Top Ten Speakers of the 20th Century - Haven Poll

You sir have lived a good audio life.

Well, I guess I've been in the game for a long time. My Klipschorns were obtained in the 1970's. My brother still has them. The ESL's I've had for 35-ish years, and no plans to sell. The last of the LC-1A's moved on probably 6-8 years ago, along with a bunch of other stuff. The money was good and I wasn't really using most of it anymore. The original vintage stuff was all getting too valuable and, in many cases was too delicate, to justify keeping it anymore. I'm happy with what I have left, but maybe miss the Lowthers a little some nights. Or the 755A's.
 

Audionut

Next Round Is On Me
Well, I guess I've been in the game for a long time. My Klipschorns were obtained in the 1970's. My brother still has them. The ESL's I've had for 35-ish years, and no plans to sell. The last of the LC-1A's moved on probably 6-8 years ago, along with a bunch of other stuff. The money was good and I wasn't really using most of it anymore. The original vintage stuff was all getting too valuable and, in many cases was too delicate, to justify keeping it anymore. I'm happy with what I have left, but maybe miss the Lowthers a little some nights. Or the 755A's.
I have listened to a few of the items on your list. Although the klipschorns I listened to were impressive (had the volti upgrade), they didn’t hold a candle to the 604’s (IMHO). I am eying some RCA’s and building tribute iconics.
Curious on which you think sounded best of the bunch on your list?
 
I have listened to a few of the items on your list. Although the klipschorns I listened to were impressive (had the volti upgrade), they didn’t hold a candle to the 604’s (IMHO). I am eying some RCA’s and building tribute iconics.
Curious on which you think sounded best of the bunch on your list?
As a follow up to that, @gilmorneau - are there any contemporary speakers you've heard that can do some of the things we love in this older gear? In particular, I'm thinking about the sheer coherency of the LC-1A across the audio band - given their delicacy I'd love to find something that can scratch that itch should they degrade in performance.
 
Curious on which you think sounded best of the bunch on your list?

It depends on what you mean by "best". Best for listening to Maria Callas, by candlelight on a rainy night? Best for the New York Dolls at concert volume? Coltrane? Bach? Mahler? I think if you're looking for the "best" speaker, you're chasing a chimera. I don't think such a thing exists, which is what keeps this hobby interesting.

Each of the speakers on my list has strengths and weaknesses, as all speakers do. The LC-1A's can be fantastic with some classical and jazz recordings, but I wouldn't use them for funk or punk or reggae. The Lowthers can be spellbinding with female vocals, especially opera, but they're more or less useless for rock 'n' roll. The VOTT's rock, but sound artificially large with "solo vocalist with guitar" kind of music. The Quad ESL's are great at many types of music, but you're always listening through an open window.

When I sold/traded most of this stuff, I decided that what I needed to keep wasn't necessarily what was best, but what best suited my needs and tastes. I kept the Quads for the truth of the things. Nothing compares in that regard, though the LC-1A's have a similar character. I DIY'd a pair of Iconics with a matched set of 803B, 802C, and tar-filled Lansing H808's. They do most of what the real things did, and share that characteristic Altec/Lansing sound that the VOTT's have, but in a smaller package. When I need more honesty, I listen to the Quads. When I want more of a show, I listen to the Iconics. When I said above that I kinda miss the Lowthers, it's for that whispery intimacy thing they can sometimes do. The 755A's and MI-4410/4411 can do the same thing. I probably should have kept one pair of the three just for that.

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Audionut

Next Round Is On Me
It depends on what you mean by "best". Best for listening to Maria Callas, by candlelight on a rainy night? Best for the New York Dolls at concert volume? Coltrane? Bach? Mahler? I think if you're looking for the "best" speaker, you're chasing a chimera. I don't think such a thing exists, which is what keeps this hobby interesting.

Each of the speakers on my list has strengths and weaknesses, as all speakers do. The LC-1A's can be fantastic with some classical and jazz recordings, but I wouldn't use them for funk or punk or reggae. The Lowthers can be spellbinding with female vocals, especially opera, but they're more or less useless for rock 'n' roll. The VOTT's rock, but sound artificially large with "solo vocalist with guitar" kind of music. The Quad ESL's are great at many types of music, but you're always listening through an open window.

When I sold/traded most of this stuff, I decided that what I needed to keep wasn't necessarily what was best, but what best suited my needs and tastes. I kept the Quads for the truth of the things. Nothing compares in that regard, though the LC-1A's have a similar character. I DIY'd a pair of Iconics with a matched set of 803B, 802C, and tar-filled Lansing H808's. They do most of what the real things did, and share that characteristic Altec/Lansing sound that the VOTT's have, but in a smaller package. When I need more honesty, I listen to the Quads. When I want more of a show, I listen to the Iconics. When I said above that I kinda miss the Lowthers, it's for that whispery intimacy thing they can sometimes do. The 755A's and MI-4410/4411 can do the same thing. I probably should have kept one pair of the three just for that.



