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The Top Ten Most Influential Speakers of the Last 50 Years

by December 31, 2014
The Advent, Klipschorn, and Bose AM5

The Advent, Klipschorn, and Bose AM5

This will not be a purely factual article, based only on historical sales figures or specific inventions/patents issued, or the number of 5-star reviews or Product of the Year awards received or my personal favorites as far as sound is concerned. It is purely subjective, based on my having been intimately involved in the speaker market—both as a fanatical enthusiast and as a speaker industry professional—since the early 1960s. To my way of thinking, 50+ years entitles me to toss out some opinions and at least have them considered semi-seriously. Not necessarily agreed with, but at least considered.

This will not be a purely factual article but instead based on my intimate involvement in the speaker market for 50+ years...

One other thing up front: This is an American-centric article. This is an article that deals with the 10 most influential speakers to have appeared on the scene in the last half-century in the American hi-fi market. Foreign speakers have been evaluated and included with an eye to how they influenced the direction of the U.S. speaker industry. So for example, if you’re looking for the Rogers LS3/5a on this list, save yourself some time and stop reading now. A great little speaker? Yes. An influence? Yes. A Top 10 Influence All-Time in the American speaker market? Move along; nothing to see here.

With that as a backdrop, here are my top 10 picks for the most influential speakers in the Consumer American hi-fi market over the last 50 years.

No. 1: The Original Acoustic Research models, AR-1 through AR-7, 1954-1973

OK, this is kind of a fudge right off the bat because it encompasses at least 6 major product “platforms” and many, many individual models: 

  • AR-1, AR-1w, AR-1x
  • AR-2, 2a, 2x, 2ax, “New” 2ax, 5
  • AR-3
  • AR-3a (separate from 3 because both achieved such huge individual sales/acclaim notoriety)
  • AR-4, 4x, 4xa, 6, 7
  • AR-LST, AR-LST/2

All the AR models over this 19-year span could really be considered as embodying the same design philosophy, the same manufacturing approach, the same marketing approach and the same cutting-edge engineering breakthroughs and industry firsts.

Acoustic Research AR3a

The Acoustic Research AR-3a

AR introduced the sealed “acoustic suspension” bass-alignment system to the high-fidelity world, making possible deep, clean, distortion-free bass an order of magnitude better than anything else that existed at the time, in an enclosure 1/8 the size or smaller of the then-best Klipschs and Bozaks of that era.

With AR’s acoustic suspension design, the bookshelf-sized speaker as we still know it today became a reality, paving the way for the commercial success and popularity of two-channel stereo (which was invented in 1958). Two Bozak Concert Grands could hardly have fit in the normal living room of a typical 1962-era suburban home. Two AR-3s? No sweat. And they went deeper in the bass and did it more cleanly than the Bozaks did.

In 1958, AR did something else that all modern speaker manufacturers still owe them for: They introduced the AR-3, a major revamping of the original AR-1 sealed system. Using the same woofer in the same-sized compact enclosure (well under 1.8 cu. ft.), the AR-3 brought forward yet another AR “first”: the industry’s first dome tweeter and dome midrange drivers. How many speakers today use a dome tweeter? The AR-3 was the first.

AR brought many industry first's such as low distortion sealed speakers, and dome tweeters and  midranges.

In terms of smooth, level frequency response, deep bass extension (-3dB @ 35Hz, passive—on its own, not an equalized powered subwoofer), low bass THD (under 1% at a 1-watt drive level, a reasonably loud listening level in the home, all the way down under 30Hz), wide dispersion and unobtrusive size, the AR-3 enjoyed a margin of ascendancy over its competitors that is not only unrivaled in the annals of hi-fi, but may be unequaled in any technical consumer field, ever. Did any camera or ski or television or car ever outperform its competitors by that wide a margin for so long a period of time? The AR-3 was introduced in 1958; it was finally replaced by the even-better AR-3a a decade later, having been widely acclaimed as the best speaker in the industry for all that time. Ten years—a feat absolutely unequalled.

