Klipsch La Scala AL5 Floorstanding Speaker Review
Move beyond its anachronistic looks, and this is a loudspeaker of great ability, says David Price…
La Scala AL5
AUD $24,990 RRP
High-end speakers are truly diverse. Whether it's pure electrostatics like Quad's 2912, hybrids like MartinLogan's ESL15a, or big moving coil boxes like the KEF Reference 5 and eccentric full-range pods like Eclipse's TD712z Mk2 – they all cater for their design team's vision of perfection, rather than the statistical median. That's why classic Klipsch loudspeakers are so special – the company's Heritage range applies an old concept in a modern way, to provide a sound like no other. The flagship Heritage Klipschorn AK6 is the direct descendent of Klipsch's first-ever product but is simply too big and heavy for most listening rooms, at least in the UK. Enter the $24,990 La Scala AL5 you see here, which is pretty much the same supper, served on a smaller plate.
This speaker is the latest in a long line that stretches back to 1963. La Scala started as a special project done by Paul Klipsch for his friend Winthrop Rockefeller; it was a public address speaker used for his Arkansas gubernatorial campaign back in 1963. The design soon became an official Klipsch product, selling as an 'auditorium speaker'. The La Scala AL5 is something of a hybrid of old and new, then. Its vast two-piece cabinet (measuring 1016x615.9x642.9mm, and weighing 91kg) isn't exactly easy on the eye, but there's no denying that it's functional and purposeful. The company offers natural cherry, satin black ash or American walnut book-matched wood veneers, all hand finished in Hope, Arkansas from veneered birch plywood and MDF, with 25mm thick walls. It feels very sturdy – as you'd expect – and the upper section has a magnetically affixed grille to offer at least a scintilla of domestic acceptability.
Like its antecedents, it uses horn-loaded bass, mid and treble drivers for maximum sensitivity; the quoted figure of 105dB@2.83V/1m makes it one of the least power-hungry loudspeakers I have ever come across. This gives it a huge advantage with tube amplifiers, of course, few of which stay in their comfort zone when asked to output more than 10 watts or so, but is also ideal for lower powered Class A solid-state amps too.
The upper of the two sections that comprise the La Scala AL5 sports the new 25.4mm K-771 tweeter which uses a lightweight polyimide diaphragm. This is placed at one end of Klipsch's 90°x40° Tractrix horn, and the result is the most efficient consumer tweeter on the market, according to the manufacturer. At 4.5kHz, this crosses over to the 50.8mm K-55-X midrange compression driver, with phenolic diaphragm – which fires into a large exponential horn. At 450Hz, the K-33-E 381mm woofer joins the fun. This has a light fibre-composite cone and is set behind a two-fold birch plywood and MDF horn that is said to be a smaller version of the Klipschorn's three-fold design. Audioquest Type 4 copper cabling is used inside. The company claims a frequency response of 51Hz to 20kHz (at -4dB), and a power handling of 400W, with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms.
“Efficiency, sensitivity, coverage pattern – are all attributes that are hard to beat”, says Klipsch's Principal Engineer Roy Delgado – and he has a point. The La Scala AL5 certainly announces itself to the listener on first acquaintance, that's for sure. However, the most striking thing is the immense transient speed. It's a staggering thing to listen to, largely but not wholly due to the way it realistically conveys how musical notes stop and start. As well as blistering time-domain performance, it's excellent in the frequency domain, with superb extension from bottom to top – and it's strikingly good spatially too. Yet despite all this, this big Klipsch is still a fair way away from being perfect!
