Listening #202: Altec 604 & Audio MusiKraft Denon DL-103

Godzilla and I are precisely the same age: We were both born in 1954, Godzilla as an expression of the postwar fears of a nation uniquely aware of the horrors of nuclear armaments, I as an expression of the postwar comfort felt by an American veteran fresh from foreign wars. We both dislike being awakened from our slumber, and we're both unusually handsome.

Like so many Americans of my generation, I love Godzilla—along with Mothra, Rodan, Tobor the 8th Man, Speed Racer, and the Panasonic transistor radio my dad gave me in 1965. During more or less the same stretch of time, Japanese baby boomers came under the spell of Mickey Mouse, The Durango Kid, Elvis Presley, and virtually any piece of audio gear designed and made by Western Electric and that company's descendent, Altec Lansing.

The suggestion that American and Japanese consumers spent the second half of the 20th century buying each other's castoffs overstates the case, yet it contains a grain of truth. Truer still is the observation that Japan has done a better job of preserving, even curating, certain products of America's techno-cultural history than the other way around. That's well known by any audio enthusiast, in the United States or elsewhere, who has tried to buy an original Western Electric 300B output tube or 555 compression driver, or an Altec 604 dual-coaxial loudspeaker. Almost all the best-condition examples of those and other coveted products now reside in Japan (footnote 1).

Why? Because just as British teens in the 1950s understood American rhythm-and-blues records better than most white American consumers of the same era, so did Japanese audio enthusiasts understand the earliest and coincidentally best-engineered products of the American audio industry far better than anyone else, virtually from the start. What is it about these island nations?

Cabinets of curiosities
As I explained in the June 2017 Stereophile, I own a pair of Altec 604 drivers—a version called the 604E, made from 1965 to 1972, which was designed with both a higher-compliance bass diaphragm and a treble horn that's better at dispersing high frequencies than previous versions. In other words, it made a little more bass, and a little more treble, and was thus a little more modern.

My 604Es may well have spent time in Japan: Before they came to me, these drivers were owned by the late Tadataka Uchida, an influential amplifier designer who was active in the New York SET scene of the 1990s, and whose company, April Audio, Inc., located at 206 East 6th Street in New York, first imported Tango and Tamura transformers to the United States. After Uchida-san's death, my 604Es went to another distinguished amp designer, Noriasu Komura. Then they were owned by yet another amplifier designer/builder, my friend and colleague Herb Reichert. If these speakers could only speak!

When I last wrote about them, they had scarcely rediscovered their voices after a longish silence: In early 2017, I laid my 604Es out on the floor, connected them to their crossovers and, in turn, to my Shindo Haut-Brion amp, put on a record, and let 'em rip for less than an hour. What I heard would fit best in the file folder labeled Encouraging but Bassless, the latter quality owing to the fact that they were not attached to baffles. As the laws of physics remind us, unless you use a baffle to cordon off a driver's front wave from its rear wave, any tone whose wavelength exceeds the driver's radius will suffer antiphase cancellation—ie, you won't hear it.

I did what I usually do: I got a column out of it and moved on. But later on, when that column appeared on stereophile.com, something interesting happened: A reader posting under the handle grantray appended this comment:

You know, Art, just for kicks, you can stuff those 604s in your [Altec] Flamenco cabinets as long as you seal the massive port left by the removal of the 811B with a board that reduces the port volume to 2 x 10 x 0.75.

If you look at Altec's dimensional specs for the 846A, on the far left, kinda small, you'll notice a "B" version of the front baffle with a high-mounted 15" LF speaker and a 2Ê10 port underneath, called the 859A. Now, the 859A speaker cabinet Altec offered in the fall of 1965 (only in Valencia finish, not Flamenco but same diff) just so happened to house the 415 Biflex, as well as the 602/604/605 Duplexes. Well fancy that, right?

So if you're really dying to give a proper listen to those freshly restored 604Es before you've had the new cabinets built up, you've got a nearly factory-spec option already sitting in the room... ;)

An excellent idea—and one I elected to act upon as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the definition of as soon as possible was hindered and hampered by a string of 60-hour work weeks, punctuated by such life events as the move to a new city, major surgery, the death of a sibling, a changing of the editorial guard at Stereophile, and, finally, the sale and emptying of my old house—things I mention only in case you thought I was just sitting around listening to mono records and grumbling about how electricity ruined everything.

But in July of this year, I was ready. Within a week of the day when the very large Klipschorn AK6 loudspeakers were collected by a freight company, I and my daughter, home from college, set about retrieving my Flamencos from their temporary layover in my garage, setting them back up in my listening room, listening to them for one day, and then pulling out their precious Altec 416Z woofers and replacing them with my peripatetic 604Es. That last step was where my daughter's help proved essential: In recent years I've developed strategies for moving large speakers between my house and my garage (they are not connected) and even for getting my Flamencos onto and off of their 14"-tall stands—but holding the 604Es in place with just one hand, while keeping the other free to apply the bolts, proved impossible: Those things are heavy!

