By Darrin Fox & Terry Buddingh
From Guitar Player, August '99
For many players, alnico speakers are the final stop on the road to the promised land of tone. The sonic characteristics of alnico magnets -- sweeter treble, smoother midrange, and softer clipping -- are all attributes that ceramic-magnet speakers aren't designed to deliver. No wonder tone fiends call alnico "the musical magnet."
Alnico speakers (the word alnico is derived from the magnet's composition of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt) were standard issue in most amps up to the mid '60s. When the cost of cobalt increased due to its classification as a strategic metal during the Cold War, speaker manufacturers were forced to use other materials, ushering in the era of ceramic-magnet speakers. Ceramics cost less, and are more durable in high-power applications, but with many of today's players focusing on all things vintage, there has been an increased awareness of the sonic properties of alnico.
To document those tonal properties -- and to help you determine whether alnico is the missing link in your ultimate guitar sound -- we evaluated fifteen 12" alnico speakers. We listened to each speaker using a variety of amplifiers -- a '68 Fender Deluxe Reverb, a Victoria 20112-T (a reproduction of a late-'50s tweed Deluxe), a '52 Fender tweed Deluxe, a reissue Vox AC30, a mid-'70s 50-watt Marshall, a Dr. Z Route 66, and a Sovtek Mig 50. As alnico speakers are typically found in combo amps, we auditioned all of the speakers in the same 2x12 open-back pine cabinet.
Celestion Blue. A speaker-biz heavy since 1924, Celestion offers the Blue model, which is based on the original G12 that was standard issue in vintage Vox amplifiers. The Blue is far and away the most tonally sophisticated -- as well as the loudest -- speaker in this roundup. Its chime and midrange complexity are truly magical, and it never sounded harsh or brittle. The Blue handles sparkling rhythms and milkshake-thick lead tones with equal poise, and is an unbelievably dynamic and multi-dimensional speaker that sounds great with any amp.
Eminence Legend 122. The Legend's rolled-off treble makes it somewhat unresponsive at soft to medium volume levels. At higher volumes, the Legend livens up significantly to offer more punch and a wider dynamic range. Overall, the Legend 122 excels in overdriven applications -- its attenuated treble response proved an asset for velvety-smooth lead tones -- but it lacks the necessary sparkle for clean, cutting rhythm tones. The Legend 122 is also available with a kapton voice coil.
Fane AXA-12. Fane speakers were a staple in Hiwatt and Orange cabs in the late '60s and early '70s. The AXA-12's fiberglass voice coil makes it the power-handling champ of this roundup. But even at low volumes, this speaker exudes a raucous, aggressive vibe. The AXA-12 found a tonal soul mate in our 50-watt Marshall, belching out tough crunch with tight low-end and a snarling midrange. Relatively uninspired when reproducing clean, Fender-like tones, the AXA-12 punches out distorted sounds with stout midrange, grouchy low-string grind, and all-around aggression.
Jensen P12N. For vintage Fender amp buffs, no name is more revered than Jensen. Hoping to recapture the old magic, Jensen has reissued some of their more popular models from yesteryear. The current incarnation of Jensen, however, is not the same company that exited the musical instrument marketplace in the '60s. Jensen is now owned by consumer electronics giant Recoton, and the speakers are manufactured in Italy.
The new Jensen P12N is loud and punchy. Although it exhibits harsh treble frequencies, it also flaunts a plump midrange character and an authoritative, vocal-like lead tone. The new P12N definitely gives you some of that tantalizing old-school flavor -- minus the thousands of gig hours -- but doesn't nail the tone of the original.
Magic Parts SP12ALN. The SP12ALN holds together nicely when pushed into distortion. It doesn't have much high-end zing at lower volumes, but it breaks up nicely and stays sweet and rich when given the gas.
MojoTone MP12R. The paper-voice-coil-equipped MP12R yields detailed treble at low volumes and breaks up musically when driven hard. Its treble gets a bit piercing when played loud and clean, but, overall, the MP12R offers a satisfying vintage-type tone and a nice midrange honk.
