Gramophone Dreams #34: The Salt Cellar System

The image above is not a modernist oil painting. It's an airport x-ray of my friend Jeffrey Jackson's backpack.

Can you identify its contents? Did you notice the red rectangle alerting the inspector of a suspicious object is, or what it's worth?

That ominous-looking black silhouette is a 1930s-era Western Electric 555W "receiver"—ie, a compression driver for use with a horn. It's about 10" in diameter and weighs around 15lb. It requires a 7V DC/1.4A power supply for its field-coil magnet and would cost about $8000 to replace.

In the compartment to its right are some old tubes: The large ST-size ("Coke-bottle") tube is an Elektromekano S6, made in Copenhagen around 1941. The round tube is the storied Western Electric 205D "tennis ball," which was engineered to be a super-linear audio-frequency amplifier for applications "where power outputs of 1 watt or less are required."

The three other (T9-size) tubes are 6EM7s, scheduled for delivery to a German tonearm designer we all love and admire.

In the third compartment is a measurement microphone and an Apogee Duet audio interface for Mac computers.

A friendly explanation got Jeffrey past the people with blue nitrile gloves. The traveler behind him, reel-to-reel tape guru Charlie King, was not so lucky. He had a Stellavox recorder and a bag full of antique magnetic tapes that had deteriorated into nitro-something-or-other, which apparently set off some bomb-sniffing dog. My other traveling companion, Dave Slagle, passed through easily—despite carrying an over-the-weight-limit collection of transformers, coils of wire, and a platoon of curious-looking homemade phono cartridges.

My backpack rolled through easily despite numerous bottles of suspicious-looking fluids and a cast-iron throat for a Western Electric 24A horn.

Dave Slagle, Jeffrey Jackson, and I were flying to Paris on our way to the 2019 European Triode Festival (ETF) in Bellême, France. Jeffrey and Dave were planning to construct an improved version of the Salt Cellar System they demonstrated at ETF 2018, named for the room in which it was demonstrated (see below). I described that radical creation in an AudioStream article entitled "Secret Societies of the Audiophile."

320gramdr.hornandfoot

For me, that 2018 system was unforgettable. It took listening to recorded music to a place where artist-humans like Miles Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell upstaged the powerful, otherworldly look of the bulky speakers they were playing from. It took listening to a place that was all engagement and zero critical thinking. That original Salt Cellar System did exactly what Art Dudley described in his description of Jeffrey Jackson's horn system in the Experience Music demo space back in the states:

"In this setting, as in [Jackson's] basement in Rhinebeck, it seemed to me that Jackson's playback gear succeeded in finding the humans in the recordings, in a manner that rendered everything else less important, at least at that moment."

Art elaborated: "It was eerie, hypnotic stuff, creepy yet carnal and addictively relentless: a mix of nearly overwhelming sensations, and an experience almost anyone would pay for if they knew such a thing could be had for mere money. This was music playback at its best and most essential, and for the rest of the day, the list of attributes I'm paid to listen for was crumpled and discarded, as from the open window of a car headed somewhere better."

I thought the 2019 Salt Cellar System delivered an even more tangible experience of "humans in the recordings" than last year's system. Therefore, I'm devoting this entire Gramophone Dreams to describing the humans behind the sound and engineering of both systems.

Listening in the salt cellar
The ETF 2019 system was constructed in situ in a corner recess of a low-ceilinged room in a 15th century, heavy-stone, arch-and-column building—a place where, for centuries, locals stored their most valuable commodity: salt. As you read this story, keep in mind: These systems only ever existed inside the Bellême, France, salt cellar. They are not commercial products.

