A comparison of several of the best vintage home loudspeakers
Sep 7, 2009 (Updated Jul 31, 2010)
Popular Products in Home Theater Speakers and SubwoofersThe Bottom Line The are many excellent vintage loudspeakers out there that can be had for a song.
Over the past couple of years, I've been restoring many of the classic speakers of the 1960s and 1970s. It all started when I was given a tour of the Santa Cruz Guitar manufacturing facility by Richard Hoover, the founder of Santa Cruz Guitars. He had an incredible passion for the acoustic and aesthetic properties of wood, and his enthusiasm was contagious. I knew I didn't have the time to learn luthiery, but I wanted to work with wood.
At about the same time, I saw a pair of Dynaco A-25 loudspeakers (made from approximately 1969 through 1975) on eBay. They had been painted black and looked awful, but I knew there was beautiful wood underneath: Dynacos were the speakers I had in high school and college, and I had always regreted selling them to a friend in grad school. I decided to snap them up and see if I could make them look pretty again. A little reading on the internet and a few calls to Home Depot and I was on my way.
The speakers looked wonderful when I was done, and they sounded surprisingly good, even when compared to today's speakers. They weren't quite as extended in the frequency extremes (deep bass and treble overtones) as some of today's speakers, but they were always musical and satisfying.
I refinished a few more pairs of Dynaco A-25s over the next several months. Some wound up with friends. Others I sold on Craigslist or Ebay, making enough to finance my new hobby and a few sets of guitar strings here and there.
After awhile, I decided to expand my horizons and started refinishing other vintage speakers. These were the classics, the speakers the grown-ups had in their houses when I was a kid: Acoustic Research AR-2axs and AR3as, Large Advents and New Large Advents, KLH 6s, and Klipsch Heresys.
Of course, most were in working shape, and so I had the chance to listen to and compare many of the classics of my youth. The result was some enjoyable listening sessions with audiophile friends from around the Bay Area, and several Epinions reviews
In this write-up, I'm going to try to briefly summarize what I like and dislike about each of the classics I've had a chance to listen to extensively. All have their good points, and any could be the main loudspeaker in a musically satisfying home stereo system. A common denominator among all of these speakers is that they are beautifully finished in walnut veneer. Many of the pairs currently out there are tired, scratched and chipped, tarrying in someone's garage or storage space. But most can be refinished relatively easily, and returned to folks' living rooms, where they belong.
These are the speakers that started it all for me. They were my main speakers throughout college, and they were the first speakers I restored. They are relatively small (about 20" tall x 11.5" wide" x 10" deep) and house a 10" woofer and 4" tweeter. The woofer surrounds are made of rubber, meaning that these speakers are dependable and don't need a "woofer refoam" every few years. Most Dynaco A-25s have SEAS drivers. The earliest ones (with the damped port above the tweeter) have Scanspeak drivers. The smallish Dynaco A-25s have light grilles and look really nice in a living room.
The sound of the Dynacos is "neutral," for lack of a better word. The highs are relatively smooth and non-fatiguing, and the bass is relatively tight, and goes deep given the small size of the enclosure. However, the bass does not go as deep as with larger classics like Large Advents and AR-2axs. And Dynacos sound best with small scale jazz, folk, and small-ensemble classical. They can rock fairly well, but push them too hard, and they start to compress.
Their neutral sound and incredible durability have earned them quite a following. A cosmetically challenged pair can go for under $100 on eBay, but a really nice pair can command between $200 and $400.
Acoustic Research AR-2axs.
These are three-way speakers in a cabinet that is substantially larger that that of the A-25. AR-2ax are about 24" tall, 13 1/2" wide, and 11 1/2" deep. The cabinets house a 10" woofer (actually slightly larger than the Dynaco woofer), a dome midrange and a small dome tweeter. Buying a pair of AR-2axs is a bit more of a "crap shoot" than Dynaco A-25s for two reasons. First of all, some AR-2axs came with foam woofer surrounds, while others came with more indestructible treated cloth surounds. The foam surrounds tend to rot after 20 years or so, so it's likely that you'll nead a "re-foam" (about $80 for the pair) if you buy a pair with foam surrounds. The second issue: The mid- and treble- controls on the back of AR-2axs are continuous potentiometers, rather than the three- or five-position switches found on Dynaco A-25s, and they tend corrode over time, meaning that you may not get any sound from the midrange or tweeter. At best, there may be "sweet spots," meaning that there is sound from the corresponding driver, but you can not really adjust midrange and treble levels to your liking. Interestingly, AR-2axs look essentially like Dynaco A-25s on steroids. They are larger (and therefore a bit harder to place), but share the Dynacos' nice walnut veneer, light grille cloths, and overall classy, understated appearance.
