Listening #125

Monday, January 14, was a difficult day for the abandoned amusement park that is my body. In the morning, I packed two Lamm ML2.2 amplifiers into their wooden crates and wrestled them outside for collection by some unlucky air-freight courier. After that, I backed up my car to the tiny front porch of our house so I could unload a pair of 1966 Altec Valencia loudspeakers I'd collected the day before: in excess of 100 pounds each, just like the crated Lamms, but considerably larger.

Because our front steps are only 36" wide, I had hoped to use my utility ramps to slide the 30"-wide Valencias onto the porch from the hatch of my Volkswagen Tiguan: a crazy-sounding scheme that actually worked a couple of years ago, for extracting an upright piano from the back of a friend's pickup truck. But my VW's hatch wasn't tall enough to make such a thing possible, so I had to lift the Altecs the old-fashioned way: with muscle (such as it is), luck, and the palliative effects of cursing/ I thanked God it wasn't snowing.

I found the Altecs on eBay, which is where I also found my Quad ESLs, my Altec 755C drivers, one of my Thorens TD 124s, and various other vintage-audio bits. Throughout the past year my search engine had uncovered a few Valencias (and Flamencos, which differ from Valencias only cosmetically), but it's impractical to ship very large speakers, and none of the Altecs I'd found were offered by sellers within a day's drive—until now. This one-owner pair was in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a mere four hours from where I live.

The eBay listing said "make an offer," so I did. Perhaps because the seller realized that I lived near enough to collect the merchandise in person, thus saving him a certain amount of trouble and uncertainty, the haggling was minimal. Within minutes of my making an offer the Valencias were mine, for $1600.

Two weeks later, on a day when the weather seemed sure to cooperate, I set out with road music in my CD player (the Byrds' Ballad of Easy Rider album), road food on the seat next to me (a box of Nilla Wafers), and my cheapo Garmin GPS unit on the dashboard. It was a fine drive: Route 8 in western Massachusetts was a visual treat, with solemn mountain faces, beautiful snow-bordered streams, and lots of quaint roadside businesses, including Otis Poultry ("HOME OF THE CUSTOM LAID EGG") and The Other Brother's Wholesale Seafood ("HOME OF STILL FLOPPIN' FRESHNESS"). Viewed from the highway, the outskirts of Waterbury looked grim, but that was nothing compared to my destination city: The Altecs, whose original owner had passed away within the year, now awaited collection in a warehouse around the corner from Bridgeport Triumphant Ministries, and right next door to the Salvation Army Home for Men. The seller was a big, friendly bear of a man who seemed unperturbed by his surroundings, and who had no difficulty hoisting the speakers by himself. With two Valencias in the back of my Tiguan—face up, side by side, and not an inch to spare—I set off for home.

I turned right at the corner nearest the warehouse and saw, from the corner of my eye, a large, colorful sign nailed to the siding of an otherwise nondescript white house: a helmeted skull with red and yellow wings, and the words "HELLS ANGELS, BOSTON CHAPTER." Destiny's unmistakable fingerprints were everywhere that day.

For your pleasure
Introduced in 1966, the Altec Valencia—officially known as the Altec Model 846A—is a two-way loudspeaker in a furniture-grade cabinet shaped not unlike a console TV of the 1960s. Its low-frequency driver is the Altec 416-Z, whose 13.5" pulp cone is formed with a pleated, low-compliance surround impregnated with a shiny black rubber that, on my pair, still seems fresh. The 416-Z looks even better from behind, with its heavily ribbed frame, an alnico magnet the size and shape of a 28oz can of beans, and lustrous hammertone paint in Altec's trademark shade of pale, slightly bluish green: the real inspiration, some say, for Ken Shindo's choice of chassis paint.

Midrange and treble frequencies are reproduced by an Altec 806A compression driver that incorporates an aluminum diaphragm, an aluminum flat-wound voice-coil, a 13oz alnico magnet (footnote 1)—and, perhaps needless to say, the same hammertone-green paint job as the woofer (footnote 2). The same shade, without the hammered texture, adorns the horn that loads the driver.

That cast-aluminum horn is the Altec 811, so-called in part because the low end of its coverage extends to 800Hz. (The Altec 511 of the same era, often found in the Voice of the Theater loudspeaker—from which the Valencia and its sibling are derived—extends down to 500Hz.) The Altec 811 horn measures 18" wide by 7" high, and its front is curved to a radius of perhaps 12" or so.

A brief aside: As I write this, my Valencia-throated system is turning the groove-bumps of Jacques Loussier's first Play Bach LP into goose-bumps. This is, quite simply, some of the most convincing, involving, and thoroughly exciting sound I've experienced at home. Bass notes aren't just putting in an appearance once or twice per measure—they're being played, with real feeling and force, on an obviously large double bass. And despite the apparent distance of the microphones from the drums, there's a remarkable sense of strength and, again, force behind the drummer's every move, down to the subtlest strike on the crown of the smallest cymbal. My wife, who came in and sat down a moment ago, described her own amazement at the latter, and at the clarity of the softly struck triangle in Bach's Prelude 2 in c.

