Vintage Whine

Weathers

There are some brands whose influence extends far beyond their ownership base. When it comes to cars, I think of Alfa Romeo: nearly everyone has some sort of emotional connection to the brand, even if they never owned, drove, or even rode in an Alfa. They had a friend who owned one in college, there was that girl who used to drive a Spider with her long hair streaming behind her in the breeze, or there’s that connection to The Graduate. Amongst owners, there tends to be a certain wistful regret that they ever sold theirs, in spite of horrible unreliability, massive rust, whatever. There is still that tug at the heartstrings.

In vintage audio, mentioning the name Weathers provokes similar responses. For a brand that vanished a half-century ago, there is a surprising amount of recognition, even if that recognition borders on myth. Through the years, I’ve encountered geezer-philes (meaning audiophiles who are even older than me) who maintain that a Weathers cartridge provided the best sound they ever had in their homes.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

According to a bio in the May, 1962 issue of Audio, Paul Weathers studied electrical engineering at Indiana University and at Purdue. Following graduation, he went to work for RCA in New Jersey in 1929—which would have put his arrival shortly after that of legendary engineer Harry F. Olson. Weathers worked first on sound for the new-fangled talking pictures (as did Olson. Wonder if they ever worked together?), then moved into sound reinforcement and public address design, including design of systems used at the overlapping 1939 World’s Fairs in New York and San Francisco. Weathers worked at RCA until 1945, at which point he was serving as Product Manager of the Sound Department.

In 1950, Weathers Electronic Industries began operation, initially offering design and development services for electronics manufacturers; the company was also involved in OEM manufacturing of amplifiers for electronic organs. In June of  that same year, Weathers presented a “technical  paper on a new type of phonograph pickup” (a paper I’ve been unable to find in print, BTW—it wasn’t in the AES Journal or any similar contemporary journal that I can find). Continuing the quote: “Instead of the usual piezo-electric or magnetic type of cartridge, his pickup was a frequency modulation unit—in essence a miniature FM transmitter, employing an oscillator and demodulator in circuit. Because the stylus in the cartridge merely traced the lateral modulations in the recordings (mono–remember?), rather than performing any mechanical work which resulted in mechanical impulses, the cartridge and the associated specially designed arm was capable of tracking at the stylus force of one gram.”

Keep in mind that at the time, most cartridges tracked at 6 grams or more, and record wear was a genuine problem. Additionally, the low moving mass enabled better tracing of high frequencies, and resulted in lower distortion.

Weathers cartridge

The clunky cartridge with stylus guard and ’30’s-style logo.

By 1952, the “Weathers One-gram capacitance Pick-up” was commercially available, although the product’s appearance was as clumsy and homespun as the product name. An ad in the April, 1952 issue of Audio Engineering (the precursor to Audio) showed a clunky-looking cartridge and oscillator unit, both emblazoned with a 1930’s-looking Art Deco logo. The breathless text offered “AT LONG LAST—REALISM without noise!” The system came “complete with ultra-flexible cable, oscillator unit, tube, installation hardware and instructions” for $37.50. Oddly, the required power-supply was sold separately for an additional $14.50.

Both product and presentation bespoke the touch of an engineer, not a marketer or salesman. In some ways, that was good: subsequent reports indicated that the performance claims were accurate. Other reports indicated a tweakiness, an instability of the oscillator unit, that made the cartridge not quite ready for prime time. More breathless prose appeared in a “Tested in the Home” product review in the Summer, 1952 issue of High Fidelity: “At the Audio Fair in New York last Fall, Paul Weathers exhibited his 1-gram pickup….The sound …was exceedingly fine, and it…caused a furore at the Audio Fair. We have since received many reports from readers: all have been favorable….Mr. Anglemire wrote, ‘We wish to report that some time ago, we had an opportunity to try out the Weathers pickup and found it out of this world!'”

Weathers arm and oscillator

The Weathers FM pickup system: arm, cartridge, and oscillator, complete with vacuum tube.

These were simpler, less-jaded times.

Judging by the High Fidelity ad in late 1953, the company had realized the need for products and ads that conveyed at least a modicum of sophistication. The FM pickup system was now offered with a sinuous wooden tone-arm with brass escutcheon and trim. The “Debonnaire” turntable package which included the pickup and arm was still rather industrial looking. 1954 ads showed a still-kludgey-looking cartridge, with that godawful logo—but the text had become  a little less hyperbolic: “Its richness of tone and absence of record scratch will amaze the most critical listener.”

The next few years would bring a surprisingly wide range of products, and all were clearly the result of Weathers’ unique insights as to what phono cartridges/turntables/amps/speakers should be, rather than just copy-cat designs.

The company’s products and ads developed a definite visual flair, as seen in the ad below.  Next time, we’ll delve into the company’s  continued growth, and look at how—through a curious turn of events— Weathers encouraged the birth of one of our best-known and longest-lived audio magazines.

Weathers voodoo

Yes, this ad was a product of the ’50’s, and the accompanying mindsets.