Empire 880P phono cartridge

The 880P is a moving-magnet stereo cartridge for use in transcription arms and the few high-quality record changers now available, such as the Garrard Model A and the Lesa units. It has standard ½" mounting centers, and the pickup requires the 47k ohm termination provided by most preamplifiers. The 8mV output, too, is about ideal for nearly all preamps.

We tried the 880P in Empire's own Model 98 arm, adjusting the stylus force initially for the manufacturer's lowest recommended force: 0.5 grams. The pickup did trace some lightly cut discs at this force without significant breakup, but the wiry, spitty high end, the persistent troubles with wax buildup on the stylus, and the shattering distortion on heavily cut discs suggested that the 0.5-gram figure may have been a figment of somebody's overoptimism.

At 1 gram, tracing was tolerably clean on most discs, but some rising high-end response still added spits and ticks to surface noise and imparted a harsh, grating quality to whatever breakup did occur during loud passages. The pickup seemed to perform best at 1.5 grams, so subsequent tests were run at this force.

Preliminary tests showed the 880P to have as high channel separation as any pickup we have encountered. Like the Weathers PS-11 system (reported in Vol.1 No.2), this one's separation was so high that measurements were swamped by turntable rumble and surface noise. The best reading we could obtain was around 25dB, but sweep tests (visually monitored on a 'scope) suggested even better separation at all but the highest frequencies. At 10kHz, we started getting readings of less than 20dB, and were measuring about 15dB at 15kHz, where we don't trust our test records anyway.

Channel balance on our sample was off by a little less than 1dB—enough to cause a barely perceptible shift in balance when switching from stereo to blended monophonic operation. Needle talk was exceedingly low, being on a par with that from the PS-11, and hum sensitivity was acceptably low. With a reasonably well-shielded phono motor, inductive hum pick up was well below the limit of audibility.

We had no way of testing the pickup's response with any accuracy out to 30kHz, and as far as we're concerned, response beyond 15kHz isn't very important anyway. We did, however, find the cartridge to be within ±1dB from 20Hz to 15kHz, which is excellent. As for the 6Hz lower-range claim, this is not as remarkable as it looks, for any magnetic cartridge will reproduce at constant velocity down to the point where its compliance resonates with the mass of the tonearm.


This one's very high compliance would put the arm resonance well below 20Hz with the lightest tonearm, and if the preamp equalizes down to the resonance point, the pickup will produce its full output down to this frequency. This is not an unmixed blessing, for although there was no difficulty when using Empire's arm, some tonearms develop a nasty response peak at resonance, and if there happens to be any turntable rumble at this frequency, as there often is, the power amplifier may be driven rather hard in a range where its power-handling ability is virtually negligible. If the system has a subsonic filter (not the type of rumble filter that lops off some of the useful bass range), we would advise using it with any pickup whose compliance carries its arm resonance as low as this one does. A viscous-damped arm would avoid the problem by eliminating the bass rise at resonance.

Sound Quality
On program material the 880P had an unusual admixture of softness and subtle brilliance. In comparison with our reference standard, the Weathers PS-11, the 880P was a shade less full at the extreme low end and not so lucidly detailed. In actuality, the 880P is flatter through the low-bass range than the PS-11, which has a slight rise centered around 30Hz, but all discs seem to need some bottom lift in order to make them sound like master tapes. Obviously, this is the fault of the discs, but when they're all that way, we have to learn to live with the situation, like it or not.

When both pickups are tracked at 1.5 grams, the Empire did not exhibit the slightly rising high end that was observed in the Weathers, so its surface noise was a shade lower, and it had a softer, sweeter sound on some discs. On heavily cut discs, however—and this encompasses most of the current releases—the PS-11 was slightly cleaner than the 880P. We would judge the 880P to be among the best of the magnetics as far as tracing ability is concerned, but it shows signs of stress on material that doesn't begin to bother the Weathers, and, when it starts to break up its distortion is quite a bit more offensive to the ear. The difference isn't too noticeable when the rest of the associated components are free from distortion and treble peaks, but the worse the system, the greater the observable difference between these pickups.

Empire claims higher compliance and lower dynamic mass than Weathers claims for the PS-11. We are in no position to verify either manufacturer's claims, but the fact remains that the Empire 880P did not have the Weathers' high-frequency tracing ability when both were tracked at 1.5 grams. On the other hand, neither pickup has shown any sign of stress on the most heavily recorded bass passages.

The 880P appears to be one of the most rugged high-performance stereo cartridges we've encountered. We dropped it, and bounced it off a record a few times, the stylus just retracted between the shoulders of the cartridge, and no perceptible damage was done either to the record or the pickup.

All in all, this is probably the best magnetic cartridge we have tested to date, but as far for the manufacturer's contention that it is "the last cartridge you'll ever buy," we would not advise audio enthusiasts to give up this easily. There are better cartridges, if you're willing to pay for them.

Empire Scientific Corp.
Garden City, NY (1963)
Company no longer in existence (2019)

Kal Rubinson's picture

I had an Empire 298 TT and 98 arm and began with a 108 cartridge. All was just fine. However, with the advent of the 880p, I found that the progression to higher compliance and lower mass was leaving the old 98 behind. My two samples of the 880p were both short-lived although they sounded good as long as they worked.

Replaced the 98 with an ADC-40 arm and moved over to the ADC cartridges for many years. Kept the TT.

Ortofan's picture

.... me. OTOH, I don't recall ever seeing Empire - or
Grado, for that matter - cartridges available at any of the local hi-fi dealers. The lone high-end (aka McIntosh) dealer sold Ortofon and B&O cartridges, while the rest had ADC, Pickering/Stanton and Shure, plus one dealer had just started carrying Audio-Technica.

Herb Reichert's picture

an Emprie 888 and liking it for its high-definition

Tiburd's picture

I bought an Empire 888SE for $20 from Allied Radio before Radio Shack bought them out and shut them down (with an antitrust action by the U.S. Department of Justice). It was a much better cartridge than my modest turntable deserved in those days. Later I had an ADC carrtridge which rendered timpani much more faithfully but was less refined on top. Both were fine cartridges for their time.

Kal Rubinson's picture

The bad experience with Empire's quality control on the cartridges drove me away from them after the 88X series. Moved on to ADC, Sonus, Shure, Nagatron, Ortofon, Decca, Denon, Dynavector, Koetsu, Microacoustics.........(in no particular order). Still have a few.

Ortofan's picture

... either ADC or Sonus appeared to be a step up from that at Empire - or not so much?

Kal Rubinson's picture

The memory is not vivid but I cannot recall having problems with ADC over the course of using many of them. Nor with the single Sonus. Memory of my disappointment with the Empires does remain.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Look at the bright side ....... At least the Empire phono cartridges did not burst into flames and go up in smoke :-) ......

Such an experience would certainly cause PTSD :-) ...........

doak's picture

Did not know such Beasties ever existed, but ‘63 is a bit (but just a bit) before my time.
That said, my Decca London Super Gold (still a current model) specs @ 5mV.
Started with ADC in mid 70s, Shure V15-IV then Dynavector 23R by ‘80.
Wow, just thinking: a list of “carts I have owned (and sometimes loved)” would be hard to get on one page.

Ortofan's picture

... Empire fixed-coil cartridge tooling/manufacturing equipment after Benz acquired the company?
Did it ever get moved to Switzerland?
Or was it acquired by another company, or just scrapped?
Fremer? Fremer?