Speakers, a history and appreciation by Tony Marcus

One of the music journalists that I used to send new releases was Tony Marcus, I think it was Mixmag and The Face or i.D. that he used to move the pen to (music) paper for.  I’ve just come across his website, and he’s written a little thing about hi-fi speakers.


I know I am not the only one entranced by speakers. We are many. We stare helplessly at them. We like them raw, sans grille so we can examine the huge bass drivers and smaller tweeters and mids which are sometimes black but also silver (aluminium) or gold (kevlar) and the exposed screws and steel bays that hold them in place.

The obsession is widespread. They feature on record covers and in the art of Mark Leckey, Wolfgang Tillmans, Jennifer Bolande, Mark Rath and Kevin Larmon, as paintings or photographs (there are portraits of speakers). And also as acoustic, sculptural pieces. The KLF logo combines the speaker with the pyramid; two occult monoliths offering a graphic hymn to power.

The archetypal or classic speaker is the vintage hi-fi speaker, manufactured between 1970 and 1982, ideallly a KEF or Mission but maybe a rogue Sony, Pioneer or Technics that just happened to be that bit more brutal and excellent than normal. They are the best sounding and the best-looking speakers; well certainly perfect for Can, Afrobeat, heavy dub and all heavy, stoned musics.

There is space in East London that is a shrine to vintage hi-fi speakers. It is a small warehouse with a stage at one end (for live bands) and a sound system made from 60 vintage, classic speakers, standing on the floor or suspended from the walls and ceiling. They all have that ugly-beautiful look of the ‘classic’ speaker – you can see the rivets, the black drivers, the rough wood – the design is crude and brutal. But it is also beautiful.

The guy who runs the space wants both it and his name kept secret – the local council have been on his back after numberless parties and gigs. He drives the speakers with 14 hi-fi amps (mostly vintage) and 2 or 3 PA amps. The sound is gorgeous – as loud as a PA system but fresher, warmer – noticeably different from a club system. He says it is because these old hi-fi speakers are more ‘accurate, clear and less crude ‘ than PA speakers (although he has some PA speakers in the system).

This East End space is a good place to look at speakers and examine the power they have to command and hold the eye. “There is something about them ‘from another time that has lost its purpose’, says our nameless’ friend – a former art student turned taxi driver – then maestro of a 100 giant woofers.

And there is a kind of love for speakers that I haven’t been able to explain. A kind of physical comfort of speakers. They provide love in some way. Their physicality has some kind of meaning which has been motivating me in an unconscious way. Speakers are iconographic, fetishistic, sculptural, compelling.

Their basic magic is sound reproduction. They turn an electrical signal into moving air that makes our eardrums vibrate (themselves related to speakers) which the brain translates back into the ‘original’ sound. The science is intimate.

The history of the speaker is the history of recording sound – the technology that makes the speaker work is the same technology that makes the microphone work and dates from the 1890s patents of Bell, Edison and the telephone and gramophone. It is very old technology that remains unchanged in contemporary speakers – of course there are modern materials and wonderful refinements but the core principles of vibrating cones and diaphragms are ancient.

Most of the early innovators were American and they were employed to develop colossal PA systems. Throughout the 1920s companies like MGM demanded sound systems for their movie theatres, some solutions, like the 1926 Western Electric 555-w had a 40sq foot mouth – a behemoth.

The first giant PA system was used by US President Woodrow Wilson at San Diego stadium in 1919. His speech calling for a League of Nations (to hopefully prevent a Second World War) was delievered on a Magnavox system and could be heard from one mile away.

The public address system is fascist by default. Goebbels employed ‘radio wardens’ who installed speaker systems all across Germany to relay Nazi speeches. It was forbidden to move from your work until the speech was over. In 1933 the President of the German Broadcast Chamber, ‘Reichsrunfunkhammer’ Horst Andress explained: “The speeches of our leader Adolf Hitler were listened to by the entire German nation assembled before the loud-speakers in gigantic community receptions, on the streets and squares, in the shops, in the factories, in the restuarants of the rural districts and in the houses.”

