Wednesday, December 12, 2012

REAL Fake WE 755As from Western Labo

Interested parties worldwide are by now well-acquainted with the Line Magnetic LM 755EX, a field coil "remake" of a Western Electric 755A. Although often referred to as a faithful replica, the fact that it uses an field coil instead of an AlNiCo magnet, 8 ohm nominal rather than 4 ohm voice coil, and 68hz resonant frequency instead of the circa 90hz of a WE/ALTEC original, makes it it's own thing.

That is not necessarily fact that makes it cooler in some ways than an exact copy. Most such copies fail at being copies. GIP replicas of WE field coil drivers are very close to originals and in some ways better (at least smoother and more transparent) to my ear, but if you really listen for a difference between the old and the new it is there. My other experiences of replica WE drivers have been disappointing to say the least. Some are probably better than others, but few can please the WE purist looking for the exact original sound of a perfectly working antique WE driver.

In any case, a field coil "755" never existed before Line Magnetic, at least not from Western Electric, so it is hard to say it is in any way a copy.

The LM 755EX also doesn't look exactly like a WE or ALTEC 755A, with deeply textured silver hammertone and a fancy brass nameplate instead of the waterslide decal on the originals, nice knurled speaker terminals instead of solder tags. I'd say the cosmetics were 755 inspired but not a dead nuts copy, more elaborate than the original in some ways and dialed in for audiophile use. The originals were not meant to be seen or played with. They went into industrial installs and disappeared from view forever.

Line Magnetic 755EX field coil 8" Loudspeaker

One wonders how near the LM 755EX cone is to an original. Judging from pics, the contour is pretty close, except perhaps for a wider outer surround corrugation on the LM. Material, rigidity, and texture are unknowns. I never saw an LM 755 in the flesh, so what do I know. From photos, it looks like a fair match, at least visually.

I just read a review of the LM755EX in very nice looking, large floor standing cabinets by Jack Roberts at Dagogo. Jack liked these a lot but the description did not remind me at all of the lightning fast 755A flavor. Fat, rich "yin" sound with lots of bass is not what a 755A does. 40hz region bass isn't going to happen with a WE 755A. I can only wonder if the crisp lively highs of the real 755A are there in the LM. One report I read on the net suggest that the LM is quite rolled off on top. Seems they may have shifted the spectrum down relative to a WE original.

Original 755As are fast, detailed, dynamic, and although very colorful, they can ride the edge of being overly hot and bright in an imperfect setup. LF extension is limited to maybe 70hz with room boundary reinforcement. maybe slight hints of lower notes. The highs are silvery and sparkly, mostly 8-9k stuff. Not impressive to read about in numbers but the balance and presentation are unique, lively, and compelling.  Reports of the  LM 755EX suggest a different gestalt entirely, a darker and thicker sort of interpretation..

My reading as a dedicated obnoxious 755A snob is that the LM 755EX actually has little to do with a WE 755A, except for cone shape and marketing connotations, but it may have merit in and of itself as its own thing. Nobody would confuse it for a 755A and the more you know about 755As, the less likely such confusion becomes.

I hope I get a chance to hear a pair of these someday to see what they do.

But there is another 755A remake around that I find a lot more troubling, the "Products, Inc." 755A from Japanese manufacturer Western Labo. Western Labo is a long time dealer in WE and other upscale vintage gear. A few years ago they got into the business of producing replica Western Electric field coil drivers, transformers, and some crossovers and electronics. Word I have is that this gear is mainly produced in China, at least the drivers, and marketed through Japan.

Most of this stuff does not look precisely like Western gear but the field coil 555 and 597A drivers were close except that the nameplate said "Western Labo."  But wait! Some "Products, Inc" units say Western Electric"! For example, the 618B transformers on their replica step up have Western Electric decals on them! Not to mention 1940 date codes!

Replica 618B step up trans from

Following the pdf linked from the description, these 618s use GERMAN permalloy cores and wire!! Hmmm...that sure doesn't sound right! When Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring took control of German industry in 1940, I seriously doubt he was making bootleg WE input transformers!!  Surely big Nazis were Klangfilm fans, right?

That reproduction 618B step up has been around for a while but the line has expanded considerably. The "Products. Inc" TA-4181 woofers have authentic looking "Electric Research Products, Inc" labels on them and they have a line of field coil Lansing gear with LANSING labels on them!!

And then, the subject of this post, they have a 755A replica that is truly a faithful reproduction...down to WESTERN ELECTRIC labels!  Even has the correct inspection stamps around the gasket just like a real WE 755A. Limited to 50 pairs.

Product Page:

Yo, that looks like Western Electric on that label!

Google translate of the product listing says this:

We have completed the 755A 20cm FULL RANGE 755A Western Electric excellent article in illusion temple culture prize winning country east. Weight, appearance, texture, I am a full copy version to quality of course. 50pair Limited. The original, Pair \ 945,000 now - and we are scheduled to price Pair \ 198,000 the same standard, the same sound quality. Now, I do not need the original! Reservations are being accepted.

