The 12 Most Significant Loudspeakers of All Time

My top 10 list, most of which I have owned or still do. I’m going chronologically in time, so ordering is not by quality. All are timeless classics in their own way.

1. Klipschorn: Paul Klipsch to me remains the greatest American speaker designer. It’s no accident the Klipschorn is still being produced 70 years running. It’s a marvelous solution to many problems, including positioning (corner room placement is so brilliant and so ahead of its time that when I see ginormous speakers in TAS and Stereophile that have to be placed 5 feet in front of a wall, I have to refrain from bursting out laughing). Plus you only need a 2-3 watt SET to drive them comfortably. Distortion wise, there’s not much that compares to them even today. The new Jubilees are what I would buy if I had the space. I own the La Scalas, which I just bought last year. Similar design. With the right SET, they do everything I want in a speaker. They look nice too. The latest wood finishes and fabric are tastefully done. Build quality has hugely improved over previous La Scalas. They weigh 200 pounds each, but I use a simple 3 watt SET with a single Western Electric 421a power tube for both channels. The 421a is the sleeper NOS that no one knows about. In my system, it stomps all over a 300B SET that uses the WE 300Bs.

2. Quad ESL: Peter Walker is the other great speaker designer across “the pond”. Built and released in 1957, almost as old as the KHorn, but sadly not produced anymore. Still, tens of thousands still use the 57s as a reference. My pair were made in the 1970s. The most reliable Quad ever made. As long as you don’t overdrive them, they last forever. If you don’t believe me, ask Kent of Electrostatic Solutions, who’s refurbished more Quads than anyone in the US.

3. Quad ESL 63: Peter Walker was never happy with any of his designs. When asked about his famous 57, he refreshingly replied: “oh, no, we think it’s a terrible speaker, but it’s better than almost anything else!” He took 18 years to perfect his delay line solution to controlling directivity. I have owned more 63s than anything else. I currently have the 2805 and the 2905. Both sound different and have relative strengths and disadvantages. Quad 63s sadly are not reliable. They are a pain to fix. I won’t buy another Quad, but I’m happy to listen to mine.

4. Spendor SP-1: TAS’ REG loves these and for good reason. They get the midrange right in many ways, but compared to the La Scalas I own, they have little dynamic range. I own the SP 1/2E and use it in my home theater, where its mellow sound makes bright film soundtracks listenable. They are not too large, which in a box loudspeaker is a good thing. As a PhD student in the mid 1980s, I owned the original SP-1s, which were even more lovely thanks to the fabric Celestion tweeter.

5. Harbeth Monitor 40: massively overrated loudspeaker, but I’ll include it since I owned two pairs. The original Monitor 40, which I bought used in 2002 for a measly $2500 was a horrendous design, praised by REG, but produced these giant +20 dB bass humps in my large listening room. The original 40s used the slot woofer (which has returned in some recent BBC inspired designs). Alan Shaw was trying to copy the bass hump in the original BBC model to sell more Monitor 40s to the Beeb. I now own the Monitor 40.1s, which have a much more balanced sound. I consider the 40s far poorer to the Spendor SP-1. The 40s have a tendency to glare. The crossover design is not very good. The three drivers do not sound coherent to my ears. My 40.1s are in my kitchen pantry now. The new models sell for almost 30 grand. Grand larceny to me.

6. B&W 800/Diamond: Massively built and quite neutral sounding. Need a very high powered amplifier to make them come alive. The original 800 was one of the flattest sounding designs. The newer models have a pronounced treble peak. It can play loudly and do a reasonable job on orchestral music without overloading. In terms of dollar value, these were a bargain. The Marlan head housing the midrange and tweeter itself weighed almost 100 pounds. I don’t know how B&W made any money selling these.

7. Magneplanar 3.6s: America’s answer to the Quad. Very colored compared to Quads, but could be driven to much louder volumes. I drove them with a Krell 700cx, and they could take pretty much any power I played them at. They sounded better at high decibels. Strangely, the speaker was less fatiguing at high volumes than low volumes (Fletcher Munson effect perhaps). Absolute bargain for the money.

8. Devialet Phantom Gold: the first truly 21st century loudspeaker. Built in 5000 watt class A/D amp with DAC and streamer. Can produce a shocking 110 dB at 14 Hz at low distortion. The Devialet team that designed them included experts in explosives to model the shock waves inside the compact eggshell shape. Open one up and it doesn’t look like a speaker. Hardly a wire in sight. Groundbreaking design in every way. I got a pair for my spouse who listens to it everyday. I must admit my 5“ tall 2905 Quads looks a bit silly next to the diminutive Phantoms, much like the old medium format cameras that you had to look into with a cloth over your head and your assistant used a flash to get a picture.

9. Gradient 1.4 Helsinki: Queer looking open baffle design, but set up right produces the best illusion of stereo I have ever heard. Your room disappears. Cannily designed to minimize first reflections. Jorma Salmi who designed them was a genius, sadly he’s no more. My Gradients are in my bedroom driven by a pair of $200 professional Crown amplifiers as my pair used 4-pole Speakon connectors. They sound like nothing else I have heard, but many find them lean because they don’t have that hump in the mid bass everyone craves.

10. To be filled by X: truth be told, I agree with Peter Walker. Loudspeakers by and large are terribly nonlinear. Distortion levels are way too high. Even the best professional loudspeakers can barely resolve 8 bits of information in the bass. Here is the distortion level of the $30,000 JBL M2, one of their most widely used professional loudspeakers. What a joke! Look at how bad the distortion is.What’s the point of 24-bit high res if loudspeakers are so poor?

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