Nov 112015
 

Yesterday Ron and I embarked on an audio adventure and drove to the Emerald City of Seattle to look at (and listen to) a pair of vintage Altec Lansing Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers that were custom built for Leopold Stokowski (April 18, 1882 – September 13, 1977), while he lived in New York and was conducting the American Symphony Orchestra.

Leopold Stokowski at Carnegie Hall 1947

Leopold Stokowski at Carnegie Hall 1947 (public domain photo).

Leopold Stokowski had moved from London to New York City in 1905. In addition to his conducting, Stokowski was very interested in the recording and reproduction of music, and experimented with it as early as 1933 with his assistant conductor, Alexander Smallens, using a 3-microphone placement, that Bob Fine would later perfect.

Stokowski became a member of the Audio Engineering Society, collaborated with Altec, and played music from recording sessions back over Altec Lansing Voice Of The Theatre loudspeakers, driven by low powered vacuum tube amplifiers. Altec built the great conductor a custom pair of Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers for listening to music at home in his New York Fifth Avenue apartment.

stokowski apartment

Leopold Stokowski’s apartment in New York City (public domain photo).

After a long career conducting in America, at age 90, Leopold Stokowski moved back to London in May of 1972 in order to further his recording career.

Upon arriving in Seattle, Ron and I met with a very nice gentleman and his wife, Jeff and Lynn, who had advertised their Altec Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers with the interesting history, as being for sale.

Jeff told us, “I bought these speakers in New York 40 years ago from a colleague of Leopold Stokowski’s at the American Symphony Orchestra. He told me that Stokowski gave them to him before he left New York permanently for London. He was a conducting student of Stokowski’s.”

LS VOTT

Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers custom built for Leopold Stokowski by Altec Lansing.

So what makes up these custom Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers that Altec made for the great Maestro?

As Ron and I looked over these custom Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers, the most obvious thing about them is that they are enclosed in huge custom wood cabinets, with burgundy grill cloth.

They’re built very solidly and professionally, with everything fitted perfectly together. These are vintage loudspeakers, and they’re quite old now, and have accumulated a few scuffs and scrapes over the years, but still they were in very nice condition.

The bass-horn cabinets look similar to the 825, are very well made, and house some pristine Altec 803 B bass drivers.

Altec 803B in the LS VOTT

Altec 803B in the bass cabinet of the Leopold Stokowski VOTT.

Interestingly enough, Keith Aschenbrenner, of Auditorium 23 fame, when he read my post about the upcoming Altec A5 VOTT project, suggested I keep an eye out for Altec 803 bass drivers, which are among his favorites, with their Alnico magnets and gorgeous vintage tone.

As you know, for the A5 project I had considered using the Altec 515E ceramic-magnet low-frequency drivers rather than the more traditional Alnico 515B, but in the end I opted for the Alnico 515B low-frequency driver with a nod to history for that vintage tone.

Altec 803B in the LS VOTT 2

Altec 803B 16-Ohm bass driver – a thing of beauty!

So here, in a bit of serendipity, I pulled off the back panel of the Maestro’s Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers, and what do I see? Altec 803 bass drivers! Beautiful!

Altec 804A compression driver

Altec 804A 16-Ohm compression driver.

Up top are Altec 804A 16-Ohm compression drivers mated to Altec 511-B horns.

Altec 804A compression driver on 511B horn

Altec 804A compression driver on 511B horn.

Altec 804A compression driver on 511B horn 2

Altec 804A compression driver on 511B horn – view 2.

Here’s a back view …

LS VOTT back view

Back view with Altec 804A 16-Ohm compression driver on the 511B horn up top, and the Altec 803B 16-Ohm bass driver down below.

Here’s the N-500-D crossover network …

LS VOTT back view with crossover

Altec N-500-D crossover network.

LS VOTT back view with crossover closeup

Closeup of the N-500-D.

