Altec Lansing 301 loudspeaker
One of the oldest names in US audio, Altec Lansing was building speakers for theaters and recording studios long before the introduction of the microgroove LP in 1948 (which date many see as marking the inception of high fidelity). Started in 1931 under the name All-Technical Services ~Corp., the firm later purchased another audio firm called Lansing Engineering, and merged the names. Altec's Model 604, one of the first true coaxial speakers, was adopted for home use by many early hi-fi buffs and, several permutations later, is still widely used for monitoring in disc-cutting rooms.
The popularity of theater loudspeakers among audiophiles began to wane in the mid 1950s with the ascension of the Acoustic Research/Janszen dynamic/electrostatic hybrid, which ushered in the era of the Boston Reticent (also called Boston blah) sound, with its sucked-out midrange and emphasis on delicacy and transparency at the expense of tonal accuracy (footnote 1). Horn-loaded speakers (like all of Altec's) gained a reputation for stridency and midrange coloration, and the consumer demand for them had practically dried up by the mid-1970s. In 1983, Altec gave up trying to court the consumer market, but continued to supply installations for professional users even after the company's sale to Gulton Industries in '84.
In 1985, autosound manufacturer Sparkomatic bought the rights to market consumer loudspeakers under the Altec Lansing name (footnote 2). They put together a line of moderately-priced systems and unveiled them at the '86 Summer CES, where I heard a pair of the Model 301s for long enough to want to hear them again.
The 301 ($750/pair)
The 301 is the middle of Altec's consumer line. Completely undistinguished in appearance (a box is a box is a box) and construction (½ chipboard, with minimal internal bracing), the 301 is almost a prototypical mid-fi box system, with a 10" woofer and a couple of domes for the middle and upper ranges. There's more to it than meets the eye, though.
The woofer cone is made of a carbon-fiber compound, which combines light weight with a remarkable degree of rigidity in pursuit of the woofer-cone ideal: true pistonic action (footnote 3). The carbon-fiber construction is claimed to "eliminate breakup, flexing and distortion in woofer cones," which is probably being overly optimistic. "Minimize" would be a more appropriate term here, though hyperbole is the soul of PR . . .
The midrange and tweeter cones are made of a thermosetting plastic called Polyimide, claimed to be resistant to temperatures of up to 600°F. On the surface of this plastic is a vacuum-deposited, 4µm-thick layer of titanium, one of the most rigid, lightweight metals known. In addition, each upper-range driver's voice-coil operates in a ferrofluid environment, which provides both damping and efficient transfer of heat from the voice-coil to the surrounding magnet structure. In other words, the speakers are made to absorb the kind of abuse (ie, gross overloading) they are likely to be subjected to by your average iggerant consumer.
My samples of the 301 were supplied without instructions. Fair enough, assuming that it is safe to assume there is nothing unusual about their setup requirements. But the moment I went to install them, I discovered what strikes me as a very dumb design "feature." The input connectors are 5-way binding posts, spaced apart by the ¾" standard for receiving dual banana plugs. That's a good start. Unfortunately, the receptacles are mounted vertically, in a small recess at the back of the enclosure, and there is no way of getting even single banana plugs into them, let alone a dual plug. There is only an inch of clearance between the tops of the posts and the top of the recess, and a banana plug requires almost 1½ inches of clearance. This might have been available were it possible to remove the screwdown tops from the posts, but you can't. They will unscrew just so far and no farther. Thus, the posts will accept only a bared wire end or one tine of a spade lug. And to attach either of these, you must screw down the post covers, a task complicated by the fact that there is barely enough room in the recess for your fingers. Even plain-vanilla screw terminals, flush with the back, would have made connection much easier than this much more costly ~misuse of 5-way binding posts. This is such a simple, fundamental botch that I wonder just what Altec was thinking when they did it, if indeed they thought at all.
So much for the human engineering.
I can now report, on the basis of the 301 and the JBL 250ti (Vol.8 No.6), that metal upper-range diaphragms are no longer any guarantee of a metallic-sounding high end. These are smoooth! Yet the speakers are not at all your typical audiophile system.
To say that the Altec 301 has a distinctive sound is like saying water is damp. One might think, listening to these, that "high-end" audio had never happenedtheir tonal balance is almost a mirror-image of that which perfectionists now take for granted. It's not that these Altecs are a throwback to audio primitivism; it's just that they are shockingly different in sound from what we consider to be acceptable today. You'll hear none of the familiar, laid-back ~politeness or "richness" from the 301s. To the contrary, they sound very forward, almost aggressively punchy, and startlingly alive.
In fact, the 301s' forwardness is remarkably like that of the big horn systems that made Altec's reputation in the movie-theater field. But that's their only resemblance to theater horn systemsthey have neither the honky midrange raucousness of the typical horn system, nor a trace of their shrillness. Instead, they produce some of the smoothest, most open treble I have heard from any speakers, with a degree of transparency and detail that is almost electrostatic-like. (The tweeter sounds very much like JBL's new Ti (titanium) model.)
Sheffield Lab's Doug Sax coined the term "jump factor" to describe the kind of aliveness and realism that, when reproducing something like a squeaky chair, sounds so real and in-the-room that it elicits a startle reactionthe "jump." It is a quality I have heard many times from large horn-loaded systems whose other sonic qualities you'd rather not contemplate. Well, the 301s have that jump factor, in spades. And to hear the positive qualities of a horn systemwithout the negativesis a revelation!
