Anatomy of a legend.
Before diving into this next portion of my visit, I want to explain i.e. somehow justify my obsession with this unlikely and decidedly non-audiophile loudspeaker. To begin with, I encountered it only in photographs and various forum/blog entries around the web. My reaction was 100% visceral. What was this extraordinary sculpture of a loudspeaker; and what could it possibly sound like? I did a bit of reading on various blogs but found as the most reliable and useful reference. Whilst perusing the site, I noticed that it was contributed to by at least two writers, one of whom—based on a photo of his system—I believed to know personally. So I wrote an email and asked if this was his site and if he could let me know something about the 16A. It was his site after all, written under a nom de plume. As it turns out, the 16A installation happened at his blog mate's place in Paris. He rendered an email introduction to his friend so that I might be able to get more detailed answers to my 16A queries. This is a fantastic blog for anyone interested in many aspects of the vintage enthusiasm to read on their several adventures deep into the segment. And so I came to know blog mate Tim Gurney who is insanely engaged in the completely unreasonable but totally fascinating hobby/business of building precise replicas of the 12A and 13A horns; precise down to the very species of wood from the very region where the original wood was harvested, hewn with the same kinds of hand tools, glued and finished with precisely the same kinds of glue and finishing materials as the originals.

I'll venture that his are likely better even than the originals, considering how the latter were built to fulfil commercial needs whereas these are built to fulfil a deep desire and made with the kind of obsessive love that only seriously devoted and developed artisans can provide. This obviously required a tremendous amount of research, effort and expense to be a rich subject for a later article. Truly, were I properly equipped and if I had the budget, I would figuratively dust off my degree in filmmaking and make a documentary series starting with Mr. Gurney's adventures in Audiotopia. It was from Tim's writing that I initially learned the most about my quarry. The 16A, as remarked earlier, was the invention of David G. Blattner who assigned the patent for the device to his employer, Bell Telephone Laboratories, who were part owners of the Western Electric Company. The patent, US1853955A, begins thusly:

ACOUSTIC DEVICE Application filed June 25, 1930, Serial No. 463,597, and in Great Britain February 12, 1930.This invention relates to acoustic horns, and more specifically to those horns which are used as loud speaking units in theatres.The object of this invention is to provide a compact shallow horn capable of faithfully transmitting sound vibrations at high energy levels and suitable for mounting in relatively narrow spaces, such as between the screen and back wall or drops of a theatre stage. In accordance with this object one embodiment of the invention contemplates a sound amplifying horn which divides into two sound passages just back of the bell portion, each passage extending outwardly in opposite directions substantially at right angles to a medial plane through the axis of the bell portion and then curving forwardly through 180-toward the plane of the mouth of the bell portion.

It reads like a rather utilitarian excuse for what turned out to be an artistic result in both form and function. One would be excused for wondering if the abstract resemblance to a birth canal was accidental or intentional. Nevertheless, function+form/form+function managed to coincide and produce superb results. Those few enthusiasts who have a 16A in their listening environs typically have but one unit to deploy. This requires two WE555, themselves rare as hen's teeth these days. They do so in a single-point stereo setup, with the left channel feeding the left side of the horn, the right channel feeding the right. The unit was not designed for this kind of operation as it predated commercial availability of stereo recordings by some 25 years. The single-point stereo setup more or less acoustically sums channels into a mostly mono output. Greater 'stereo' separation is achieved, if somewhat awkwardly and incompletely, by the employment of a pair of horn tweeters mounted outside of the horn pipes left and right. These tweeters seem typically to be Western Electric 597 or a reproduction thereof. GIP of Japan are reputed to make the best of the Western Electric driver reproductions and their replica of the 597 is said to be sonically indistinguishable from the original.

