Oct 072015
 

In 1877 Thomas Edison invented recording with the phonograph, and kicked off the acoustic era of recording that lasted until 1925, when Western Electric initiated the electrical era of recording with the development of microphones, amplifiers, disc cutting machines, loudspeakers, and sound for movies.

Thomas Edison & phonograph public domain photo

Thomas Edison & his phonograph (public domain photo)

Western Electric supported the theater movie sound business until 1936, when the movie theater industry declined dramatically during the depression, and then Western Electric decided to abandon the rapidly declining movie theater sound part of their business.

2 WesternElectric

Western Electric logo (public domain photo)

In response, a group of Western Electric engineers (George Carrington, Mike Conrow, and Alvis Ward) founded Altec in 1937 (Altec stands for “all technical”) to pick up where Western Electric had left off in supporting the movie theater sound business.

Altec managed to survive the difficult economics of those next few years, and then in 1941 acquired the Lansing Manufacturing Co. loudspeaker company from Jim Lansing, so they could expand their business opportunities by manufacturing equipment to supply to movie theaters, and Altec Lansing was born.

7 Altec loudspeakers

The Altec Lansing A2 ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeaker combines two 210 low-frequency cabinets with four 515E drivers, and one 1005B horn with two 288-16K high-frequency compression drivers – a theater classic!

In 1945 the first Altec Lansing ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers, like the A1, A4, and the A5, began to appear behind the screens in movie theaters, and by 1955 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences adopted the ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers as the industry standard.

Ever since I’ve been writing about audio I’ve been interested in the contribution that Altec Lansing ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers have made to film, music, and audio.

1 Yazaki-san

Yazaki-san (center) with friends in Tokyo

In my article ‘Adventures in Real Sound with Mr. Shirokazu Yazaki’ (Positive Feedback Issue 81) I wrote about some of the stories that Yazaki-san shared with me about his earliest experiences in audio that involved ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers.

Yazaki-san told me about how in the late 1960s as a university student, he was first introduced to the Altec Lansing ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers, when on “One Sunday afternoon, I went to a jazz café to fill up the time. The café was below ground, and so I went down the stairs to a thick glass door. When I reached to the door, I could clearly hear the sound through it of someone playing jazz piano. In the next breath, I went into the café, but I couldn’t see anyone playing the piano. I only found & heard two big speakers that were playing lively real piano in the poor lighting. Well, as things turned out, the piece for piano was Chick Corea’s “Piano Improvisation Vol. 1” and the speakers were the Altec Magnificent, displayed just like beautiful furnishings (and reminding me of the famous home-use Altec A-7), and they were played by either by Marantz or McIntosh tube amplifiers, I think. I was so shocked at the sound, it could reproduce the strong touch of metal string, the sharp rise of tone timbre, and furthermore the furious penetrating sound field. I found out that sound would be a characteristic of a horn-type speaker. After that, in my audio enthusiasm I desired to have an excellent horn speaker system …”

5 Keith Aschenbrenner

Keith Aschenbrenner of Auditorium 23 in Germany

I also fondly remember interviewing Keith Aschenbrenner of Auditorium 23 for a SixMoons.com article I wrote back in 2005, where Keith told me stories about events that influenced him in his audio interests. One of those experiences occurred in the early 1980s while Keith was traveling to Brittany in the west of France during the holidays, and he came across the French enthusiast audio magazine L´Audiophile.

L´Audiophile had opened a shop in Paris to demonstrate their do-it-yourself (DIY) audio projects and to sell parts to the DIY hi-fi hobbyists of France. Keith told me that listening to music at L´Audiophile over their system was a shock to him. Keith told me that when he listened to L´Audiophile’s demonstration system using ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers, he immediately realized that his hi-fi system at home was a far cry from the musical realism and dynamic truths that the L´Audiophile system with those ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers achieved so easily.

When Keith got back home he and his friend Norbert Gütte experimented with ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers and single ended amplifiers (SETs), with the goal of musical realism, which was sparked by the listening sessions at L´Audiophile.