I have long felt that, if you wanted the last word in detail, it was necessary to opt for a wide-range electrostatic speaker system. I had assumed that it was the quickness of the electrostatic's extremely light diaphragm that accounted for its detail, and had believed that the attendant exaggerated highs were simply one of the prices one had to pay (until I heard the Sound Lab A3 systemVol.9 No.6). The Altec 301 has prompted me to reconsider that view. Here is a system with the kind of high-end sweetness and openness that I hear from real, live music, yet with truly astonishing inner detail through most of the audio range.
Since I fired up the 301s I have been hearing more going on in old, familiar recordings than I ever have ever heard before. Melodic lines are easier to follow, instrumental sections are suddenly resolved into many individual instruments rather than a mass of instruments, and extra-musical sounds like page turnings, chair squeakings, and clothing rustlings are as clearly audible as they would be were I standing right on the stage with the performers.
But there's a price to pay for this super-detailing. Just as the 301s are capable of reproducing a chair squeak as well as any system I have heard, they also do an equally splendid job of reproducing analog disc surface noise and mistracking. A single momentary loss of stylus/groove contact during a loud orchestral passage is clearly audible through the musical racket as a single, sharp click. Of course, surface noise and mistracking are not a problem with CDs or tape sources, but the amount of detail the 301s have could actually be a real liability, because their $750/pair price means they are not likely to be partnered with the cleanest associated components in the world. Mediocre preamps, in particular, have a nasty habit of exaggerating disc mistracking, and when that happens detail is the last thing you want in a loudspeaker. (I used the Audio Research SP-11 preamp, Threshold SA-1 power amps, and a variety of ~topnotch signal sources for my auditions. which only seems to be overkill because it was.)
Perhaps because of their forwardness, the 301s give the ~impression of having tremendous dynamic range. An ~orchestral crescendo through the 301s can raise the hairs on your neck. (That's the essence of my goosebump criterion.) Yet they handle small-scale programs, like chamber works and spoken word, with truly amazing realism and intimacy.
Another thing I found quite surprising about the Altecs is their soundstaging capability. Despite their forwardness (which can put a closely miked voice several feet in front of the speakers), they reproduce depth and perspective amazingly well. The reason I found this surprising is that I had long ago concluded that a very deep soundstage and a sucked-out middle range tended to go together. There goes yet another cherished belief!
Soundstage breadth and hall ambience are very well reproduced by the 301s, as is, unfortunately, the "phasiness" or ear pressure one sometimes gets from noisy disc pressings. With a well-miked recording, these speakers seem to disappear, and the image extends all the way between and for some distance beyond them. Specificity, too, is very good; mono signals produce a tightly bunched center image with virtually no positional wander with changing pitch, and moving from the center of the listening seat causes no sudden side-to-side hopping of the image; just a smooth soundstage shift towards the closest speaker.
Unfortunately, the 301s don't do everything right, which is what you would expect from a $750 product. Although the quality of the low end is amazingly good considering the flimsy enclosure, there is not enough of it. The system puts out a clean 28Hz (at much reduced level), but the entire low end is rather weak, producing a sound which can only be described as very lean. Recordings having strong bass content sound okay, but those with average bass heft sound rather thin. Bass detail is, however, excellent; pitch is clearly delineated, and kick drum is reproduced with great impact.
Two issues ago, I described the warmth and richness of the Sound Lab A3 as "my kind of sound." The Altec 301s are the antithesis of that kind of sound, yet I find many things about them very attractive. They have passed my goosebump test many times during listening tests, and I am going to miss that tremendous inner detailing when I have to go back to listening to what I know to be objectively better systems. The 301 is almost the quintessential rock speaker, having the punch and power missing from more respectable systems. It is also by far the best system I have found for use with projection video systems on film presentations, even though it requires substantial low-end boost to give blockbuster films the impact they have in a theater. But the 301's detailing has allowed me to at last decipher many background conversations and muttered snippets of dialog that have never before been intelligible!
In short, I am very much impressed with much of what these modestly sized speakers can do. Would I recommend them to my best friend? Not without strong reservations. While the Altec 301s do some things better than any audiophile speakers I have heard, they have such a strong personality (okay, call it coloration if you like) that a music listener will either love them or hate them. Like Vietnamese fish sauce and oysters on the half shell, no one will feel indifferent about the 301s. If you're shopping for speakers in this price class, my advice is to try a pair of them at home, listen carefully to what they do right, and decide for yourself whether these things are more important than what they do wrong. Give them serious consideration: the areas where they excel contribute strongly to the emotional impact you can get from reproduced music.
Footnote 1: In fact, that suckout was not designed into the system; it was inadvertent. The tweeter's low end was optimistically rated down to 500Hz, and the system's woofer was crossed over at that point, but in fact the tweeter started rolling off below 1200Hz. (The designer believed his calculations rather than his ears.) The result was a broad dip between 1200 and 500Hz. But many audiophiles of the day declared that sound to be more "musical" than a flat midrange, which just goes to show that audiophiles were no more dedicated to accuracy 30 years ago than they are now!
Footnote 2: In 2005, Altec Lansing Technologies was purchased by Plantronics.Ed.
Footnote 3: This refers to the desideratum that a woofer cone should move uniformly over its entire area, like the cylinder face of a piston in an internal-combustion engine.