25 years of Living Voice

Feature

25 years of Living Voice
Friday, April 12, 2019

Living Voice is celebrating their 25thanniversary and have created a special R25 edition of the Auditorium model to mark the occasion. I caught up with founder and designer Kevin Scott late last year to find out a bit more about the brand’s journey from the first Air Partner to the incredible Vox series of horn speakers that put Living Voice on the high end map.

JK: What was your first speaker?

KS: The first one was the Air Partner which I took to the Heathrow show in 1993, but I was working on it for a few years before then. The directors of [pro horn specialist] Vitavox, specifically David and Neil Young - the sons of the company founder - were very helpful and encouraging to me during the early days when I was developing the Air Partner - the late 80s. This speaker had some DNA from one of David’s professional loudspeaker designs and he continued to provide support and guidance during its development. Both brothers were flattered and bemused by my interest and manifestly delighted that I was reviving the Vitavox name and making waves in the high end audio scene. The name Living Voice was chosen in many ways as a homage - ‘vita vox ‘ is the Latin for ‘living voice’. 

 

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Living Voice Air Partner

 

I guess this was around the time that the Audio Note (Japan) Ongaku raised the bar

It was. I ‘borrowed’ an Ongaku at the Heathrow show one evening. I remember it well because it was the first time I put my back out. Putting to one side the inability to walk this was a tremendous experience as it showed me that much of what I was struggling to resolve in the loudspeaker’s performance was largely artefacts of amplifier performance. Around this time and perhaps because of this I bought some massive war time power supplies from a military surplus company. These units were built by Schulberger and branded Solatron. These are gorgeous looking things in a drab grey livery with form strictly following function. They are valve rectified and use an arm full of power valves in a series regulated arrangement. If you think about what an amplifier is, it’s essentially a modulated power supply - a stable clean DC current that is modulated by the music signal. Bypassing the very modest power supply architecture in a commercial valve amplifier allows you to hear the quality of the circuit design. Connecting these Solatron units to the amplifiers I was using at the time (6B4G - PPP Audio Innovations 2nd Audios) was a revelation. The performance in both sonic and musical terms was nothing short of an epiphany; a huge, calm, organised and effortlessly natural soundworld. It also provided a stark illustration of how low the performance bar was set for even highly regarded commercial hi-fi systems. These Solatron power supplies are quite something to behold with a build quality and seriousness of purpose that commercial audio can’t even dream of. They now grace our reception area as ornamental curios but in their time allowed me to bridge the gap to when we became the UK importer of Mr Kondo’s amplifiers. Loudspeaker design really requires the use of the best possible amplifiers and these classic Kondo designs have been a huge bonus to Living Voice. It’s a shame that the great man is no longer with us.

 

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Air Partner drivers and cellular horn

 

Around this ‘Solatron Era’ I decided to make a smaller and less expensive three-way horn in the form of the Tone Scout. This later became the Air Scout. The objective being to bring some of the qualities I was enjoying to the commercial sphere. Also to have some fun and earn some money. I was funding this Living Voice project from my appointment-only retail business,  Definitive Audio. 
Finding cabinet makers with suitable facilities and skills was again an issue, as were the costs of these relatively complex cabinets. We had three different cabinet makers over the life of the design and sold quite a number into Europe and Russia as well as to the UK, but only one pair to the US.
All this time I was selling a tight selection of commercial audio and coming into contact with a lot of equipment that had received rave reviews from the print media as well as some very demanding music loving end users. It became obvious to me that a system based approach rather than a component based approach was the discipline to master. The hi-fi system is a unitary organism and must be treated as such - most hi-fi enthusiasts have mix ‘n’ match systems, a lucky dip of well reviewed items. This is doomed to mediocrity no matter how good some of the individual components may be. I also learnt the subtle and not so subtle differences between ‘impressive’ sound and musical coherence. What constitutes the latter is down to personal judgement and personal sensibilities and is not something that an exclusively quantitative design paradigm can deliver - despite the protestations of men in white coats. 
Having said that, if you decide to design a loudspeaker based on Theil / Small theory, the staple literature for sealed and reflex designs, it’s a rude awakening. Those men in white coats become your friends. Loudspeakers are almost infinitely complex and are more than infinitely frustrating. The reactive nature of loudspeakers makes them as elusive as the proverbial jelly nailed to a wall. This became very apparent when designing the 30 litre reflex loaded Avatar. Our first small Living Voice speaker was the Auditorium, and it was essentially a refined and evolved version of a speaker I had been selling for years but which the manufacturer had deleted from their portfolio. My system based approach depended on this model, so I decided to remake it. This was relatively easy as I was starting from a known performance reference from a settled pre-existing design. Better cabinets, crossover components, better wiring, etc. yes, but fundamentally the same DNA. The Avatar was a ground up design and it taught me how much I didn’t know. Thankfully a bloody-minded determination, bottles of autodidact lotion, and months of empirical work eventually turned the Avatar into something I am very proud of. This then snowballed into subsequent models at high quality levels. The top model is the OBX-RW3 which has been a huge success for us and has a bit of a cult following.
 

