How do I refurbish grandma's very cool old record player?
December 2, 2019 6:53 AM   Subscribe

My partner recently inherited her grandmother's good condition Delmonico phonograph that was probably purchased sometime in the 1950s. I don't think it's a high-end model or anything special, but it's cool as hell. How do we get it in working order?

The tag on the back looks exactly like this one for the JVC Stereo Phonograph SPH-4 Delmonico. This is a close match for what it looks like.

We actually have a bunch of records and I'd love to use the Delmonico to play them (it doesn't work currently, not sure why). It's a very sentimental object, so we'll be keeping it regardless. Probably worth mentioning, but we are not audiophiles and are fine with mediocre quality sound.

I have absolutely no idea where to start to figure out how to get it spinning records again. I'm not sure whether it makes more sense to gut out all the old components and just use a newer turntable and speakers, or whether to try to replace some of the old, non-functional parts to try to keep it as intact as possible.

Is this something I could attempt myself with no previous experience? How would I even search for a repair person for this? I'd be willing to spend a few hundred bucks to refurbish it, but unless there's something special or it has really exceptional sound or something I'd rather not splurge too much.

In my 5 minutes of Googling refurbishing phonographs I was quickly overwhelmed by technical talk about audio components - I know literally nothing at all. So please keep any responses at a very basic level for someone who doesn't know the difference between a subwoofer and a speaker.
posted by forkisbetter to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
With no previous experience, it seems unlikely you’d be able to repair it yourself, although if it’s a belt-driven turntable, and the platter isn’t spinning, it could be something as simple as replacing the belt.

The places that repair that kind of stuff are often listed under “hi-fi”. You could also try a television repair place if any still exist in your area.

You’ll most likely want to replace the needle/stylus. Even if you don’t care about sound quality, an old needle could sound pretty awful, and it’s going to damage your records.
posted by jonathanhughes at 7:13 AM on December 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is definitely a project for someone who restores vintage audio hardware (radios etc.) I'm reasonably competent at building projects with modern electronics, but I'd still leave a project like this to my neighbour who restores old radios. You might have some success asking around on any local community forums that you might have in your area. I wouldn't gut the phonograph - it probably just needs some appropriate TLC.
posted by pipeski at 7:16 AM on December 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Don't know where you are. The go-to shop in NYC is Analogique. Maybe contact them for a referral or for mail-in service. (It's not going to be cheap.)
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:09 AM on December 2, 2019

You don't describe the ways in which it's not working, from what you said, it could be mechanical or it could be electronic, or it could be both. It probably uses vacuum tubes, and replacements could be impossible to find. A pro might be able to choose a substitute from what is available, or maybe not.

It may play only 78rpm records.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:18 AM on December 2, 2019

Barring a really obvious symptom, it's unfortunately going to be almost impossible to diagnose the turntable over the internet. You can try swapping out the belt and stylus as a first step, but it's not uncommon for a turntable of that age to have failed capacitors or tubes or something in the amplifier circuit, which you'd definitely want an expert for.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:20 AM on December 2, 2019

We definitely need more information as to what the thing isn't doing. Is it not powering on? Is it on, but the platter not spinning?

The turntable is pretty definitely going to be belt-driven. That's a good thing as far as repairability goes.

It's definitely a 33RPM player, and also probably 78 and 45. There should be a simple speed switch somewhere near the table.

It's definitely not a solid-state player, so you're going to be dealing with tubes in the amplifier section. YMMV as far as finding appropriate replacements goes. They're possibly out there, but they also might cost a fair amount.

Is that a radio tuner on the right side? If so, it will be AM-only.

One issue you might want to consider before you drop any good vinyl on the table...Those old players were pretty tough on records. That is not going to be a modern, low-mass stylus/cartridge in the tonearm. It's going to be pretty heavy-duty and not made with keeping your records in good shape in mind. It will wear-out your records in short time. That said, it might be possible to retrofit the thing with a more modern stylus/cartridge setup. I'm sure, if it is possible, that would cost a fair bit of change, though.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:39 AM on December 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Echoing the fact that even though you're okay with mediocre sound (and that's fine!), laying vinyl on an older machine like this will wear it out very quickly. Very quickly. There's a wide gap between 'audiophile' stuff, and just low-to-mid range equipment that works well. There's an equally huge gap between this older machine, and that same low-to-mid range equipment.

Years ago I ran something similar and had no idea just how quickly a record player like that would straight wreck a record. Like, even a dozen plays and you may need to replace a record. That little friend may as well be a lead pipe and a sewing needle. Unless you're flush with cash and okay with your records being functionally disposable, I would avoid playing records on this, even if it was fixed up.

A different, much easier, lower skilled track to take, is to gut the thing and replace the components with modern pieces. A couple of examples, but there's numerous ones floating around online with degrees of complexity.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:58 AM on December 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

So seems like this is pretty obviously wayyy out of my league for any DIY repairs and I have found a few folks in my area who do antique radio/phonograph repair.

It also seems like replacing the original equipment is likely to be pricey and the built-in components are likely to destroy records anyway.

Any tips on how to get this updated to newer components? Would replacing components be something I could DIY with YouTube help or is this still something for a professional? Should I buy my own new components and bring in with me to the repair shop?
posted by forkisbetter at 10:25 AM on December 2, 2019

The only old "component" that could potentially damage a record is the only thing that has contact with the record — the needle. And that's designed to be user replaceable.
posted by jonathanhughes at 10:33 AM on December 2, 2019

The only old "component" that could potentially damage a record is the only thing that has contact with the record — the needle. And that's designed to be user replaceable.