320gramdr.hornincorner

The Teo Macero–assembled collage elements in "Yesternow," from Miles Davis's A Tribute to Jack Johnson (LP, Columbia KC 30455), fit together perfectly in some marvelous but inexplicable way. The only thing for sure is: Recorded instrumental texture was the glue Macero used to construct this masterpiece, yet almost never do box speakers (with dome tweeters) convey enough palpable instrumental texture to reveal the armature of "Yesternow"'s construction. The Salt Cellar horns did. The unique "tweeter" in this mono speaker preserved the leading edges of transients (and the inner-dimensionality of texture) in a way that made Miles's trumpet, Herbie Hancock's keyboard, and Billy Cobham's drums feel substantially present and conspicuously intelligible—with no phasey mishegas insinuating themselves between my ears and the artist's instruments. Miles's high-octane inventions appeared fully accessible. Unclouded. Uncompressed. With headphone-like transparency.

Besides Miles, Jeffrey played a lot of Mississippi Fred McDowell: You may be high, you may be low / you may be rich, child, you may be poor / but when the Lord gets ready, you got to move.

We listened to Fred McDowell: The Alan Lomax Recordings (LP, Mississippi Records MR074). I have listened to these single-microphone Alan Lomax recordings on every hi-fi I've ever had. But I never before stood this directly in the electrified ether-vapor between Fred's guitar and Lomax's microphone.

Jeffrey and I and several listeners all agreed: Mississippi Fred was sitting on the bass horn, strumming his guitar, his head just in front of the 24A's mouth. Amazingly, McDowell was exactly life-size—not too small like on my home speakers, or too large like on most (stereo) horn speakers.

System specifics
The Salt Cellar System's unique high-frequency transducer utilized a walnut horn with a flare that was a conical approximation of the one designed by the late Jean-Michel Le Cléac'h, with a field-coil motor designed and fabricated entirely (except for the diaphragm) by Jeffrey Jackson.

This unique tweeter-horn rolled off at 5kHz via a single Western Electric capacitor. It was crossed over to a rare, 12-cell, soldered-tin Western Electric 24A midrange horn with a 20A receiver attachment that accepts a single WE555W compression driver: the black silhouette in Jeffrey's backpack. The WE 24A is a very early cinema horn that covers frequencies from 300Hz to 5kHz. It is impossible to find and quite valuable. Collectors lucky enough to have one usually hang it from their ceiling to show off. But nobody plays music with a 24A because it has a flat front, and every horn cell is a different length. Jeffrey thought maybe these different length cells could be an advantage: "Maybe each cell has a different resonant peak?" I listened to music with one ear close in front of each individual cell. Each cell sounded slightly different—but also profoundly clear and surprisingly quiet. Evidence of low distortion.

The midhorn crosses over to a plywood bass horn at 300Hz, which, like the tweeter, was designed by Jackson and employs a conical version of the Le Cléac'h flare. This 50–300Hz horn is powered by a 15" Altec woofer; it's open at its back, allowing the room corner to amplify frequencies below 50Hz. Did the bass horn work? It must have: We played Kendrick Lamar!

Actually, the sound of the system's bass was natural—not hi-fi—in a way ported boxes never can be. The gray-painted window shutter in the picture, to the left of the horns in the photo, served as an improvised baffle to create a more gradual impedance match from the high pressure in the horn to the lower atmospheric pressure of the room.

Besides the WE tweeter capacitor, the only crossover in the system was an elegantly executed subtractive crossover, at 300Hz—accomplished by wiring the tube power amp's two nickel-cored output transformers in series: one for the woofer, one for the midrange.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
invaderzim's picture

We all have friends that we look forward to seeing. They are the people that improve our day just by stopping by and sharing an adventure with us. Herb, you are one of those friends and whenever I see your byline my day gets better.

Anton's picture

I agree.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

TSA would freak-out, if an image like the top photo showed up on their screen :-) .......

Herb Reichert's picture

that is from the airport.

They approved the photo.

hr

Metalhead's picture

Great article

As one with a life long aversion to boxes with cones and domes and a fondness for stats and horns this article is like catnip

Although not possessing the coin or ability to chase the dream with the cats mentioned I certainly enjoy my modded horns ml stats and tube systems to power the boogie.

Extremely interesting to read about the early gear and hope you all rock the cellar down.

