I find it somewhat difficult to address the topic of Polish turntables, because after a careful look we can find about 80 turntable designs in Fonica’s post-WWII manufacturing history. To describe all of them would turn this article into a tedious historical essay that might prove too tiring for the modern user of this type of products. Therefore, I have chosen only a fragment of this history that can be briefly described as the "golden years" of turntable technology. Since my choice is subjective, the history will be subjective, too. Human memory is fallible, though, and I may depart from the truth in details, which I assure you is not intentional.
If we move back to the 1960s, it turns out we basically had two music sources at our disposal: radio and vinyl record. Magnetic tape necessarily played a secondary role, except for professional use. It resembles the present day where the CD disc is the official source with the internet being a less official one.
The 1960s brought the boom of “entertainment” music, called youth music or big beat back in the day. The wave of interest in this type of music there came a great hunger for information and devouring new songs, and learning about new artists. The music was reluctantly accepted by the Polish Radio and found its way by a side entrance, so to speak, for example via Rozgłośnia Harcerska (Scout Broadcasting). For me as a listener it was the music content that mattered and sound quality was far less important. This music was served without any limits by shortwave broadcasts, such as the legendary Luxembourg or even the Free Europe with its program titled Rendezvous at 6:10. Their sound quality was very hard to imagine by today's generation of listeners. The second source of music was vinyl. Actually, it is difficult to say "records", because it was music recorded from the radio on tape to become the “master” for the so-called sound postcards.
Of course this technology, in today’s words “dedicated" to a different purpose, did not meet any sound quality criteria. For formality’s sake, let me add that a sound postcard cost 12 zlotys and was a thick plastic foil with a recording, stuck to an actual postcard. Polish artist were present mainly in the form of the so-called “fours” which cost, as far as I remember, 30 zlotys. There were no larger, the only available “tens” or 10-inch "big beat" records, not to mention the LPs. Music captured on the records served rather mundane purposes, as without it there could be no good party (called “private parties” back then).
Hence, turntables were mostly portable, as not every house had a turntable and someone would have to bring one along.
Stationary turntables would sit on top of a radio cabinet and their sound quality largely depended on the radio receiver quality. It was often not that bad, as 80 percent of the cabinet volume was occupied by the speaker(s) enclosure. Large 10-inch speaker drivers were sometimes used and one may even happen to find electrostatic tweeters. I think that in those days music lovers listened to music in concert halls, and if there were any audiophiles they listened to music on large-cabinet radio receivers with built-in turntables or connected to a turntable.
Naturally, there were also original vinyl records, imported from “hot countries”. A new LP would set you back about 500 zlotys at the most popular bookstore in Warsaw, on Hoza Street. People happened to come up to the window to see the cover of a new Beatles album. It was there that I saw for the first time in my life Rubber Soul and Revolver…
Western records were usually in stereo, which caused some concern among their enthusiasts. Playing them back on a mono turntable will one hear the whole recorded sound or only half of it? A silly problem, but where would one look for an answer in those days? It came to the point where stereo LPs were being looked at with disapproval, and mono records were getting harder to get in the West. And then there appeared first stereo turntables in the People's Republic of Poland…
I saw it for the first time with my own eyes in the ZURiT audio salon at the corner of Marszalkowska and Nowogrodzka. The system was rather uninspiring. It consisted of the G 600 turntable, the W 600 amplifier, and some speakers whose name I cannot recall. Out of this system, the W 600 based on the EL 84 tubes has withstood the test of time pretty well. I owned it twice in my life and tend to have a certain fondness for it. It is still relatively easy to buy and its only practical drawback are the DIN input/output connectors. My first impression remained unchanged, though – the equipment looked mediocre, probably due to the dominant gray paint finish.
