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An Empire Turntable History and Rough Time Line

I'm a long time lurker and now first time poster here at the Asylum and thought I'd share some of my findings on Empire turntables. I posted a version of this recently on both www.audiokarma.org www.vinylengine.com and the response I received encouraged me to spread it out to this website.

As my username implies, I’m a big fan of these turntables. I was exposed to them at a very early age, and have owned at one time or another a 298, two 598III's and a 698. I currently own two 598III’s. One pretty much stock, the other tweaked out and mounted with a SME 3009 II (which I really had to alter both arm and 'table to get it to work) and a custom wood base and dust cover I had built to replace the one that came with the unit. (It was in bad shape.)

There are so many myths, mistakes, and erroneous information about these turntables that I pooled all my collective knowledge of them in this post in the hopes some of the mystery surrounding them clears up.

It’s by no means a perfect or truly definitive post, and I appreciate any corrections and feedback anyone can offer.

All the information herein was gleaned from personal experience, library crawls for back issues of audio magazines from the early to late seventies, contemporary reports in stereo magazines such as Stereophile, www.radioshackcatalogs.com, Ebay, this forum, Vinyl Engine, AudioKarma and the treasure trove that is the rest of the internet.

Empire Scientific was a manufacturer of high-fidelity products based in Garden City, New York. It started life as Dyna-Empire, then Audio-Empire, finally sticking with Empire Scientific in the mid 1960’s. Along with phono cartridges and various speakers, Empire manufactured five turntable systems under the “Troubadour” name starting at about 1961 to 1980. It is these turntables that we shall look closely at now.

The major models produced were the 298, 398, 498, 598 and 698.

Those are the model numbers of the “complete” systems that were offered for sale, meaning base, platter/motor, and tonearm sometimes with an Empire cartridge. There are also model numbers for various other permutations involving no arm or no base.

The standard finish was satin chrome for the turntable and tonearm. A satin gold finish was denoted by a G suffix to the model number, except for the 598 & 698 where the gold finish was standard and the chrome was special order only. (I have seen in pictures on the web of one example each of a stock silver/chrome 598 and 698.)

While the gold colored Empire’s are I think the classier looking of the two finishes, they don’t hold up well. The 98 and 980 tonearms in their gold versions seem to suffer the most with an alarming degree of tarnish, flaking and corrosion even worse than in the silver versions. The gold finished platters and plinths also seem to age worse than their silver counterparts. This can be attributed to the metal Empire used, which wasn’t pure aluminum as advertised, but rather “pot metal.” According to Wikipedia:

"Pot Metal" is a slang term that refers to alloys that consist of inexpensive, low-melting point metals used to make fast, inexpensive castings. There is no scientific metallurgical standard for pot metal; common metals in pot metal include zinc, lead, copper, tin, magnesium, aluminium, iron, and cadmium. The primary advantage of pot metal is that it is quick and easy to cast. Due to its low melting temperature no sophisticated foundry equipment is needed and specialized molds are not necessary. Pot metal can be prone to instability over time, as it has a tendency to bend, distort, crack, shatter, and pit with age.[1] The low boiling point of zinc and the fast cooling of the newly-cast part often allow air bubbles to remain within the cast part, weakening the metal.[1] Many of the components of pot metal are susceptible to corrosion from airborne acids and other contaminants, and the internal corrosion of the metal often causes the decorative plating to flake off. Pot metal is not easily glued, soldered or welded.

In 1961, Empire offered for sale it’s first turntable, the model 208/298. The model 208 was an unsuspended, 3-speed belt driven turntable, using a dynamically balanced hysteresis-synchronous, self-cooling AC motor manufactured by Pabst of West Germany, and came without a base or tonearm. The 1962 Radio Shack catalog shows this for sale at the then princely sum of $92.50. (In 2009 money, $656.06.) The model 298, a model 208 turntable with Empire’s model 98 tonearm and walnut base sold for $145.61 ($1031.96 in 2009 dollars)

(As will be seen in the responses below, there is controversy and a convincing argument about the motor not being truly a hysteresis-synchronous type.)

