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Most Influential Loudspeaker Picks #6 - 10 and Conclusion

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No. 6: The Klipschorn

The high-efficiency horn-loaded loudspeaker is a major design category, and no speaker embodies it better than the Klipschorn. Originally designed in mid-1940s, the Klipschorn is still available today (by special order), an absolutely unprecedented continuous production run of over 60 years! No other hi-fidelity product—never mind just a loudspeaker—even comes close.

Klipschorn

The Klipschorn

The Klipschorn is unique in that both the low-frequency and high-frequency sections are horn-loaded. Horn-loading increases efficiency, which proponents say leads to vastly improved clarity and detail resolution, because the drive units aren’t being pushed by the amplifier anywhere near hard enough to be stressed into distortion. Therefore, they have an incredible amount of headroom, which gives the system an effortless, unstrained quality, akin to the feel of live music.

Today, the few remaining home high-efficiency designs and virtually all professional speakers owe a debt of gratitude to Paul Klipsch.

And the Klipschorns are certainly efficient, no question about it. The typical AR-KLH-Advent acoustic suspension bookshelf speaker had a system sensitivity of about 87dB 1W/1m on axis. Compare that to the Klipschorn’s 105dB 1W/1m rating. For an Advent to play at 105dB it would require an input of well over 100 watts, which could be far beyond the undistorted instantaneous capability of the typical 50 watt/channel receiver with which 1970’s bookshelf speakers were usually paired. Klipsch speakers played clean and loud with minimal power input, and neither the speaker nor the amp was being pushed into distortion. The downside of course was their huge size, since they were subject—like all speakers—to the “Iron Law” of acoustics, which stipulates that when considering Enclosure Size, Bass Extension, and Efficiency, you may have any two at the expense of the third. AR-KLH-Advent chose bass extension and a small enclosure at the expense of efficiency; Klipsch chose bass extension and efficiency at the expense of enclosure size. That is somewhat of an over-simplification, of course, but the general rule does apply.

Today, high-efficiency is not a major consideration for home listening situations, since good, clean dependable amplifier power is no longer the expensive commodity it was in the 1950s-1970s. Therefore most modern home speakers are designed without specific regard to minimum power requirements. The same is not true in professional applications such as PA use and concert sound, applications where virtually all speakers are horn-loaded in some manner to maximize their efficiency and thus reduce the required weight, bulk and cost of the associated driving electronics. Klipsch certainly was the high-efficiency/horn leader in the hi-fi industry before technology made higher-power amplifiers economically feasible. Today, the few remaining home high-efficiency designs and virtually all professional speakers owe a debt of gratitude to Paul Klipsch and his remarkable Klipschorn.

No. 7: The JBL L100 Century

There’s nothing like a great historic rivalry to stoke peoples’ emotions. Red Sox-Yankees. Frazier-Ali. Bush-Gore. Borg-McEnroe. Beatles-Stones. You get the idea.

JBL L100

The JBL L100 Century

In the 1970s, the speaker business had a great rivalry also. We’ll go there in a minute. But first, younger readers need to keep in mind that in the 1970s, the biggest demographic group of the post-WWII era—the Baby Boomers—was going to college in droves. They were going to lots of concerts. They were buying lots of records. Also keep in mind that in the 1970s there were none of these things to occupy the typical 19-year old college kid’s time and attention:

No Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest or Shutterfly. No Smartphones. No texting. No iPod, iTunes, tablets or notebooks. No DVR. Heck, there weren’t even any Walkmans or Discmans. In the early 1970s there weren’t even any boomboxes! What’s a 19-year old to do?

They bought stereo. Lots and lots of stereo. In big college cities like Boston there were audio stores on virtually every other corner, or so it seemed. And they all did great business, they all had their particular marketing/merchandising strategy, they all flourished. Kids argued about speakers while having dinner in the dorm cafeteria. Stereo was king, and except for a few other popular college-aged activities, buying and listening to stereo equipment was just about the most important leisure-time activity there was.

"East Coast" sound was polite and refined while "West Coast" sound was more brash and exciting.

