There’s no replacement for displacement. It’s a North American thing.
I grew up on the tail end of the big-engine era. Around my neighborhood, we were all in awe of the older kids who had managed to stuff large V8 engines into cars that were entirely unsuited to them.
My best buddy, Neil, eventually acquired one such vehicle. It was a Chevrolet Vega that was held together with body filler and red primer paint. Into this bucket was shoehorned a small-block 350-cubic-inch LT1 motor. To say that this car was fast is an understatement. The factors limiting its acceleration were traction (it rode on 78-series snow tires) and reliability. Our Saturday night entertainment often consisted of embarrassing rich kids in IROC-Zs and Trans Ams.
Shallow fun? Undoubtedly. But growing up in suburban Toronto left me vulnerable to being impressed by obvious items like huge torquey cars. That susceptibility is still with me. My last car was a long-wheelbase 2004 Mercedes S500 more suited to an African dictator than a computer programmer living in the core of a big city. But so it goes.
There’s also a special place in my heart for large speakers in big boxes with gigantic woofers. This susceptibility, I believe, is a flaming arrow shot straight from the past—it’s genetic. It’s in my DNA, this need for torque, this need for displacement. The Klipsch Heritage line feeds this need. One only has to look at a past inhabited by such speakers: ones like the La Scalas, which Klipsch has built without interruption since 1963.
The La Scala AL5 speaker ($13,198 per pair, all prices USD), part of Heritage, Klipsch’s highest-end series, is perhaps the ultimate incarnation of this concept—it’s the speaker I would have sold my soul for back in my ill-spent youth.
Bigger than you might expect
I spent quite a long time with a measuring tape before I committed myself to reviewing the La Scalas. My basement listening room isn’t huge by any means, but it’s a dedicated space and in the past has accommodated some seriously large speakers without overload or resonance issues. The 40″ height of the La Scalas certainly wasn’t an issue, but the 24 1/4″ width and 25 5/16″ depth meant they were larger than any speaker I had yet evaluated.
Still, thought Jason, it should work. According to Klipsch, the speakers are best situated against a wall, and—despite conventional audiophile wisdom—jamming them into a corner is just fine also.
That’s just as well really, because I actually did have to situate the right speaker deep in the far corner of my room. But look at that 25″ depth . . . the front baffle of the speaker already projected quite far into the room, so it wasn’t the same thing as stuffing a pair of slim towers back there, right?
Take a look, please, at the photo below from Klipsch’s website of the La Scalas set up in a high-ceilinged industrial residence.
In Klipsch’s photo, despite the room being much larger than my own, the speakers are pushed right against the walls, and one is in a corner. So I pulled the trigger and agreed to review them, and the story of their landing is right here.
As I mentioned earlier, the La Scala AL5 is part of Klipsch’s Heritage series, which encompasses six floorstanding speakers: Heresy IV, Cornwall IV, Forte IV, La Scala AL5, Klipschorn AK6 and—biggest and newest of all—the Jubilee. Heritage is certainly an apt name for this line-up, as the Klipschorn has been in constant production since 1946 and the Heresy since 1957. The La Scala was introduced in 1963, the year of my birth—and I like to think of myself as a heritage product, so there’s that.
The La Scala isn’t a new design. It’s based on the same principles laid down by Paul W. Klipsch back in the days before solid state made watts cheap. You’d rarely have more than ten watts available back in the 1950s and early ’60s, and in order to fill a large space with sound, you’d need a very sensitive speaker.
It’s always been a given that a horn will increase a speaker’s sensitivity, but I don’t think many people really consider how this works. Cup your hands around your mouth and talk—this crude form of horn makes your voice sound louder, right? The conventional explanation for this effect, according to Wikipedia, is as follows:
The horn serves to improve the coupling efficiency between the speaker driver and the air. The horn can be thought of as an “acoustic transformer” that provides impedance matching between the relatively dense diaphragm material and the less dense air.
All well and good, but the impedance-matching thing still seemed kind of vague to this mainframe programmer. But as I discovered, another way to look at it is that, as the sound wave passes from the throat of the horn to the mouth, the size of the wavefront increases, which moves more air. And thus the sound gets louder.
The La Scala employs horns with all three of its drivers. The 1″ tweeter is extremely efficient, even before you consider horn loading. Its dome is made from polyimide and the magnet is a high-strength neodymium unit. The short horn is a 90-degree × 40-degree Tractrix design.
Housed in an exponential horn is a 2″ compression midrange driver. Klipsch has invested significant engineering resources into analyzing the geometry of this horn, with the intent of ensuring even sound dispersion.