However, the basic AR theme of great bass in compact enclosures probably reached its zenith with the 1964 introduction of the small AR-4, an 8” version of the AR-1 and AR-3’s twelve-inch system, but in an enclosure barely 1/3 the size of the AR-1 and AR-3. 1965 saw the debut of the famous AR-4x with its vastly improved new 2 ½-inch tweeter, resulting in a system that spanned from 55-15kHz at ± 3dB on axis! These smaller AR speakers brought true hi-fidelity sound to hundreds of thousands of people, yet they sounded very similar to their bigger brethren. Like the AR-3 at the high end of the scale, the budget-priced 4x had no real, true competition for years.

AR’s market share in the mid-1960s was an almost unbelievable 32%! One company—AR—had one-third of the entire American speaker market.

In 1971 AR introduced the AR-LST (“Laboratory Standard Transducer”), a 9-driver multi-paneled speaker whose mission was to deliver the widest, flattest frequency response over the broadest possible forward-facing area. Marketed as a professional monitor speaker with precisely-known, extremely-high performance attributes (thus qualifying it, in AR’s view, as a reliable scientific instrument for research and studio applications), the LST nonetheless found its greatest success among well-heeled audiophiles of the day. It is included in this group because it utilized the exact same drive units and crossover componentry as the AR-3a, so it can be considered a logical extension of the basic technology and design approach with which AR dominated the market for those 19 years.

No. 2: The Advents

Henry Kloss was quite the figure in the American speaker business in the 1950s–1960s. After he left KLH, he went on to found Advent Corporation because he wanted to manufacture and market large-screen two-piece television projection systems. In order to produce the cash flow needed for that undertaking, however, he decided to make and sell speakers under the Advent name. This virtual “afterthought” went on to become perhaps the most successful speaker brand of the early-mid 1970s, during the very height of the huge Baby Boom generation college population explosion.

Large Advent

The Large Advent

With typical Kloss directness of purpose, he came out with just two models, simply called the Advent Loudspeaker and the Smaller Advent Loudspeaker. Both were 10” 2-way sealed speakers, using in-house designed and built drivers. They differed mainly in size (the “Large” Advent was a full-sized bookshelf speaker, like the AR-3 or KLH Five); the Smaller Advent was a bit larger and more expensive than the AR-4x, but still much trimmer than the larger Advent. Kloss took the “dealer-as-partner” marketing strategy that he initiated when he was at KLH (he was the “K”) to new heights with Advent. Advent dealers presented and sold their speakers with an almost fanatical, religious zeal. The Advents themselves were certainly worthy of their success, great-sounding speakers that had extraordinary bass response—especially considering their modest price—and represented terrific performance-to-price values. The Advents could be said to have spearheaded the explosion of stereo’s popular jump from the hobbyist-only market of the middle-aged “GE engineer living in Suburbia” during the mid-1960s to the 10-fold market increase of the Baby Boomer college kid/dorm room experience of the 1970s.

Advent speakers mainstreamed stereo to the masses.

As a bonus to the amazing role Advent played in transforming stereo from a 1960s Dad-only hobby to its 1970s mainstream popularity, somehow the idea of two speakers per channel “stacked Large Advents” as a tower, driven as if they were one speaker—achieved legendary audiophile status in the 1970s as well. All the high-end magazines accorded Stacked Advents some kind of mythical quality that couldn’t be explained by “the numbers” or even by Advent’s design personnel. This only added to the Advent lore of the 1970s, a brand reputation and story exceeded by few, if any, products in any field.

No. 3: The Bose Acoustimass AM-5

We’re talking about influence here, not personal sound preference or whether you like a company’s advertising. Please hold all those comments about, “They don’t produce real bass below 60Hz,” or “There’s an acoustic hole between 120-200Hz so big you could drive a Mack Truck through it, because the sats and the sub never meet up,” or, “The sats aren’t a real tweeter and they give up the ghost by 13kHz.”

All of that may be true, but one thing is for sure: It’s all irrelevant.

