For this special loudspeaker-focus issue, I asked our most senior contributors to each name the twelve loudspeakers that had the greatest impact on high-end audio. These are the speakers that introduced a new technology, changed the market, influenced future designs, or revealed some previously unheard aspect of sound quality. Although each writer worked in isolation, the individual choices exhibited remarkable unanimity. From each writer’s picks we selected, by consensus of the senior editorial staff, “The 12 Most Significant Loudspeakers of All Time.” Our final verdict is presented in ascending order of significance (#1 being the most significant). Robert Harley
The Klipschorn is the only speaker that has been in continuous production for over 60 years. But that’s not why it makes the list. The Klipschorn is a landmark product due to its folded horn design. Paul Klipsch, inventor and entrepreneur, patented the idea of assembling chambers and passageways for a bass driver’s sound waves to gradually expand as they travel out to the opening. The sound is mechanically amplified by the expanding “folds” in the passageway of the horn. (Without this, a low-frequency horn would be the size of a full room.) In 1946, the first 20 Klipsch loudspeakers were assembled in a tin shack in Hope, Arkansas. The base horn design has never been improved—it was perfect from day one. Klipsch’s four principles of sound reproduction are: efficiency, flat frequency response, controlled directivity, and dynamic range. A Klipschorn provides a detailed wall of sound that emanates from the corner of a room. It was the first “absolute sound.” Imagine the sound of a windup Victrola being replaced overnight by the sound of unamplified live instruments in space. Most amazing is that you can buy it today. That’s 60 years of advancement in one moment.
In the history of high-end audio, there have been a number of fascinating and genuinely innovative drivers—Alan Hill’s plasma tweeter and Lincoln Walsh’s “transmission-line” cone, for examples. Not all of them caught on—for good reasons (the joke about the Walsh driver used to be that it took 200W to get it to make sound and 201W to blow it up, while the Hill produced enough ozone to choke a horse). Wolfgang Meletzsky’s omnidirectional “Radialstrahler”—a truly ingenious pumpkin-shaped contraption constructed of aluminum/magnesium “petals” that flex in and out in response to an audio signal (like the pleats of an accordion), producing near-equal sound pressure throughout 360 degrees (rather, dare I say it, like a pulsating, er, pumpkin)—is certainly a brilliant concept and happily it doesn’t blow up or poison the air. What it does do is produce the most enveloping soundstage this side of a surround system, absolutely thrilling large-scale dynamics, and timbres that are very true-to-life (in frequency response, the MBL is an exceedingly flat-measuring loudspeaker). Though omnis aren’t as commonplace as they once were back in the day, the sui generis 101s set a standard of excellence and sheer lifelike excitement that has kept them the foremost omnidirectional speakers for more than thirty years.
Not very long ago, a long-time audio buddy gave me a chance to hear his Double Advent setup (and in his garage!). The experience in a sense, just about took my breath away: The speakers, even in that primitive setting, were magnificent! They remained as uncolored and neutral as ever, exceeding too many of today’s so-called “super” systems. I had, if the truth be told, forgotten (audibly) just how very special this doubling up [stacking a pair atop another pair] of Henry Kloss’ last great speaker was and remains. Wished I had had the sense to hold on to the pair I bought (back when, actually in 1972, just before I started Issue One of this rag). The Advents weren’t then entirely trouble-free thanks to mechanical problems with the original tweeters. Seen in today’s light, aside from an airy top end, the only thing missing was its ability to recreate a wide and dimensional soundstage. If you can grab a pair in good condition, and they are out there, be smarter than me.