I recently had the chance to visit Alon Wolf at Magico to listen to the Ulitmate II horn speakers ($395,000—that’s not a typo). You may recall this speaker because Jacob Heilbrunn listened to the same setup and commented briefly on it a few months back on AVguide.com. Several years ago, Robert Harley covered the Ultimate I in The Absolute Sound (the Ultimate II is a significantly revised production version of the I, which was basically a one-off handmade effort).
Since I’ve been periodically blogging on our Web site about horns, this trip was particularly interesting. Magico has a reputation for building some of the finest conventional cone/box speakers currently available. When its top-of-the-line speaker is a horn, you sense further confirmation that horns are not your father’s loudspeaker technology. But are they really something special or is Alon Wolf a cynic who simply builds expensive stuff because a few fools will pay for it? Those practicing experience-free living will already know their answer. The rest of you will want to read on.
The idea behind the Ultimate II is pretty simple: Build a technically correct, cost-no-object horn speaker that fits into medium-sized or larger rooms. Sounds simple, but a few hours with Alon makes it clear that his version of “technically correct” isn’t a casual statement. Alon focuses on the science of loudspeakers and puts a lot of emphasis on thinking through the fundamental issues. He’s the kind of guy who took the mention of “first principles” seriously in science classes.
In any event, Alon points out a key problem with horns: You either have to build a very large midbass/lower midrange horn (because you can’t change the wavelengths of sounds) or your woofer has to extend up to rather high frequencies. The former means you actually have a speaker that is mostly horn-loaded, which is the straightforward way to have sonic continuity across most of the spectrum. The latter allows you to build a less expensive system, but also means that you have cone drivers handling a larger part of the spectrum with some inevitable discontinuity (or a discontinuity in a different place). Since the Ultimate II is a cost-no-object design, Magico has designed and built a necessarily large and very costly midbass horn that works down to 100Hz. (This is the black horn at the top of the trapezoidally-shaped speaker shown in the pictures.)
Alon makes another interesting point, “There are no inexpensive technically correct horns because horns have to be relatively big.” This is true even if you don’t go as far as he does toward a full-range horn system. Alon believes that it is essentially impossible to build a technically correct horn without such costly approaches, which is why his other speakers, even though costly, do not use horn-loading.
Once on this path, Alon decided to use the best compression drivers he could find. They’re Japanese, they’re expensive, and they’re huge. The midrange compression drivers have more metal than most woofers I’ve seen. The voice coils are of large diameter and the machining is beautiful. The rest of the system is an enthralling mix of techno-geek and modern art, which I would say is audio pulchritude at its finest (but you might hate it).
The woofer is the only cone in the system. The Ultimate uses a 15” driver with sealed-box loading. Each woofer is powered by an integral 2000-watt amp and has 2.5” peak-to-peak excursion, allowing plenty of output down to 15Hz in normal rooms according to Magico.
Audio porn is cool, but really doesn’t matter much. What matters is how the Ultimate II sounds. I would add that it also matters what this Magico tells us about horns and about music reproduction in general.
You probably hate caveats, but honestly I am compelled to say that the following comments are based on a brief listening session in a room I’ve never been in before, with equipment I don’t know. This is not a set of “bet my life on it” comments. Not only that, I’m about to pin what I heard on the speakers, but, seriously, maybe the speakers were completely generic and what I’m commenting on is Alon’s interconnects. And I didn’t listen to the speakers blind so I could be hallucinating, with most of my comments the result of some misguided patrician or commercial bias (or both). That said, I doubt it.
Now I’m a pretty left-brained guy, and that bias causes me to want to analyze the Ultimates as a way of communicating what they do. But before I do that, let me give you a more holistic view.
The Ultimate IIs are completely and utterly exceptional. If you prefer, they are revolutionary, stunning, and amazing. They blew me away. They do things that I haven’t heard any other speaker do (I listen to approximately twenty systems per year and have for most of the twelve years I’ve been in charge of The Absolute Sound). Much of what the Ultimate IIs do well is musically consonant, and they do relatively little that isn’t musical. The result is certainly a speaker that one could declare the best in the world.