Although this "Products, Inc 755A looks like a straight-up counterfeit to me, as a cultural anthropologist, I must remind myself that I actually have no idea what these Japanese guys are up to in this case. I think there is a clear element of tribute here and I suspect that this replica item lives in a deep Japanese cultural category that I am wholly unfamiliar with.

From the standpoint of the world market, however, I think this exact replica activity may have stepped over the line. One of my Korean friends recently bought a pair of these very replica 755As for big money, represented as mint original Western Electric 755As by an unscrupulous seller. This guy is a knowledgeable vintage collector but new to Western Electric. He originally had no idea that the 755As were fakes.

These replicas might not fool an experienced WE or Lansing expert who can get close enough to make a careful inspection, but they are good enough to fool most of the audio folks out there. Demand exceeds knowledge of such rare items, so there is significant opportunity for abuse by shifty middlemen. Some of these items have probably already been through ebay as authentic WE antiques.

But one fears that this is not the end of it. I just heard a second-hand report from a businessman stationed in Guangzhou that there are at least three types of replica WE 755A available in local stores. Maybe the LM 755EX and the Western Labo unit are not even included in the count

China, Japan, Korea, and a few Europeans are making repro Western Electric gear now, and it looks as though some are branching out beyond WE.

Buyer beware! And it won't be getting any easier as the lines get fuzzier and fuzzier...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

WE/Altec 755A: You pays your money and takes your choice

Checking prices of 755A on ebay, all of the numbers look insanely high to me. Like WHOA, is that in dollars or Korean Won? I saw a pr of perfect NOS Western Electric early and rare silver units go for over $7k a few weeks ago that is some crazy cash!! Woo-hoo!

I guess my head is still stuck in the 80s, when you could buy 755As all day long for $100 or less.  Most people, even vintage audio guys, didn't understand what they were and most people would think you were nuts if you wanted to pay $100 for a damn eight inch speaker. I used to find 4 or 5 a year without even looking specifically for them and I was so cheap I'd want to pay $5-10 apiece, but I probably paid $100 for a few after I got hooked. At a certain point word was out and the price jumped to $150. Priced me out of the market!!

After all, the 755A is not a rare speaker. They made many tens of thousands of these things. They went into sound distribution systems 10, 20 and 100 at a time. True they were mostly outside the hi-fi orbit, except for their use in AR-1 and some DIY use of surplus units in the early 50s. Presumably, even back in the 50s most hi-fi nuts probably considered it a mundane PA speaker while using vastly inferior home audio junk with cheap Jensen and University drivers. Some things never change.

Today, most of the 755As are gone to the big dump in the sky and demand now outstrips supply, and the prices clearly reflect that imbalance.However, any item that shows up on ebay in five listings a week is not a rare thing. They are just hard to find and buy when you want them, like any oddball 60 year old object.

There is a big spread in the prices that 755As fetch, corresponding to age and variety, kind of like collector coins or baseball cards. Obviously, the WE versions sell for a big premium over the Altecs, largely thanks to the superior fetish value of that WE sticker. That might be the only reason.

Back when I had a quantity of different 755As on hand, I could not detect any significant difference in the early WE units compared to early/mid 50s Altec units....probably because the Altecs were built with parts handed down from Western stock, so there really wasn't much difference. Of course, WE branded 755As are far less common than Altecs since WE only made them for about 2 years and Altec cranked them out for a decade.

Condition of individual units contributes a much greater variation in sound quality than the paint or the sticker. Dried out brittle cones sound a lot different from fresh looking black cones. I used to like the slight extra speed and feathery texture of the dry, bleached out, light tan color cones. In a front-mounted slant box, these used and abused 755As were detail demons.  I have heard 755As with many repairs and even open holes in the cones sounding pretty decent. However, If I were paying today's stupid prices, I'd definitely be looking for nice minty specimens with fresh looking, pliable dark cones.

Another point of condition is the state of the mysterious sticky goop damping material 755As have on the paper hinge. It is on both sides, by the way. Often this stuff has evaporated and there is only a trace left. Sometimes it soaks into the cone, which looks like hell but doesn't impact sound much. if at all. What scares me the most is when there is a lot of it left but it has become hardened and stiff, a condition which looks really good but this has to change the parameters of the speaker.

I have a nice 756B with this hard goop problem and I measured a notable difference in fs between it and another 756B with only a trace of remaining goop.  I painted some acetone on the petrified goop to soften it and I measured the resonant frequency going down as it softened up.  I'll unbox this driver someday after playing it a lot more and compare the TS sweeps with the pretreated and freshly treated measurement and see if I got any long-lasting benefits from the experiment. I wrote up the initial phase of this experiment over on the Altec Users Board.

If you want to try this, be very conservative with the solvent so it does not attack the paper. Some people report that a hair dryer will soften the goop also. I am not sure that any of these fixes are permanent. I do like the idea of softening it somehow and then playing the speaker a lot to loosen things up. Many 755As have been sitting around unplayed for decades and need some exercise.

