Think back to films like Metropolis, 2001, Bladerunner… visions of a future fraught with scientific advances, yet here in 2020 we find no flying cars, no interplanetary travel – nary a moon base. Things which, when those movies were made, many thought would be less fiction and more reality by this time. People thought fundamental changes to the way we lived and travelled were coming. All we got was the Internet.
The same goes for high-fidelity. If you look at amplifier, turntable and loudspeaker designs, not much has changed in the intervening decades since, as a child, I cast my gaze into the night sky and imagined rockets leaping into the darkness on tails of fire.
Many modern loudspeakers incorporate advanced materials into their crossovers, drivers and chassis construction. While there may be much to admire in their sonic signature, it is the loudspeaker which harkens back 50 to 60 years with traditional builds – simple wood boxes, basic crossovers, some type of textile tweeter and pulped paper mid/bass cones – that reproduces the most life-like recorded music to my ears.
If I was to go 85 years or further back in time when compression drivers and horns held dominion over recorded playback, I would arrive at an analog sound impossible for today’s computational modelling and digital signal processing to mimic. For all the modern technological advances touted in loudspeaker design and DSP to address room correction, the massive iron-throated Western Electric horn loudspeaker systems from the ’20s and ‘30s are still considered by some to be the undisputed king of realism in high fidelity – despite being the embodiment of anti-tech. Ironic that the speakers used to voice Flash Gordon serials would inherit a future bereft of either Flash or Ming the Merciless.
When I was at Munich High End in 2017 I had the opportunity to hear an original Western Electric Mirrorphonic M2 horn system. I was deeply moved during the demonstration and wrote in another publication at the time that “… It’s a transformative listening experience to hear a system designed for a 3,000-seat theatre, and in a very real sense I would compare it to time travel. Despite being in a large, cavernous room with about a hundred other people … when I shut my eyes as the music issued forth from these ancient beasts’ throats I found myself transported – Tardis-like – alone in the dark to the moment the transcription took place.” I further added, “To me this is not high-fidelity, but rather a rejection of modern music-reproduction technology, and that is a very good thing in my estimation. It’s also tribal, and I think it embraces an almost fanatical purity to recorded playback which I find breathtakingly refreshing.”
...audiophiles have records to listen to their systems, music lovers have it the other way around. What I’m into is enjoying music."
While proper, untouched, Western Electric horn systems would not be described as difficult to come by – the 16a model in steel and the 15a in plywood were produced in the thousands – many are in need of repair due to their age. The solid wood models are however excessively rare. To fulfill the demand by audiophiles for working examples, companies and individuals have started to produce replicas, or lookalikes of varying degrees of authenticity and quality – but authenticity is what artisanal carpenter and machinist Tim Gurney is all about.
Gurney – whose work can be followed HERE – has taken it upon himself to singlehandedly recreate WE horn designs from scratch. Working from his dedicated home studio and workshop in France, Gurney utilizes turn-of-the-20th-century materials sourced from both North America and Europe and has been able to secure original Western Electric blueprints to work from. He only uses period custom-fabricated tools and jigs and outsources certain period manufacturing processes such as sand casting of key metal parts like horn throats. Gurney is driven to deliver the most authentic Western Electric replica horn experience possible to his customers.
It’s a foregone conclusion to be captivated by Gurney’s passion for the work he is doing, in fact, the energy of his obsessive attention to recreating every detail is infectious. Common sense prevails in the knowledge that their size and the complexity of their on-site installation precludes shipping samples for review. The cost involved in building them often runs in the high five-figures and proper amplification is critical. According to Gurney WE horns require a deep understanding of their sonic capabilities to properly set up in a listening space. In order to allow the loudspeakers to sound their best, many buyers opt to have purpose-built rooms in their homes or even house extensions or separate buildings constructed once the decision is made to commission one (or more) of the designs he offers. At the moment Gurney is taking orders for the 12a, 13a, 15a, and 16a models in mono and stereo configurations.
Resistor Mag recently connected with Gurney to discuss his life, his education and career, and how he came to be doing what he’s doing – and what exactly is involved in breathing life into these 100-year-old designs that time does not seem to hold sway over.
Rafe Arnott: Who is Tim Gurney? Can you give us a snapshot of your life as it stands now?
Tim Gurney: “I happily live in the French countryside in a Medieval village, in Le Perche, Normandy, and am 60 years old. With my wife, we designed our home and lifestyle around our activities. I have the perfect setting and environment to entertain my passions.”