Relatively little is known about this unit. I do not know which design, if any, it may have been based on. Its drive system reminds me most of the Thorens 124 but, and I say this for emphasis, it is a fairly loose association. What we have here is a high speed AC motor that via a short belt drives the idler pulley which drives the idler wheel that in turn drives the platter. The turntable has a strobe tester, with rotation speed controlled mechanically by means of a conically-shaped idler. The turntable wooden plinths were manufactured by Lodz Furniture Factory.
The turntable chassis is mounted to the plinth via rubber bushings, too rigid in my opinion to provide a proper isolation. The plinth rests on rubber feet, also providing only theoretical isolation from the base surface. This usually leads to low frequency resonance or, to put it in simple terms, it’s impossible to listen to bass at high volume level.
Unfortunately, I could not remember the tonearm design details. To refresh my memory I came into possession of a turntable unit that was well-preserved and almost complete. The tonearm turned out to be disappointing because of two factors. First, vertical tracking force control is via a spring design, which is not the best solution. The VTF can be adjusted from 8 grams… The turntable used to be sold with “foreign contribution” in the form of Shure M44MB cartridge which – as is known – can track from 1.5 gram. Second, there was no anti-skate mechanism at all. These two drawbacks pose a potential risk of faster record wear.
Let’s recall our boundary conditions. The Beatles’ album Revolver cost 500 zlotys while a modest pension was (then) 700 zlotys. After going to great lengths to purchase the album, which today which seems beyond comprehension, one wanted it to last forever. Naturally, the G 600 was less damaging to the records than the former Bambino and its followers, but it was still far from ideal.
Definitely a positive feature of the G 600 was a very good workmanship quality of the platter with its bearing and a decent length spindle. In addition, I was pleasantly surprised by its decoupled counterweight design.
The system with the G 600 and the W 600 sold for about 1,000 zlotys, which at that time was out of my reach. The alternatives were the G500 “deck” turntable with a piezoelectric cartridge, manufactured under license from Telefunken or the Suprafon from Czechoslovakia, or possibly the elegant stereo Bambino version in a wooden cabinet. I once used both these turntables.
The G 600 / W 600 system described earlier was quite a rarity to buy, and to be honest I only saw it once “on the store shelf”. The next step was the emergence of stereo radio receivers: the tube-based Polish DSTL-220 and the two Hungarian designs – the tube Halka and the transistor Chopin. Polish first stereo transistor receiver was the Elizabeth stereo and the legendary Meluzyna. If you were an audio enthusiast and decided to buy one of them, the next goal was to add a turntable and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. A stereo tape recorder that was available on the market was manufactured by ZRK and called the ZK246, which had a built-in amplifier and speaker drivers. While that was bearable, the turntable that appeared about the same time not only came with a built-in amplifier, but the whole set also consisted of a pair of speakers…
The Fonomaster was the G 600’s successor and as I mentioned earlier was available with an amplifier and speakers. Its manufacturer’s designation was the WG 610 f. Naturally, over time there also appeared a version without the amplifier, which bore the mark G 601 f. This version, however, was fairly exotic.
Let's look at the characteristic features of this turntable. In comparison to the G 600, the drive system remained basically unchanged, with the platter being perhaps slightly more "anemic" and the bearing giving the impression of being a little less carefully made. The turntable was equipped with the Micro Seiki tonearm which seems to be commonly taken for granted, but I have never come across any formal confirmation of that.
Micro Seiki or not, it was still miles ahead of the previous arms. Boasting a precise bearing design with one roller bearing and three ones resembling “watch” bearings, it had an S-shaped arm tube and came equipped with a removable headshell from SME. Most importantly, it was designed to work with low VTF cartridges, theoretically even less than 1.5 grams. Last but not least, it had an anti-skate mechanism. This arm was a real SOMETHING and even today it holds its own against modern arm designs. Unfortunately, vibration isolation remained essentially unchanged and the only upgrade was that the whole turntable now sat on large diameter soft rubber feet. The turntable chassis was still isolated from the plinth via hard rubber bushings. The turntable was sold with the Shure M44MB cartridge.