Hidden from view in the bass cabinet is a 15″ woofer, which points into the back of the cabinet, and the sound is routed through a number of passages before emerging from the two horns you can see at the front of the speaker. Of particular interest here is Klipsch’s claimed frequency response for the La Scala, 51Hz to 20kHz (+/-4dB). My first impression was, that’s not very low for such a large cabinet. There’s a trade-off between sensitivity and extension here.
And is the La Scala ever sensitive. Klipsch specifies that the La Scala is 105dB sensitive. That sensitivity, along with a nice, easy 8-ohm impedance, means this speaker will generate jet-engine-take-off volumes with only one freaking watt. While perusing the La Scala spec sheet, I noted one specification that just plain scared me. Apparently, the La Scalas are capable of absorbing 100 continuous watts of power, or 400 watts peak. If my math is correct, since one watt can generate 105dB, then 10W will put out 115dB and funneling 100W into these monsters would result in an SPL of 125dB (though Klipsch specifies a maximum output of 121dB). That’s up in the pain and instant damage region, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is right up there with the loudest rock concerts of my youth. Klipsch’s literature states that the La Scalas can recreate live performances, and that’s not just lame ad copy. They really mean it.
Like all of the floorstanding speakers in the Heritage series, the La Scalas are made in the USA. The cabinet panels are CNC cut, but the lay-up and veneer processes are all done by hand. And there’s some serious veneer work here. All panels are book-matched, both between the pairs and between the bass cabinets and the mid-high enclosures. My samples were finished in walnut and there’s a lot of it—all beautifully finished.
According to Klipsch the La Scalas are wired internally with AudioQuest cable. There’s one set of high-quality binding posts around back, and the top mid-high cabinet attaches to the bass cabinet with a pair of leads that hook in out of sight between the two pieces.
The magnetically attached grilles are real lookers. Klipsch has jumped on the retro vibe laid down by the Heritage series, and the grilles evoke that Baby Advent feeling. Speaking of looks, I believe these giant speakers will definitely polarize families. I absolutely loved the aesthetic of these speakers, imagining with glee the ads in ancient Stereo Review magazines. My wife, on the other hand, took an active dislike to the La Scalas and did not understand my enthusiasm. “They look like you found them in a flea market, all covered in dust,” she said.
“Yes, that’s it exactly!” I responded, with an enthusiasm that confused her further.
Eye of the beholder, I tell you.
You powered them with what?
As you can read in my review of the Simaudio Moon 860 v2, the La Scalas were quite happy when driven by this large, very powerful amplifier. Although the Simaudio likely never even noticed the La Scalas were there, the combination worked far, far better than I would ever have expected.
Part way through the review period, I hooked up my late-1950s Eico HF-81 tube integrated amplifier, which really, really should have been the match made in . . . Stereo Review. The Eico is a 14Wpc amp that employs two EL84 tubes per channel and punches far, far above its vintage weight class.
I genuinely expected the Eico to sound much better than the Simaudio as the La Scalas were originally designed to work with low-powered tube gear. I clearly heard the virtues of the Eico through the Klipsch speakers, but it didn’t exactly sound better, only different—more romantic, with a lush, tubey top end. Since the Eico is getting crusty in its old age (I occasionally have to hit it like a vintage TV to get it to stop spitting static), I switched back to the Simaudio after a week or so.
There wasn’t too much fussing with cables. The La Scalas sounded great with both the Nordost Tyr 2 and the Audience Au24 SX speaker cables. I could easily hear the difference between them, but the Nordosts were the last ones I swapped in, so I happily left them in place.
For those about to rock
In the movie Tom Jones, there’s a scene where the protagonist, played by Albert Finney, is eating dinner with Mrs. Waters, played by Joyce Redman. The scene, conveyed without dialogue, captures both Jones and Waters sloppily and lustfully sucking at lobster claws, dribbling juice and sauce down their chins as they leer at each other. It’s a sensual, cartoonish scene, one that uses food and its consumption as a metaphor for sex.
Listening to the La Scalas is a similar exercise in excess. Day one, minute one, started out as a bit of a head-scratcher. I’ve been going through a small-jazz combo phase lately, and I plonked the Thelonious Monk Quartet’s Monk’s Dream (LP, MOVLP842) on the VPI, dropped the cueing arm, and sat back for a listen.
The sound that emanated from the La Scalas was so utterly different from what I’d experienced that morning listening to the same track through my own Aurelia Cerica XL loudspeakers that it sounded like a completely different recording.