Bose AM5

The Bose Acoustimass AM5

As far as influence is concerned, the Bose AM-5 is tough to top. Recognizing the way people wanted (and didn’t want!) speakers to look in their homes in the 1980s and building upon well-known and well-understood acoustic principles of frequency-dependent directionality, localizability and masking behavior, Bose correctly identified and predicted a fundamental change in the way people wanted to use and interact with speakers in their homes. The dorm room Baby Boomers were all grown up now. They were buying homes. They were starting families.  Large Advents on cinder-block stands in a dorm wouldn’t suffice any longer. Now, all of a sudden, appearance mattered as much as, if not more than, great sound. The sub-sat system solved this dilemma and introduced an element of “cool” to the equation: All the sound, including the bass, seemed to come from those diminutive twisty little sat cubes. That became the new “Look at this” factor.

AM-5 sales took off, and the old wooden coffin boxes of yesteryear were left standing in the dust. The age of dominance for the traditional box speaker was over for good. That’s influence for you.

Bose showed the speakers industry the way to do sub-satellite systems.

The AM-5 did something else of extraordinary importance: It showed the speaker industry the way to do subwoofer-satellite systems. So-called “good” manufacturers introduced many really excellent-sounding systems, like the Boston Acoustics Sub Sat 6 and 7, and the Cambridge SoundWorks Ensemble systems (Kloss, again!) But even more important than this, the AM-5 showed the industry how a subwoofer-satellite system could make a home theater system feasible and workable in a normal living room. When Dolby Pro Logic multi-channel receivers became available in 1990, home theater would not have been anywhere near as successful and widely accepted by the mainstream buyer if the consumer had to somehow convince his wife to allow five big wooden boxes to be strewn around the living room in a visually-objectionable manner. But a hideaway subwoofer and five small, easy-to-place, barely-visible sats? No problem. The AM-5—for all its acoustic shortcomings—showed the industry how to do it.

At one point in the early 1990s an audio industry research firm reported that the AM-5 held some 30% of the US speaker market. Not Bose as a company. Just the AM-5. That’s the dictionary definition of “influence.”

No. 4: The Bose 901

Again, this article has far less to do with personal taste and audiophile quality and far more to do with influence—speakers that paved new directions, pointed out new possibilities, broke old conventions and made the industry sit up and take notice, knowing that things had changed a bit forever from this point forward.

Bose 901

The Bose 901s.

Considered in that light, the 901 qualifies on all counts. Agree or disagree as you will with Dr. Bose’s premise of so-called “direct vs. reflected sound,” or his use of nine full-range drivers (equalized to reach the low and high frequency extremes) instead of conventional band-limited woofers and tweeters, or even his debatable math that eight rear-facing drivers out of nine meant that exactly 89% of the sound reaching the listeners’ ears was therefore reflected energy (none from the front was?). Did Dr. Bose mean to imply that speakers with all forward-facing drivers delivered 100% direct and therefore no reflected energy? Even extremely wide-dispersion forward-facing speakers like the AR-3a with its domed midrange and tweeter?

No matter. That’s exactly the kind of overly detailed analysis of the 901 that misses the forest for the trees. The 901 was totally unlike anything that preceded it. It was the result of fresh thinking, an entirely new way of conceptualizing the home speaker’s role in delivering a credible illusion of the performance venue into the living room. Prior to the 901, all efforts at improving a speaker’s performance involved technical driver improvements or new bass alignment techniques. The Bose 901 made an attempt to involve the speaker’s actual radiation pattern and its resultant interaction with the domestic listening room into the final equation of lifelike sound in the home. It may or may not have been a valid approach. Some people love the 901; most audiophiles will recite a litany of reasons why they do not like it.

But love it or hate it, the 901 deserves substantial respect for being bold and different, and as a result of Bose’s impressive marketing, for being a commercial success as well. Its success emboldened other companies to try new designs and approaches because the 901 proved that success could come from an unconventional—even controversial—design. Pick your favorite unusual or off-the-beaten-track speaker from the last 30 or 40 years or so. That speaker owes at least part of its start in life to the vision and flat-out nerve that Dr. Bose demonstrated when he produced the 901.

No. 5: The KLH Six, Seventeen, and Five

When Henry Kloss parted ways with AR founder Edgar Villchur in 1957, he founded KLH Corporation, becoming the “K” of the famous tri-lettered name. KLH also utilized the new acoustic suspension bass system in its models, but Henry was a more astute businessperson than was AR’s Villchur and Kloss soon learned how to turn his dealers into true advocates for the company. Kloss arguably pioneered the “dealer-as-partner” business approach in the hi-fi industry and his strategy of controlled/limited distribution among only high quality dealers was a winning approach, as it cemented his dealers’ profitability (and thus their loyalty to KLH) by restricting the cannibalistic “dealer on every corner” technique followed by AR.

