Vintage Whine

Empire, Part 1

The primary reason I began writing these articles (and a similar blog on Audiogon, back in another lifetime) is that there are few cohesive sources of information about the history of the American audio industry. There are scattered pieces here and there, and from those historical and contemporary sources I try to assemble a coherent story for these columns. In general, the audio biz has done a poor job of documenting itself;  having known a number of oldtimers in the biz, I’ve gotten the sense that they felt that the history of their business wasn’t important enough to write about. It was just a business. I find that sad.

I don’t know if that can be attributed to some type of inferiority complex, or just being so caught up in day to day affairs that the big picture becomes lost. Given that the hi-fi industry really boomed post-war alongside more glamorous engineering fields like the aerospace and automotive industries, I suspect it’s a bit of both.

It’s sometimes a challenge to even find information on the founders of a brand, not to mention tracking the changes in business entities—that’s certainly been the case while looking into the history of Empire—initially known as Audio Empire.

When I became interested in audio in the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was not the proliferation of high-end products that we see today. Most products were what we’d think of as “mid-fi” these days, meaning that their aspirations were primarily just to provide home entertainment—and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Home entertainment as an industry is fiercely competitive and many companies don’t survive.

Back then, the number of glamorous, high-buck halo audio products that aspired to the state of the art were few and far between on the US market. In speakers, there were the JBL Paragon, the ElectroVoice Patrician, the Bozak Concert Grand, various Altecs, the Klipschorn, the KLH 9, and in a smaller size, the AR 3a (things changed with the appearance of the Infinity Servo-Statik around 1968-70, but that’s a story for another day). Amps and tuners—McIntosh, Marantz, some Fisher, and HH Scott (in my mind, all had passed their peak by then, but I’m a tough audience). Turntables—in changers, the Dual 1219/1229; in manual tables, the Thorens TD125— and the oddball, rarely-seen Empire 598 in all its golden glory.

So—where did Empire come from? As far as I’ve been able to determine, the brand Audio Empire first came on the scene in 1959. It was the hi-fi brand of a precision machine shop/manufacturer called Dyna-Empire, which is still around, while (spoiler alert!) the Empire brand is not. –Well, the brand is still around—just not as an audio brand. And for whatever it’s worth, I’ve been in some impressive machine shops, but look at this list of production machines at Dyna-Empire—truly amazing.

But I digress.

An “Industry People” column in the September, 1959 Audio magazine is the first mention I’ve found of the company; it also mentions Herb Horowitz, who would lead the company for many years:

Herb Horowitz, 0ccasional contributor to these pages, has been appointed director of Audio Empire, high fidelity product arm of Dyna-Empire, Inc., Garden City, N.Y. Before joining Dyna-Empire, Mr. Horowitz spent many years as chief engineer of Electro-Sonic Laboratories and chief of audio products for CBS/Columbia, during which time he was responsible for a number of outstanding advances in the design of high fidelity components. Duties will include marketing and production as well as engineering supervision.”

“Occasional contributor to these pages”? The previous year, Horowitz had written “Toward an Optimum Stereo Cartridge” (Audio, October, 1958) while still chief engineer at ESL (as Electro-Sonic Laboratories was commonly called). The article described the design of ESL’s then-new stereo moving coil cartridge.

The earliest Audio Empire ads I could find appeared in magazines with a cover date of October, 1959, featuring the Empire 98 “Stereo/Balance Transcription Arm” and the Empire 88 “Stereo/Balance Cartridge”. The two were clearly designed to go together, and would set the stage for the complete turntable packages which would become the company’s best-known products. As you can see—assuming you can read the 4-point body text in the image below— the pitch was on balanced output from both sides of the stereo (45/45) groove. This was at the beginning of the stereo LP era, and so all many of criteria were presented in ads as being “breakthrough!”, vital, unique, yadda yadda.

Having said that— the language may be a little breathless, but the points presented are legit. In order to present a believable stereo imaging, both channels must be at the same output level, and separation between the two channels should be as high as possible: thus, the awkward “Stereo/Balance” label. The 98 arm included a feature that was carried through on all subsequent Empire arms: dynamic balance, with stylus pressure applied by a spring. It’s interesting to note the 98’s resemblance to the tonearm made by ESL, Horowitz’ previous employer. Conversely, the ESL cartridge Horowitz described in his article in Audio was a very complex moving coil cartridge, but the new Empire 88 cartridge was of (in the words of the ad) “the much-acclaimed moving magnet principle.” I’m guessing the moving magnet 88 was better-suited to large scale production.