RA: At a young age you developed a love for, and expertise in woodworking. Please discuss the importance this has had on your life.
TG: “Yes, When at school in Guernsey, I had the opportunity to enter woodworking class. I was immediately absorbed with the simple fact of coordinating my hands with my brain. The very first challenge was to make the hull of a boat in a solid piece of wood, to finely shape and sand finish it, and to apply shellac. It was then entered into a competition against other schoolboys on a weird contraption, which was like a gutter with water in it. The hull of the boat was attached with a string that went through a pulley and a weight was on the end of it, and it was the boat that took the least time to cover the distance of the water track that won. I didn’t win, but that doesn’t matter because I was completely absorbed with the idea of going from a rough block of wood to smooth shapes that had function. So, I continued doing woodworking. Another important moment for me was the first sculpture I ever made in wood. It was an eagle I made for my mother. I still remember the shape it had, so there’s something emotional there. My connection with woodworking is emotional.
“I later came to understand that all these peculiar shapes removed me from the basics of woodworking. It’s only later that I understood that the most essential skill of a woodworker is to square wood, and be able to cut a perfectly straight and square cut to size, that’s so essential and seems easy. It isn’t. Little did I know I would end up making objects that have next to no straight lines.”
RA: In your early teen years you were tasked by your father with restoring the family home in France, what effect did this type of responsibility have on you?
TG: “Yes I was one month away from my 14th birthday. My father challenged me with my brother, who was 15 at the time. This challenge did turn out to have a very big effect on my life and in so many ways shaped much of the man I am today, and set the foundations of the way I approach problems; pragmatic and realistic.
“This was way beyond the schoolroom theory that was where I had come from, this was the real deal. I was thrilled at the idea, proud that my father trusted me. Looking up at the crumbling walls of this massive assembly of buildings, seeing roofs that had collapsed made me realize how small I was and the size of the work ahead. A practical challenge? Yes. I knew absolutely nothing about anything as a boy. Yet, I was determined to learn and apply. That’s what I did for the next six-years. I ended up understanding that nothing, however complicated it might seem, is anything more than the sum of simple things, one after another. It’s the final sum of simple things that makes it complicated. That idea shaped my approach in general. If you look at the overall picture of what needs to be accomplished you might be overwhelmed with it. I take a step back, sometimes many, and identify the little steps that all comprise the bigger picture. I also learned how to perfect running several actions in parallel to come together at a final destination. I have used these methods to great effect in my senior executive career. So, yes, that experience absolutely defined a certain part of the man I am today.”
RA: Your passion for working with your hands seems at odds with your adult career background as a senior executive at a large corporation, did one pursuit influence the other?
TG: “At odds? Absolutely not. It’s no more peculiar than being a 14-year-old boy having to restore a huge property in the South of France. My whole life has been about change and adapting myself to those changes, some of which have been dramatic changes. So, actually, in my mind there is no 'at odds' to being a successful senior executive and pursuing my audio, woodworking, and design passions. It just seems so normal to change. It’s something I’ve done, and I may do it again. I may switch passions again in my life, who knows?”
RA: How long have you been into high fidelity? What did your audiophile path look like? What is it fairly typical in that satisfaction was elusive?
TG: “I don’t know if I’ve ever really been into high fidelity. I really just don’t like that word. High fidelity for me is attached to some technical dimension – the idea that perfect reproduction reaps instant satisfaction. I don’t know who said it, but I remember the phrase: ‘audiophiles have records to listen to their systems, music lovers have it the other way around.’ What I’m into is enjoying music.
“My path in this regard started when I began listening on a Grundig reel-to-reel pirate recording that my father had taken of Beatles concerts. He was very much into going to live concerts, and this was in the United Kingdom in the ‘60s, and I can still remember that Grundig machine and those reels. Now, unfortunately, those tapes have been lost in the course of time. I used to sit down – my father was unaware of what was going on of course – and listen to these tapes. The Grundig had a speaker on it, and the big clunk of the switch. I was probably eight or nine years old and that’s where it all started, it opened my mind to the idea that music can bring many things, My path from there has been uphill and downhill, some things being good, not so good, trials and errors. A lot of money spent on the wrong things. I pursue a particular aesthetic in sound I have in my home. I like to sense the devotion a soprano puts into the interpretation, not the notes, not the phase, not the frequency. What I seek, it is not high fidelity. It is emotions and if that’s low fidelity then I’ll take that every time. But, it’s been a long path to achieve my goal, more than half a decade to get to that place.”
