Listening #115

In the early 1980s, not long after I moved to New York City, I went shopping for a new pair of speakers. I already had a Rega Planar 3 turntable, an NAD 1020 preamp, and an Amber Series 70 amplifier (the second-most-powerful amp I've ever owned); what I now had in mind was to replace my aging EPI 100s with something bigger. Like them though I did, the EPIs were too tight and light for my new apartment, and I was certain I could find something with more bass and better scale—and still stay within my less-than-lavish budget.

I was right. One Saturday morning I walked from my apartment, near the Flatiron building, to Sound by Singer, then located on Lexington Avenue near 33rd Street, and rode home in a taxi with a brand-new pair of Snell Type J/II loudspeakers. I'd auditioned them against a few other speakers in the same general price bracket—the closest runner-up was the Mordaunt-Short Festival—and persisted in preferring the Snells' seemingly unique combination of dynamics, clarity, and very good scale. Perhaps best of all, the Snell Js cost slightly less than I was prepared to spend: $680 in 1984 money. (Thus I was able to bring home a brand-new Grace F9E cartridge as well. What a happy day that was!)

Although preceded by one or two others—the first models from Burhoe Acoustics were especially noteworthy—Snell's bookshelf speakers of the 1980s were arguably the first loudspeakers from a major New England manufacturer to abandon acoustic suspension in favor of a bass-reflex enclosure: The 8" SEAS paper-cone woofer of the first Snell Type J, ca 1981, was loaded with a 2"-diameter reflex port mounted on the front baffle. Not surprisingly, the Snell J was more sensitive than the norm, being rated at 90dB; that characteristic, in combination with the J's nominal 8 ohm impedance, led Snell to recommend as suitable amplifiers with as little as 15W of power. (For the J/II of 1983 and beyond, Snell moved the reflex port to the rear of the enclosure; whether for that or for a combination of reasons, the J/II's sensitivity spec was bumped up to 92dB. Think of it!)

The Snell Type J also used a 1" Tonegen fabric-dome tweeter, crossed over at 2300Hz. Both the woofer cone and the tweeter diaphragm were doped: the former so heavily that it's mistaken, from a distance, for plastic, the latter just enough that every original sample I've seen looks brown instead of black, owing to the manner in which the coating darkens over time.

Back to that Saturday. I brought the new Snells upstairs to my studio apartment—I think the single large living/dining/bedroom was about 20' by 45'—and installed them close to the far corners, on wooden stands I'd made for the EPIs years earlier: almost certainly not the right size or height, but in those days I didn't obsess about such things. I connected the new speakers to my heavy-gauge twin-lead speaker cables of long-forgotten provenance, then luxuriated in the thing I'd sought: a big, clear sound that suited my room and allowed a little more life to shine from my records.

I didn't buy Snell Type J/IIs for their sensitivity: 30 years ago, that wasn't an issue, especially with a hulking 70Wpc of solid-state power at my disposal. (And it appears that the J/IIs' sensitivity didn't result from Peter Snell's having particularly prioritized that quality.) I bought my Snells simply because I liked them.

Stop and smell the neuroses
I enjoyed my Snells for a few years, then sold them to a neighbor, because I was young and stupid and wanted to try something different. I bought myself a pair of Magneplanars, followed by Thiels, ProAcs, Eposes, Spendors, Lowthers, more Lowthers, Quads, more Quads, and . . . another pair of Snells.

Well, not quite Snells. I actually bought a pair of Audio Note Type Es: high-efficiency box loudspeakers from the company whose CEO, Peter Qvortrup, was once Snell's UK distributor—and who was so enthusiastic about the efficiency of their early-1980s bookshelf models that he bought the rights to keep making them, long after Snell Acoustics ceased doing so (footnote 1). (When founder and chief designer Peter Snell died, in 1984, the company's directors hired as his replacement the Canadian engineer Kevin Voecks, himself a talented designer, but one who steered the product line in a very different direction.) Peter Qvortrup and his own chief designer, Andy Groves, made some running changes to the Types E, J, and K models, all of which they continue to manufacture as, respectively, the AN-E, AN-J, and AN-K, including minor adjustments to the cabinet dimensions and crossover frequencies, plus a switch from particleboard to plywood for the enclosures.

And, of course, Audio Note continues to refine and upgrade the basic formulae, now offering various performance levels and cosmetic options. But the basic Snell characteristics remain in place: reflex loading, elegantly simple aesthetics, a response curve tailored with room-boundary reinforcement in mind, a baffle wide enough to support the longest wavelengths the tweeter is capable of launching (footnote 2), and, of course, high sensitivity and good drivability—the latter in terms of the value, shape, and phase angle of the thing's impedance curve.

