A cura del Dott. Stefano Pasini www.stefanopasini.it
One can almost picture it. A large fist slamming on a huge oak desk (or on a clean Formica table: it wouldn’t change the atmosphere a bit). You can also imagine the owner of the fist: stocky, solidly built, with a round pink face supported by a massive neck, a neck as wide as the head itself. The neck of a wrestler, coming out of a white shirt buttoned to the top, with a dark tie and a double-breasted woollen suit. A CEO’s suit over the broad shoulders of a man very much alike the fiery Alfred Neubauer, Mercedes-Benz iron-fisted racing manager.
The man is shouting. Not too many words, but uttered with force, nearly with violence: “I do not care if they are building the best turntables in the world. I do not care if he is a great engineer and his guys are great as well. I do not care about their relationship with the big radio and television corporations.” (Pause, maybe puffing in a large, torpedo-sized cigar.) “WE ARE TELEFUNKEN! The best electronic firm in Germany, in Europe, of the whole world!” the man bellows, bending a little to look straight in the eye the slightly startled, bald man in white lab overall that is standing before him, on the other side of the table. “We cannot leave that slice of the market to them alone. If they’re building good machines, we can build’em better. MUCH better. And this kind of deck ready soon. Very soon. Have I been clear enough?”
The professional market for studio turntables had been booming steadily since years when Telefunken decided to enter the fray, and those years since 1948 and the resuming of embryonic radio broadcasts in Germany and the rest of Europe had been years of expansion for firms that had understood the basic needs of the new stations: good sound, easiness of use, but above all sturdiness and bullet-proof reliability in any kind of environment. Studer, Nagra were amongst the first to exploit the young, rich market of the broadcast stations; Garrard served BBC since 1953 with their ‘301’ while Tannoy provided monitors that were ubiquitous to the point of being synonymous with ‘loudspeaker’ (“Switch off that tannoy, dammit”) as Hoover was for dust-cleaners. But for turntables, one man was dominating with its tiny firm the upper-upper echelon of super-pro decks: enter Wilhelm Franz and his ‘Elektrogerate-Mess-Technik’. In short, ‘EMT’.
Their ‘Large Studio Turntable’, appreciated in the studios as the ‘R80’ and generally known as the ‘927’, was so exceptional that it defies time; even now, it’s one of the best vinyl-spinners around. In 1948, it was like a rocket ship combined with a King Tiger tank and, moreover, extremely easy to use as a turntable. It was the Kaiser of its market segment, and nobody, but nobody, could ever touch it. The French, never to miss the opportunity to reject a foreign product, did their best with the colossal ‘Bourdereau’, admirable if only for its 95 kilograms weight, and the Schlumbergers and Cléments; but where are they now?
So, EMT was the Number One, and enjoyed the hefty revenues of a well-established brand and of an exceptional relationship with the radio corporations all over the world. Telefunken, on the other hand, had slowly rebuilt itself from the ashes of the war, that had seen the once-proud German firm hit extremely badly. If you think that at the end of the war Mercedes-Benz was the firm that had been more completely destroyed in the Reich, then you’re wrong: Telefunken had been bombed flat all the same, and moreover the Allied had stolen the patents of, for example, the magnetic-band recorder (while the Russians had raided, looted and then destroyed legendary plants like the Nauen broadcasting centre near Berlin). The Telefunken machines, developed in the Thirties with BASF and AEG, went straight to USA where they were the first basis of the exceedingly successful Ampex saga. According to an accounting report in 1949, Telefunken since 1944 had lost assets worth more than 100 Million Marks.
Under the direction of Hans Heyne, Chairman of the Managing Board since 1951, “Telefunken Gesellschaft fur Drahtlose Telegraphie mBH” rebuilt its plants quite quickly and at the end of the ‘50s it was already worthy of its glorious brand. So one must expect that Telefunken, having joined forces with the even mightier industrial concern ‘AEG’, had to build the best broadcast turntables in the world, surely having them designed and built in their professional branch, “Telefunken ELA”. This ‘ELA’ was the pro branch, the real heavyweight section. Located in Wolfenbüttel, 80 kms from Hannover, it built extraordinary microphones, tape recorders and other studio equipment. Even after the catastrophe of the war, they had been able to rebuild their factories in Berlin, Hannover and Ulm rapidly enough, and now, in the second half of the Fifties, they were beginning to enjoy the satisfaction of having ‘got there’. Their excellence was once again the benchmark of the electronic firms around the world, especially where, like in broadcast station and recording studio equipment, you could command hefty premiums to deliver what the professionals requested.
