By Steve Graham
The Altecs stayed in the listening room for a week or so. They’re a game changer, unlike any speaker I’ve heard. They’re difficult to describe, but if I had to choose one word it would be ‘compelling’. The ultimate in accuracy? No, not even close. Imaging like a 3D IMAX movie? Nope. Centre of the earth bass extension? OK, but they’d never be mistaken for THX subwoofers at the local Cineplex. Sweet lilting treble? No way. They’ll spit in your face if pushed too hard.
So what the hell do they do right? As I’ve said, hard to describe, but here goes: they have the immediacy and hear-into quality of a good headphone setup, but with the sound-in-the-room physicality of loudspeakers. They also play well quiet, not a lot of volume (SPL’s) are needed to make them come alive. In fact, they don’t play well loud, but loud isn’t needed. Almost every other speaker I’ve heard seems to have a minimum SPL threshold before it gets out of its own way and starts to communicate a musical message. With the Altecs, that threshold is much lower. I can connect to music at low SPLs with the Altecs cruising along on what must be milliwatts of power – and a transient that may require a watt or two is startling.
Compared to all other speakers I’ve heard, they make the dynamic range of all recordings seem larger. The Altecs draw me into the music; they get my attention and hold it. It’s almost hypnotically creepy, but hypnotically creepy in a good way.
The musical excitement the Altecs generate takes me back to my first week of grade 9 and the excitement I felt hearing a live stand-up bass for the first time.
I’m not advocating that everyone track down a pair of Altecs. They are big, ugly and have a S.A.F. well into negative numbers. The Altec Valencia is the same speaker with a different grill style, that is marginally less ugly. There are good high-efficiency modern speakers if you choose not to go ‘the antique route’ as I did. Other writers have reported good pairings of some of the smaller Klipsch speakers and single-digit-watt tube power amps.
A fellow I used to work with scratch-built a pair of 300B mono amps. He then tracked down an old pair of Klipsch Heresy speakers, replaced the cross-over caps with entry level Mundorfs and was blissfully happy, at least for a while. No reflection on the Heresys: he’s seldom happy with anything for long.
I’m not suggesting Klipsch’s, Altecs or megabuck JBL’s are the only choices. There are plenty of high-efficiency options out there, at a wide range of prices. If you’ve never experienced high efficiency, nearly-full-range speakers, it is definitely worth the effort it takes to track them down for a listen. They may be just what you’re looking for, or rather listening for, but didn’t know it.