To remain faithful to the historical truth, the turntable presented in the pictures is the version with the amplifier. This unit has since been renovated and also shows some "tuning up", which does not interfere with getting to know its design.
The next development step was change to a DC motor belt driven system equipped with a speed stabilizer based on tachometer and opto-coupler. The arm remained basically unchanged, and the changes involved the arm lift as its first versions had a rather complicated design that was prone to silicone leaks). This version was called the Fonomaster 76 and, accordingly, the G 601 A without the amplifier. The strobe disc remained in the same place as in the G 601f. From the outside, the platters of both Fonomaster versions showed no differences. The G 601 A can be identified by Isostat switches. In place of a former mechanical speed selector there was now a control potentiometer. Over time, there was also a G 601 A version with a new platter that featured outside strobe markers (the same platter was used in the Daniel, Bernard and Fryderyk)
The Fonomaster 76 turntable featured in the pictures comes from 1976.
An automatic turntable disaster
Turntables used by music lovers and audiophiles had no automation systems as it was assumed that the listener simply listens to LPs and it is his or her only activity. Maybe once every 20-25 minutes he or she would need to come over to the turntable. That was the case with previously described turntable designs. There was naturally another school, naturally from the U.S., that not only endorsed a start-stop automatic but also record changers that allowed the listener to load multiple records at once. Hence the American version of multi-disc albums with strange side numbering on the discs. For example, a double album would have the following side layout: disc 1 sides 1 and 4, disc 2 sides 2 and 3. That numbering was used in order to move the group of discs forming the entire album to "the other side" on the turntable. Some of the renowned turntable had automatic manufacturers even among their top models, such as the Dual CS 701. Polish turntables, of course, were not spared the automatic turntable disaster – the G 500 was equipped with such design solution. Eventually, a popular turntable standard emerged and was limited to a start/stop system. In this form it has since been appearing in popular designs. A standard solution is to drive the arm from the platter, which is clearly visible when the automation system slows down the platter due to increased resistance. The Daniel was a Polish turntable with a proprietary automation design.
To be precise, it bore the symbol G 1100fs. It was, one might say, a completely new design, although based on some previous elements.
We will come back in a while to what they were. It was also the first turntable where the overall design was subordinated to aesthetics. Since the decision was made to go for a trendy flat look, this meant reducing the platter spindle length. The start/stop automation was made on a separate motor that only drove the arm. It is a very good solution although pretty rare due to being relatively expensive. However, such simple automation system required a change of the arm design in comparison to the Fonomaster. To properly drive the arm, its position transmitter was needed, placed under the chassis, and a part of the arm bearing system that was driven.
The Fonomaster arm was therefore significantly redesigned. Its vertical bearing system now used two roller bearings. During production there were also two different ways of adjusting bearing internal clearance. The arm tube, the counterweight mounting and the horizontal bearing remained unchanged. With the arrival of the Tenorel 2001 cartridge and its licensed successors, the cartridge weight increased, which in turn caused a change in the counterweight design.
Another component that required a change was the lift. Now it needed to be operated electrically. Despite these changes, it still remained a very decent arm design. It wasn’t much trouble to continue to use Fonomaster cartridges. The drive system did not change mechanically, and the new control system was equipped with the then fashionable touch buttons, rather uninspired for my taste…
The strobe disc had a form of bars engraved on the platter side that were illuminated with a neon light placed in a housing called a "fireplace".
Most importantly, the Daniel was a turntable with a real sub-chassis. It was therefore the first Polish decoupled turntable design, isolated not only from the surrounding vibration but also from its own motor via a system of low stiffness springs, which made it the most important qualitative leap. For formality’s sake, let us note that there was also the WG1100fs version with a built-in amplifier, but it was not as predominant as in the case of the Fonomaster. The turntables in the pictures come from 1977 and 1978, and they feature different plinths and hinges.