Keith told me about how the combination of his first 300B SET amplifier with his ‘Voice of Theatre’ loudspeakers was “… just like a musical Christmas present. In the beginning, we handled it like Sunday shoes. The harmonic integrity and musical realism were astonishing. We went from using it for special demonstrations only to using it every day.”

6 John Stronczer Sound Practices article

John Stronczer (Bel Canto Design), described a similar experience to Keith’s for Sound Practices readers in Issue 11, telling them about when he first heard Jean Hiraga’s Altec-Lansing A5 ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers at the Nouvelle Revue du Son listening room in Paris. John said, “I confess that it was love at first listen with the A5s. I mean I listened to a single bar and I knew.” John went on to adapt an Altec Lansing A5 ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeaker system for home use for his own music listening pleasure.

It’s not just the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and discerning Japanese, French, German, and American, audio enthusiasts who have appreciated the magic of Altec Lansing ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers, but also musicians like the Grateful Dead.

7 Grateful Dead 1970 public domain

Grateful Dead 1970 (public domain photo)

In the book Grateful Dead Gear by Blair Jackson, ‘Bear’ (Owsley Stanley), the Grateful Dead’s sound man for many years, described how he introduced the Grateful Dead to the ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers and McIntosh MC240 amplifier he used in his home stereo in Berkeley. The impressive sound quality that Bear’s ‘Voice of the Theatre’ & McIntosh MC240 hi-fi system was capable of inspired The Dead to develop a practice system based on ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers and McIntosh amplification, which also served as their early PA system.

When I was reading Phil Lesh’s book, ‘Searching for Sound’, about his life as the Grateful Dead’s bass player, I was fascinated to read his description of their Los Angeles ‘pink house’ practice system in 1966: “The equipment was set up in the living room: the “lead sled” of Mac amps (four McIntosh 240 stereo tube amps running mono, one for each electric instrument—two guitars, bass, and keyboard—bolted onto a single sheet of two-inch plywood), the Altec “Voice of the Theater” speakers (huge woofer and horn combo speakers, four in all, one for each amp), and all the drums and instruments. The volume level of this gear was enough to bulge out the sides of the house when we cranked.”

That ‘Voice of the Theatre’ and McIntosh system would directly inspire Bear and the Grateful Dead to develop the famous ‘Wall of Sound’ PA system to use in their live performances, which was the largest sound system ever built at that time.

“Voice of the Theatre” loudspeakers had become popular in movie theaters, in concert halls, with rock bands, and custom-made VOTTs were even used at the famous 1969 Woodstock music festival, but then passed into obscurity, except for their use by a few discerning audio enthusiasts in Japan, France, Germany, and America.

8 Tube kingdom A5 page

Yazaki-san gave me a copy of a great magazine – The Tube Kingdom, 2007 Winter issue – that had really nice coverage of Altec A5 VOTTs, that I have been slowly translating into English from Japanese. Thank you Yazaki-san!

I decided that I wanted to hear the ‘Voice of the Theatre’ sound that those who came before me had heard, to experience for myself what had been such an inspiration for others.

I considered two potential choices, the A5 and A7-500 ‘Voice of the Theatre’ models, as they seemed the most likely to be successfully tamed for a smaller home listening environment, as the Altec Lansing product literature of the day said, the A5 (and A7-500) were designed “to meet the needs of today’s smaller, multiple theatres. They use a carefully designed low frequency cabinet and single bass driver. The A5 is available with a choice of high frequency horns to cover a variety of seating arrangements.”

Given the noted success of Jean Hiraga’s demonstrations with his A5 VOTTs, and the availability of information about the Hiraga-san’s crossover design, the A5 seemed the best candidate for adapting it to home listening use. So yesterday I commissioned the restoration of a pair of vintage Altec Lansing A5 ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers.

In the photo above you can see an Altec A5 VOTT with the 1005B horn, which is the style of horn I am getting. I’ll be getting the Altec 515E ceramic-magnet low-frequency driver rather than the more traditional Alnico 515B, recommended to me as it has 5 Hz more bass extension, and a reputation for a clearer & more articulate presentation, due to the use of a slightly lighter cone paper that responds easier and more smoothly than the heavier cone paper used in the Alnico 515B low-frequency driver. I’ll be using the Altec 288C high-frequency compression driver a-la Jean Hiraga. I chose to go with the 16 Ohm versions of the drivers due to their reputation for being easier to drive and smoother sounding than the 8 Ohm versions. The bass-horn cabinet will be the 825B, with port dimensions similar to those suggested in John Stronczer’s article, and a grill assembly that looks like the one in photo below. The restoration will also include the Altec 500C crossover.

