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


  1. Hi Joe,

    congrats to your blog! It is great reading articles from you again!


  2. Joe,
    Glad to see you writing for the audio crowd again! I always loved your SP articles with their equal measures of authority and sense of fun. This blog really hit the spot along with a little HiFi Heroin of course.
    Robert Peterson

  3. Wow! That last shot is hardcore audio pornography. Dammm.

  4. Dear J-Rob... it's a true, TRUE pleasure read again your no-frills, witty prose.
    Thanks a lot for sharing yr. knowledge and S. Korean'connections:-)

  5. J agree, they are great, unfortunately j have to sell them.

  6. Hi Joe!

    Good to hook up with you again.

    I just happened to have stumbled upon your blog a few moments ago. This was a truly fascinating read on some of the classic WE speakers and horns, equipment that most of us can only dream about listening to, much less owning. I guess I'll have to continue to be happy with my now 25 year old Altec A-5s.

    All the Best,

    Bruce Berman