Ron and I sat down for a quick listen to some Johnny Cash, and the VOTTs presented Cash’s music as rich, smooth, colorful, and engaging. It was a lovely presentation of the music, with that rich vintage tone.

It took just a few moments of listening for me to decide I liked these vintage Voice of the Theatres with their interesting history. I bought them on the spot!

Jeff and Lynn treated Ron and I to a nice lunch full of wonderful conversation (thank you!), and then Ron and I proceeded to pack up the Leopold Stokowski VOTTs for the long drive back home.

Upon arriving back at Jeff’s Place under the cover of darkness we unpacked the VOTTs from Ron’s van and put them in a small bedroom off my entryway. We were both tired after the long day of driving and moving big, heavy, loudspeakers, so we called it a night.

Many thanks to Ron for accompanying me on this VOTT Adventure, and for helping me so much in every way! You’re the best, Ron!

LS VOTTs grills 2

When I got up this morning I looked at these gigantic loudspeakers in my tiny spare bedroom and I laughed! They’re never going to work in there! No way!

I thought maybe I’d wheel them out into the main system, hook them up, and give them a listen, but then I remembered I promised you all that I would report on using VOTTs in both small and large rooms, so I set them up in the small bedroom and gave them a listen.

LS VOTTs no grills

I got out Yazaki-san’s superb SPEC RSA-M3 EX Real Sound Amplifier that I wrote about in Positive Feedback Issue 78, and hooked it up using Western Electric WE16GA for speaker cables, a Sablon Audio Petite Corona AC power cord, and Belden 8402 microphone cable interconnects. The source was my old MacBook feeding an Mhdt Paridisea+ vacuum tube USB DAC.

LS VOTTs w grills 3

I streamed the excellent Jazz24 station out of Seattle, and sat down for a little listening.

LS VOTTs with guitar

I’ll tell you what, I have no doubt that these custom Leopold Stokowski Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers are going to sound fantastic in my larger living room, where my Tannoy Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers are sitting, but to my considerable surprise they sounded great in my tiny extra bedroom, which I didn’t expect.

So guess what? That’s good news, because it means you don’t have to scratch vintage VOTTs off your loudspeaker list because you have a small room, they work just fine in a small space. Remarkably fine, actually.

LS VOTTs

Stay tuned as I’ll have much more to tell you about the custom Leopold Stokowski Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers as I get some more listening time in on them.

Many thanks to Jeff, Lynn, and Ron, for helping my Voice of the Theatre dreams come true. I’m really enjoying myself right now, sitting here writing this for you, and listening to music over the vintage Stokowski VOTTs.

Thanks for stopping by!

 Posted by at 3:47 pm

  34 Responses to “The Vintage Beat: The Maestro’s Custom VOTT Loudspeakers”

  1. Jeff,

    You’ve outdone yourself again. What a marvelous find! Built for the Maestro, I am sure these VOTT’s were built and voiced to the highest standards by the Altec Lansing engineers. I’ve never seen “furniture grade” VOTT’s before. These would be worth the effort to restore the finish to its original glory.

    To think that you haven’t even tried these in your large room with your MC30 amps, but I am sure Yazaki-san SPEC Class D amp did not disappoint. Please keep us tuned in with your adventures with these American beauties. I think you’ll be very impressed once they make it out to the larger listening room where they can really breathe.

    Rich

    • Hi Rich,

      I suspect you are correct about the Maestro’s input into the design. He was an accomplished audio engineer as well as a great conductor, so I imagine they built the speakers to his request. It is pretty amazing to see a pair of VOTTs in a furniture grade cabinet, that’s for sure. I rubbed the cabinets down with some Wood Doctor furniture polish, and that helped a lot.

      My A5’s will have the standard grey industrial finish. Not pretty at all, but there’s something that appeals to me about it as well. It will be fun comparing the two designs.

      It will fun to get the VOTTs into the big room to give them a listen for sure. I am really impressed with how well they work in a small room, it was completely unexpected.