A working pair of AR-2axs sounds really nice. Their bass goes deeper than the bass of Dynaco A-25s, and the overall sound is a bit more liquid and dynamic as well. The imaging on smaller scale music is not quite as precise as with the smaller A-25, but on larger scale works, like classical symphonies and loud rock, they provide a nice, large soundstage and good dynamics. They remain among my favorite vintage loudspeakers.
Acoustic Research AR-2axs sell on eBay for about the same price as Dynaco A-25s. If you can find a fully functional pair, they're a really good buy. But beware the woofer surround and potentiometer issues.
Acoustic Research AR-3as.
Acoustic Research AR-3as are the bigger brother of the AR-2ax. I believe their lineage extends back into the 1950s; a pair of earlier AR-3s is actually in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC as an example of pioneering American technology. The AR-3a is only slightly larger than the AR-2ax (about 25" x 14" x 11 1/2"), but they are heavy as hell. A single AR-3a must weigh more than 40 lbs. Each enclosure houses an 11" woofer (nominally a 12") and a dome midrange and tweeter. They share the AR-2ax's woofer surround and potentiometer issues. As with the AR-2ax, some come with indestructible treated cloth woofer surrounds (the earlier ones, I think), while some come with foam surrounds that are subject to rot. The midrange and tweeter potentiometer problems are identical to those of the AR-2ax. AR-3as look a bit more "tank-like" (thick) than Dynaco A-25s or AR-2axs, but they are still attractive speakers.
The AR-3a produces some of the most authoritative sound I've heard from vintage loudspeakers. The bass from a fully functioning pair of AR-3as is pretty darned tight, and it goes deep, probably deeper than any other vintage bookshelf speaker of its era. These would be the vintage speakers to go for if you listen to a lot of Bach organ music. The midrange and treble of AR-3as are both surprisingly refined for speakers that are about 40-years-old. Soundstaging is good, and the overall presentation is quite realistic, if slightly warm. AR-3as also sound remarkably at ease, even at high volume levels.
In terms of price and availability, AR-3as are in a different league from Dynaco A-25s and AR-2axs. Not nearly as many were made, and replacement parts are hard to come by. Even a partially-functioning and aesthetically challenged pair can command $350 or so on eBay. I've seen fully functioning and cosmetically restored pairs going for anywhere from $600 to more than $1000. If you own a nice pair of Acoustic Research AR-3as, you have "arrived" as far as vintage audio collectors are concerned.
The Large Advent Louspeaker.
Advent Corporation was founded in the late 1960s by Henry Kloss, a recent inductee into the Audio Hall of Fame (yes, such a thing exists). He had worked for Acoustic Research and KLH before founding Advent, and is considered a "genius" in the world of loudspeaker design. Kloss was instrumental in the design of the AR-3a, KLH 6 (see below), and several other speakers by AR and KLH. The Large Advent was the flagship loudspeaker of his new company from about 1969 until about 1973, when the "New Large Advent" was introduced. The Large Advent speaker was designed to compete directly with AR's AR-3a at about half the cost. It is a two-way acoustic suspension design in a fairly large (about 26" high x 14" wide x 12" deep) enclosure. Each enclosure houses a nominal 10" woofer and an unusual, orange "fried egg" tweeter.
The sound of the original Large Advent Loudspeaker is authoritative, like that of the AR-3a, and tends to be a little bit dark. For the most part, Large Advents sound quite neutral, with a slightly rolled off high end that makes bright and harsh '90s CDs more listenable. Their bass is quite impressive, and goes deeper, with more authority, than the bass of Dynaco A-25s (and perhaps the AR-2ax). FM announcers sound a bit chesty with Large Advents, but this same mid-bass emphasis makes male vocalists sound nice and manly, which I like. My biggest knock on Large Advents is that they sometimes didn't me fully in touch with the emotion behind the music I was listening to. I'm not sure why. But overall, they're very good speakers.
Large Advents have three-position tweeter switches that don't usually go bad, so they're less finicky than AR-2axs and AR-3as. However, they all have foam woofer surrounds, meaning a "refoam" is a possibility if you buy a pair on eBay. The cost of a pair of Large Advents can vary from under $100/pair to over $200/pair, depending on condition.
New Large Advents.
New Large Advents came out in 1973, and co-existed with original Large Advents for at least a year or two. According to Advent's literature from that time, the New Advents were designed to be more revealing of the original source material (records, etc.), as improvements in recording technology and stereo "front ends" allowed more revealing speakers to sound good. New Large Advents are about the same size as the original, but their front edges are "rounded" rather than "stepped." The original masonite-basket woofer was replaced with a flush mounted metal-basket woofer and the fried egg tweeter was re-designed to have greater high frequency extension and higher power handling capacity.