I asked 755A specialist Yuzo Doi what do do about this problem and he did not like the idea of using any chemical solvents on ancient fragile cones. He says that the best way to handle mismatched 755As is to carefully adjust the damping material in the cabinet to match them up- see the previous post on cabinets. Play for a while and compare again.

According to Mukai of Western Sound, Inc, the primary difference between Altec and WE units is that WE used that spongy paper Kimsul for damping material in the hole of the donut Alnico magnet leading to the cloth back vent and Altec used glass wool. 

He adds that there seems to be a switch in cone formulations for the later Altec units, probably from a latter-day run of cones when the original WE stock ran out. I looked at at least a dozen 755As over the last few weeks and I can't detect any difference beyond individual aging and condition factors, but I would not dismiss what Mukai-san says because for every 755A I saw, he has seen at least 100.

Also, contrary to misinformation found on the net, all 755A versions are 4 ohm nominal (typically 2.7-2.9 ohms DCR). The only 8 ohm alnico 755 variant I know about is the 755B which was used as a woofer in the Altec Lido (corrugated cloth surround cone on an A frame/magnet).  I think the low DCR voice coil goes hand in hand with the low flat impedance curve across the bandwidth of the driver! Correct me if I am wrong and you have actually seen and measured an 8 ohm 755A! (755C and 755E are 8 ohms)

Anyway, here is a basic rundown on 755A varieties:

Early WE silver version 1947

Here's the 755A version that really goes for big cash.
Why? No good reason, as far as I know. Very sexy though!

WE  GrayWrinkle 755A

Like that cool WE decal? It adds thousands to the price
over Altecs made with the same parts.

Altec Gray Wrinkle version  1952-1953 date codes

Altec Silver Hammertone 1954-58?

Most common 755A version, found in AR-1 speaker.
Some silver Altecs have the old style decal pictured above
on the gray wrinkle unit. It seems Altec never threw anything away....

KS SPEC 755A / KS-14703

Often treated as a separate variety of 755A is the "KS" version. These were procured for Western Electric internal use and show up in WE wall cabinets and telephone office each mount cabinets and the like. They are obviously made by Altec although they do not state the manufacturer in plain language, only via EIA code and it is not on all of them. 

BUT the one pictured below has a code of 502588 (8/1958 date) while the EIA code for Altec is 391xxx and that is what is usually seen on KS-755As. Who was 502? Could some of these KS units have been assembled or marketed through a third-party subcontractor?

For some unknown reason, KS units cost more than identical Altecs and people have themselves convinced that they sound better too. Actually the reason isn't unknown...more WECo magic mojo rubbed off on them. People also treat those lousy wall cabinets like they are some kind of holy design. People are even reproducing them. Face it, it's a lousy, leaky 1 cu.ft. wall cabinet...actually probably a decent wall cabinet for a shoe store but a total waste of a 755A.

WE wall cabinets--keep an eye out for these in old churches and bus terminals!

Beware, because the KS-14703 designation also shows up on the later ceramic 755Cs, which presumably meet the requirements of the specification as well as the A version.

KS-14703 out of a WE wall cabinet.

Cone of KS spec 755A with WE inspection stamps on gasket.
Note: 502xxx is not the EIA/RETMA code for Altec!

Early Altec Brown/Gray Wrinkle 755A with WE QC stamps

Now here's a 1952 date code 755A I've been listening to. It has the same "WE 34" acceptance stamp on the gasket as the later KS version. I have also seen a few KS decals on early wrinkle Altecs.

I am sure this old 755 is worth some stupid loot, but still not as much as one with a Western Electric decal, maybe only half as much. Is there any reason to think that an Altec made with parts handed over from Western Electric two years after WE stopped assembling them themselves, probably made on the exact same machines, and which passed WE inspection, is in any way inferior? Well, price-wise, it is.

I have seen pics of late model brown 755As with a "modern" Altec decal on the web but never owned or held one. Maybe this was the last version made before the switch to 755C but as with all things Altec there are a lot of undocumented cosmetic and non-critical parts variations probably based on what was laying around in the warehouse. Industrial end-users surely didn't care about paint color. If anybody has one, send me a pic and I will add it to the post.

The only factoid that gives me pause to prefer one variety over another is the report from Japanese experts that the cone formulation changed for late runs of cones. Otherwise, it is all collector mania, which might matter to some buyers but not to me! 

Shop by condition or price rather than snob appeal and you should be on the right track audio-wise. As for investment advice, your guess is as good as mine. Past performance is no guarantee of future success!

Like I said before, 20 years ago, the 755A was the "workingman's revenge" choice, sounding a lot more engaging than all the high end mini monitors that cost so much more. Now the 755A is an upscale antique luxury item that will follow the money wherever on the globe it is found. If you've got it, go for it. You won't be bidding against me!

