Speakers made with alnico magnets are often raved about as the vintage-certified choice of true tonehounds. The fact that the alloy used to make them is more expensive—thanks to some of the precious metals it includes—than the ferrite used in ceramic magnets also implies a sort of “better than” relationship. But do you really need alnico-magnet speakers to achieve the best possible tone from your prized amp?
A big part of the “alnico mystique” comes from the amps that these speakers were originally found in. Look around the back of any tweed Fender or Gibson amp from the ’50s, a vintage ’60s JMI Vox AC30 or AC15, or even any of the very first Marshall Bluesbreakers, and you’ll find Jensen and Celestion speakers make with alnico magnets (which will appear like a flattened “horseshoe” covering a cylindrical plug, or simply a “bell” cover that conceals the lot of it). When in good condition, and housing speakers in likewise good condition, such vintage amps conjure the tone from the very foundations of rock—in short, they sound sublime, and their alnico speakers are a big part of that.
Alnico is far from the only first-stringer in this game, though, and from around the mid ’60s onward, no end of classic amps—and iconic tones—were also created with speakers using ceramic magnets (identified by the round disc-shaped magnets on their backs). Legendary Fender “blackface” amps were born with a variety of different ceramic speakers, and any Marshall “plexi” that left the factory in the glory days hit the stage to do its thing with ceramic-magnet Celestions. Cast your mind’s ear back to classic tones logged by Cream-era Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Kossoff, and an overwhelming host of rockers beyond that era, and that thick, punchy, crunchy, singing tone you’re hearing come courtesy of ceramic magnets. Which is not to say that the supposed alnico speaker thang is all hype, by any means. Good alnico speakers—still available today from Eminence, Jensen Vintage, Celestion, Scumback, Austin Speaker Works, Weber, and others—can have a certain smooth, tactile feel to their performance, one that contributes to an organic tone. The alnico alloy (made from differing proportions of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt, often with traces of copper and titanium, and quite a lot of ferrite) seems to give a slight “softness” to the speaker’s response, something almost felt as much as heard. Good ceramic speakers, right alongside them, can pull off these tricks too, however, as well as excelling at bold, punchy tones, excellent clarity, and high power handling. Much of that can also be achieved by some contemporary alnico speakers. You get where this is heading?
Simply put, there’s a broader range of speakers of all types made today than ever before, and the better examples often exhibit a significant crossover between magnet types that behooves you to look beyond the basic “is it an alnico or a ceramic?” Put another way, the lines between these two classic types are severely blurred from the contemporary perspective, and most players would be happy with a really good speaker of either make as long as they had a great amp behind it, and the speaker was a suitable match for that amp and their playing style. You might still want to “go with type” if you’re trying to get a vintage or vintage-reissue style amp in historically accurate condition. But playing against type—swapping in a ceramic Celestion G12H-30 or Eminence Swamp Thang, for example, to rock up a tweed Deluxe; or installing Scumback Scumnicos or ASW Elegantes to sweeten up a Bluesbreaker—can also yield some fun results. Ultimately, the alnico-or-ceramic choice is best seen as another avenue toward perfecting that precious tone—and often that’s what it’s all about.