It is hard to understate the decline of Dual, which had once been one of the largest manufacturers of turntables in Europe, with over three thousand employees working across several factories in West Germany, at the peak of that country’s post-war economic miracle. It dated back from 1907, when brothers Christian and Joseph Steidinger began making clockwork and gramophone parts in the Black Forest town of St. Georgen. In 1927, Gebrüder Steidinger (Steidinger Brothers) made Dual its brand name. It was a reference to the dual-mode power supplies the company was making, which allowed other companies’ turntables to be powered either from AC mains or a clockwork wind-up mechanism. Soon after this, the company began making its own record players.
In 1979, Dual finally got its act together. Before this, it had produced a series of rather ungainly looking turntables all through the seventies, lacking the visual sophisticated and operational slickness of similarly priced Technics products, for example. The CS504 had been reasonably successful; a decent lower mid-price machine that was belt driven and produced a pleasant sound. Although much better looking than the deck it replaced, it was still a little off the mark compared to the increasingly sleek and modern Japanese competition. The new ’06 range was slimmer, less chunky and had gentler and more delicate action. At the same time, they introduced a concept that Dual called ‘Ultra Low Mass’. This, the company thought, would finally clinch it and give the new range a special sales proposition that was ahead of its rivals.
The CS506 and CS606 got their UK launch at the Harrogate show of 1980. ‘ULM’ was the buzzword that Dual was pushing, and many were impressed. Whereas the previous generation of decks had medium mass tonearms, the ultra low mass of both the arm and the new generation of Ortofon-made cartridges looked an impressive combination. Dual explained that it allowed turntables to ride warps better, which was something that was increasingly preoccupying vinyl users as the quality of pressings deteriorated and LPs got ever thinner and lighter. Indeed, there had been a clear drop in the quality of new LP records; they were thirty or so grams lighter than a decade before, and the use of recycled vinyl was increasingly widespread.
Low mass was nothing new of course. The nineteen seventies had been characterised by the move from high effective mass arms and low compliance cartridges to the exact opposite. By the latter half of the decade, lowish mass, high compliance Shure and Grado moving magnet cartridges were hugely popular. Indeed, SME Series III tonearm epitomised this – a low effective mass high end arm build to capitalise on this trend. In truth, Dual was late to the party, because fashion was actually beginning to move back towards high mass arms and low compliance moving coils. All the same, ULM was a concept that the public easily understood and was easy to sell to more mainstream buyers to whom lighter was obviously better, when you were talking about record playing.
At last it seemed that Dual had a winning range of upper-budget and mid-priced turntables. History records that the CS506 went on to become a real sales success; it was affordable at £115 and seemed very well made for the price. The new ULM turntables came in both variants; the CS506 was the entry-level belt drive and the £150 CS606 the mid-priced direct drive. Both had Dual’s simple end-of-side auto-return, activated by a microswitch so as not to interfere with the working of the tonearm. This was a good middle way between fully manual decks like the Rega Planar 3, and fully auto designs from Japan like Pioneer’s PL-600 which were more mechanically complex and slightly compromised as a result.
The CS606 that you see here had electronically governed direct drive – something that was hugely fashionable in the lower to mid sectors of the market at time. Dual’s EDS 500 direct drive system gave the fine basic mechanicals of the cheaper CS506 a real fillip. Wow and flutter was down to 0.03% WRMS, an admirably low figure that was close to the best Japanese direct drives of the day. Speeds were the usual 33.33 and 45rpm, with a pitch control of 10% for home musicians wanting to play along. A 1.4kg, 304mm non-magnetic aluminium platter was fitted, topped by a decent rubber mat. Rumble was quoted at -75dB, which was a very good figure for the time.
