Overview: Klipsch Classics, Part I - La Scala
Talk-Horns: Klipsch, the One-Stop Solution, Part I
Revised April 5, 2015: Part III, the latest and ultimate La Scala experience (bottom of article), is appended at the end of the original Part I article.
See Part II for Klipschorn, Belle, Corwall and Heresy. There is also a Part IV for the Quartet/Forte.
For most of the last decade, which coincided with my time participating in HK's review33 forum, where I met a whole lot of people good and bad, I have been known to be a Tannoy man. But few in HK knew that the decade before I spent most of my time with the Klipsch La Scala. I did not switch to the Tannoy because I preferred it, but because an opportunity came and I ran with it. Truth is, I shall always regard Klipsch as among the best horns. First, capsular summaries of my Klipsch experience and views:
- Klipsch classics (we are talking about various iterations of what is now called the "Heritage Series") are basically plug-and-play: you get very good drivers, horn throats and a great cabinet all at once. Now, I am not making a claim that Klipsch made/makes the "best" horn systems, but I am telling you they are by far the easiest to get GREAT sound from. You can do a lot worse by buying various drivers and horns, making crossovers and cabinets and trying to make them sound a coherent whole, but that is for my next article!
- "Heritage Series" All models are, design-wise, more "horn" than most rivals. They are all 3-way's, with at least horn-loaded tweeters and midrange drivers. The top models, Klipschorn, and La Scala, have the same drivers and in addition have horn-loaded bass. The Cornwall was once a center speaker for the Klipschorn's and for a period had the same drivers too.
Klipsch Product History has a huge amount of buried info. Read them, and learn about Paul Klipsch!
- Most of these have been in continuous production for the longest time: Klipschorn more than 65 yrs; La Scala since 1963; Heresy since 1957; Belle (same driver as Klipschorn and la Sacla) ran from 1971 to relatively recently. Cornwall has been recently resurrected, deservedly so! Name me some other audio products that enjoy similar longevity!
- Alnico vs Ferrite In the late 70's, due to cobalt price rise after Zaire's troubles all major loudspeaker manufacturers (including EV, Electrovoice, one of Klipsch's suppliers) switched from alnico to ferrite magnets. Soon all Klipsch drivers became non-alnico. The older alnico drivers are today much coveted by devotees. More on this later under the "La Scala" section.
- First-Class Cabinet Designs Considering the relatively manageable size (compare the Klipschorn to, say, the current Avantgarde, and you will agree, Paul Klipsch's cabinet designs are imho masterpieces of economy). Name me a few loudspeakers that have true horn-loaded bass! Note too that Paul Klipsch's cabinet designs were all mature, field- and time-tested designs. The design for Klipschorn evolved a lot during its early stage, and PWK took a long time to design the other models. The loading for the bass horns in particular are really sophisticated, second to none (JBL and Altec included). No present loudspeaker manufacturer (new model every year or two) would do that! Note: Reader thebeathunter alerted me to an interesting link of a DIY La Scala, a great job!
- Given the complete package, and completeness of sound, the Heritage Series are still bargains! Of course, used old versions are even more so, downright screaming bargains!
- My First Pair (non-alnico) The La Scala gets the treatment first because I have used them longer than any other loudspeaker, including Tannoy. More than 15 years ago in HK, at a friend's place (LeeHC's) I heard a pair of Klipsch KLF30 driven by 300B amp to good effect. Not long after I spotted a used pair of non-alnico La Scala in Sound Glory in Mongkok. Given the bulk, Mr Sim the owner seemed rather happy to get rid of them and sold them for a reasonable price. As they say, the rest is history. The La Scala is singularly responsible for my ever-deepening involvement in the Single-Ended Triode world. I loved the efficiency (104db), the sound, even the black color (not everyone will). At first, coming out of dormancy it did not sound too good, and I remember LeeHC coming by to tweak around for me! Happy memories! Over time they just got better and better.
