As the driving force behind l'Audiophile from 1977 - '95, Jean Hiraga is a legend in the world of audio publishing. He arguably was single-handedly responsible for reintroducing the West to single-ended triodes and horns once transistors and small dynamic speakers had excommunicated them from the mainstream. Since retiring from that aspect of the business -- mostly including writing about other people's product too to now see himself facing turned tables -- Hiraga has spent the last few years perfecting his take on what a speaker should be. The focus of this endeavor has been the equally legendary Altec 604 Duplex 15-incher with coaxial compression tweeter.* In a limited edition of just 10 pairs which will cost €18,500 and include external crossovers and two super tweeters per side (front and rear in a cross-firing array), this is obviously more a labor of love than the usual commercial enterprise. The limit in this edition isn't due to snobbery. It's a practical result of these drivers' by now spectacularly rarefied nature. After all, they haven't been made since the 1960s and the earliest units with permanent magnets rather than field coils date back to 1944. Jean's outfit in Lyon/France completely refurbishes them to as-new condition. In fact, plans are underway to set up their own manufacturing of modern-day 604s built just like the originals and from the same materials including Alnico V. The impetus behind that were Hiraga's experiments with the Great Plains Audio versions which ended less than satisfactory. But first there's 10 pairs with original Altecs to contend with. One of those recently spent 5 hours in Casa Chardonne for an informal 'reverse RoadTour' event.

* Incidentally, Jean Hiraga shares that obsession with Shigeki Yamamoto of the eponymous Yamamoto SoundCraft company. Shigeki-San rolls his own 604 speakers finished in his firm's trademark Japanese Sashi Cherry which is visually more muted than Hiraga's vertically striped solution. Not only was Hiraga visibly pleased to see my resident harem of A-08S, A-09S and HA-02 Yamamoto amps ("very rare in Europe" he opined) but he confided that like me, he enjoys listening to Esoteric digital players leashed to Yamamoto's YDA-01 converter and considers it an exceptional combination.

A reverse RoadTour is when a manufacturer visits us rather than vice versa; and when said visit is the extent of the encounter unlike a formal review where the hardware remains in residence for the duration. Hiraga's now available creation is an old-fashioned broad-shouldered big box in butcher-blocked 30mm solid Beech dress and a plethora of unsightly screws around back. Internally there are bitumen and felt liners, a cross brace with strategic tuning slots and a down-firing port that's slot-loaded into the integral plinth. External crossovers provide impedance and frequency domain linearization and the 35/60Hz saddle response peaks from the bass reflex alignment sit at 60 ohms rather than above 100 as they would without compensation. System sensitivity is a fabulous 98dB which, amongst others, meant a cheery hello to the €269 globally delivered MiniWatt tube integrated (which indeed I played for an astonished Jean, his Lyon compadre Nicolas Kong and the accompanying Serge Schmidlin of Audio Consulting while Stephæn on staff often miniwatts his own 604 dream speaker project when bigger amps take a breather).

Because the Altec's 6-cell coaxial brass horn has limited top-end extension, Hiraga relies on JBL 075 compression super tweeters for ambient recovery and units of French manufacture for direct radiation augmentation (the latter were missing during this demonstration). The diagonally rear-firing tweeters obviously expect a wall within reasonable proximity behind them to energize the listening space. With my rear wall being 8 meters behind any speaker, tweeter emissions were mostly lost in Never-Neverland. Additionally, my sidewalls were closer than ideal. More important still, my listening seats should really have moved back a meter or two. Knowing this upfront was one of the reasons why I decided on the informal 'they exist' feature format. Why conduct a formal review under patently sub-optimal conditions? This is a big speaker for big rooms. While my room is big, it's big in this case in the wrong direction. (In addition to the 14 screws on the back's upper half with its clashing horizontal stave orientation, the absence of a tidy internal wiring scheme for the super tweeters and the lack of visual integration with the main enclosure -- they're simply parked atop on wooden retainers -- makes for quite the home-baked appearance. That's surprising and also in stark contrast to the prodigious sticker. It underscores further my impression of the somewhat hobbyist nature of this particular project.)

We listened to the JH-MS15s with the 130-watt Octave MRE-130s still installed from the Albedo HL2.2 review which this interlude interrupted, the 2-watt MiniWatt, the 25-watt Dayens Ampino, the 8-watt Yamamoto A-09S and the 25-watt FirstWatt F5. All amps ran off Esoteric's C-03 transistor preamp set to 0dB gain. Each amp sounded distinctly different from the others to ascertain that these old-timey speakers were made of the highly discerning stuff. Just what exactly they discerned was where it got interesting. It could -- but won't today -- segue into an animated discussion on where much of modern hifi has gone awry; and how come that a bleeding century ago, the brightest audio lights already nailed items that mostly elude us again today. Of course things nailed to crosses and disappearing thereafter are a slippery slope we best avoid treading. I will simply tell you what I heard and why in matters of import, it quite overrode the obvious frequency domain errors.