      Cheers,

      Jeff

    • the input screws on the Altec 500-D crossovers have no instructions on + or – so how do you hook up to them????

      • Hi Tom,

        On the spare pair I have, when you have the crossover oriented so you can read “IN” written correctly below the screws, the left screw has a “+” inscribed on it.

        I hope that helps!

        Best,

        Jeff

        • Thank you Jeff. One more question,on the horn driver, the one screw is loose at the base (you can turn it but I wont) how is it secured in the driver? Thanx, Tom

          • Howdy Tom,

            I don’t know the answer to your question, as I’ve never had mine apart to look inside. Sorry about that.

            There’s a lot of interesting one of a kind Altec’s out there, as they encouraged people to roll their own by publishing plans for various enclosures, so there’s some pretty cool Altec speakers in the wild.

            Oh what fun! 🙂

            Kind regards,

            Jeff

          • I just took a chance and kept turning it 2 1/2 turns till snug. Done. Thanx,Tom

          • That’s great, Tom!

    • I picked up a FREE pair of Voice Of The Theater A7 500 speakers with same set up but with the wrong woofers(foam surrounds,EV 8 ohms)which are going bye-bye. I almost got the correct pair 803-B’s but voice coils are gone. I will be fine for now with a pair of, rare to find in this shape – 2 vintage JENSEN P15-LF 15″ 16 Ohm Speakers as a pair. Removed from a sealed cabinet. One has some dust at bottom, otherwise these both are sound and test perfect with cones in excellent shape. Someone put a particle board box over horns, then oak Formica veneered the entire black box, front closure removable doors when not in use are missing, but not needed. Oak casing on base . One of a kind from where? When?

  2. Lovely write up Jeff….. Its good to know that interesting hi-fi stands the test of time..What a great buy. They look fabulous.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Myron, appreciated. I’m really impressed with these VOTT speakers. I suspect there’s quite a lot of fun lurking on the Voice of the Theatre horizon!

      Best,

      Jeff

  3. Very cool score there Jeff. Great to have something with a good story! I am looking forwards to my own Altec based speakers arriving… sooner or later.

  4. I am sure to put them on Facebook when they arrive! Being constructed by those special Japanese elves that I follow 😉

  5. Hi Jeff,

    Do your Maestro VOTT’s have a nominal impedance of 16 ohms? If so, you probably should get good results using the 16 ohm output taps of your MC30 amps. You can actually try the 4 ohm and 8 ohm taps for comparison. On top of that, using your vinyl playback system with the VOTT’s will really allow you to really experience the huge soundstage and inner detail that the VOTT’s are capable of giving you.

    • Hi Rich,

      Both of the drivers are 16 Ohms with Alnico magnets. When I give them a workout on the Mac’s I’ll start with their 16 Ohm taps as the logical match, but I’ll probably try the other taps too. It can be surprising sometimes which tap will sound the best, but 16 Ohms is where I’ll start my listening.

      That is if I ever unhook them from the SPEC amp and get them out into the main system. There’s real synergy with the SPEC amp, WE16GA speaker cables, and Belden 8402 interconnects.

      More to come!

      Best,

      Jeff

  6. Nice purchase Jeff. I have been watching these for a long time. I hope you got a better price then what they were first listed at. I have no doubt you will enjoy ever note played through these speakers.

    • Hi Chris,

      I don’t have deep pockets at all, so I’m just very appreciative that Jeff & Lynn were able to get me into the Stokowski VOTTs at a price I could afford. They wanted them to go to a good home where they’d be appreciated as they ought to be, and man do I appreciate them!

      You’re so right, I’m enjoying every note played through them!

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

  7. You have indeed outdone yourself, Jeff! VOTTs with real provenance! Even in ’47 he was ahead of the curve with 2 speakers. I suspect with a little digging in the minutes of the Audio Engineering Society you can discover what amps he used.

