ABOVE: A restored EMT 930st turntable from 1965.
The hammertone grey finish, the oversized 44-centimetre platter of the 927, the Ortofon or EMT tonearm, aircraft cockpit-like switches, levers, knobs – all practically indestructible as the ‘tables were designed to be used 24/7/365 in professional studios.
All skeletal chassis and exposed innards – yet, unlike other marques when laid bare – imbued with a deadly serious composure despite the lack of electronic modesty.
Started by Wilhelm Franz in 1938, Elektromesstechnik was birthed in the prewar industrial climate that was Berlin, and produced measurement equipment for broadcast technology. From 1951 – when the 927 professional studio turntable was first designed and built – to the ‘late ‘80s, the company consistently outputted what most consider to be the greatest broadcast-quality turntables in the world. Starting with the 927, then the 930, EMT followed up with evermore economical turntable designs to reach more radio stations and studios (the 928, the 940E, the 948 and the 950). With the industry’s embrace of digital recording and playback technology, EMT decided to discontinue turntable production. The last 950 rolled off the production line in late 1989 at the company’s factory in Kippenheim.
To describe these as complex machines is an understatement, and if you fancy one for personal use, finding an original is no easy task. Most were located in Europe or Asia, but many found their way around the globe, and were simply binned or taken home – rescued if you will – by radio station or studio employees when broadcasters made the switch from analog to digital as the management powers-that-were decreed them obsolete. If you can find one, despite their legendary build quality, it will be in need of at least minimal attention simply due to the intervening decades of time: rubber and plastic’s worst enemy. To properly repair or service one requires a thorough understanding of high-fidelity engineering and idler-wheel drive principles. Not only are replacement parts difficult to source, many will need to be custom fabricated if they are damaged because they are simply unobtainium.
The 927 came in several models over the years; the 927A with optical stylus position indicator, the 927D which was built to higher, ‘laboratory spec’d’ tolerances, the 927F which was designed to accommodate two tonearms and the 927st or factory stereo version (previous models were mono and required upgraded tonearm wiring harnesses). The 930 came in either 930 or 930st versions, again, when stereo made it’s debut and there was a demand. Options such as power supplies, the famous (and incredibly rare) 139st b moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage/preamplifier, and shock-absorber equipped frames were also available as were tonearms, though most were fitted at the factory with the Ortofon RF229/RMA229 or by the early ’70s, EMT’s own ‘929’ design for the 930 or the 997 'banana' tonearm on the 927.
I could go on and on regarding engineering distinctions in the design and construction of EMT turntables, suffice to say they were of a quality shared by few peers. Not only was it the quality of their craftsmanship which set them apart from so many other broadcast ‘tables, it was the quallity of their sonic capabilities that has made them highly sought-after. I’ve spent a limited amount of time with both the 930 and 927 and if I had to choose my words judiciously to describe their sound it be immense, effortless and muscular.
So, what is a normally aspirated, analog music lover to do if their heart desires one (or more) of these German beasts? Look to Hans van Vliet as he is the preeminent authority on sourcing, repairing, restoring and selling vintage EMT turntable variants. I caught up with Vliet recently from his home in The Netherlands where he was kind enough to answer my questions and supply Resistor Mag with most of the photos for this article.
Rafe Arnott: Where did you grow up? Did you have an interest in music from a young age, and did you or any family members play a musical instrument?
Hans van Vliet: “I was born (1955) and raised in Utrecht, a city in the centre of The Netherlands, unfortunately, not I or any family members did play a musical instrument, although at home the radio was playing all day around, and in the ’50s we were one of the first to have a TV in our street. Also, around 1960 my father bought a Telefunken radio set with built-in record player, so more or less there was always music around me.”
RA: Was it the music that made you interested in the gear it was playing on, or was it the other way around?
HvV: “It was the other way around indeed, my interest for audio equipment started when I was a teenager, received the first mono portable Philips CCR (Compact Cassette Recorder) from my parents in the early ‘60s and built my first stereo 2 x 10W amplifier when I was 14 years old, still have both as a kind of relic. That’s how it started, the music was always secondary, but I was very interested in the recording process and the used audio equipment. Also, and more important, I was fascinated by the technical process of making radio in broadcast studios and the equipment like microphones, mixing desks, recorders, record players, monitor speakers and so on. Not by accident, I chose to study electronics in the early ‘70s at a private technical university (HTS) in Hilversum, the city which host already for almost a century the national Dutch Broadcast Corporations. Those days in Hilversum I often visit radio studios and during my study I always was busy in my spare time with audio technologies, designing and building amplifiers, loudspeakers and so on. When I was 18 years old I bought my first “professional” tape recorder, a Revox A77.
