The Best Portables of the World
A Consumer Guide to the best Orthophonic and Viva-Tonal portable phonographs
PICTURES WILL TAKE A FEW SECONDS TO LOAD!
Many of us may have gotten started in the phonograph hobby by finding a small portable at a flea market or antique store. I still remember how I my attention was captured by a pristine HMV 102 portable on a Moscow flea market in the summer of 1990. I was hooked on the old records and Victrolas ever since.
A quality suitcase portable makes an ideal starter machine for a young person: Often they still run fine, and they are designed for robustness and durability. A novice collector may learn about records, needles and how to maintain and service this mechanism.
And let us not forget, a high quality Orthophonic portable will sound incredible, it is truly a concert hall in a suitcase. There are very few full size Victrolas that can rival the sound of one of the top portable phonographs. And as always – if one sticks to the major brands, replacement parts, soundboxes and springs are not difficult to find, even though in most cases they may never be needed.
By the fall of 1929 a new crop of advanced portable phonographs were available on US and UK markets. We have assembled the top models (including some slightly later models) for a critical evaluation of both their construction and performance.
(Click on photos below for more information on each model)
luxe” in UK
fully “orthophonic” portable on the market. Superb No. 15 Viva-Tonal
soundbox. The somewhat short horn and lack of auto brake seem old-fashioned
by 1929. The quiet OKeh Flyer motor is a little underpowered when playing
worn records. The sound is impressive, full and with good bass. A little
strident on some later records.
Maintenance: Rubber parts in the soundbox. No other issues.
The ingenious horn, lifting tone arm and compact design make the 202 the finest portable of the 1920s. The smooth No. 15 or No. 9 soundbox with a solid cast tone duct provide full sound and great presence. Universal brake for all records, quiet No. 50 motor with flip-over crank. Also sold as Model 112 and 112A.
Maintenance: Rubber parts in soundbox. Cast tone arm base may break when abused. Later versions have a brass inset in the tone arm base which is easier to service.
Victor’s first Orthophonic portable - a gaudy affair in gold painted hardware and gold crinkle paint in a metal case. Long exponential horn made from heavy steel plate produces full, bassy sound. First US model with an angled crank, strong motor. Automatic ratchet brake a little awkward to use.
Maintenance: Soundbox - ball bearings often need
rebuilding, pot metal is usually good. Pot metal tone arm bracket easily
breaks, but can be restored.
Edison’s 2-55 knock-off was assembled from ill-fitting parts by Prime Manufacturing. The long horn made from stiffened cloth is awkwardly routed and not exponential. Low quality Prime soundbox. Hardware is lacquered brass/ gold paint. Single spring OKeh Flyer motor has some flutter. A well sealed machine actually sounds surprisingly decent. Fiddly manual set brake.
Maintenance: Pot metal soundbox often cracked, unprotected diaphragm may be punctured. Loose tone arm is difficult to seal.
Victor’s last quality portable shows how great a well designed molded fabric horn can sound. Compact case, low weight and real gold plating make this an attractive machine. Strong motor with angled crank, novel automatic on/off brake. Full, present sound; the spiderless Orthophonic soundbox adds surprising treble detail.
Maintenance: Same issues as 2-55. Riveted tone arm and spring barrel make service difficult (same problem with late 2-55’s).
“The World’s Finest Portable” - HMV
Maintenance: No Issues at all.
Selection Criteria for the Comparison:
We selected the fully “orthophonic“ top models of major manufacturers. Earlier portables with mica soundboxes were excluded.
In general, quality portables can be recognized by:
an “orthophonic”-style sound box with aluminum diaphragm.
- a large, air-tight and stiff horn, significantly longer than the case.
- a well designed air-tight tone arm with a ball bearing base and a separate gooseneck.
In practice this means we have excluded some great portables (like the HMV 101 or the Victor 2-60) because of their Mica No 4 soundboxes.
Also second-tier models (like the Columbia 201, the Victor 2-35 or the Edison P-2) were excluded to limit the comparison to a manageable number.
We will post evaluations of some of these portables separately..
A short history of Portables
The suitcase phonograph premiered in the trenches of World War I, where the compact British made Decca portables provided entertainment for the troops. However, in the early days, "portable" just meant stuffing a motor and a tone arm in a case, little attention was paid to a proper horn shape or good sound quality.
The early portables usually were either shrunk table tops, with a tiny horn opening under the motorboard, or reflector designs, where the tone arm projected the sound either into a bowl in the lid or into the cavity behind the turntable. Sound quality was usually very limited.
It took until 1926 with the application of innovations by Western Electric for sound fidelity based on the principle of matched impedances that better fidelity portables started to emerge.
