Choosing a Speaker

JOHN M. CONLY is a former New York and Washington newspaperman, now editor of High Fidelity Magazine. “They Shall Have Music" is a quarterly feature in the Atlantic.


(Four successive articles in this series are being devoted to step-by-step guidance of people interested in customfurnishing their homes with music through the inspired gadgetry collectively known as “high fidelity.” As a medium of entertainment and artistry, high fidelity came into being at about the same time as television, but it soon far outpaced the latter technically. Even with color added, the gross-grained TV image still can convey little or no aesthetic content. In contrast, a good high fidelity system can bring into a listener’s home a Haydn trio or a scene from Tosca in sonic likeness that suffers little — sometimes not at all — by comparison with the real thing. To fit individual needs, such systems commonly are bought component by component — loudspeaker, amplifier, record turntable, and so forth. The following article, the first in the series, will deal with the last stage in home music reproduction: the loudspeaker, its enclosure, and the listening room.)

IT is a genuine pleasure to abet the person setting out to buy a high fidelity music system. He (“she” in 25 per cent of cases) may have set aside $225 for the purpose, or $1750, but whatever the amount, it represents the same kind of devotional budgeting that would go toward the purchase of a grand piano. And by the same token, it probably will be exceeded in the pinch. This is as it should be. A hunger for music is one of our noblest appetites, and nothing to be paltered with.

Still, food and rent bills retain a legitimate cogency in our civilization (Mozart and Beethoven had to put up with them), and even if they did not, there are still records to be bought after the sound system, softly agleam with walnut veneer and brushed gold, is complete at the side of the room. It makes no sense to waste money at the outset — which is why it does make sense to shop initially for a loudspeaker, and let its choice dictate the selection of the rest of the equipment you buy.

The point is, a loudspeaker (with its enclosure, which is just as important as the speaker itself) must function as part of something you already have: your listening room. Many an urban apartment living room, almost perfectly square, hard-plastered and eight and one-half feet from floor to ceiling, cannot accommodate some of today’s most elaborate and expensive corner-speaker assemblies, for instance. Accordingly, unless he wants to torture his eardrums to prove his affluence, the occupant of such a dwelling must practice economy for art’s sake. And if the speaker he buys instead of the $700 assembly will not reproduce the lowest musical bass note (say, sixteen cycles per second, which hardly anyone can hear), it may at the same time enable him to be happy with a $60 turntable instead of an absolutely rumble-free one that costs twice as much. And so on. The moral is clear.

The basic present-day loudspeaker is a treated paper cone, anchored at the rim and ending at the apex in a narrow collar, around which is wound a coil of thin wire, the “voice coil.” The coil and collar fit closely within (but do not touch) a powerful, firmly fixed permanent magnet. The coil is fed musico-electric impulses by the amplifier. These generate around it a constantly changing magnetic field, which interlocks with that of the massive permanent magnet in a sort of tug-and-thrust game. Since the magnet cannot move, the coil does, in and out, vibrating the cone and creating air-pressure waves. These travel across the room and, forthwith, we are in communication with Brahms. In the case of certain treble-only speakers (“tweeters”), the paper cone is replaced by a small, very thin aluminum diaphragm, which can vibrate faster.

Engineers are forever complaining that loudspeakers, compared with other audio equipment, are horribly inexact. They are, judged by meter-readings; but their eccentricities are much more musical and tolerable than those of, for example, phono-pickup cartridges.

Loudspeakers may suffer from volume peaks in certain tone-frequencies, but so do some concert halls — and some pianos. What they don’t do is introduce crunching noises at each fortissimo, as imperfect pickups are wont to. I have seen a $120 loudspeaker and a live cellist at work, side by side, and twenty seasoned listeners baffled as to which was which. How good need a reproducing instrument be?

Probably loudspeakers are most easily accounted for by saying they have personality, as do individual musical instruments, orchestras, and concert halls. It may be of interest that the nation’s leading audio-guidance columnist has taken to describing loudspeakers in terms of what row of concert hall seats they seem to place him in — “Row A” or “Row H.”

It would be folly to claim that I have listened to all the loudspeakers and speaker combinations commercially available today. There must be more than a thousand. When and if I mention a make or model, it is simply because I have heard it, and does not signify that there may not exist a dozen others just as good.