How did the Vox Olympian come about?

A few years later Neil bequeathed me an unresolved design for a mid bass horn and suggested I could perhaps turn this into something that they had been unable realise due to lack of desire from their new parent company. Vitaxox were, and still are, a big supplier to the Admiralty and it was with eyes on this revenue stream that the new parent company acquired Vitavox. The lion’s share of their manufacturing output was ship-to-shore loudspeakers, blast proof loudspeakers, underwater loudspeakers, microphones, bridge electronics as well as enormous ‘ship’s whistles’ for navy frigates - think of gigantic fog horns and triple the size. The new owners had virtually no interest in either the professional or domestic audio products which had such a rich design heritage dating back to the 1930s. Vitavox was a competitor to Western Electric and Altec Lancing back in the day. They had a major legal wrangle with the latter over the intellectual property of the 300 Hz semi-cellular fabricated mid-horn. To circumvent a legal challenge Vitavox designed an ingenious casting tool that could produce a fully cellular radial exponential horn as a single piece. This was quite an achievement and succeeded in distinguishing the Vitaxox RH330 horn as unequivocally unique whist making Altec’s fabricated horns look more than a little unsophisticated. We acquired this tool from Vitavox during the 90s and had castings made in Nottingham which we used on the Air Partner and Air Scout models as well as on bespoke speakers such as the ones we made for Spiritland. We eventually switched to a solid beechwood construction on the Vox Olympian and Vox Palladian models, but this 4 cell horn is iconic both sonically and visually – it had a brutalist look that has great vintage appeal. 

 

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Vox Olympian and Vox Elysian 

 

What happened to the Air Partner?

We stopped making the Air Partner and the Air Scout for want of cabinet makers who could build to the standard the we needed. For personal interest I had developed a new mid-bass system from the design Neil Young had given to me and integrated it into a huge five way design. There were no commercial considerations involved in the design process, in fact frankly I didn’t think at the time that it could have commercial traction, it was too big and too complex. It was just personal project, from which I derived a great deal of pleasure. However when I visited the Munich hi-end show I was struck by the number of big loudspeakers, including horn designs that despite being expensive were in most cases modestly specified and modestly built. I realised then that I should implement my ideas commercially. Armed with this conviction I had a cabinet built by Octave Audio in Bristol. Serendipitously Octave Audio had taken over the production of the Vitavox drivers from David andNeil Young and therefore had an intimate understanding and an innate sympathy with the critical requirements of loudspeaker engineering. This new design, the Vox Olympian is a four way fully horn loaded ‘satellite’ speaker covering 70 Hz to 40 kHz. The matching subwoofer, Vox Elysian is also horn loaded and covers the nearly two octaves from 20 Hz to 70 Hz. This full horn loading across the full bandwidth makes the VO/VE very unusual if not unique in domestic high end audio. It makes for a physically large loudspeaker. An interested party from mainland China recently complained that the Vox Elysian sub is too big to be commercially successful in his market saying ”they are the size of a coffin” I unhelpfully pointed out that they are the size of three coffins - and you need two. Thankfully there is also the Vox Basso, a 250 litre reflex loaded sub with a single 18” driver that we are unveiling at Munich Hi-End this year. This is a quarter of the size.