You can see this exact configuration in the Altec Lansing product literature archived at the Great Plains Audio web site here (excerpt below):
Altec literature from GPA

When they arrive I will describe the restoration they have received, and their performance as they came from the ‘factory’.

Then, with a little help from my friends, I’ll build some Jean Hiraga inspired outboard crossovers to better adapt them to home use, and I’ll rewire them internally with vintage Western Electric WE16GA.

I’ll describe the results to you every step of the way here at Jeff’s Place, eventually culminating in a feature article for Positive Feedback.

John Stronczer (Bel Canto Design) has offered to share with me his insights on implementing and refining the Hiraga-inspired crossover design, and Yazaki-san has offered to make recommendations for crossover components to achieve ‘Real Sound’ results. Daryl & Gary at Arizona Capacitors have offered to provide and/or develop capacitors for the project to optimize the crossovers’ performance.

There’s also other very exciting aspects to this ‘Voice of the Theatre’ project that I need to keep secret for now, but about which I’ll tell you all about in due time.

By the way, this is intended to be a ‘real world’ everyman’s sort of project, so you will be able to reproduce it on a fairly modest budget should you desire to. An expertly restored pair of Altec Lansing A5 ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers can be bought for around $5000 USD, and for an even more cost effective project, an expertly restored pair of Altec Lansing A7-500 ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeakers can be bought for around $3000 USD.

I’ll have much more to say in the near future about all of this, and I’m quite excited about it all!

Stay tuned, and please join me as I explore our audio roots – thanks for stopping by!

 Posted by at 1:52 pm

  35 Responses to “The Vintage Beat: The Altec Lansing A5 ‘Voice of the Theatre’ Loudspeaker Project”

  1. Now this will be interesting!

    • Howdie Mr. Neil Young!

      I think this project will be a lot of fun, and be a real good introduction to a milestone in audio history, the Altec Lansing A5 ‘Voice of the Theatre’ loudspeaker.

      It will be interesting to see how well it goes adapting the A5 VOTT to a smaller domestic listening environment, compared to the gigantic theaters they used to occupy.

      It should be fun!

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

  2. It will be great fun I am sure! If I had the space for such things I would do it too. A friend of mine has a pair of A7s needing a home, but there is no way they would ever fit! They are massive!

    • I will report on adapting the A5’s to home use, and I promise I’ll also discuss their performance when stuffed into an inappropriately small room, like the extra bedroom at my place.

      I’ve been told that it is possible, even with fairly good results, so we’ll see if that’s true. Who knows, maybe there’s some A7’s in your future, Neil?

      Cheers,

      Jeff

  3. Very cool. I’ll be staying tuned for sure. (And hello Neil!)

  4. Hi Jeff,
    You have given me a direction to move in this direction,since last 5 years I have been on the net looking for reviews which give me sound which is live.
    Thanks,

    Krishan

    • Hi Krishan,

      I’m really looking forward to this project. I’m excited about exploring our audio history, and the Altec Lansing A5 ‘Voice of the Theatre’ is certainly a milestone in loudspeaker design, which makes it all the more interesting.

      The real challenge will be adapting the beasts to home use. With the Hiraga crossover as a starting point, the advice of Yazaki-san on getting ‘Real Sound’ from it, I can’t imagine a better scenario for having a lot of fun!

      I’m also delighted to have the involvement of Gary & Daryl from Arizona Capacitors, and my friends Ron Barbee & Pete Riggle.

      It takes a community to ‘raise’ a loudspeaker (to paraphrase Hillary Clinton), and I hope we can smooth the way for others considering this project.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Jeff

      • Hello Jeff,

        Thanks for explaining your projection to develop the A5 loudspeakers,I Shall certainly following your progress & will be interested to develop these speakers for my home use.
        It shall be an interesting project & it shall be very special if the same can be converted to home use.

