The Phonograph Reproducer/Sound-Box -- Where Sound Begins

Sound Arm

If you are about to buy a phonograph, check that it has the right parts so you don't take home a "mongrel" machine pieced together from various junked machines. Don't buy a "Crap-o-phone"! Only experts can tell if every item on a machine is correct, but anyone can check what is at the end of a tone-arm. I mean the circular part that holds the needle. This is the reproducer, or what the Victor Talking Machine Company called the "Sound-Box." Victor Sound-Boxes should be on Victrolas, Columbia reproducers should be on Columbia Grafonolas, and so on. First-rate companies like Victor and Edison proudly stamped the company name on reproducers. Third-rate companies often did not, so beware of "anonymous" reproducers.

A machine's sound is only as good as its reproducer. The sound box is arguably the "heart" of a phonograph (it may be strange to think of the sound box, not the horn, as the machine's "heart").  Vibrations from the record grooves are transferred from the stylus via a stylus bar or linkage to the center of a diaphragm which vibrates and generates the actual sound.  Most phonograph companies used thin mica, guttapercha, or Celluloid as the material for the diaphragm in their sound boxes.  The diaphragm is meant to vibrate and "float" between two rings of soft rubber gaskets.

I will list some common reproducers and give tips about what to look for. When you examine this sensitive piece of equipment, treat it gently. Don't poke or put pressure on diaphragms, whether made of mica or metal, since they are thin and fragile. If a reproducer is made from delicate pot metal, the housing may crumble in your hands if any force is used, so if the machine is not yours, play it safe by letting the machine's owner remove the reproducer from the tonearm.


Above is a drawing of a Victrola Sound-Box, the "No 2" (it was successor to the company's Sound-Box named the "Exhibition" Sound-Box). The Victor Talking Machine Company used the term "Sound-Box" whereas most other companies used the term "reproducer." It is the circular device into which one inserts the steel needle.

As you examine a machine for sale, consider the reproducer's condition. If you buy a phonograph from an estate sale, the reproducer will likely be in original condition and would benefit from a rebuild. Machines bought from phonograph collectors often have rebuilt reproducers. Sound should be clear and pleasing--no buzzing, blasting, or distortion. If a Victrola is an absolute bargain, don't let a flawed Victor reproducer worry you much since it can be restored or repaired for an additional amount, from $50 to $100.

Experts who restore Victor reproducers are out there. Some also work on competing brands such as Brunswick, Sonora, and Cheney. A few specialize by working only on Edison reproducers. Don't believe anyone who insists an Edison diamond stylus lasts forever since styli need replacing on occasion. A chipped or worn stylus will damage each Diamond Disc played.

Some machines from the late 'teens--made by Starr, Aeolian-Vocalion, Sonora, Silvertone, Pathe, others--came with a multi-purpose reproducer or with a few interchangable reproducers enabling listeners to hear any kind of record. Whereas a Victor Sound-Box will play neither a Pathe record nor an Edison record, and an Edison reproducer is no good for non-Edison records, certain models made by these other companies can play anything. For example, these machines often have the ball-like sapphire needed to play Pathe records. Incidentally, don't believe those Pathe ads from this period that proclaim, "Like a drop of water, the sapphire ball glides along the records--never wears them out." I have seen plenty of worn Pathe discs.

Some Brunswick machine owners use the cleverly designed Brunswick "Ultona," a kind of revolving reproducer that is three reproducers in one! You may position it so it plays a Victor or Columbia disc with a steel needle; turn it for a diamond stylus that plays Edison records; turn it again for the sapphire ball that plays Pathe records.


Sound-Boxes for Victor Machines (Outside Horn) and Victrolas (Inside Horn)

Collectors come across four basic types of Sound-Boxes made by the Victor Talking Machine Company, which existed from 1901 until the late 1920s, finally swallowed by the growing RCA. I use "Sound-Box" here, not "reproducer," since this is the terminology found in Victor literature. Note the hyphen, which Victor literature usually uses. I'm not too fastidious about correct terminology. Victor used the term "Winding Key," but I use the more common word "crank."

For a long period, from around 1903 into the 1920s, Victor manufactured its fine Exhibition Sound-Box. The earliest of these are designed to hold steel needles only, not fibre needles. Triangular-shaped "chucks" (needle holders) were in Exhibition heads by 1910.

A change came in January 1918 when Victor's trade publication, Voice of the Victor, announced a re-designed reproducer called the No. 2. A drawing of a No. 2 is on the cover. This was one of several changes Victor made in this period. On April 19, 1917, Victor had formally introduced the four-spring motor as well as a larger-diameter tonearm, which collectors have nicknamed Victor's "fat arm."

Victor assembly workers at first attached the No. 2 only to tone-arms of higher-priced models, namely the Victrolas XIV, XVI, and XVII. A year later, the No. 2 could be found on the Victrola XI (priced for the average home-owner, the XI was Victor's best selling cabinet model).

Many small models, such as the VIII, IX, and X, were not given the No. 2 until 1921. Into the mid-1920s Victor attached Exhibition heads to the IV, VI, and cheap children type models. Either the Exhibition was cheaper to make than the No. 2 or Victor was using up surplus parts, with many Exhibition heads already made and stored at the factory.