- Matching Electronics The La Scala is not choosy: they are revealing but will sound great with almost any decent equipment thrown at them, including ss stuff. Of course, with an efficiency of 104 db, SET amps are matches made in heaven. Over the years, I must have used several dozen of them. Even the 1-watt Sun Audio VT-25 amp makes great music, and in that respect it shows they are more efficient than my Lowther TP-1, which will cause the VT-25 to clip.
- Speaker Cable With high efficiency loudspeakers like these, I always use thin multi-stranded cables. Something like the Belden 9497 would be ideal.
- Does it Shout? If you surf the net, you will see that La Scala incites all kinds of opinion, many negative. Detractors say it beams too much, or is harsh, or is bass-shy. I am sure that is because they use inferior equipment, or have incorrect placement. My pair did sound a bit rough at first, but that was ameliorated with a little tweaking (a little blu-tac on the tweeter horn lips); later, after re-running them in, this was not necessary. My pair have never failed to sound wonderfully musical whatever equipment or music I threw at them.
- Positioning The La Scala was designed not to need corner placement, but that doesn't mean it should not sit in corners! Placing them in-room gets you a somewhat larger soundstage, but a leaner bass. This is the sound of my friend lascalawong's pair, placed in-room (left pic; report link here; in capsule, the sound was controlled and clean but not too horn-like). Corner placement gets more bass (while soundstaging is still surprisingly good). Personally I think they benefit from being placed near the side walls at least. I used them in the corners. See below.
- No Bass? One of the most contentious issues about La Scala is the bass. Many, especially JBL users, claim that there is no bass. This is not true at all. When done right, the La Scala is a very neutral and clean-sounding loudspeaker, without the midbass emphasis that some like. Depending on placement, the La Scala actually goes deeper in the bass than JBL! The 1965 spec says: "The response shall be within peak-trough limits of 10 db from 58 to 16,000 cps (editor: i.e. +/- 5 db) and not more than 10 db farther down at 40 and 19,000." In my system, placed close to corners, I got clean output down to at least 40 Hz (much lower than JBL), so playback of big orchestral pieces were utterly satisfying. My friend conrad2002 also had them against the wall and got excellent bass (right pic; see report here).
- Tweaks Horn users are almost by definition tweakers (and both my friends did some tweaking). There are endless tricks, and I shall just touch upon a few here. As mentioned before, if necessary, applying some blu-tac (use spaghetti-thin strips) could "tame" the sound, but if you ask me, when properly done, the sound needs no taming! As with many of these horns with short cabinets and low-lying drivers, you need some distance to get the best sound. If you don't have the room, or sit close, raise the speakers (cinder blocks or bricks would be ideal) a little to raise image heights (just like what lascalwong did above, but he used wooden platforms and spikes). Or, even better, you can take the tweeter and midrange horns out and place them on top. (like what conrad2002 did for the tweeter, though he also enclosed it in yet another horn!).
- Supertweeters I never felt the need, but some swear by them. Given the efficiency, it is not easy to find matching supertweeters. As for subwoofers, I have never had the need, nor tried.
- My Second Pair (alnico) My friend tubediyer arranged for my second pair. At this time I had just got the Tannoy Canterbury, so to make room I had to reluctantly sell my first pair. This pair is in natural wood color. The sound was instantly different from my first pair. There is little question treble and midrange are sweeter than the non-alnico version. But with my pair, this came at a cost: the bass is worse, indeed rather wooly. This could have been due to long-time disuse, or permanent loss of magnet, as can happen with alnico. Getting the Tannoy Canterbury to sound good (and running them in) took up most of my time, and the La Scala was forgotten. I recently sold them to a my friend Bernard, who was reported to have made them sound great; I have to visit!
- La Scala II The current version is dubbed the II (review from Stereophile, a good read). I have never heard one, but see my Belle Klipsch section. I am sure they sound very fine. They also remain bargains, though a used pair of I is even more so if you can find a pair locally.
- Stacked La Scala? It has always been my dream to stack 2 pairs of La Scala. Both pairs can fire forward, or the bottom one can fire backwards (likely using only the woofer) since this would create bass not dissimilar to the Klipschorn. When writing this article, I did some research and was ecstatic to find that actually a few others had the same idea too! Look at these pics from Volti Audio, with La Scala bass firing backwards, corner loaded. (link). So I have not been mad all these years!