MojoTone MP12 RHD. The kapton-voice-coil-equipped version of the MP12R has a slightly mellower treble voice (though it can still sound a little spikey). It breaks up smoothly, stays more focused in high-volume situations, and provides a slightly meatier lead tone than the MP12R.
New Sensor 12ALP. The paper-voice-coil-equipped 12ALP exhibits a full tone with moderate chime in clean settings, and smooth (yet raw sounding) textures when driven hard. Despite having a bit more treble sizzle than we'd prefer, it's still a very balanced-sounding speaker.
New Sensor 12ALK. The kapton-equipped 12ALK produces a stout tone with a pronounced midrange voice. It remains focused under hard pummeling, and gives a punchy coherency to low-string riffs. The 12ALK offers moderate high-end ring, and it echoes the raw aggressiveness of the 12ALP.
Standel S12. Standel's take on the classic JBL D-120, the S12, was the smoothest-sounding speaker of the bunch. Available with aluminum (as tested) or paper dust caps, the S12 yields what can best be described as a silky, soulful hi-fi tone in both clean and distorted settings. Though its frumpy, non-distinct bass response tends to hamper punchy rhythm playing, the S12 is an outstanding choice for smoky jazz textures. This is an original-sounding speaker that's best suited for low-volume applications.
Weber VST P12B. Weber VST specializes in vintage-style speakers that -- according to the manufacturer -- "electrically and mechanically" emulate the alnico classics from Jensen and Celestion. The P12B "Blue Dog" actually sounds creamier than the Celestion Blue that it's based on. At low volumes, the P12B has an airy top-end (especially with single-coils) and sounds buttery smooth, yet distinct, when pushed. The P12B lacks the immediate attack and midrange "crang" of the Celestion Blue, but if you're looking for a different sort of British sweetness, the P12B is a superb choice.
Weber VST P12R. Weber's P12R flaunts a bell-like chime and a nice upper-midrange emphasis. It sounds angelic at low volumes (especially with our tweed Deluxe), but doesn't react well to heavy overdrive.
Weber VST P12Q. The P12Q sounds round and full and has more lower-midrange emphasis than the P12R. The P12Q also has the rare ability to deliver a smooth top end, yet remain vibrant, distinct, and definable. It snaps sweetly with Strats and Teles, and sounds exceptionally rich with humbuckers. It's a well-balanced, dynamic speaker that likes to party with tweed amps.
Weber VST P12NT. The NT gets the "Twang Award" for its crisp, well-balanced high end. Shrillness isn't an issue here. The P12NT's tones blossom nicely, and its quick transient response reveals picking nuances. Hit it with some volume, however, and the NT breaks up quickly and growls delightfully. This is a vibey, dynamic speaker.
Weber VST P12N. This creamier-sounding version of the P12NT sounds close to the Jensen P12N reissue, but with a tad less treble. While not as lively as the P12NT, the P12N delivers a smoothly compressed punch -- very nice with a cranked tweed Deluxe. Like an old Jensen, the P12N caves in readily to overdrive and produces a great midrange yowl.
All of the speakers deliver a high degree of classic alnico tone, feel, and vibe. For jaw-dropping performance, however, the Celestion Blue is far and away the champ. Its magical tone and chimey richness are truly stunning. The Weber VST P12B delivers much of the Celestion's flavor at half the price, while the Weber P12R and P12Q get nods for being the most authentic-sounding, "old school" 12s.
Fane's AXA-12 will satisfy players who want some of the punch and ferocity of ceramic speakers, but still yearn for alnico mojo. The Standel S12 stands apart from the crowd with an original tone that's based on a lesser-known JBL classic, and the Jensen P12N is an excellent choice for adding vintage flavor to high-powered combos. Lastly, all of the Eminence-made alnicos from Magic Parts, MojoTone, and New Sensor are outstanding bang-for-buck performers.