Why Audiophiles Love Vintage Horn Speakers

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Can Decades-Old Horn Speakers Still Sound Great?

Brent Butterworth

What's changed the most in audio systems versus 50 years ago? Sure, we've switched from analog sources like tape and records to digital sources like computers and smartphones, but the most obvious change is in the speakers. The old speakers were built to get the most out of the relatively low-powered amplifiers of audio's early days. That generally meant they used horns to get the most efficiency from the drivers.

I've heard a lot of horn speakers at hi-fi shows and tested a few models by Klipsch, JBL and Avantgarde Acoustic myself, but I've rarely had a chance to give a long listen to any of the vintage horn speakers that got the whole thing started.

When I visited vintage audio dealer Innovative Audio up in Vancouver, British Columbia, I noticed several giant Altec Lansing horn speakers sitting in the back room, each one standing about 4 feet high and 3 feet wide, with an imposing multicellular horn perched on top. I asked Innovative founder Gordon Sauck if I could give them a listen. Fortunately, he was just getting ready to hook them up for the store's annual Garage Sale, so I heard them driven by a roughly 20-watt-per-channel Dared tube amp -- more than enough power considering the speakers' high efficiency.

Normally, I would think using vintage speakers is a dicey decision because speaker science has evolved so much since the late 1970s. But the Altecs sounded, to my ears, shockingly modern. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of energy in the top octave of treble, but everything below that seemed remarkably uncolored and natural. That's probably in part because the low-frequency response of the horn allows the crossover to the woofer to be shifted down to 500 Hz or so, where any sonic artifacts would be much less noticeable than they are at the usual woofer/tweeter crossover point of about 2.5 to 3 kHz.

Later, we had a discussion about the speakers and how many audiophiles are using these nearly ancient designs in their homes. Check out our discussion on the next page....

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30 to 50 Years Old ... and Still Singing Sweet

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth: Where did you get these?

Gordon Sauck: From the Dolphin Theater, which had closed in Burnaby, BC. They were right behind the main screens. Each of the two screens had three of these speakers.

BB: What kind of condition were they in?

GS: The speakers we pulled are 30 to 50 years old, but for the most part, aside from general maintenance there’s not much that’s needed. We put new diaphragms in the horns but that’s it. They’re designed to run pretty much forever.

BB: Do people actually use these behemoths in their homes?

GS: Ohhhhhh, yeah. In fact, I have two sets in my own system. The big thing is when you’re using smaller tube amplifiers, these speakers are absolutely perfect. They have a very low spouse acceptance factor, but sonically they can’t be matched.

BB: What's so great about them?

GS: First, they're unbelievably efficient. You can use flea power to drive them. And they have a sound that is unequaled. Three speakers can fill a 750-seat theater on 50 watts each. I'd describe the sound as "tactile." It’s one of the few speakers where you feel the sound as much as you hear it.

BB: How would you compare these to some of the more modern speakers in your shop?

GS: These have a completely different sonic signature than any other speaker. There's always a big difference between anything and a horn. There’s just something about an Altec or JBL horn that gives a presence that is normally not there. It can be especially good if you use a smaller wattage tube amp for the horn section, then use a 50-watt or so solid state amp for the bass section.

BB: What do these cost nowadays, typically?

GS: It depends because Altec offered several different cabinets, such as the A5 and the A7. The main difference between the two is the horn placement. On the A5, the horn is inside the cabinet, whereas on the A7 it's on top. Then there are the horns. The standard A5 theater speaker comes with an 811 horn and a 416 series woofer. A multicellular horn, maybe with eight cells or more -- like the 10-cell 1005B horn you see on these speakers -- goes for an unbelievable amount of money. 

Flip to the next page to see a pair of vintage Altecs restored with circa-2014 cosmetics....

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Classics Restored ... and Then Some

Gordon Sauck

After I returned home to L.A., Sauck sent me a picture of two of the Altecs I've seen, radically refinished. They looked like they'd be as welcome in a Ferrari dealership as they would in a theater, so I called Sauck to ask what he was up to.

BB: So why are you reworking these ancient speakers?

GS: We're taking something that’s really old and repurposing it, keeping the same basic look but making it fit better into today’s more avant-garde design world. Most of these come in working pretty well but looking too beat-up for anyone to use at home.

BB: What did you do to them, exactly?

GS: We’re using the original Altec cabinets and drivers. First, we ensure that the drivers and crossovers are working 100-percent. If drivers are not 100-percent perfect, we make sure they are. Sometimes we end up replacing the diaphragm on the compression driver attached to the horn. We replace any crossover parts that are non-functional or have aged so they're out of spec. What we try to do is keep everything as original as possible.

We sandblast the horns with crushed walnut shells, which removes the paint but doesn't damage the metal, and then we powder-coat them. For the cabinets, we sand off the original gray orange-peel finish, which is usually very nicked and scratched. Then we fill all the divots so the whole surface is perfectly smooth. Then we repaint them with several coats of a nice satin finish. We also add a plinth to lift them off the floor slightly, plus a teak base for the horn and a fabric grille for the open area below the woofer.

BB: Is there a lot of interest in these?

GS: The pair in the photo I sent you sold less than an hour after we put them out on the floor.