- Dipoled La Scala? I also thought of having them in a dipoled configuration, one firing forward and one backward. Obviously only if you have the space.
- Mods There are many after-market mods offered for the corssovers, or even more wholesale mods like what Volti audio does. Personally I have heard some of these crossover mods and I always find them too sharp, or not musical enough. As for Volti Audio, I have not heard their products (expensive), but keep in mind their products are based on something that looks like La Scala, so that gives you an idea on the basic soundness of the La Scala. Why second-guess a masterpiece?
Dining Room. Click to enlarge.
The Best La Scala System I have ever heard
No, it may be the best system of any sort I have heard (whlee thinks so and I tend to agree).
After yumcha on Saturday, whlee, trazom, captain, jules, oozz (Edwin) and I went to Bernard's spacious home in Clearwater Bay. Regrettably, ama333 did not join us. It turned out to be one of the happiest days in my HiFi life!
It is very rare in HK to encounter a split-level living-dining room. Here, the dining room is elevated. The total area must be close to 1000", and ceiling of the living room is at least 15' tall. Equipment:
CDP: Naim CD5XS; Ekco EV55DP
Turntable: Clearaudio Concept MC
SUT: Audio-Technica AT-1000T
Preamp: Marantz 7 (re-issue); also (April Music) Eximus DP-1
Amps: Marantz 9 (re-issue)
Loudspeakers: Klipsch La Scala (alnico; 16 ohm); also JBL 4343
How Two Cousins came into our HiFi Lives Let me take a detour first and introduce you to the brothers. About a year ago, Alfred, aka ama333, joined the discussion thread entitled JC's Letterbox on review33.com. He finally came to our yumcha and now is a regular. Alfred uses the Klipsch Belle you have heard about previously, as well as the JBL 4344. He then brought his cousin Bernard to yumcha too. Alfred wanted to hear my La Scala, so one day the two cousins came by my old house and I once again connected my alnico La Scala after many year's neglect. I was a little surprised that from the word go the La Scala gave all music all the flesh and blood they needed. As they say, the rest is history.
Bernard immediately took a liking to the big bold sound of the La Scala. He also liked the vinyl playback so much that soon after he bought his vinyl system (the SUT actually belonged to his cousin). And some time later, my La Scala pair became his!
Previous visit to Bernard Before the La Scala took over, it was the JBL 4343, placed not in the positions you see now in the pics, but along the long wall, flanking the equipment rack and the AV speakers on stands (facing the beige sofa). Sound was excellent, with the vinyl outstripping the digital by a substantial margin. In turn this impressed our friend trazom so much that he took up vinyl again (see here) and now is happily cleaning and spinning his very good collection of pop LPs!
Initial Sonic Impressions
- Initially the La Scala's were placed along the long wall, facing the beige sofa. When we arrived, Bernard was using the Ekco CDP's analogue out into the Eximus DP-1 (used as preamp). Sound was a bit pale, treble a touch hot and the whole thing just did not have the juice the La Scala is famous for. In fact, I thought his previous setup of JBL 4343 was better.
- Eximus DP1 WE suspected some of the flat and white quality to the Eximus DP1's preamp section. Our suspicions were confirmed when the Marantz 7 was swapped in; immediately, the sound gained much flesh and tactility. Eximus has been well reviewed by the audio press (see official website) but this its performance here has been disappointing. We happened to have the Sokolov Salzburg Recital CD and LP around. The LP fared better but the CD still should convey more of the fanciful and mercurial character of the master pianist's playing.
- Ekco CDP Ekco used to be a radio and television manufacturer. The official website gives a detailed history of the company up to the 60's but did not go further and did not mention that it is now part of the Chinese IAG group. In fact, to my eyes their products look like Chinese products in new skin; this is certainly true of the round window displaying the tube in the EV55DP. We did not like its somewhat sluggish leading edge. Changing to the Naim CD5XS brought much improved articulation, rhythm and pace. Sokolov became a more subtle pianist but still not quite what we know he should sound like on this popular album.