In the lowest price range, there are a number of speakers ready cabineted to fit on table-tops or in oversized bookshelves. Some I have heard, and my impression is that their quality reflects their prices, except perhaps for an R-J assembly that sells for $54 and incorporates the Wharfedale eight-inch speaker, which is perhaps a little better than it should be. All I have met with are astonishingly good; but none really sounds like a big speaker assembly. In their price range (up to $100), however, there is one outstanding assembly, though it is a small floor model, not a tabletop job — the Permoflux “Largo,” which makes use of a tiny tweeter, an eight-inch “ woofer" (for bass), and a very clever bass-reinforcement construction. (Even this, however, will not match what can be achieved at the same cost by someone who wants to write to speaker makers for specifications and have a bass-reflex cabinet built to meet them. In general, this applies throughout.)

Perhaps the foregoing makes advisable a brief double detour. There are several single-cone eight-inch speakers of extraordinary merit that, even when custom-housed, may run to no more than $60. That is to say, the speaker costs about $20 and the cabinet (depending on your carpenter) about $40. The ones I am acquainted with are the Wharfedale Super-8 and the Permoflux Royal 8; also very well spoken of are the equivalent Altec Lansing, Jim Lansing, and Goodmans “ Axiette” models. I have heard a Wharfedale 8, in a tuned-port bassreflex cabinet (30 inches high and weighing approximately 50 pounds, so thoroughly was it braced and padded inside), hold its own beautifully against a $320 three-speaker assembly.

If we use as a rule of thumb that the cabinet must cost at least as much as the speaker (until the latter passes the $150 mark, anyway), a venture into the next price class brings us into the middle of a debate. There are a number of fairly good coaxial speakers in the $45-$60 area, also a number of good single-cone speakers, and both have articulate adherents.

A coaxial, in case anyone doesn’t know, consists of a treble “tweeter” mounted inside — i.e., coaxially with — a larger bass “ woofer.” The sound spectrum is divided between the two by an electronic device called a crossover, or dividing, network. This relieves either unit of the task of trying to deliver deep, slow bass vibrations and quick, shallow treble ones in the same motion. Consequently it “cleans up” reproduction at either end of the sound spectrum, the top highs and bottom lows. But in low-priced coaxials, there is also usually some sonic confusion at the crossover point — not bad, but perceptible. It is because of this that many musicians, particularly string-players, prefer single-cone speakers, since they are smoother through the one to three thousand cycle range, where the tone quality is most important in most solo and small ensemble music. People primarily interested in large orchestral music probably should choose coaxials.

The coaxials most popular in this price range are those made by University, Jensen, Electro-Voice, General Electric, and RCA Victor. The leading single-cone probably is the Altec 600-B (twelve-inch), with teninch models by Wharfedale and Goodmans close behind. One step up on the dollar scale are some of the most beautiful single-cone twelve-inchers ever devised — the Jim Lansing D-131, the Wharfedale Super-12, and the Baker “Selhurst,” all priced in the neighborhood of $70. These speakers, be it noted, have good inherent tone balance. They behave best in spacious infinite-baffle or sturdy bassreflex enclosures; placing them in bassboosting “rear-loaded horn” cabinets may deform their output. They (and other single-cone speakers) have one disadvantage against coaxials. Since their treble is all generated back near their cone-apexes, it emerges in a rather narrow beam. This can be ameliorated somewhat by mounting them with their metal rims outside rather than inside the cabinet’s front baffle or panel.

From here on up, in price, the field belongs to coaxials and other multiple-speaker systems, and there is rather a dearth of interesting items between the $50 and $120 areas. I can think of four coaxials: two very nice ten-inch Goodmans at $65 and $80, a sturdy twelve-inch Jensen at $80, and a well-behaved Altec at $100. In the $120-$ 130 range there are a number of coaxials (and the crossover trouble has pretty well abated), the best known to me being two fifteen-inch models, the Altec 602 — the one which baffled the experts in the cello experiment — and the Jensen 530, and one twelve-inch, the Tannoy. This class of speaker justifies careful mounting in rear-loaded horn enclosures, which beef up the bottom bass. I suppose the connotation is that now we have advanced from good (but unmistakably) phonographic sound into territory where actual musical presence effect is possible — and dissatisfaction begins anew.