The rivalry that developed in the 1970s came to be known as “East Coast Sound” vs. “West Coast Sound.” The East Coast Sound was exemplified by the polite, refined, supposedly accurate sound of the AR-KLH-Advent group—speaker companies all based in Cambridge MA. All were sealed systems with non-boomy bass and unexaggerated mids and highs.

West Coast Sound was a brasher, more exciting, in-your-face kind of presentation. Absolute scientific accuracy wasn’t the goal; rather, these speakers aimed to sound dramatic and be more attention-grabbing, especially on popular music. Brands like JBL, Infinity and Cerwin-Vega were all California-based, hence the West Coast identifier. Ported enclosures with fatter bass ends, less dry-sounding, and a far punchier, livelier mid to high end. This is also where the terms “Classical Music Speaker” and “Rock Speaker” came from.

One speaker was the poster child for West Coast Sound: The JBL L100 Century. Essentially a dressed-up consumer version of their 4310 Studio Monitor, the L100 became one of the best-selling and most instantly-identifiable speakers of all time. A large 12” 3-way speaker of roughly the same dimensions as the Large Advent, the Century was best known for its distinctive foam grille divided into a surface of small squares. The grille itself was available in many colors, including royal blue, brown and a truly outlandish burnt orange.

Its sound was just as intentionally dramatic and attention-getting as its appearance. Thumping, pounding bass. Detailed, forward mids. Every Allman Brothers or ELP album was a powerful, emotionally-striking event of the highest order.

A 1972 test report in High Fidelity Magazine told the story: Although the speaker performed generally quite well, its on-axis frequency response showed a pronounced upper-midrange peak of about 5-8 dB centered around 9kHz. This was obviously quite intentional, since JBL’s engineering capability was second to none and this response characteristic wouldn’t have just escaped by accident. Whether it was done to give the 4310 professional monitor more near-field sonic “detail” to the recording engineer or whether it was done to give the L-100 more retail showroom flash, it was there and it was real.

To this day, everyone knows and remembers the JBL L100 Century.

No. 8: The British are coming! The British are coming! The B&W 800 series speakers

While the Americans were busy fighting a West Coast-East Coast civil speaker war, the British were cleverly plotting to have their say on our turf. The 1970s saw the big-time emergence in the U.S. market of several notable British speaker companies. Although in the 1960s British companies like Wharfedale and Goodmans had a reasonable presence on these shores, it really wasn’t until the 1970s that the British influence hit hard in the U.S. market. Three brands lead the effort: Celestion, KEF and B&W.

B_W_800D

The B&W 800D

British speakers were all pretty much known—and respected—for splitting the difference quite nicely between the brash California JBL sound and the polite accuracy of the Massachusetts AR camp. The Brits’ sound was accurate but not too distant and self-effacing. Lively, but not too forward or exaggerated. Superb drive units, extraordinary in-house research and design efforts and beautiful appearance were the order of the day.

Over a span of several decades, B&W has come to represent the quintessential British approach to loudspeaker design and manufacturing. As a company boilerplate once described them:

About B&W

Named for founders John Bowers and Roy Wilkins, B&W is one of the world’s largest and most highly-acclaimed audio companies. From their first loudspeaker—the P1 of 1966—the company has consistently been at the very forefront of audio innovation with a long string of notable achievements such as their Matrix™ enclosure, their stunning Nautilus technology and their exclusive use in the renowned Abbey Road Studios as recording monitors.

The B&W 800 series is a perfect example of all that they represent themselves to be as a speaker company (and by extension, the best of the KEF and other British speakers as well). The various 801 Matrix models in the 1990s evolved into the 800 Diamond series in the 2000s, but every version has presented to critical listeners of the time an almost ideal blend of tonal neutrality, detail resolution, deep, controlled bass extension, and crystal-clear highs without a trace of edge or hardness. Add to those sonic attributes an unwaveringly high build quality and elegant, modern looks and the result is a speaker family with an almost unequalled lineage and pedigree.

The most highly regarded speakers of today embody neutral tonal balance first introduced by the Brits in the 70's and 80's.

