The logo for this column symbolizes its focus: Illuminating some of the hifi underground in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Pizza or sushi? For those who know him, Chris Sommovigo never before was associated with Japan. At best it was with Italy as his ancestral roots. But really, for all of his audiophile career, Sommovigo plied the cable design and import distribution trade in the US. There his name was inextricably tied to the 75Ω S/PDIF cable standard. That wasn't always a standard but became so under his Illuminati brand. Illuminati was subsequently absorbed by Kimber. For a while, Chris dabbled in the ultra high-end cable sector backed by an adventurous investor. Then poor timing relative to the global economy soured their relationship. Chris was back in the single owner/operator saddle, focussed again on value product distributed either direct only; or through a hybrid model with much reduced retail margins. Audiophiles will remember his contributions to Kimber Cable; Stereovox; his XShadow connectors; the importation of Continuum Audio Labs, Peak Consult, Dawone, German Physiks and Vitus Audio through his Signals-Superfi venture; the subsequent Signal Collection distribution house for Davone, Absoluta, Klimo and Transmission Audio; his involvement in the review site (which merged with HPSoundings to become; his founding of the headfi review site Headphone.Guru with Joseph Weiss and Frank Iacone; his quasi experimental work of short custom runs under AfterHoursAudio; the blog Audiophile.Online and the Stereolab brand. Besides cable/connector design and manufacture plus hifi imports, Chris also tries his hands at reviewing. For our ongoing column meanwhile, Chris acts as our special hifi attaché to Japan to help us learn some about their fabled underground hifi scene. It's not formal reviewing to avoid a conflict of interest. It's fully legit insider treating in the established spirit of our industry features. - Ed

Obsessive. I'm not sure when the notion began, precisely, but it was a while ago. The strange obsession with widebanders of all varieties, but especially the high-efficiency sort, takes myriad forms in various people. For myself, it began as an ostensible laziness I suppose. A 'full-range' driver seems to be a relatively simple thing to implement given that one doesn't have to fudge with crossovers and all the phase-shifty fun they introduce. I remember when my friend Anthony Gallo experimented with the 3" drivers that would eventually become the Micro system, as I was also playing around with various widebanders from the likes of Tang Band and Ted Jordan. But these were of ordinary sensitivity, ferrite magnet types that needed horsepower to get going.

My fascination with ‘high gauss' drivers goes back a bit further. I can probably trace some of it to casual conversations that I had with Jack King, erstwhile sales director of Kimber Kable, back in 1994. He hipped me to Joe Roberts' Sound Practices magazine, introduced me to the Lowther substratum and related subjects along the way. Some of it dates back to my short time in Salt Lake City, 1997, hanging out with Steve Burgess—designer of the Evett & Shaw Elán monitor and several others—who regaled me with stories of the Japanese underground audio scene, where beatnik types rolled their own paper cones for full-range drivers and basked in waves of glorious Western Electric sounds emanating from unobtainium horns as old jazz LPs anointed their ears in smoke-filled coffee shops. Be Yamamura's Dionisio cork horn made an impression on me as well. I recall twinges of want after hearing it, if only because it seems to have vibed with the stories Steve shared with me. I also recall, vividly, feeling awash in the seductive waves emanating from the Jadis Eurythmie driven by an all Jadis front end and a Forsell Air Reference record player pushing the tunes. We basked in the sepiatone delights of "Francis A. and Edward K." at Chez-10, the Chelsea loft where Jonathan Scull and his wife, Kathleen Benveniste, made their home and hosted Ted Denney and myself one afternoon just prior to the 1996 Stereophile show at the Waldorf Astoria.

That said, in the USA I wasn't able to find particularly what I was looking for where I was living, either in Miami/Florida or later in Atlanta/Georgia. In the USA generally, it seemed to me, the enthusiasm for hifi was entirely centered around the typical post Villchur boxed-dynamic speakers that dominate the audio landscape today. I wasn't so personally interested in that world, to be frank, despite being professionally involved with several. As time wore on, I surrendered to the idea that I wouldn't find the kind of immersive geeked-out underground that Steve had described as being active in Japan anywhere reasonably near where I was living. Flash forward almost two decades and it turns out that I have moved my family to Japan. This event takes a much longer missive to explain but if I could fit it into a nutshell, it would sound something like this: In March of 2014, I took my wife and kids to visit my in-laws in Japan. While visiting, I was basically overcome with the idea that my children needed to be raised in Japan, not in the USA. As a result of that notion, my wife and I set a series of events into motion. 365 days later, pretty much on the anniversary of our return home last year, I was on a plane headed to Japan to make my home there with my family. As I type, I'm sitting in the house we are renting by the seaside surfing town of Yugawara, at the southern end of the Kanagawa prefecture, about 100km from Tokyo. We've been living here since April 1st, 2015 and I couldn't be happier.

The league of unicorn hunters.

The 16A horn and the 555 receiver. I'll cover some history—as I've come to understand it—behind these seminal inventions. However, there may be some errors of omission or otherwise, and for these I beg your forgiveness and indulgence. The late 1920s into the early 1930s were some incredible years for the advancement of sound reproduction devices and, as it happens, the geniuses of several Bell Labs/Western Electric engineers were brought to bear to create some fairly astonishing loudspeakers for use in movie theaters. I will spare you the detailed history, most of which I am still reading about, and just say that, for the purposes of this article at this moment, I'll mostly concern myself with the invention of David G. Blattner's 16A twin-horn and E.C. Wente's and A.L.Thuras' invention of the 555 receiver (a wideband field-coil compression driver) that was first heard with the Vitaphone premiere played into the mythical Western Electric 12a and 13a horns hand made by The Talking Machine Company for Western Electric (ERPI).

