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AXPONA 2016: Classic Audio Loudspeakers stays on the path

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axponaOne 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.

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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.”

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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.

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About John Stancavage (155 Articles)
Writer and reviewer for Part-Time Audiophile

5 Comments on AXPONA 2016: Classic Audio Loudspeakers stays on the path

  1. Unless you’re talking about really old console radios or old theater speakers, field coil speakers were rare in the hi fi era.
    Alnico was getting pretty well established by the late 1940’s and most saw it as a better alternative to field coils because it had very low flux modulation and didn’t generate the heat of a field coil. So this is kind of “revisionist history”. I see field coil speakers today as a bit of a gimmick.

    • If you read carefully, you will note that Wolff did not claim the classic JBLs had field coils, so he is not guilty of trying to “revise history.” You are correct in noting that field coils were an early technology that was dying out by the time the classic JBLs came along. But there were Lansing speakers that predated the popular later JBLs that did have field coils, and those still have admirers today (see eBay!). You also can check the Lansing/field coil forum threads at audioheritage.org for discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of powered coils. As for Wolff, he simply is using newer materials — such as beryllium — and very old technology such as the field coil to make what he believes are improvements on his favorite JBL designs. There are other modern companies that share his belief that field coils are better than today’s magnets, including Shindo and Line Magnetic. Not everyone agrees this technology is better, of course, but there in a nutshell is what makes high-end audio what it is. Each enthusiast has his or her preferences and biases, and debating those is part of the fun of the hobby. I hope you do get a chance someday to actually listen to Wolff’s speakers. Whether it’s the field coils or something else he’s doing, they have amazing low distortion and produce stunning sound.

  2. Wow, he was selling the 1.5 for like $30k just a year or so ago. Now it’s $70k+?!?

    • Gee, they must be really better now!

    • I’ve been to every axpona and the classics have evolved/been tweaked and did sound better each and every year in my humble opinion. They started out at axpona being in my top three. The next year, top two. Last year they were my favorite speakers at the entire show-cost no object. The big red sadurni horns were clearly passed by the classics two years ago. But last year, they were in a different league all together. They easily compete with the everests, maxx3’s, talons, tannoys, trio’s, pipe dreams, all at the 75 grand or more range. To me the build quality,pride of ownership potential and sound of the classics beat all of these great and expensive speakers. so easily worth the asking price and more to me. But the exclusivity star easily goes to the classics out of that list, no competition.

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