There’s a good case to be made that the world’s greatest—and strangest—audiophile culture resides in Japan.
Probably the most important notion the Japanese have introduced to our hobby is that home audio isn’t merely a way of heightening the musical art of others but can be an art in itself. This idea’s most flamboyant embodiment was the poet, journalist, chef, and amplifier builder Susumu Sakuma, better known as Sakuma-san.
After having built many amplifiers as a young man, Sakumasan experienced an epiphany: Amplifiers that measured well often failed to make him feel deeply. He soon discovered that, for him, the most emotional sound came from mono systems powered by transformer-coupled amplifiers that used directly heated triode tubes.
In 1968, somewhat improbably, Sakuma-san opened a restaurant in the quaint seaside town of Tateyama. The eatery, called Concorde, was crowded with amplifiers of his design, which he demonstrated with a Garrard 401 turntable, a damped Grace tonearm, a Denon DL-102 mono cartridge, and Altec and Lowther speakers. Apparently, Concorde also served food: For years, the sole dish prepared by Sakuma-san was “hamburger steak,” which came with two sauces and cost around $10.
In the articles on hi-fi that he contributed to the Japanese magazine MJ, Sakuma-san also wrote about film, fishing, karaoke, and pachinko machines, and he usually began and ended his contributions with a poem. He considered himself an evangelist for emotional sound and demonstrated his audio systems in homes, at conferences, and on concert stages around the world. Though he passed in 2018, his fan club, called Direct Heating, remains a happening concern.1 Sakuma-san was fond of coining mottos—one was “farewell to theory” — but what has stuck with me most is his description of an ideal sound: “endless energy with sorrow.”
This phrase came to mind often during the months I spent living with the Klipsch La Scala speakers, which imbued my musical life with unprecedented amounts of sound and emotion, and which I believe Sakuma-san would have enjoyed. Despite what some of the glossy ads, in this magazine and elsewhere, would have us believe, no speaker can excel at every aspect of musical reproduction. All of them, even the megabuck ziggurats, are a compromise. Yet what the La Scalas do well is so rare in today’s audio scene, and so fun, that everyone should experience it at least once. Their strengths also happen to dovetail neatly with my musical and sonic biases. It goes without saying that these biases may not be yours.
First introduced in 1963 as a public address speaker, the La Scala, now in its AL5 iteration, is the smallest of Klipsch’s fully horn-loaded models, a little sibling to the venerable Klipschorn (with which it shares its three drive units) and the newer Jubilee. Of course, it’s not even remotely small: Each speaker, made of birch plywood and MDF, measures 40" tall, 24¼ " wide, and 255/16 " deep, and weighs 201lb. (Just typing that number sent a twinge through my lower back.)
The La Scala is composed of two stacked sections. The upper cabinet contains the tweeter—a compression driver with a 1" polyimide diaphragm mated to a Tractrix horn—and the midrange unit: a compression driver with a 2" phenolic diaphragm mated to an exponential horn. Both horns are made of ABS plastic. The lower cabinet contains a 15" fiber-composite-cone woofer that’s mounted backward and fires into a folded horn (which some would argue is in fact a waveguide). The rear of the upper cabinet has two sets of heavy-duty binding posts, allowing for biwiring but not biamping.
Mercifully, assembly was not nearly as odious as I expected thanks to the La Scala’s modular structure and the bass cabinet’s substantial rubber feet, which made moving the speakers surprisingly easy. Assembly does require two people, and one part—holding the upper cabinet while connecting its wire harness to the lower one—requires three, as I learned after much grunting, awkward contortion, and foul language.
Despite the La Scala’s boxy form—roughly the size and shape of a washing machine at a big-city laundromat—I found its appearance delightful. The book-matched walnut veneer on the pair I auditioned was seamlessly applied and beautifully finished, making the $13,198/pair La Scalas appear more heirloom-worthy and furniture-like than many pricier alternatives. Even the magnetic grilles, done up in a guitar-amp mesh and sporting vintage-looking logos, were conceived with enough restraint to look cool. Nothing comes off quite as pandering and corny as retro styling done wrong, and Klipsch should be commended for hiring astute designers.
The manual offers assembly illustrations and one solitary paragraph of text. Reading it, I learned that 1W of power will cause the Klipsches to emit a hair-raising 105dB, roughly the amount of noise made by a Boeing DC-8 at one nautical mile. (110dB is the average human threshold for pain.) I also spotted a diagram suggesting that the La Scalas should be placed 13'–17' apart, a recommendation I found a bit laughable given that most of us don’t live in a Greyhound terminal or aboard Jeff Bezos’s superyacht.
