KK hears a new high-end speaker under beta testing, and it’s a stunner.
Those who have followed my scribbling over the years will know that I have no greater pleasure in hi-fi than attending the UK’s semi-annual Audiojumble in Tonbridge, Kent. It is, as far as I can ascertain, the world’s largest used and vintage audio gear event, and I have been a stall-holder since 2002. Its founder, John Howes, has handed the reins to his offspring, not least because he needs the time to write a book on his audio hero, Paul Voigt.
Voigt can best be described for those of you unfamiliar with British-made horn loudspeakers as the UK’s equivalent of, say, Paul Klipsch, whom he pre-dated. His history is inextricably interwoven with the more familiar Lowther, and both are newsworthy in 2023 because Lowther has been acquired by an investor named Martin Thornton, who is intent on restoring the manufacturer to its position as the premier producer of horn designs.
[As for background to Voigt, Lowther, et al, I will leave you in anticipation of the John’s forthcoming book, which will deal with his unmatched knowledge of them as well as other pioneering British speaker manufacturers. If the spirit or impatience move you, I recommend a visit to a pair of excellent online resources: http://www.roger-russell.com/voigt/voigt.htm and http://www.lowthervoigtmuseum.org.uk/links.html.]
What has inspired this largely pictorial installment in our ongoing open-reel saga is a visit to John’s museum. Arguably the most comprehensive collection of Voigt and Lowther horns in the world – I say “arguably” because I have seen what collectors have amassed in Europe and the Pacific Rim, but I have not made an actual count – John’s museum also attracted me because of his collection of tape decks, especially early Revox models. Moreover, he always has a number of outré components to hand, the kind you only ever hear at hi-fi shows because they are too exotic for even the pluckiest of Italian, Japanese or Korean audiophiles, e.g., Lampizator, Voxativ and others of that ilk.
Early Revox tape decks: a C36 and F36.
The hugely covetable Sony TC-766 half-track deck.
Another beauty: a Revox G36 deck in stunning condition.
John invited me and fellow tape casualty Jim Creed to hear not just a new horn but his latest passion: output-transformerless (OTL) amplifiers. A lump immediately formed in my throat because I was reminded instantly of a dear friend, the late, kilt-wearing, Tannoy-loving Harvey Rosenberg, who almost-singlehandedly revived interest in the genre some 30-plus years ago by championing Futterman OTL amplifiers made by New York Audio Labs (NYAL).
Ah, Harvey! He did more to make hi-fi fun than anyone I can name in 55 years as an audio casualty. Others were producing OTLs, too, but Harvey was this industry’s greatest showman, shouting the loudest. I may even still have my Julius Futterman T-shirt, one of Harvey’s marketing wheezes along with kimonos and diapers, the latter because “the sound is so transcendent that it will make you sh*t yourself.”
While I lacked the fortitude to devote myself to OTLs, which are cranky at best and (allegedly) fire hazards at worst, for a while I did use a now-self-immolated GRAAF GM200 OTL. Beyond that, I adored every other OTL that I heard, including Harvey’s and George Kaye’s NYAL models and examples of the format from David Berning, Atma-Sphere, and others. To that list, thanks to John, I can now add Audio-Technik OTLs, which reached John’s premises for servicing. He thinks their vintage is 1990s, but the pair looked brand-new.
Above: Audio-Technik amplifiers.
It was, however, the new horn speakers which were the main draw, the rebirth of a near-mythical speaker which involved Lowther and another true audio legend: the American genius Stewart Hegeman. Hegeman was a key figure in the design of numerous golden-age masterpieces from harman/kardon (Citation), Dynaco’s tuners, his own-branded speakers and much more. As too many now ignore hi-fi’s history, let’s just say that any list of American hi-fi pioneers which includes Sid Smith, David Hafler, Edgar Villchur, Henry Kloss, Saul Marantz, Frank McIntosh, Sidney Harman, Avery Fisher, et al, MUST include Stewart Hegeman.
As for the speaker which I heard at John’s, it is, 60 years on, the modern realization according to https://www.lowtherloudspeakers.com/blog-posts/the-lowther-hegeman of a “collaboration between [Lowther’s] Donald Chave and Stuart [sic] Hegeman. Originally designed to maximize the potential of the PM4 drive unit and take Lowther one step further towards perfection. The Hegeman is now our flagship speaker from our Heritage Range and is yet again making a mark on Hi-Fi history.”
A rare, original Lowther Hegeman loudspeaker.
John reckons that the original, close in size and form to that of a Klipschorn or other corner-type speaker circa 1960, would cost around £35,000/$45,000 a pair in today’s money. It actually comes close to what Lowther has planned for the reborn model, if the price had been updated as if the speaker had been in continuous production since the 1960s, accounting for inflation in currency value, increased disposable income, 20 per cent VAT (UK sales tax), etc., which equates roughly to treble the figure from 1960.