        Krishan

        • Hi Krishan,

          Thanks for your comment, appreciated. I’m excited by this A5 VOTT project, and I think it will be a lot of fun checking out a loudspeaker from our audio history that inspired so many.

          A number of people have asked me if I’m replacing my Westminsters with Altec’s, and the answer is “No!”. The Westminsters will remain the speakers in my primary music system for a very long, long, time. The WRSE’s with the external Duelund CAST crossovers are a musical marvel that I will never part with! 🙂

          The Altec Lansing VOTTs are purely a fun project, with the intent of visiting our audio heritage, although I do have very high expectations for them. At the conclusion of the project they will form the basis another system that will be a lot of fun.

          I want to be more like my buddy Ron-san, who has mix of vintage & modern systems in every room of his home, and yes, as you can imagine, Ron’s wife Sumie-san is a wonderful person!

          Cheers,

          Jeff

          • Howdy Jeff,
            Thank you for the kind words about the systems in my home and especially your comment about the lovely and talented Sumie-san. Without her indulgence, patience and support I certainly could not enjoy our mutual hobby/addiction to the extent we have been experiencing. We are looking toward another interesting and challenging “Real Sound adventure” with the A5 project.

            Barbee

          • Howdie Ron,

            It is always a delight to visit with you and Sumie-san, and I’m looking forward to hearing the progress on your latest creation!

            The A5 ‘Real Sound Adventure’ should be a fun one!

            Cheers,

            Jeff

  5. Jeff,

    I blame my brother for getting me into audio. I’ll never forget it. Back in the 60s, he built a pair of A7s. That got me started…

    Never heard the A5s, though. Looking forward to following this thread!

    Best,

    Jim

    • Hey Jim!

      Great story! Taming the big VOTT beasts for home use should be quite a lot of fun. The listening room’s going to get a bit crowded!

      Cheers,

      Jeff

  6. Jeff,
    Sounds like a great project. I look forward to reading more of your adventures. High efficiency speakers with low power tube amplifiers definitely have more of that “you are there feeling”. You’re in for a treat.
    I saw over on Audio Asylum that you were trying to contact Jean Hiraga, which I presume is for this project. Did you ever get his contact information? I suspect that Stefano Bertoncello, of the twogoodears blog (a great blog), knows how to reach him since he writes occasionally about meeting Hiraga. I’ve got Stefano’s email address if you want to contact him. Just drop me a private email.
    Thanks,
    —Gary

    • Hi Gary,

      I think this project will be a treat, and a great glimpse into the history of this great hobby we all enjoy.

      I haven’t yet figured out how to contact Jean Hiraga, and I’d love to chat with him about all things A5 for the project. I’ll send a message off line – I appreciate the help!

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

      • Hi you can PM me for JH’s contact if you still need it

        • Hi Arnaud,

          Thank you for your offer, I appreciate it.

          I did get an email address for JH from Yazaki-san, but when I emailed him I did not get a response. Either he chose not to respond, or he didn’t get my message, not sure which.

          Best,

          Jeff

  7. Hello Jeff,

    Ones a friend from me owned the A7 from Altec Lansing. That was for 10 years ago. Unfortenately he stopped with our hobby and we lost contact. Still I remember the massive sound of the A7. The sound had an enormous speed and attack. The presence of the sound was very strong. Very energetic and demanding. There was a downside, however. The sound was at times hard and a bit shouty. And there was no real deep bass. But still…..I was impressed by the sound! I can fully imagine that, if it is possible to get that adorable sound without no harsness and no shouting, it will be an excellent speaker that give you the so adored REAL sound!

    I am looking forward for the start of this project!

    Siedy

    • Hi Siedy,

      I think your observations about the A7s are probably applicable to the ‘stock’ A5s as well, but I will not know for sure until I listen to them.

      The A5 VOTTs weren’t really designed for home use, but rather to sit behind a large theater screen, projecting into a large hall, so it will take some work to get the big VOTT beasts tamed for a home listening environment I suspect.

      I feel very fortunate to have the help of some very smart & talented people to get them sorted out and playing music without sounding hard & shouty.