To construct a quality portable, a couple of problems had to be solved:
· For a shallow motor, the spring barrel needed to be horizontal. Not a big problem, since European designs (often imported to the US by Otto Heinemann’s OkeH) had used the horizontal plate-and-pillar motors for years.
· The next problem was to fit a long and stiff horn of exponential shape into a small case. Not a trivial task, since the exponential horn, supported by the slanted lid, is vital for good bass and high fidelity. HMV was leading the way with the 1926 HMV 101 portable, which featured an exponential metal horn that wound its way around the motor and emerged in the back of the case next to the tone arm.
· But then the motor and its crank become a pesky problem: The motor has to be compact enough to be wrapped by the horn, and the crank, jutting out horizontally from the motor, may actually block the horn. (a look at the short horn of the Columbia 161, and the contorted duct of the Edison P-1 illustrate the problem.) Again, HMV led the way with the angled crank, which was positioned above the horn. It also made cranking convenient by providing ample clearance on flat ground. The Columbia 202 side-steps this problem completely with a unique long reflecting horn.
Latest to arrive was a fully
“orthophonic” soundbox. While Columbia had their own Viva-Tonal No 15 soundbox
available since 1927, Victor and HMV were notably absent:
Only in 1928 did Victor introduce the fully orthophonic 2-55, and HMV did not
use the 5A soundbox until the 1931 HMV 102 model.
Why this delay? Production costs may have played a role: The fine No 4 mica soundbox may have been good enough for the small portables vs the expensive orthophonic soundbox. But one wonders, what role royalty payments played. Patents for the Orthophonic Soundbox were held by Wester Electric, and it is notable that HMV tried to get around WE patents with their own patented horns and soundboxes until finally licensing from WE with the introduction of the line of Re-Entrant Gramophones with the No. 5 soundbox late 1927.
Victor stopped producing acoustic Victrolas in summer of 1928 – the same time that the 2-55 appeared. It may be that WE at this point cut their royalties low enough to allow the use of orthophonic soundboxes on portables. For HMV the No. 5A orthophonic soundbox did not appear until the launch of the 102 portable in July 1931.
How do we evaluate a portable?
By design and purpose, a suitcase gramophone is a portable device that is easy to transport and take around, while providing a great listening experience.
So our first look is at the overall bulk and weight of a portable. Everything being equal, a small, light portable is preferable to a big, bulky one.
Durability of the cover material is important too.
next point is the length and shape of the horn. It is of course easier to put a
long horn in a large case, than it is in a small one.
An easy way of comparison is the “packing efficiency”, which is simply the horn length less tone arm (the “hidden” portion of the horn) divided by the longest diagonal of the case. This number (expressed as a percentage) tells us how much longer the horn is than the longest diagonal of the case.
Some of the surprising results are that one of the biggest portables, the Columbia 161, has a short horn, totally incommensurate with the case. On the other hand, the purpose-designed Columbia 202 and the HMV 102 have very long horn in a compact case.
In addition to the actual horn length, additional “wings” under the lid serve as effective horn extensions, when the lid of the portable is slanted during playing, it will further improve the sound quality.
Going up from the horn, the tone arm tells us a lot about the portable: As a smooth continuation of the exponential horn, it provides additional length to the horn. A good tone arm will have a ball bearing at the base, and an airtight seal to the horn. There should not be any gaps or play in the different joints of the tone arm.
Last but not least, it is the soundbox that converts the mechanical energy into sound waves. The scientifically designed Columbia Viva-Tonal and HMV/Victor Orthophonic soundboxes are the pinnacle of soundbox design, and will deliver a full, even range of frequencies with great treble detail and full bass. A compliant needle bar pivot, and a well designed aluminum diaphragm are essential for this.
One point to keep in mind is the “needle talk”: The face of the diaphragm will radiate part of the mechanical energy, which may lend a scratchy quality to the overall sound.
All well serviced soundbox will exhibit little or no needle talk. In addition, some designs have the soundbox facing towards the listener, which can exacerbate needle talk. A soundbox that faces sideways or even backwards during play is better. Many manufacturers prevent the problem of needle talk by putting a felt or cloth cover on the soundbox headshell.
The motor is another indicator of quality: A strong quiet motor will not slow down when playing a 12” or worn record, playing for at least 5 minutes. While wow or flutter will not be too bad when listening to pop music, any record with a bell, piano or clarinet will sound bad when played with a fluttering motor.
The crank position should not be neglected either, you will find out when you wind the portable on flat ground:
The common horizontal crank leaves very little clearance for winding, bruised knuckles may ensue! Indeed, some portables have such a long crank, that they cannot be wound on flat ground, only on the edge of a table. The unique Victor/HMV upwards pointing angled crank leaves plenty of space for winding in any position. The collapsible crank of Columbia portables needs to be mentioned: It is convenient enough for winding, and its permanent attachment to the motor makes it impossible to lose the crank.