Those of us in the US still have a chance to get lucky and find one or two units in situ. The last one I bought, a few years ago, came in a blackface Fender Vibro Champ that I paid $250 for. The amp is worth $500 so the 755A cost me minus $250!  Beat that!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

WE/Altec 755A: Thinking Inside the Box

Last week we were playing around in the middle of the vast Silbatone collection of Western Electric equipment. Mr. Mukai and Mr. Yuzo Doi flew in from Japan to visit. These guys are the top WE experts in Japan, both work with vintage dealer/manufacturer/repair shop Western Sound, Inc. and Doi-san is resident WE expert at Stereo Sound Tube Kingdom magazine.  All the well-known rare and exotic WECo treasures surrounded us, along with many items that qualify as super-rare or even unique. Prototype Fletcher coaxes with 555s and Jensen 18s, 595As, a couple pairs of 757As, 753s, 750s, L-8 and L-9, every Western horn...plenty to interest any WE maniac.

Mr. Yuzo Doi --Western Electric set-up man extraordinaire
working on an early 8b and 9A amp rack at the Silbatone factory

The first day, as discussed in a previous post, we heard the mega-rare 12A/13A system. And what did we work on the second day?...WE 755As. Western Sound Inc has handled a few thousand 755As. Everybody in the room used 755As for at least 25 years. We all have a lot of experience with bigger and more elaborate WE speakers than the 755A but none of us ever got tired of 755As because they are like an element of nature. Nobody tires of the sky.

This humble 8" speaker gets maximum respect from those who know and love it. They were my main speakers for five or six years in the 80s until I moved to a place where I could set up a big horn system with 288s and 1505s. My friend MJ calls it a 10 cylinder car, a hot rod. It is difficult to handle but when you get it set up right, with compatible electronics, nothing else can do what it does.

Lately prices have been skyrocketing on 755As, especially the WE versions, moving them outside the orbit of my wallet. They used to be a "workingman's revenge" speaker but no more. Although I cry about the pricing, I must say that the hype is justified. Not so for the vastly-inferior 755C and 755E, which are good but not fabulous, but when excellence on the order of the 755A is concerned, money is only money...that is, if you've got the money. As always, it sucks to be poor.

In any case, do not think you are getting most of the 755A magic for less cash with a 755C, because you are not. Magic is rare. 755C and E need a tweeter in my estimation and they lack the lightning speed of the A, but they are decent midranges/quasi full-ranges. I am sure there are better single unit full-rangers out now for much lower price than the collector premium on C/E 755s, now up to a hefty $500-700 a pair. Check your local full range forum for suggestions. 

Let's not get side tracked on the ancient A vs. C debate. More on the 755A in general I am talking about cabinets.

So I asked Mr. Muhai, "What do you like for 755A boxes?" I meant, what does HE like, using the preference in 755A cabinets as a window into his soul and barometer of his personal taste, but he instinctively answered like a dealer, laying out the field: "There is the Altec 618C, which is made from thin wood so it is very resonant. This is good for smooth sound, easy listening. The Western Electric design was much thicker wood and the sound is more severe."

Severe-- I like that term in this context. I always liked to call the sound of the 755A relentless. It was a monitoring speaker, so if there is a problem with the recording or electronics, you will hear it and you won't like it. If the recording is great, the sound is great. If the recording is OK, it will sound OK, unless it is edgy and bright, in which case it will sound NASTY. On the upside, the severe and relentless character gives the 8-inch incredible definition and detail but you're riding the razor's edge.

The original WE spec for boxes for the 755A, 756A, and 728B called out plywood of at least 3/4" for the 728B and just says 2 cu.ft cabinet. of "rigid construction" for the 755A. They promoted the now iconic slanting front boxes for this line of PM speakers, a design that makes sense for a high mounted wall speaker with the cone pointing down or a speaker on the floor with the cone pointing upwards. I presume it is also beneficial for management of internal reflections to have two non-parallel sides.

Late 40s cabinets built to WE spec have a lot of damping material. In WE literature they specify a minimum of 1" of Ozite, which was the hair felt used as carpet padding in the old days, or Kimsul, which is the brown sometimes slightly waxy or greasy looking* paper material that old tubes, especially big transmitting tubes. were often wrapped in.  WE tubes usually come wrapped in thin Kimsul. 

Note: Kimsul is not to be confused with Kimchi, my favorite Korean side dish. 

[Edit: On further research, I find Kimsul is treated with asphalt, which gives it the greasy look. Kim Sul is also the name of one of Kim Jong Il's daughters :op]


The Altec 618C cabinet was a different beast entirely from the WE spec Mukai-san reported, and it's much more of a boom box. The sides and back are very thin 3/8" plywood and make a lot of noise when you drum on them. The front panel is a bit thicker at 5/8" and far less resonant in itself, but everything is connected so the whole box comes alive while playing music.

Early 50s Altec 618C cabinet
With the big Alnico donut magnet on the 755A, the speaker moves air with authority and really excites the cabinet. You can really hear this box and the cabinet vibrations definitely fill out the subjective mid bass presentation.