Everything that you'd associate with a horn loudspeaker, you get with the La Scala AL5. That means a bracing, vivid, precisely etched sound that has a similar sort of impact to watching a fighter jet buzz the treetops above you. It's hugely dramatic and visceral, with a physical sense of the music meeting you in space and time. This isn't about reclining back in your sofa with a glass of whiskey and water, because this speaker pins you to your seat – yet you can do nothing except sit up and listen. There is, it feels, nowhere to run. This makes even warm analogue recordings such as Galliano's Prince of Peace sound pretty full on. Yet it's better tonally balanced than cynics might suspect; the impactful and engrossing aspect to this loudspeaker isn't that it's bright or stark, but because it's so fast and open. You get the recording warts and all, and it – like life – comes at you fast.
It isn't just timing prowess at play here, but the ability to go loud with absolute ease. The crack of a hard-hit snare drum is easily marked out from normal gentle shuffling on the snare. The La Scala AL5 imparts this sort of thing so well that it makes the music feel like a living thing in front of you – rather than just a recording. Speed and dynamics absolutely define the sound of this loudspeaker then, and one of the best expressions of this is when it's handling the human voice. This Klipsch carries vocals brilliantly – they have an open and expressive feel that makes things sound so much more believable than most hi-fi speakers. There's also great headroom, with no sense that the speaker is about to compress the signal as it reaches a certain volume. Even with densely mixed programme material like Rush's Subdivisions, there's so much extra on tap if you need it. This is partly a function of the superb drivers and cabinet, but also because the amplifier needs such little extra power to properly reproduce dynamic accents – thanks to its ultra-efficient horn design.
Detail retrieval is dazzling too, the La Scala delivering something of a 'magic window' into the recording. Spin up Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, and this dense track is effortlessly deconstructed before your very ears. I found it really easy to hear the rest of the instruments in the mix, beyond the thrashy, processed lead guitar work. Indeed, the La Scala AL5 actually showed just how professional and well ordered the production is on this track, because it has enough clarity and insight to look beyond the surface. It was particularly fun to single out one strand in the mix and follow it all the way through the song, something that even many high-end speakers aren't capable of doing. I found I could zoom in on the drum work – complete with its tightly strung, early-nineties sound – yet also easily discern the vocal line and bass guitar even on crescendos.
Soundstaging is as good as you would expect for something originally designed as a public address speaker. The Beloved's The Sun Rising is a seminal early nineties techno track with a super-clean, 'direct to the mixing desk' feel. Via the La Scala AL5 it was immense in scale, pushing out a vast soundstage within which all the strands in the mix could be easily discerned and placed. It was transfixing to hear various synthesiser effects hard-panned from left to right, while most instrumentation stayed glued to the centre section of the soundstage. It's not just the scale of the sound that's special though, because this loudspeaker locates images in the mix very well indeed. Depth perspective is also good, but not quite top-tier because the sound doesn't fall back as effortlessly as a Quad 2912, for example. Indeed, this speaker is all about taking the music out towards the listener, rather than pulling him or her in.
Although tremendous fun to listen to, not even the La Scala AL5 is perfect. There are compromises with every loudspeaker, which is why it's important to point out that those looking for an ultra-smooth and creamy sound won't choose this. As previously mentioned, it isn't tonally forward yet it still lacks that last degree of subtlety and insight – the sort of thing that electrostatics major on. Also, although the bass is very crisp and wonderfully bouncy, it isn't quite as extended as you'd expect from a speaker of this size. Finally, the high treble lacks the out-and-out silkiness and air of conventional designs sporting ribbon-type tweeters. The most obvious elephant in the room, though, is the room – you'll need a seriously big one for this speaker to work properly. It puts out serious quantities of bass, so that means it needs to be up to a metre out from a boundary wall. In most listening rooms, that's half the lounge taken up!
In my humble opinion, this is one of the great loudspeakers of our time – but it's not for everyone. Just because Klipsch's La Scala AL5 is at heart an old design, doesn't discount it from being spectacularly good fun to listen to. Music sounds so fast and expressive that it's hard to switch your system off. That said, it's also very expensive, too big for many people's houses and it wins no prizes for style. If these gripes don't dissuade you, you're closer to finding hi-fi heaven than you might think!
For more information, visit Klipsch.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.