That's technically correct, but an oversimplification. The needle is supported by a number of parts that work in concert, and in a machine this old, they're all kind of garbage. The tone-arm on old machines like this is very heavy, and not counterweighted (or poorly so). The needles, and cartridges are often not easily user serviceable in machines of this era, and replacements are scarce-to-expensive, while being of equally low quality to begin with.

Should I buy my own new components and bring in with me to the repair shop?

Precious few places will do this kind of work for you; they exist, but will be prohibitively expensive. This is firmly in the DIY territory; fortunately there's tons of examples online of folks doing this. Terms like "resto-mod" or "vintage stereo update" are going to be key search terms.

Every resto-mod would be different based on the base unit, controls, and the capabilities you want it to have. They can range from full replacement of every component, to just chucking a powered bluetooth speaker inside. Thank the internet for its abundance: Example, example, example, example, example, example
posted by furnace.heart at 10:53 AM on December 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Is this something I could attempt myself with no previous experience

I’d say “no”, unfortunately. Neither picture is particularly clear, but it certainly does seem to use vacuum tubes. Many types of tubes haven’t been manufactured for decades (there are a few kinds currently being made for guitar amplifiers and some home audio equipment), so if you can even find them you’ll likely pay a pretty penny for either used tubes or someone’s New Old Stock a.k.a. unsold tubes that have been sitting in a warehouse for years.

On top of that, mucking about in tube circuits is potentially dangerous, due to the high voltage used in a lot of those old circuits. Not a thing appropriate for beginners.

Would replacing components be something I could DIY with YouTube help

I dunno - take a look at the links in furnace.heart’s answers. If those make you go “Yikes!” then it’s probably not the project for you.

Should I buy my own new components and bring in with me to the repair shop?

I would definitely wait and see what the repair person says first - maybe the piece is restorable and not as bad on records as some folks think, maybe they’ve got some experience doing that kind of rebuild and know what new parts will work and which won’t, they should be able to give you a few options and prices. (It’s. . . . incredibly frustrating for someone to show up, dump a pile of random parts on the counter, and say, “Hey I want you to make this pile work in this other thing.”
posted by soundguy99 at 10:55 AM on December 2, 2019

OK, so these are not that hard to work on actually. Most old radio repair-people can probably handle this or can refer you to someone who can. This is most likely NOT a belt-drive turntable, since those are mostly a product of the 1970s and later. It is probably an idler-drive turntable, using a rubber wheel to drive the inside edge of the platter. Idler wheels harden over time but can be rebuilt, just google "idler wheel rebuild service" and you'll find folks who do it. The turntable is going to be full of gears and other metal parts that need cleaning and lubrication--the old grease hardens up over time and then things stop working.

This does probably use vacuum tubes, which are widely available on eBay and are pretty cheap. This probably uses common, cheap, easy-to-find tubes and could most likely be completely retubed for $20-50 depending what's in there. The tubes are probably fine anyway.

As far as the stylus damaging your records, that's not a huge issue and you probably wouldn't be playing 180-gram audiophile records anyway. Cartridges can be changed and things can be adjusted somewhat.

There are definitely folks who can work on this, probably local to you, but you need to find them. You're going to need to do some networking here. Most states have an antique radio club. Google "your state antique radio club" and see what turns up. If you contact them, they should be able to refer you to someone who can redo it for you, probably for $50-150 or so. Yes, there are shops that would charge you $500+ or whatever, but you can probably find someone for way less.
posted by Slinga at 1:00 PM on December 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

Another yes to get some quotes & moar evaluation. Might be worth it. Depends on your budget ~ curiosity.

(My view of "mediocre" sound: it's a funny psychoacoustic thing. I've heard some phonograph consoles of similar vintage, and they're definitely not high-fidelity, but they have this uncanny tube warmth in the lower mids that sounds pretty groovy if like this kinda thing. The high end is undeniably compromised, but if you're getting older maybe that's not as big a deal;)
posted by ovvl at 3:51 PM on December 2, 2019

Slinga's got it. It's almost certainly an idler-drive, and turntables are not hard to work on once cleaned (mostly fiddly, and reworking/making/finding/waiting for parts) - but most shops won't work on them unless they're restoration specialists who charge through the roof. Which is only fair - they're specialist operators who need to employ a wide range of skills or skilled craftsmen to be successful in a small market - but is rarely worthwhile for the average person except in extreme cases.

90+% of consumer-equipment valves are still common as muck (and usually cheaper from used/NOS dealers than eBay). They do wear out - but not as quickly as people think, and age-wise they're some of the more reliable components ever made. I do vintage radios & small amps (but not near you), and I'd replace/repair 50~100 other components for each valve I replace.

Find a local vintage radio group; particularly in NA, there'll be a member or someone they know who'll do it for a fair price. Those sort of mid-century furniture-piece radios, 'grams, and 'graphs aren't particularly favoured pieces by most radio/electronics collectors, but that's mostly because of the space they require. Many semi-pro hobby restorers seem quite happy to take them on & meet some new challenges - provided they can give them back when done 😉
posted by Pinback at 4:17 PM on December 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

Slinga and Pinback are right on here--I'll add a few comments of my own:

1. Do not plug this in and turn it on until it's restored. The power supply caps are probably toast, and plugging it in now could cause unnecessary damage.
2. Avoid taking the tube amp apart and tinkering with it. Tube circuits run on very high voltage and if it's been plugged in recently, there could be a charge in the power supply capacitors.
3. One place you might try looking for techs is at guitar shops. Guitar amps run on tubes, and those guys need techs. If they sell amps, they'll know a guy.
posted by TrialByMedia at 6:12 PM on December 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

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