More than once my wife complained that I was shaking the bedroom floor upstairs with my my loud music. Hey, it is a mono 8 inch speaker and it really wasn't that loud and I was listening to old Sun Ra and Benny Golson jazz, not 80s disco funk. I'm impressed that a 8 inch full range can generate such complaints...just wait till I hook up my GIP 18" field coils. 

In reality, Joyce has seen and heard it all. She has 1000s of hours "flight time" listening to 755As. She tells me the speaker has too much bass, adding quickly that she likes bass. She probably means to say "this is one boomy-ass speaker" and compared with most of what I have had around over the years, she would be correct. It has "bass" but it is fake 100 hz bass, this is true.

The Altec 618C has minimal internal damping, which surely adds to the boombox effect. Nothing on the back panel at all. Suspended at a weird angle is a single slab of mineral wool. Actually, it looks like rigid fiberglass sheet like Corning 703 with a coat of varnish to hold it all together and further stiffen it (good trick). That is it.

Whether Altec built them this way for economy, lighter weight, or sonics is unknown. It is definitely a lot lighter than a thick plywood box, a plus for wall mounting or portable use. My 618C has a 1x4" mysterious cutout at the top of the back panel that can work as a handle hole...or maybe it is a port...or both. Certainly works as both, and is a serious deviation from the sealed box spec of Western Electric. 

So much for the sealed box specification...

There is a tightly-woven metal screen over the cone to prevent vandalism or mishaps and that might have some muting effect on the highs compared with a naked cone. I think the boomy rich character of the box probably makes it a lot more flexible for generic PA applications. Who needs a incisive, hyper-picky studio monitor speaker for a bingo game or high school cafeteria use? From 30 feet out, that mid bass boom probably adds a lot of weight.


Looking around the net, I found some pictures of a 618 type box manufactured by my friends at Western Sound, Inc. which looks to have a late model 409b coax in it. If you do a search on "W.S.I, 618C," you will see this box offered with 755a, 755C, LE8T, and a few other options, e.g. stereosound link.

Very little damping material in these WSI cabs. They like to use the spongy packing paper material that dishware sometimes comes wrapped in as a modern substitute for Kimsul. Hardly enough in there to blow your nose!

Thickness of plywood appears on the order of the Altec 618 box or possibly a bit thicker, maybe 1/2"....hard to tell.* The ply looks to be lower-grade douglas fir with a few knots and voids in it...I am sure this wood selection is 100% intentional, probably close to what Altec used.  There are a few more glued-in corner braces than in the Altec original.  Screen over cone is in place but back panel is sealed, no handle/port cutout. I'd probably put a gasket on it, but they choose not to. This looks like a slightly beefed-up Altec-type cabinet but it is largely true to the original design.

[* Edit: Yep same as Altec " The thickness of the front baffle is a sound board thickness all 15mm, otherwise it is 9mm It has become the preferred structure."-- from Stereo Sound WSI 618C writeup]

I don't think these guys deviate from proven vintage practice unless they have a good reason to do so.

Western Sound, Inc. 618 cabinet
A sales blurb for a 755A/WSI 618 can be seen here: WSI cab link. Emphasis is placed on precise tuning by WE Master Mr. Doi, which means adjusting the amount of stuffing, because there isn't much else to tune. I saw him in action and he starts with a very minimal amount and listens carefully. Seems he ends up with less damping than most modern speaker builder would ever think of using. Nowadays, folks really lay on the damping material, automatically without even thinking about it...well maybe we should think about it.

Mukai said that careful individual tuning is the way to match 755A drivers, since it is well known that any two 755As are not necessarily perfectly matched sonically even if from the same era and NOS. Age and use further complicate these matters. Any standard suggestion would ignore the crucial reality that every driver specimen is different.

Maybe the later Altec 618 cabinets are a little thicker and lack the handle hole. I haven't seen one for a long time and I simply don't know. If you have a later model and it differs, send me a pic.


To make a long story short, the vintage Altec 618 box sounds pretty good. A bit over the top with the boom but it works better than expected, maybe better than it should. I know a 1/2" ply box can work well if solidly constructed because I had a few built back in the day, with satisfying results. I'd follow WSI rather than Altec on the details and make the back fully sealed.


My old bud Joseph Esmilla (JE Labs) rescued a snapshot of the discussions the "755 guys" were having in the late 1980s about cabinets, currently found at We used to meet up at hamfests and hash out these amicable disputes while looking for $1.00 2A3s.

Joseph preferred and a popularized an open baffle approach for 755As in a Sound Practices "Homebrewer of the Month" feature and on his website (link--see also open-baffle link). One of the first US open baffle advocates.

I tried the open baffle and it did not float my boat. As he reports in the webpage, I rejected it for not having enough dynamic excitement, which the 755A excels at. Yeah, it was open and airy but no cojones. He mentions that I complained about no "snap"--I still like that term. Gotta have the snap

I also missed the bass with the open baffle. Obviously, 755As don't have very much LF extension to begin with and I needed whatever I could get. In a sealed box sited against the wall for maximum boundary reinforcement, there are hints of 45-50hz bass that do a lot to fill in the missing parts of the picture. I'd say it implies these lower frequencies better in a sealed box, although it doesn't reproduce them in any convincing fashion no matter what the enclosure looks like.The 755A is really good at leaving out things that it can't do in a way that keeps the music going.

