By John Stancavage
Audio is kind of like that, too. No, not full of torture and retribution — although that happens from time to time — but rather populated throughout its history by people who seemed to have knowledge far beyond most.
You can see remnants of this today at shows such as RMAF, where 50-year old circuit topologies pop up to compete with the latest computer-designed layouts, and some speaker manufacturers continue to believe the best way forward is to look back.
Count Classic Audio Loudspeakers firmly in this camp. Run by John Wolff, the Michigan-based company makes loudspeakers inspired by the titans of yesteryear, like JBL and Altec.
Wolff, like the antagonist in “Lethal Weapon,” believes in keeping alive the knowledge of the masters of yesteryear. To him, the key things that make a great transducer have been lost in the frenzy to develop exotic materials or designs that can be easily stamped out by a low-skilled workforce.
In the old days, loudspeakers were created by visionaries who designed with their ears as much as their eyes, and then realized those audio dreams in cabinets made by gifted artisans. Most competitors may think Wolff is nuts, but he doesn’t see any reason to believe the same process can’t be replicated today. All it takes is patience, time and money.
Wolff introduced his latest Classic Audio loudspeaker at RMAF 2014, the T 1.5. The very large floorstander features front-firing and down-firing 15-inch woofers, a midrange with a 4-inch beryllium diaphragm and a Fostex super tweeter.
All of the components use the company’s field-coil technology. Along with a huge horn, this is the other old-school idea at work here. Field coils over the years have almost been made extinct by fixed magnets. In the latter, a speaker’s voice coil is positioned in a gap between the poles of a magnet. The former, in contrast, uses a voice coil and a field coil. Direct current feeds the field coil to create a magnetic field, so no permanent magnet is needed. Some designers and listeners believe permanent magnets can lose a bit of their power over time giving the field coil an advantage. Proponents of this technology also think field coils, done correctly, can produce less distortion.
Wolff came up with the idea of using beryllium copper in his field coils. “We’re the only company in the world doing that,” he said.
Wolff’s speakers are painstakingly produced in two shops. One assembles the speakers, while the other handles the exquisite woodwork, which really must be seen to be believed — this is real heirloom quality, put-them-in-the-will craftsmanship.
The ported speakers are very efficient — 101 db, according to Wolff. He pointed to the 60-watt Atma-Sphere Novacron amps driving them via the Luminist revision of Purist Audio Design’s Musaeus cable. ‘We’re only using about one watt on most material,” he said.
All of this, as you might guess, does not come without a price. In this case, it’s $73,000.
Crazy as it sounds for someone who does not personally earn crazy money, I could see doing a second mortgage and going for the T 1.5s. As another enthusiast I used to know liked to say, “Buy the best and you’ll cry only once.”
While I was there, Wolff cued up Los Lobos’ “Kiko and the Lavender Moon.” I’ve heard this track live many times, but usually audio systems will make it sound shrunken and lacking the weight and energy it has on stage. Not with the Classic Audio Loudspeakers T 1.5. Instead, the percussion thwacked authoritatively, all of David Hidalgo’s wonderfully quirky guitar sounds were individually audible and vocals sounded like they were straight out of the PA. In other words, the T 1.5s pulled off the difficult trick of making a studio track sound like live music.
Speaking of Hidalgo, there’s a dude who I suspect has forgotten more music then most mere mortals have had the chance to absorb. I think he would especially appreciate what another “lobo” — Jim Wolff — has created. You might, too.