Altec Lansing was dominant in the USA in cinemas and studios, and homes with “higher requirements” from the 40s until the late 70s.
Then it went down in connection with purchases from various technology/investment companies, and engineers fled to other companies like JBL, EV, and others.
Any day of the week, older Altec Lansing beats those other companies with better active filters and PEQ regarding audible distortion and frequency response.
Altec Lansing stands in a class of its own of older high-sensitivity speakers.
The popularity of Altec Lansing theatrical loudspeakers among audiophiles waned in the mid-1950s with the promotion of the Acoustic Research/Janszen dynamic/electrostatic hybrid loudspeaker.
Horn-loaded – speakers (e.g., all at Altec) gained a reputation for harshness in HF and midrange coloration, and consumer demand for them almost dried up by the mid-1970s.
My colleague owns a 15″ Lansing element from the 1930s and several Altec Lansing 311b, 604, 811b, Model 19, as well as some other models.
In this article, I’ll do my best to pick the best vintage Altec Lansing speakers and review those I tested.
1. Altec Lansing Model 19
This is a speaker for the audiophile as well as an occasional listener. It is fantastic in design, being a simple two-way type.
However, this is not just any simple two-way type speaker.
The heritage behind the Model 19 is the Altec Voice Of The Theatre legacy. This is somewhat of a scaled-down version of the venerable VOTT – but with better frequency extensions.
The “Tangerine” horn driver had extended upper range capacity not many, if any, had when these were initially built. Back in the day, it was revolutionary for a horn driver this size to hold the more distant high-end frequency capability this driver delivered.
The horn lens has outstanding dispersion characteristics for excellent room coverage and smooth frequency response. The horn is efficient and has a well-established design by Altec. Combining the 811 lenses with this driver was pure audio art!
The Altec 16″ woofer offered an excellent higher-end range to best meet the lower-end capability of the great horn combination.
Matching this particular mid-woofer to that horn set made pure sonic sense. They matched and blended so well that their sound is renowned in the audiophile community – at last, a truly BIG sound in a stylish and accurate package.
Another bonus is that this mid-woofer was rugged and had a true low-end capability of 30 Hz – even better than all that is that it could do it loudly with a 99db efficiency, which again helped match it up to the horn combinations’ ability to play loud and clear.
The 15″ bass driver produces some of the cleanest, clearest basses I have ever heard.
The speakers will pressurize the room, shaking it with deep bass where the source requires it, yet the bass is free of boom or exaggerations. They have “slam” in abundance but also finesse.
As great as the driver match-up was, the crossover made it all possible, an extremely smooth transition assisted by a pair of L-Pads, where one could tweak the upper-frequency ranges or even the lower vocal ranges.
The crossover was a charm to me and gave these amazing speakers their soul of sound reproduction.
Another awesome thing is that you do not require a huge muscle amp – a simple, modest, well-made tube amp is easily played through these.
The cabinets arrived in a rugged Oak style or stylish Walnut wood. They were very stable and heavy. They did not rattle or ring but delivered a sturdy platform for the lower-end bass extension port to cabin the drivers in wonderful style.
These were big furniture pieces and very much looked the part with a lovely finish and fine construction. While they did house the drivers, they spread and allowed the sound to look and flow like no other speaker made quite since.
All in all, Altec Model 19’s are in a niche all their own. It is one of those speakers you remember when and where you first heard them.
You remember BIG, probably above all – BIG sound, cabinets, everything! You remember the huge sounding bass, the soft clean, clear vocals. You are captivated by the sound that is more than unique.
2. Altec Lansing 604-8G (Model 17)
The Altec Model 604, one of the first true coaxial speakers, was adopted for home hobbyist use and, after several modifications, is still widely used today to monitor disc recordings
This speaker is a duplex (coaxial, concentric) in a 620s cabinet sold as the Altec model 17.
It is large (40″x26″x18″) and has a front port. It has a reduction driver/multicell horn concentrically positioned in the middle of a 15″ bass driver.
All the drivers include alnico V magnets (2.5x more energy than a ferrite magnet of similar weight). The huge alnico magnets are one reason it is so sensitive (105dB), 30Hz to 22kHz.
Indeed one of the greatest loudspeakers in the world today. Altec was leaps and bounds ahead of their time, putting most of today’s loudspeakers to shame.
These speakers do everything good, from shimmering highs to incredible mids, to thundering base realism.
I have yet to listen to a loudspeaker that can touch them in the areas that count. They are especially good at voice. It’s so spooky like the voices are right there in the room.
All in all, these speakers are stunning. It can perform macro and microdynamics like there is no tomorrow.
It delivers the power of the music. It plays effortlessly with ease, which causes the preamp to flow out of it without a hint of strain.
It has correctness of timbre, surprising transients, low distortion at all volumes, clearness, and coherency.
Due to their vintage, they are not easy to locate, and most of these gems have been shipped to the Far East, where they are highly treasured, but if you search hard enough, you can still get them.
If you come across a pair, make sure you give it a try. You’ll likely get hooked too.