RA: How did you become an independent technical engineer and designer for professional audio and the radio broadcast market? How long did you do this for, what did the job entail and why did you stop doing it?
HvV: Around 1985, after first being a technical manager in a high-tech company for industrial automation with microprocessor technology, I started my own business, my company was called Onyx Advanced Audio Technologies and my first product was a consumer Denon CD player modified with electronically balanced (XLR-3) outputs at line level and a fader start/stop control input for use in radio studios. Those days there was already a big demand for playing CD’s in the radio studio but only one company (Philips) was making a professional CD player set. Unfortunately, the price was very high and the Dutch National Broadcast Corporation could not afford to place the set in every radio studio all over the country. So, my first product was a huge success here in The Netherlands, and later also internationally.
“Many products followed, mostly “tailor made” designed and manufactured for the professional audio market and especially the radio broadcast market. In the ‘90s I also designed and made some digital audio products, most successful was the Onyx AES/EBU Digital Headphone Amplifier, a powerful stereo headphone amplifier with an AES/EBU digital input (the pro version of SPDIF). The design and manufacturing of this product was done on request of the German record company Deutsche Grammophone GmbH in Hannover which ordered almost 100 units after the design and testing stages. Around the turn of the century my market was changing, radio studios became more and more digital, side equipment (CD players, recorders, compressor/limiters etc.) disappeared because all came from – and was processed in – computers. The “mixing desk” was more or less a remote control for the computer in the cellar, to be short, it was not my world anymore. I’m not against any technical progress but the radio studio with three or five computer screens looks more an airport flight control center for me then an audio studio.”
RA: Elektromesstechnik (EMT) was founded in 1938 and started producing its first legendary broadcast turntable – the 927 – in 1951. This was four years before you were even born, yet your life and the 927 (and the 930) have become intertwined. What stoked your passion for EMT turntables? Have you always been drawn to idler-wheel designs?
HvV: “No, not in particular. The trigger was the general fascination for state-of-the-art professional audio equipment designed and made by famous European companies like Nagra, Neumann, Stellavox, EMT etc., which I came across at my Dutch customers and were discharged some two and a half decade ago when the digital audio studio became the new norm. All “old school” analog audio equipment was exiled to cellars, attics or the trash container. First, I started to collect Nagra recorders which I almost acquired for free, second and more important, the EMT turntables followed. A new passion and business was born and some 20 years later I can tell you it was for me the right transition, I never regretted it.”
RA: In your opinion what are the 927 and 930’s greatest strengths as turntables? What is that sets them apart from so many other broadcast turntable designs by companies like QRC, Russco, RCA, Gates, Grey, Denon, Neumann, Lyrec, etc.?
HvV: “First of all, I only know the other brands and turntables from name and pictures, I’ve never had the opportunity to compare them with the EMT turntables except the one from Neumann. I have a Neumann PA2 in my private collection, wonderful engineered and made turntable, but not the overall quality and performance like the EMT 927 and/or the EMT 930. Greatest strengths of the EMT 927 and EMT 930 turntables is simple and short: they were designed and are made to be in service 24/7 with only a humble service once a year. Build quality, ease of operation and reliability from the EMT 927 and EMT 930 turntables are top of the bill, most of them were in service for three to four decades at National Broadcast Companies all over the globe.”
RA: The level of engineering complexity in the design of these turntables is high. Did you start restoring with the idea of repairing other people’s turntables or was it initially just to work on your own EMT turntable? Did the initial attempts involve much trial and error?
HvV: “No, as told before, it started early this century as a personal fascination and interest, to disassemble and restore the first EMT 930 was very exciting. At that time I didn’t have much documentation and information so much was done with common sense and trial and error, but it was great fun to do. Fortunately I had some support from former/retired EMT engineers in Germany which could help me with technical information, service documentation, service parts and so on. A couple of years after the start of this passion I had the opportunity to acquire the total EMT archive from the former EMT importer in Belgium. I bought a couple of boxes with all service documentation, technical update information, test records etc., etc., sent by EMT to the importer between 1950 and 1990. All is still in my possession and often my source for information.”