wonder, then, that our imaginary man in Berlin was so upset at the monopoly of
their market segment enjoyed by EMT. There was money to be earned there, serious
money, but his scientists in Wolfenbuttel were always researching in new tubes
and mikes, building sensational reel-to-reel tape recorders…. And nobody took
notice of the need to have a really good turntable to offer to their customers,
that were virtually forced to buy from the small but extremely efficient Lahr
firm. At the end, therefore, one might expect ELA to do their duty and put out a
truly astounding turntable: a design worthy of the mission of a true
professional machine, the absolute best, period. It all fits perfectly in the
picture: the anger of the manager in Berlin was, after all, quite justifiable.
Only, it didn’t go that way. Sorry, but it wasn’t ELA who did it all, and the yelling man in Berlin, if he ever existed, wasn’t obeyed: Telefunken, in fact, didn’t build any super-plattenspieler in Wolfenbuttel. The extraordinarily fascinating three-model range of Telefunken broadcast turntables wasn’t even ‘Made in Germany’: these formidable symbols of Teutonic massiveness and outright precision were made in Milan. Yes, in Italy.
must be forgiven, of course, if you admit that you never heard about the
Telefunken ‘broadcast’ decks; though they’re probably amongst the
finest turntables ever built, not many people know that Telefunken made machines
of this kind. They’re a sort of ‘mystery’ everywhere: the fact that
Telefunken in Germany has been recently dismantled by Thomson makes it obviously
difficult to find anyone knowledgeable about the history of the Marque, and the
fact that not even the experts of Telefunken know this kind of deck looks like a
dead end. The fascinating Telefunken logo complicates enormously the job of the
historian: it took several weeks of phone calls, e-mail messages, faxes and
letters to find the right track. Thus, after this detective work, we can at last
shed some light on this matter and write a decently accurate history of these
This unknown, somewhat mysterious history begins with the financial and technical expansion of RAI-Radiotelevisione Italiana, heir to the former ‘EIAR’, the State broadcasting company. In the Fifties, radio was an essential backbone of Italy’s social life and TV was big news: RAI was given huge loads of money to attain, in the serious monitoring regimes of the day, the highest possible technical standards. It was actually one of the best broadcasting corporations in the whole world, and used only the best equipment: Nagra was earning a lot of money selling to RAI their ‘IIIs’ and then ‘IVs’, as were Studer, Revox, Neumann, and of course EMT.
At the time, the universal support for the broadcast transmission of music was obviously the record, mainly the 12” 33 1/3 rpm vinyl mono record that, in 1958, was evolved in ‘stereo’ with the 45/45° groove system. The need for good turntables rose steadily all around the world, so much that the production possibilities of EMT were sometimes strained to meet the requests of a growing market. Furthermore, EMT, rigidly sticking to its two-models-only range of studio turntables (‘927’ since 1950, ‘930’ since 1956) and having a full range of high-quality studio equipment to produce (reverbs, flutter analyzers, compressors, etc), didn't offer the flexibility that its customers would need. RAI was a particularly good customer, but its needs for a continuous supply of new turntables for its expanding network of studios and auditoriums wasn’t always satisfied by the tiny German manufacturer, thus at a time RAI even built in its labs in Turin a turntable labeled 'Carson', to be used in its studios when they didn't have an EMT available. This effort wasn't particularly successful, but the idea of building an alternative to the all-conquering EMTs was born: thus at the beginning of the Seventies the Chef of AEG-Telefunken audio professional division in Italy, Mr. Angelo Bosco, thought that probably there was some opening for another offering.
Designing a completely new, high-level broadcast turntable comparable with EMTs was a formidable task, but Mr. Bosco wasn’t worried. Since decades, he had sold to its professional customers the best tape-recording studio machines in the world, namely the Telefunken magnetophones in all of their evolutions, plus tape duplicators and the like. To build his own turntable he hired as a consultant Mr. Edgardo Magnaghi, a talented former turntable designer at LESA, one of Italy’s main electronic/hi-fi concerns. His job had always been to design turntables, so he had the right ideas to build a ‘definitive’ one. He also was the guiding hand behind the design of the excellent ‘Panta’, a short-lived but well-thought Italian medium-class turntable. Being Mr. Bosco working for AEG-Telefunken at the time, it was clear that their goal was to market a machine with that name (this eventually happened, as we shall see.) In 1974, the design work began in earnest, and the first product appeared in 1975: it was the ‘PS80’.