The base was $12.50 extra. ($88.66 in 2009 money) Radio Shack offered bases in walnut, mahogany and fruitwood, the only mention I’ve ever seen of a base in a finish other than walnut.

The 298 was a 208 turntable with the Empire 98 tonearm and walnut base.

The 288 was a baseless 208 turntable with 98 tonearm.

The 398 was a 208 turntable with the Empire 980 tonearm and walnut base. This was first seen in the 1963 Radio Shack catalog selling for $175.00, or $1213.13 in today’s money.

The 388 is a baseless 208 turntable with a 980 tonearm.

The 208 was a serious turntable, featuring a massive seven-pound platter, individually dynamically balanced for lowest run out and maximum smoothness mounted in a heavy bearing well screwed into a substantial metal frame. Even today, fifty years after their manufacture, if you take the belt off a 208/298/398 and give the platter a fast whip spin around, it will turn and turn and turn in an impressive display of the precision of it’s construction. The platter featured a built in pop-up 45-RPM adapter similar to what was found on other turntables of the day like Thorens or Rek-O-Kut, and the usual rubber mat.

Even the base was subtly elegant featuring a semi-gloss clear finish over solid walnut. Far from being a simple box, the base sloped in and downward in a mirror image of the edges of the plinth. The standard hard rubber feet could be augmented by accessory soft springy rubber feet that fit in pre-drilled holes in the bottom of the base to help combat acoustic feedback if needed.

The motor was isolated by three elastomer grommets and there was a small (unspecified) speed change possible by altering the motor’s relation from perpendicular via a knurled set screw on one of the motor’s mounting bushings. Speed change was strictly manual. You had to move the belt on the appropriate pulley for the speed you wanted. The only concession to flash was the on/off switch which had a neon bulb mounted under the clear red plastic push button that made it subtly glow when on.

Because of the heavy platter, synchronous belt drive system, and tight tolerances the 208 has outstanding rumble and wow and flutter specs. The turntable easily met and exceeded the criteria set by the NAB for broadcast quality.

In all, it was worth every penny of it’s substantial asking price.

People talk about a 108 turntable, but I've never been able to uncover any evidence of such a model for sale. I've checked old Lafayette, Allied, and Radio Shack catalogs, and old audio magazines from the late fifties to early sixties and can't find mention of one. Even a late 1980’s replacement turntable parts list I have from Empire makes no mention of a 108 or 100 series turntable. I think people refer to a 108 turntable because early 208's didn't come silk-screened with the model number on the plinth and the serial number tag made no mention of the model number. But because the number A-108 or 108A is scribed on the platter and other metalwork on all the 200/300 series turntables Empire manufactured, it is mistaken for a model number and not the part number it is.

Empire made two tonearms that went with the 208 turntable, the model 98 was introduced in 1960 and, in 1962, the model 980 tonearm. The model 98 sold in 1960 for $34.33 ($245.92 in 2009 dollars) and the 980 sold for $50.00 or $346.61 in 2009 money.

The 98 and 980 arms are high-mass tonearms; though they featured very high quality micro ball bearings in the vertical and horizontal planes that permitted extremely light and accurate tracking down to one-gram if not less, compared to other tonearms of the day. They were also dynamically balanced featuring a flat-coiled spring. This enabled them to track at any angle, even upside down. (Something I saw with my own eyes more than once.)

The implementation of the horizontal bearings also differs between the two pickup arms. The 98's horizontal bearing consists of individual ball bearings capped by a screw locked cap. This makes service difficult as you have to be careful while disassembling the arm, otherwise you'll have tiny ball bearings flying everywhere. It also makes it hard to re tighten the cap, as you have to find a balance between stiffness and ease of movement. The 980's horizontal bearings are of a captured race type that is much more service friendly with no risk of bouncing bearings getting under the rug.