RA: How do you source the turntables you repair and refurbish?
HvV: “This is asked so often to me and the answer is simple, I don’t find them, they find me. Owners of these EMT turntables who wants to sell them are mostly retired technical engineers from Broadcast Corporations worldwide who rescued the EMT turntables from the trash container in the past, they only need to “Google” and are directly pinpointed in my direction. Almost weekly EMT turntables and related parts are offered to me from all over the globe and when the condition and price is ok for me I buy them. When I started this activity 20 years ago I regularly found poor EMT 930 turntables in dusty corners with my Dutch customers and had them for free or trade them for an apple pie… unfortunately those days will never come back again.”
When I started this activity 20 years ago I regularly found poor EMT 930 turntables in dusty corners with my Dutch customers and had them for free or trade them for an apple pie… unfortunately those days will never come back again.
–Hans van Vliet
RA: I would imagine certain NOS parts are still available for the 927 and 930 turntables from EMT. Are there other companies which focus specifically on reproduction parts for EMT turntables?
HvV: “Yes, in Germany there are still some sources for NOS (New Old Stock) or reproduced parts. For instance, I can still order new manufactured SUT’s (Step Up Transformers), as used in the EMT phono preamps, with the original supplier as used by EMT from the start. Also, I reproduce some parts for the EMT 927 and EMT 930 which are not available anymore. For instance, this moment I’m working on two EMT 927F twin-tonearm turntables from Swedish Radio for which the second mechanical tonearm lift system is completely reproduced by me in cooperation with one of my mechanical subcontractors, more of this in my restoration blog at my website.”
RA: Is there much design and fabrication you outsource (like the top plate refinishing and painting/lettering) or do you handle the bulk of it? Do you have to also fabricate tools, jigs, etc?
HvV: “Most activities are done in my workshop, but for some work I have subcontractors, an external painter for repainting, a screening company in Germany for the new printing/screening, a couple of local subcontractors for mechanical parts and components etc. I have indeed had to fabricate tools and jigs, as well as tools for alignment and adjusting, all made in house or by subcontractors, no original ones from the EMT factory.”
RA: What made you want to take on the engineering challenge of recreating the EMT 139st b stereo phono tube equalizer amplifier? Can you discuss the technical engineering challenges you faced to bring this to market?
HvV: “The EMT 139st b replica is something special. Doing this already for about 15 years now and made/sold already more then 125 pieces of this replica, it’s a product made by me for the longest time ever. The story started with the fascination for the early EMT tube preamp technology. My initial audio interest started in the post-tube era. Solid state was the norm, but tube audio technology became a revival in the very late 20th century, so when I started with the EMT business I very soon was fascinated by the early EMT tube phono preamps which in those days were very rare and much sought after. Sometimes I could acquire an EMT mono tube phono preamp but the stereo version was hard to find and probably caused by the fact that the stereo version was not made in the same numbers as the mono version. The EMT tube phono preamps were made between 1954 and 1967 and most radio broadcasting those days was in mono because AM was the norm.
“From the early ‘60s FM broadcasting became more and more the norm, first in mono, and during the mid-to-late ‘60s also in stereo, and that’s why there are, in my opinion, more mono versions then stereo versions. When stereo FM became more the norm EMT already manufactured the EMT 155st, the solid state (transistor) successor of the EMT 139st b. Because of the fascination for this stereo tube phono preamp I first built a raw “prototype” conforming to the original EMT 139st b circuit diagram and the result was amazing. The sound performance was totally different in a positive way from the EMT 155st solid state preamp, so my idea was to reproduce the EMT 139st b. But, the problem was I had no original. Those days I already had some contacts with former broadcast engineers through Europe and some of them had a large EMT collection, turntables and associated parts, one of them lives in Brussels and he had an original EMT 139st b. After months of communication and discussions he finally gave me the chance to buy this original EMT 139st b."
