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Speakers

Did the best speakers of the 1940s sound better than your speakers?

Speaker designers haven't learned all that much in the last 60-plus years, says the Audiophiliac.

The Western Electric 757A was designed as a monitor speaker for radio stations and recording studios in the late 1940s. It was never produced in large quantities, so few prime specimens survive today, and the status of the design among the cognoscenti is legendary. Since the speaker was introduced before stereo became the standard format, most 757A speakers were sold one at a time, so stereo pairs are extremely rare. When singles go on the market they sell for big bucks, and pairs go for a lot more, so when High End Audio Auctions' Adam Wexler came upon a well-cared-for pair in the possession of the original owner, he could hardly believe his good luck! He found a buyer just a few days later, but before he shipped them Wexler invited me over to his shop to listen.

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A pair of Western Electric 757A speakers in the High End Audio Auctions listening room Steve Guttenberg/CNET

As you can see from my picture, 757As aren't beauties. The grilles covering the woofers aren't original, but I'd say the speakers are in remarkably good condition for their age. The 757A is 20 inches (508mm) high and 30 inches (762mm) wide; it's a two-way design with a 12-inch (305mm) woofer and a cast aluminum horn-loaded tweeter. It was originally finished in gray enamel paint and has sound absorbing material affixed to the front baffle.

I was immediately smitten by the sound -- the 757As are clear, open, and very lively. Stereo imaging was diffuse, but there was a nice sense of spatial depth. I only played CDs, but the sound had an analog quality to it.

Modern high-end speakers are more transparent, have deeper bass, and more detailed treble, but this 68-year-old speaker design isn't that far behind the best of today's high-end speakers. Sadly, few audiophiles will ever get a chance to hear a pair of 757A speakers, but it's sadder still that despite all the advances in technology, the sound quality of today's Bluetooth speakers is downright pitiful. The promise of ever-improving technology hasn't been fulfilled, so many people today are satisfied with the "good enough" sound of Bluetooth speakers.

For anyone interested in enjoying better sound at home on a tight budget, I recommend the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR or SP-FS52 speakers, paired with an Onkyo TX-8020 stereo receiver; that combination would be a massive sonic upgrade over similarly priced Bluetooth speakers.

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High End Audio Auctions' Adam Wexler Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Moving up from there, the Klipsch Heresy III speaker is closely based on the original Heresy that debuted in 1957. I reviewed the Heresy III a couple of years ago. and as I recall that speaker had some of the same sound characteristics as the 757A. Better yet, the Heresy III is still in production, and used Heresy and Heresy II speakers are easy to find on eBay for affordable prices.

So the lesson here is, if you really love music invest in the best speakers you can, you might own them for decades. What other consumer products have as long a useable lifespan? Speaker sound quality advances are slow in coming, and now that I've heard how good a 68-year-old design can sound, I'm even more convinced about that. The lucky buyer of those 757A speakers will enjoy many more decades of music pleasure from them.

High End Audio Auctions offers a wide range of choice components, ranging from very affordable to extravagantly priced exotics like the Western Electric 757A. High End Audio Auctions ships to buyers worldwide.