For example, each raw Lowther PM4 driver cost circa £50 circa 1960 if you were to buy them and build your own cabinets. The equivalent in today’s money of £1,124/$1,440, so just the two drivers needed for the stereo pair was close to $3,000. When you consider that hi-fi and many other industries work at a “times 5” multiplication factor to calculate retail pricing, that’s a $15,000 chunk of the final fee. And whaddaya know: a brand-new PM4 today retails for £1,272/$1,626, so Lowther has been both fair and conservative with the pricing of a drive unit for more than a half-century.
Such costings should be kept in mind to avoid the usual apoplexy when discussing how most high-end hi-fi is priced, i.e., after finding out how much the company boss needs to pay for a new Maserati. Not so the Lowther Hegeman, which strikes this cynic as a near-bargain. The new speaker, like the old, contains exceedingly complex cabinetry, an upper-horn throat in curved plywood instead of the original’s fragile plaster of Paris, and it boasts what many regard as the finest finishing and veneers seen in the industry. The lavish woodwork is right up there with, if not beyond the best of Italy.
Time for a reality check. All of this is a preamble to the mooted cost of what will be a limited-edition speaker. I have been told that the company will aim to produce four pairs a year. I would not expect too much change from £80,000 plus taxes for a pair in the UK, with US prices still being established. As that’s far from the upper reaches of today’s high-end speaker market, we are not talking the usual audio avarice.
(An interesting historical twist, as the original was born during the mono era. The speaker will also be offered in single units for mono users or center channel systems. There will be a reduction of around 10 – 12 percent when purchased as pairs, so a single speaker will sell for £45,000 ex-VAT. Thus, you save £10,000 when buying a pair.)
Having heard John’s previous installation, I had a rough idea of what to expect. My only experience of current Lowthers, for a review last year, was a diversion as that speaker was flawed and needed further work, but this was an entirely different situation. I could tell much had changed in the interim, not least because another new model at John’s, the smaller tower-type floorstanding Edilia, turned out to be an absolute killer of a room-friendly speaker with a truly sane price to be in the region of £20,000/$25,000 per pair.
Lowther's new Edilia loudspeaker.
John Howes with the Edilia and a prototype of the new Lowther Hegeman loudspeaker.
John had the Lowther Hegemans in his listening room in order to voice them for the company, and the performance was a revelation. How much of what I heard was down to the OTLs I cannot say, as my previous visit involved listening to equally outré tube gear of John’s design, which also sounded sensational. (John’s modified Quad IIs are to the original amplifiers as AMG modifications are to Mercedes.
As one who has respected but never been enamored of horns, it was a Damascene moment. Let me explain: I have always coveted and therefore adored in particular Klipsch’s Klipschorn, La Scala, Belle Klipsch and Heresy, as well as Lowther’s small, miraculous Bicor, plus a handful of others to which I have been exposed such as Be’ Yamamura’s fabled system. As the best horns are usually huge, however, they preclude siting in my clutter-filled 12 x 18ft studio; I suspect Heresys are the most I could manage, other than small-footprint column types. The charms of those classic horns aside, I have always detected a light nasality in even the best, including those powered by single-ended triodes, which are surely the aspartame of hi-fi.
What I heard at John’s was something else, in particular for near-matchless performance in two areas. I must stress, though, that as of June 2023, the reborn Lowther Hegeman is a work-in-progress, however close it is to being signed off for production. This is no review, no hard-and-fast opinion, merely my impressions formed during a matchless listening session, primarily with open-reel tapes of my choosing.
Prototype of the new Lowther Hegeman.
My cautious mood notwithstanding, I have no hesitation in saying that the character and extension of the bass were about as natural as I have ever heard. But the deal-maker? The Lowther Hegeman speakers delivered scale and soundstage so lifelike and truly grand that the sounds of Martin Denny orchestral material on open-reel, the piano of Roger Williams on delicious Kapp pre-recorded tape, and Keb’ Mo’s bottleneck guitar via CD were so free of artifice that I could have been listening to Quad ’57s on steroids. Yes, it was that open and transparent.
That’s as much as I know beyond Lowther already declaring that the reborn Lowther Hegeman Reproducer will be their top model, crowning the no-compromise Heritage Range. Should you learn of a hi-fi show where Lowther is exhibiting, try to attend. If what you hear is half as good as what I heard in John’s cavernous listening room – and these merit a near-auditorium – you will leave dazzled.
One of John's hot-rodded B5/B5F Lowther amplifiers.
Lowther’s US source is:
34 Wild Horse Way
Chesterfield, Missouri 63005
Header image: the view from one of John's hot seats. All images courtesy of the author.