One of the most enjoyable things about covering the high-end industry is meeting the fascinating people who somewhere along the way got the crazy notion this actually could be their business.
These days, two-channel audio is not quite so much a road less traveled as it is an overgrown deer trail through the wilderness. You need a lot of courage and determination to follow what’s left of it.
Still, this quest continues to attract some of the kindest and most talented individuals you’d ever want to meet. One of these adventurers is John Wolff, owner of Michigan-based Classic Audio Loudspeakers. Wolff’s niche is keeping alive some of the timeless speaker designs of the past. His flagship products evoke popular JBL and Altec models from the days when Americans won wars, went to the moon and liked their speakers to be the size of refrigerators.
Wolff, as usual, needed one of the larger rooms at AXPONA to show his line. It included his remake of James B. Lansing’s Hartsfield ($72,000) and the Altec-inspired Reference T-1.5 ($72,500). Both use horns along with massive woofers, and feature some of the most beautiful woodwork in the market today.
Wolff has sought to improve on the originals where he can, such as using field-coil drivers to offer consistent magnetic performance. Still, he says, marketing these hand-built creations in 2016 is much different from how the legends were produced.
“In the old days, companies like JBL, Marantz and Altec were huge,” he told me in an interview during the Chicago show. “They sold millions of units worldwide. There were just a few small boutique shops back then. Today, in contrast, the audio industry is almost all boutique firms — like me.”
As Wolff spoke, an associate played cuts from Muddy Waters and Ray Brown on vinyl through the Hartsfields. Equipment included a pair of Atma-Sphere Novacron monoblocks ($22,000) an Atma-Sphere MP-1 preamp ($20,000 with a few options) and a Kuzma Reference turntable ($9,800). Cable was $39,000 worth of Purist Audio Design’s Neptune.
The sound was astonishing — powerful, deep and detailed with amazingly low distortion. Even if you could get a collector to sell you the real thing, my bet would be on Wolff’s tweaked remakes to outperform them.
Wolff doesn’t sell enough Classic Audio speakers for the business to be a huge money-maker. Instead, the venture is more about keeping the spirit of a bygone era alive. And, then there’s the pride in making something in the modern era that’s of heirloom quality, Hopefully, he’ll be able to stay on this path for many more years.
“I plan to do it as long as I can,” Wolff said.