Altec Lansing Bias 550 active loudspeaker system

Akeem Olajuwon? Ralph Sampson? Yes, it must be the Twin Towers. No, wait—it's the World Trade Centers!

Such were my thoughts upon first viewing the Altec Bias 550s erect in my living room. So great was the illusion that the dual driver-dirigibles were crowned with two of my toy dinosaurs (that's pronounced "dina-sour" in these parts), suggesting, I hoped, the humanity, humor, and yearning of King Kong's ascent of the Empire State Building—either Fay Wray's or Jessica Lange's version. (Jessica used to live in Santa Fe until just a little while ago—sigh.)

Whoa boy, down to earth—just write the review. I must say that these, the second Altecs to be reviewed by Stereophile since Altec rose Phoenix-like from the ashes (on the dollars of Sparkomatic, a well-known and most successful car audio firm), have themselves succeeded in bringing me down from the euphoric heights of my return to reviewing that began with the Thiel CS1.2 in January 1989 (Vol.12 No.1). Perhaps too far down...but I precede myself.

Uh...I wish I had one. I tell you, it's daunting to read the thoroughness with which JA dismembers speaker after speaker in the $1000-and-under range. There's the familiar Linn 'table and arm, the VTL 100W monoblocks or Krell KSA-50, the Monster Cable M-1000. And such a musical range! Really, I'm in awe of the investigative process (and a bit surprised that green-behind-the-ears manufacturers keep sending us product for such predictably regular disparagement), not to mention JA's willingness to keep wading into the less-than-state-of-the-art fray.

Not so me. I feel that I'm still just groping, drawing upon my now-11-year association with J. Gordon Holt, the constant exposure to competing designs here in Santa Fe and out in the world, and of course my ongoing discovery of the wonders of live music.

Pretty much, I just hook 'em up and tell you what they sound like. Of course, I make sure that my source equipment is as neutral as I can make it (CAL Tempest II CD player, Adcom GCD-575 as solid-state backup, Well-Tempered Turntable and Tonearm with Audioquest 404i for LP), and that my preamplifier is as transparent as I can find—a Levinson No.26 that I'm fortunate to be able to hold onto for a little while longer. Interconnects were Monster 1000s in 5m lengths.

The Physical Plant
No lesser title will suffice. Just take a look at those specs: 437 lbs; 71" high; 5 amplifiers per channel totaling 700W RMS; remote control; 120dB maximum output.

There is no doubt that Altec put everything they could into this product. In my opinion, however, they should have stopped right there before going into production, and taken another year to realize how to make such an all-out product really well, with all the convenience that this amount of money and technology can provide. But again I precede myself...

These speakers are huge. Until you actually have two 6' (by 1½' by 2', to boot) speakers in your room, you don't know what the word means. The cabinets of my pair came in a disappointingly bland walnut veneer, and all are supplied with top-to-bottom grilles which are, aside from a flare apparently designed to optimize diffraction (but which itself presents a sharp discontinuity with the baffle), quite ordinary.

The cabinet size and shape are, to my mind, Altec's first mistake. I will admit—and this is an important admission, as will become evident throughout this review—that the 550s were not designed for the typical Stereophile audio enthusiast. Who, then, is likely to spend $12,000 for a pair of speakers? Surely it will be someone with money to throw around to create an impression, whether sonic or visual. Such a speaker, even if weighing 437 lbs, should somehow convey a feeling of elegant light-footedness, or at least modest grace. This the Altecs do not achieve. Aside from the benighted design of the recent Acoustat Spectral 33s (and their forebears, the Acoustat Monitors), these are the ugliest speakers I have seen.

Contrast them with the Infinity IRS Beta system reviewed by JGH in Vol.11 Nos.10 and 12. I had the Betas in my home for a while; they were sensuous. You felt like rubbing cat-like against their elegant finish. Though large and fairly heavy—in four pieces, no less—they inspired admiration and appreciation. Rather than a bland walnut—walnut can be one of the most luxurious of woods—they come standard in Santos Pau Farrao, as befits such an expensive acquisition.

The 550s don't even come with casters, surely essential accessories—even an ex-furniture mover like me would easily be overwhelmed by their mass. Early on in the review process I wondered whether the sonic performance might be bettered by spikes or some such tweak, but concluded that 437 lbs coming down on four points would surely put a lot of pressure on the minimal contact surface that touches the carpet or floor. I'm all too sure the floor penetration would have been significant.

As you can see from the specs listed above, the 550s are an active speaker system, consisting of no less than five amplifiers each, controlling a total of six drivers: two subwoofers mounted top and bottom in rubber-isolated separate cabinets (contained within the main enclosure), and one each of bass, midrange, upper midrange, and tweeter drivers. It is not unusual for large, expensive speakers that play loud at low frequencies to provide significant frequency-balancing provisions—witness all the alteration you can make to the sound of the IRS Betas—but the Altec 550s set a new standard in this respect. Each of the amplifiers is remote-control–alterable with respect to the other amplifiers by a total of 12dB (nominally ±6dB from "flat"). This provides great facility for in-room equalization, but unfortunately it is available in nothing finer than 2dB steps. When changing all the frequencies below 80Hz, or from 80–450Hz, for instance, 2dB makes a helluva big difference to the sound—much too big and all-encompassing to adjust for anything but gross room problems, or truly awful records.

Altec Lansing Technologies
Route 6 & 209
Milford, PA 18337
(570) 296-4434