Are Tower Speakers Outdated? Or More Powerful than Ever
Towers are tall floorstanding speakers with a narrow profile. There is a reason why these speakers may be associated with outdated vintage speakers for some people, but whatever you think, towers aren’t stuck in the 1970s or 80s. They have evolved and improved to much better modern standards, design and performance just like other devices. But let’s go into the past and look at the history of speakers.
Yamaha the Japanese electronics company made its first Natural Sound speaker in 1967, the NS-30 and NS-20. The speaker had a tall rectangular profile with a narrow edge made of brown-stained wood. The company produced their first 3-way speaker in 1972, model NS-690/NS-670 which had a plain wood box enclosure, tall but with a wider breadth. This model was popular with audiophiles around the world. Two years later they produced a 3-way monitor speaker, the NS-1000M, a model with a beryllium diaphragm (a world-first) enclosed in a black modernistic skin that is synonymous with speakers today. In 1978, Yamaha launched the return of the traditional plain wood speaker cabinet, but this time it was stained with a brown varnish. The NS-451 was an entry-level model incorporating a trademark white cone on its low-frequency driver. The company continued making tall cabinet/box speakers made of wood or wood composites until 2003, with new models produced each 1 to 3 years. Yamaha had produced 16 models from 1967 to 2003. Obviously, they have designed and manufactured many more models since 2003, and what you have to keep in mind is that the tower box speaker commonly known as the “tower” is going nowhere. It is here to stay. It has taken new functional forms, being adopted even for Bluetooth speakers, home theatre systems while its traditional use as a powerful bass-reflex system is still intact in clubs, parties, bars and other crowd functions. A modern floorstanding tower speaker has a much more visually appealing aesthetic design which makes it more attractive than a vintage box. Major electronic hifi companies and retailers are still selling the tower, and it’s doesn’t look like your typical vintage box.
In the USA, MartinLogan is a speaker design/manufacturing installation company specializing in wireless systems, soundbars, subwoofers, architectural and outdoor systems. Their roots can be traced back to the 1970s when the founders Sutherland and Sanders formed a company based on their interest in speakers. In the early days, the challenge in speaker design was producing bass levels and wider ranges. The KLH model 9 and Quad ESL were the only promising and outstanding speakesr which sought to jump this hurdle. The former was too expensive for consumer success and the later was a hit in England.
Sutherland and Sanders presented their first experimental model in 1980. It was a thin tall rectangular aluminium frame with five bars, wires, linked with an amplifier and powered by electricity. The sound was good but the range couldn’t be increased as the prototype blew up on increasing the volume. A series of experiments with high-tech materials solved the arcing problem and later on theoretical solutions led to the design of the CLS transducer (curvilinear line source transducer) which achieved high frequency ranges while preserving sound quality. Their CLS prototype was showcased in 1982 at a consumer electronics exhibition in Chicago. This transducer received a CES Engineering Award and became an instant success. This allowed MartinLogan Corporation to garner the support and input of innovative engineering experts such as the manufacturers of NASA space shuttle windows and Teflon non-stick cooking pans. The team came up with a patented system comprising a 5,000V transparent diaphragm and stator coating with a maximum charging capacity of 10,000V. The speaker known as the “Monolith”was enclosed in a tall, flat, narrow-edged rectangular wooden panel . Its sound quality was demonstrated in 1983 at a showroom, attracting dealers and creating a demand in the market. Not only was the sound good but its thin minimalistic appearance was aesthetically pleasing as well. By 1985, the Monolith was generating huge sales enough to make a profit. Sales increased by 1000% (10 times as much) in 1988 necessitating the need for expansion and mass production. As competition grew in the market, MartinLogan turned to home theatres to keep up with consumer trends, producing a center-channel electrostatic speaker and wall surround-channel speakers which were a first of its kind.
The company continued innovating and engineering while producing some of the best visually appealing speakers in the world which contrasted greatly with the box vintage speakers of the day. The home theatres found a place in the market, propelling them to a major brand name in the USA. In 1998, MartinLogan unveiled their huge high-end twin-tower speaker system called the “Statement e2”. The futuristic design of the “Statement e2” deserves an award. It was ahead of its time, you wouldn’t call it a vintage tower if you saw it today. It’s still one of the most good-looking tower speakers out there, blowing away the competition by miles. The Statement e2 consists of two separate towers which includes an 8-bass driver tower. This was one of the most expensive speakers, retailing at $100,000 in 2003, but the model was discontinued in 2006.
Interesting, but what’s the importance of this history? If you follow the timeline of speakers beginning in 1861, you will notice the evolution of speakers from phonographs (base and horn) to more powerful towers such as the Monolith and Statement e2. The tower represents power. The first electromagnetic speaker making use of electrical amplifiers was manufactured in 1921 by Edison-Tech. It was much better than the horn. The Edison electromagnetic speaker was housed inside a tall wooden cabinet. This was probably the first tower. Traditionally, wood has been used to build speaker cabinets because of its acoustic and mechanical properties, although MDF (medium density fibreboard) is another alternative that can be used. But certain types of wood (e.g. Russian birch plywood) remain the best for professional high-performance speakers.