Most speakers at that price range are big on size, drivers, and name-recognition of the marque. The Alecs sport none of those attributes. Yet they are more worthy of their asking price than any other speaker I’ve heard in their price range. Why? Read on!
The Alta Audio Alec Speakers, in addition to having the most beautiful finish I’ve ever seen, also sport some of the most unusual construction and technology that I’ve experienced. They are the only cone-in-box speakers that I’ve heard that can truly sound like virtually massless electrostatic panels. An unusual combination of transmission line and ported bass loadings allow the Alecs to energize the bass in my listening room almost as well as my 15” subwoofers! The imaging is also as good as I’ve heard. This combination of virtues may make the Alec speakers worth their asking price – the ONLY speakers I’ve heard in that price range that might actually justify their cost.
Alta Audio Alec Loudspeaker
- The Alta Audio Alec speakers sound as detailed as electrostatic speakers.
- The Alec’s finish is the finest I’ve seen on any speaker.
- The construction and engineering of the Alecs are unique.
- The Alecs need different feet for hard floors.
- The Alecs are imaging champs.
- The speakers use very high-quality terminals and jumpers.
- Bring a POWERFUL amplifier – the Alecs like wattage!
Those who know me through my reviews are aware that I’m very much a “value for the money” audiophile, and the Alta Audio Alec speakers are priced at $10,000 per pair. So you would generally expect me to begin my review with a strong bias against them – after all, I’ve reviewed other speakers at or near this price range and found them not only less than competitive in sound quality, but also less than impressive in value. Yet the Alta Audio Alec speakers are unusual enough in engineering, stunning enough in fit and finish, and strong enough in performance that I may have to revise some of my preconceptions. While these are extravagantly priced products, and thus not for everyone, I can perhaps for the first time concede that the price might actually be justified. This still doesn’t make the speakers any more attainable for us Hoi Polloi, but it does justify learning about what makes them so special.
39 inches, 40.5 inches with spikes
8.5 inches at the top, 15 inches at the bottom
10.5 inches at the top, 12.5 inches at the bottom
75 pounds each
5.75-inch ribbon tweeter & 8.75-inch midrange/woofer
XTL (Extended Transmission Line) Bass with DampHard™ faceplate
Gloss Beech, Gloss Rosewood, Black, Piano Black
93dB @ 1 watt / 1 meter
32Hz to 47kHz
50 to 150 Watts per channel
Three years, extended to five years if registered
Speaker Review 2020, Two-Way, Floor-standing Speaker, Transmission Line, Ribbon Tweeter, Alta Audio, Alec
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My comments regarding unpacking and setup are not trivial, but I’d normally not bother mentioning them at all. However, with a product at this price, I expect attention to detail in all parts of the customer experience. And I find Alta Audio lacking.
The outer shipping box is marked “Do not unbox without reviewing unboxing instructions (found inside the box).” That gave me a laugh. But when one opens the box, there are no unboxing instructions, only the owners’ manual that has but a single unhelpful paragraph on unboxing.
Secondly, it is far easier to unbox a large speaker if the box opening flaps are located at the top and the bottom. That way, the customer can open the boxes, upend them with contents, then lift the carton off the speaker. But the Alec speakers came with side flaps, which forces the owner to walk the speaker out of the box with packing attached; a most difficult thing to do without damaging the speaker, the packing, or the box. You can lay the speakers on their sides to remove the box and Styrofoam packing supports as I did, but then you can’t tell which side of the speaker is where since the speakers are in a fabric sleeve. This leads to concerns about driver damage if you accidentally put your fingers on the speaker drivers.
Third, the carpet-piercing spikes supplied with the Alta Audio Alec speakers are three-piece units that are tedious to install. The large cones are made of aluminum and should the unwary consumer try to slide the speakers on a hard floor, they WILL cause damage. I mistakenly thought they were hard rubber and scratched the floor before discovering my mistake. Not happy.
Fourth, the spikes and the threaded sockets on the speaker itself are a fine thread – rather slim for the size and weight of the speakers.
Fifth, although the spikes are suitable for carpeted floors, a half-inch diameter, dimpled cup is supplied for hard floors. This is inadequate. If the speakers are moved (and they will be, many times during listening setup), then all four spikes MUST remain socketed in the small cups, or else your hard floors will be damaged. Particularly if your floors are even slightly uneven, floor scratches are virtually guaranteed. At this price, Alta Audio should have provided Teflon sliders with outriggers.