Ortofan's picture

... indeed the be-all and end-all of sound reproduction, then why isn't HR's "bunker" occupied by Klipschorns, JBL Everests or even a Levinson HQD system?

Herb Reichert's picture

is a small one bedroom apartment in bed Stuy, Brooklyn. But long ago I lived in a firehouse, bought and sold Western Electric horns and owned two sets of stacked Quad 57s - one on Arcici metal stands - the other on Levinson wood frames. Next . . . I had big 1947 Altec VOTs with 10-cel tar-filled horns. Then Bruce Edgar Tractrix horns. Then very expensive TAD horns. During the 1990s I was the first to import and distribute Avante Guard horns. Never owned any Klipsch or JBL though.

Through it all I've always used LS3/5a - mostly as desktop speakers on factory wall mounts. Now I like full-range flat impedance headphones. Like the Abyss and RAAL.

Like Dunker says, "We are still turning stones."

Bogolu Haranath's picture

We are waiting for a review of the Warwick Aperio headphone system :-) ........

Could Aperio be a 'slam dunk'? :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Still Rolling Stones? :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

We keep turning stones till we find those 'gemstones' :-) ......

Ortofan's picture

... the sound reproduction quality from the QUAD 57 (and/or LS3/5a) speakers would also like horn type speakers.

I've only heard the 57s twice.
Once was in comparison to the B&W DM6. The 57s offered more a realistic sound reproduction, but wouldn't play as loud or go as low as the DM6s. The dealer was reluctant to turn up the volume to what I though was an acceptable listening level when playing the 57s.
The second was as part of an HQD system, which left an indelible impression not so much from the 57s, rather it was due to the phenomenal bass response from the (sub)woofers housed in cabinets the size of an armoire.

The LS3/5a was an ideal speaker for a college dorm room - unless your objective was to be able to drown out the neighbor's stereo system. An Advent receiver could drive them to an acceptable sound level without the risk of exceeding the speakers limited power handling capability. Modern speaker designers would do well to compare their creations to the LS3/5a - or the latest versions from Spendor or Harbeth.

As for headphones, I've been a long-time Stax user, starting out with the SR-5/SRD-6 combo. Other than some Sennheiser models for situations where a "passive" headphone was needed, I've never had reason to seek out anything else. Looking forward to see the results of your forthcoming Stax review.

michaelavorgna's picture

Yet you not only offer an opinion, you find it "curious" bla bla bla.

I wonder if you place any value, whatsoever, on experience?

I ask because it makes prefect sense to me that people who enjoy Quad 57s, in all their modern incarnations, also enjoy "horn type speakers." My experience suggests there are similar qualities in terms of music reproduction.

That being said, you cannot say you've heard Quad 57s without mentioning their lineage, e.g. Dave Slagle's "Quads" are not Quads, and of equal importance the amplifier(s) that drove them. Why? Because Quad 57s are chameleons when it comes to what music sounds like based on the amp doing the driving. I know a guy who went through 30+ amplifiers in search of his perfect Quad mate. On a related note, he owned horn speakers as well.

Ortofan's picture

... expectation?

My expectation is for a speaker to reproduce a reasonable facsimile of the sound of the piano I have in my listening room, or of the performances by string quartets at concerts I attend, or of the voices of various opera singers I hear at master classes held at a local university. My experience is that electrostatic speakers seem to achieve that end better than do horn type speakers.

After watching KM's video interviews with HR, it's evident to me that HR expects speakers to be able to paint some sort of aural picture, as he describes it. Apparently, his experience is that horn-type speakers are more successful at that task.

When I heard the 57s own their own, they were being driven by Luxman tube equipment. As part of the HQD system, they were driven by a Levinson class A solid-state power amp. This was in the days before CD and the Luxman pre-amp had a subsonic filter while the HQD system had the 57s crossed over to separate (sub)woofers. Both the Luxman and Levinson power amps had relatively low maximum power output capabilities.

