This '70s Show

The neo-retro speaker boom has made nostalgia cutting edge

Mission 770 Retro Speakers

There's overlap among audiophiles and motorcyclists, and many of you will be familiar with the neo-retro boom that has possessed motorcycle design for the last decade or so.

From the BMW R nineT to the Honda CB1100 to Triumph's Bonneville and Thruxton, each is a rebellion against contemporary motorcycle models that resemble increasingly bizarre giant Lego wasps.

The neo-retro designs feature great hunks of metal and acres of thick chrome, with very little plastic in sight. Under the hood, as it were, are mod-cons such as fuel injection, ECUs, and good brakes. That no-nonsense '70s look is still there, but gone are cuss-n-choke cold-morning starts, oil drips on the driveway, and electrical systems that fail every time there's a cloud in the sky. Oh, and don't forget, that pervasive smell of gasoline.

Those '70s Speakers

A similar boom has been shaking up the speaker world for some time and doesn't seem to be letting up. We are seeing more and more models being resurrected from the late '60s, the '70s, and early '80s. These big, handsome, real-wood designs are balanced by modern upgrades, perhaps most importantly, the change in driver material and construction. Lighter, stiffer drivers are now controlled by stronger magnets, with upgraded support-structure design and materials.

These new materials last longer too. No more foam that hardens and crumbles in a few years, or glue that weeps in summer, or rubber that cracks in the sun. Cabinets use modern design technology (such as laser interferometry and finite element analysis) to place bracing in the perfect places, and create the exact dimensions and internal shape to match and support the drivers. Crossovers also use better electronics and wiring, allowing for more transparency.

No Loss of Character

Just as neo-retro motorbikes have flat power curves with lots of low-end torque rather than peaky, red-liney racing curves, neo-retro speakers haven't lost that '70s tonal character. These speakers are not overly "hi-fi" in that they're not hyper-detailed with an obsessive focus on micro-dynamic performance.

Instead, they convey the tone, texture, and weight of musical performances, giving a warmer presentation with a lot of mid-range presence that is immediately engaging, emotional, and fun.

With bass, because the design follows the more traditional setup of one large woofer versus several smaller ones, these speakers just don't do fast, lean "hi-fi bass". Big woofers, even with lighter materials, take longer to start and stop moving. As a result, they produce more rounded bass notes imbued with great weight and texture. Many of these speakers are three-way designs, with a relatively large driver just for mids, so they embody a ton of midrange presence for the same reason.

And so, the modern balances the traditional, making these speakers more wideband but not dead neutral, more detailed but not cut-glass, and more dynamic but not lean. What could sometimes, in 1975, be a honky, mid-heavy sound is now a bit more contemporary but still nice and weighty around the middle. You know, just like many of us who were alive in the '70s. Now, give us a minute to suck it in and hold our breaths to zip up our motorcycle jackets, and let's go ride!

Seven Brands Reviving the Seventies

Tannoy Eaton Retro Speakers

Below is a rundown of the Upscale brands that match the "1970 outside, 2022 inside" aesthetic. We've featured loudspeakers up to about $6,000 a pair, but some of these lines continue into pretty rarified territory, say, if you want to build that giant system that accurately scales Keith Emerson's Moog in concert.

We don't go too deep into the sound of each model because so much depends on you, your room, and your current system. We'd recommend narrowing down a couple of choices in the look and price that suits you, and then talking to one of our highly 1970s-attuned (no matter what their age) sales team.

1) Mission on a Mission

Let's start with our newest line, the British loudspeaker brand, Mission. It was founded in 1977, and the iconic 770 came out just a year later. The new 770 heralds the return of Mission, and the comprehensive, but respectful, redesign of the original makes it the perfect opener for this guide. As Mission says, "The original 770 was well known for its warm, rich and natural sounding character and the new Mission 770 retains that standing but imbues it with an open, detailed performance."

The smaller Mission 700 with its Inverted Driver Geometry offers an interesting entry-level choice, with the same complete overhaul of the original. And just like in the 1970s, when the world was smaller and not as flat, these speakers are manufactured in their home country, specifically in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

Mission 700 Retro Speakers
Mission 770 Retro Speakers
Mission 700 with Stands (pair) Mission 770 with Stands (pair)


2) KLH: Real-Wood Veneers and Linen Grilles

The Model Three and Five are already Upscale bestsellers, so we don't need to convince you about these beauties based on originals dating to the late '60s. KLH was founded in 1957 in Cambridge, MA, and is revered for its acoustic suspension designs.