Again, these issues are secondary compared to how the speaker sounds, but for a product in this price range, they deserve to be mentioned. I’d expected better.
Here is where the value of the Alta Audio Alec speaker begins to show itself. Virtually NOTHING about the Alec is conventional. This would be academic if the unconventional engineering were merely for show, but in the case of the Alec, every unusual feature seems to have a significant purpose.
Let’s start with what Alta Audio calls a third-generation ribbon tweeter of 12mm width. Alta claims high power handling, low distortion, and fast transient response; all enabled by an unusually strong neodymium magnet. Although I can’t verify the gauss strength of the tweeter’s magnet, I can verify that all the performance claims are true. This tweeter sounds more like an electrostatic speaker than any I’ve heard, and that is definitely intended as a compliment. The tweeter has more surface area than any other ribbon tweeter I’ve heard (except Magnepan’s) and may exploit that area to enable a lower crossover frequency than average.
The 8.75-inch “midrange/woofer,” as Alta calls it, uses a composite of paper and Kevlar, integrated in such a way as to cancel each other’s resonances. The woofer also sports a phase plug and a durable butyl rubber surround. Surprisingly, the ear cannot tell where the crossover occurs from this driver to the lightning-fast tweeter.
The cabinet is highly unusual in several ways. The rear wave of the woofer is both ported and loaded with a transmission line. I’ve never seen such a configuration before, but it clearly works. Alta claims a 32Hz extension for the bass; see the measurements section for confirmation. The cabinet is tapered for improved imaging and has the finest finish I’ve ever seen on a speaker. The driver board is constructed of a proprietary laminate material that Alta calls “DampHard.” Again, lacking an accelerometer, I have no means to measure the vibrational properties of the cabinet but can vouch that the knuckle test reveals less sound than any other speaker cabinet I’ve rapped.
Further mention must be made of the tapered transmission line. The Alec’s is 10.5 feet long. Conventional transmission lines resonate at approximately one-quarter of the wavelength, meaning that the Alec’s tapered transmission line should resonate at a frequency of roughly 27Hz.
Nothing else about the Alec is conventional, so I’m sure that Alta Audio has modified the dimensions and acoustics of their tapered transmission line as well. Add to that the cabinet port (that affects frequencies above the woofer’s resonance), and the woofer loading is unconventional in the extreme. But it works very well. This unusual engineering is part of why this speaker commands the price that Alta Audio places on it.
The other benefit that Alta claims for the transmission line is that the resulting woofer output becomes time coherent. This is audible during listening when the woofer is angled away from the listener. Even with extreme toe-in or toe-out, the Alec lacks the radical frequency imbalances that most speakers develop when aimed off-axis. Alta Audio does not specify the slope of their crossover, but since the crossover point is inaudible, the issue is moot.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t normally listen loudly – certainly less than 90dB at almost all times. So, loudspeaker sensitivity doesn’t really matter for my needs. Even so, Alec is rated for 93 decibels at one watt / one meter, and is more sensitive than most speakers on the market. It would, therefore, be reasonable to expect that virtually ANY amplifier could drive the speakers well enough. But this is not so.
I initially tried the Alec speakers with my custom Heathkit 12-watt tube monoblock amplifiers. With every other speaker I’ve tried, they have provided spectacular sound. But with the Alec speakers, the music was like listening to a transistor radio. To say I was surprised is an understatement.
I next tried them with an Emotiva PA-1 class-D mono-block amplifiers. At an output of 270 watts into 4 ohms at 0.1% distortion, I’ve found few speakers that the PA-1s couldn’t drive handily. And although the Alec speakers did sound better, they were still less than impressive. The dynamics were stunted, and the midrange seemed recessed.
I then tried my Ashly FTX-2001 Series III. This amplifier uses a class-A input section and a MOSFET output section. With 400 watts into 4 ohms at 0.1% distortion, the Ashly can drive virtually ANYTHING including the Alecs! The soundstage bloomed, the midrange became more prominent, and suddenly images appeared both on the outsides of the speakers and with great depth between the speakers. Further, the speakers suddenly became highly dynamic without losing their delicacy or their detail. Almost all listening notes were made with the Ashly amplifier.
