I’m a fan of tiny speakers attempting to do real HiFi. There’s a trend toward more discreet HiFi, where in bygone days the speakers were part of the furniture do to their size. The laws of physics dictate that the smaller the speaker the smaller the sound, but the less space they take up in our shrinking living environment, where space is a premium. The only thing that’s got bigger is the TV, but since they’re now a mere few cm thick despite being the size of a mural they can be hung on the wall. There’s another reason I like small speakers… I can buy a few pairs and stash them without disturbing the domestic status quo.
Due to its density, metal cabinets were at least the choice of a few decades ago where you could get a speaker about the size of a brick that sounded pretty good, some of which commanded real HiFi prices such as the Technics SB-F1 (£220 back in 1978) in either the original or MK2 guise. They even have the facility to screw them onto a tripod!
My metal cabinet speakers have included:
Monitor Audio BM100 probably late 70s early 80s
Technics SB-F1 late 70s early 80s
TEAC LSX8MK2 90s
Realistic Minimus 7 90s
I’ve put these in order of sound quality but the Technics beats them all on the quality of the finish. They even look up to date right now and a good condition pairs sell for big money on ebay. Watch that the bass cone surrounds aren’t perished though, they’re made of foam and prone to rot especially if stored in a damp environment or used in direct sunlight.
Back at the HiFi Penta Show at Heathrow in 1992, I heard a pair of Alexander Speakers and was stunned at the sound vs appearance experience. A captivating set-up amongst some seriously esoteric offerings. We’d gone there on the last day, pointed out that another set up was out of phase that no one else had picked up upon, or at least mentioned to the exhibitor. We were ballsy teens after all. A Google search revealed this comment about the Alexander-based set-up:
I was sat mesmerised by a Rega 2, Creek 4140 and a tiny pair of Alexander SE2 speakers made of steel with cabinets no bigger than a house brick. I stayed and listened to a whole album and saw both Denis Morecroft and Max Townshend drawn in to listen. They introduced themselves to each other and were both charmed by no more than £500 worth of kit making what I thought was the best sound of the show.
Denis Morecroft - DNM Design
Max Townshend - Townshend Audio
… and I’m inclined to agree, perhaps bar a pair or ribbon Carver ALS floorstanders playing jazz, where we had to look behind them to see if there really was a trumpet player there. With a four-figure price-tag for the speakers alone we were both stunned and shocked but walked away, safe in the knowledge we would never spend that kind of wad on speakers as astonishingly real as those beauties. Oh, there was one other pair that would’ve have literally blown us away had the hotel room windows been open.. A pair of Cerwin Vegas. As crude as speakers get, but Chubby Checker and The Fat Boys – Wipeout was bordering on silly, but it did produce chuckles and grins from us. Actually, the TDL Studio range was pretty memorable too, now I reflect on it…
So, back in the real world…
My curiosity was piqued when I stumbled across a pair of the military-looking black bricks with fine chicken wire for a grille when they popped up on ebay for only the second time since I’d bothered to look over the last 5 years. With a starting bid of £25 and a £20 p&p fee I thought I’d have a punt. No one else bid and that eager wait between winning and receiving was verging on comical. Had my teen ears been tainted back in the day or had speakers moved on more than I’d care to admit?
Back in the day when £150 could by me some JPW Sonatas, Tannoy E11s, Monitor Audio 7s or some Celestion DL4 MK2. I pipped for some Celestions. On reflection, this wasn’t the best choice. I’d blown the tweeters on my ageing Celestion Ditton 120s that were a friend’s dad’s pair and I felt brand-loyal. The DL4s were dry, littered with ear-bleeding levels of sibilance and actually, having subsequently listened to the other 3 pairs of speakers more recently, the worst of the four. I should have gone for either the MA 7s or the Sonatas. I didn’t like the shape of the Sonata’s they looked dated and shared the same tweeter with much cheaper speakers. More recently, I’ve realised just how good those Sonata are though as long as you get the real wood finish ones. The MA’s, I love ‘em, but quite a different sound to the Sonata’s. Would I have bought the Alexander’s back then? Probably not. You couldn’t get them in either Laskys, Sevenoaks Hifi, or any of the Hifi Emporia on Tottenham Court Road, the second reason… They have no bass. None, ziltch… And looking in a May 1991 issue of What HiFi, it appears no one was selling them anyway!
They SE2 does look like some utilitarian black brick, that although made well, isn't finished perfectly, so I was expecting a similar sound. The same experience came over me as I plugged then in using banana plugged cable, the only method available on these and fired them up. Their clarity and openness is unbelievable. You know when Susan Boyle started to sing on X-Factor?... How could these crude bricks produce such an effortless, sweet sound? They immediately unearthed the Technics SB-F1 from the kitchen. I have a ‘cook and listen’ approach to food preparation. My wife immediately noticed that the kitchen sound was different, better, clearer, yet softer. No provocation, no asking, just that verbal response and a nod to the sound. I’d catch myself looking at them asking myself “how do they do that?” in essence reflecting on their reproduction of emotional intent behind the music.
This is where they stayed until I moved house. Well, to be honest, I did try my JBL Control 1s in their place but concluded they were unnatural sounding boomboxes, at least in that set-up anyway. So I put the Alexanders back. And nursed a lump on my head from unshelving a half-finished bottle of Drambuie that met with my head on its decent. At least neither smashed.
