High End 2017: Silbatone and the lost sonic art of Western Electric horn systems

Perfect for apartments.


Big, beautiful, Western Electric horns.

M2 Cinema system.

Unless you’ve heard the behemoth 1920s Western Electric horn systems for yourself it’s difficult to convey their ability to hold you enthralled in their presence. It’s a transformative listening experience to hear a system designed for a 3,000-seat theatre, and in a very real sense I would compare it to time travel. Despite being in a large, cavernous room with about a hundred other people at High End in Munich, when I shut my eyes as the music issued forth from these ancient beasts’ throats I found myself transported – Tardis-like – alone in the dark to the moment the transcription took place.

You are not alone.

Many of the recordings being played were over 60 years old, yet each note filling the room leapt across the intervening decades, and hung suspended on crisp, gossamer threads behind my closed eyes as I listened.

Similar set-ups curated to deliver this experience have been brought to the Munich show for several years now thanks to the diligence of Silbatone Acoustics, a company who is dedicated to spreading the gospel of these almost 100-year-old audio-playback systems.

Across oceans of time.

To me this is not high-fidelity, but rather a rejection of modern music-reproduction technology, and that is a very good thing in my estimation. It’s also tribal, and I think it embraces an almost fanatical purity to recorded playback which I find breathtakingly refreshing. It’s easy these days to dismiss the humble industrial beginnings of the original Voice of the Theatre systems, and canonize the latest hifi amplifiers, DACs, turntables, or multi-driver loudspeaker designs as state of the art.

Captivating the imagination without ones and zeroes.

But in a very real sense we would have none of these incredible modern audiophile conveniences without these giant dinosaurs of high-fidelity. It’s their DNA that remains the building blocks of all current designs which we so overtly covet. Tube-powered field-coil compression drivers, multi-cell horns, oil-impregnated cloth-covered copper wire, plywood cabinets… these were the ancient bones of the museum pieces on display in Munich. But unlike the fossils under glass at a museum, these Western Electric systems are living, breathing reminders of the analog glory of music.

–Rafe Arnott

  • The Silbatone High End 2017 system:
  • Second-generation 1930s Mirrorphonic M2 system.
  • M2 system field coil units featuring 2x 594A compression drivers and 2X TA-4181 18″ woofers per side.
  • WE 26B Multicell horn.
  • GIP-9501 field coil horn tweeters




About Rafe Arnott 389 Articles
Editor of InnerFidelity and AudioStream