In practice, the La Scalas proved to be fairly forgiving about placement, though they sounded bloated when pushed against a wall and a little bass-light when pulled more than a few feet into the room. Some internet commentators suggest toeing them in 45° and crossing them in front of the listener, but in this position they sounded pretty awful. The Klipsches ended up working best roughly in the same spot as my Altec Valencias: 8½ ' apart, 2½ ' from the front wall, and some 10' from the listening seat, toed in to cross slightly behind it.
When the folks at Klipsch offered to send me a new pair of La Scalas for review, I requested that the speakers undergo several hundred hours of use before they were shipped, but this proved impossible. Straight out of the cartons, they had a plasticky, nasal sound and gummy transient response; with low-power tube amps, they refused to make much bass at all. Happily, all of this went away after about 100 hours of use. Patience is something I struggle with, and I admit that I came to some incorrect conclusions about the Klipsches before those long hours elapsed.
Oh, and about those neat-looking grilles: Music sounded more open without them, so regretfully I left them off.
The La Scalas offer a fundamentally different experience than most audiophile speakers. Their ability to (re)produce lifelike dynamic contrasts and scale is unmatched by any speaker I’ve had in my home, and matched by few speakers I’ve heard anywhere (all of which were larger). Once most speakers reach a satisfying volume, they allow a fairly limited range of additional loudness before they begin to compress, sound grainy, or distort. With the La Scalas, that range was practically limitless: I could set the volume anywhere from Mozart-trio moderate to Mastodon-concert loud with no audible penalty. In part that’s because horn loading allows not only for increased sensitivity and efficiency but also for drive units to operate at lower levels of distortion.
The Klipsches created sonic images that were eerily, entirely life-sized and placed them on a stage as large as the recording and the room allowed. Combined with their hair-raising dynamic chops, this allowed the La Scalas to come uncannily close to creating the illusion of real musicians playing in a room. That’s a big-time reviewing cliché, so perhaps a more effective way to communicate this is to say that they reveal how radically most speakers—even large ones—miniaturize the dynamics and scale of recordings.
I couldn’t get enough of this illusion. Near the middle of “The Windmills of Your Mind,” from Dusty in Memphis (LP Atlantic SD 8214), there’s a moment when the band, the string section, the background voices of the Sweet Inspirations, and Dusty Springfield all surge. Played at a satisfying volume through most speakers, this crescendo comes across as a splashy, screechy mess. The La Scalas made me aware of the extent to which I had trained my brain to fill in the missing information; through them, I heard every detail of this passage, played at a loudness comparable to what the recording engineer must have heard at Memphis’s American Sound Studio in September 1968.
The big Klipsches also allowed me to hear an array of meaningful detail with startling clarity: the reverb on Springfield’s voice, her intakes of breath before every phrase, the mahogany chunk of Reggie Young’s electric guitar, the coppery ring of Gene Chrisman’s cymbal. These musicians appeared in front of me utterly human-sized, playing and singing in physical space with realistic force. With the right amplifiers (more on this later), the La Scalas also imbued this recording with copious presence, texture, and tone color, making it as lifelike and complete as I’ve heard it. (What I heard was an illusion in more ways than one: Springfield recorded her final vocals in New York and had them overdubbed. Aren’t records great?)
If I’m making the Klipsches sound like a party speaker that excels only at playing loud, permit me to correct that impression. “Do they play opera?” Herb Reichert asked when I enthused to him about the La Scalas. That’s a fair question given that they’re named after the world’s most storied opera venue. Listening to Boris Khaikin and the Bolshoi Theater orchestra and choir’s rendition of the letter scene in Eugene Onegin (Spotify BMG Classics 74321170902), I was struck by the delicacy with which the big horns rendered this compressed mono recording from 1955, first issued on the Soviet Melodiya label. It happens to be my favorite version of Tchaikovsky’s opera, with a radiant, 20-something Galina Vishnevskaya in the role of Tatyana and Khaikin taking the score faster than is common today, imbuing it with vigor and wit missing from more lugubrious readings. This nearly 70-year-old recording also showed off the Klipsches’ buoyant way of carrying rhythmic lines, which sound as dancing or as relentless as the music dictates.