The layout of this deck betrays from the first sight its absolute dedication to ‘professional’ operation. Large, heavy, all built in solid cast-metal parts with a very sturdy chassis made out of bent, welded and bolted sheet metal structure, it really looks the part. From the mechanical point of view, it’s an idler-wheel turntable with a huge motor and a very heavy platter, 3 speeds (33, 45 and 78 rpm) a 16” straight arm and a built-in preamplifier/equalizer for 47 Kohm cartridges on a standard EIA shell, as required by RAI. (Even EMTs were supplied in Italy with this layout, their ‘929’ being shortened 15 mm. and modified to accept EIA headshells).
Mechanically, it represents the state of the art of that time: a very heavy metal platter suspended on a thick steel hub, rotating in a large main bearing rigidly fixed to the main deck. The Italian designers also took care of one of the real chores for audio engineers of the time: ‘cueing’, i.e. providing an instantaneous starting of the music at the due moment during a live broadcast. In the idler-wheel EMTs, you have a brake that disengages the acryl platter over the main steel platter, that keeps rotating while the 'acryl' (and the record) are blocked; when the record has to start, the brake is released and the nominal speed is attained in 500 ms.
Mr. Magnaghi took great pains to design a better system. The ‘80’ uses the same basic concept of a '927/930' or a Thorens 124: the heavy main platter is always rotating, but there is a counterplatter, light and easy to start and stop, that can be coupled with the platter on demand. In the Telefunken, they did it with an overkill: the counterplatter is a Perspex and special-rubber affair with a central metal bearing, its outer ring is stopped by a sophisticated metal clamp operated by a solenoid controlled by the turntable’s electronic ‘brain’, and there is also an additional brake pad being released on the outer circumference of the main platter (under the heavy 12” metal counterplatter) when it’s time to stop its rotation.
This ‘stop’ action is linked to the silencing of the signal (line) output: when you press the ‘Motore’ switch only, the motor and the main platter start, but the clamp holds the Perspex platter immobile and the signal output of the pre is muted. Pressing the ‘Start’ button, the clamp is released and the muting cancelled at the same time, making cueing quite easy and effective. The same clamp brakes the counterplatter at the end of the playing, pushing the ‘Start’ button again, and the output is muted once again, but the main platter continued to rotate unless also the ‘Motore’ button is pressed once again. (This stops the motor as well, of course). In this case another brake, this one a massive cast-metal arm with a proper brake shoe, is pressed against the lower portion of the platter to stop it at once.
This turntable was so impressive, and the design and craftsmanship so good, that AEG-Telefunken allowed its Italian branch the use of their name and symbol, the fabled Telefunken ‘Stern’, for it, giving to the ‘PS80’ a good start in the marketing battle against consolidated rivals like EMT. The actual mechanical assembly of the new turntable, like the following models, was entrusted to Mr. Pastega of Bassano del Grappa: its firm was also responsible for the electronic part of the turntable, i.e. all the hardware and software connected with the management of the motor, the brake arrangement and the RIAA/preamplifier. The choice of this firm proved to be extremely good, as the preamplifiers of these turntables are still highly reputed amongst the real professional of the RAI laboratories, with a linearity rarely attained even by the best foreign competitors. Small wonder that Mr. Pastega small but extremely sophisticated lab evolved, during the years, in a larger firm producing, amongst other things, state-of-the-art radio microphones used by the more important radio/TV corporations, battling straight with a colossus like Sennheiser.
No more than 50 turntables of the ‘PS80’ model were built, as the good reception from the final customers brought Mr. Bosco and his collaborators to speed up the development work for its heir: the more complex, refined and, of course, much-improved ‘PS81’.
The natural successor of the ‘PS80’ followed the basic layout of the ‘80’, beginning with the dimensions, large for domestic standards, in fact average for broadcast studios. To survive in an utterly professional environment, the ‘PS81’ was routinely fitted in a new special console; instead of the two sturdy legs of the ‘PS80’, this one has large, heavy and extremely rigid side panels of reinforced wood, deep as the whole console, with adjustable rubber/steel feet, and resemble the ones Studer made for EMTs (but is probably even sturdier). In this conformation, the ‘81’ weights around 70 kgs (140 lbs). This is a good average weight for this kind of deck; Telefunken built the four floor supports sturdily enough to support twice as much this weight, thus increasing the stability of the whole system.