    I’ve consulted with a number of experts about my collection of fine mid-century wooden furniture and they all strongly advise against refinishing. They look great, better than new to my eyes.

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for the kind words, appreciated. 🙂

      One of the references I saw said the Maestro liked ’10 watt tube amplifiers’ with the VOTTs, and my guess would be they were referring to WE 300B amps, which were prolific during that time for pairing with the VOTTs in theatres and such.

      I think that’s a good recommendation, I’m going to leave the finish as is, and just put some nice, natural, wood polish on them to freshen them up a bit.

      I didn’t know you were into mid-century wooden furniture, that’s really cool.

      I think I’m going to resist the temptation to ‘hot rod’ them too, as they sound so musical the way they are, that I’m going to leave well enough alone, and enjoy them as they are.

      When listening to them, I keep thinking, “This is the way loudspeakers are supposed to be, so beautifully musical and satisfying.”

      Best,

      Jeff

      • Yep, based on my newbie knowledge of audio from that era, I too guessed he was using WE 300Bs, but I also suspect that the SPEC amp is terrific, since those VOTTs are the sound I think Yazaki-san’s been hearing in his head all these years.

        Now you need to build a collection of the maestro’s recordings from that time, secure in the knowledge that probably the first time they were ever heard in a domestic setting was through your speakers!

        I’m also thinking that big late 19th century symphonies (Bruckner, Mahler, etc.) will sound amazing. So will Grateful Dead concert recordings. (look for anything recorded at the Capitol Theatre in Portchester, NY) I’m having fun just imaging the scale of the sound.

        And on the other end of the scale of sound, I’m enjoying immensely right now a compilation of recordings Dylan played on his too short-lived XM radio show. Dylan’s programming my hi-fi! How great is that?

        The furniture was my Dad’s, it’s what I grew up with. When I regain my listening room I get to choose for a listening chair between my Corbusier long chair and my Dad’s early production Eames lounge chair & ottoman.

        Looking forward to more bulletins about how those VOTTs sound, especially compared to the Westminsters.

        • Yesterday when Ron & Leo were over visiting to give the Maestro’s VOTTs and the modded MX110Z a listen, I was telling them I needed to get another chair in Maestro VOTT room that allows me to put my feet up so I can turn it into a “writing and ‘read the Sunday paper’ room”. Ron mentioned that I should consider an Eamse, as he really enjoys his. Small world. Beautiful chair!

  8. Wow Jeff!

    What a nice purchase! And they look gorgeous! I fully agree with Mark: they look great.
    I am looking forward for upcoming adventures with them. I am sure they will sound great in your big room. Different sounding when compared with the Westminster but I am sure the will perform on the same level!

    Greetz,

    Siedy

    • Hi Siedy!

      Thank you for the kind words, I appreciate it.

      The Stokowski VOTTs really are fun to listen to, even in the small room they’re in now. In fact, I’m listening to them now as I write this, and they really are addicting. They are big sounding, spacious, rich, warm, with natural timbre, and really great tone.

      These are ‘music lover’ speakers for sure, as they just make me forget about the sound and focus in on the music in a very satisfying way. The music just wraps around me and immerses me in the artist’s intent for the performance.

      It’s a little like when I wrap a quilt around me, lay down on the couch, take a nap, and slowly drift off into a blissful state, except I’m wrapped up in warm & cozy music as I enter that blissful state.

      They don’t sound like most ‘modern’ speakers, they’re more interesting, unique and satisfying, in the best sort of way.

      I think the Stokowski VOTTs represent what a lot of listeners would like to experience when listening to music, but there just aren’t speakers out there like them any more.

      Very satisfying and lots of fun!

