In my search for the best music reproduction system I had the honor to visit G.I.P. Laboratory in Japan in May 2010 (located in Kaminoyama Onsen, a town famous for it’s spa’s, 300km north of Tokyo).
G.I.P. Laboratory was founded by Suzuki-san, both a talented musician/director and designer/builder of audio equipment. Mr. Suzuki has always been in the search for the best possible reproduction. He already had a dream collection of the best vintage gear, but after hearing Western Electric (as used in legendary cinema sound systems from the 1930’s) it was clear this was above anything else and his only option was to continue in that direction.
Good Western Electric drivers are now so rare, most of us can’t afford them, and even then it could be an expensive gamble. What Mr. Suzuki did was carefully learning the construction and secrets of these units, and finally building these units again without any compromise, part for part, exactly like the original ones, and now even trying to improve on them in details when possible. Crafting these parts is a job for specialists, here Mr. Suzuki has the help of two talented engineers. Furthermore he’s researching the best possible horns and cabinets for these drivers, with the best possible amplification starting from the Western Electric originals.
What can I say about the sound? You would have to hear it yourself. Anyway, I’ll try: First of all here I had the chance to compare some of the best drivers ever made, and Western Electric drivers are simply killing everything else. Comparing compression drivers first without a horn attached, there’s already a huge difference anyone could hear, the Western Electric driver sounding so much more real, rich and powerful, much more defined and extended (vs. f.i. Altec). Listening to a single full range field-coil driver without a cabinet already made a greater impression than many finished speakers can ever achieve. And of course comparing the original units with the G.I.P. replicas: very similar and even surpassing the original ones (I don’t know if that’s due to aging or innovation, but they’re extremely well made).
The total systems, It’s beyond any doubt. It’s overwhelmingly good, much closer to live sound than any system I’ve heard. The very best modern high-end I’ve heard so far doesn’t come anywhere near. This is totally uncompressed, extremely dynamic and relaxed at the same time, natural, rich, dense and open at the same time, definition is extremely articulated but without any of this typical high-end edginess, it’s totally smooth at the same time, just so much closer to live music/sound, it just makes you want to dance or dream away with the music. The sound character and atmosphere does change with each recording, the system itself hardly imposes itself on the sound. You can be truly surprised, again and again (was that sound really coming from this system?). There are no limits in extension or size, an orchestra can sound big, a singer can sound small, intimate and tangible (unlike most horn speakers). You’ll hear what’s recorded, live, right in front of you.
Any criticisms? I’d have to live with such system for a longer time to discover them, the only thing I could detect once in a while was a slight character of the mid-horn, but there’s nothing intrusive or unpleasant at all, it’s much, much less than any other modern or vintage horn system I’ve heard. Than later that day Mr. Suzuki took me to another location where they were working on various prototypes with wooden horns (see pictures above), here I could not detect any of that character at all, it reproduced extremely rich, live, natural timbres.
The only serious objections you could have are cost and size, but the performance is just shockingly good. As dynamic, exciting and extended as they are, they are also extremely comfortable and relaxing to listen too. Of course in a smaller room, the smaller systems (pictures below) would be more appropriate. They won’t do the largest scale, but it can deliver all of the other magic. When you’ve forgotten you’re listening to a system and are fully taken by the music then there’s nowhere further to go.
If they are properly setup (coherent, with proper acoustics and electronics), I can not imagine someone can have any serious critisism (besides some of those brain-washed audiophiles that have no idea how live music sounds anymore or even forgot how to enjoy music).
Western Electric did a great job in the 30’s, they had a huge team of dedicated engineers working on the best possible sound reproduction. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I have not heard anything modern anywhere near this level yet. The only innovations since then seem to be cost cutting (and size and weight, man these drivers are heavy!) It’s a damn shame that quality this is not produced anymore (except by a few very dedicated people). So much knowledge thrown away, I don’t know any big manufacturer today that can produce such good compression drivers, good woofers, tweeters, mid- or full range units, with or without field-coil technology. Forget those ribbon tweeters, ceramic units, etc, this stuff gets crushed instantly by the proper original stuff. High-end innovations? sure there are some, but most innovations in audio reproduction were made to make things cheaper, not better. There’s a huge gap in performance between what’s possible with those vintage quality drivers and modern high-end drivers. High-end audio doesn’t deserve it’s name, it’s a joke in comparison. It’s about time more people wake up, if you have a chance to hear such a properly setup system, than go for it. Even if you can’t afford it, just enjoy the moment, hear what is possible. Last week I was at the CES in Las Vegas where Silbatone Acoustics demonstrated his top amplifiers on Western Electric speakers (where the mid units were build by GIP), the room was too small for the system but who cares, at this level nothing comes near, it was pure music, pure emotion, pure fun. There was also a small system next door with a simple 2-way monitor made by Western Electric in 1948, using lower spec drivers, without field-coil technology, but the magic is fully there, perfect for a normal living room (unfortunately these monitors are ultra rare).
I don’t want to leave this planet without having enjoyed such system in my room, either small or big, just that magic of music so live in your room, it’s possible, if only I could time travel…
PS: It took me a long time to write something about Western Electric, still hoping to score something on Ebay first I guess. But you can forget that, the secret’s been out anyway, everything that’s good is bought by a several rich buyers that will overbid anything.
Now I think it’s better to share these systems and the knowledge, try to learn from them, and let’s hope some high-end designers/manufacturers will finally learn from them.
I see there’s a wonderful subculture going on, reviving all the good stuff from the past and taking as far as possible. You can not take it to the next level without talented and/or passionate, dedicated people. Thanks to people like Mr. Suzuki from GIP Laboratory, Mr. Manho Oh from Silbatone Acoustics, but also people like Joe Roberts from Sound Practices, Jeffrey W. Jackson from Experience Music and HiFi Heroin, Goto-san, our own Cees Pel, and many others we haven’t met yet!