Over this rock-solid support is encased the turntable, and it’s an absolutely amazing machine. If you know well enough the EMTs, that are splendid machines built with a straightforward vision to access and reliability of all their parts, you will be astounded at the thoroughness of this Italian engineering. To begin with, the main chassis is massive! Its main structure consists of three die-cast metal panels of uncommon strength, one being the real main chassis, i.e. an horizontal deck carrying the main bearing, the motor and idler-wheel support, etc; the other two the sides with very stiff springs to suspend the main chassis and insulate it from floor noise/vibration, etc. The motor is very large and powerful and it’s the same that you could find on the Telefunken studio recorders, a time-proven design renowned for its ‘muscles’, reliability and quietness of operation. Some gossip suggest that the ‘PS80/81’ turntable was in fact built just because Telefunken had this motor and it was so good that someone suggested to wrap around it something else, as Telefunken had already saturated the market with its tape recorders!
The motor moves a large-diameter main pulley, and this drives an unusually large and thick idler (manufactured by Pradella & Bassignana of San Giuliano Milanese, like the rubber mat), wide as a Thorens 124’s but thick as an EMT 930’s. The motor pulley is not ‘stepped’, the disc speed changes (33/45/78 rpm, of course) because of the processor-controlled variation of speed of the motor, and this takes us to another very important aspect of the ‘PS81’: the ample usage of electronics. EMT was very advanced in this sector, as in 1977 it had introduced the magnificent all-electronic direct-drive ‘950’, but the other rivals were hopelessly left behind by Bosco’s work.
The ‘PS81’ has an built-in solid-state stereo RIAA of exceptional quality, a monitor amplifier and loudspeaker, a remote-control facility; the arm lift is electric, controlled by a special circuit, and there is a very special arrangement for the all-important (in pro applications) quick start and stop of the disc. All this electronic equipment is neatly arranged in several motherboards stacked vertically under the main deck; access is easy after having opened the front protective panel, made from a sheet of iron thick and sturdy enough to serve as a supplementary anti-rocket protection for the tracks of a Schwere Panzer. Behind the turntable, a similar panel covers the XLR balanced outputs, the AC inlet and the remote control multiple connector. The start/stop mechanism was improved and connected with a rotational sensor and a switch for the motor power supply. Pressing ‘Motore’ you mute the output, apply the two different brakes to the platter and turn off the motor; when the brakes have arrested the platter, they are released and the platter can be manually rotated again.
Like the ‘PS80’, also the ‘PS81’ is fitted with a deceptively simple, long (12” from the fulcrum to the stylus) tonearm with a complicated magnetic antiskating device that RAI removed on principle. Built by the specialist Italian firm ‘COSME’ of Cinisello Balsamo, this tonearm is quite close in concept, if not in appearance, to the early Ortofons used by EMT on the 927, like the RMG-297; the articulation is of the ball-bearing-and-counterpoints type. The arm was very long to minimise the tracking error, not to allow the reproduction of 16” records (they were widely outmoded by that time): the braking system ‘clamp’ voided the playing of any record larger than 12” on a ‘PS81’. This tonearm is a real quality component, needing a high-mass cartridge to perform to its best. As RAI used heavy cartridges for the 78 rpm records at the time, its counterweight is abnormally heavy, so to fit a modern lightweight cartridge you will need to put on the headshell a few grams of ‘ballast’.
‘PS81’ was a very good turntable for the times, and it gave EMT a run for
their money, even at a price that surely wasn’t low: building a ‘PS81’
allegedly cost AEG-Telefunken of Italy 4 million liras, and it was sold to RAI
at a price exceeding 5 million liras. In those days, with that money you could
buy a brand-new fast car, like a BMW 2002Tii; used Ferrari Daytonas changed
hands for little more than that. But the product was so good that one hundred of
these machines (serial numbers from #1001 to #1100) were actually built from
1978 to 1981.
Arguably, the massive 'PS81' now are the more sought-after and valuable of all
the Telefunken broadcast turntables.
Arguably, the massive 'PS81' now are the more sought-after and valuable of all the Telefunken broadcast turntables.