Many audiophiles (if they’re honest and have a sense of humor) say that the British (and their post-1985 Canadian cousins) have won the speaker war that America fought amongst itself in the 1970s. The most highly-regarded speakers of today embody the neutral tonal balance and measured accuracy that the Brits first showed in the 1970s-1980s. They may have lost to the fledgling Colonies in 1776, but they’ve won now. West Coast/East Coast has been shown to be a discredited design approach for serious loudspeakers. Accurate, neutral, musical sound is the correct way to go. After the 1970s, the mainstream British speakers did that first, best and most consistently. It’s not as if the British speakers’ presence forced the American West Coast/East Coast factions to change (independent technological advances and marketing changes-of-heart were largely responsible), but nonetheless, the British influence is unmistakable and indisputable.

No. 9: The Magnepan Magneplanar

All the speakers we’ve discussed so far have had one thing—a big thing—in common: they all use conventional cones and domes to move the air and produce sound. Regardless of how the woofer is loaded into the cabinet, whether or not all the drivers face forward or in some other direction, whether the designers favored first-arrival on-axis performance or used far-field energy response as a performance goal, they all got there by utilizing some variation of a round diaphragm mounted in a metal frame, with some kind of suspension from that frame, a round voice coil attached to the rear side of that diaphragm at either its apex or periphery, residing in a magnetic field provided by a ceramic, alnico or neodymium magnet.

Magnepan

The Magnepan MG 1.6

Welcome to the conventional, familiar dynamic loudspeaker. It has served us well for close to 100 years and will no doubt continue to do so for quite a while longer.  And they’re not just your music system speakers, either: they’re in your iPhone. They’re in your headphones. They’re in your TV. The dynamic speaker with a voice coil and a magnet is everywhere.

Some people feel that there’s a better way. Conventional dynamic drivers, they say, simply have too much mass-induced inertia and can’t start and stop quickly enough to convincingly mimic the immediacy and airiness of real music. Traditional steady-state frequency-response measurements will not reveal a dynamic speaker’s limitations in this area, nor will conventional impulse or tone burst tests.

There is also a feeling among some audio designers that a pinpoint sound source (such as a 5” cone midrange driver or 1” dome tweeter) simply can’t convey the large-dimensioned spatial qualities of real voices and instruments, nor can a forward-facing speaker impart the requisite 3-dimensionality of an actual sonic event.

Considered together—the inertial mass problem, the pinpoint source issue and the radiation pattern limitations—there is simply no way that an ordinary dynamic cone/dome speaker will ever produce a convincingly realistic approximation of a real musical event in a domestic listening space, according to that faction.

Enter the flat panel loudspeaker to the rescue. Whether they’re electrostatics, ribbons or some other technology, the entire genre of large flat panel loudspeakers—those big, ugly, décor-ruining, “look like room dividers” flat panel speakers—are all taking slightly different routes to solve the three main issues we’ve just presented. Solve those, and realistic reproduction in the home is possible. Don’t solve them, and regardless of what the frequency response curves supposedly “prove” and no matter how low the THD measurements are, a conventional box speaker with cone/dome drivers will at best only sound very good—but never like the real thing.

Properly set up in the right room, flat-panel proponents swear that nothing else even comes close to their realism.

Of the myriad flat panel speakers that have come and gone over the years, using various design approaches to accomplish their goal, one company’s products have been uniquely successful over the long term and have established a solid commercially-viable alternative to the conventional box speaker.

That company is Magnepan and their famous Magneplanar loudspeaker. There have been many versions and models over the years since the company’s first significant commercial products in the mid-1970s, but they’ve all utilized a similar design/form factor: an approximately 6 ft-tall by 2 ft-wide flat panel that radiates sound from that entire surface area in true dipole fashion: equally from the front and rear sides of the panel.

They’re inefficient, requiring a lot of power to produce reasonable loudness levels. Paradoxically, their power-handling capability is very limited, because the planar drivers have very restricted excursion, so if pushed too hard with excessive input power, they’ll distort badly. Their dipole radiation makes them extremely placement-dependent and -sensitive, because the reflected acoustic properties of the surface behind them will influence—for good or bad—half the sound they produce. They tend to be beamy, with an almost flashlight-like restricted sweet spot for listening. Move your head the wrong way out of that sweet spot and the sound dissolves into a total sonic wasteland.

