Listening #116 Page 2

My methodology was simple: I asked each of these people to name at least five must-hear vintage loudspeakers, thinking—correctly, as it turned out—that the most frequently named products would comprise the final top five. As I wrote in my letter to all correspondents:

Complete loudspeakers and raw drivers may both be considered for this list. For obvious reasons—I hope for this piece to be genuinely helpful to the person of limited experience in the field—I would prefer to emphasize the former. But we all know examples of the latter that define a certain sound, yet which are not associated with just a single vintage cabinet.

I would also prefer to emphasize domestic loudspeakers—or at least borderline-domestic loudspeakers—and you're free to define that as you see fit.

That leaves unanswered a single, obvious question: How does one define vintage? Age is not the only answer; I consider a 1972 Altec Flamenco—a generously sized floorstanding speaker with wooden grillework that could have been designed by Aubrey Beardsley—to be a vintage product, while a 1956 Acoustic Research AR-1 impresses me as unambiguously contemporary. Speaking only for myself, when it comes to speakers, vintage is partly about sensitivity and efficiency, partly about size and scale, partly about placing a greater emphasis on midrange quality and color than on frequency extension, and partly about the sheer engineering attitude expressed by the designer. Whereas in contemporary audio there are any number of products that result from a designer having identified a single performance bugaboo and banished it with some or another clever solution, the best vintage products strike me as more holistic creations. Vintage engineering is seldom clever; it's simply good.

I gave my correspondents a bit more guidance:

Since we live in a world where a Google search of the words vintage audio brings up page after page of Pioneer receivers and Infinity loudspeakers, I guess it wouldn't hurt to mention: I see this as a list of mostly high-efficiency loudspeakers, mostly from before the 1970s.

Then I set them loose to break those rules—which, I'm happy to say, some of them gleefully did. With no further ado, here are the most commonly recommended vintage loudspeakers, arranged in ascending order of consensus:

Quad Electrostatic Loudspeaker
Availability: good
Serviceability: very good (but transformers are, at this time, irreplaceable)
Price range: reasonable to moderately high

In fifth place we find the one domestic-audio product that transcends not only progress itself but every sort of snobbery devised by man and audiophile alike: Vintage nuts, tubeaholics, spec nerds, trophy-system spendthrifts, and even the poor, sad flat-earthers have all, at one time or another, bowed down before designer Peter J. Walker's classic Quad Electrostatic Loudspeaker (it never bore the model number 57), produced for over 30 years by the Acoustical Manufacturing Company of Huntingdon, England. Some 55 years after it went on sale, the Quad ESL remains the reference loudspeaker most often cited by designers, dealers, and critics.

And for good reason: The openness and transparency of this full-range electrostatic—it uses two bass panels and a single treble panel to reproduce a surprising majority of the audible spectrum—has never been bettered. Admittedly, I can't help seeing the ESL, with its signal-driven stators and ingeniously constant-charged diaphragms, as being somewhat analogous to a dynamic loudspeaker with a field coil in place of a permanent magnet; surely the Quad's abundance of natural detail bears out that analogy.

Two of my panelists put the Quad in their top five, and two more mentioned it as a runner-up: remarkable for a loudspeaker of limited dispersion, sensitivity, and drivability, and severely limited dynamic range. As Herb Reichert suggests, one might do well to view them as "large, beautiful earphones: They deliver color, texture, instrumental tone, and the poetic subtleties of music better than any loudspeaker I know of." Indeed, the ESL's sonic purity and musical prowess are so impressive that it's the one electrostatic loudspeaker that earns the respect of people who pray at other churches.

Altec 604B drive-unit
Availability: fair to good
Serviceability: excellent
Price range: reasonable to moderately high

A direct descendent of Altec's 601 field-coil driver of 1941—itself considered the first coaxial loudspeaker—the Altec 604 "Duplex" was introduced in 1944, and superseded in 1949 by the more well-loved Altec 604B. Both incorporate a 15" bass cone with a 3" flat-wire voice-coil, centered—literally—with a high-frequency compression driver, itself loaded with a multi-cell horn. Alnico V permanent magnets are used throughout. When operated with the correct Altec crossover network, the 604B's frequency range is estimated as 30Hz–16kHz; a horn redesign for the Altec 604C gave that and subsequent Duplex drivers a marked increase in treble extension.

Early members of the Altec 604 family of drive-units are sometimes found in one of two Altec cabinets: the model 605 floorstander or the 606 corner enclosure, both of which are decent looking in a large, severe, post-WPA sort of way. Other 604-friendly enclosure designs abound, although there's an apparent lack of consensus among collectors. (I know: I was shocked, too.) Joe Levy prefers the Japanese Onken cabinets, which he says were brought to prominence by a 1977 article by the pioneering journalist Jean Hiraga; these, he says, can be had for between $1500 and $2500/pair.

Herb Reichert describes the Altec 604 as a driver that was "carefully, cost-no-object–engineered to show producers what, exactly, is coming down the mike feed. You really want to know what's hidden in those record grooves? These will show you."

RCA LC-1 drive-unit
Availability: poor
Serviceability: good
Price range: moderately high

Imagine a 15" coaxial drive-unit that's so well engineered it doesn't require an electrical crossover between its low- and high-frequency halves. Such a thing exists, albeit in relative obscurity: the RCA LC-1.

Introduced in 1947 as the MI-11411, this full-range driver was described by RCA as a "duo-cone" unit—its low- and high-frequency diaphragms had separate voice-coils and separate alnico V magnets—with a high-compliance suspension, a stated frequency range of 25Hz–16kHz, and an acoustical crossover centered at 1600Hz. Notably, the MI-11411 and its progeny were the first speakers to use Kapton voice-coil formers, for enhanced power handling—thanks to the prescience of designer Harry F. Olson, who also invented RCA's iconic 44-A and 77-A microphones.

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