The La Scala is not without flaws, or more precisely, limitations. Surprising for a speaker of such ample proportions, it doesn’t do really deep bass; its 15" woofer rolls off steeply at around 50Hz. Roy Delgado, Klipsch’s chief audio engineer, told me that this is a result of a compromise that allowed Paul Klipsch to design a relatively compact bass horn. (The Cornwall, a smaller and less expensive sibling in Klipsch’s Heritage line, dispenses with the bass horn and goes down to 35Hz.) Whether this deficit might be a problem for you depends on your musical diet and priorities. While I noticed bass missing on certain electronic music and hip hop recordings, I rarely missed it; some La Scala owners, though, use a subwoofer. I should add that, despite being limited, the Klipsches’ bass is in no way wimpy: When called upon, the big horns emitted bass notes as stentorian and downright scary as any speakers I’ve lived with.
Last, while the La Scalas throw an enormous and cavernous soundstage, they do not create the razor-sharp sonic holographs of the kind conjured by certain contemporary minimonitors. But if that’s crucial to you, you probably aren’t considering these speakers.
In my room, the Klipsches’ frequency response sounded just a shade richer than neutral, with an extended but mellow top end and some added presence in the lower midrange and upper bass. This euphonic voicing made poor recordings easier to listen to and good recordings propulsive and fun. I wouldn’t change it for a flatter one, but frequency-response-graph enthusiasts for whom absolute neutrality is paramount should probably look elsewhere.
The La Scalas’ sound varies remarkably depending on amplification, and they demand and reward high quality; the prospect of them being driven by a big-box-store receiver fills me with sadness. Choosing the right amplifier to use with them wasn’t entirely straightforward and required a fair amount of trial and error. The Klipsches’ sky-high sensitivity may suggest otherwise, but a single measurement never tells the whole story. I listened to them with five amplifiers controlled by the superbly transparent and tuneful PrimaLuna EVO 400 line stage; here’s what I heard.
AYRE AX-5 TWENTY: The Ayre is a lush and musically compelling solid state amplifier, but through the La Scalas it sounded pretty analytical, buttoned-up, and dry. Though one shouldn’t generalize from limited experience, I’m going to: The La Scalas love tubes.
OLIVER SAYES SET WITH 307A OUTPUT TUBES: This fairly “tubey” sounding design, producing 6W per channel, emitted beautiful tone, but in this application it lacked resolution and sounded a bit gooey. And while it made copious bass, that bass was poorly defined and slow. The La Scalas seemed to want a more neutral tonal balance and more grip.
WESTERN ELECTRIC 91E: The big Western resolved scads of detail and sounded both liquid and well-controlled. Well, nearly. On “Lively Up Yourself” from Bob Marley’s Natty Dread (LP Island ILPS 9281), Aston “Family Man” Barrett’s electric bass sounded a bit listless, lagging behind the rest of the music. And the 91E couldn’t quite unlock the highest level of dynamic expression the speakers are capable of. To generalize again, those wishing to drive the La Scalas with a low-powered (sub-20W) tube amplifier, particularly of the single-ended persuasion, may not get stellar results. Try them together before buying.
LINE MAGNETIC LM-845IA: The swaggering 22W made by the ferociously hot 845 triodes in this amplifier proved a fantastic match for the Klipsches. Barrett’s bass notes landed like the jabs of a welterweight, and the recording danced and strutted in a most convincing fashion. The Chinese amp also created a smooth, utterly grainless sound with saturated tone colors and unraveled lots of ambient information without drawing undue attention to it in the manner of some more analytical amps. Wooo!
MANLEY MAHI MAHI: Especially in ultralinear mode, with the negative feedback set to minimum, these push-pull EL84 monoblocks from EveAnna Manley succeeded in squeezing maximum dynamics from the La Scalas while imbuing recordings with gorgeous color, pace, and all the detail you might wish for. Compared to the Line Magnetic, they presented an even more propulsive, harder hitting sound, sacrificing just a bit of liquidity, texture, and presence. Another goosebump-inducing match.
Now that you know something about how the La Scalas sound, you may be wondering about a more pressing issue: How do they communicate music? For me, sound quality and musical engagement are tied up most directly in the experience of dynamics: It’s in the infinite gradations of intensity that intent and meaning in music are most acutely expressed. In “God Is in the Nuances,” the most thought-provoking article I’ve read in this magazine, Markus Sauer quotes (and somewhat awkwardly translates) French audio and music journalist Jean-Marie Piel, who describes this connection with more elan and poetry than I can muster:
“The essence of a [musical] interpretation lies in working on the infinitely small—be it an attack on a note held back for a fraction of a second (perceptible if the preceding note is reproduced neither too short nor too long), or be it a note that develops in itself; or, on a larger level, a crescendo or diminuendo encompassing several notes—all of which gives music a sense of direction, its palpable dynamics, its quivering life, and all of which, in the end, lies in the nuances.