Now then: With just a bit of luck, the careful reader may have guessed the model designation of the Valencia's crossover network; it's the Altec N-800F, in which, I assume, the N stands for network and the F for filter. (I'm sure I don't have to tell you the model number of the filter used with the above-mentioned 511 horn.) The N-800F's potato-sized metal enclosure, which is bolted to the inside of the Valencia's rear panel, is riveted shut, so I have yet to see its contents for myself. That said, the crossover is user-adjustable by means of a brightness control, whose chicken-head knob is set against a green (what else?) background with white numbers that range, counterintuitively, from a maximum of "0" to a minimum of "10." (The midrange/treble horn is not, however, entirely silent at "10.") According to the online posts of experienced users, this control is a purely resistive L-pad, which maintains, regardless of setting, the loudspeaker system's overall impedance: a God-fearing 16 ohms. And speaking of God, it's interesting to note that this magazine's founder, J. Gordon Holt, was among the most ardent admirers of the Altec Voice of the Theater (footnote 3).

Finally, we return to that scourge of Volkswagens and English majors alike: the Valencia's oven-sized cabinet. Its baffle is made of 0.75"-thick plywood, as are its walnut-veneered top and sides. The Valencia's bottom is chipboard, the rear panel is chipboard and Masonite, and both the simple, sparse bracing and the frilly grillework are made of softwood. The inner surfaces of the speaker's bottom, rear, and right-hand side are damped with fiberglass insulation, but not so the top, the baffle, or the left-hand side, which suggests that the designers felt that catching interior reflections on the first bounce was good enough. Very hefty bolts and T-nuts are used to fasten the woofer to the inner surface of the baffle, above which the 18"-wide horn perches within a 20"-wide gap; the two open spaces that straddle the horn confer on the cabinet its designation as aperiodic. Only the two bottom corners of the horn are fastened to the baffle—also with good bolts and T-nuts—while an aluminum strap holds the compression driver firmly to a piece of bracing nailed to the inner surface of the top. (Interestingly, that brace is cracked in both of my Valencias, though not to the point of uselessness.)

The mouth of madness
There's no telling how long my new-old loudspeakers had gone unused. But after I wrangled the Valencias inside and connected then to my Shindo Haut-Brion amplifier—which required a bit of fussing, since the Altecs' input connectors are nothing more than small-gauge screw terminals (footnote 4)—the Valencias sounded rather bassless for 10 or 15 minutes. Then, with no further intervention, the bass appeared, and all was well.

Maybe not all. On the rear panels of both Valencias are identical labels encouraging the user to adjust the treble level to suit his or her room—but advising that, under "average conditions," the ideal balance will be had with the knob set to "2." Which is just two numbers away from full-blast.

Footnote 1: I owe my thanks to Kal Rubinson, former owner of Altec Voice of the Theater horns, for producing these data from his files.

Footnote 2: In later examples of the 846A and in apparently all iterations of its successor, the less-well-regarded 846B, green paint was dropped in favor of dark gray.

Footnote 3: JGH reviewed the Altec A-7 in Vol.1 No.12, cover-dated "Spring 1966."—Ed.

Footnote 4: Although it's fun to imagine those high-enders who would head straight for the nearest fainting couch at the sight of the Altecs' tiny terminals, the fact is that those connectors really are crazy. Note, also, that the distinctly modern-looking threaded connectors on the drivers themselves are way bigger, and probably way better, than the screw terminals on the rear panels. That's crazy, too.


dougspeterson's picture

I recently fell in love with the big horn systems after decades of wide dispersion, dipoles, Apogee Stages, Magneplanars. They just sounded right on voices, but now it is the horns that sound right on voices. I used to dismiss all that complexity and expense of trying to eliminate the room from the equation. These systems, the Altec 19, the Altec Duplex, Belle Klipsch, EV Sentry III, JBL L200t3, UREI 809 and 811s, all deliver the goods with the immediacy of headphones--what's more they deliver excitement.

I would like to see JA take his analysis kit to the Valencias. What does that waterfall plot look like?

Steve Eddy's picture

I think you'd be better off just enjoying the sausage and avoid watching the How It's Made episode. cool


PaulF70's picture

Art, if you really want to be blown away, get yourself a pair of GPA's current-production 604, with crossovers from Selah Audio, and put them on a pair of JE Labs-style open baffles. For about $2K and a couple hours' work you'll have a speaker system with the micro & macro-dynamic prowess of your Valencias with virtually none of the weaknesses. IMO.

donaldrreid's picture

PaulF70: I looked at GPL. Interesting site previously unknown to me. Could you pls fwd me to a website that lists ALL classic Altec (consumer) cabinet loudspeakers to include model #'s, descriptions & photos? Thanks. --> ( Amarillo TX ).