1019listenal.xover

Altec's N-1500-A crossover, with non-original wiring.

Another slight challenge was that either Uchida-san or Komura-san had rewired the speakers' companion Altec N-1500-A crossovers with twisted-trio solid-silver wire, yet in doing so had not labeled the leads in a manner that I could readily understand: The original wires had color-coded insulation, with a color-coded hookup guide printed on the crossover casework, but all of the replacement wires were in bundles that had the same insulation colors as each other. When I tried out the speakers a couple of years ago, after spending much time to determine which wire went where, I attached to those wires bits of masking tape on which I had written labels of my own. But now, a few of those masking-tape labels had dried up and fallen off; I had apparently smudged some of the labels while packing the drivers for storage; and some of the wires remained unlabeled. The latter were the ground wires, which I had to be reminded were interchangeable with each other—but it would have been nice if the 63-year-old me had left a little note to that effect for the 65-year-old me.


Footnote 1: A very nicely curated if small collection of late-1950s Japanese tin toys is maintained at the Epcot Center in Walt Disney World, in Orlando, FL.

COMMENTS
Bogolu Haranath's picture

Godzilla .... Godzilla :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

He is coming after those digital people :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Even the transistor people are not immune :-) ........

rschryer's picture

...Halloween costume ever!

Kudos to whomever's wild imagination dreamt this up!

(And who would have thought Art's face on Godzilla's body would look so perfect?)

Bogolu Haranath's picture

You (RS) got my vote for Prime Minister of Canada :-) ..........

mmole's picture

...between the birth of Art Dudley and that of Godzilla, birthdate is not one of them. In Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, it’s revealed that an Imperial Japanese Army unit discovered a still-living dinosaur on an island in 1944. This dinosaur (retroactively termed Godzillasaurus) was eventually exposed to radiation from an American nuclear bomb test and mutated into the city stomper we all know and love.

However, it is firmly established that they both were hatched from eggs and enjoy listening to Bruckner in their spare time.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

And, they both like Eggs Sardou :-) .........

Ortofan's picture

... speakers and a better phono cartridge if he truly prefers the Rubinstein/Reiner or Curzon/Szell interpretations of the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1.
He might, instead, wish to listen to the versions by Serkin/Ormandy or Rubinstein/Haitink, not to mention Barenboim/Barbirolli or Gelber/Kempe.

Could we please have JA1 arrange to measure AD's Altec speakers (as driven by his tube amps) in order to determine whether or not any genuine advances have been made in speaker design and technology since around the time that AD took his first breath?

And, would it be at all possible to refrain from using the word curate unless the reference is to a member of the clergy who is coincidentally an audiophile?

tonykaz's picture

Curate suggests a supporting member of the Vinyl Religion. ( probably accurate in this case )

but....

Curate is also a verb meaning to select & organize items of a collection.

Mr.AD fits both meanings, he certainly has interesting things to relate and fascinating experiences. He doesn't ever seem to set-off the bullshit detector or say things that seem a little >))))'> ( like I might say and do, from time to time )

Tony in Venice

ps. I too wonder if Transducer Performance has improved over these Decades. I suspect there have been engineering advances in materials, techniques, magnet Engines, Voice coil cooling, dynamic range and improved overall sound quality. ( but I can't prove it like JA could attempt )

JHL's picture

If we could measure the intrinsic nature of sound from devices like this we'd still have to correlate that data back to sound. Two things we cannot yet do.

Measured SPL and power - recorded speaker data - is good for engineering but vastly less so for informing good audio.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Maybe he should check out the Emil Gilels/Berliner Philharmoniker/Eugen Jochum recording of Brahms' First [and Second] Piano Conceri on DGG. Better sound, about as well played by all concerned of all the versions heard so far. Not to forget the beautifully played, beautifully recorded Claudio Arrau/Bernard Haitink/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra recordings of Brahms' PC on what used to be Philips.

tonykaz's picture

Two Grand seems a rather low investment if this transducer is worth owning and remanufacturing.

So, if Mr.Dudley has one, it must be worth owning, right?

Why is a useful opinion missing from this article?

My point is that a person doesn't need to spend $15,000 for a Phono Transducer, as is often presented by Analog writers. Old phono Cartridges can be rebuilt.

Tony in Venice

ps. is this a teasing

briandx11's picture

Gojira.

I have two family members that live in Japan, so I have to remember the "proper" way to say it.

There are many references to his Japanese name in the current film, in fact Ken Watanabe uses the term more than half of the time.

Born in late 1955, I had scale models of all of the Toho creatures in my bedroom. Good times...

Anton's picture

He's the color of Grimace and likes good sound,
He likes stereo platters not music in the round.
Helpless people on subway trains
Scream, bug-eyed, as they read his 'Listening' column.
He picks up a pick up and he cues it back down
As he wades through his records just outside of town...