One exception to the 755A bass is my Korean friend's back horn enclosure. The dude is a divinely-inspired master at back horns, designer of the Silbatone Aporia and SGW-24 horn system that we took to CES a few years back. His 755 cabs fill up a large room with powerful and solid bass down to at least 45hz, an amazing accomplishment, but I feel that these backhorn cabs throw the highs under the bus to get there. They let the 755A play big orchestral, but at what cost?

755As have a really special high end, if not particularly extended in that direction either, and bringing in more bass skews the delicate balance that the orthodox 2 cu.ft. sealed box delivers. If man were meant to fly he'd have wings and if the 755A was supposed to have bass it would be a 15 inch. Don't mess with Mother Nature!

Joseph also published plans for a box that sort of leans toward the WE spec, rejecting the 1/2" ply version as too slow.  He says to use 5/8" ply "the more resonant the better" which is a bit of a punk out on the WE standard. Factory spec WE boxes are solid as a rock and quite non-resonant. 

JE Labs box plans - same dimensions as Altec 618 specs.

You can see he also gives cutout dimensions for front and rear mount. Walt Bender, the main guy to popularize 755As back in the 80s, was a big fan of front mount and he promoted a design that was 2 cu.ft, with a 1/4" or 3/8" Plexiglas or Lexan plate on the front. You have to be careful to provide clearance for the holes on the side of the driver basket, hence the thin plastic panel. As I recall, Walt liked 1/2" plywood with the front mount arrangement.

I had a beautiful pair like that I traded from Vinny Gallo -- dense 1/2" marine ply with silver hammertone finish on the wood and plexi. They were some of the best 755 boxes I had, until that lying rat bastard borrowed them "for a few days" back in 1989. 

Rear mounting a driver on a thick baffle seems like a really bad idea but it sounds quite good. More hearty and thick sound than front mounting, which is a lot more open and seems to promote stereo imaging better, making for a more lively and upfront presentation. In a sense, the the thinner wood fattens up the sound and so does rear mounting, Front mounting and thicker plywood make the speaker a bit faster and crisper...balance those parameters as you see fit. Don't forget a healthy round-over on the edges of the speaker cutout!

I'm getting a pair of new boxes made right now and I've been struggling with these eternal questions. I'm thinking I will go with 5/8" ply and Baltic birch, because my cabinet guy strongly prefers working with this high quality stock and there don't seem to be many choices for 5/8" around here. I'll start with old school rear mount. I can later cut a larger hole and add interchangeable Lexan or linen phenolic mounting plates that will allow for either front or rear mount.

I'll probably flip my original 618C box on ebay since I only have one unit and now I have a pair of Altec 755As. After soaking up the 618C sound for some months, I think I can do better for my current taste with 5/8" ply anyway. 

However, something tells me this is not the last pair of 755A cabs that I'll commission...I'm already thinking I should have gone with 1/2" ply!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Western Electric 12A: No fake Rolex here

In this CNC age, the mechanical means that allow for precision and relative economy in production create a situation where the uniqueness and identity of any manufactured goods are open to attack by pretenders and competitors. That's the price you pay for handing the keys of the factory over to robots.

Skilled replica factories in Guangzhou crank out fakes of very limited edition Swiss watches from photos in magazines weeks after they are launched. An exotic hyper-luxurious wristwatch that may have been produced in a 25 piece run in a Geneva atelier shows up in street markets by the hundreds, with 1 micron thick gold plate and a few misspelled words on the dial. Whatever. Bejing taxi drivers deserve Audemars Piguet as much as the next guy.

Sometimes, it is suggested, the very factories that create name brand clothing and electronics during the day turn out unauthorized bootlegs at night, virtually indistinguishable from the real thing because there is no distinction. Koreans did it, the Chinese are doing it, and it probably happens wherever you are too.

What would Walter Benjamin have to say about all this?

In the old days, god-given talent, hard-won mastery with tools and materials, and secret recipes handed down in closed groups were potent barriers to imitation. Now all that is needed is a CAD file and you're good to go.

Replication has come to the fore in recent years in audio with the rise in interest of
Western Electric equipment. This stuff was rare before it got famous and now even if you have big money it is hard to find good quality specimens to purchase because the fever has spread worldwide and ready buyers far outstrip the negligible supply.

You can sell a Western Electric knob for $50 on ebay. Sellers randomly tack "Western Electric" onto descriptions of anything that they can get away with in cheezy lowball attempts to rake in some stupid money. Altec horns are now Western Electric Altec horns. Even RCA, WEs main competitor and enemy is now RCA Western Electric. Any horn, field coil speaker, or tube socket is somehow related to Western Electric in the cynical  fantasy minds of many ebay sellers. Can this crass tactic actually work?