The Bernard or the G 603 appeared parallel to the Daniel. This turntable differed quite significantly from the presented line. It was a simpler design compared to the Daniel but one that showed some progress in relation to the G 601 fs. There was no automation, the drive system reminded that of the Fonomaster, and the platter was the same as in the Daniel.
The tone arm was new and looked to be Fonika’s own design. Arm pivot components were made of Zn-Al alloy cast. Vertical bearing was on one roller bearing, resembling a bicycle wheel bearing (with separate ball races and balls), and a "stud" in the bearing nest with balls. The same two "studs" were used in the horizontal bearing. The arm tube was S-shaped and had a less diameter than those in the previously described turntables. The arm weight was increased due to headshell. At first glance, this was an inconsistency.
Anti-skate mechanism worked in a similar way as in the Daniel, although a careful inspection reveal some disadvantages of that design. This arm, just as Bernard’s, was subject to further changes. Eventually, all that remained of the Bernard G 603 was just a name. The entire chassis was mounted to the plinth on fairly soft springs, which was supposed to improve isolation. There were no more touch buttons which were replaced with normal switches, and the lift was controlled mechanically with a traditionally-looking, long-stroke lever mounted on the front. Overall, the Bernard gave the impression of being a somewhat “budget” design. The unit shown in the pictures comes from 1980.
The kingdom of stacking hi-fi
The 1980s changed our outlook on audio, mainly due to industrial design changes. The most important specification details were components’ width and color finish, as they were the main criteria of building stacking hi-fi systems, accompanied by collector’s flair. None of the previously existing turntables met the criterion of "fitting" into the stacking system. Like it or not, Fonica had to meet such customer demand. On the other hand, no matter what was produced, it would sell in an instant… One of the stacking systems desired by many was the 8000 series mini stacking system.
UNITRA G 8010
This turntable was produced as a dedicated part of the above stacking system. It also existed in countless variants manufactured for Western customers. The design required something of an engineering feat due to the plinth width restriction. Looking at its design features it can be described as a “boardphone” (the plinth is not a box but rather a profile made of particle board) with a typical start/stop automation system and sizeable isolation feet that, with a certain dose of optimism, may be called its only anti-vibration system. The unit gave the impression of being very low (flat), because some components were located under the platter, and some others under the board (chassis).
The platter was made of aluminum alloy with strobe bars on the edge and felt solid and heavy, which was far from reality. The turntable came equipped with a new arm, which at first also gave the impression of being very solid and rigid. The arm had four bearings in the form of cones placed in the ball nests. The bearings – unfortunately – featured some plastic-made components. The turntable came in a very large number of versions that differed in basic specification details, which in those years, let me remind you, were width and color.
It also could be found under various names, as it was produced for export for a wide variety of customers. Maybe that’s why many of them (myself included) explicitly associate it with the name “Altus”.
Miraculous multiplication of entities
The Bernard turntable had a successor in the form of the G-620 Fryderyk which differed from its predecessor only by external design, with its controls moved to the plinth’s front panel. And it was only after that model that a “great rotation” had place – the turntable naming method was changed.
The turntables without an amplifier were marked GS and those with a built-in amplifier were denoted GWS. And so there came, among others, the GS431, GS 434, GS 438, GS464, GS470, GS 472, GS 476, GS 477, GS 478, GS500… To make it easier – the 431, 434, 438 and 470 additionally bore the name Bernard although, in most cases, had nothing to do with the Bernard G 602 described earlier. For historical accuracy, it should be added that the Bernard 434 featured a new arm that in my opinion was a step backwards compared to the original. There was also a new "low-profile" aluminum platter, even lighter than its predecessors.
In other words, except for certain changes to simplify the technology and reduce production costs and cosmetic changes to make the turntables fit the subsequent stacking systems, there were no important developments. That was an overall trend in the 1980s, and I must admit that Fonica’s lapse from its former standards was nothing in comparison to the downfall of popular products from renowned Japanese companies. As a matter of fact, most of them never returned to turntable manufacturing. That is a separate topic, though. There was one honorable exception to this trend.