The top-priced coaxials are true musical instruments, and in some ways my favorite variety of speaker. I rather like to have all the tones (at least above the lowest bass) originate in the same spot. There are a pair of beauties in the $160 range, the Altec Lansing 604-C and the Tannoy 15. I have been living very happily with the Tannoy for two years; it outperforms my other equipment. Some of the nation’s most renowned musicians have expressed similar delight in the Altec. Recording studios continue to rely on the RCA Victor LC-la, a little more expensive. The massive Stromberg-Carlson RE 475 has loyal adherents; so have the Stephens 206AX and the equivalent Electro-Voice model. The highest-priced coaxial, so far as I know, is the Jensen Triaxial, a threeway speaker at $252, of extraordinary versatility.

One can duck well below this upper price range by buying tweeters and woofers separately. There is a Jensen two-unit assembly for about $70. Most are more, the Jim Lansing D-1001 system, probably the most popular, being tagged at a little over $210. Jensen, University, Altec, Electro-Voice, and most other manufacturers offer separate tweeter-woofer combinations; their catalogues can furnish details. Performance generally is comparable to that of coaxials at similar prices, but cabineting is, naturally, a little more complicated.

The true luxury model speakers are the ready cabineted multi-unit assemblies, which range in price from $312 to well over $700. The one identified with the lowest price is the Jensen Triplex. At $360 there is the ingratiating Jim Lansing 34; the suave Brociner Model 4 costs about the same. But the real dream jobs come at over $500. It is silly to discuss them; obviously not many a listener will buy a $600 speaker without hearing it, and preference is largely subjective. I like best the Brociner Transcendent, which can make a piano sound almost more like a piano than a real piano. One of my friends, a Berlioz man, will snub me for saying that; for him there is only the fabulous, four-unit Electro-Voice Patrician. Maestro Toscanini likes the Altec, 820-A. Organ fanciers prefer the famous Klipschorn. Late and impressive entries in the field are the Jensen Imperial, the James Lansing Hartsfield, which boasts the biggest hornloaded aluminum tweeter unit in the business, and the Stan White (Chicago) combinations, topped by a $1000, nine-foot-tall job. Which brings up a point: nearly all these magnificent contraptions can make an orchestra sound almost like the real thing, if you have the right kind of room a big one. But all except the Brociner and the White do employ, for their treble, aluminum diaphragms working inside flaring horn structures, and are not invariably pleasant at close quarters.

Wild and wonderful variations on these themes are worked out, of course, by home assemblers, often with equally good results and considerable savings. It may be worth noting that many of these enthusiasts agree on two brands of speaker, both handcrafted and hard to get. One is the Wharfedale line, made in Yorkshire by G. A. Briggs; the other the Bozaks, made in Stamford, Conn., by R. T. Bozak. Among the Wharfedales is a tweeter almost made to order for small-room listeners; it works best simply sitting in the open, aimed at the ceiling. There is no “beaming.” An outfit in Great Barrington, Mass., called the RAM Company incorporates this in a three-way $300 system. (This firm like-wise markets Briggsdesigned bass-reflex cabinets for the eightinch Wharfedale — $50.) Bozak has distributors throughout the country. Either maker will suggest mounting arrangements.

Loudspeaker enclosures are almost an art form themselves, and I strongly advise anyone seriously interested in working for his home music to read Chapter 4 of High Fidelity Techniques, by John H. Newitt of M.I.T. (Rinehart, New York, $7.50) on the subject. (Primarily an engineering text, this book repeats all its technical statements in good, plain English. Thus it will both inform you and overawe your service man. Very useful.) Theoretically, the best loudspeakerbaffle is a room wall, but walls too often face other walls and produce echoes and slap phenomena. And holes therein cannot be moved around experimentally. Next best is a total enclosure, so long as it is braced like a fortress and contains well over 10 cubic feet of air. A modification of this (which can be much smaller) is a total enclosure with a bass-reflex port in the front panel. Usually this port should be as far as possible from the speaker. There should be a sliding slab to tune the port for cleanest bass response, and the whole array should be thoroughly padded inside and braced for utmost rigidity. The cabinet should not resound, when pounded, at all.

Many enclosure designs make use of the bass generated by the rear of the woofer cone, leading it through an expanding labyrinth, or horn, and releasing it into the room to reinforce the speaker’s frontal bass. (The Klipschorn treats the whole woofer output thus.) Some corner varieties make use of the room walls for the last stage of bass build-up. For people who do not have corners, there is a clever wallside horn cabinet made by Fisher Radio Corp., New York — not cheap ($130) but good. I use (as does the world’s most famous conductor) a horn cabinet designed by Eugene Capozio for Shrader Sound, in Washington, D.C.

