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4 Neodymium Speakers

February 1, 2009
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The fault, it seems, wasn’t in the magnetic material itself, but in the way it was used. Just as pickup makers in the early ’70s became enamored with the power of ceramic magnets, speaker makers needed to learn to rein in their infatuation with the raw power of neodymium, and learn to work with it as a musical material—which meant adjusting all design parameters to suit this light-yet-powerful magnet’s capabilities.

A second wave of neodymium speakers has just been consolidated with offerings from four major manufacturers—all of whom have approached their designs anew, with considerable thought toward making tuneful, rather than just powerful guitar speakers. Some of these makers tell us that, when used properly, neodymium blends the best qualities of alnico and ceramic magnets, creating a speaker that is sensitive, dynamic, responsive, and powerful. Others will tell you that “magnetism is magnetism,” and any speaker’s tonal characteristics are the result of how that particular magnetism is used in the driver’s design. However you slice up the theory, the important nuance behind this wave is that each of these speaker makers has put great effort into getting the warmth, richness, and smoothness into their new neo designs.

I tested these four 12" speakers (all 8½) mounted in a pair of 2x12 cabs positioned side-by-side to provide a similar listening orientation for each speaker, and I routed them through a four-way junction box for quick A/B/C/D comparisons. A range of modern and vintage tube amplifiers were employed, including a Matchless HC-30, a 1962 Gretsch 6156 Playboy, a Mesa/Boogie Mark IIb, and a Fender 5E3 tweed Deluxe. Guitars included a Fender Telecaster and a Stratocaster, a Gibson Les Paul, and a Gretsch Duo Jet reissue with Dynasonic pickups. I also referenced the four neos against a wide range of popular alnico and ceramic speakers.

Please note that I approached these tests as a GP Roundup rather than a Fight Club or shoot out, because each aims at a slightly different style and flavor, rather than competing for, say, Best Hard-Rock Speaker. The potential “winner” for any particular player will depend on the tone he or she wants to achieve. But, in all cases, these four manufacturers have definitely helped neodymium come of age as a guitar speaker magnet.

Celestion G12 Century Vintage

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THE SECOND OFFERING IN CELESTION’S NEODYMIUM LINEUP WEARS ITS INTENTIONS on its sleeve, and sums up the thinking behind the new wave of neos, in general. The Century Vintage intends to bring more of the British company’s reputation for classic ’60s and early-’70s rock tones to the neo format by incorporating sonic characteristics generally thought of as “vintage” into neodymium’s broad and powerful capabilities. Other than the label, it looks virtually identical to the G12 Century, with a pressed-metal four-spoke frame and conventional modern clip-on connections with two terminals per side. The magnet on the Vintage is retained by the same “starburst” plate as used on the Century, but it’s a “pot” type neodymium magnet positioned within the voice coil, rather than the ring magnet that surrounded it in Celestion’s debutante neo. The Vintage has a ribbed paper cone with doped suspension, and a synthetic gasket for rear mounting (adhesive gaskets for front mounting are also available). The “vintage-ization” of this model, if you will, has led to a reduced 98dB sensitivity as compared to the Century’s whopping 102dB, but that still makes it a relatively efficient and responsive driver. It also handles a little less power—60 watts RMS, rather than 80 watts RMS.

In use, the Century Vintage exhibits solid, but rounded lows, and highs that are sharp without being piercing. A slightly gritty edge adds some sizzle to its chime. Its midrange is well balanced, with just a little graunch to help muscular rhythm tones and crunchy riffs punch through. This neo is certainly British in character, but it also possesses some elements of higherpowered vintage American speakers. Its frequency response exhibits a slight peak around 2.5kHz, but it is fairly linear overall. To give a familiar frame of reference, I’d say it’s not a million miles from a Vintage 30, but without that speaker’s prominent midrange hump, and with slightly meatier lows. So, the Century Vintage is a good choice for classic Brit rock action, but it’s also suitable for American blues, or even some grunge or fusion styles.

Eminence Tonkerlite

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A NEWER MEMBER OF THE RED COAT RANGE FROM THIS KENTUCKY-BASED manufacturer, the Tonkerlite offers a back-friendly neo rendition of Eminence’s standard Tonker, which aims to recreate the higher-powered British rock flavor of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The ’lite version is intended to offer more than just weight reduction, however, with slightly diminished lower mids and enhanced highs, compared to the ceramic Tonker. This speaker wears the Red Coats’ fire-engine red, crinkle-coat finish with a decidedly minimalist looking donut-shaped neodymium magnet mounted on the back. The ridged paper cone has a doped suspension, and two clip-on connection terminals are provided per side. The Tonkerlite has an impressive sensitivity rating of 101dB, and it can handle a thumping 125 watts RMS.

This Eminence speaker definitely captures the British character it’s chasing. It has a thick, aggressive voice, and a broad and substantial spike in the forward edge of the upper midrange (around 2.3kHz to 2.6kHz) that really helps it cut through the mix—although that character might also be just a hair oppressive in some mellower or more restrained settings. Lows are fat and kicking, and it’s a loud speaker overall. More than just “high-powered British,” I’d say it’s suitable for a wide range of contemporary and heavy rock styles, as well as high-gain blues and country rock. It’s an in-your-face speaker that excels at projecting saturated lead tones, and big, chunky rhythm alike. It retains good articulation and texture in clean settings, as well, but it likes to be driven hard to really shine. This is powerful stuff at an impressive price.

