Vintage Whine

Empire, Part 3

[Previous installments on Empire were in Copper #84 and #86—Ed.]

It’s ironic that I’ve ended up writing articles about audio history, as I always found school courses in history incredibly boring. The standard presentation was that of a linear narrative, like a simplistic novel: first A happened, then B, then C. The perspective was such that those chains of events seemed, in retrospect, inevitable; there was never any sense of tension or indications that things might have happened differently. In my experience, real life is full of subplots and tangled skeins of alternate paths, blind alleys, and dead ends.

Having now written dozens of these articles, I have a little more sympathy for those boring history textbooks. Without access to original source materials—diaries, letters, whatever—reliance upon public sources tends to yield a sanitized view of things, lacking in the turmoil and trauma of real life.

That’s a long way around of saying that this piece about Empire—a company that essentially ceased to exist over three decades ago, at least as an audio company— is similar to rote history, but with a few twists. I have at least some fragmentary insights into things that got messy, just the way they do in the stories of businesses like Sears and Gibson and Thiel.

So: I have a few facts, and I have spoken with some folks who were peripherally involved. Sadly, the major players are all long dead, and the printed record is the chipper, PR-glossed gee-whiz-bizspeak of audio mags from the ’50s through the ’70s. I’ll do the best I can at presenting what I know, and what I suspect…and I’ll try to make clear which is which.

In a recent interview, the great bass-player Jack Casady said of his interactions with Jimi Hendrix, “It’s never like writers think, or the way the great tidy eyes of hindsight would have it. As it’s going on, it’s a little more chaotic.” (You can read that full interview here. It’s worth your time.) I imagine that’s true of the retelling of any event, and I’m sure it was true of Empire’s story.

In our last installment, we looked at the Empire Grenadier line of speakers. Starting in 1964, the line ran with very few changes up to at least 1976—the last ads or mentions I could find. There were variants in finishes, and the late 9000 GT streamlined the end-table look a bit with simplified lines and an oh-so-’70s smoked glass top. If oldtime audiophiles recall the Grenadiers from the ’70s at all, it’s probably for a series of sexist 4-channel ads.

In 1971 with the dawn of Quadraphonic sound, both Empire phono cartridges and speakers were featured in ads with the heading, “Going 4channel?” The cartridge ads had innocuous photos of cartridges and their boxes. The Grenadier ads featured a single speaker at the center of the ad, with the sub-caption, “It’s no problem when they look like these…” and the speaker surrounded by 4 different poses of the same comely young brunette. In some magazines, she wore a t-shirt and shorts, barefoot; in other magazines she was nude–but coyly posed so that nothing censorable was exposed.

Different headline, no redaction.

To be fair, Empire was not the only audio company who ran cheesy cheesecake ads during that era, and compared to many ads from the ’50s featuring buxom babes in nighties or evening gowns, these ads were pretty tame. In spite of such ads—or because of them?— the company was better-known for its record-playing gear: the Troubador turntables, arms, and cartridges.

We all know that among all audio products, phono cartridges are probably the least sexy of all—that’s why they’re layered in exotic woods, semi-precious stones, yadda yadda. Compare this ad to the ones above:

1971, same year as ads above.

—Really makes you want to run out and buy one, doesn’t it? Be that as it may, Empire cartridges were highly-regarded during that period, said to have linear response, excellent separation producing a solid stereo (or quad) effect, with trackability that matched the best of the lightweight cartridges of the period. Even now there is demand for NOS Empire cartridges from the period—though the usual concerns apply regarding rubber parts hardening or becoming brittle.

About the same time as the cartridge above, the best-known variant of the Troubador turntable was introduced: model 598. The 598 was supposedly available with chrome-finished metalwork, but is generally seen with the gold-finished metalwork that made it stand apart from other turntables. Whether that finish is gaudy or stunning is a matter of taste; it certainly has a ’70s vibe, and would fit in with gents in plaid sportcoats and open collars and women in bell-bottomed pant suits.

At that time, record changers still dominated the US market, with brands like Garrard, Dual, and BSR dominating. Full manual single-play turntables were represented primarily by AR, Thorens, and the Empire—so it was part of a fairly elite group. The game-changing Technics SP-10 was a contemporary, introduced in 1970; the Linn Sondek didn’t appear until 1973, and was a fairly “underground” player in the US for several years. Between the 3 major manual players—AR, Thorens, and Empire— the AR was the affordable, mainstream model, produced by the hundreds of thousands; the Thorens models were sensible, austere, dripping with Swiss/German practicality; in comparison, the Empire seemed the choice of the Playboy bachelor pad.

The gold finish came off as yellowish in 2-color ads. Yeesh.

This is not to say that it didn’t feature solid engineering and decent manufacturing quality: the quiet and durability of the Papst hysteresis-synchronous motor and precision-ground main bearing and shaft are legendary, and each platter (2-piece in the 598, compared to previous 1-piece platters) was individually balanced. There are those who swear by the dynamic 990 tonarm, which set tracking weight with a spring—others swear at it, citing a certain clunkiness and easily-damaged, almost-irreplaceable headshell inserts. The 598 introduced the distinctive “doghouse” dustcover that would be a part of all subsequent Empire tables; panels of plexiglass were framed by wood.

During the period of 1970 through 1976, the Troubador evolved to the 598 II and 598 III. Most changes were minor, related to the 45 adapter, finish, and logo. The 598 III dropped the 78 rpm speed. Cartridges evolved along with the turntable and arm.