Nearly every major loudspeaker maker also manufactures enclosures, and there are companies which make nothing but. Best known of these are Angle-Genesee, in Rochester, N. Y., and Cabinart, in Brooklyn, each of which has a huge variety of models ranging from $28 (unfinished kit) up to $225 (Angle-Genesee’s Fold-A-Flex, which can work as either a bassreflex or a horn cabinet, in a corner or against a wall). Cabinart even offers a Klipsch-designed horn enclosure only twenty inches high! Various mail-order high fidelity equipment houses build their own cabinetry. My experience has been that nearly all of these can be improved by additional bracing and padding after they’re bought.

When shopping for a speaker and enclosure, always prepare and supply a “map” of the room in which they are to be listened to, including drapes, rugs, windows, and furniture. It will spare you a lot of initial indecision — and perhaps an earache.

Rooms are very important in listening. Perhaps unfortunately, the more stylish a room is, currently, the worse it is likely to be acoustically. Highly reflective picture windows and glass-brick walls constitute real problems. Elderly rococo rooms, with plenty of projections and convoluted surfaces, are best. Old plaster, the experts say, is very good, too.

Indeed, often the best recourse for the owner of a “modern” starkplaned room is to add one stage of reflection to his sound: mount the speaker in the side of a wall-side enclosure, radiating at any corner in which there may be an oblique reflecting surface —a corner cup-cabinet will do, or a mirror. The idea is to refract and weaken the middle-high tones, which otherwise will bounce about too long before decaying.

For other, more fortunate folk, the prime advice is to avoid symmetry in speaker placement. A corner is usually bad in a square room, often excellent in one irregularly shaped. The middle of any wall is a bad spot for a speaker; and, in general, a speaker should not be aimed at 90 degrees to an opposing wall. Experiment is the best procedure (which is why I don’t like wall-hole mounting). Nearly any room has a spot in it where a loudspeaker will deliver sound devoid of stress and full of color. It’s a problem of patience and of pushing. Happily, your ear is a very precise and trustworthy measuring instrument. It will tell you when you’re getting warm, if you will but let it.

Record Reviews

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, Nos. 17-24 (Wanda Landowska, harpsichord; RCA Victor LM 1820: 12" LP). With this, Vol. 6 in the series, Mme. Landowska completes the Well-Tempered Clavier on LP. It caps the success of her long, almost single-handed crusade to bring Bach back to the harpsichord. More to the point, it is lastingly, rousingly delightful, as have been the foregoing volumes. To find out why, read her own jacket-notes, with (heir reiteration of the word “ dance.”Better yet, listen.

Bales: The ConfederacyCantata for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra (Richard Bales conducting Florence Kopleff, mezzo; Thomas Pyle, baritone; Church of the Reformation choir; National Gallery Orchestra; Rev. Edmund Jennings Lee, narrator; Columbia SL 220: 12" LP in 32-page album book, illustrated). Here is the hit of the season, like it or not. Virginian Richard Bales, National Gallery music director, conceived the idea of assembling the war music of the Confederacy in a cantata. British-born Goddard Lieberson, of Columbia Records, saw the possibilities and handled the production. Bruce Catton and Clifford Dowdey wrote the text. It is sentimental and exciting (All Quiet Along the Potomac; The Bonnie Blue Flag; Lorena) and when it ends, with Dixie and the Rebel Yell, any Southerner in your circle will rise with blazing eyes and become intolerable for the rest of the evening. You-all got ten bucks? Buy it.

Barlók: Concerto for Orchestra (Antal Dorati conducting Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra; Mercury MG 50033: 12" LP). This is Antal Dorati’s favorite record, and one of mine. The sound is tremendous, and so is the interpretation. Though this beguiling work must be hard to botch, Dorati’s performance should be hard to beat.

Beethoven: Fourteen Sonatas (Collected on six disks: Nos. 2 and 11; Nos. 1, 26, and 27; Nos. 4 and 7; Nos. 16 and 18; Nos. 8, 9, and 15; Nos. 31 and 32 — Wilhelm Backhaus, piano; London LL 948 through LL 953, all 12" LPs). Herewith Backhaus becomes the second man to finish the Beethoven Sonatas on LP. Kempff (Decca) was first; the late Artur Schnabel on RCA Victor reprints may be next. Upcoming are Solomon (HMV) and Friedrich Gulda (London again). The Backhaus performances, all well recorded except for the last two sonatas, are firmly German, Old World, with a dignity and delicacy uncommon nowadays. I should certainly buy the record of Nos. 2 and 11; confirmed Backhaus admirers may safely get the rest as well, with the exception implied.