Anyway, back to the timeline...we took Vox Olympian to the Monaco Yacht Show for a couple of years which was fascinating - there are suppliers for every conceivable manufacturing requirement no matter how outlandish and it was here that we met Ivor Evans from Struik and Hamerslag, an Anglo Dutch concern that make the finest free standing Yacht furniture in the world, doing interior fit-outs and re-fits  for the Van Lent and De Vries boat yards in Holland, without doubt the most prestigious of all the international yacht builders. It was this relationship that allowed us to make the Vox Olympian to a quality of fit and finish that we could not have otherwise dreamt of. This also paved the way for a more stripped down and performance centred model in the form of Vox Palladian and Palladian Basso.

What inspired the Auditorium?

When Snell speakers ceased to be available I started selling a little Dali floorstander that was great, but they went out of production as well. I said to Dali can you carry on making them for me, and they said I could buy them in batches of 25 or 50 which was a big ask back then. I was only in a terraced house so stock holding was very limited. So I thought I’d make my version of this speaker, I got an outfit in Nottingham to make a cabinet that was pretty much the same. That was when I took the first Auditorium to a hi-fi show, but because I had no commercial experience I got my pricing structure too slender, but I had already launched the speaker as a product. I just had to tough it out but the new cabinet and crossover components added sufficient performance to make it saleable. I eventually recovered my position by a price rise and economies of scale.

People manifestly like this size of speaker in a domestic environment, they like the format. There’s a school of people that like the studio monitor look but that doesn’t always translate into domestic harmony. Plus, that mid treble mid works so well, one of the reasons you like it is that it’s got this lovely polar response, it’s lovely off axis.

 

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Auditorium speakers in the Definitive Audio dem room

 

Is it a D’appolito arrangement?

I think that strictly speaking a D’appolito configuration must have the HF unit placed symmetrically between the two bass mid drivers. Ours are best described as MTM ( mid-treble-mid). This topology is named after Joseph D’appolito, the respected loudspeaker academic and brain box. He championed it as an elegant design concept with practical advantages over both conventional two driver two-ways, and three-ways. For a start there is an absence of the upward or downward lobing from a (non time aligned) conventional two driver two-way. Our designs have the HF driver offset at a golden ratio on the baffle to minimise standing waves but they are still in an MTM layout.

I like it this configuration because it embraces the inherent crossover integration advantages of a small 6 inch driver plus tweeter two-way - without the corresponding lack of weight heft and scale - two 6 inch drivers have the swept surface area of a single 9.25 inch driver but can work much higher, more cleanly, and have better off axis performance at crossover. This sidesteps the midrange beaming of a 10 inch driver plus tweeter and hence the uneven power response; it is inherently less complicated from a phase perspective than a three way; and the big plus is its way more sensitive. So in brief it’s an Occam’s Razor topology. 

The bass mid drivers are unusual. They are evolved from a 1970’s Vifa design that I personally don’t think have been bettered - not for my listening values. They are manufactured specifically for us by ScanSpeak. It’s a driver style that has fallen out of favour for reasons that are a mystery to me. The shallow curvilinear diaphragm, light foam termination, narrow diameter voice coil, pressed steel basket, these are all things that driver designers have left behind in the pursuit of power handling and slick robust aesthetics. I think of these developments in the same way as low profile tyres on vans – they do little to advance the performance in the areas that matter most. We have evolved this driver design by a process of iterative development in conjunction with Scan Speak who manufacture them with the diaphragm and roll surround that is supplied by us.

There are now five models in this hierarchy, the latest being the R25A anniversary model which is a significant redesign of the base model that has now been in continuous production for 25 years. We are very pleased with this new model and it is proving to be very popular.

 

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Auditorium R25