      We shall see!

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

  8. Hi Jeff,

    Exciting stuff.. You may also want to try to contact ‘Panomaniac’ over at diyAudio since he worked with/for Hiraga decades ago.. He had heavily modded/tweaked VOTTs up until recently. Another treasure trove of Altec info is GM (Greg Monfort) over at AA and diyA. He had the massive diy VOTTs many decades ago, I think he still uses Altecs with dual 515 alnicos in straight MLTL’s.. Although, I see you will have a lot of tech help from the coolest industry pros already. =-)

    Best regards….

    • Hi Rick,

      Many thanks for the great suggestions and encouragement.

      This is going to be a fun project!

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

  9. I look forward to the possibilities with the Altec Lansing VOTT speakers. A very good friend has a pair of Altec Lansing Model 19 monitors, and they are one of my favorites. Some will refer to them as VOTT speakers for the home and studio. It would only right to power them up with Yazaki-san’s SPEC amplifier.

    • Hi Richard,

      It really is fun investigating the vintage Altec Lansing loudspeakers.

      My buddy Leo just picked up a pair of Altec Valencia’s which I’m looking forward to hearing one of these days.

      I’ll bet they’ll sound great with Yazaki-san’s SPEC amplifier!

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

  10. Congratulations on embarking on such a rich adventure. When you hinted at new speakers, I figured you’d land on either VOTTs or perhaps you’d found some Western Electric full-range drivers.

    I’ve seen photos of VOTTs in small rooms and it occurred to me that the speakers might be too close together to get a proper stereo image. But I’m sure they’ll be absolutely terrific for mono jazz, just like Yazaki-san’s story of walking into that cafe.

    Like everyone else, I’m eager to read your progress reports and maybe even some comparisons with the Tannoys when the VOTTs are up and running..

    Bon voyage!

    • Hi Mark,

      I’ll try the VOTTs in both a large room (where my WRSEs are), as well as in a smaller room (a spare bedroom), just to see what happens. A number of people have told me it takes a really large room for VOTTs to work properly (after all, they were designed for movie theaters), yet others have told me they’ve heard them in small rooms and they sounded great. So we’ll see what happens. I suspect a lot of it has to do with getting the crossover dialed in for a home listening environment, but we’ll find out for sure!

      Best,

      Jeff

  11. From Australia there are a few here interested in the revival of Votts, my A7’S sound great in my living room 11 metres x 6 metres. Sadly many of my friends have passed on that had Votts needless its important to never let the product dissappear into history. Only Votts have that sound….

    James

    • Hi James,

      Thank you for your comment. I too think that the VOTTs need to be an audio milestone that is remembered, and not allowed to pass into the mists of time.

      I am very much looking forward to a pair of resurrected VOTTs!

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

  12. I too am very excited about your project. I’ve heard VOTT’s many a time at jazz coffee houses in Japan and have always loved them. I’m hoping you are able to make specific, long term observations about how they sound with your Macs as opposed to how they sound with a fine 300B amp ( I have my own thoughts on this but yours would be, as always, most welcome). Keep up the very fine work!
    Kind Regards,

    • Hi Marc,

      I will definitely be interested in how the VOTTs perform with my vintage Mac’s as well as SETs.

      This should be a grand adventure!

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

  13. Jeff,
    On the 825/828 cabinets, the “wings” will help with the bass, in fact the full baffle incorporating the mid/high horn helps even more. Also, you need a certain distance for the mid/high horns to mesh with the bass cabinets, with aiming and correct spacing – see “Unofficial Altec” site for method to achieve both drivers hitting your ear at the same time. The crossovers noted were shown (Schematic) in Joe Roberts’s magazine many years ago. Walt Bender always was a proponent of running the drivers to their natural roll-off, i.e. run the bass drivers full range, obviously a 416 goes higher (1.6K) with 515G going to over 4K and then use a cap the on the mid/high driver to keep from frying the diaphragm. Have fun and enjoy.
    Bob

    • Hi Bob,

      Many thanks for the comments – appreciated!

      I’m really looking forward to getting those A5s here to play with. 🙂

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

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