The result is a speaker that sounds, to my ears, more natural and emotionally involving than the original. In fact, the New Large Advent is one of my favorite vintage loudspeakers. The bass heaviness of the original Large Advent is reduced, though the deep bass of the New Large Advent is still impressive, and the highs are more extended. The overall result is a speaker that stands up remarkably well to modern speakers, in my opinion. In fact, in an A-B comparison in my house, the New Large Advents actually sounded more convincing and involving, especially on large-scale music, than a friend's pair of early 2000s Paradigm Reference 20 Studio Monitors (a relatively high end $600 pair of speakers). My only misgiving about New Large Advents is they tend to be a bit bright; I generally run them with the tweeter at its minimum position and the treble control turned down a bit on my pre-amplifier. KLH 6s (see below) sound a bit smoother than New Large Advents, but at the expense of tightness and detail.
New Large Advents share the original's three-position tweeter switch, so you don't have to worry about potentiometer issues, but they come with foam surrounds, so be sure to check whether these have been replaced if you're considering a pair. The cost on eBay ranges from about $150 to $300, depending on condition. I could live with these as my main speakers without feeling I was missing anything.
The lineage of KLH Model 6s extends all the way back into the late 1950s. These are classic two-way acoustic suspension speakers, designed at least in part by Henry Kloss, and they were probably influential in the design of the later Large Advents and New Large Advents. The 6s are hard to distinguish visually from Acoustic Research AR-2axs if the badges are missing. They are about 23 1/2" tall x 12 5/8" wide x 11 3/4" deep, and weigh about 30 lbs each. Happily, the KLH 6s have three-position tweeter switches that don't corrode, and they also come with treated-cloth woofer surrounds that don't need a periodic refoam. Like the Dynaco A-25, they are pretty durable and dependable speakers. However, the earliest KLH 6s came with woofers and tweeters epoxied to the non-removable front baffles, making access to the drivers an impossibility without virtually tearing the speakers apart. I'd avoid the early version; make sure you can remove the front screens and get to the drivers if you find a pair on eBay or Craigslist.
The sound of the KLH 6 is probably the smoothest I have heard from vintage speakers. I can listen to a pair of KLH 6s for hours and not get tired of them. The midrange is more relaxed sounding than that of of the Large Advents or New Large Advents, and the trebles are remarkably non-fatiguing. However there is a cost: the KLH 6s are not particularly detailed, and the highs roll off more quickly than with the other vintage speakers discussed here. Cymbals in jazz music sound realistic and non-"tizzy," but they are down in level somewhat. The bass is also a bit less tight and deep than with AR-2axs, AR-3as, or either version of Large Advents, though it's still pretty good. These are excellent speakers if you prefer a warm, mellow sound to a detailed, etched sound.
The KLH 6's three-position tweeter switch and treated cloth surrounds means they are dependable and low maintenance speakers, relative to those from Acoustic Research or Advent. If all drivers are working, these share with Dynaco A-25s the high probably that you will be able to buy them, hook them up, and enjoy them without having to repair anything. They are also perhaps the most incredible "undiscovered gem" among vintage loudpseakers. I've seen pairs on eBay and Craigslist selling for well under $100/pair, which is a true bargain. I recently had my refinished (cosmetically only; no work was necessary on the drivers or crossover) KLH 6s hooked up for several weeks and felt no desire to switch to anything else.
Klipsch Heresys are very different from the other speakers discussed here. With the exception of the Dynaco A-25s, all are acoustic suspension speakers, meaning that the enclosures are entirely sealed. The Dynacos have a highly damped port. The result of the acoustic suspension design (and Dynaco's "aperiodic" design) is optimal loading of the woofers, and speakers that produce a good amount of bass from a small enclosure. The trade-off is in efficiency. All of the speakers dicussed thus far produce less than 90 dB of output at 1 meter with 1 watt of power. Further, all of the speakers discussed thus far have what is often referred to as the "East Coast" sound. It tends toward the mellow, with good inner detail, but perhaps at the expense of ultimate dynamic capability. They were geared more toward listeners of classical and jazz than toward the younger rock crowd, though they also sounded good with the rock music of the day. The Klipsch Heresys, on the other hand, are large three-way speakers with horn-loaded midranges and tweeters. The result is speakers that are more efficient, and quite dynamic, but lacking in deep bass. The Heresys are big boxes, about 21 1/4" tall x 15 3/8 wide x 13 1/4" deep, and they come in different finishes, including real walnut veneer, or stained plywood (still very nice). Connectors on the back are tiny screws, which is a bit of a pain.
