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AlNiCo Test

By Tube-Town GmbH, September 2011, Translation by Steven H.

AlNiCo loudspeakers are considered the queens of guitar loudspeakers. But - is the high price justified?

To answer this question, we examined a variety of AlNiCo loudspeakers, and compared them to each other.  We quickly found that where there is light, there is shadow;  and that neither the price nor the name necessarily guarantees good tone.

We tested the Jensen Blackbird 12" AlNiCo, the Tayden Silverbell 12", the Celestion 15 watt Blue and 50 watt Gold 12", the WGS Black & Blue (a Celestion Blue copy), the WGS BlackHawk (an EV SRO copy), and the Jensen P12R, which with 25 watts power handling and a price less than 100 Euros is by far the most economical loudspeaker in the test.

Guitars used included a variety of single-coil Strats, a Tele with Custom Shop AlNiCo 5 pickups, and two guitars with humbuckers. Amps used were a TT66, a PCL Stagemaster 75, and a Marshall clone. A 6x12 box with a closed back and very large volume was built especially for the test.

In general, a closed box with a very large volume, or a small open box is recommended for AlNiCo speakers, so that they can 'breathe freely.' This shows their tonal qualities to their best advantage.

Regarding quality, the construction of every speaker was excellent. Only the Jensen P12R, with its very thin basket, is a small exception to this rule, but this is no surprise. All the others have large, robust baskets, big bells covering the magnets, and  first class lacquer and workmanship.

All the loudspeakers had virtually the same sensitivity, that is, the perceived loudness was constant, even when the technical data showed large differences. Even the P12R was still, in spite of its 95dB sensitivity, very loud. Subjectively, the Silverbell was the loudest

Stay Clean

The strength of AlNiCos is without a doubt in their clean sound, and the Jensen Blackbird was the clear winner here. The Blackbird has a very full tone, with powerful bass and clear highs without one dominating the other.  The speaker is very balanced and it is a joy to play through, as it reacts very well to picking dynamics. A real pro loudspeaker.

The WGS BlackHawk has similar bass, but reduced treble. The BlackHawk has a stronger "American" color.  It shows nevertheless a complete and rounded tonal spectrum, but due to the tamer high end, it is a bit 'paler' and milder.

In comparison to the Blackbird, the Celestion Gold shows a bit thinner bass. On the other hand, the highs are considerably stronger. The Blue is extremer, with strongly reduced bass and enhanced highs. A true Brit, so to speak.

The WGS Black & Blue, conceived as a direct copy of the Blue, is very close to the Celestion. The highs are a bit softer, and not quite so shrill, but this would only be noticed in a direct A-B test. In all probability, a blind test would show that it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the two. We assume that a nearly identical cone is used.

The Tayden Silverbell is comparable to the Blackbird, but the mids are stronger, producing a warmer, more 'vintage' but still dense tone. The British soul is evident, but without the somewhat shrill tone of the Blue.

The Jensen P12R has the most highs by the clean test, and the weakest bass, as expected. A speaker for classic, glassy Strat sounds.

Clear Results

The Blackbird is the easy winner of the clean test, due to its full and balanced tone. Everything is there, and this speaker does justice to the AlNiCo myth. The WGS BlackHawk follows, with an American color, and a similar  round, full tone. The Blue and Gold are very "British" and simply belong in a "real" British amp. The Gold is similar to the Blue. Other than higher power handling, it has nothing to add to the Blue. Both speakers, due to the heavy emphasis on the highs, have a limited use. The Silverbell falls between the Blackbird, BlackHawk, and Blue. It has a clear British color, a full, thick, distinct tone.

More Drive, please

The next test, with moderate overdrive, shows the dilemma when comparing loudspeakers. Each speaker develops its own, very typical tone, so that no clear "winner" can be named in this test. The results have to be carefully considered. The Blackbird shines again with its broad tonal spectrum and a very open, direct sound, which can be called very  'modern.' The BlackHawk makes full use of its American character - an excellent rock speaker! The Blue is convincing with its nice British overdrive sound - with an AC-30 and a good humbucker, a real winner. The WGS Black & Blue is the same - compared to the original, there is nothing missing, and the difference is even less than in the clean test. The Silverbell also shows a definite British coloration, but through its denser sound it carves out its own niche. Of all the speakers, only the P12R reached its limits, as overdriven sounds are no pleasure with its strong highs.

It gets difficult

Straight off the bat: the P12R is simply the wrong speaker for overdrive or high gain, as the highs are far too strong. In contrast, the Blackbird shows its modern side - it is very versatile, open, and fresh-sounding. An ideal partner for people who have to cover a broad spectrum of tone. The WGS BlackHawk convinces with its American charm. Full tone, dirty and it cuts through the mix.  Perfect for AC/DC fans. The Celestion Blue and WGS Black & Blue with their strong highs are for Britrock fans. The Gold joins them with higher power handling and headroom. The Silverbell is another for Britrock fans who want to avoid the aggressive highs and seek a fuller tone. In short: there was no clear winner in this test.