After all these essentials to good phonograph design, let’s have a look at the “nice-to-have” features: A good size record storage inside the case is convenient, and the album in the lid of Columbia portables is probably the best way to safely transport records.
Automatic brakes are very convenient: A portable with only a manual set brake is outmoded by 1929. Victor always had their ratchet brake, which only works on Victor/HMV records. British Columbia deserves credit with their 1929 invention of the Universal Brake, that is, a brake that will stop records with either a Victor/HMV elliptical run-off groove, or the spiral groove of other manufacturers. HMV combined this universal brake with an auto-on feature on their 1931 HMV 102, which is the ultimate in convenience and utility.
As a final observation, it is interesting to compare the design philosophies of US makes versus the British Models:
US models in general are big and gaudy affairs: Big and heavy cases clad in fancy alligator or shark skin imitations contradict the idea of easy transport. The interior is all gilt splendor (often gold paint or lacquered brass), with little regard to utility or helpful features. But they sound good.
British models impress by their almost ugly demureness: Small and compact, with a Bauhaus-like efficiency, they combine best possible sound with a small footprint. Unpretentious, but sturdy Leatherette cover, and simple nickel or chrome plated hardware convey a no-nonsense utiliy. And for those who are willing to spend the additional £3 there may be a real leather, gold plated de luxe version available ….
Maintenance and Problem Areas
The great thing about portables is that they will play right away, and usually need little attention. This makes them perfect as a starter machine for a phonograph novice.
worst thing you can do to a portable is to slam the lid while the tone arm is
in the “up” position. You will gouge the lid with the needle, but worse, you
can damage the diaphragm, or even break the tone arm support.
Let’s go through the critical points from the inside out:
HMV soundboxes usually have no problems at all, Victor soundboxes have some of the best pot metal after 1928, they are easily serviced. On Victor/RCA models the ball bearing needs to be rebuilt, as they were fixed in place with now hardened rubber cement.
The Viva-Tonal sound boxes will usually sound fine. However, the soundbox will benefit from replacement and sealing of the rubber insulator at the flange. The diaphragm is held by rubber tubing, which can be replaced, though the originals may be still in decent shape.
A word of warning: Viva-Tonal diaphragms are very thin, and not clamped like Victor diaphragms. On all soundboxes with aluminum diaphragms, DO NOT BLOW into the soundbox – you may pull out and permanently distort the diaphragm.
The tone arm bracket of Victors is made from stable pot metal, but very thin dimensions. One dropped lid will break the bracket. It is not too difficult to strengthen and fix the arm bracket. The ball bearing race needs to be filled with heavy grease. However, late 2-55s and the 2-65s have a riveted tone arm, which makes work difficult. The UK Columbia portables have a cast tone arm base with little problems, however it can shatter when abused, though that’s rare. The cast bearing race of the earlier models may be difficult to seal and service, later models (112, 109) have a brass bearing race on top of the cast base which is easily to open and to service.
Motors are usually fine, and rarely need to have the spring grease repacked. However, disassembly and cleaning will make the motor run better. Late Victor 2-55s and all 2-65s have spring barrels that are riveted shut.
The cases and cover materials have their own set of problems: British machines usually have a hard leatherette cover that is resistant to scratches and damage. However the material may have bubbled from humid storage. This is easy to fix with some glue injections.
US Fabrikoid covers are a mixed bag: They are somewhat more susceptible to damage, and the dried out fabric may flake.
While Edison and Columbia Fabrikoid covers are usually fine, the Victor and RCA covers often have big shrinkage gaps at the corners and loose flaps. Filling the gaps and matching texture and color is not a trivial task, but can be done.
Many thanks to all the people who helped me on this, Chuck Azzalina for hosting this page, Robert Baumbach, René Rondeau and James Tennyson for their help and critical advice, as well as for providing some of the phonographs.
I always welcome your comments and thoughts:
sgimips1 “at” yahoo “dot” com
Further Reading and Sources
Robert W Baumbach: Look for the Dog. Illustrated Guide to Victor Talking Machines, Los Angeles, Calif., 2005
Robert W Baumbach: Columbia Phonograph Companion, Woodland Hills, Calif., 1996
Dave Cooper: His Master's Voice: The Perfect Portable Gramophone, London, 2003
George L Frow: The Edison Disc Phonographs and the Diamond Discs, Los Angeles, Calif., 2001
US Patents: 1,713,022; 1,685,872; 1,862,700; 1,956,708
UK Patents: 268,257; 315,027; 332,024; 286,755;