Vintage speakers vs new speakers (Week 3, 2022)

Sound Advice
By Don Lindich

Week 3, 2022

Q. I have Polk Audio TSi400 tower speakers and a Sony STR-DH190 receiver. When I turn up the volume the receiver shuts down with a “protect” message. I have read this is to protect against distortion that could damage the speakers and receiver. Is this true? I don’t play my music loudly so I am surprised this distortion threshold is being reached. It is really annoying.

Also, back in the 1980s I had EPI 100 speakers, which had great bass and good treble, too. I find that my current speakers have great treble but the bass is definitely lacking. I get the impression that today’s speakers generally lack bass compared to 1970s-1980s speakers. Do you agree, and what are some affordable speakers today that deliver the bass sound of my old EPI 100s?

-T.S., Eagan, MN

A. It is called “clipping” when an amplifier distorts from being overdriven, and it is definitely what you are experiencing. Your Sony receiver may have a “100 watt” advertised amplifier rating, but in reality it is very weak. Sony rates the 100 watts at 1 kHz and 1% distortion. Measuring at a single frequency at such a high distortion level leads to a much higher power rating than the receiver can deliver in real-world use. In comparison, the $249 Onkyo TX-8220 is rated at 20-20khz and .08% distortion. Your speakers should be easy for any receiver to drive and if your Sony cannot do so, it falls short and you should replace it.

Now we will compare your vintage EPI 100 speakers to modern tower speakers. A big, boxy speaker with a large woofer (like the EPI 100) tends to have a more solid, fuller sound than a tall, narrow speaker with several smaller woofers. (This is a generalization and I will expand on it in a future column.) The slender cabinet of modern tower speakers means less reflection off the speaker’s front surfaces (called diffraction) for more open sound and better stereo imaging. Narrow towers also take up less space in the room, and this tends to make them more acceptable to wives and female significant others. (In the hi-fi hobby this is called wife acceptance factor or “WAF.”) Slimmer towers are also probably cheaper to manufacture and ship than big boxes, likely another reason you see so many speakers designed this way. I think a better receiver/amplifier will improve the bass of your current speakers, but probably not by enough to make you feel like you are listening to your old EPIs.

Your best option is the Wharfedale Linton Heritage speakers, which will provide the satisfyingly solid bass fullness of a vintage box speaker, combined with modern sound quality and fidelity. They are also works of art, with their furniture-grade wood cabinets and matching stands that double as record racks, finished in a stunning mid-century modern design. I’ve had more than one reader say their wife was against floorstanding speakers in the room, but when she saw the Linton Heritage speakers on the matching stands, they gave the green light! The Wharfedale Linton Heritage speakers with stands are $1,799. That’s a good bit of money, but they are worth every penny and represent a lifetime investment that will make and keep you happy.

You could also try and find another pair of EPI 100s. HUMAN speakers offers EPI 100 rebuild kits and they also sell a speaker called the Model 81 ($634/pair) that was directly inspired by the EPI 100. I have not heard them so cannot describe their sound, but they look promising.