When (the late) Bud Fried was the US importer for the QUAD 57, he made a significant effort to identify the characteristics needed for a suitable amplifier to drive the 57s. Since the 57s had limited power handling capability, it was pointless to use a power amp with a high peak power output capability. Given such a limitation, he determined that a maximum power output of about 25W was appropriate. However, in larger rooms, with wide dynamic source material and with the listening level set to what he termed "audiophile level", the amp would be driven into clipping on peaks. So, any amp had to clip cleanly/softly and recover quickly. Also, with stereophonic analog discs as a source, a low-pass subsonic filter was essential. He determined that the filter should have a cut-off frequency of about 20Hz and that the roll-off should be at the rate of 18dB/octave.
Did any of the amps tried by the guy you know meet these requirements?

michaelavorgna's picture

What you're saying is you discount other people's experience if their expectations are not stated as being exactly the same as yours.

That's an interesting point of view that's completely foreign to me.

The Quad owner I referred has owned them for decades and once visited the Quad factory with his broken 405 amp where he met Peter Walker who proceeded to show them up to the factory roof off of which Walker tossed the broken 405 (he gave the owner a new one). I wrote about this in 2006 along with some of the amps (Google is your friend).

While I cannot say with certainty that this Quad owner was aware of the Bud Fried comments you cited, I would assume he was. In any event, he has boatloads more experience with Quads and horns than you do. As does Herb. As do I.

I place value in experience not in expectations seeing as listening to music on the hifi is not a competitive sport. Maybe when HiFi becomes an Olympic event, we'll see a single person's point of view elevated to something more than what they prefer listening to.

Ortofan's picture

... is questionable. You also misinterpreted my comments regarding experience and expectation.

Other people's expectations and experiences are not necessarily being discounted. However, if your expectations are different, then your experience might well be different. Apparently, my expectations are rather different from those of HR, thus my experience is that sound reproduction via horn-type versus electrostatic speakers is, for me, not fungible.

If your claimed "boatloads more experience" is to be considered of any particular value, then why did Stereophile choose not to retain your services?

michaelavorgna's picture

No one, except you, has suggested that Quads and horns are interchangeable, just as no one except you has suggested that Quads and all electrostatic speakers are 'fungible'.

Yes, I'm the first person in the history of the human race to be let go even though I have relevant experience (that's me being sarcastic in case you missed it). Next time you try to take a cheap shot, try loading up with something with a bit more bite.

Herb Reichert's picture

in the days of Audio Amateur, Irving "Bud" Freid was a phone-pal of mine - he talked me through building one of his transmission line designs. I wish today's audio had more people like him. Bud was a fine man with good ears and an open 'independent' mind. I learned a lot from our conversations.

As for the Quads, many of my friends today use Quad 57s and the best I can tell, more than power, they need an amp that is comfortable driving a capacitive load. Two of the best amps I have personally experienced driving the 57s are the Audio Note P2 6L6 parallel single-ended and the Miyajima Lab Model 2010 OTL amps (reviewed by Art Dudley in Listening #139).

Both amps made the Quads sound vivid and life-like . . . and very satisfying day-in and day-out.

For my own explorations with Quads, I used Marantz 8B and Futterman H3a and some others but can't say I was ever really satisfied. I moved on quickly because of the way Quads beam and compress dynamics.

herb

Ortofan's picture

... the Marantz 8 power amp with the 57 speakers.
While it was deemed compatible, it was also noted that the high-pass filter on the "pre-amp" (versus "test") inputs should have had a steeper slope.

mhardy6647's picture

I have horns (Altec/JBL hybrids, at the current time) and a pair of Quad "ESL-57". Pretty simple to rationalize & to explain. Good horns/drivers and ESL-57s "get the midrange right". Very, very right.

shawnwes's picture

HR this may be the best article you've ever written. There have been moments in the past when you've lost me a little with your painter's brush but this one got your story across exquisitely.

BTW, do a giclee of the airport xray and hang it in the bunker.