Old WE 300Bs cost as much as a nice used car and even a pair of the 1990s authorized reissues is worth more than my decrepit Volvo, which isn't saying much. Now, Psvane makes a dead nuts Chinese copy of a WE 300B that they imply uses parts from the same sources as WE. $900 a pair. : “100% 1:1 replica of WE300B, including materials, structure, internal and external size – up to the detail of a tiny screw used”.

Those who know tube manufacture understand the process is as important as the materials and many of the original materials are simply not available anyway. The industry that created them is extinct. It is hard to tell what their claim actually is, let alone what it means. Which parts are the same as WE? Or is it the sources that are the same and not the parts? Or the parts are the same from different sources? Obviously, they are trying to attach some of the WECo mojo (and price premium) to an item that has little to do with Western Electric in any significant manner.

WE reproduction has been going on in Japan for some decades with Kanno, Eltus, and others reproducing WE drivers with reasonable quality and high aspirations starting in the 80s. I think Kanno made subway cars and the owner did the WE thing as a hobby. It is not always about money. This sounds like a losing proposition to me but I'm sure it was fun.

Today, the extremists at GIP Laboratory in Yamagata make replica 555s and 597As that are even better than the original units in some ways. They are trying to make 1:1 WE gear that is new and in perfect operating order because a lot of the old stuff out there is broken and worn out, which gives WE a bad name and doesn't capture the magic. I compared their drivers myself and I was very impressed, but they are not much if at all less expensive than the 80 year old originals to which they pay tribute.

Numerous factories in China are cranking out WE replicas also. Line Magnetic is perhaps the most famous practitioner. For many rank and file audiophiles, this is as close as they are going to get to WE and independent of how closely it recreates the particular sound of vintage Western units, it does give people a chance to experience the topologies that WE created. Wide Range horns are a good idea and worthy of exposure, even if it takes replicas to do it.

With  a hundred people looking to buy for every good specimen of ancient WE available, there is a market for replicas and, in audio, there is never a shortage of producers rising to fill any perceived or imagined gap in supply.

In this hemisphere, Aldo from Audio Anthology in Italy makes handcrafted replica 15A horns and Jeffrey from Experience Music down in Memphis is working on 16A replicas. These guys are maniac perfectionists, detail oriented to the max, and willing to sweat hard for what amounts to minimal hourly pay in service of their craft.

However, the repro brigade may have met their match with the Western Electric 12A horn. It is in a different league of complexity.

The design and construction of the 12A is insanely labor intensive. I really have to wonder what they were thinking but it surely was not about economy. This horn is constructed of 1" thick hardwood strips. About 1.5" wide on the sides and about 3" wide on the top and bottom. The differing widths of top/bottom and side pieces create a situation where seams do not meet so the wood interlocks in a strong framework.

I counted 40+ pieces on one side of the horn. None of these are rectangular. The top and bottom of the flare take at least 60 more pieces, none of which have more than two parallel sides, i,e, the sides where they join to the next strip. The top and bottom of each strip is curved, concave on one side + convex on the other!

The sides of the horn are not straight either. There is a complex twisting curve along the entire length of the flare.


They must have had templates to cut each piece out of raw lumber, jigs to shape each piece, then they must have put it together in sections and sanded, ground, or planed it smooth. And it is very smooth and very solid. Clearly, the job is well-engineered and minutely planned out, but it is all way beyond me.

I can see filled in nail holes on the sides where they tacked on each side piece. I figure there must be some sort of tongue and groove system holding the top and bottom strips in place.

The completed horn weighs 180 lbs without drivers. The hardware to hang it is 1/2" thick cast iron!

The work of building the 12A appears to have been contracted out to The Victor Talking Machine Company according to a brass label on one of the 12As in the Silbatone collection. Presumably, this outfit was at the top of the game for industrial production of wood items, back when people actually made things out of wood.

There was a fellow in Korea making copy 12As. I heard that he took an original apart, 3-D scanned each piece, then cut them on a CNC. He quit after the first pair, which took him 6 months to make! Went back to the much easier job of making 15As.

Well, Western Electric did the same thing. Production of  the 12A did not last long, maybe a year. The 15A is obviously much more amenable to mass production, although still an insane product to behold in this day of molded plastic. Today it would be a glass-filled ABS monstrosity that would look like it came out of a swimming pool or hot tub factory.

The 15A construction was patented and you can read all about it here:  US1852793.
In the text of the patent, the 15A is called a light and compact apparatus for the amplification and distribution of sound waves! That's funny because everybody I know thinks the 15A is ridiculously gigantic!

The 15A also went lower than the 12A, with rated response down to 57 hz (must be minus 12dB or so at that frequency), which negated the need for the 13A "bass horn" setup for cinema sound of the day. So although huge, I guess it was economical of space and material. It's all relative, right?

I have found no such documentation on the 12A and obviously I am mystified and amazed by the method of construction. I tend to think that most modern day copiers would move on to easier challenges than this formidable snail horn. Too bad, because this archaic device, the primal ur-horn, is one of the few items that we definitely need more of on this planet!

