Turntables and Audio

Yesterday we gave a little history on the amazing invention of the “talking machine” that, for the first time in the history of mankind, allowed millions of people to enjoy music in their homes. And not just any music, but the music of the masters of that day. Imagine having the great Caruso singing for you whenever and wherever you wanted. What an amazing invention.

Introduced in the latter part of the 1900′s, a decade later Gramophones and Victrolas were in over half of every home in the Western World so great was their popularity – but then the bottom starting falling out of the market as another invention came onto the scene – and this one was leaps and bounds cooler than the turntable: radio, introduced in the 1920′s.

Imagine for a moment growing up in this era where the primary mode of transportation was either riding animals or trains, indoor plumbing is a luxury, gas lamps and lanterns still provide much of the light in homes and all of a sudden there’s a machine that spews out music on command – followed in less than a decade by most cities getting electricity, telephones, electric lights, the introduction of the automobile coupled with the idea of mass production to build them and the end of the animal transportation era. On top of all this add yet another even more magical and mysterious machine that plays music out of thin air! What a wonderful time to experience such huge magical changes.

Between 1920 and 1924 radio usage in the United States, the UK and much of Europe went from zero to over 60% of every home having one. Block parties were regular events and neighbors gathered for evening radio broadcasts of their favorite shows. The bottom on turntable sales dropped from everything to nearly nothing in just 4 short years. Both the Victrola (Gramophone) turntable and the radio were complete players unto themselves – the Gramophone 100% mechanical, the radio 100% electronic.

The Victrola company, faced with warehouses filled with unsold Gramophones made a momentous decision: they would combine forces with the folks at RCA and build a combination Gramophone and radio into one box. Revolutionary in its scope, little attention by the public was paid to the fact that this radio/turntable combination of 1924 marked the first electronic turntable ever made – and from that point forward, all major turntables went from mechanical to amplified in the blink of an eye.

Turntables and radios

Separate radios and separate amplified turntables were still available but the biggest sellers of the day and, for the next several decades to come, remained the combo we now call a receiver which even today still consists of a radio, an amplifier, a preamplifier and a phono input. Unlike the receivers of today, however, these console models included the tone arm and platter (now powered with an electric motor) to make a complete system.

It would take something really interesting to change people’s purchasing habits from this all-in-one console to true separates as we know it.


The separates category in high-end audio is one that is continually occupying my thought process. On the one hand the idea of multiple dedicated boxes allows us to add specific functions to our systems – each with its own independent ecosystem – in an attempt to wring out the very best sound possible in audio today. We can upgrade specific parts of our systems to the latest whiz bang without chucking the whole system. Separates are great!

On the other hand many dedicated boxes need to be connected together in a tangle of interconnects that are both expensive, unnecessary and probably sonically degrading. In the end, don’t all of us just want to play music and have it sound wonderful and impressive in our homes? Wouldn’t we love just one easy box solution that we come home to and enjoy?

Separates really have a unique love/hate relationship in our world of high end audio.

I thought we might spend a few posts taking a look at them anew (we’ve been here before) and question their value. To do this effectively let’s take a moment to go through a quick history of how we got here and why.

Hi Fi didn’t start out with separates. The first players were always complete because people naturally wanted something that just worked and I believe there’s no difference in this feeling today. But I jump ahead of myself.


When you look at this picture of an old and rare Victrola and realize it is not only a complete player but one that required no electricity to run you might scratch your head as to why I would include such an ancient device in this column on high-end audio. I’ll tell you. This marvel of music reproduction brought music to the world in a way that revolutionized everything we take for granted today. Before the introduction of the Victrola or Gramophone there was only live music and that music could only be enjoyed by a special few. Music for the masses did not exist until this player came into use.

At the height of the mechanical player’s popularity in the early 1900′s there were millions produced every year all over the world. Millions each year. I find this fascinating because within just a few short years of its introduction the world went from music-less to filled with music in the blink of an eye. The public’s hunger for music in the home was simply insatiable and I believe this event was on the same level as that of the invention of the printed book. In fact, I dare say the invention of the home music player might have been greater since everyone can appreciate music and back then not everyone could read. Literacy rates around the world were surprisingly low at the turn of the 1900′s.

How did this marvel of engineering work? In the same way a tin can “phone” works. Remember as a kid taking two metal cans, punching a hole in the bottom of each and attaching a taught string between the two and making a phone you could talk to your friend with? That’s how it works.


Sound pressure from your voice moves the bottom of the can back and forth and that movement is carried down the string and the receiving can’s bottom moves in like-response – re-pressurizing the air again so you hear sound. Now, replace the string with a needle and position the needle of one can into a soft wax or plastic material that is spinning underneath (in the form of a cylinder or a flat disc) and the mechanical movement is cut into that soft medium with the moving needle – all powered from nothing more than your voice. Voila, you have a record. Just reverse the process and you hear sound.

The sound out of our can isn’t very loud and we need to amplify it. That’s the function of the big horn you always see on these devices – it’s an amplifier. I am sure all of you have seen horn loudspeakers? That’s exactly the same thing still used today and many in the high-end swear by the sound of these horns. Others swear at them, but that’s for another post. 🙂


The point of this post is that music players started out as whole players because people who want to listen to music want something simple, elegant and easy to use. Tomorrow we progress a bit further.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.
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