We’ve mentioned Empire President Herb Horowitz more than once in the course of this informal history. In 1970, Horowitz was elected Vice President of the trade organization, the Institute of High Fidelity; in 1972, he was elected President of the organization. Looking back today, IHF is largely remembered for its IPP—instantaneous peak power—power ratings for amplifiers, before RMS ratings became standard. I was once corrected when I characterized IPP ratings as “just before the amp bursts into flames”—the engineer I was chatting with said, “No—it was just as the amp burst into flames.” Sorry. (Yet another aside: I took a mail-order course from the IHF, and received a certificate as a “Certified Audio Consultant”. I think I was 16.)

More significant to our story, in 1975 Horowitz left Empire to become director of special projects for Harman International.

And here is where the history really begins to get fuzzy. I could find no mention in audio mags of the period of Horowitz’s successor at Empire, and folks associated with the company at that time, 44 years ago now—are either dead or untraceable.

The last mention I can find of the Grenadier speaker line was in 1976. That year saw the introduction of a new top model cartridge, the 2000z, still considered an excellent cartridge today. 1976 also saw the introduction of Empire’s last Troubador model, the 698. Its appearance was similar to the 598 series, but there were significant changes: a brand-new arm appeared, lighter in weight than the 990, and better able to maximize the extreme compliance of the new cartridges. A photocell-triggered end-of-play tonearm lift was also added, and through the years has proven to be unreliable and difficult to adjust. The plexiglass panels of the dustcover were replaced by tinted, tempered glass; the added weight of the glass often caused the always-troublesome dustcover hinges to fail even faster than before. Finally, the gold plating of the 698 seemed to be even more fragile than that of the 598—surviving units often show scuffing, wear-through, and corrosion of the underlying metal.

A glitzy 1976 ad for the 2000z cartridge. The gold body went along with the 698 turntable’s finish.

And now, a slight detour as we approach the final chapters of Empire.

Starting in 1965, Ernst Benz manufactured diamond styli and cantilever assemblies for phono cartridges in Switzerland. Over time, his business grew to where was was a supplier to Audio-Technica, Shure, Ortofon, Pickering, ADC, and Empire—basically, all the major cartridge manufacturers of the time. At its peak, the company employed 150, and produced 9 million needle assemblies per year.

In the December, 1990 Stereophile, Markus Sauer tells how Empire changed through increased involvement by Benz: “In 1981-82, he was approached by the owners of Empire….The owners, reaching retirement age, asked Benz, a major supplier, if he wanted to buy the company. Benz did. This, he says, was the worst mistake of his life. The factory he took over was old and not particularly efficient. Quality was mediocre because the worn-out machines could not be coaxed to work to close tolerances.” There are plenty of grisly details which I’ll spare you, but dividing time between Switzerland and the US took a toll on Benz’s business, and his OEM customers were not pleased that he was marketing finished consumer products that competed with them. Major clients, including Ortofon and Audio-Technica, let their contracts with Benz expire.

Back to Sauer: “…Benz had no choice but to close down Empire in the US and trim back his operations in Switzerland. His American adventure turned out to have cost him an awful lot of money. About the only thing that remains is the name, which Benz has kept for his Swiss company: Empire Scientific.”

As I mentioned in Part 1, the company where the hi-fi company Empire began as Audio Empire, Dyna-Empire, still exists as a precision machine shop. By 1961 the hi-fi division was simply called Empire; within the next year it split off from Dyna-Empire and became Empire Scientific. As we’ve seen, that company name ended up with Ernst Benz in Switzerland.

But it didn’t end there. At some point, Benz sold the name Empire Scientific to the English family back in New York. The family had, among other businesses, supplied replacement cartridge needles to record stores— at one time a big business. After the onset of CDs, the market for record-playing gear in general had a major decline, and the English family’s version of Empire Scientific branched out into the booming business of replacement batteries for camcorders and cameras. Over the years, replacement batteries for walkie-talkies and communications radios were added.

These days, Jeff English runs Empire Scientific. He’s the only connection to the Empire we know, and even his connection was peripheral and at the tail end of things. All stock, parts, and machinery from the hi-fi biz were long gone by the time he came along. Jeff mentioned a gentleman named Ken Bush as having been the head of Empire after Herb Horowitz’s departure, and a gentleman named John Agazon as running things after Benz’s purchase. I’ve been unable to find either person; if not dead, they’re no longer young. I wish I could be more certain of details, but it’s not possible.

Jeff English runs today’s version of Empire Scientific from Long Island, where the company once manufactured batteries. Not surprisingly, all manufacturing has gone overseas, and warehousing and shipping are in Tampa. About the only thing left from the hi-fi days is a version of Empire’s late “reversed R” logo.

What about Herb Horowitz? After leaving Empire, he got around. He worked at Harman from 1975 to ’77, and then joined Acoustic Research as an executive Vice President. My friend and colleague Lucette Nicoll worked for him, and designer/Copper contributor Ken Kantor worked at the company at the same time.

From AR, he became President of Rotel of America, then was a consultant to Cerwin-Vega, and then joined Ortofon US as an executive VP. His final jump was to Koss Corporation as VP for special projects. Herb Horowitz died in his sleep December 13, 1985.

The end of Empire the hi-fi company wasn’t pretty. In its day, however, the company produced products of integrity, many of which are still highly-regarded and sought-after today. There are worse fates.

[I want to mention once again the article “Some Empire Turntable History” from the AudioKarma website. It really is an invaluable resource for sorting out the confusing array of Empire models–-Ed.]