- After all that work, sound was much better. I forgot but trazom reminded that we had made the same, exact changes to the system last time to improve the JBL's performance. Still, sound was not quite what I know can be obtained. On the Mingus Ah Um re-issue LP, while the sound was decent and full of details, the brass should sound more throaty. Bass was somewhat woolly and truncated and sound did not fully open up and project like a good horn should. The La Scala's sounded more "confined" compared to when they were in my house - something is waiting to be let out here.
- I did not expect Bernard to say "yes" when I suggested that he should try the La Scala's placed along the short "wall" (the windows). Well, we men of action just jumped up and did it. Easily firmly gripped, La Scala must be the easiest loudspeaker to move around. well, we just plonked them down and did not fine-tune. Again, the rest is history!
- From the first note, the La Scala I knew came back; everything bloomed and birds sang! Everybody had a big smile and the party began! The sound was just so much BIGGER!
- With pop and jazz, the sound was truly live, and difficult to fault. The percussion and bass attacks of the Let It Rain on Patricia barber's Companion re-issue LP were perfectly rendered, fast in transient response, colorful in timber, an assault on the senses. Most importantly, they sounded like real people right there in the living room.
- With chamber music, as in jazz, the muscians were palpably present in the living room. We played a mono Casals/Horzowski CD (oop; Philips) and Casals was with us, his inimitable tone enchanting.
- To us concert lovers, the sound of the dining room was even better, and exactly conveyed the sound of the concert hall balcony. With the two Living Stereo re-issue LPs, Stokowski Rhapsodies and Piatigorsky Dvorak Cello Concerto, the full orchestra were laid out below us. The solo passages and horn tutti were absolutely faithful facsimiles of the concert experience from above. whlee was absolutely delighted, and I haven't seen him like this in years!
- For a final cut, we played 王菲 “天空”. This cut usually sounds rather white and monotonous in the majority of setups, but here it is fully fleshed out and atmospheric. What a fitting end to the day, “天空” is "The Sky" in Chinese, and the La Scala serves as a window to it!
- Lest you think I have lost my faculties for judgement, I am obliged to point out the imperfections in the system, especially when it comes to classical orchestral music replay: The mass violins need an expansion in scale and nuance; the bass, while good, needs to reach a little lower; and just a little more ease at climaxes would not be amiss. But I think these can be easily achieved with further tuning.
- There is no question that speaker choice and placement are the most important factors in one's system.
- Placement The most valuable given asset is a good room, and Bernard is more fortunate than most of us. Yet, the previous incarnations before re-placement serve as reminders that our habits (or constraining factors, such as WAF) are often (understandably) at odds with the needs of the system. In a way, we are our worst enemies. Do not fight or neglect the room!
- Speaker Choice Once again, the experience shows that horns are irreplaceable, and this was exactly what oozz and I talked about on our long way home. There is no better conveyance of the live music quality than horns (oozz's own German Physiks is a variation on the horn). This setup is not expensive, yet it gives more of the illusion of the live event than systems we have heard that cost millions of dollars. Also, the simplicity of the system should give tweakers much thought! So many people spend megabucks on power treatment, cables and tweaks etc; yet all they get are frustrations. Attend to the basics!
- It is really gratifying to hear a system truly transformed. People claim all sorts of improvements, but epiphanies do not come so often without drastic measures, usually not voodoo but attention to basics.
- What I would do In this system, were it so fortunately mine, within aesthetically acceptable limits (and WAF) I'd fine-tune the placement. I'd also try to drive it with less power (SET or, as whlee thinks, low-powered PP amps). I think a even better sound can be easily achieved without much cost.
- The Klipsch Lesson Once again, the experience confirmed one of my convictions, detailed in previous articles. Well executed, a Klipsch system outperforms most ad-hog conglomerates of arguably superior components. The coherence is compelling.
- Is it the best-ever system I have heard? Not in all parameters, but in terms of the live experience, this is the absolute best (surpassing my own efforts)!