“Which explains, by the way, why certain old loudspeakers with a very high sensitivity and thus a very high precision in the rendition of dynamics, especially of very small signals—just like certain tube amplifiers with very simple circuits—and despite more or less obvious colorations and the omission of an octave or two, manage to reproduce with disturbing fidelity all the emotional intensity of an interpretation. Which should give our designers something to think about, and convince them that the musically more important kind of dynamics is that which loses itself in silence, not the kind that turns into noise.”
The La Scalas’ remarkable sonic realism would be pointless if they weren’t also masterful at revealing the “quivering life” Piel is talking about. Luckily, they excel at excavating the musical drama of a recording, allowing records to startle and engage with more regularity than the vast majority of speakers of any size and price. Through them the music breathes, shouts, and whispers.
I live in a loft, or essentially a single large room. On a recent morning, I put on a recording of Ali Akbar Khan playing Rag Alam Bhairav, a morning raga, as quiet background music while doing some stretching and working out. Though I was trying to focus on my stubbornly inflexible joints, I became so enthralled by the sarod’s woody resonance and amber tone, and by the kaleidoscopic shadings of sound and meaning that Khan extracted from it, that I ended up sitting on the floor and listening to the music lunge and dance until the 28-minute track was over.
This level of engagement characterized my time with the La Scalas. After some listening sessions, I was so emotionally wrung out that I felt tired and needed to walk away from music for a while.
Last year, at Jim Austin’s urging, I began a series of reviews to explore whether I could find what I loved about my 1967 Altec Valencias in a current-production speaker. The California-made Altecs excel at dynamic expression and scale, yet the larger La Scalas lap them in both categories, simply offering more. These speakers from Arkansas (whose design predates the Valencias) also energize my loft in a more satisfying way, perhaps due to their greater sensitivity and directionality. The Altecs, in turn, sound a bit more natural and reproduce drums with more snap and presence. They have a little more filigree and soul. Yet the La Scalas are even more adept at musical drama and spectacle and have proven second to none at making me turn off my phone and listen.
The Klipsch La Scala has been in constant production for 59 years, longer than all but a tiny handful of audio products, and this is surely not an accident. (Happily, it also means that second-hand examples, available for a fraction of their current price, are relatively common.) They aren’t perfect, and they require a large room and a suitable amplifier, but they offer the closest thing I’ve heard to a musical performance taking place in my home. They do this as reliably with solo viola as they do with Minor Threat. Best of all, they provide as direct a route as I’ve found to hours of musical engagement—to embodying what Sakuma-san described as “endless energy with sorrow,” to which I would add love, rage, humor, and elation. $13,198 is an investment, but it will buy you one of the world’s most sonically irrepressible and musically communicative speakers. It just may sustain you for life.
1 You can learn more about Sakuma-san and his designs on the Direct Heating website: www.big.or.jp/~dh.
Description Three-way horn-loaded loudspeaker. High frequencies: Klipsch K-771 compression driver with a 1" polyimide diaphragm loaded with a polymer Tractrix horn. Midrange: Klipsch K-55-X compression driver with a 2" phenolic diaphragm loaded with a polymer exponential horn. Bass: Klipsch 15" K-33-E woofer with fiber-composite cone loaded with an 8' bidirectional folded horn. Crossover frequencies: 450Hz, 4.5kHz. Frequency response: 51Hz–20kHz ±4dB. Sensitivity: 105dB/2.83V/m. Nominal impedance: “8 ohms compatible.”
Dimensions 40" (1016mm) H × 24.25" (617mm) W × 25 5/16" (643mm) D. Weight: 201 lb (91kg) each.
Finishes Satin black ash, American walnut, Natural cherry.
Serial numbers of units reviewed 106709122220013 and 106709122220014.
Price $13,198/pair. Approximate number of dealers: 70. Warranty: 5 years.
Manufacturer Klipsch Group, Inc., 3502 Woodview Trace, Indianapolis, IN 46268.
Tel: (317) 860-8100.
Web: klipsch.com. ■