The broadcast turntable was evolving, anyway, and the high quality and superb engineering of the idler-wheel ‘PS81’ looked outmoded when it was compared with the brand-new, outstanding EMT '950' (1976). Albeit horribly expensive, the ‘950’ was really an astounding progress for its sector: its deceptively simple looks concealed a stupefying array of technical advances, like the direct-drive with an extremely powerful motor and a clever brake system, engineered to give an ultra-short starting and stopping time thanks also to the extreme lightness of the platter and the superb speed-control electronics; all this, and a really bulletproof construction with an extreme reliability in all conditions of use, made the ‘950’ the new benchmark of its category, and Telefunken bowed to the unavoidable pressure of the market stopping the production of the ‘PS81’ to introduce, in 1981, the ‘PS81DD’, that was very much like a ‘PS81’ with a direct-drive Denon-derived powertrain. An illuminated stroboscope visible through a small frontal window, a shorter tonearm, a Perspex protection for the back of the same and a simplified electronic part were the main differences of the ‘DD’ version of the ‘PS81’.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that the 'PS81DD' was probably only a stop-gap measure until a completely new machine could be put into production. The fact is that the Denon motor gave some troubles: allegedly, the magnetic track printed on the interior rim of the platter could fail abruptly rendering the machine useless, and I have been told that Denon unexplainably wouldn't supply any spares for that motor. True or not, only 50 ‘PS81DD’s were allegedly built in 1981 (serial numbers #5101-#5150), then the production was stopped. Pity, because it is anyway a formidable deck, with a superb sound and good overall reliability.
The real heir to the 'PS81', the first completely new Telefunken turntable since the 'PS80', was designed in 1980 and unveiled in 1981: it was known internally as a ‘TRS 9000’ and to the outside customers as ‘G90’. These turntables used a direct-drive traction system designed by Mr. Oscar Barretella and built by AEG of Italy, and their striking design put them miles apart from the grey EMTs of the times. Light silver was the dominant colour, the tonearm was similar to the previous models’ with a special ‘floating’ counterweight, there was a light platter for a very quick start (250 msec to reach the nominal rotational speed) and a reverse mode for cueing: just like the ‘950’ but in a more compact, extremely attractive package, so probably nearer to the EMT '948'. The '9000' is undoubtedly a more elegant design and has a much more attractive appearance. Two versions were offered, one complete with all the bells and whistles (‘G90S’), one somewhat simplified to offer the machine at a more convenient price (‘G90P’).
The ‘G90’ was the first (and, sadly, the last) of the 'AEG' broadcast turntables; ‘Telefunken’, as a brand, had been acquired by French colossus Thomson and was ruthlessly erased from the electronic landscape of XX Century. One of the most famous brands of the professional field was eliminated at once; AEG, once linked with it, continued its road alone. Thus the turntables of mr. Bosco and mr. Magnaghi took this glorious name, and were produced in fair quantities, considering the high cost of these decks. More than 300 examples of the two combined series of ‘PS81’ were built in six years of uninterrupted production, and, as also EMT was stopping its production after having been bought by the Belgian Barco group, AEG was more or less left to be the last stalwart of the production of high-quality ‘broadcast’ analogic turntables.
The AEG ‘G90S’ was an excellent machine, and was very much appreciated all around Europe. Several broadcast stations acquired it in fair quantities: the RAI, of course, bought many of them in several versions: the 'TRS-9000' studio version and the 'TRS-9100' portable machine with lockable arm and suspension, four sturdy rings to suspend the deck during transport, etc. 150 AEGs allegedly were bought by the Greek national radio/TV corporation, other went in Chile. Their quality was so good that in 1984 EMT itself, nearly at the end of the scheduled production of their ‘950’ (one must remember that it was the time when CDs were beginning to invade, irreversibly, the professional market, and EMT was introducing their '980' and '981' CD-players), asked to Bosco and his team to build a batch of 50 machines for them! High praise indeed, though this, sadly, didn’t happen. Curiously, the production prices envisaged for the ‘950’ were very quite similar to the cost of the ‘G90S’, at 4.460 DM. The total of the income for AEG of Italy, for this operation, would have been of 223.000 Deutsche Marks. Unfortunately, the deal wasn’t closed because of the negative attitude of the Italian AEG managers of that time. It is not known if EMT built that batch of '950's in Germany or elsewhere. For sure, the '950' was still produced, albeit in restricted numbers, even in 1986.
In 1987, the CD had definitely surpassed the vinyl record in the professional market, but there was still a demand for turntables of the higher level: thus mr. Bosco conceived an evolution of the ‘90’ series, that had to be called ‘G91’, with proprietary AEG direct-drive and several detail improvements. The study of this new product was so advanced that even the costs for a first batch of 50 machines had been already detailed; then the director of Italian AEG at the time, dr. Dieck, cancelled the project.
This was the end of the game for the AEG-Telefunken family of extraordinary professional turntables. A sad end, but the CD had already sentenced to death many other manufacturers of ‘analogue’ turntables, as for the professionals the little shiny Compact Disc had too many advantages to turn back to the sonically superb but delicate vinyl records.
Dott. Stefano Pasini, Bologna, 2.2.2001 (rev.9.2002)