RA: You’ve dabbled in DIY hi-fi amplification, among other aspects of the hobby. What happened in 2005 that changed your path as an audiophile?
TG: “In the mid ‘80s I walked into an auditorium in Paris and saw what I later came to understand was a Micro Seiki turntable, some magneplanar speakers and I literally stood there and was mesmerized by the sound. I had never heard anything that had reached me that way. It was an LP recording of James Bowman, Vivaldi: Stabat Mater. I was completely blown away by the emotion I felt then.
“I went to the record shop, bought the very same record and ran home expecting to have the same level of emotional engagement with that particular performance. I put the record on and felt absolutely nothing, I just thought it was kind of a confused noise with a guy attempting to sing—that was James Bowman. It’s at that particular point in time that I understood that the equipment really has its part to play at getting to you. One thing for sure, the particular system I had at the time was not the vehicle transporting emotions to me.
“I then embarked on – what a lot of people do – going in an out of “hi-fi” shops, reading reviews, trying equipment, and so on. And, I never really got there. I kind of almost got there but, well not really. I have used just about all the big name audio gear out there, fuelled by glossy magazines promoting the latest, best, etc. Price not being an obstacle I indulged. So yes, I pursued with intensity a path to be moved and feel music.
“It was later on that I went into a shop to buy some records and sitting there on the floor were some ugly blue boxes with fifteen-inch woofers, a simple horn balanced above. An elderly man sitting in a corner with two turntables linked together with a string and atop the headshell a coin to facilitate proper VTF. Yes, pretty basic, rough, roots. A far cry from the shiny polished and refined gear I was using. But, the impact it had on me was immediate. That’s what I’d been looking for and what I was seeking. That got me on to DIY building, that got me on to high-efficiency speakers and everything that goes with that. Altec, JBL, ALE, Goto... getting closer I was.
“Then in 2005 I walked into a room where a Western Electric horn was playing. It was just incredible, the system wasn’t setup to its best, but what a presence. What life, what pleasure, emotions in bucket loads. I was already going in that direction, but here I jumped to the front of the queue. This was by no means hi-fi, this was music. That was a defining moment and a turning point for me that dictated many things to come. From this point on it was only large horns for me.”
RA: Most people don’t know anything about WE speakers, never mind having an opportunity to see or hear them – Explain how you went from having an interest in vintage audio equipment to the extreme of building replica Western Electric horn systems.
TG: “I would add that people tend to talk about 'Western Electric sound,' which doesn’t mean anything, but that’s the kind of reputation it has. The more I move forward the more I understand that this reputation has actually been built by people who have never really spent any time with them. In my home I have two full WE systems so I know what they can sound like and how they can be made to sound differently. Any sound reproduction systems can be made to sound differently. Western Electric is no different in that regard. Big horns are so efficient that they offer a unique foundation to model the sound that you want to enjoy – far more than any other sound reproduction technology. Yes, I'm talking about your sound and not one others determine for you, unless you enjoy being a follower who uses glossy magazines as a compass.
“I then met the owner of Silbatone who has an incredible collection located in Korea. We didn’t know each other that much, but we were certainly on the same wavelength when it came to trying to get these systems to work. He’s a wonderful person who I’ve learned much from. Over a beer in Munich he told me that I'm only at the beginning, but I'm on the first step of a staircase that goes to places I cannot imagine.
“He explained that I was listening to the cheaper and inferior sounding systems from WE. He knew that I played around with a 16a in steel and 15a in plywood. He told me I will never experience these horns until I hear them made from solid wood. He was referring to the 12a and the 13a horn at that time. Trusting his judgment I asked how could I go about getting one, two, whatever and he said it was impossible. I now know how true this is, as they are literally as rare as hen’s teeth, and he’s got most of them. So, I said if that's the case, I’ll to have to make them myself. This really made him laugh. So, only one way forward, I set myself a challenge to make these extremely complex builds by applying the same method I spoke about previously: looking at the goal as a whole and breaking it down into smaller parts. That’s how I transitioned from vintage equipment to WE equipment to actually making them myself. Little did I imagine at the time how the crafting of these horns would influence me, nor was I ready for the sound of these solid wood monsters. He was right, the plywood and sheet steel are truly inferior horns.”
RA: Despite the engineering complexities involved with the construction of WE horn systems, what you do could be considered an art form – especially taking into account your use of traditional tools and methods throughout the process. Do you consider yourself an artist or an engineer first?
