US Columbia Viva-Tonal Portable Model 161



Check out this Video recorded on the Columbia 161:

1928 Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra

'Taint so, Honey, 'Taint so - with Bing Crosby, Bix Beiderbecke, and Frankie Trumbauer on bassoon
This is my Weakness Now - with The Rhythm Boys and Bix Beiderbecke Columbia US                         Model 161 (162,163),

                                                “de luxe” in UK
1927 – 1929                                           Price 50$,
                                                        £10 S10 in UK


Sound:      Design:



27 lbs


17 5/8"


13 3/4"




36 1/2"








The Columbia Model 161 was the first fully “orthophonic” style portable on the market.

Highlights are the superb No. 15 Viva-Tonal soundbox (which is the longest produced soundbox, used as the HMV No. 23 up to 1960), a well made tone arm and metal exponential horn, and luxurious appointments:

It is was covered in fine gray baby alligator Fabrikoid.

The back of the horn and the drop leaf of the record storage compartment are finished in polished brown mahogany, and the gilt interior hardware is polished brass. The turntable is covered in gray velveteen.

The collapsible crank allows for easy winding, and is folded into a holder in the front of the machine when the machine is not in use.

As the model 162 and 163 it was available until 1929. In a curious twist, it was sold even longer in Great Britain as the “De Luxe” portable at twice the price that the top British Columbia, the 202 Model, sold for.


The Model 161 is certainly the biggest, heaviest, and most expensive of all portables sold in the US and the UK.


When looking inside the 161, its somewhat simple construction is surprising:


The motor is a generic OkeH Flyer motors with a rather small spring barrel, which does not quite have the expected power: It may slow down on worn passages.


The rather bulky motor also is the reason for a curious feature: Even though the case is large, the horn is relatively short: The large motor does not allow for a full “wrap around”, instead the horn only makes a ¾ turn.





This leads to the curious situation that the tone arm is at the front of the case, with the open soundbox facing the listener directly. However, needle talk on the Viva-Tonal soundbox is very low. On the other hand the first part of the horn, made from solid cast aluminum, a very expensive part, is an unexpected touch of thoughtful design. The unusual zig-zag tone arm is not drawn brass, but a solid cast. The tone arm bracket is cast iron and virtually indestructible. No real seal is provided in the tone arm ball bearing, but it can be easily sealed with grease. 

The sound is impressive, full and with good bass. It may be little strident on some treble rich records.



The Columbia 161 has very few durability or maintenance issues. Everything is solid and pretty unbreakable.
As with all Viva-Tonal soundboxes, the rubber parts need replacements. While the British No. 15 soundbox uses a cellulose sponge insulator which is still soft and pliable, the red rubber insulator of the US No.15 is hard and needs replacement with a soft, hardness 40 rubber. The rubber piece is important for a smooth sound. A tight seal between the rubber insulator and the soundbox is essential, otherwise an air leak will degrade the sound. The No. 15 diaphragm is mounted with the traditional rubber tubing, which should be replaced. Care should be taken with the Viva Tonal diaphragm, which is much thinner than the Victor diaphragm, and easily bends.

I always welcome your comments and thoughts:

        sgimips1 “at” yahoo “dot” com