The sound of the Heresys is very lively and dynamic, with more upper midrange energy than any of the speakers discussed above, but they manage to achieve this liveliness without sounding fatiguing. Instruments are more "in the room" with you than with any of the other speakers discussed here. However, there are trade-offs. Deep bass is severealy compromised. In fact, the Heresys sound too "tipped up" to me without a subwoofer filling in the bottom octave-and-a-half (roughly 60hz and below). The soundstage can be quite convincing, but more of it is forward of the speakers, rather than behind them. I also can't listen quite as long to Heresys without wanting to do something else. The sound is involving, but I wouldn't call it relaxing. The Heresys sound best on stands (mine are 20" high), but they're a bit large to sit comfortably on stands. These are not speakers I would want around if I had toddlers in the house. Still, the Heresys are pretty darned impressive. I particularly like the way they make flutes and horns breathe. And dynamics are great. I haven't heard them compress. The overall realism can be quite incredible.
I have less experience with Heresys than the other speakers discussed here, but I believe them to be dependable and relatively maintenance-free. They have no mid- or tweeter-level adjustments to go bad, and the woofer surrounds appear to be rubber. The price on eBay is between $200 and $500 per pair, depending on condition.
Other speakers worth mentioning.
There are several other vintage loudpeakers that are worth hearing if you're looking to build a vintage system. I'll give a brief description of a few of them: The Dynaco A-35 is the slightly larger brother of the more famous Dynaco A-25. Their sound is very similar to the A-25, with perhaps a bit more bass authority and dynamic capability. The Dynaco A-10 is the little brother to the A-25. It sounds like an A-25 but with less bass. However, its upper bass is quite tight and punchy. The Acoustic Research AR-4x is a smaller offering from Acoustic Research that can be had for very little. The sound is slightly dark but quite pleasing. The KLH Model 17 competed with the Dynaco A-25 in the $79 each (retail) price range in the early 1970s. The samples I've heard were a little bright for my tastes, but some people swear that they sound like a KLH 6 with slightly less bass. The even smaller KLH Model 24 is more to my liking: it sounds a tad bright but well-balanced overall. Further, you can occasionally find pairs of 24s on Craigslist for next to nothing (about $50 for the pair). The JBL L-100 was JBL's consumer version of the studio monitors for which they were known in the 1970s. The L-100 can handle power, and they rock well, but the sound is a bit less refined than that of the vintage speakers I've enjoyed from Dynaco, AR, Advent and KLH. Soundstage depth is foreshortened, and I'm always aware I'm listening to speakers (rather than music) with the JBL L-100. The ADS 400 (early version) is a neat little speaker. It has really smooth, but slightly bright, highs, and relatively well articulated mid-bass. The larger ADS 710 is something of a classic and is worth a listen as well.
There are many good vintage loudspeakers out there that can be had for much less than most modern home speakers. Although improvements have been made in speaker technology, particularly in the area of high frequency extension, the overall musicality of these older speakers is hard to beat. Plus, they're pretty as heck! All of the speakers reviewed here come in real walnut veneer and, properly restored, look very attractive in a classy and understated kind of way.
It is difficult to recommend one over the others because each have things they do best. If you listen to a wide variety of music (including rock), and want something that goes deep in the bass and sounds crisp and clear in the mids and trebles, I might opt for a pair of New Large Advents. If you listen mostly to classical or female jazz vocals, and and want something that errs in the direction of the smooth, mellow and relaxing, I'd opt for a pair of KLH 6s. And if you want something that is fundamentally neutral, slightly mellow, and doesn't take up much space, Dynaco A-25s are a safe bet. But any of the speakers discussed above can sound good in the right system (though I'm not a big fan of JBL speakers).
Associated equipment and links.
Below, I include links to the original reviews of several of the speakers discussed here. In those reviews I provide more detail about each speaker and also describe the sound of each with various kinds of music. Equipment for most of the reviews (and the brief discussions above) include the following: NAD 521BEE CD player, AR ES-1 turntable with Shure M97xE cartridge, conrad-johnson MF-80 power amplifier, modded older Musical Fidelity preamplifier, and an M&K V-2B subwoofer. My reference speakers are one of Henry Kloss's last designs: the Cambridge Soundworks Towers. The Towers remain one of my favorite loudspeakers, regardless of price.
Acoustic Research AR-2axs:
New Large Advents:
KLH Model 6:
Cambridge Soudworks Towers:
(Google Cambridge Soundworks Towers Epinions Horswispr for review)