So aside from the sculptural aspects of the 16A, I was also interested in how it managed to gain its dedicated enthusiasts given the unusual circumstance of its most common setup in a single-point mono/stereo configuration with the outboard tweeters. There is also the issue of the loudspeaker being made from bent and welded steel sheet, 1/16" thick per the specification, and how it reputedly resonates with the music in the same way that any other horned musical instrument resonates to help create its signature sound. The 16A is hardly about high fidelity if we consider that term to mean a mechanistically accurate representation of the original recording. But it also seems to stand as a bit of a stiff middle finger in the face of those measurement types who insist that musical enjoyment is somehow proportional to tightly held mechanistic performance standards. In this way the 16A seems symbolic of the philosophical divide I've seen foment in the audiophile hobby lo these 25 years or so encompassing my involvement as a professional. There are those who strive toward some manner of mechanistic accuracy, accounted for by measurements taken by various measuring instruments; and who thus consider those measurements to be of primary importance when assessing the performance of gear: the audio mechanists. Then there are those who strive toward something we might call musicality or musical satisfaction. This has more to do with the personal subjective perceptions of the music through the audio system: the audio hedonists.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” - William Bruce Cameron

I personally sit on the fence. I find usefulness in both approaches. Therefore I remain unaffiliated. It is noteworthy however that these Western Electric sound reproduction devices were developed by a highly educated team of engineers very much vested in the mechanistic principles and types of measurements held dear by the audio mechanists despite their minimal value to the audio hedonists. It's also noteworthy that the use of these particular objects as home audio devices is an unintended and unpredicted consequence. They were never designed for the home environment and were so not engineered or tested with that purpose in mind. Still, someone, somewhere along the way, discovered the delights of the 'Western Electric Sound' when shoehorned into small living spaces to take a page right out of the meat of the audio hedonist's bible. That these fairly large movie theater horns happen to evoke pleasure in the listener by being used in these undersized acoustic environments is, itself, an interesting crossroads for this kind of discussion. Highly engineered expertly designed products being used the wrong way but with wonderful results? Go figure.

Wonderland? The next morning the three of us—Moriyama-san, Tim and I—gathered for breakfast at the hotel baikingu/viking style, which means buffet. I tried some of the local specialty, mentai, which is a spicy bunch of cod roe over a bowl of rice. This day Moriyama-san would take us to his showroom and workshop in the Toho village in Fukuoka. Here they specialize in unique works of the wood crafter's art, including some very intricate carvings that are made for Buddhist temples. They also seem well known for their finely made tables and counters as sawn from whole harvested trees, the wood for which is aged for decades at times. This is a highly specialized business, requiring the kind of skills that seem to take life times to master. The results are stunning. owing both to the skills of the craftsmen and the inherent beauty of the natural materials.

At one of these tables we sat to listen to a set of speakers of which I had only seen photographs before. They are 2-way designs with a sort of W/MT/W array, with the central horn handling most of the audio band. They were hewn from whole logs of a very large tree, I'm told. The logs had been aged for ten years and the loudspeakers themselves took two years to craft and finish. This is hardly a production-friendly idea but the results are superlative. Listening to these works of art through an amplifier of Moriyama-san's creation, we were treated to some gorgeous music. It is a strange consequence when your heart is touched by music and there exists some instantaneous knowing that this is something correct or right - and Moriyama's system was able to evoke this feeling.

Hanging above the system was a very large finished plank of wood. On each side of the plank, left and right, was a dipole-style MTM arrangement similar to the one in the speakers sitting beneath, with a beautifully crafted horn-tweeter mouth between two dipole woofers. We didn't get to hear these because the woofers had been removed. But I do hope to visit again and hear this beautiful sculpture. This area is also quite famous for its pottery, some of it supremely expensive. Located next door to Moriyama-meiboku is a potter's workshop and we visited it just prior to breaking for lunch. Here we saw a leviathan kiln arranged in a linear procession of chambers in an 'uphill' fashion. The fire would be started and maintained in a firebox at the bottom of the kiln and the heat would travel uphill into the various chambers where the ceramics would be fired or glazed. This is a fairly huge affair and I'm told that the process from start to finish can sometimes take ten days.

The potter invited us to his showroom just across the street where many of the finished goods were displayed for sale. Some coffee was offered in cups crafted there and we were shown that the same coffee poured from the same brew pot can take on different nuances of flavour depending on the cup it is served in: a peculiar and unexpected outcome but, for this trip, the peculiar and unexpected would become relatively commonplace.

And so we were shown a petite audio system with loudspeaker enclosures that were, you guessed it, made from ceramic by the potter. Single-driver Fostex cones mounted on an intermediary wood gasket of sorts had a Western Electric replica amplifier do the honors of electrifying the kit as a CD recording of a glass harmonica radiated an astounding broadcast of harmonics. Single widebanders done well have the ability to captivate the listener with supremely natural sound and this little setup had nothing at all to apologize for.