“Now I had my original example and the idea of making a replica. At the same time I made an “audio trip” in the United States with a friend and we visit also the Telefunken Elektoakustik USA factory in South Windsor, Connecticut, and I was very impressed about the reproduction of the famous legendary Neumann U47 microphone. I felt that was the way to do it, making a one-to-one copy/replica of the original. After this trip I was very motivated to copy the original EMT 139st b one-to-one. Easy to say, hard to do, but the challenge was born; the challenge to prove it could be built in the classic way with new components and tailor made parts. Finally, after months of meticulous reverse engineering of the original EMT 139st b, searching for original manufacturers of some parts, prototyping and testing, the first replica EMT 139st b was complete and perfect – documentated down to the last screw – and a first limited series was built for private use. So, the legend did return and I decided to start manufacturing new limited series to make this famous amplifier available for other EMT lovers around the globe.
“Manufacturing of each limited series starts with purchasing all needed components and parts, either sourced from the original supplier or recreated in exact detail with no compromises or deviation from the classic design. The commitment is to exactly recreate the finest replica of the EMT 139st b. The EMT 139st b replicas are built with high-grade components and tailor made mechanical parts, in-and-output transformers re-manufactured by HAUFE, the original German supplier, in accordance with the original EMT specifications. Gold-plated tube sockets, vintage Telefunken ECC81 and ECC83 smooth plate tubes and Swiss made gold-plated switches for switching stereo/mono and equalizer characteristics are all included. Assembly is completely done by hand in the same tradition as the original, passionately built with respect to the classic design to meet original EMT specifications. After manufacturing, rigorous quality control, measurements and testing, every EMT 139st b replica is placed in one of my EMT 927st or EMT 930st turntables for an extended burn-in period. The result of all this effort is that each EMT 139st b replica represents a meticulous recreation of the original EMT 139st b, amazing in its appearance inside and outside, amazing in its sound and quality, amazing the equality to its famous ancestor.”
RA: You are helping a new generation to experience a turntable that could have been relegated to the history pile – something which happened to many other broadcast turntables – do you think about the lasting cultural impact your work will have?
HvV: “Yes, I do my work with much pleasure and I’m proud to see all my restorations and new-made EMT 139st b replicas moving all over the globe. I’m happy that I’ve saved all this wonderful technology from the trash container and all new owners are proud to own – and happy to use this former professional state-of-the-art technology from the 20th century. Nowadays, we talk worldwide much about the circular economy but I’m already engaged in this “economy” for almost 20 years.”
RA: What’s your favourite type of music genre? Can you talk to me about your LP collection?
HvV: “No special preference, I like all kind of music, from pop to classic to film music. I don’t have a large collection of LP’s or CD’s, as told before, the technology is my main passion.”
RA: If you could pick one pressing that you treasure above all others, what would it be and why?
HvV: “Also no special preference, but I’m often very impressed by the recording quality of the big label records from the ‘50s and ‘60s. For instance, the records which were recorded and released by RCA and Capitol. When I hear records of Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole with big bands recorded in the ‘50s, and now played on EMT turntables with a following expensive contemporary high-end audio system, I’m always very impressed about the sound recording quality of those days and often ask what audio quality progress did we make in more then half a century? In general the progress of audio quality in the last 60–70 years is not that big as the progress in car technology in the same period. Compare a Porsche 911 from the ’60s with one from 2020 and the difference/progress is much bigger then from a contemporary turntable compared to an EMT 927 from the ‘50s.”
RA: What is your most prized turntable?
HvV: “Most expensive turntables I restore and trade are the EMT 927 turntables, especially the EMT 927A st, the version with the optical groove indication system and my EMT 139st b replica stereo MC phono tube equalizer amplifier, also the EMT 927F, the twin tonearm version of the EMT 927 is very expensive because with all restorations I have to reproduce the second tonearm lift system which is a complicated mechanical system.”
RA: What comprises the rest of your system? Preamplifiers, amplifiers, loudspeakers, cabling, etc.? Is it ‘complete’ or is it always a work in progress?
HvV: “My monitor system, as I call it, consists for already a long time of a Nagra PL-P preamp, two Nagra VPA power amplifiers, a Nagra CDP CD player, a Nagra LB digital recorder and two “home made” front loaded horns with a full range speaker. My personal system was always in progress, but last years I’m very satisfied with what’s here but you never know, the audio virus is a never ending story!”