3. Altec Lansing 301
The Altec Lansing 301 is Altec’s mid-range consumer line. They’re unremarkable in appearance ( a simple box) chipboard, with minimal internal reinforcement.
The woofer of the diffuser is made of carbon fiber, which combines light weight with a remarkable degree of stiffness in pursuit of the perfect woofer: true piston action.
Carbon fiber construction ” eliminates decay, deformation, and overloading in woofer cones.
In the Altec Lansing 301 Acoustics, the midrange and tweeter drivers are made of a thermosetting plastic called Polyimide, which is resistant to temperatures up to 600 °F.
On the surface of this plastic is a layer of 4 microns thick titanium, one of the toughest and very lightest metals I know.
In addition, the voice coil of each HF speaker runs in a ferromagnetic fluid medium, which provides both damping and effective heat transfer from the voice coil to the surrounding magnet structure.
In other words, the speakers are made to absorb all kinds of overloading!
To say that Altec 301 speakers have a distinctive sound is to say you haven’t heard them once! Listening to these, that “high class” one marvels at their delivery of sonic material.
Not to say that these Altec Lansing 301s will take us back to audio primitivism. No, they are strikingly different in sound from what we consider acceptable today. You will hear the “richness of sound” from Altec Lansing 301 speakers.
They sound very interesting, almost aggressive in a punchy way, and amazingly alive!
They reproduce some tracks very smoothly, with the most open treble, and with a degree of transparency and detail that is almost electrostatic.
The woofer quality is surprisingly good, though, considering its simple housings of it. The Altec Lansing 301 loudspeakers deliver a clean 28Hz.
Records with a strong bass sound good, but those with mid-bass are not so good anymore.
In short, I’m very impressed with the Altec Lansing 301. While the Altec 301s do some things worse than any audiophile speakers I’ve heard, they have a strong personality (okay, call it coloring if you like).
4. Altec VOT 7
These are the P.A. voice of the theatres. They have the 808-8A high-frequency drivers, 511-B horns, E/V 15″ woofers, and Altec N501-8A dividing network.
They are wider than a door frame and over four feet tall. They definitely aren’t small speakers.
My friend put new authentic drivers in the speakers as they needed replacing when he bought them. The speakers sound better than any speaker I have owned or used.
They are very efficient and can be driven to very loud volumes with amps of 5-10 watts per channel.
The sound is so live that it makes you feel you’re listening to the band lives or in the studio.
The Altec horns have the sweetest highs I have ever heard and will put chills down your spine. We have them hooked up to a Yamaha M45 power amp, preamp, and an old Pioneer CD player.
If you can find a pair of VOTs, I recommend buying them. You would have to spend at least 3-4 thousand dollars to find a pair of new speakers that would come close tpreampVOTs, and even then, I don’t think you would do better.
I plan to buy two VOT A-7 speakers with 811 horns and 802D drivers and 515B woofers with ALTEC 500 Hz crossovers.
These speakers will sound great. Seems like the older they get, the better they sound. I have been told that the ALNICO magnets sound better with age.
A Short History of Altec Lansing
Altec came out of Western Electric. Then Altec bought Lansing’s company and called the company Altec Lansing. JB Lansing then dropped out and started JBL.
The products that Western Electric was making were not for home use but were mainly used in theaters such as movie theaters, so the product’s unit price was an order of magnitude different from that for home use (it was only leased, not sold).
Because of this, they were able to push ahead with product development, and it is said that by the 1920s and 1930s, they had already established technology equivalent to today’s speakers.
ALTEC was originally a “maintenance company for theater sound equipment.” Still, due to its success in business and financial strength, it bought the manufacturing rights of Western Electric products and became independent from Western Electric’s engineers.
In 1983, Altec abandoned its attempts to take its products to the consumer market and continued to supply rigs to professional users even after the sale to Gulton Industries in ’84.
In 1985, auto sound manufacturer Sparkomatic bought the rights to the consumer speaker market under the name Altec Lansing. They put together a line of publicly available systems and introduced them at the ’86 CES, the Model 301, for all to hear again.
Altec Lansing Ruled the Cinema Audio
Until the early 1950s, the unquestioned best archival sound of the time was the optical sound pasted onto film reels.
The sound of the 1940 Disney film ‘Fantasia’ could easily pass for genuine top-quality hi-fi today. Perhaps predictably, it was then also in film sound that Altec Lansing’s ‘cutting edge’ technological developments took place.
The biggest player of the time, from the 1930s right up to the 1980s, was unquestionably Altec-Lansing, who produced variants on the theme of ‘Voice of the Theatre,’ all of which were originally two-way speakers based on a 15-inch unit in a far too small bass reflex cabinet supplemented by a short front loading horn with a horn-loaded driver.
And originally, always with the obligatory 500 Hz diaphragm frequency prescribed in all film manuals to ensure homogeneous sound coverage in the auditorium.
See, that was the thing and can, in most respects, play havoc with today’s hi-fi because it avoided a cut-off frequency in the most sensitive area of the ear, without that being the reason for the choice – just a lucky side effect.