My first impressions were of a sense of dynamics and scale that I hadn’t thought was possible to achieve in a home setting. Whenever I’ve been sitting in front of a pair of speakers in my room, regardless of the type—floorstanders, standmounts, ribbons, electrostats—I’ve always been aware that I was listening to a playback of a recording. Oh sure, there are lots of little tricks that help me suspend disbelief—deep bass, pinpoint imaging, silkiness in the highs—and with a great pair of speakers these characteristics rebuild a performance in a way that recreates the original recording, building a simulacrum of that event. But I’m always aware that it’s playback, not the real thing.
But here, listening to Monk go plonkety-plonk in his loose, disjointed manner, hearing John Ore’s bass and Frankie Dunlop’s drums—hearing them projected out at me rather than rebuilt—experiencing those enormous dynamics and that sense of scale that borders on the real thing got me all turned around.
Look. My wife, Marcia, and I used to regularly enjoy Sunday afternoon jazz at the Rex Hotel in downtown Toronto. I say used to because we just can’t make it happen anywhere near as often as we could before we became parents. But I can clearly recall the sensation on my skin of hearing live instruments, feeling the presence of a live instrument moving through my hair.
Suddenly I had that. In my room. Those same sensory signals were pushing out toward me from the La Scalas. I called Marcia down to listen without saying anything. Without prompting she said, “That’s the closest thing to live music I’ve heard down here.” So it wasn’t just me.
A few times, I really twisted the throttle. The absolute limit to the volume my room could withstand was not my ears. Instead it was the tonearm on the VPI when it finally knuckled under and started feeding back due to the insane volume. At the time, I was playing “Tom Sawyer” from Rush’s Moving Pictures (Mercury/Anthem B0022380-01). Trying to be scientific and all that, I was slowly goosing the volume, seeing what exactly in this situation would give out first. The amp? Not a chance—the Simaudio Moon 860A v2 has more than enough jam for these speakers. The La Scalas? Unlikely I thought, but you never know. My ears? A good chance here, but I’m doing this for you guys, so I wanted to hang in there. It was getting really, stupidly loud. Then suddenly the tonearm and cartridge started to feed back, and I lunged for the volume. Now I knew. Never go past that point—not that I’d feel the need to do so, ever again.
My daughter just pointed out to me that there are some small holes starting to wear through the front of an old t-shirt that I still like to wear. I sagely nodded and said, “The inevitable pinhole burns,” to which she returned a look of confusion. My wife smiled as she got the reference, and I then did a dad thing and recited Pink Floyd’s “Nobody Home” in its entirety, which elicited much eye-rolling from my little ten-year-old.
So what was there to do at that point other than nip downstairs and listen to The Wall from start to finish. It’s a glorious album, huge in scope and huge in its ability to reach through time, always managing to sound fresh through the years I’ve been listening to it. My pressing of choice is the Japanese Sony (LP, Sony 4OAP 1750-1); it just slightly betters the 2017 reissue. About halfway through “One of My Turns,” when Pink loses his shit and starts throwing stuff around, the quick transition slammed me back in my seat and for the first time, made me focus on how the keyboards help drive this track. I also took note of the way the La Scala’s fairly sharp bass cut-off made me miss some of the power of Mason’s kick drum and Waters’s bass. With this track in particular, and with bass-forward music in general, I realized that when I get my own huge industrial loft and end up purchasing my own pair of La Scalas, I’ll definitely want a couple of equally large, equally powerful subwoofers to flesh out the range below 50Hz.
I really want to further impress upon you just how insanely lifelike these speakers really are. Listening to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden (LP, EMI E1-46977) is a roller-coaster event, no matter what you’re playing it through—I even find my heart rate increasing when I’m listening to it on our Honda Pilot factory stereo.
But through the La Scalas? The dynamics of “Eden” actually made me sweat. Starting the track off at a decently loud volume, I sat through the entire album side. Spirit of Eden is all about the build-up of tension, peaceful beauty alternating with angular frustration, and at elevated volumes, it can become a difficult listen. So I sat there and resisted the urge to back off the gas. As the guitars slashed in, sweat beaded up on my forehead. The La Scalas were able to project an astonishing amount of bite from the guitar, as it crackled forth with a sense of realism I’ve never before experienced. And at this volume, there was absolutely no strain, no distortion. It was as if the speakers were completely unimpressed with my efforts to test their limits. This was an interaction with recorded music that I had not previously experienced and one that I enjoyed very, very much.
You probably have questions. Sure they go loud, I can hear you thinking. But do they sound wonky? Do they sound like a warmed-over 60-year-old speaker? No, they don’t. I say that unequivocally. There were no imbalances that jumped out at me, no overt lumps or dips in the tonal balance. The midrange was clear and uncolored, and the highs were extended and silky. The La Scalas have their own sound, most notably down in the lower bass, where they do, in fact, drop off like a stone at about 50Hz. There’s a small amount of warmth in the upper bass through the lower midrange, but I’m willing to put that down to the fact I’m hosting a ginormous pair of speakers in a modestly sized room.