Take me higher

The final test for high-gain sounds started with a surprise: the Jensen Blackbird showed a horrible distortion and extremely uncomfortable shrill peaks. The Celestion Blue sounded like a tin can; the Gold didn't sound much better. Only the WGS BlackHawk and the Silverbell sounded good from the start.

A bit of investigation was required. The Blackbird came fresh out of the box, and that was the problem. After a bit of breaking-in time on our "Wobbelmachine," the scratchy tone turned into something more pleasant. The symptom arises only when extreme high-gain sounds are used, which means if the Blackbird is to be used this way, it has to be played in for several hours. This is not necessary for clean or moderate overdrive uses, but even then, the speaker will open up and improve after a few hours use. The Jensen Neodym behaves similarly.

Turning the mid control down helped the Blue and Gold. The high-gain tests (indeed, all tests) were performed with the tone controls all set at 12:00. Usable tone from the Celestions was only possible by turning the mids down to almost nothing, and boosting the bass and treble.

The P12R was briefly tested, but the results were predictable, and additional break-in time changed nothing.

Only the WGS delivered a full and singing High-Gain sound from the get-go; which was no surprise, as it has in any case very mild highs, and doesn't venture into the critical frequencies. The Tayden Silverbell also performed well, again with a thick and complex tone but nevertheless rocking tone. However, with only 25 watts, the Silverbell had lower headroom.

Less well suited

The high-gain tests show that AlNiCos are not necessarily the best choice for these tones. Especially when a single coil Strat is used, most of the speakers tested have problems cleanly reproducing the high-gain sound. The WGS BlackHawk was the clear winner in this test.

Guitars with humbuckers are a different matter. The Blackbird's open, modern sound works well, but doesn't approach the round, brutal sound of the WGS BlackHawk. Furthermore, the Blackbird was subjectively quieter than the BlackHawk in these tests.

Conclusion

Jensen Blackbird
This speaker is excellent for clean to moderate overdrive with single-coils as well as humbuckers, with a balanced, full, modern sound. High-gain sounds are more of a problem, especially with a Stratocaster.  In this case, the BlackHawk is clearly the better choice. Otherwise, the Blackbird is very flexible and also works well with heavily effects-laden sounds. This loudspeaker can without a doubt be counted among the top-shelf speakers, and can even be seen as a reference. The price/performance ratio is excellent.

WGS BlackHawk
The American coloration makes this speaker the first choice for overdrive to medium high gain sounds. Round and full, rocking, and less direct than the Blackbird. Highly recommended for AC/DC to Gary Moore high-gain blues rock. It is not quite up to the Blackbird's level for clean to light crunch and jazz. The price/performance/tone ratio is very good.

A mixed cabinet with these two speakers may be interesting, as they complement each other well, but then the individual characters of the two speakers get lost, and the tone is reduced to an uninteresting mish-mash. As such, combining the two is not really recommended.

Celestion Blue and Gold and WGS Black&Blue
The Celestion Blue and WGS Black & Blue are perfect for an AC-30 or AC-15, and are the first choice for Britrock. However, the practical use of the two is limited due to the low 15-watt power handling capacity of the speakers. The Gold offers higher power handling, but is similar to the other two, and all three tend to an overly strong emphasis of the mids, which gets worse with increasing distortion until it sounds like a tin can. Therefore, the price/performance ratios of the Blue and Gold are poor. If more is expected for the price, disappointment is guaranteed; however, an AC-30 fan will be overjoyed. The choice between the Celestion Blue and the WGS Black & Blue can only be made on the basis of price and brand. Tonally, these two speakers are virtually identical.

Tayden Silverbell
The Silverbell leads a shadowy existence. Granted, it is not well known, and its 25-watt power handling bear no comparison to the 100-watt speakers, but it performed well in all tests and shines with a dense overall sound, with a light British touch without annoying shrillness. The price/performance ratio is very good.

Remark: the Tyden Silverbell is not available anymore.

Jensen P12R
This speaker's price/performance/tone ration is actually also quite good, considering its price is only a fraction of the others. Nevertheless, it is useful only in a limited area. Bell-like Strat and Tele sounds, with little bass and little or no distortion are handled well, but as soon as the distortion increases, the strong highs make for an uncomfortable tone.

Practical Examples

As already mentioned, AlNiCo speakers should be used in open or relative large closed cabinets to minimize damping the cone. The setups listed here come from our line of standard cabs, but similar results will be obtained with cabinets from other manufactures, as long as they have roughly the same dimensions.

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