With their beautiful wood finishes and cloth grilles, the Model Three and Model Five look every bit the part. The West African Mahogany finish comes with the Old World Linen grille, and the English Walnut finish comes with the Stonewash Linen grille. The grilles are available separately if you want to mix and match.

KLH preserves its iconic mid-century modern styling and says, "Our updated version of this classic speaker has real wood veneers, cast aluminum baskets, and uses acoustic suspension design principles made famous by founder Henry Kloss."

KLH Model Three KLH Model Five
 KLH Model Three KLH Model Five

3) JBL and the "West Coast" Sound

California-based JBL is mentioned in the next breath after KLH, as each of these speakers were the sonic flagbearers of the sound philosophy of their respective coasts. KLH's tighter, more damped "East Coast sound" was answered by JBL's fatter bass from its large woofers and vented designs.

Kevin Deal, as you might expect, is a fan of the West Coast sound. He still has his JBL coffee mug from his first visit to the factory in 1981, and he prizes JBL's rounder, heftier bass. "It's more exciting and the speakers breathe more."

The new JBL L100 with its optional blue or orange foam grilles (that no longer degrade in the sun) has become the very figurehead of the neo-retro speaker movement. Watch the video on the product page (link below) to see Kevin wrestling with that monster bass unit, describing it as "a proper, proper driver."

If the L100 is too big, the L82 offers the same incredible build and grille choices in a smaller package. If you want the size but for less money, go for the "poor audiophile's L100" the more rough-edged but still utterly delightful 4312G.

 JBL 4312G Retro Speaker JBL L82 Classic Retro Speakers JBL L100 Classic Retro Speakers
JBL 4312G (pair) JBL L82 Classic (pair) JBL L100 Classic (pair)


4) Tannoy: The Brand They'll Be Talking About in the 2070s

One of audio's oldest brands, Tannoy was founded in 1926, and offers a large and varied catalog. The Autograph Mini stands as the smallest way to get that classic '70s sound, a speaker the size of a shoebox that plays so big that even seasoned salespeople in the store are blown away. The Eaton takes the first step into the big, dynamic Legacy series, and both feature (of course) Tannoy's legendary coaxial drivers for exceptional imaging and ease of placement. In addition, these are manufactured in the UK by craftspeople with decades of experience in woodworking and joinery.

 Tannoy Autograph Mini Retro Speaker Tannoy Eaton Retro Speaker
Tannoy Autograph Mini Tannoy Eaton


5) Klipsch and Book-Matched Veneers

Got whiplash yet, as we swing between the UK and the US? From a heritage audio brand in Scotland to another across the pond, Klipsch was founded in 1946 in, as the company likes to remember, "a tin shed in Hope, Arkansas."

The Klipsch Heresy IV and Forte IV might just be the epitome of the sound we're talking about in this guide, with their high-sensitivity horn tweeters and mids, and big woofers. Most of you know the Klipsch sound very well, so let's stress on the looks here and remind you that these sell as matched pairs because their veneers are book-matched, making the grain carry across both speakers as if they were one unit. They're beautiful!

Klipsch Heresy IV Retro Speaker  Klipsch Forte IV Retro Speaker
Klipsh Heresy IV Klipsh Forte IV


6) Wharfedale for the Win

Aaand, we're back in the UK, and talking about another of our bestsellers. Most of you know and love the Linton with its matched stand that doubles as a record shelf. Don't forget about the Denton 85 though, a two-way walnut or mahogany beauty that offers a tight, highly coherent version of this guide's classic sound.

Let's hand it over to customer Lawrence Schenbeck, who posted his review on the product page. "After years of trying to put together a satisfying 'cheap 'n' cheerful' audio station, I've finally succeeded, thanks to these great little speakers. They are compact in our little living room, but nice fit and finish, capable of big sound and delicacy, slightly warm, very musical."

He says there's "plenty of bass available, but easily adjusted via placement. Fun. Glad I got them."

Wharfdale Denton 85 Retro Speakers
Wharfdale Denton 85 (pair)
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