My conclusion is that if you’re considering the Alta Audio Alec speakers, bring a good amplifier with not only plenty of watts but also the ability to provide lots of current to the speakers. I read that Alta Audio demonstrates these Alec speakers at shows using Krell amplifiers. I understand why. I’m NOT saying that you’ll need a Krell to get the best from the Alecs, only that they perform better with powerful amplifiers – bring watts.
During the course of the review, I received another Emotiva amplifier, the BasX TA-100 integrated with 90 Watts per channel. And? Ever being the contrarian, I listened to the $399 integrated amp driving $10,000 speakers. Unexpectedly, the TA-100 didn’t embarrass itself at all. The treble extension wasn’t as good as with the reference system. But the warm and lively tone of the TA-100 was surprisingly pleasant to listen to through the Alec speakers.
Were the differences caused by the TA-100’s lack of wattage in the power amplifier section? To find out, I kept the TA-100’s DAC and preamplifier and used the pre-out jacks to reconnect the Ashly power amplifier. And behold, the glorious soundstage, dynamics, and bass slam were back again! So, for the Alec speakers, the most important component is apparently a muscular power amplifier.
The review samples I received got 200 hours of break-in at the factory prior to shipment. Users buying these speakers new will need to break them in at home. In fact, the owner’s manual states that the sound of the speakers will continue to improve up until the 500-hour mark. If this is true, the improvement must be subtle, because right out of the box, these Alecs sounded spectacular.
- Western Digital 4TB external, USB-3 hard drive used for data storage
- Apple Mac Mini computer connected by Ethernet to the internet and using Roon music playback software – USB output to the DAC
- Apple AirPort express used for a wireless base station with Roon Remote on an iPad for control of playback
- Black Ice Tube FX DAC
- Passive volume control OR Audio-gd HE-1 preamplifier (Most listening notes made with the passive volume control)
- Amplification – (All of the following – in ascending rating by power output: Heathkit 12-watt tube amplifiers / Emotiva BASX TA-100 integrated / Emotiva PA-1 monoblocks / Ashly FTX-1002 – Series III stereo MOSFET amplifier – (Virtually all listening notes made with the Ashly)
For the following listening comments, the Alecs were run without subwoofers, and without equalization. Also, no bi-wiring or bi-amplification was used. The heavy-duty jumpers supplied with the speakers remained in place and Straight-Wire speaker cables connected the speakers to their amplifiers. A self-adhesive felt pad was placed under each large cone of the Alecs’ feet for support and to protect the floor from damage. The actual spikes that were supplied with the Alecs were not used. The magnetic grills were removed for most of the listening sessions, but even when installed made only minor differences in the sound.
BBC Big Band, “20 best of Big Bands, Madacy Records, 2004”
The magical track “Sing, Sing, Sing” by the BBC Big Band has it all – percussion galore, horns everywhere, and scary dynamics. If your speakers lack bass control, midrange headroom, or tweeter extension, this track will let you know about it pronto! I’ve even read that some have blown tweeters using this particular track… But the Alta Audio Alec speakers handled every part of the spectrum as well as or better than ANY other speaker I’ve heard – and without a subwoofer supplementing the Alec’s output.
Considering not only how difficult my room is in the bass octaves, but also the fact that this track was played at a volume considerably louder than 100dB, this performance is nothing short of amazing. And it becomes virtually unbelievable when you consider that the Alec speakers are sporting only a single 8.75” woofer per side! My jaw dropped and I thought to myself “how do they DO that?” I’d have never thought that a transmission line/port combination could be used on a speaker at all, much less to such fine effect – but Alta Audio has done it.
Another interesting surprise from the Alec speakers was their ability to image equally well regardless of listener height. Normally, when I stand up from my listening seat, the imaging is significantly diminished. Not so with the Alec speakers – the imaging seems to be well preserved regardless of listener height. This is a first in my experience.
Suzy Bogguss, “Aces-The Definitive Capitol Collection, Humphead Records, 2018”
The song “Someday Soon” displays the sweetness of Ms. Bogguss’s voice very well. Many speakers lack the resolution to make the singer’s voice sound as ethereal as it should. I speculate that the reason is that the female vocal range is right in the middle of an insufficiently blended crossover point where two drivers are trying to share the load.