TG: “I’m not an engineer. I’m not an artist. I think the person who describes best what I am is my wife, Avis. She says I am authentic and passionate. It’s not only true for making horns, but the authentic side here is that, yes, I make these horns as true as possible to the originals. I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of doing anything else. Anyone who is even faintly aware of the investments that Western Electric made to construct the best possible systems can understand that any “revisited” builds can only be a joke. Yes, there are makers out there who have such claims.
“The horns I craft are all made from original drawings, blueprints and horn expansion dimensions. They are rare and it took a while to get these. Recently I managed to secure another set that also includes horns never made. The wood I employ comes from the same forest areas overseas as the originals, this meant going into archives of the company that made them for WE to see where the wood was sourced. I had to go to extreme lengths to make that happen, convincing Belgian and French wood merchants to supply and store on my behalf. The hand-tools that I use are period pieces. The casting methods of the iron throats are the same traditional ones used in the ’20s. The sand used and the way they bond are totally different today, so I had to convince a small foundry to make my castings the old way. I work directly with a man named Patrick who has this knowledge. When you go to the foundry there is a pile of old traditional casting sand dedicated to my works. This sand isn't used for anything else. Nobody else in the world replicates cast iron throats, everybody does it in brass or assembles them by welding sheet steel. It doesn’t make sense from an economical perspective to make them in cast iron. Do I care? No, because I am aiming for authenticity. My goal is not focused on any profit and loss account. All this has a simple motivation because that’s how they made the originals in the '20s – so that’s how I do it. I’m not an artist or an engineer, I’m someone that’s authentic, engaged and passionate about what I do. All my clients know this.”
RA: Technically, what have you had to overcome to produce the WE horn systems at the personal scale you work at? There must be some formidable build issues.
TG: “Building the horns can be split into three separate challenges. Challenge one is the design, the drawing. Nothing is better than the original drawings. I’ve had some plans supposedly taken from originals, but when compared to original plans it’s obvious measurements are off or they where taken from replicas that don’t respect the original size. Some people say I’m lucky to have these, but it’s more like you make your own luck. I have two versions of blueprints that cover the 12a, 13a, 16a, and the 15a horn. I also have blueprints of horns that were actually never made. That’s perhaps a future challenge for me, to make those horns. Challenge two is materials, which I spoke about a bit earlier. It’s the wood, the cast iron, it’s the bolts, the badges in brass which you can see on the horns that I make. When you are a small builder and you don’t have high volume production getting all that is needed is difficult. I had to convince people to ship wood across the Atlantic. Nobody uses that wood here in Europe and there’s a good reason for that because there’s enough good wood in Europe already. The amount of people along the way that tried to convince me that I could use equivalent woods. . . no, I wanted to have the same woods as the original.
“Casting iron throats is not like fabricating throats in sheet steel or in brass. Cast iron has a melting temperature that is a lot higher. To find somebody in Europe who is ready to produce small scale cast iron pieces using traditional sand casting methods is almost impossible. And as I’m somebody who doesn’t take ‘close enough’ as a solution, this took a lot of time to get my supply base in place.
“The third challenge is actually making the horns. Now, the horns range from 250 to close to 450 pieces of wood all shaped individually. No square reference points, near impossible to hold in a vice. Concave, convex, bevels, you name it and it holds together with glue. And the shape is complex as you can see. Matching flanges have to be precise, and so on, and so on. Hand tools are the only way to shape each individual piece. Some days they will flow off my work bench, but others it just doesn’t happen. Hands and brain don’t always get on together. On the days when the flow is not there I’ll stop the work and resume the next day. But the biggest challenge, beyond the simple fact of being able to cut a piece of wood that is nowhere near straight or square – there’s no reference point or anything – is the physical size of the horns. I work alone, so the size of it means you have to have a lot of tools, supports, props to see them take shape, they don’t just come into shape with a flick of a finger. Horns need jigs and bespoke tools to be shaped and each horn has its dedicated set. So, yes I had to overcome many obstacles and still actively focus on perfecting things further.”
TG: “There is no perfect fit for every solution. I encourage people interested in installing a system based around large WE horns that they should achieve ‘their sound.' Something that they are happy with. And as we know, individuals don’t always have the same sensibilities in that regard. But, as to the differences between systems, you can scale it up from a single mono system which can be a 16a in solid wood, or a 13a all the way up to four horns in an installation; two 12a and two 13a. My largest system to date is eight horns in one setup. Your sound is the goal.