Awsmone0's picture

Dear HR

When I read your comment about living 1975 again it struck a chord ...no pun intended ;)
Some people , I used to be one of them , think this is an answer to audio nirvana, I wish it was
I have been intrigued by the shift of MF and JA that it’s the handling of the distortion rather than the absolute levels that is more important plus the original linearity of the circuit
I have quad esl in my bedroom system, and altec horns in my big rig

I don’t pay much attention to measurements anymore other than impedance compatibility
I think the low amp energy needs and larger direct sound of horns are a winner, but their size can be a challenge yet the Japanese who love horns seem to cope ...

cgh's picture

Awesome article Herb. Fantastic.

JHL's picture

"...too many of today's audiophiles think audio is a numbers game. They discredit direct experience and deny the concreteness of observation and memory. Instead of listening and trusting their impressions, they block them out with graphs and numbers and sonic checklists, all based on preconceived notions about what is correct or incorrect..."

Nowhere are those unchallenged, preconceived notions more evident and harmful than in the loudness uniformity wars, where simple graphs of $99 speakers are given lopsided, even outlandish billing. The contrast between this ignorance and the sheer audible connectedness of an EMIA-style rig could not be more pronounced.

Or more important. This is what Sound Practices was on about 20 years ago, and before it, the vintage pro audio collector and before him the makers of the WE 555 and the linear audio tubes in the lead photograph, product of state of the art back around a time not too distant from Edison.

We preclude that legacy at our peril. Picking that thread back up is imperative.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

..... or else, the world is gonna end :-) ......

JHL's picture

...but evidently digital S'phile shall repeatedly withstand remarks from its worst commenter appearing trailing columns by audio's best writer.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Audio's best writer HR liked the sound of CDs in his review of Quad Artera Solus :-) ........

grantray's picture

Herb, any chance you can recall which 15" Altec got used for the LF horn? Enquiring minds, and whatnot. Also, I really, really need to get that book...

Herb Reichert's picture

not a 515 or 416 - its as something less common

herb

tonykaz's picture

should we consider it to be pursuing elevated levels of dopamine releasing musical reproduction capabilities.

My own mother was a performing Opera Voice. No manufactured Audio Gear ever duplicated her thrilling voice, never once, anywhere, by any transducer system including the famous Wilson systems that Stereophile reviewers like to own and review.

My older brother was a Horn player for our Detroit Symphony, he practiced for hours every day. My mother could sing over the sound levels of the Horn. Phew.

24 Bit Digital promises the Dynamic Range that my mother regularly performed at.

I too explored Europe in search of outstanding Music Gear. I imported the gear and sold it to my customer base. I demonstrated in a semi anechoic listening environment featuring non reflective Walls, Floor, ceiling and rear. In that room the little LS3/5a would impress like a full range pair of Thiel CS3s.

Loving Music reproduction and keeping it within reach is an important ingredient for Quality of Life.

LS3/5a properly amplified is all that is needed to keep heavy doses of dopamine flowing into the early hours of the night. ( I would prefer the ProAc Tablette now )

Chasing Horns is widening out for "Room Filling" Social & theatrical benefits.

Modern cable interfaces present exciting improvements as does contact maintenance with Cramolin cleaners.

Careful Tube rolling will transform a system from very good to spectacular.

High performance Horn systems are magnificent, ( like the Tone people produce ) but they are soooooooo extravagantly addictive that a person would regularly overdose.

These HR adventures are what being an Audiophile, Stereophile, DIY explorer, Music Lover pursuing Quality of Life is all about.

This piece might be one of the finest pieces of Audio Literature ever shared with our curious group.

Thank you for these inspirations

Tony in Venice

Ortofan's picture

... Tim de Paravicini when he demonstrates his EAR Yoshino tube amps:
https://www.facebook.com/FalconAcousticsLS35a/posts/pictures-courtesy-of-ken-kessler-showing-the-falcon-acoustics-ls35a-demonstratio/2005307606149965/

tonykaz's picture

These little Monitors are good enough all on their own.