But for whatever reason, the clarity, purity, and simplicity of the singer’s voice are breathtaking with the Alec speakers. I’ve not found the song particularly a favorite, but Suzy’s voice on this recording is a make-or-break test for speaker midrange reproduction. The Alec passes with flying colors.
The Piano Guys “Uncharted, Portrait Records, 2016”
One of my favorite guilty pleasures, The Piano Guys’ “Uncharted” CD allows me to hear full-range orchestral themes with cello solos, piano scoring, and an excellent recording. The track “Themes from Pirates of the Caribbean” will take any speakers on a roller coaster ride from the lowest bass to the highest treble while exploding from a whisper level to fortissimo peaks that will challenge your system (and your ears).
Few speakers can fully track the frequency range and the dynamics of this music without showing their shortcomings. But the Alec speakers drink it all in, laugh, and ask for more! If you listened to this recording on the Alec speakers with your eyes closed, not knowing that you were hearing an 8.75” two-way speaker, you wouldn’t believe your ears when you opened your eyes and saw the Alecs. Alta Audio has achieved the impossible.
It would be easy to believe that subwoofers were engaged in addition to the Alec speakers while hearing this music, but in fact, the bass is being produced solely from the 8.75” woofers.
A calibrated UMIK-1 microphone and Room Equalization Wizard software were used to make the following graphs. The first set was taken with the microphone about a foot from the front of the Alec to minimize room interference. The microphone was placed at a vertical location directly between the ribbon tweeter and the midrange/woofer, and directly on-axis. No smoothing was used.
The SPL graph uses an integrating, logging sound level measurement that displays sound pressure level based on the RMS level of the input channel.
The Distortion graph shows the measurement’s fundamental (the linear part of its response) and its harmonic distortion components up to the ninth harmonic. The Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) is the sum of these, and the level of the noise floor, which is captured before the measurement starts.
The impulse response is in essence a graph of what an extremely loud, extremely short click – something like the crack of a pistol shot, would sound like in the room. The less the “tail” after the initial click, the less the room echoes.
A waterfall graph (in this context) is a tool to measure the acoustics of a room. The decay times illustrate what sound does in a room after the initial sound is played from the speakers. An ideal waterfall would look like a smooth hill. It would increase fairly uniformly across the frequency band, tapering toward the extreme low and high ends, and decay fairly reasonably back down without any frequency ringing.
The second set of measurements was taken with both speakers active and from the listening position in my 23.5 x 16 x 9 (3,384 cubic feet) room. 1/48 smoothing was used for the frequency response.
Frequency Response (in room)
Distortion Curves (in room)
Impulse Response (in room)
RT60 is a measure of how long sound takes to decay by 60dB in the room. In a large enough room, reflections from the source would reach the mic from all directions at the same level.
Waterfall Plot (in room)
Despite the usual narrow-band peaks and dips in the bass, caused by room interactions, please note that in my room, the Alec speakers still have full output all the way down to 20Hz! At about 250Hz, the room effects roll-off, and the Alecs have smooth sailing all the way up. The treble extends all the way to 20kHz. This is an exceptional performance.
Distortion is well controlled throughout the speakers’ range.
The Alta Audio Alec speaker is worth the asking price, provided you supply it with the power that it needs to perform its best
- Cutting edge engineering
- State of the art construction and drivers
- One of the most detailed speakers I’ve heard
- The most beautiful finish I’ve ever seen on a speaker pair
- Exceptional imaging
- Better feet for use on hard floors
- A way to conveniently lock spikes for leveling on uneven floors
- More user-friendly packaging
- Brutally revealing of power amplifiers – A powerful, high-current amplifier is needed
The Alta Audio Alec loudspeaker, despite its relatively high sensitivity, requires a high-wattage and high-current power amplifier to sound its best. But its best is quite exceptional! The Alecs delivered full volume and great imaging while maintaining excellent detail. The midrange and treble are definitely the Alec’s best feature. This speaker sounds like the most muscular electrostatic speaker I’ve ever heard. The speaker is ultra-fast and delivers fantastic detail in my room and does so without sounding harsh.
Is it really fair to call any $10,000 speaker pair a good value? I must confess, I’ve never heard any other speaker for ANY price do as many good things as does the Alta Audio Alec. When you consider the engineering, the construction, and the sound, I think that I have no choice but to recommend the Alecs to you, if you can afford them.