If it is any consolation, and it's probably not, the mating 13A looks even harder to build!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Western Electric 12A/13A - Adam and Eve of Horn Speakers

Decades into questioning the myth of constant progress in audio, I finally get to know the very first theater horn speaker system and it is arguably the best of them all. This even freaks me out and I have been working with great antique gear and pimping the timeless quality of the best in vintage technology for a long time.

I grant that that is difficult to understand and impossible to explain that a speaker from 1926 kicks all subsequent ass in a number of fundamental ways. There is nothing I can put into words to convince a skeptic of this mysterious truth and the Western Electric 12A and 13A is so tragically rare that few will have the opportunity to experience it for themselves. But I still have to say it, because I experienced it to be true. This early adventure in horn sound might be the very best of the best.

For the past few years, Silbatone has been demonstrating original Western Electric horns (L9, 16B, 15A) for hundreds of visitors at the Munich HighEnd show, to great popular acclaim and appreciation. Replica WE 15As are in production in several spots around the world and some originals are in audiophile hands, so some lucky people get to hear them and listening reports abound. A 15A system appeared at last year's European Triode Festival. Word on the superb musical performance of WECo Wide Range horn technology is spreading but the 12A/13A, the missing link, is simply too scarce to show up on the radar.

Last week in Seoul, I met with WE experts Mr. Mukai and Mr. Doi from Western Sound Inc. in Tokyo, good friends and two of the top Western Electric scholars on the planet. They came to the Silbatone Collection to hear the 12A/13A because no stereo pair exists in Japan. Nobody has the horns and who has the space to set this system up properly? Doi-san pronounced it "duke level," a Japanese term which I think means fit for royalty and beyond the experience of ordinary audio nuts.

A hyper-elite collector's item is what the WE 12A/13A has become but it was originally intended as a mass entertainment product, designed in 1926 for movie theaters outfitted with then cutting-edge Warner Bros. "Vitaphone" equipment for the emergent talking picture market.

The 12A and 13A bass horn are both powered by WE 555W drivers and operate without crossovers with considerable overlap in frequency response. An attenuator panel is used to set the input signal to the 13A 2dB higher than the 12A. The 12A horns fly high and the 13A is at stage level, pointed toward the balcony. As the diagram below indicates, the 13A should sit a bit in front of the 12A to account for the longer path length of the LF horn.

Typical 12A/13A system diagram

Original equipment for the 12A/13A is the rare early "mesh" 555W driver, replaced by sealed back 555W for the next-generation 15A and 16A Wide Range systems. Amplification was 41-42-43 or, for really early installations, the rare 8-9-10 electronics.

We use 597A tweeters with the 12A/13A to good effect although this is anachronistic, since they were not introduced for another five or six years.

41-42-43 electronics with attenuator panel to set levels
 of 12A and 13A on top of rack

The 12A/13A was only installed for about a year before the much-cheaper to manufacture 15A and 16A took over. Installation instructions for these later horns include directives to destroy the obsolete 12A to prevent unauthorized reuse and throw them away. It seems as though very few have survived, much to the sacrifice of future generations interested in theater horn technology.

To the modern audio ear, the 12A/13A hardly sounds "vintage" at all. The famous WE 15A is well-known for its rich woody character, arising from construction of large areas of thin plywood and the sheet metal 16A has a metallic zing that adds life on strings and vocals. It is fair to say that both have a certain "vintage" character, although they are very different presentations. The 12A is constructed of many intricately machined strips of 1" thick hardwood and it is heavy (180 lbs w/o driver) and solid as a rock. It presents the quick attack of a field coil compression driver with almost no resonant hangover. It is disarmingly fast. Speakers usually do not shut off so quickly when the note is over and hearing one that does it right is a revelation.

To those of us familiar with the other WE Wide Range horns, the 12A/13A introduces an entirely new flavor: fast, dynamic, and clean with a huge, natural and organic presentation. It took me a few days before I stopped saying "Wow" "Whoa" "Holy shit!" on every song. I heard Willie Nelson "Stardust" about a million times but this was different, I swear!

Some of the unique aspects of the 12A/13A presentation arise from the sheer scale of the installation. It sounds like a concert in a theater and quite unlike a typical stereo, thanks in part to the four large horns set up at corners of an imaginary 25 foot square on the front wall. This system in this 30 foot high wooden walled room is one of the few systems that overcome the scale distortion most domestic installations suffer. Solo violins, pianos. and the operatic voice sound as large as they should in a good hall.

The 12A/13A is not perfect. It does blur and lose the characteristics of individual instruments on loud dense orchestral crescendos, but then so do all other speakers. It doesn't play 20 to 20k, so some well indoctrinated twits would say that it cant be "High Fidelity." But on sheer tonality, instrumental and vocal timbre, dynamic contours of individual notes, and the intangible and unspeakable magic of musical rightness and subjective realism, hearing the 12A/13A was a real lesson for me.

 Dr. Steven Bae with another 12A/13A in Silbatone factory