Oh, no, It's a record with banjo!
No, No! Dudzilla
Oh, no! That Bluegrass has got to go!
Go, go, Dudzilla!

Art Dudley's picture
BOC RULES!!! :-)
Bogolu Haranath's picture

Beyond Our Control? :-) ........

rschryer's picture

...Blue Oyster Cult. (In case you didn't know.)

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I knew about that song by Blue Oyster Cult :-) ......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

There was a TV series named BOC :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Even AOC is BOC :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Could AD review the new Mark Levinson No.5101 CD/SACD player/DAC ($5,500) and compare it with the Hegel Mohican ($5,000, Stereophile Class-A), which can only play CDs? :-) .........

rschryer's picture

Should a pic of my face one day be superimposed on that of a Volkswagen Beetle, would you dedicate lyrics to me to the theme of Herbie the Love Bug?

A boy can dream, right?

:-)

Anton's picture

I think Mr. Reichert may have dibs on all things "Herbie."

;-D

I could put you down for the Clampett's song!

Gilligan's Island theme?

Cheers, amigo.

rschryer's picture

...dibs on all things Herbie."

Dam! You're probably right.

In that case, if you see my face on any of the cast members of Gilligan's Island or Beverly Hillbillies (ooh, fingers crossed it turns up on a shotgun-wielding Granny Moses), please proceed with your alternate plan.

I'm sure it will be splendid.

Cheers back, amigo.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Granny Moses likes to sing "Fuh You" :-) .........

Doctor Fine's picture

So would it be a lot cheaper to just add weight to your Denon DL103 to increase mass and beef up the sound?
Is it the fancy body construction OR is it just more mass that improves this cartridge?
I DO know (I currently own eight of the Denons in differents setups)a DL103 LOVES MASS.
The needle is so stiff it takes a LOT of weight to make it behave.
Somebody should compare an expensive add-on "body" to a simple weight and thus determine what causes the better sonics.
My own approach is to spend a few bucks on a better stylus and cantilever to improve top end detail retrieval.
As for fancy new bodies I don't go there.
I use a heavy headshell and an extra 8 grams of headshell weights.
Cost was about $30 bucks.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Or maybe you could tape a couple of quarters to the headshell.

Doctor Fine's picture

Actually there are precision weights that fit on my headshell and it is threaded to hold these.
But go ahead and put quarters on your own machine.
Nice set you have there, ha ha.

Anton's picture

What is it you have?

It doesn’t sound familiar!

I learn new stuff every day.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Nothing is going to fix the vast bulk of discs that are defective. Nothing is going to change the loss of energy in the groove as the stylus approaches the deadwax. Right now, I have no LPs, no turntables. Nothing is going to convince me that I want another LP or another turntable.

Ortofan's picture

... fixed-coil cartridge - if you want your LP playback to sound most like the master (tape) recording.

http://www.regonaudio.com/Stanton881AudioTechnicaATML70.html

https://www.sound-smith.com/articles/fixed-coil-vs-moving-coil-why-make-jump-different-technology

Doctor Fine's picture

The typical screw on removable headshell often comes with a threaded top just for modifying mass.
This will , of course, require a different heavier counterweight but these simply screw on the back of your arm or you can make your own screw on add-ons.
My direct drive Technics has all the above plus the arm tube is deadened with silicone shrink wrap.
And the arm sits in a tub of silicone damping fluid.
The mass of the arm is now around 26 grams which makes a Denon DL103 really SING.
Putting the cartridge inside a wood or metal body just seems unnecessary.
Anybody ever do a test to see if it was just the mass that helps a Denon?
If all you need is a high mass arm that really isn't a problem that the cartridge is responsible for making.
My two cents.

Ortofan's picture

... tub of silicone damping fluid? Or, is if fitted with some sort of outrigger with a little paddle that sits in a container of silicone damping fluid - such as the device KAB sells?

Thermionics's picture

There are a few avenues / variables you could still investigate. For a start, the N1500-A is not the be-all / end-all of crossovers (sorry, Altec-Lansing). If you are really serious, find yourself a Mastering Labs crossover set (although now we're talking some cash outlay), alternately, you could roll something a bit simpler, such as the JELabs 2-way (http://jelabs.blogspot.com/2018/01/altec-2-way-xo-redux.html?q=altec+crossover) - just change the 16uF to 14uF, the 1mH to 1.5mH, and the 4uF to 3uF for the 604E.

Also, it's an unfortunate truth that even though the 604 uses a 15" woofer, it still needs bass reinforcement. A good subwoofer or a couple of bass bins can only help.

Best of luck.
Also, it's an unfortunate truth that even though the 604 uses a 15" woofer, it still needs bass reinforcement. A good subwoofer or a couple of bass bins can only help.

X