The Empire 98 and 980 tonearms are very similar, and can be hard to differentiate at a glance. The main difference was the 98 has a removable bayonet pin headshell similar to the SME, and the 980 had a fixed headshell and introduced the black plastic cartridge mounting plate that existed in all Empire arms until the introduction of the model 698 turntable.

The 98 didn’t have any sort of connector to hook up a patch cord to it. It had flying leads out of the arm to solder to a suitable jack or tie points. There was also no flying fifth (ground) wire connected to the inside of the arm. Grounding was achieved from mounting the metal tonearm base to the metal base of the turntable, or by attaching a ground wire to one of the tonearm mounting screws.

No doubt part of the reason for the introduction of the 980 so soon after the model 98 was to address these small ergonomic faux pas as the 980 introduced the five-pin tonearm connecting cable (with integral ground wire) that all Empire’s had from this point on.

The 98 and 980 arm originally did not come with an anti-skate adjustment or end of record lift. Empire later offered a retrofit kit to attach a weight and pulley system to the 980 arm. Later production runs of the 980 arm featured a built in weight and pulley anti-skate system. (Seen mostly on 980 arms mated with the 498 turntable.)

The 98 and 980 tonearm were available in two versions. One for 12” maximum records, and a longer model suitable for 16” transcription discs. The longer arm was probably geared towards the broadcast industry and not for the average hi-fi enthusiast, though Radio Shack sold the 16” 98 tonearm in 1960. Existence of a 16” 980 was confirmed by two different Ebay auctions I’ve seen over the years for this longer variant.

The 98 tonearm also did not originally come with Empire’s unique “Dyna-Lift” magnetic end-of-record arm lift system, which first appeared on the 980. A separate retrofit kit was offered for sale to let you enjoy this feature on your older 98 arm and the earliest versions of the 980, which also didn’t have this feature.

The Dyna-Lift feature was unique, as it was an end of record arm lift that didn’t rely on any mechanical linkages like those on a typical record changer. It worked via a hollow cylindrical post attached to the base of the arm, which held a powerful magnet. Attached to the arm tube, near the back was a small protruding post (sometimes round, sometimes square) made of steel. As the arm nears the center of the record, that small metal protrusion enters the hole in the post and when aligned correctly, the magnetic attraction force "grabs" the arm up and off the disc as the stylus enters the run-out groove.

The action is crude and abrupt though, because being a magnet, there is no way to "damp" this action. However, I've used it for years now with a variety of cartridges and never once had an issue of damage caused by that abrupt take-off. It can also be turned "off" by pushing back on the post, which makes it cock back a good ways, rendering it inoperative. (A post on AudioKarma.com from “MrMonster” suggests the lift action is quite smooth when the arm is properly adjusted and that it is from people ignoring Empire's instructions to leave a certain set screw on the arm alone, that is to blame for the less than gentle action of most surviving Dyna-Lift examples.)

The weakest link in the 980 tonearm is the black plastic cartridge mounting plate. This alone I think is responsible for the less than enthusiastic reception given this tonearm’s performance these days. The plate is soft, bends easily under stress, and just isn’t a rigid enough platform for a good coupling of either cartridge to plate, or plate to tonearm. They are also extremely rare to find replacements for. It is a shame, because the overall build quality of the tonearm matches that of the turntable, and would mate well with any number of modern day low-compliance moving-coil cartridges that require arms as massive as these.

The weak point of the 98 is its fixed cartridge mounting position in the bayonet headshell. You cannot adjust overhang after initially mounting the arm. Not that this is unusual, as Rek-O-Kut and Ortofon had similar designs for their bayonet style headshells. This may sound like an oversight on the part of the design of the 98, but in the late fifties and early sixties, there seemed to be an unspoken consensus between the biggest phono cartridge makers of the day regarding stylus tip position and mounting dimensions. So once the arm was properly mounted you could install cartridges from Shure, Pickering, and Empire knowing the stylus tip would always be in the same spot. At least you can mount a Pickering 380 series cartridge in an Empire 98 arm without the need for spacers.