“There are some differences between the horns themselves, but it would be wrong on my part to say one is better than another. I actually just don’t like the word better, I say different. There is one horn in particular which I tend to think is the horn not to go for, but some people do like it, of course, which is the 12a – the very first horn I made. It’s just great when paired with the 13a, but for technical reasons it doesn’t go down as low in frequency as the other horns, which are bigger, so it entertains a different challenge. This is to get the bass frequencies that need to go up to about 120 Hz and that’s a challenge in itself as the dynamics and speed of these horns is so extreme. There's stereo, mono, one horn, four horns: what do you like? If you don’t know what you want when you are about to build a WE system you should turn in the opposite direction.
“I've tried all the combinations which are possible and used each for long periods of time in my home. So, I can help and guide customers if they are questioning options. By definition you would have had enough experience with sound systems in your listening career to be able to know what direction you are looking in. I have clients who come to me who specifically want a mono system with no treble and no bass, that’s all they want. That’s not my thing, but I can understand why people want that thing. Other people want a huge sound scene of 12a and 13a playing music at insane levels and that’s great, if that’s what it takes, but they know what they want. There are so many variables on the way you can set these systems up that any direction you are going will require tailoring for your specific needs. It’s not an off-the-shelf solution. I address this question on a personal and bespoke level with my clients. I take them from initial idea, to 3D simulation of horns in their room, all the way to final setup in their home. It typically takes a while to iron out all the details. On many projects clients dedicate a room or have built an extension to install what is going to be their last and final setup. I work with clients during this process until they achieve their sound and contrary to belief, the room doesn’t have to be that large."
RA: You mentioned that you’ll be starting to produce bass drivers – essential to a balanced WE system – to accompany the horns you build. Explain what is happening there.
TG: “I’m not producing, but I am working in partnership with a Norwegian company called NNNN and their CTO Rune Skramstad; one of the worlds most renowned horn designers. Skramstad is obsessed with bass and was more than happy to walk with me to find a solution that had all the dynamics, speed and low distortion necessary. One of the biggest challenges of installing a WE horn-based system is matching the lower octaves with the horn's dynamics and speed. Only two octaves at most, but so essential. Bass is the last frontier of any audio system, but it is particularly challenging with WE horns. They are huge windows onto your music and upstream sources and electronics, so it is essential to match the bass to the speed of the horns. Western Electric horns have very long horn paths, so there are limited issues using a system concept where WE horn and bass frequency ranges are handled in an authentic vintage analog style.
RA: You told me that you don’t build systems for people who want ‘cool speakers’ in their place. Who do you build for?
TG: “I build horns for people who know what they want and know what they’re getting. What they want is to experience music in the comfort of their own home with a bespoke system consisting of nothing off-the-shelf. They don’t care if a speaker looks cool. They understand this is not a plug-and-play solution, it takes work setting them up. There's also the construction of the horn itself – the time factor – getting the proper WE drivers and making sure they are functioning correctly... to have a bass solution that’s appropriately installed and tuned. To have the high-range frequency solution that’s appropriate and so on, and so on.
"I tend to tell people that systems will be installed on day one, but expect it to start to sound the way you want it in about a year and it’s a year where I travel with you. I assist clients with choosing upstream electronics, putting it all together, setting it up and then fine-tuning it. But, fine-tuning it not to what I think the sound should be, not to what a graph plot of frequency is dictating us to do, but tuned to the ears of the individual that’s going to enjoy it in their own home. Anyone who thinks my horns are cool isn’t a candidate. Others make horns for such requests with bling finishes and so on. I just make raw and real horns for serious music lovers.”
RA: You not only bring history to life, you give it a voice for a new generation to experience – what have you learned about yourself building these legendary recreations?
TG: “It’s been an extremely long path to where I am right now, where I know, intimately, these horn systems. I know how to make them, set them up, tailor them to the specific needs of each individual wanting to experience them in their home. I’ve come to realize that I have far more patience than I’ve imagined. Most of the people who know me would not qualify me as a patient individual. However, I’ve learned to be patient, to listen, and to progress step-by-step to where my clients need to be.”
RA: Is it possible to do what you do without an innate love of music?
TG: “Absolutely not.”
RA: Some would say the pursuit of building Western Electric horn systems from scratch suggests mental instability, others would swear it’s the surest sign of sanity. Which is it to you?
TG: “I’d say that like many other things, it’s a bit of both. It’s not one extreme or the other. The main ingredient is that you want to do it – that you want to pursue and want to enjoy such a system. From the moment you listen to a WE system that I’ve set up you’re going to like it – or not – there’s no middle ground. So, the sanity is to know what you want. The insanity is the path you have to engage to make that happen. I’ll help you there.”