      Cheers,

      Jeff

      • Thanks for your description of the Maestro VOTT’s sound. I have a rebuilt Magnavox 6BQ5/EL84 paraphrase splitter push-pull amp that came from a Magnavox stereo console built in the 1960’s. It isn’t the last word on high definition, soundstage and precise imaging, but it somehow reproduces the soul of the music. I’ve named the amplifier “Ugly Betty” since the output transformers have no cosmetic end bells and the chassis has weathered a little corrosion. Many friends who have had a chance to hear this amp in my system have commented that “Ugly Betty” is really a beautiful queen. I suspect that quite a few of this blog’s followers have “musical boxes” in their systems that defy conventional wisdom and trends.

        • Hi Rich,

          You are so right. The designers from that period were really impressive, and they really knew how to build electronics that communicated the soul of the music.

          Ron is always on the lookout for jewels such as that too, and it’s amazing what he comes up with – there’s musical riches out there yet to be discovered!

          The Western Electric WE16GA and the Belden 8402 also defy conventional wisdom, with their ordinary tinned copper conductors, and yet these ‘ordinary’ tinned copper cables portray the soul of the music extraordinarily well.

          What a lot of fun this hobby is!

          Kind regards,

          Jeff

  9. Beautiful beautiful post Jeff. A pleasure to read. And gorgeous pictures, too. Obviously it looks like we sold our Stokowski
    VOTTs to the right person. May you have many many years of happy listening.

    • Dear Jeff and Lynn,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I love the Stokowski VOTTs! I have been mesmerized listening to them since I got them home.

      Ron and I really enjoyed visiting with you two, and I wish you the very best in your love of listening to music.

      Yes indeed, I am a happy man!

      Kind regards,

      Jef

    • Jeff and Lynn,

      So Jeff’s story begs the obvious question, and now I can ask you directly. As apparent music lovers, after 40 years what could you possibly chose to replace the custom Altecs?

      I realize after that much time there may now be other considerations, such as down-sizing. But if you wouldn’t mind sharing, I suspect many of us are curious to learn what the replacement might be?

      Thanks

      • Hi M3,

        I’m not sure you’ll hear back from Jeff & Lynn, but you might.

        I won’t attempt to speak for Jeff & Lynn, but I can tell you what Jeff told me about the Maestro’s VOTTs, which was that his hearing isn’t what it once was, and he thought that it was time to move them on to someone who’d appreciate their charms.

        Also, in their primary residence, Jeff & Lynn have another hi-fi system that they enjoy listening to music with that is more appropriate in size to their living room’s size.

        In their secondary residence, where the Maestro VOTTs lived, I gave them my Omega Super 3’s with Skylan stands to listen to as they figured out what they wanted to do there. I got the impression (but really don’t know), that they may have other plans for the secondary residence, as quite a few things looked to be boxed up there.

        Best,

        Jeff

  10. I just got out my copy of ‘The Stokowski Collection’ on Vanguard: Suite from The River, Suite from The Plow That Broke the Plains, and Suite from L’Histoire du Soldat, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Symphony of the Air, and played them while answering some emails.

    These are wonderful performances, and I’m pretty sure the Maestro’s VOTTs are smiling having his music played over them. I know I am!

    Best,

    Jeff

  11. Hi Jeff-
    I finally had the chance to read this. Am completely tickled that you decided to purchase them after all, given that you seemed reluctant when I informed you about them earlier this Fall. It sounds like they’ve found a good home and I’m looking forward to hearing them in your space.!

    As I write this I am listening to Segovia play Spanish music via my triode- wired custom 807 amps, 1626 tube preamp, Oppo 95 and Altec A7- 500s (essentially what you have but with 416 woofer and 802-D drivers), all wired with red WE speaker wire and Belden/ Blue Jeans cable. Sounds like he is in the room, flesh, bone and blood:)

    Best-
    Harry Z

    • Hi Harry,

      I’m glad you told me about the Stokowski VOTTs, they really are something special.

      Sounds like you’re having fun! Are those the VOTTs that Ron was telling me about that you got out of a church? Quite the score! What crossovers do they use?

      Pete says they’re destined for his listening room, so that should be fun.

      Thanks for stopping by, Harry!

      Best,

      Jeff

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