Speaking of Rek-O-Kut, this is a good place to address the similarities between the two companies. Both were based on Long Island, New York, both utilized AC synchronous motors sourced from Pabst of West Germany, and both companies even used the exact same motor grommets sourced from Lords of Pennsylvania. Both companies also featured heavy cast platters balanced for perfect balance with a built-in 45 RPM adapter and bearings that even today are marvels of precision engineering. Styling is also similar, although Rek-O-Kut’s are more utilitarian with their boxy bases, gunmetal gray baked on finish, and red rubber platter mats. Rek-O-Kut also concentrated on idler driven turntables, but the one belt drive model they did produce is uncannily similar to the Empire.

The 498 was the first suspended sub-chassis Empire and appeared as far as I can tell about 1966 or 1967. It used the 980 arm, a suspension system of springs and felt that was refined further in the 598, a one-piece platter design very similar to the unsprung 208, and came with a walnut base similar to the 208.

The 488 is the baseless version with 980 arm.

The 498 and 398 appear to have been offered for sale simultaneously at one point going by an undated Empire sales flyer I have which shows a 398 and a 488 pictured along with two models of their Grenadier speaker, and a generic Empire phono cartridge

There is no model 408 (armless, with base) because the arm mount is part of the suspension t-bar (like the AR) and almost impossible to modify to affix an aftermarket tonearm. With this model, you have to use a 980 tonearm unless you have a machine shop in your garage or know someone who does.

The 498 is the rarest of Empire turntables, being offered for sale for only a short while compared to the 398 before it and the 598 that followed it. Those who have been lucky enough to spend time with one, claim it is Empire’s best turntable, offering the strengths of the non-suspended 208 without the perceived subjective negatives of the later sprung 598.

The 598, introduced about 1969~1970, was a radical rethink in design. It featured a two-piece platter, a self-lubricating oilite bearing, a newly designed walnut base, a new tonearm (the model 990,) an arm rest that featured a light that made it possible to “see” where you were placing the tonearm on the record in a dark room, a stroboscope plate built into the platter, and a first for Empire: a wood framed Plexiglas dust cover.

Contrary to assumption and popular belief, the 990 arm on the 598 WAS offered for separate sale. (You can see ads for it in stereo magazines of the period.) Like its predecessors, it was a dynamically balanced tonearm featuring captured race ball bearings in both the vertical and horizontal planes. Its anti-skate adjustment dispensed with the weight and pulley system featured in late production 980 arms and used an internal spring to set the opposing force using a increasing bias principal. It also featured a levered cuing control as well as the Dyna-Lift magnetic end-of-record lift system. It was also high mass, though it was designed to mate to Empire’s top of the line 1000ZEX cartridge which boasted the ability to track as low as a quarter of a gram in the arm. (I’ve successfully used a Shure V-15 Type V at one gram in mine with no ill resonance effects.) The 598 retailed for $199.95 and the 990 for $74.95 in 1971. ($1047.47 and $392.64 respectively in 2009 dollars.)

(Interstage_Tranny asserts there was a 12" version of the 990 tonearm also available for sale. I haven't seen any evidence of this. However, Interstage_Tranny is usually correct so I'm keeping my eyes open.)

Interestingly, according to ads and equipment reviews I have of the 598 from 1971 editions of Audio, Stereo Review, and High-Fidelity magazines, going against previous model numbering convention, the 598 is a baseless turntable with the walnut base and dust cover an option for $35 more. ($209.28 in 2009 dollars) Therefore, there was no formal "588" baseless version of the turntable.

The 598 went under three revisions during its production life.

