The 10 Greatest Speakers – other than Ohm – that I’ve ever heard.
And WHY they were great!
People often ask me, “What are the greatest speakers you’ve ever heard?” My answer is that it depends when you’re asking. It’s not just that my tastes have changed; it’s that the state-of-the-art has progressed.
I have auditioned many good and great speakers in the past 70 years. In the 1950’s, my dad had a big Hallicrafters multi-band radio that could bring in signals from all over the world.It played through a 15” full-range speaker in its own box.The radio may have had 3-5 watts of power and a turntable connected to the radio.To a kid, it sounded great and it could play so loudly we would take it outside to provide music at ice skating parties in the winter. Being a single-driver system, it was lacking in the treble and bass, but did well on voices. It was not until I went to college that I heard lots of live music and met audiophiles.
Here are the 10 greatest speakers I’ve ever heard (excluding Ohms) in the order I was introduced to them.Each one replaced the prior model as my “greatest” usually for some audible improvement in some specific area. They all tend toward the massive size because, like Stereophile magazine, I believe you must feel the bass foundation of all music for it to be a great experience. A small speaker like a MicroWalsh can have amazing bass, but is unlikely to have great bass.
1. AR 1/Janszen tweeter
Acoustic Research was only a few blocks from my dormitory at MIT and their speakers were very popular.One senior in my dorm had a pair of AR 1W woofers with a separate Janszen electrostatic midrange/tweeter sitting on top of each AR.The ARs provided fine bass and with the openness of the electrostatics, this system was the closest thing to true live music I had ever heard. And I was now hearing live music every week at Harvard square’s coffee house, Newbury Street’s jazz clubs or students practicing. I am confident that the clarity and detail I heard reproduced on the AR’s surpasses most of today’s audiophile systems.Their biggest limitation came from their low sensitivity and the maximum output of the Dyanco Mark 3, 60-Watt tube amps driving them.
Bill Bell, in Wellesley, MA, was the local Klipsch dealer. I made a pilgrimage with another student to hear these famous speakers.We already knew that they did not have the dynamic range limitations of the AR/Janzen combination.This was dramatically demonstrated by a piece of music with a bass drum wallop toward the end that nearly knocked me out of my seat.This was actually a 3-speaker system with two corner horns and a Cornwall center channel.We were mightily impressed and went home to get the bass drum record and try it on other systems in the dorm including my prior favorites – the AR/Janzen. On the way home, my friend asked me if I had noticed dynamic range enhancement of the drum by the salesman with his quick flick of the volume knob at that precise time – up and then down.I had not, but we tried to reproduce it in our dorm.We learned two things that day: louder is better, dynamic range is very important to music reproduction and that LPs were the limiting factor in this respect.
3. EV Patricians
Another refrigerator-sized speaker. While the Klipchorns used 15” woofers horn-loaded through a complex folded design, Electro Voice used a 30” woofer in a simple corner horn loading. The EV’s were even bigger!! And played very, very loudly in Tech Hifi’s first store (the store was only 20’ x 20’).They finally found a home in a professor’s much larger living room.
4. Bozak Concert Grands
DIY speakers were a major portion of the audio business in the 1950’s and Bozak was a high-end supplier of woofers, midranges (called squawkers), tweeters and crossovers.They also offered factory assembled systems for the non-carpenters.The Concert Grand was the top-of-the-line with four 12” woofers, two squawkers and eight small tweeters.This was a big system designed for big rooms and optimal listening was at fairly far distances (typically 15-30 feet back). At this distance, they integrated well and had a very balanced sound, although a little light in the bass and soft in the treble.If you had a big room and a fat wallet, you could enjoy great sound.
5. Doubled KLH 9s
Henry Kloss had left AR to form KLH.Arthur Janszen’s company was acquired and Arthur was hired to make a sonic statement with a large, full-range electrostatic design. These were about 6’ tall and with two pairs, each side was 4’ wide.With the four properly placed, the bass was just adequate, but the openness and detail was wonderful.The first time I heard the double-pair setup was also the first time I heard Dolby noise reduction getting rid of the annoying tape noise.This was on Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust album and I really felt like Joan was in the room with us.