The Western Electric 16a/b along with the 15a/b were designed to cater for the expanding talkies in the USA market and constructed to increase output and reduce production costs; 15a being 14% the cost of its ancestors, the 12a and 13a. The 16a/b was born from the restrictions to use the 52" deep 15-A horn behind some screens. The first iteration to squeeze a large horn behind the screen was the KS-6576 which evolved into the pressed and welded steel known as the 16a. The very first sound on film ‘Vitaphone' was Don Juan shown at the Warner Brothers Theatre in New York City on August 6th, 1926. More than one year later on October 6th, 1927, Al Jolsen's The Jazz Singer featured as the first talkie movie with images synchronized to the sound and speech. Soon thereafter, sound recorded on film itself became the standard, with Western Electric holding many of the tech cards in their vest. I won't elaborate on the nuances of this history but if you're interested, there's a lot of material out there on the Internet to be indulged in.

The 555 was patented in 1929, the 16A in 1932. These were the heydays of audio reproduction, the temporal playground not only of the likes of Blattner, Thuras, and Wente but also of Joseph Maxwell and Henry Harrison (inventors of the electrical recording process for Western Electric), Alan Blumlein, Harry Olsen, Edward Kellogg, Chester Rice, Guy R. Fountain, Paul Voigt, O.P. Lowther and a host of other luminaries too numerous to mention here. Consider that Wente & Thuras' Western Electric 555W is reputed to be the world's first commercially available compression driver and that they also invented and introduced the idea of a phase-plug to extend the high-frequency capability of a horn-loaded compression driver. You'll get part of the way toward understanding what a landmark achievement the WE 555 was and why, today, it is revered by a group of highly-interested enthusiasts who claim—not without merit—that it remains unsurpassed. The 555 had performance parameters to handle from 60Hz to over 4'000Hz with vanishingly low distortion at high efficiency (ca. 30% or about the equivalent of 116dB 1w/1m sensitivity) when mounted in a proper horn. This was a necessary development considering that the electrical recording technique, also developed at Bell Labs/Western Electric, improved the bandwidth of recordings from the ca. 200-2'400Hz of the acoustical recording techniques to well under 200Hz and over 6'000Hz. Expectations for sound reproduction changed significantly with the advent of electrical recording techniques and the WE 555, loaded into the Western Electric horns of the time, was more than capable of handling the job.

Predating the 16A, however, were several horns of variable interest and a few of extreme interest. Among those latter few are the 12A and 13A, which were fairly massive horns painstakingly built by hand from wood. Numerous pages in the Western Electric documentation go into great detail on setup for a movie theater. The 12a was to be mounted in the centre part of the screen to provide the illusion of speech whilst the 13a were placed lower to produce the music. In larger theaters, the 12a fired toward the balcony rows whilst the 13a was for the lower orchestra seats. This combination is supremely potent. I have heard a stereo setup using 12A/13A for each channel, which I'll discuss in a follow-up article. I can attest to the almost military impact this combination launches at the listener, all with imperceptibly low distortion. These were meant for fairly large theaters that could seat many hundreds and hundreds of people at once. They took up a lot of real estate when properly set up. Further to that, they were time-consuming and expensive to build. Both of these attributes were impediments to the rapid spread in popularity (and construction) of movie theaters across the nation. In order to address the need for less expensive and time-consuming horns to be installed into the expanding universe of movie theaters, a thin plywood replacement for the 12/13 combo was introduced (the 15A) and a bent and welded sheet-metal design was invented and built: the subject of my search, the 16A.

Tim Gurney's hand-crafted 13a replica.

I won't spend time on the 15A because, first, it is not my quarry and secondly, it still requires more room behind the movie screen. In short, it is what I refer to as a cochlear or snail horn, owing to its spiraling thrust from the driver throat to the mouth of the horn itself. It was certainly less expensive and less time consuming to build than a 12A/13A combo but it doesn't seem to have conferred any advantages for smaller theaters in need of projecting the new wideband soundtracks. Designed by David G. Blattner, the 16A was intended to meet the peculiar needs of those moderately sized theaters that had a smaller space in which to install the horn, and perhaps a smaller budget to implement a sound reproduction solution. As a means to address the latter concern, the 16A was made from bent and welded sheet steel, five main pieces bolted together along with two cast-iron throats for the drivers. This construction reduced the time and cost to produce and, presumably, the cost of transport as well. It borrowed at least somewhat from the convoluted folds of the 13A. In this instance, it lent the 16A a fairly long ‘pipe' between driver entry and horn mouth, allowing it to develop lower frequencies without demanding a lot of room behind the speaker.

The 16A converges two alike horns toward a single horn mouth or exit, allowing for a considerable amount of sound pressure to be brought to bear from a fairly compact unit. As this was in the time well before stereo recordings were commercially available (despite the invention and patenting of ‘binaural' recordings by Alan Blumlein applied for in 1931 and granted in 1933), the two-driver 16A was a means to introduce greater sensitivity to the setup which, in turn, would mean that theaters would require only the barest minimum of electrical amplification to operate the loudspeaker. (The 'B' variant to the 16A was developed as well, allowing for two 555 drivers per side for a total of four drivers). As such, a small theater able to house only a couple of hundred people would both be able to fit and afford a sound reproduction system based upon the 16A's unique form factor. Or so the story goes. One would think that, if the raison d'être for the 16A was to meet a more broad and proletarian demand for sound reproduction in smaller and more numerous theaters, there would be a fairly large amount of these to scavenge. Such seems not the case, making it something of a unicorn, and the chase to find it more tantalizing.