Hard to say. While I did go through a phase years ago that saw some shiny large danish room divider style speakers in my listening space, that didn't last long before I ran back to the comfort of vintage and DIY. My impression of most modern speakers is of impressive CAD design and CNC milled cabinets, computerized modeling, test tones and loading resistors, charts, graphs, and effusive articles by the audio press. Then next year it starts all over again with the new models. Just not my cup of tea, really. Everybody's different.
Good answer. I know that there is usually a compromise in speakers, and that choice in music will determine what is best to one person versus another. Happy to hear that the iconic ranked high (as I am nearing the end of my iconic build).
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
That's interesting to me, in that this topic, that of speakers for different moods and music, is why I got out of vintage speakers. When I was in that world obsessively it took me a wall of speakers to cover different genres. It’s also why I’ve found this 20th century cutoff difficult, as I think that problem persisted into and through the 1990s. But by the mid 2000s the good all-rounder was well established, and a real eye-opener for me as my idea of modern speakers turned out to be well out of date. For me, the current crop is far better at doing most things well. But we all have different wants, and we’ve all been exposed to different things. Cost no object, a pair of Harbeth Monitor 40s would do all the genres I listen to. Someday. But they didn’t reach their potential until the 2000s.
 
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je2a3

Senior Member
Great 20th century speakers I have owned and loved, or still do (in no particular order):

RCA LC-1A. Just beautiful. Try 'em with transformer coupled Push-Pull 2A3 and go straight to heaven. Sadly, not all samples age well.
RCA MI-4410/MI-4411. 8" full range. Crazy rare, fragile as hell, but completely amazing. In a side-by-side A/B they gave no ground to 755A's.
Western Electric 755A. Legendary--for good reason. I had mine in original WECo-built 2 cu.ft. cabinets, which is the way to go.
Lowther PM6A. Only the old ones with folded-over main cone perimeter and ticonal magnets are worthy IMO. Vintage standard Acousta cabinets. Beguiling with proper amplification and the right music in the right room.
Lansing Iconic. Better than any version of the 604/605.
Quad ESL 57. Get the Quad II amps for them and forget about all the fads. They'll need to throw these into my grave with me when I die.
Klipschorn. These don't sound anywhere near as nice to me as some others on this list, but they have remarkable dynamics. Their flaws can be tolerated with proper amplification and some tweaking.
Altec Voice of the Theater. These are best in larger rooms IME. Not all versions created equal, and I can't recommend any of the ones with cast 811 or 511 horns. I favor the A5, with 515, 288 and 1505 horns, tweaked to taste; or that rare bird, the 800 system, with 803A, 802B, and tar-filled H-808 horns. And for sure, add the "wings".
Western Electric 757A. The only speaker in this post that I never owned. Sure sounded good at RMAF, though.
I did have some KS-12027 horns here for a while, and while they were initially enticing, after a while I couldn't shake the feeling that they were putting on a special effects show.
Tannoy Red. These sounded good, but I never really had proper cabinets for them. I expect they have more potential than I was able to exploit. Silvers should be at least as good, if not better. Golds and newer don't interest me.
Western Electric 753C. Real good sound, and damn, they're soooo pretty!

It depends on what you mean by "best". Best for listening to Maria Callas, by candlelight on a rainy night? Best for the New York Dolls at concert volume? Coltrane? Bach? Mahler? I think if you're looking for the "best" speaker, you're chasing a chimera. I don't think such a thing exists, which is what keeps this hobby interesting.

Each of the speakers on my list has strengths and weaknesses, as all speakers do. The LC-1A's can be fantastic with some classical and jazz recordings, but I wouldn't use them for funk or punk or reggae. The Lowthers can be spellbinding with female vocals, especially opera, but they're more or less useless for rock 'n' roll. The VOTT's rock, but sound artificially large with "solo vocalist with guitar" kind of music. The Quad ESL's are great at many types of music, but you're always listening through an open window.

When I sold/traded most of this stuff, I decided that what I needed to keep wasn't necessarily what was best, but what best suited my needs and tastes. I kept the Quads for the truth of the things. Nothing compares in that regard, though the LC-1A's have a similar character. I DIY'd a pair of Iconics with a matched set of 803B, 802C, and tar-filled Lansing H808's. They do most of what the real things did, and share that characteristic Altec/Lansing sound that the VOTT's have, but in a smaller package. When I need more honesty, I listen to the Quads. When I want more of a show, I listen to the Iconics. When I said above that I kinda miss the Lowthers, it's for that whispery intimacy thing they can sometimes do. The 755A's and MI-4410/4411 can do the same thing. I probably should have kept one pair of the three just for that.