These two acoustic-era Sound-Boxes have different qualities. I am unable to say one is superior to the other! The mica diaphragm of the No. 2 is larger than the Exhibition's, which means increased frequency response (especially in the lower range), hence a well-rounded sound for the No. 2. But one must consider what machine is played, what music is played, what sound qualities are desired. Some listeners enjoy the bright tone of the Exhibition (excellent treble!), especially for opera discs. Others prefer the fuller tone of a No. 2 (better for low bass notes and bands!).

Electrical amplification--that is, the microphone--was introduced to the record industry in 1925, forcing engineers to re-design reproducers. Victor's answer to this revolution in sound was the Orthophonic Sound-Box, very sensitive to high and low frequencies, enabling music lovers to hear fine details in the new "electrically-made" recordings. Records had a fuller sound, more faithful to instruments and the voice--that is, after kinks were worked out of the early recording systems. I wish Caruso had lived a few more years so he could have sung into a microphone! The new technology was especially good at capturing soft singing--the crooning of Gene Austin, Nick Lucas, Whispering Jack Smith, a young Bing Crosby, others.

This new Sound-Box was radically different, with its diaphragm made of aluminum (not mica) and its "spider" that distributes needle motions to the diaphragm's surface. The aluminum is thin, "seventeen ten thousandths of an inch thick." The box has a magnetized pivot carried on self-aligning and self-adjusting ball bearings. There is also a dust cap (reproducers on Victor's Orthophonic portable machines have a piece of felt to help reduce noise). A restored Orthophonic Sound-Box will not hurt records made in this Orthophonic era, from around 1925 to 1932--that is, if you change the steel needle after each play. Try to acquire one made entirely of brass as opposed one with pot-metal parts. The Orthophonic Sound-Box's successor was the electric pick-up, with a permanent magnet, small generating coil, and vibrating armature on the end of which is a needle holder.

Acoustic-era reproducers will damage records made after 1935, which is one reason collectors cringe when they enter an antiques shop and find a Glenn Miller record on a 1917 Victrola. Such a record is damaged when played on an old machine, partly since Big Band records are made of a relatively soft material not meant for Victrolas, but also because older Sound-Boxes will ride too rigidly in the musically-packed grooves of electrically recorded records, damaging them.

What if a flapper decades ago had inherited an older Victrola and wanted to play the post-1925 electric recordings? Victor introduced the short-lived No. 4 for that purpose. Made for a few years beginning in 1925, it is the only Victor reproducer specially designed for both acoustic recordings (made before 1925) and electrical recordings (made after 1925). Designed essentially as an "all-purpose" head, it does not deliver as rich a sound as Victor's other Sound-Boxes.

Sound Box

Above are drawings of reproducers for Edison's Diamond Disc machines (special thanks to my friend Ron Dethlefson for making this available!). These reproducers require diamond styli, not steel needles.

Edison Reproducers (Disc Only--Not Cylinder)

The Edison company used an unusual diaphragm made of seven layers of rice paper impregnated with shellac.  The rice paper used was not the rice paper made from edible rice, but from the rice paper plant, Tetrapanax papyriferum, a member of the Ginseng plant family.  This rice paper contains strong fibers.  Macromolecule plastics were not yet available.

Diamond Discs have surfaces made of Bakelite, an early thermoplastic. You may clean these with rubbing alcohol and tissue paper--do not use rubbing alcohol on shellac discs, such as Victor's.  Grooves on Edison records are narrowly "U" shaped and require a precision ground diamond stylus mounted into a metal shank.  A steel needle would ruin Edison discs because the recording is on the bottoms of grooves, which is called "vertical-cut"--not the sides of grooves, as with common 78 rpm shellac records, which are "lateral-cut."  Edison discs have 150 grooves per inch.  The company installed gearing from the internal spring motor to advance the internal iron horn, tone arm, and sound box, across records--a unique Edison feature (in other words, record grooves do not move the stylus and tone arm forward).  Edison discs should be played at 80 rpm.

If you intend to play an Edison machine often, install new soft rubber gaskets on both sides of the vibrating diaphragm in the sound box.  The old original gaskets are often found hardened or broken. New gaskets would not only give better sound reproduction but cause less record wear.  Also, make sure the tip of the diamond stylus is not worn flat. Nor should it be chipped.  A chipped diamond point can act as a cutting edge and destroy the record grooves.  The stylus can be examined with a strong hand lens or under a dissecting scope.  If you are uncertain of the condition of your stylus, I can send the details of how to check without using a lens.  Also, the height of the internal horn should be adjusted so that the limit pin coming from the sound box's floating weight just rides in the center of the limit loop as it plays an Edison record.  The height of the horn is adjusted on the horn lift rod.  You will need a small adjustable hand wrench.  

Concluding Advice

Reproducers need to be worked on periodically. Any reproducer that buzzes, distorts, or blasts is due for restoration. When a machine sits for decades, reproducer gaskets become dry, hard, cracked, shrunken, ossified. Poorly fitting gaskets affect air pressure, causing sound quality and volume to suffer. When a mica diaphragm looks like it is cracking from the center out, it needs replacing. No Sound-Box should rattle.

I cannot list here the many phonograph enthusiasts who do repair work (I am not one--I never do repair work). I can give this tip: not everyone is qualified to restore pot-metal Orthophonic Sound-Boxes, with their tiny ball bearings and delicate aluminum diaphragms.