6. Acoustech X
This was the next in Janszen’s ongoing series of full-range electrostatic systems.It was also in Cambridge, MA, very near MIT.It was funded by Koss Electronics.These were bigger and heavier than the KLH 9s and one pair could produce good bass extension.They had the clarity and openness of all of Janszen’s full-range designs.We sold a few of them at Tech Hifi as well as many of Acoustech’s very early solid state amplifiers.
7. Infinity Servo-Statik 1 sub/sat
Infinity introduced a subwoofer/satellite system with electrostatic panels crossed over to a self-powered subwoofer in the late 1960s.The 18” woofer in a 24” cube enclosure had useful bass down to about 20 Hz because of the feedback coil on the woofer controlling the built-in amplifier.Stereophile found them to be among the best two speaker systems they had ever heard (double KLH 9s was the other).
Taking the information below 100 Hz out of the electrostatic panels and sending it to the subwoofer allowed the panels to play much, much louder without problems.It seemed like an excellent pairing. Stereophile did comment that proper placement of the subwoofer and panels were critical to a smooth transition. If you placed them correctly and listened in their sweet-spot, you could enjoy magnificent performances. At Tech Hifi, we built a special listening room just to demonstrate their potential and to sell them to serious music lovers.
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8. Quads with dipole woofers
Peter Walker’s Quad ESL was introduced in 1957.Marty Gersten, Ohm’s founder and chief designer, once told me the Quads were the only speaker besides the Walshs that could reasonably reproduce pulsed square waves. He attributed it to fact that both designs produced in-phase and in-time output over the audible range.Having sold the Infinity Servo-Statiks at Tech Hifi, for my personal DIY system, I tried a pair of Quads with a subwoofer and electronic crossover (since starting Tech I have become a hard working DIY speaker builder).
I initially tried a large, sealed subwoofer similar to the Infinity but without the Servo feedback system.And, as with the Infinity speakers, I found speaker placement critical to get a good transition from subwoofer to ESL.In reality, it was nearly impossible.I suspected the different dispersion pattern of the dipole ESL and monopole subwoofer was a fundamental problem. So, I tried dipole subwoofers (it requires a subwoofer with great excursion because of the natural front-to-back cancellation).I mounted the ESL in the center of a much larger panel and built an array of subwoofer drivers all around the ESL.With a bunch of fussing with placement, crossover and equalization, it was possibly the best sounding set of speakers I had ever heard (how much I was feeling the DIY pride of creation is unclear).They were also among the worst looking speakers I have ever seen – certainly not ready for consumers. Years later Gradient did make a much more attractive version for the Quad ESL 63 introduced in 1989.These dual subs as speaker stands received good reviews and today Ohm’s 20/20k Series uses the same (sat on top of sub) technique to get matching dispersion patterns.
9. B&W Nautilus
These are the only box speakers that I have heard match the sound quality of the Ohm Walsh systems of the time. The four drivers in each system are not mounted in a conventional box. B&W knows how to make good woofers, midranges and tweeters; plus they have been very concerned with the sound added by the enclosure. The result of a 5-year development project was the Nautilus. Each driver has its rear radiation absorbed by a tapering pipe with the 12” woofer’s pipe wrapped around like a seashell.The electronic crossover and eight channels of amplification contributed to the sound.In its tiny sweet-spot (inches wide and even narrower vertically) it does not sound like four separated drivers.Total cost was nearly prohibitive, but it certainly was a tour de force for conventional drivers.
10. MBL Radialstrahler 101E Mk.II
When MBL’s uniquely designed speakers first appeared in the early 1980’s, Marty Gersten concluded that although they did use travelling-wave transducers like the Walsh design, it was not a patent infringement since it was done in a different configuration with multiple drivers.The MBL Radialstrahlers have received many excellent reviews from all around the world – with good reasons: they look amazing and sound very good.