Hard to say. While I did go through a phase years ago that saw some shiny large danish room divider style speakers in my listening space, that didn't last long before I ran back to the comfort of vintage and DIY. My impression of most modern speakers is of impressive CAD design and CNC milled cabinets, computerized modeling, test tones and loading resistors, charts, graphs, and effusive articles by the audio press. Then next year it starts all over again with the new models. Just not my cup of tea, really. Everybody's different.

I enjoyed reading these, thanks for posting!
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
Ok I made a whole list. Ask me in ten minutes and it'll be different. This isn't based on sound quality but importance in the evolution of the hobby of listening to quality tunes at home.

1. Quad ESL 57
2. Altec VOTT
3. Acoustic Research AR-1>AR-3a.
4. JBL L-100/century
5. Rogers/BBC LS-3/5a
6. Spendor BC-1
7. Magnepan MG-1
8. Wilson Tiny Tot
9. Klipsch Klipschorn
10. B&W 801
 

jeb98

Junior Member
To me, to be in the top 10, they should be game changers and somewhat ubiquitous. I guess to me, altec 604 and VOTT fit that bill. One used often as studio monitors, and the other used for PA or theater sound. I suppose the AR speakers also fit that bill too, for being game changers in home audio, and ubiquitous. So for me, top 10 doesn't necessarily mean "Best" whatever that may mean.

I suppose the Western Electric theater speakers could fit as top 10 according to being game changers and somewhat ubiquitous back the 1920's and 1930's in movie theaters I suppose?
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
To me, to be in the top 10, they should be game changers and somewhat ubiquitous. I guess to me, altec 604 and VOTT fit that bill. One used often as studio monitors, and the other used for PA or theater sound. I suppose the AR speakers also fit that bill too, for being game changers in home audio, and ubiquitous. So for me, top 10 doesn't necessarily mean "Best" whatever that may mean.

I suppose the Western Electric theater speakers could fit as top 10 according to being game changers and somewhat ubiquitous back the 1920's and 1930's in movie theaters I suppose?
I was thinking about '20s/'30s theater speakers for being the way into what we now think of as home sound, but then thought that was just another can of worms and limited myself to the stereo era, even though some predate that, like the single very early Klipschorn I had at one point that was originally in a mono setup.

My list is also US-centric. I have some UK speakers in there but they're UK speakers that affected the US market in some way... I'd imagine that a UK person might list more small monitors from the late '80s/90s? Celestion SL6? Wharfedale Diamonds? I actually don't know much at all about the history of loudspeakers in the average UK household.

Then Japan would just all be chipboard speakers with random drivers all over the baffle, as many as could fit :). I'm kidding! That's just the junk they shipped to us dumb yankees. Yamaha NS-1000, Diatones, etc....
 
@JohnVF I think you make a strong point about hearing the current crop of speakers..why not. I had hoped to go to AXPONA before the pandemic and cancellations, for the very purpose of tuning up my ears as you suggest.

The last show I attended was the one in New York which was rather small and there was only a single speaker there that I would ever want to own personally. That was the QLN Sound Dragon and I have mentioned from that show report. I still think there are modern speakers that suit only some types of music although certainly many flexible choices.

I've heard the Harbeth 40 twice in the last 3 years, once in a showroom and once at that show, and to illustrate how we can all differ in taste, they didn't do it for me personally although I was expecting they would.

I have a few different vintage models as well as a set of Von Schweikerts and a set of Westlakes. I like all of them...different experiences for each one but not to the extent that I have to choose my music for each speaker. I am enamored of the Vandersteen sound these days and they have provided some stunning experiences so they are pretty high on my potential purchase list. I'm very curious to hear a bunch of new speakers first though and if this world is ever virus safe again I'll be jumping in!

I guess the point being, my mind and ears are open to hearing lots of new speakers and some vintage speakers I haven't heard. That is really part of the fun. If speaker choice is a marriage then I guess I'm a happy polygamist..😇
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
@JohnVF I think you make a strong point about hearing the current crop of speakers..why not. I had hoped to go to AXPONA before the pandemic and cancellations, for the very purpose of tuning up my ears as you suggest.

The last show I attended was the one in New York which was rather small and there was only a single speaker there that I would ever want to own personally. That was the QLN Sound Dragon and I have mentioned from that show report. I still think there are modern speakers that suit only some types of music although certainly many flexible choices.

I've heard the Harbeth 40 twice in the last 3 years, once in a showroom and once at that show, and to illustrate how we can all differ in taste, they didn't do it for me personally although I was expecting they would.