Audio Note's loudspeakers are also designed and made so that each woofer, tweeter, and crossover component is hand-selected and mated to a single unique loudspeaker; the electrical characteristics of those parts are recorded and stored in a database maintained at the factory, logged in accordance with the finished speaker's serial number. Should the owner of that speaker ever need to replace any of those parts, he or she must contact Audio Note, so that they can select a replacement that exhibits the correct electrical characteristics for that specific unit: Only then can its performance be maintained.

Today that approach is widespread, if not quite de rigueur, among manufacturers of perfectionist-quality loudspeakers—and Peter Snell was the designer who pioneered it. He discovered early on the manner in which slight changes in the values of passive parts, coupled with slight changes in speaker-coil resistance and inductance, could affect a speaker's audible performance. Writer and turntable specialist Michael Trei has described for me how Snell used to visit Sound by Singer—and, presumably, other early Snell dealers—with an adjustable, remote-control crossover device, whose resistance and capacitance settings he would trim from his listening seat in an effort to fine-tune speakers in the field.

Stellar Js
What does a 25-year-old Snell J sound like today, especially in comparison to a modern Snell-alike such as the Audio Note E?

Earlier this year, Bill Henk, of dealership Fidelis AV, in Derry, New Hampshire, loaned me his own pair of Snell Type J/IIs. They'd been well looked after, with spotless brown fabric grilles and only a few minor scrapes and mars on their attractive oak cabinets. Looking at them made me feel as if it were 1984 all over again (sans disagreeable roommate, thank God), and if I hadn't already known where Bill had bought these, the portion of my brain where materialism and nostalgia overlap would have kicked in to convince me that, yeah, sure, I think these must've been my Snells. Milo and Otis had made it home after all.

That's not to say that Bill Henk's speakers sound the same as when they were made. Bill mentioned ahead of time that he'd had to replace the foam surrounds of both woofers. And when his J/IIs arrived here in Cherry Valley, it was obvious that the dope on their tweeter domes had stiffened and cracked to a potentially sound-shifting extent.

With the Snell J/IIs placed on 20"-high stands (thus with their tweeters at pretty much the same height as those of the Audio Note Es), and with their enclosures fairly close to the sidewalls and their reflex ports firing into the room corners (also à la the Es), the first thing I noticed was the difference in apparent sensitivity between the two models: Compared to the average stand-mounted speaker of today, the Snell J/IIs sounded noticeably more sensitive, and in fact worked well with my 25Wpc Shindo monoblocks. But the Audio Notes were more sensitive still, if not tremendously so.

Footnote 1: Audio Note (UK) Ltd., 25 Montefiore Road, Hove, East Sussex BN3 1RD. England, UK. Tel: (44) (0)1273-220511. Fax: (44) (0)1273-731498. Web:

Footnote 2: Knowing that the physical size of a full wave is equal to the speed of sound (call it 1115 feet per second) divided by the frequency of the wave in cycles per second (call it hertz), we can also know that a 2300Hz wavelength is 0.485' (call it 5.817") in length; the higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength.


cheesecake's picture

got a big grin from the Milo & Otis allusion.

tao's picture

It's funny but 3-4 years later I bought very similar gear, Snell J/III's, and a NAD 3400 intergrated. Still use them to today. The Snells are on 12" high tilted 3/4" metal box tubing stands, on either side of my TV. I use them in the "ghost" center mode for movies. For regular music playback the old Awia tapedeck, Parasound turntable and Phillips CD player have been retired in favor of a Oppo BDP-83 blue ray (universal player) and a Sim Audio moon DAC for bypassing TV sound into amp and for ipod play.

I've listened and listened as I've been looking to change over to full 5.1 sound for the TV, but nothing in my price range comes close to those 24 year old J/III's. They just sound better than most of what I've heard out there today. And except for one scratch (caused during a move 17 years ago) atop one of the speakers they are perfect, including the black grills.

Keep reviewing that vintage stuff, people don't know what there missing, ok maybe you shouldn't tell them, more for us. wink

BarrysConspiracyWorld's picture

The worst stereo I've ever heard used EPI speakers and a cheap receiver.  The owner was a fan of EPIs.  It boggles my mind.  Others thought the PA system at 7-11 sounded better.  Snells on the other hand were very nice back in the day.

DetroitVinylRob's picture

Those look like old Linn Sara stands under your lent Snells Art... A few years after I bought my Sondek Lp12 with ittok LVII arm, and Asak, instead of a pair of Snells which I liked quite well, my local dealer The Absolute Sound on Woodward Ave. sold me a pair of teak enclosed Saras w/stands (like in your picture) which I liked even more. Efficiency, well hardly but, with Naim or Linn SS they would wake up very nicely.   They still sound great and look lovely to this day and reside in a bedroom, I think we could say they were a bargain.

Happy Listener! ;^)>

ken mac's picture

purchase a pair of these to play around with, Will report back.

Thanks for a hearty thumbs up, Art.