Beethoven: Sonatas for Cello and Piano (complete); Variations on Two Themes from Mozart’sMagic Flute (Pablo Casals and Rudolf Sorkin; Columbia SL 201: three 12" LPs in album). The Period aging, honored but unsung sonata set by Starker and Bogin almost matches this; and so, in a different way, does the reprint RCA Schnabel-Fournier series. However, the Casals-Serkin is the one to buy. Casals is rough but true; Serkin is firm and faithful; the sound is up-to-date. The Mozart variations are a worthy bonus.

Brahms: The Four Symphonies; Variations on a Theme of Haydn; Tragic and Academic Festival Overtures; Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 3, 10, 17 (Bruno Walter conducting New York PhilharmonicSymphony Orchestra; Columbia SL 200: four 12" LPs in album; notes by Neville Cardus). Here is the coalescence in spirit of two Romanticists who once met: Brahms and Walter. The album is epochal, but no project so broad can be completely successful. To my ears, Toscanini outpoints Walter in the Second Symphony, the Haydn Variations, and sundry single movements, and Krips (in dated sound) matches him in the Fourth Symphony. All of which, at that, leaves Walter with an achievement of enormous durability and merit. Gorgeous packaging, too.

Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings;Les Illuminations (Peter Pears, tenor; Dennis Brain, horn; Eugene Goossens conducting New Symphony Orchestra strings; London LL 994: 12" LP). Collectors who own the 1946 78-rpm version of the Serenade should hang on to it; both Pears and Brain were in slightly brighter voice then. Still, the new one’s good, too — Jonson, Blake, Lyke Wake Dirge, and all — and the setting of the Rimbaud “Fireworks” on the overside is just as fetching. The sound’s fine, too.

Strauss:Der Rosenkavalier (Erich Kleiber conducting Maria Reining, Hilda Gueden, Sena Jurinac, Ludwig Weber, other soloists, chorus, and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; London LLA 22: four 12" LPs in album). Quite possibly the best production of an opera on records; unfaltering enchantment in exquisite sound from beginning to end, a triumph for all concerned, but particularly Erich Kleiber. No libretto with the review copy, but obviously there was supposed to be one.

Tchaikovsky:Capriccio Italien with Rimsky-Korsakoff: Capriccio Espagnol (Hermann Scherchen conducting London Symphony Orchestra; Westminster WLAB 700: 12” LP). The first of Westminster’s super-fi “Laboratory Series” comes in a gilt folder within a zippered plastic envelope! The sound has very sharp studio realism; the performances are adequate. Main asset is a delightful instrument-by-instrument listening tour of the music in a booklet written by C. G. McProud, editor of Audio Engineering magazine.

Verdi: Manzoni Requiem (Arturo Toscanini conducting Herva Nelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano, Cesare Siepi; Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC Symphony Orchestra; RCA Victor LM 6018: two 12” LPs in album with text). This was made at the January, 1951, broadcast, but the engineering is exemplary. The soloists suffer occasional bobbles, but sing with moving sincerity. The orchestra and chorus are tremendous; their Dies Irae will make your hair stand up. Altogether one of the most exciting recordings I’ve ever heard.

Cook Road Recordings (Voice of the Sea; American Storytellers, Vols. 1 -III; Mississippi Guitar; Carousel and Calliope; etc.; Cook Laboratories 5001-5011: eleven separate 12” LPs). Emory Cook, the “Sounds of Our Times” man, traveled more than 10,000 miles, from the Bay of Fundy to Haiti, collecting this mixed treasure. Most to my fancy are “The Voice of the Sea” (wonderful surfsounds, the Queen Mary’s whistle, inside-noises of a Navy cruiser at sea) and the reminiscences of old-time Maine and Massachusetts whaling and fishing captains (Storytellers I and II). Write for catalogue to Cook, 101 Second St., Stamford, Conn. Some of the records can be played binaurally.

Shakespeare and Mendelssohn:A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Stanley Holloway, Old Vic players; Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting BBC Symphony Orchestra; RCA Victor LM 6115: three 12” LPs). To people who were disappointed in the live performance: the records are much more intelligible (fewer cuts) and less hectic, in fact very good. The complete Mendelssohn score is beautifully played and fits in admirably. If not inspired, certainly worth while.