That swanky new ULM tubular aluminium tonearm – effective length 221mm – had well set up bearings, was was designed to track at very low weights. The company eschewed the then dominant Shure cartridges for something closer to home, and bundled an Ortofon-made ULM55E moving magnet which was designed to match the tonearm perfectly. It also sported the company’s special resonance reducer. It fitted onto a black-painted pressed steel chassis, which itself was decoupled from the wood plinth by springs. The cartridge itself uses a biradial DN155E stylus, tracking at between 1.25 and 1.75g, with 1.5g recommended. Quoted frequency response is 10Hz to 25kHz, and it has a healthy output for a cartridge for its era of 0.7mV. Total mass is put at just 2.5g, meaning that in conjunction with the ULM tonearm, it can ride warps very well.
Correctly set up, on a level surface and with the dustcover removed, it’s quite surprising just how good this sounds. At the time it was on sale, it faced a wide range of Japanese rivals, all of which had a slightly glossy sound which could sometimes become brittle. On the plus side, they were also lively and exciting to hear, but over time this could grate. The Dual is quite different in character to this, and in some respects sounds more like a belt drive. By this I mean that it’s not hard-edged, forward and mechanical; it has a natural musical flow which is most pleasant to listen to. At the same time, it is tonally warmer than many rivals of its day, making for a mellifluous and enjoyable performance that keeps sweet.
Of course, much depends on what cartridge is fitted. The standard Ortofon-sourced device is good, but has a slightly opaque, diffuse and standoffish sort of character. Fit a Shure V15/IV in it – admittedly overkill, given that it cost more than the deck at the time – and things get better still. There’s more precision and the music becomes quite a lot more dynamic sounding, and emotionally animated. Bass is taut and treble crisp, with a decent stereo soundstage and images locked tight in space within the mix. In the great scheme of things, this is no Linn Sondek beater, but it’s a step up from a Rega Planar 3 and its ilk. Interesting then that it didn’t sell in any real quantities in the UK, with only the more budget CS506 shifting in any real numbers.
The ’06 range was quietly dropped just a couple of years after its launch. In the UK, the new Dual CS505 was proving extremely popular; this was simply a stripped-down, price-cut CS506 selling – at first – for just £59.95. It lost the real wood plinth of its bigger brother, and its stroboscope light, even if the strobe markings on the platter were retained. The deck proved very popular because it cost a third less than a Rega Planar 2, effectively becoming the ‘budget audiophile’ weapon of choice for a generation of aspiring Linn Sondek owners. Later decks were called the CS505/Improved, and got a better headshell that lost Dual’s fussy cartridge carrier system, and tweaked plinth and a better turntable mat. This eventually took the price up to £109.95, getting perilously close to the Rega, and to the original CS506 – which had by this time been quietly discontinued.
Although Dual’s CS505 went on to be a massive seller in the cash-strapped UK market, the company went bankrupt in 1982, and was sold to French electronic manufacturer Thomson SA. In 1988, Thomson sold Dual to German manufacturer Schneider Rundfunkwerke AG. In 1993, the company was split into Dual Phono GmbH, and this continues to this day. Meanwhile Dual DGC GmbH (Germany) sells its own brand of Far East-sourced consumer electronics, including turntables, in Europe. Just to add further intrigue, the brand name surfaced in the Americas, owned by a South Korean company, also selling consumer electronics. In truth though, the glory days of Dual were the late nineteen seventies and early eighties – and the CS606 is a worthy testament to them.
Being relatively straightforward mechanically, a used Dual is a safer bet than many. The case for them is further strengthened by the high quality of manufacture. Bearings are good, the electronics are reliable and the tonearms are robust – but no turntable is able to withstand an uncaring owner, so prospective purchasers should focus on the condition. Check for loose, sloppy tonearm bearings, speed instability and mechanical noise from the motor. Obviously, if a cartridge is fitted, examine the stylus under a microscope, if you can. Ideally, buy a boxed example as it will have been transported properly over the years, too. Find a good example and you’ll have a simple, easy-to-use and reliable record player that should give decades of good service, and decent sound.