The only real way the La Scalas diverged from a more conventional speaker such as the Estelon YBs or the Aurelia Cerica XLs—other than the dynamics thing I’ve harped about—was in their imaging. Both the Estelons and the Aurelias snap out crisp, three-dimensional, fully fleshed images. Close your eyes while you’re listening to either of these speakers, and you can quite literally point to instruments and voices.
But let’s face it, that’s a bit of an artifact. When listening to live music, I’ve found that the imaging of a jazz band, or an orchestra, and most especially an electric rock performance, isn’t anything like what I perceive at home through my stereo. A live performance is more of a broad, homogenized spread of music, more of a cohesive performance, in which the imaging is more dependent on the dynamic differences between instruments. When a trombone blats out a great big honk, I don’t hear a pinpoint trombone. Rather, I feel that trombone in a general direction over to one side of the room. It’s a big, blossoming presence, and it’s not really possible for a smaller dynamic speaker to chug out that sensation.
The La Scalas, with their almost limitless dynamics, reproduce this aspect of live music. There’s a giant wash of sound over the front of the room, and instruments of varied dynamics either punch forward or recede; they’re just not the pinpoint images you’re likely used to. It’s different. It’s unique, and it’s seductive.
Take, for instance, the opening bars of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, performed by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (LP, Classic/RCA LSC 2446). This record starts out with a massive orchestral blast, with all kinds of instruments fighting each other for attention. This would be about the point in a discussion about speakers like the Aurelias or the Estelons where I’d say something along the lines of “they sorted it out, allowing me to focus on each individual instrument.” Via the La Scalas? Not so much. Instead, the La Scalas presented the orchestra as the giant conglomeration of sound that it actually is in real life, with solo instruments jumping forward via dynamics rather than placement. There’s still plenty of hall space, and in fact, I got a huge dollop of the feeling of being in the presence of a live orchestra from the overall soundstaging—it’s just the imaging that’s handled in a different manner.
Let’s be clear. In the end, I realized that my room was too small for the La Scalas. Not because they failed to sound fantastic—they consistently amazed me and I could happily live with the sound they reproduced—but because I really couldn’t take full advantage of their capabilities. These speakers could obviously do far more than I was able to ask of them.
My neighbors hate me
I spent one heck of a lot of time listening to the La Scalas, and they never failed to entertain me. With crisp, dynamic, well-recorded rock they are an absolute hill of fun, belting out electric guitars with a sizzle that I have yet to experience with any other speaker. And with jazz? Good lord, it’s just not possible to get any closer to the actual musical performance.
These speakers aren’t for everyone. They’re huge, they dominate a room, and there’s no way to disguise their physical presence. Also, they don’t do the conventional audiophile imaging thing, which will immediately disqualify them for some prospective purchasers. But the payoff is that the La Scalas will give you far, far more.
If you live in a detached house, one with a large room, and really, really value the reproduction of the live event, I think you owe it to yourself to give these big, impressive, historically significant speakers a good, long listen.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog sources: VPI Prime Signature turntable; EAT Jo No8, MoFi MasterTracker, Roksan Shiraz cartridges.
- Digital source: Logitech Squeezebox Touch.
- Phono stages: Aqvox Phono 2 CI, iFi iPhono 3 Black Label, Hegel Music Systems V10.
- Preamplifiers: Sonic Frontiers SFL-2, Simaudio Moon 740P.
- Power amplifiers: Bryston 4B3, Simaudio Moon 860A v2.
- Integrated amplifiers: Hegel Music Sytems H120, Eico HF-81.
- Speakers: Focus Audio FP60 BE, Estelon YB, Aurelia Cerica XL.
- Speaker cables: Audience Au24 SX, Nordost Tyr 2.
- Interconnects: Audience Au24 SX, Furutech Ag-16, Nordost Tyr 2.
- Power cords: Audience FrontRow, Nordost Vishnu.
- Power conditioner: Quantum QBase QB8 Mk.II.
- Accessories: Little Fwend tonearm lift, VPI Cyclone record-cleaning machine, Furutech Destat III.
Klipsch La Scala AL5 Loudspeakers
Price: $13,198 per pair.
Warranty: Ten years, parts and labor.
3502 Woodview Trace, Suite 200
Indianapolis, IN 46268
Phone: (317) 860-8100, 1-800-544-1482