An Englishwoman, Lilian Mourier spent 10 days snowed in at a German ski-resort in Silesia in 1933. In her memoir of those times she writes: “The loudspeakers were rarely silent and when the Fuhrer himself was speaking it was impossible to get any service, even at mealtimes, for everyone was supposed to stand to attention and listen. I tried not to listen but it was practically impossible to escape the atmosphere.” Hitler later said “without the loudspeaker we could never have conquered Germany.”

There is something inherently occult about the microphone/record/speaker – perhaps not so obvious in 2006 and especially as so many modern speakers are so discrete looking. But those older models, sans grille, exposed and brutalist they carry menace. Thomas Edison was half-convinced they could be used to listen to or speak with the dead

The post-war years are the story of ‘backyard’ companies like Acoustic Research, JBL, Altec Lansing and KEF, founded by just one or two gifted, visionary engineers. Their work made quality domestic hi-fi a reality. Acoustic Research developed the ‘acoustic suspension speaker’ which meant a 10” cone could deliver the bass it previously required a four-foot mouth to generate.

There’s a consensus that 1970 to 1984 is the ‘golden age’ of speakers. It was partly the love these small companies put into their work. And also because people were prepared to pay more for equipment says Ben Shallcross who deals in vintage hi-fi. He co-owns the shop Audio Gold in Crouch End, London, another shrine to all those rough black mouths. He thinks a lot of modern kit is ‘landfill’.

Ben recommends big, heavy speakers (“size matters”). He says you can think of the speaker as an instrument. And just as a cello is beautifully resonant because it is about wood and space and heft so a speaker must be big and heavy if you want a sound that is warm and rich and deep. He accuses Bose, who aggressively marketed the very small speaker of ‘derailing the notion of what a speaker needs to be’.

There is a market for ‘vintage hi-fi’. Ben says prices are beginning to soar as people realize a pair of 70s speakers at £200 are a good match for a new pair that would cost £800. Some command very high prices – there is a cult yearning for Tannoy Golds, the LS3/5a (a KEF and BBC collaboration) and JBL’s 4350 studio monitor. The Who had twelve 4350s in the control room at their Rampart studio. “There were devastatingly loud,” said Pete Townsend. “Playbacks at Rampart were orgasmic.”

We worship speakers. I’ve worshipped speakers. They have heavy religious resonances, something like tombs or pagan henges and the god that speaks through stone and statues. They might be fascinating because of their function, but other sound machines or instruments don’t carry the same spell. There is an intensity about these sunken black suns that is completely singular.

I have a pair of very early 70s Acoustic Research speakers. The wooden cabinets are heavy, the bays are made of steel, the woofers are huge and dark. They have a beautiful, warm sound. I paid £230 for them thirteen years ago and they give me pleasure even when they are quiet. They are objects of power and magic and I live gratefully in their sight and under their spell.

More by Tony Marcus

2 thoughts on “Speakers, a history and appreciation by Tony Marcus

  1. followed the link provided to the marcus website and discovered a great article on one of my favorite bands the Au Pairs….well worth checking!

  2. I stumbled across this post of yours while looking around to see if I could find a pair of JBL 4350s for sale anywhere, just to see what they might be commanding these days.

    I lived in a house in the suburbs of Chicago that had a recording studio downstairs, and there was a pair of those speakers up on massive saw horses, to get them at ear level. Each cab was tri-amped with Crown amps. God, there was nothing in this world that sounded as good as those speakers sounded. It was almost a religious experience.

    Now, I’m still enjoying a pair of JBL L112’s I bought new half a lifetime ago. The foam surround on the woofers blew out a long time ago, but I dug them out of the closet and redid the surrounds. They’re now my main fronts on a 7.1 THX surround sound system. Life is good. : )

    Refreshing to see others that appreciate this older gear, the newer stuff just isn’t the same.

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