 

KLH Model 5

The KLH Five

The KLH Six was one of the industry’s all-time best sellers..

The KLH Six was one of the industry’s all-time best sellers: a mid-sized 10-inch 2-way with an excellent 1 5/8” cone tweeter, both designed and built by KLH in-house. Pleasingly adaptable to all kinds of music, it was neither too forward and mid-rangy, nor too laid back and polite. It was the rough direct competitor to the AR-2 series. The Seventeen was a 10-inch 2-way in a smaller cabinet, the approximate competitor to AR’s 4 series, although the Seventeen was somewhat larger and more expensive. The Five was a 12-inch 3-way with dual cone midrange drivers, a very solid speaker that served as KLH’s answer to the AR-3 and AR-3a. Together, these three speakers were the heart and backbone of KLH’s very successful 1960s decade and KLH was clearly a major speaker force to be reckoned with because of these models.

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About the author:

Steve Feinstein is a long-time consumer electronics professional, with extended tenures at Panasonic, Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology. He has authors historical and educational articles for us as well as occasional loudspeaker reviews.

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Recent Forum Posts:

RichB posts on May 03, 2018 17:05
Winkleswizard, post: 1246325, member: 78570
According to wikipedia, the real credit for the subwoofer appears to go to Infinity or M&K…

Ww

I just updated it. Apparently, I invented the subwoofer

- Rich
Winkleswizard posts on May 03, 2018 16:37
Winkleswizard, post: 1245776, member: 78570
Have never heard them personally, but from observation on the prevalence of AMT drivers today, I have to say ESSLabs AMT 1s should be on the list.

The other that comes to mind is the Design Acoustics DA-10. Not sure they were the first or most popular, but they were my first subwoofer/satellite system. In any case, suggest credit is due to whoever popularized the subwoofer! This may have been Bose, but AM-5s are late 80s and I had already given up my DAs by then…

Ww

According to wikipedia, the real credit for the subwoofer appears to go to Infinity or M&K…

Ww
William Sommerwerck posts on April 30, 2018 15:08
The brain is not working. I completely forgot the Dahlquist DQ-10. As far as I know, it was the first speaker that paid attention to time alignment – getting the sound from all the drivers to arrive at the ear at the same time. (The original version wasn't ideal, as there were no left and right models. This was corrected later.) It also reduces amplitude and dispersion aberrations in the crossover region.

Almost all modern speakers pay at least some attention to time alignment.
Winkleswizard posts on April 30, 2018 14:49
Have never heard them personally, but from observation on the prevalence of AMT drivers today, I have to say ESSLabs AMT 1s should be on the list.

The other that comes to mind is the Design Acoustics DA-10. Not sure they were the first or most popular, but they were my first subwoofer/satellite system. In any case, suggest credit is due to whoever popularized the subwoofer! This may have been Bose, but AM-5s are late 80s and I had already given up my DAs by then…

Ww
William Sommerwerck posts on April 30, 2018 13:45
I do not see the Bose 901 as being in any way influential, as the basic design is wrong in almost every aspect, technically and aesthetically. (Whether Amar Bose knew this, and manufactured them anyway, will never be known. But the technical literature Bose published contained gross distortions, if not outright lies.) The speaker that preceded it – the 2201 – did have some justification, and ought to be reconsidered, using current DSP technology.

Similarly, the Klipschorn has had zero influence. Yes, there are modern horn-loaded speakers, but they're of much-higher quality. Paul Klipsch apparently thought any horn-loaded driver was inherently superior to any direct radiator, the result being some of the worst speakers I've ever heard.

The obvious omission – as others have noted – is the QUAD ESL-57, the first practical full-range ESL. Several companies make “pure” and “hybrid” electrostatics, most-notably MartinLogan. And some people still feel that nothing beats the ESL-57 for naturalness and lack of coloration – at least in the midrange.
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