A few years ago, I took a trip to England to meet with a potential Ohm distributor and demonstrate the custom product I was suggesting that they sell.I was hoping to get them to build the cabinets themselves and to buy the Walsh drivers, subwoofers and crossovers from Ohm. I expected they could retail them for around $3000 per pair.
I arrived in London and went to a local hotel.We had timed the trip to coincide with the opening of the Heathrow Audio Show.Our agreed-upon plan was to go through the show and listen to the best systems on display.We would be auditioning all our competition in just a couple of days.I had brought a bunch of CDs for my presentation; but only took the Alpine Demo CD to the show to use as a “standard” source for all the systems we auditioned. I have heard this CD on literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of speakers and know several of the cuts note for note.
At the show many, many high-end speakers were demonstrated, either in their own rooms or in high-end electronics manufacturers’ rooms.Many of these speakers had received rave reviews in the audio press.In a consumer show, you want to sound your best and no expense was spared to make great demonstrations.The prices varied from under $2,000 to over $30,000 per pair for the speakers alone. And into six figures for complete systems!
I know what this CD sounds like on my speakers. As I went from room to room I became more and more depressed.Many of the speakers sounded very good to my companions; but none sounded like mine to me.It is a hard sell trying to convince someone that this many well reviewed speakers are all wrong and my sound it correct.I had fought this uphill battle in Japan a few years earlier; so I was getting discouraged while my potential customers were happily discussing the pros and cons of the speakers we auditioned.
Then we came to the MBL room. They had their Radialstrahler 101 E MK II on display powered by their own electronics.They put on my CD and let the 101s play. I internally breathed a great sigh of relief.Here was the only pair of speakers that sounded like mine.The MBL representative happily spend nearly an hour demonstrating all his CDs to us enthusiastic listeners as other show goers came and went sharing our enthusiasm.We all agreed, these were the best sounding speakers in the show by far. And at $140,000 for the system, we understood they could be in a totally different class with a different sound. After a short stop at their number two choice (to confirm their earlier impressions), they were excited to hear my speakers.
We unpacked the Ohms in their acoustic lab (a converted garage). There we tested them with a 300-Watt amplifier to confirm the speakers had survived the flight from NY.Then we took them into the main living room section of the home.I was a bit concerned about this space as the left wall was almost totally open to the dining room/open kitchen area. They hooked up the speakers and I auditioned the same CD as we had been hearing all day.The speakers sounded correct to me in the room and the others were amazed.The Ohms sounded closer to the MBLs than any other speaker we had auditioned.Then we cranked the system up to “see what they could do” and I noticed the sound was getting a bit “hard”, maybe distorting in the high end.Still, my hosts were exceedingly pleased with the speakers’ performance.The host explained they were using a 35-Watt CD/receiver that his wife normally used for background music.They had wanted to hear them in a real-life setup, not in a “cost-no-object” system like the systems we had been listening to at the show.
Although we never came to a distribution agreement, I felt the experience was well worth the cost in time and money.
Although both the fully omnidirectional MBL and the original fully omnidirectional Ohm As and Ohm Fs require “far-from-walls” placement, they all keep their sonic balance from anywhere in the listening room and create a spectacular soundscape in their sweet-spot. And like the original Walshs, that spectacular soundscape moves with you as you leave the center sweet-spot and almost totally collapses when you are in front of one speaker.The controlled directivity of the later generations, called Walsh 2 and beyond, addresses this problem better than any other speaker in the world.
The MBLs subwoofer is a bandpass design that impacts the transition to the main ‘footballs’.In Ohm’s new 20/20K Series, we addressed this problem by making the subwoofer use a standard acoustic suspension design to match the acoustic suspension Walsh satellite sitting on top of the subwoofer.
So, there you have it.My “Top Ten” from the time I was in college to the present — each successive “Greatest” adding something to at least my world of sound, audio and music. Let me just add here, with a note of pride, “Dollar-for-Dollar,” I fully believe that the current Ohm Walsh speakers deliver the finest, most accurate and most enjoyable sound available, from the widest sweet-sweep in the world!
See you in two weeks!
John Strohbeen Author
John Strohbeen is the president of Ohm Speakers.