But……properly set up, in the right room, with the correct speaker/listener positioning, driven by good-sounding amplification, flat-panel proponents swear that nothing else even comes close to their realism.

The Magneplanar proudly carries the flat panel flag into battle.

No. 10: The Thiel 3.6

Just prior to the height of the home theater revolution in the mid-late 1990s, expensive, stylish, high-performance two-channel audio reached something of a high water mark. Speakers in this realm, especially, seemed to be notably popular and numerous. Vandersteen, Legacy, NHT 3.3s and 2.9s, the big KEFs and B&Ws, Aerial, Vienna Acoustics, Sonus Faber, Revel and dozens of others made their appearances and enjoyed the limelight for a time. Regrettably, many have since faded away.

Thiel 3_6

The Thiel CS3.6

However, there is one brand of high end speakers whose products have enjoyed both critical acclaim and pretty solid commercial success over a span of more than 20 years: Thiel Audio.

Thiel’s 3.x series of speakers has always been the product family that has offered the greatest high-end performance–to-cost ratio in their lineup. 1993’s Model 3.6 is perhaps the best example of that. Utilizing President/Founder Jim Thiel’s proprietary driver designs, thick-baffled, heavily-braced cabinets, 1st-order crossovers and a choice of beautiful wood veneer finishes, the 3.6 set a standard of performance and looks that truly defined what high end was all about.

Incredibly, they cost under $4,000/pr., an amazingly low price considering the build quality, performance level and expensive, no-compromise componentry.  Many enthusiasts considered Thiel’s beautiful, great-sounding speakers as an attainable next step up into the world of legitimate high end, up from excellent mainstream speakers like top of the line Bostons, Definitives and Polks. The 3.6 was perhaps the very best example of such a speaker, living and thriving in a two-channel market before the multi-channel 5.1/7.1 HT craze took over and permanently relegated serious two-channel music listening to niche status.

Conclusion

There you have it — the 10 Most Influential Speakers of the Last 50 Years. It was very tough to whittle this list down to size and as is always the case with “Best of” or “Most Influential” lists, the omissions will likely produce greater controversy than the inclusions. I changed my mind about the Final 10 more than once, and I had to cut, copy and paste several times as I re-ordered the sequence from 1 to 10.

But I’m very satisfied that this list accurately represents my best thinking on the subject. For now, anyway.  Tell us what you think the top 10 most influential speakers of all time are in our dedicated forum thread.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

robert diiorio posts on December 11, 2021 02:28
AR 1W with Janszen 130 electrostatic
KLH Model Nine
just a question; someone in this forum said W. HECHT of Phase Tech invented the Dome tweeter (filed 1964 granted 1967) yet AR-3 speakers had dome midrange and tweeters and that was in 1958. Am I missing something?
MaxInValrico posts on November 11, 2021 19:33
davidscott, post: 1505331, member: 86172
What no mention of OHM's omnidirectional speakers? Of the speakers on this list I've only owned Advents - nice sound with deep bass but not to be confused with live music.
Now Magnepans they can sound real to me. Maybe now that I'm retired Ican get a small pair for my condo.
I've found that they do the trick.
GotAudio posts on November 11, 2021 17:20
I went through this whole thread and only saw one mention of Magnepans.. I would like this set but too pricey for me at the moment.. plus I would have to buy all new gear to power them as they are power-hungry speakers.

https://www.overtureav.com/brands/speakers/floor-standing-speakers/magnepan/magnepan-1-7i/
davidscott posts on November 11, 2021 16:08
Best sounding speakers that I owned were DCM Time Windows. Not a lot of deep bass but man they could come alive with acoustics and jazz. Blew my Advents out of the water but they didn't make the list.
carewser posts on November 11, 2021 13:04
Ponzio, post: 1515963, member: 47769
Wow, I'm shocked. I had 2 of the speaker models nominated at one time; the JBL L100's and the Bose 901's.

The irony of the L100's is that JBL didn't make them famous, Maxell did
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