The Adam, often referred to as the GS 424, came in four "varieties" (only in theory, as it was still the same turntable). The Adam used a similar arm to that which was previously known from the G 8010 and a similarly looking platter. The platter was mounted on a cone. The turntable also featured an automatic stop system. Most importantly, the Adam was equipped with a direct-drive linear motor system. The motor stator "poles" were placed under the platter beyond the range of the cartridge movement. The platter had a magnetic ring and was the motor rotor. Personally, I very much like that design. I have not come across such solution in any other turntable. As the turntable appeared in the era of miraculous multiplication of entities, I hasten to explain that according to its official user manual the GS 420 version differed from the 424 with the type of used cartridge (the MF 100 instead of MF 104). The GS 421 and GS 425 were in turn equipped with a stepper motor, while the 421 differed from the 425 with the same that set apart the 420 from the 424; simple, isn’t it? I am not able to determine the exact manufacturing date of the turntable featured in the picture, as its technical inspection label faded so much that only the serial number is visible.
No happy end
Fonika products were a hot commodity that was selling well during the time of Poland’s former system. They sold well in the Eastern bloc market, too. Some turntables variants, also as components, were manufactured only for the East. The unit featured in the picture was manufactured in 1989 and is branded by Wega (not to be confused with the German name of Sony). Despite the name "602C", after a careful look it turns out to be mechanically identical to the GS 464, which makes it a "Bernard-like" turntable.
An economic war with the Soviet Union in the early 1990s led to the market collapse. It apparently did not help the Lodz plant, either. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, Fonica did not only manufacture turntables for the customers from the East. I suggest you take a closer look at the Thorens TD 180 – doesn’t it, and especially its arm, look strangely familiar? The market for turntables was generally coming to an end. In Poland, the turntable market faced perhaps the biggest collapse, due to customers’ infatuation with the CD. At some point, the only place where the vinyl record was more difficult to buy was Japan…
I think there was one factor that mostly contributed to the Fonica’s plant fall. A large proportion of consumers are eager to individualize products and are not satisfied to own the same furniture and TV sets, and to drive the same cars. People always tried to overcome unification by using different "tuning", which was best seen in the popular small Fiat cars. They would often prefer definitely inferior Western-manufactured products, only not to allow to be "dressed identically” by the State. Polish products were thus often doomed to failure in advance, without going into their specific technical advantages.
Today it is different. People allergic to the People's Republic of Poland are dwindling, and the youth is allergy-free (unless it was instilled in them). It slowly becomes expressed in the market. It may happen now that a Daniel and Adam sells for several times more than e.g. a Dual, which was so highly sought after without success in the 1970s. Despite marketing efforts, customers begin to realize that cheap plastic and plywood is no substitute for wood and metal. Technically speaking, this short fragment of the Fonica’s history reflects all the stages and trends that occur in the evolution of all tech products. In my opinion, some of the products survived the test of time quite well. My intention is not to glorify them, but only try to rescue them from falling into oblivion.
Coming back to the fate of Fonica, the above-mentioned conditions resulted in that the plant was declared in bankruptcy in 1992. Only the name has survived to the present day, owing to a new company which manufactures very beautiful, very good and very expensive turntables. Maybe this road will be better than the one that the Polish “Junak” motorcycle took. Time will tell.
P.S. People who have information about ŁZR Fonica and would like to share it are kindly requested to contact the author. A joint effort will hopefully help clarify the available information and discover new facts for the readers.
About the author
Vinyl records and turntables have accompanied me for almost 50 years. Over that time I gathered a lot of knowledge and experience. As a matter of fact, only creating my own designs taught me to fully understand the consequences of implementing specific technical solutions. I try to share the collected information with the generation of people in “our children” age. I am a 100 percent hobbyist and turntables and records are not my only passion. I consider the situation of owning a double-digit number of turntables to be completely normal.