598 – 3 speeds, with Empire’s standard pop-up 45-RPM adapter in the platter, matte finish very pale gold 3-speed strobe plate, “old” logo plate on the upper left corner of the dust cover hinge board on the base.

598 II – 3-or 2-speeds, either with Empire’s ubiquitous pop-up 45-RPM adapter in the platter, or a new 45 “turn over” adapter that sat flush on the platter usually, but when flipped over let you play 45 RPM discs. The 598II also had a matte finish, very pale gold 3-or 2-speed strobe plate, and “new” Empire backwards “R” logo plate on the upper left corner on the dust cover hinge board on the base. The instructions were updated to reference the then new 4 channel Shibata styli in the anti-skate settings chart

598 III – 2 speed only, with the new reversible center disc 45-RPM adapter, matte finished very pale gold 2-speed strobe plate and new Empire logo on the upper left corner on the dust cover hinge board on the base. The instructions were re-typed and reformatted.

Those are just general guidelines though. It seems Empire was a lot like guitar or drum manufacturers of the day in that they used whatever was available on a given day to make their turntables. This lack of consistency causes many variations to show up among surviving units of all their models, which can be extremely confusing.

In 1976 came Empire’s final turntable model: the 698. The 698 retailed for $400 ($1490.91 in 2009 dollars.) It was sold only as a system with tonearm, dust cover and base; though I’m sure one could have probably special ordered a baseless version as well.

It’s sad that the last turntable Empire made has so many issues considering the tank like build of their previous offerings.

The positives:

The base, plinth, platter and bearing design and construction are unchanged from the 598. People say the 698’s bearing and motor is inferior to the 598 when the two 698’s and three 598’s I have examined show identical construction of the bearing and a high-quality Papst motor like Empire used in all its turntables. It seems Empire made sure they used as much of the proven 598 design and tooling as possible. (I am just talking about platter/bearing quality of the 598 vs. 698, not the debate about the bearing and platter quality of the 208/498 vs. the 598/698 that exists.)

The motor in the 698 was (as on all previous Empire's) an AC synchronous, self-cooling, high torque Papst, sourced from Germany and built to the same standard as on the 208, 498 and 598.

The dust cover switched from clear flimsy Plexiglas plastic to true, tinted tempered glass with a silk-screened gold Empire logo on the top lower left corner of the glass. A nice touch. The hinge board did not have an Empire logo plate.

The 2-speed strobe plate on the platter was a shiny deep gold with a mirror finish that looked gorgeous.

The arm on the 698 was a totally new, true low mass design, and was able to handle the highest compliance cartridges you could throw at it. It continued Empire’s preference for a dynamically balanced tonearm, and featured micro sapphire ball bearings in the vertical and horizontal planes in a true gimbal design. The anti-skate again used the increasing bias principle first used in the 990 arm; it's opposite field "push" increased as the arm neared the center of the record. It also came with two connecting cables, one a low-capacitance cable for CD-4 cartridges.

Why people think THIS arm is a continuation of the higher mass arms of Empire’s past puzzles me. It was the first tonearm made by Empire not to be offered for separate sale.

The 698 also featured a unique electronic/optical cue and end-of-record lift system that didn’t rely on motors or mechanical linkages that would have compromised the performance of the tonearm. The cue system used your finger to bridge two small gold colored contacts within a round clear plastic button that was back-lit by red LED’s, which, when touched, completed a DC circuit that caused a small damped solenoid coil to gently lift or drop the tonearm depending on which “button” you put your finger on.

The end-of record lift was optically triggered via a small photocell sensor. When aligned correctly, the arm would gently lift up as the stylus entered the run out groove. Provision was made for changing the speed of the cuing as well as a tool that adjusted the height of the cueing mechanism. (Though, truthfully, there was very little range of adjustment for either parameter.)

The negatives:

There are two major weaknesses in the 698: the tonearm headshell and the electronic cueing. The headshell design is a unique one, only ever used on this tonearm so replacements are now impossible to find. It is also prone to failure because of the way contact is made electrically.