I have a few different vintage models as well as a set of Von Schweikerts and a set of Westlakes. I like all of them...different experiences for each one but not to the extent that I have to choose my music for each speaker. I am enamored of the Vandersteen sound these days and they have provided some stunning experiences so they are pretty high on my potential purchase list. I'm very curious to hear a bunch of new speakers first though and if this world is ever virus safe again I'll be jumping in!

I guess the point being, my mind and ears are open to hearing lots of new speakers and some vintage speakers I haven't heard. That is really part of the fun. If speaker choice is a marriage then I guess I'm a happy polygamist..😇
I've heard the Monitor 40s sound so-so, and very very good. They were so-so at a show I was at, might have been RMAF? I can't remember if it was that or Axpona, one airport hotel looks like another in my memory. I've rarely liked much at shows- the rooms just seem so hastily set up, they rarely bring much in the way of treatments. I dunno, I stopped going. My own Harbeths took months to figure out pacement and ampflication for, and they're still chameleons. Sadly I think the only way to know some of these things is to own the gear outright (which counts for vintage gear, too... I'm not slamming it, either, as I like a lot of it).
 
Thats also very true...but hard to hear a wide array of speakers that way. I have 9 pair of speakers I've chosen over time and went to sell a pair of Bozak 302a with Tobin mods but when I gave them a last listen this weekend I bailed and couldn't let them go even though I had a buyer..I have a feeling I'm going to die with a lot of speakers!
 
I would have a hard time experiencing a lot of speakers listed in this thread to their potential. I don't have a room big enough to adequately run Klipschorns or big Altecs. The biggest speakers I have personally owned were Klipsch Cornwalls and my feeling was the mid horn was too small for balanced midrange and there is just something I don't care for about the T-35's, although I found them better in EV speakers than Klipsch. The biggest Altec speakers I have owned are Model 15's. They actually sound good in my size living room except I can't get them far enough from a wall or corner to tame the bass. I have been relegated to smaller speakers and I think some of the British speakers excel there. I have a pair of Monitor Audio Silver 9i that are my daily drivers in my living room, but I wish they could handle a bit more power and reach some higher SPL's when I really want to listen loud. I think KEF should also be mentioned in this thread. I have 103/3's in my shop and I just love the sound of them. Doesn't seem to matter if the bay door is open or not.
 
Recently picked up a pair of Sonus Faber Extremas. They deserve their cult status. Best speakers I’ve had in my room and I’ve had plenty! They do everything right. Monitors with pinpoint imaging from their Esotar tweeters with powerful bass Like floor standers. 727F2440-67A2-4B4B-AF0A-C63E6D77B9B9.jpegD6470720-2D37-46CA-B619-B6B2B4D3363A.jpeg034F2092-929C-4E4F-BD83-43C1665C7012.jpegAnd beautiful to look at is icing on the cake.
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
"I don't listen to test tones in anechoic chambers. Hell, I don't listen to the speakers. I listen to music--through the speakers."

At the risk of being told to take my business to Audio Science Review, again, none of us listen to test tones in anechoic chambers, but that doesn't mean they don't serve a useful purpose. I would argue the science (there's that word that gets me in trouble in some circles) that is behind the test tones and anechoic chambers is a large reason for the advancement in speaker design. And I would further that by saying much of what has been learned through the science, is being applied to the new frontier of active speakers.
Another logic flaw in the “listens to graphs” is the very existence of Audio Science Review - a forum grounded in the fact that modern audiophilia is decidedly NOT based in science and anything subjective goes.

Note I’m not endorsing their or any other view. Like most things I find the best path is one between the extremes. That includes the extremes of all vintage or all modern.

One reason I get so incensed at this topic is that the internet is filled with many 10-15 year old comments, similar to the one that set this off, made by ME. I run across them all the time, and I’m embarrassed by them. I was a cocky kid who didn’t know what he didn’t know, and knowing what I know now, frankly I think they make me look like an inexperienced jaggoff who had heard just enough of the wrong gear in the wrong environment to make himself a fool in front of those with actual experience. I was addicted to an echo chamber and the dopamine hit from only expressing views in the safe space of a place where nobody had varied enough experience to defend or even express a different opinion.

Let’s just say I’ve evolved :). And now when I see the same stuff it just hits a little too close to what I’m most embarrassed about in this hobby.
 
Recently picked up a pair of Sonus Faber Extremas. They deserve their cult status. Best speakers I’ve had in my room and I’ve had plenty! They do everything right. Monitors with pinpoint imaging from their Esotar tweeters with powerful bass Like floor standers. View attachment 40487View attachment 40488View attachment 40489And beautiful to look at is icing on the cake.
I spent a bit of time reading up on these- one hell of a speaker for sure. Their interesting/innovative approach to the crossover is most intriguing. Thanks fir sharing- I’d have not known about these if you hadn’t mentioned them.
 
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