That was my point.

Chasing has been an important part of our little hobby but Good-enough can be a remarkably satisfying System performance level, especially for folks like us that have owned fabulous gear systems.

Genelec offers a Pro-Audio version Active Monitor ( 8020 ) that features astonishing performance.

I've worked with Mr.Paravicini, I imported his range of Amplification ( back in the mid 1980s ), thanks for suggesting "Stacking". A significant plus would/could be a matching Subwoofer like Genelec offer. None of the LS3/5a Manufacturers ever offered a "matched" Sub-Woofer for their little Gem, all will simply suggest buying a larger Loudspeaker system.

The LS3/5a established a Base Line performance level for aspiring audiophiles as well as veterans like Stereophile's ever increasing readership.

Tony in Venice

Ortofan's picture

... a "bass extender" for the LS3/5a. Whether or not they would qualify as subwoofers is, perhaps, debatable. The Rogers LS35B probably came closest.
http://www.g4dcv.co.uk/ls35a/ab1.html

Graham Audio presently produce their SUB3 model, intended for use with the LS3/5 and LS3/5a.
https://www.grahamaudio.co.uk/products/sub3/
https://www.hifiplus.com/articles/chartwell-sub3-subwoofer/

Herb Reichert's picture

tried both the Rogers and Grahm LS3/5a bass extenders. Neither worked in my rooms. I have not had much luck with subwoofers either.

h

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Yamaha NS-5000 could be the right size speakers in HR's listening room :-) ........

Ortofan's picture

... room correction unit, such as the DSPeaker Anti-Mode, or one of the various subwoofers that now have the room correction function built-in? Or, from a long time ago, an Audio Control Richter Scale low-frequency equalizer?

tonykaz's picture

I too have never had success with bass management in residential settings, Sub-woofers in my hands would/should be called : "Lease-Breakers". Skilled folks like Paul McGowan & Bob Katz successfully build 1,000 watt Servo Subs into everything ( they typically prefer 2 & 3 Active Servo Subwoofers ! ) Phew !!

Even modest ( 10" Woofer ) Loudspeakers like the Thiel CS3s can make a House Structure Shake from Mono Electrocompaniet Ampliwires.

While waiting for my admission to Oakwood Cemetery, I'll keep listening to & loving Norah Jones singing "The long way home", "New York City", "One Flight Down" along with a lifetime collection of hundreds of other beautiful performances. ( without Subwoofering )

Thanks for suggesting these adventures but I'm happy to deflect their usefulness to our youthful group, who will make good use of things learned and useful opinions formed.

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'No Country for Old Men'? :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Stacked LS3/5as and Pass Labs INT-25 may be all anybody needs :-) ........

mhardy6647's picture

Flesh and blood. That's what it's all about. When it sounds like real people, playing real instruments made from real materials, it's good.

Enjoyed seeing this in Stereophile; thanks!

Probably anyone who cares about stuff like this already knows this, but there are always (well, at least, usually) nice collections of photographs from these shindigs on Flikr taken by one Holger Barske: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmJye3gv

Herb Reichert's picture

Holger Barske - I learn from him

hr

Ortofan's picture

... direct-drive turntable - such as the Yamaha GT-750 - and then fitting it with an Audio-Technica AT5V moving-magnet cartridge?

stereodesk's picture

Thanks Herb for writing about Jeffrey and Dave. They are two of the most knowledgeable, self effacing people in audio. On any given day, they can bring the magic, and it all comes down to that in the end, doesn't it.

Brown Sound's picture

I just love reading your stuff, Herb. You have such a way drilling down to what is really important in this hobby, the feeling. Thank you, sir.

Mrdean's picture

When I read the last paragraph of the article, I could Only laugh and think: Vinnie “Mono Mia” Gallo (Sound Practices volume 1, #1) is Snickering somewhere: “Hey Herb, why didn’t you read what I wrote 28 years ago! You shoulda listened!”

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