Any record-playing music fan who grew up in the nineteen sixties or seventies will know the name BSR, because its decks were everywhere. Birmingham Sound Reproducers was the dominant turntable brand of its day – so it’s all the more striking that it has now vanished almost without trace. As recently as the mid-eighties it was manufacturing vast numbers of autochangers, and a decade before that was as dominant in audio as Microsoft would later be in personal computing.
BSR’s sheer size cannot be understated; in 1974 its US subsidiary took out an advertisement claiming that BSR “makes two out of every three automatic turntables in the world.” It added that in the UK four out of five automatic decks sold were by BSR, and in Japan an amazing nine out of ten “are made in Great Britain by BSR.” In the USA, BSR made more than all other makes of automatic deck combined. “Any company that makes and sells that many changers must be doing something right”, it concluded.
It’s all the more staggering then that BSR is now completely gone, after a series of strategic miscalculations allied to the wholesale migration of the world’s music fans to Compact Disc – something it foolishly decided not to invest in. The company was founded by Daniel McLean McDonald in 1932 in Perry Park Road, Rowley Regis, in the West Midlands. It designed and built amplifiers and electronic test equipment for two decades, and then as the microgroove LP hit the shops began making turntables. By the fifties, the company was driving the market for inexpensive but high quality record players with its Monarch Automatic Record Changer; it could select and play 7″, 10″ and 12″ records at 33 1/3, 45 or 78 rpm, changing between the various settings automatically.
By the early nineteen seventies, the company manufactured in the Black Country, Londonderry, East Kilbride and even Australia. Much of BSR’s success was due to its OEM work; for example in the early fifties BSR autochangers were in Dansette record players, and a million of these were sold in the next two decades. The company listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1957 as BSR McDonald, and was employing 2,600 workers five years later. By 1977, it had around 14,000 people at its three factories in Powke Lane, the Waterfall Lane Trading Estate in Old Hill, and its High Street works in Wollaston, Stourbridge. Over 250,000 decks a week were being made, with nine tenths of these exported. BSR then provided 87% of turntables for all the world’s leading record players, which is a breathtaking statistic. A recruitment leaflet from that time described BSR thus:
”We are a large organisation and have many jobs to suit all abilities. BSR is interested in its employees. We endeavour to create first class, happy working conditions and pay good wages. There are vacancies (women) for inspectors, assemblers, and machine and press operators. Also, for (male) toolmakers, toolsetters in Press and Machine Shops: inspectors, progress chasers and quality control engineers. BSR have a first-class Apprentice Training Scheme linked with Technical College education for training the top audio engineers of tomorrow.”
BSR began to build a big presence in Japan, establishing its Nipponese subsidiary in 1972. It had the honour of being the first audio equipment manufacturer in Japan to be completely financed by a foreign company. The company forged alliances with the US-based Audio Dynamics Corporation three years later, bundling its cartridges with its higher end decks. At the same time, it marketed ADC graphic equalisers under the BSR name in some countries. In 1975 BSR allied with Peco Electronics to make the ADC Accutrac 4000 turntable, which was a sophisticated track-searching design complete with direct drive motor, ADC LMA1 cartridge and infrasonic remote control. In 1979 BSR Japan bought the US-based dbx Inc. from founder, David E. Blackmer, and started to manufacture and distribute its noise reduction systems and dynamic range expanders.
This BSR McDonald ‘Belt Drive System’ BDS 80 is one of the company’s last traditional fully automatic turntables. Along with its BDS 95 bigger brother, it is the end of a long line of decks that can be traced right back to the UA8 of 1958, the UA14 of 1961, the UA16 of 1964 and the 1965 to 1968 UA25. By the time the BDS 80 came out in 1975 the company was at the height of its powers, and offered this deck up as an affordable, attractive, modern hi-fi turntable, complete with smoked dustcover and plinth.
Whereas cheaper BSRs had plastic platters and tonearms, this has a decently made ten inch diameter mazak platter topped by a surprisingly substantial rubber mat. The neat square-section aluminium tonearm has an underslung counterweight for more secure tracking and moulded plastic headshell. It’s solid enough but the bearings are looser than is ideal. Compared to its Garrard SP25 mk IV rival, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other – the BSR is better made in its turntable parts but the Garrard tonearm is more convincing; the Swindon deck’s idler drive is noisier, which will have swayed many buyers. The Garrard has an inferior plinth, made of resonant fibreboard and covered in faux wood vinyl wrap. By contrast, the BSR’s is real teak veneered wood, and rather nice too!
In the UK, the BDS 80 would have likely been sold with a Shure M-75/6 magnetic cartridge – with a spherical stylus tracking at around two and a half grams, even if the tonearm’s weight scale does go up to six. This would have been the best you could fit into this deck; an Ortofon FF-15E elliptical MM would have been just a bit too sensitive for the arm’s high friction when tracking at a gram and a half. Other possible matches would be Goldring’s G850 spherical stylus MM, or if you were feeling lucky, the G800E elliptical; the former at three and the latter at two grams respectively. It’s worth pointing out that any of these would have seemed impossibly ‘hi-fi’ to those used to BSR’s lesser decks, which still tracked ceramic cartridges at far higher weights. Indeed, the notion of having a tonearm with a proper adjustable counterweight was to many ordinary users, a luxury.
The BDS 80 sounds surprisingly good for its age and position in life. It’s not as refined as a Pioneer PL-12D of the same period, although it would have sold for nearly half the price. It’s a nice way into real hi-fi, just about able to track a half-decent entry level magnetic cartridge, and so won’t recut your precious records as it plays them. Speed stability isn’t bad, and the deck doesn’t suffer from acoustic feedback unless you put it near the speakers. It was a popular, worthy and respectable starting point on the hi-fi ladder – a sort of Ford Escort in car terms.
BSR went on to do more sophisticated decks in later years, but this was the last gasp of the company’s classic design ethos. The later Quanta series decks were bigger, more plasticky and had better arms and slicker drive systems. Although the BDS 80 isn’t a great product in the wider scheme of analogue disc players, it’s highly redolent of the era from which it hails – like hot pants, Spacehoppers or T Rex albums. Today, no BSR turntable is worth much but still it’s an interesting curio from a largely forgotten time – and proof positive that one day, many years ago, Great Britain could make decent, respectable hi-fi equipment in quantities to shame the Japanese.
By 1985, the world was a very different place for BSR. With rumours of a new digital disc on the horizon, and the quality of LP records falling off a cliff in the late seventies, sales began to drop and the company didn’t have an answer for it. The world had bought all the music centres it could, and the new swish rack systems had turntables made by major Japanese manufacturers. The Pioneer PL-12D and its descendants and rivals – Kenwood’s KD-1033 and Sansui’s SR-222 – were hurting BSR’s top of the range hi-fi decks, where most of its profits were derived. Factories closed, and the management took the company largely out of the audio world, manufacturing the Rotronics Wafadrive for Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum microcomputers.
The last BSR turnable was made in 1985, just as Compact Disc was reaching the mass market. BSR McDonald closed all its divisions except for Astec Power Supply, but kept investments in dbx, X10 and BSR Housewares – this being sold to French kitchen appliances brand Moulinex). dbx was later bought by Harman International Industries. BSR relocated its head office to Hong Kong, as Astec(BSR) plc; in 1998 it was bought out by Emerson Electric Company. After manufacturing dbx-branded products until 1988, Sanju Chiba acquired BSR Japan and renamed it CTI Japan. A year later it sold dbx and bought the rights to the Finial Laser Turntable. This was then developed and renamed Edison Laser Player Japan.