When we moved house, the diminutive Alexander SE2s were the first speakers I set up, quite literally on a shelf above the fireplace as we unpacked. I’d walk passed and stop in my tracks, box in hand and be compelled to listen, rather than just hear. 4 months on we are still unpacking, but the speakers have moved. The Acoustic Energy AE1s are back in pride of place and the Alexanders were boxed up to the garage. JBL Control 1 supply the kitchen/diner and until very recently, the MA 7s do the office. The MA BM100s in the bedroom. Tolerant wife, eh?
Something was missing…
The Alexanders were absent. I swapped them into the bedroom, but for the first time they didn’t sound right shoved in a corner. So I thought I’d put them in the office with my moth-balled TDL subwoofer. The 7s although fab for what they are, weren’t captivating me. I was hearing them in the office but not really listening. The Alexander bricks, plonked on the 7s, subwoofer plugged in and away we go… They are very much back in the game. The missing octave is all it needed. I have spent more time listening to this set up in the last week than I have to any other system since I’ve moved house in June. It’s nowhere near as detailed as the somewhat more clinical AE1 set-up, with its 3D soundstage and correctly guessing what shoes Eric Clapton is wearing on his ‘Unplugged’ album. But that’s what you do, you analyse the music. They were, after all, originally intended for studio monitoring.
The Alexanders are so listenable. Unfatiguing… That’s how I’d describe them. They’re still sitting on the MA 7s. Shame I don’t have the November 1990 What HiFi to see what they thought of them, but considering what they made of the Celestions back in March ’89, I’d be inclined to say I’m prepared to remain ignorantly blissful.
Alexander SE2 Loudspeakers
2.6kg per speaker
Folded steel cabinet
Black paint (Hammerite-type) finish
SEAS H202 tweeter
SEAS FM11-based bass cone (rubber rather than foam surround)
PS The Technics SB-F1 are now in the bedroom, they look pretty and go with the décor!
I sold the Technics SB-F1. I wasn't using them and they were in such good condition, I got good ££ for them :)
The Monitor Audio BM100 set are in the kitchen/diner.
The AE1s have moved from the lounge to a dedicated listening room and the Monitor Audio 7s are in the lounge now. To be honest, the AE1s didn't sound right in the lounge but the MA 7s do.
The Alexander SE2s are still in 'pride of place' in the office (garage) on a pair of stands made out of, er... Lego. I still listen to them the most, in my office (mancave). You can play them all day, every day. I love 'em.
I'm about to try a NOS DAC in the system pretty soon... Watch this space for the next blog!
3 or so years on it's time for an update!
The Alexander SE2s are in the kitchen, hooked up to a TDL SBR subwoofer and a TA2024, Tripath T-amp, power amp. They get fired up 2-3 times a day in the kitchen/dining area and still sound incredible with the 'how do they do that?' sound. If I could only keep one set of speakers, I'd probably keep the Alexander SE2s. Not actually because they sound the best but because they are the most surprising and least easy to replace. They are extremely rare.
The 'office' has the Monitor Audio BM100 pair plonked on top of the Lego stands. I use them mainly for Zoom meetings and consultations for the speech output. I've also used them for monitoring online DJing. Surprisingly, when compared with Monitor Audio 7s, Monitor Audio 9s, JPW Mini Monitor Golds, JBL Control 1s, JBL Control 23-1s and my newest addition, pair of Fostex PM0.4Ns, the Monito Audio BM100s win! They win since their portrayal of voice is the best... and that's from a speaker that was released in the 70s. I'm pretty certain, the Alexander SE2 would sound even better but I'm not going to keep them in here just for their reproduction of speech!
I like the transmission-line sound of TDL so much I bought yet another pair of TDL Studio 0.5 for very little money for what they can do. They have main pride of place in the office. These are probably the speakers I have doing their sing-song the most.
The Acoustic Energy AE-1s are a problem... I have a dedicated room that has them set up in there but I don't listen very much to them. Ever-tolerant wife has plans for the 'listening room'. This was the point of buying the Fostex PM0.4Ns and in white. They are really good! An enjoyable, balanced sound, that's pretty good to hear in the background but if you want to sit down and listen, they are understandably outclassed by the AE-1s.
One thing I wasn't expecting, was just how much difference changing the speaker cable from a plaited Cat-5 bi-wire configuration to some relatively inexpensive Van Damme Tour Grade UPOFC bi-wire speaker cable. I'd used some in the DJ rig and was really impressed. So, for a quarter of the price I'd paid for the terminations on my Audioquest Hyperlitz speaker cable, I bought the Van Damme. I think the AE-1's are staying. I retired the Yamaha subwoofers that I had running with the AE-1s. It was evident that running such subs with the AE-1s was a bit like putting a roof-rack on a supercar... It'll carry more weight but completely ruins the point of the car. So, luckily, I may be able to get away with keeping them in the room since the subs are gone. They sound better and the room can be repurposed with them still in it. I shall break it to the family gently.
As for the Fostex, I don't know. I like them. I could actually live with them instead of the AE-1s but I would always be thinking, what of the music am I missing?
As for speaker cable... Well, that's a whole blog in itself! What I wasn't expecting, is that speaker cable seems to be more amplifier than speaker dependent and the only way to decide which is best is to use your ears. It needn't use too much wallet either. Generally, I think it's important to spend more time listening than tinkering since 'it's all about the music'.