Jensen Jet Tornado

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REGARDED AS JENSEN’S UPGRADED CONTEMPORARY RANGE, THE JET SERIES WELCOMED this neodymium speaker to the fold mid way through 2008, and the Tornado sums up much of the thinking behind this Italian-made offshoot of the rejuvenated, former U.S.-made Jensen brand. Not billed as vintage or blues or rock, the Tornado is intended as a well-rounded, full-range contemporary speaker for electric guitar, but one that takes on the drawbacks of early neos and attains added degrees of richness and smoothness when compared to, say, the standard Jensen Neo. The Tornado’s appearance is entirely businesslike, given the black crinkle-coat finish on its pressed steel frame and magnet housing. Like the Celestion and the Eminence, it has the standard two-terminal clip-on connectors per side. Its ribbed paper cone has the only un-doped suspension of this roundup, however, and it’s the least efficient speaker of the bunch, with a 97.3dB sensitivity rating. Power handling is a substantial 100 watts RMS. The Tornado, like most Jensen speakers, has a frame based on the vintage Jensen dimensions, and the diameters of four of its eight mounting holes might have to be increased for it to mount satisfactorily in some speaker cabs—especially those with mounting holes based on the slightly wider Celestion template.

Played at clean to slightly crunchy settings, the Tornado is lively, crisp, well balanced, and detailed without being harsh. It compresses sweetly when hit hard—even with relatively low-wattage amps—but it still shows some muscle when a more powerful signal is pumped through it. It doesn’t have quite the aggressive edge of the G12 Century Vintage or the Tonkerlite, but is a little creamier and richer, yet with good definition and clarity throughout its range. Lows are round and smooth, but not to the point of being shy. Overall, I’d say it smacks of a “high-end American” tonal character (although it’s entirely unallied to any existing template), and while it doesn’t roar with quite the authority of the louder speakers in this roundup, it provides a player the opportunity of cranking up an amp for tube-y crunch without creating too harsh an aural assault—a feature I really enjoyed in my testing.

Weber NeoMag

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THE NEOMAG FROM INDIANA-BASED MANUFACTURER WEBER SPEAKERS PINPOINTS its inspiration more precisely than the other speakers in this roundup by declaring loudly and proudly that it aims to give you a light, but accurate, rendition of JBL’s famous D-120E and D-120F drivers—which first gained prominence in Fender Showman cabs of the early ’60s. It uses a die-cast frame much like its hero, with a cardboard gasket and push-clip cable terminals like you’d find on many hi-fi speakers. Dimensions are dead on. Its curved, smooth-paper cone (with doped-cloth suspension) sits just 3j" deep, compared to the 4w" to 5" of most 12" speakers. The back of the frame reveals a minimalist neo ring magnet and mounting plate that leaves it looking more like a subwoofer for an auto sound system than a guitar driver. But around the front, the big 4" diameter voice coil and aluminum dome—the only one in this round up—lead us firmly back into JBL territory (a paper dome is available on request). The NeoMag handles 75 watts RMS, and has a sensitivity rating of 102dB.

From the first time I fired it up, the NeoMag impressed me with its D- 120-like character. Fans of the original will immediately recognize that slightly scooped response, the rounded low-end chunk, and the cutting highs you get from an aluminum dome. It’s not a harsh or ice-picky treble response by any means, but it’s snappy and percussive with a slightly metallic edge that gives you the impression you can hear and feel every pulsation of the voice coil—a sensation enhanced by the NeoMag’s (and the D-120’s) sensitivity and responsiveness. The Weber rendition perhaps lacks just a little of the plummy chewiness of the original’s midrange, but it goes far enough towards the overall character of the JBL unit to be considered a success.

Neo-who?

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First discovered in 1885, neodymium is the most common of the “rare earth” class of permanent magnet materials that have come into use in the audio, computer, and dynamo industries in recent years. Although the name implies rarity, these materials are not especially scarce, and the fact that a neodymium magnet’smagnetic field is considerably more powerful than that of a ceramic or alnico magnet of similar weight means that neo magnets of far smaller sizes can be used to achieve the required design ends. As used in speakers, neodymium is actually an alloy ofneodymium, iron, and boron, which is usually plated with nickel, tin, or zinc for protection and corrosion resistance.

The other rare earth magnet seeing use in the guitar community lately is samarium cobalt, as used in Fender’s SCN pickups (co-designed by Bill Lawrence. This material is more expensive byweight than neodymium. However, as reported by Eminence’s Chris Rose, neodymium prices have been high as a result of somewhat limited ore supply and licensing.

“China, by far, holds the major reserves—especially those in active mines,” says Rose. “Very few mines outside of China are actually generating much material, and China has, at times, limited how much of the material their mines could produce.”

In addition, Neodymium magnets are patented as an invention, and all neodymium magnets sold in the United States are required to be licensed by the patent holders.

“Not all manufacturers seem to be aware of this,” explains Rose, “and unlicensed neo has been used in speakers in the past.” —DH

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