on an LP. So if we do nothing, the 78 will sound rather boomy at the bottom and dull at the top. The best option is a special pre-amp designed for 78s, but they are not cheap. They range from around £350/$500 (and a long way upwards!). The basic ones do the job very well but if you cannot afford one, then reducing the bass with the tone control on your system will help balance the bass range greatly. For the top end, if playing an electrical 78, some treble boost will brighten the sound quite nicely but at the expense of more surface noise. It is a question of personal taste. With acoustic records (and some very early electrics), there is little at the top end anyway and any treble boost needed is likely to be minimal, but again, adjust to taste.

If your control unit has a mono switch, use it. What that does is to parallel the two outputs from the cartridge. This helps reduce distortion and rumble. If not, get Expert to wire your cartridges to produce the same effect.

Filtering is another question where personal taste operates. Control units such as the Quad series have a variable slope filter that can, when judiciously used, reduce the noise with little effect on the sound because what you doing is to cut noise that is higher in frequency than the recorded sound. It is an interesting observation that, the better the equipment, the less filtering is necessary.

A few additional points:


I hope that this guide has been of help. It cannot be all encompassing and by its very nature is not technical. Most of the dealers/suppliers listed below will be very happy to give assistance. They are usually enthusiasts too, so do ask. 

Where to get the equipment:

Styli and Cartridges

Expert Stylus Co.
PO Box 3,
Ashtead,
Surrey KT21 2QD, UK
Tel. +44 (0) 1372 276604

Technics Turntables, Pre-amplifiers and general help.

Digital Recording Services (Jim Hirst)
68, High Street
Shepperton, Middlesex TW17 9AU
England, UK
Tel. +44 (0) 1932 225242

Garrard Turntables and Record Cleaning Machine.

Loricraft,
4, Big Lane,
Lambourn,
Berks.
RG17 8XQ, UK
Tel. +44 (0) 1488 72267

Record Cleaning Machines.

Keith Monks Sound Systems,
29, Tower Park,
Fowey,
Cornwall.
PL23 1JD, UK
Tel. +44 (0) 1726 833783

Technics Turntables, Cartridges, Pre-amps, Cleaning Machines and Accessories.

KAB Electro Acoustics,
PO Box 2922,
Plainfield,
NJ 07062-0922
USA
Tel. +1 (908) 754 1479

Goldring Spares and Service.

Technical and General,
PO Box 53,
Crowborough,
Sussex
TN 6 2BY, UK
Tel. +44 (0) 1892 654534

78 rpm dealers who also supply equipment.

Nauck’s Vintage Records
6323 Inway Drive,
Spring,
Texas 77389-3643
Tel. +1 (281) 370 7899

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