VINTAGE AND / OR JUST NOSTALGIA: Do modern speakers sound better than vintage?

CF writes:

On balance, I’d say yes. But it's not an easy question to answer because it depends on so many factors.

Which speakers are we comparing? Are we taking the used price of old speakers against what can be bought new for the same amount, or are we inflation adjusting the old price for a proper like-for-like comparison? Are the vintage speakers still in working condition? There are a lot where the foam rubber surround on the mid/bass drivers rots, That’s quite evident but relatively easy to repair. What’s less noticeable is when the ferrofluid dries out and affects the frequency response.

If we are defining vintage accurately then that would mean product between 40 and 99 years old. In the context of the date of this question then, that would mean product dating from 1923 to 1982. But if someone is using vintage to mean something older than say the last 10–15 years then that complicates things even further.

There are undoubtedly some great true vintage loudspeakers which still set high standards compared to modern rivals. In the UK market products such as the Dalhquist DQ-10, Quad 57s, Tannoy Monitor Golds in Westminster cabinets, certain KEF, Celestion, Mission, Wharfedale and B&W offerings, and then imports from Acoustic Research and Magnepan spring to mind. This isn’t an exhaustive list.

By the same token there was also some complete dross around.

The late-‘70s/early-’80s was a break point in the world of Hi-Fi loudspeaker manufacturing. New tools became available in R&D such as laser interferometry and computer-aided design. Those were game-changers for the companies that could afford the investment. It allowed designers to see material behaviours and shorten product development times. Today this stuff is everywhere.


FM writes:

I’m in the industry and I am pleased to say that as I travel the world, visiting factories and laboratories, and more importantly, attending shows where we can have between 50 and 140 manufacturers displaying and playing their products, there’s a certain rightness that did not exist before.

All of us have reference recordings that we use for evaluating the sound. When you hear a dozen manufacturers in one day at one of the shows using female vocalists that you know well or wide bandwidth instrumental presentations, and they are finally sounding similar and quite natural, you realize that this is the golden age for Loudspeakers.

We attempted to apply technology to speaker design with very little luck. As an example, a company that I started here in the United States, Onkyo USA, had a huge speaker division back in Japan. We used laser interferometry before BMW and they still couldn’t make a decent Loudspeaker.

Computer programs like MLSSA shorten the learning curve but none of the Loudspeakers could convince you that there were musicians in your room anyway. Remember that all computer programs are designed by human beings. None of them are correct and none of them are perfect.

The cognitive designers realize that specifications alone do not tell the story. We’ve never been able to correlate the specifications with actual performance. So what are we to do?

here’s how it works for most of us: we design intuitively guessing at the potential results. We confirm results subjectively by listening to prototypes. One of the major flaws is it you're spending a lot of time that shouldn’t be necessary on R&D. The other flaw is using audiophile recordings for your development which tend to sound good with any speaker! You need to use ordinary recordings or even poor recordings as well.

A canny designer will use technology combined with subjectivity. We get an idea of the product performance with computer analysis, special chambers and modeling but we still have to build prototypes and we still have to tune by ear.

and I have seen countless test results that were terribly similar from brand to brand and yet the products out there sounded entirely different. So the only arbiter is listening. If you as a consumer loves the sound of a loudspeaker, by all means buy it. And do not look to people on forums for advice since they have no answers. They will only validate their own purchase decisions.

Finally, if a person thinks that modern technology gives us the best loudspeakers, explain why the original quad electrostatic, mistakenly called the 57 by the press, is as natural as a speaker can be, in most important parameters, and it was designed in the mid 50s! No Wharfdale, Klipsch, JBL, Polk, or monitor audio has ever come close. And that’s just a tiny list. actually, in the interest of honesty, the giant line sources are unbelievably spectacular. Unfortunately, many are over a quarter of $1 million.

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