The electronic end-of-record lift and cuing is prone to failure as well, and no one seems to know how to fix them, despite the full schematic being printed in the instruction sheet. This is unfortunate as the design is quite clever and when it is working, is probably the most accurate, gentlest, and elegant cue and end-of-record lift system ever developed.

There are also a number of “little things” that are problems with the 698.

The clear plastic "Lexan" arm holder and finger lift on the headshell seem prone to age related brittleness and breakage. It’s a pity about the armrest too, because the red LED shining underneath it gives it a nice, classy glow that compliments the cueing buttons which also are back-lit by red LED’s.

The capacitor in line with the power switch (to keep “pops” from being heard when power is turned on or off) seems to be the wrong value or defective in the examples I have seen, doing nothing to keep loud transients out of your speakers when you turn the turntable on or off.

The increase in weight of the dust cover because of the real glass causes the hinges to fail even earlier than in the 598. (The hinges were always a weak spot, despite their ingenuity in design.) Side note: Do NOT tighten the screw on the hinge bracket to try and get more tension to fix a dust cover that won’t stay open!! You will do serious damage if you do. There is a collet pin that is going through the screw and nut in the wood that in theory should keep the hinge from loosening, but in practice, only works for a limited time. Random tightening of the original screw will only cause the screw to break and make the hinge totally useless. If you want to try and fix it, you need to carefully remove the pin and rebuild the hinge using a new screw, which must match the threads of the nut inside the wood. Screw the hinge assembly back into the dust cover as tightly as possible with your new screw, then drill with a small bit into the screw where the original pin was and set a nail inside to fix the problem. It’s best to make sure the nail going through the screw and nut is long enough to go through the wood to assure the nail won’t work itself out in time. The final result will be a stiff moving dustcover, but as time goes on it will get smoother. Be prepared to have to do this “fix” several times in the course of life with the 598/698.

And finally, the silk-screening and gold plating on the 698 seems to be so thin that it rubs off quite easily. Extreme corrosion is also present on the metalwork on many 698’s, which seems to have happened much faster than the corrosion on older models. All the gold finish Empires seem to show various levels of flake, corrosion and discoloration that the chrome-plated versions don’t seem to suffer, but the 698’s are particularly bad in this regard. This was probably due to using an even cheaper pot metal formulation as a cost cutting move.

I’ve never been able to find out exactly when Empire ceased manufacture of the 698, but it must have been shortly after Ernst Benz bought Empire Scientific in 1981~1982. (The date of the sale according to Stereophile, December 1990, page 65.)

After that, Empire concentrated on phono cartridges until Benz cut his losses and sold the company in the mid-1980’s, wherein, Empire became a shell of it’s former self.

Various spare parts for the turntables as well as new 698’s at greatly reduced prices were available from Lyle Cartridges in Brooklyn for many years after Benz sold Empire. After Lyle closed, parts were shipped back to Empire’s then new Deer Park, NY location and were available via mail order only up until around 1990. Stocks of headshells for the 698, 98 and the cartridge mounting plate for the 980 and 990 tonearms were already depleted by this point. (I know, I tried ordering them back then.)

Then, shortly after my last contact with Empire regarding replacement parts for their turntables, the company’s name and logo was sold to Russell Industries and their run as a manufacturer of High-Fidelity Stereo products was truly at an end. The remaining inventory of replacement turntable parts apparently was junked and no one at Russell Industries seems to know or care about the brand’s past as a maker of some of the most gorgeous, reliable, and overachieving turntables of their day. The name exists now only as a badge for aftermarket phone batteries, cheap replacement needles and new phono cartridges of questionable quality.


Edits: 02/22/10 01/03/13

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Topic - An Empire Turntable History and Rough Time Line - empirelvr 14:37:03 02/10/10 (36)


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