The first Audio Empire ad I’ve found appeared in magazines dated October, 1959.

The first year of the company’s existence appears to have been devoted to just that arm and cartridge. I’ve been unable to confirm or discard a bizarre mention in the December, 1959 issue of  HiFi Review (precursor to Stereo Review): “Underwater music for swimming (is there a Mr. Handel in the pool?) is a possible application for Hartley’s new waterproof loudspeakers, originally developed in England to cope with London’s fog. The speakers were demonstrated in a goldfish bowl at the recent New York Hi-Fi Show. Fish also featured prominently in the Audio Empire exhibit, where the conversation of guppies was overheard by an underwater microphone.”

>cough<

Sure. As one does. Let’s take a brief moment to analyze this: the Hartley demo (which I believe actually happened) had some purpose for being. Why would a company making a tonearm and phono cartridges have any kind of display involving fish? I suspect this was just a goof on the part of some editorial staffer who had friends at Audio Empire. Nothin’ to see here….

In 1960, the company came out with their first turntable package called the Empire Troubador, a name that would be used for Empire turntables for the next quarter century. The model 208 turntable featured an individually-balanced platter and a “lapped mainshaft [which] rotates in micro-honed bearing well. Tolerance is less than .0001″.” That impressive spec would be a part of all of the brand’s turntables, and would still be impressive today. Also characteristic was a massive Pabst hysteresis-synchronous motor, also used by several other upper-end turntable brands.

The artsy, lower case presentation was characteristic of 1960.

The 208 had an unsuspended chassis, and is thought by some vintage audio fans to be the best of all the Empire tables. One such fan is Ralph Karsten of amplifier maker Atma-Sphere, who offered a tweaked 208 a few years back.

Empire was back in Audio‘s “Industry Notes” in the November, 1961 issue: “Horowitz Builds Empire. In a move obviously calculated to increase consumer recognition Audio Empire has shortened their name to Empire. At the same time in recognition of the outstanding services performed by Herb Horowitz in gaining consumer acceptance of the Empire line, Mr. Horowitz has been elevated to the post of President.” The emphasis and gushy language was in the original, and is a bit different from the neutral tone adopted in trade announcements these days.

That same issue of Audio carried a review of the “Empire ‘Troubador’ Model 398 Record-playing system”. The company’s nomenclature gets a little confusing here: the 398 package included the 208 table, an upgraded model 980 arm, and a base for $165; the new 108 cartridge was optional, and was priced at $35. Let’s consider that $200 package for a second: that equates to almost $1,700 these days, a price-point similar to a lot of good turntables these days, though not the massive sculptures that meet or exceed the cost—and sometimes weight!— of an S-class.

Reviews were positive, in the non-specific way that was typical of turntable reviews of the pre-Linn Sondek era—meaning, the sound quality was never mentioned, though specs were cited. Audio‘s  conclusion: “…it just reaffirms something we all know; higher quality means higher costs. The Model 398 is an excellent buy for those who want the quality.” Similarly, High Fidelity‘s February, 1962 review said, “…the parts of the ‘Troubador’—taken separately—stand up as first rate audio components. Taken together, they form one of the finest and handsomest record players available.”

The confusing nomenclature I mentioned? Well, after both those reviews appeared, the 1962 Radio Shack catalog featured the Audio Empire 298 package, consisting of 208 turntable, the older 98 arm, and base. Optional cartridge was the 88. Both the company name and the package were old. What gives? As you can imagine, it’s tough to sort out such mysteries, 57 years later. I try to NOT invent things….

Later than the reviews, but featuring earlier products and company name. Huh?

That High Fidelity review mentioned that the company name was now Empire Scientific. That coincided with an address change, and my understanding is that the Horowitz family purchased the audio division from Dyna-Empire. Again: it’s tough to get accurate info and confirm one’s conclusions 57 years later, but I’m working on it. We’ll continue the story of Empire, including their shift into speakers, in the next issue of Copper.