There’s the normal guitar speaker world, stocked with models of past and present from brands such as Celestion, Eminence, WGS, Jensen, and Fane. Then there’s the isolated EVM zone, a strange thing, at a distance like some modern religion you’re peripherally aware of; something that happens to other people.
Those people have effectively opted out of the speaker game/tail-chase that plagues the rest of us, settling on these suspicious, hulking alternatives as the mouths of their instruments and generally getting on with the business of playing guitar. Meanwhile, we obsess about a little more of this, a little less of that, swapping out one highly colored traditional speaker for another, in a cycle of buying and reselling that develops our ear but not our musicianship.
What makes Electro-Voice speakers different? What are these self-satisfied weirdos getting from them? To find out, I bought some.
Unique aspects of the EVM speakers are apparent before a note passes through them. Prohibitive cost alone suggests build or quality unlike the old staples: an EVM-12L, the best-known model among guitarists, costs around $265; the ubiquitous Vintage 30 from Celestion, $145. Speakers from Eminence and WGS, less still. EVMs have a reputation for ruggedness, too, holding their price well on the used market. If you need two, or four, or eight, the numbers add up quickly.
As does the infamous weight: 19 pounds, twice that of your average Celestion. Players who must heave their own gear in and out of venues long for a lighter product with similar tone.
More weirdness: a brutalist, eight-fingered die-cast frame gives the EVM a military grade appearance, that only afterwards makes the industry standard pressed basket look flimsy and cheap. When I tried to install EVMs in a Marshall cab, the stock hardware wasn’t up to the task — the bolts couldn’t reach the T-nuts on the baffle because the speaker frames were so thick. The speakers look powerful, and they are, handling 200-300 watts, depending on the model.
You can’t even count on standard hook up. The EVM-12S examples I have came with your everyday .205″ solder tabs/slip-on connectors, but the 12L features spring-loaded binding posts that want bare wire. I made a little harness, with bare twisted wire on one end and flat connectors on the other, to make swapping easier.
There’s a fear that everything about these will rub you the wrong way, different as they are. Their history of use in PA systems is especially concerning – will they have that dry, characterless sound of a guitar plugged in to a hi-fi? Will their range be too great, shooting out piercing highs that dedicated guitar speakers usually crib off? Will they be stiff and stubborn? Let’s turn ’em up and find out.
Beginning with the similarities between the two models, both EVM-12L and 12S are surprisingly warm and smooth for flat, PA-like speakers with higher range than most Celestions. They serve up a big fat juicy tone from the neck position of a Les Paul, a real slab; Gary Moore used an EVM-loaded Marshall cab on his huge sounding Still Got The Blues record; Joe Bonamassa gets a powerful, muscled tone out of them today. That bend up to E from the 15th fret on the B string? You can’t help but do your Judge Dredd face.
Their alleged fidelity isn’t a problem with overdriven, modded Marshall sounds as you might think. I expected a raspy helping of fizz on lead and rhythm work, but found only a strong, authoritative smoothness. Yet that fidelity seems to engage at low gain (or lowered guitar volume) settings; both speakers had a shimmer or clarity down here I hadn’t heard from any other guitar speakers (and God, I’ve been through a lot), clear in a musical way, not sterile or hi-fi, but bouncy and sweet. Deep twang and vacuum-packed, 3D-feeling quack tones from a Strat loaded with Klein RNB pickups. How the EVMs can be so crisp and delicate with clean tones, yet bold and fat at high gain, I don’t know. They can reproduce some eye-watering high end, though, letting loose overtones usually buried. With fifteen guitars and two very different amps, there were sore spots along the high E string that were shrieky, real head drillers if experienced on axis, a characteristic that must be weighed against the better ones.
Both models felt less gainy than the likes of a G12M Greenback, an old favorite of mine which seems to add dirt at any volume level. Upping the gain by a quarter brought back some ease n’ grease, the speakers being tight but in a tactile, responsive way.
The 12L immediately felt thicker, if you weren’t a fan you might say more stuffy, than the less well-known 12S. Not being as clear in the top end, it wanted a notch more treble versus the settings that worked for the 12S. The 12L sounded more even, the less aggressive of the two, though it seemed more likely to jab you with those E string squeaks.
The unshakable grip of the speakers made me want to do a lot of chugging rhythm. Comparing back-to-back recordings of the same riffs, the 12S was clearer and tighter at this job, percussive and quick – the speaker has noticeably less bass – though the 12L was no slouch, just fatter sounding.
Chewy double stops were detailed and enchanting on the 12S, with its slightly slimmer tone; more midrange. For girth, the fattest sound, the 12L beats not just its brother but all speakers I’ve tried. It is so rounded, giant sounding, forming a remarkably solid partnership with overdrive and a Les Paul. The 12S, apparently due to its shallow cone, is meaner, having the clearer mids, and rocks the hell out of high gain plexi sounds and 80s riffs. It’s still a reinforced tank of a speaker, though, with a density and power greater than your everyday example; there’s a sense of punch and weight to its performance.
Purists sometimes insinuate that the EVM speakers should be used in specialized TL806 or “Thiele” cabinets, made to a specific vented design that gets the most from such drivers. In guitar, of course, there are no rules but ‘do what sounds good’ and Electro-Voice’s literature asserts that they work well in “virtually any sealed, vented, or open-backed enclosure,” so don’t be deterred. The port or vent in a TL806 cabinet, EV explains, bellows out the lower octave of bass, coaxed into doing so with little required motion from the speaker, resulting in both extended low end and cleaner sound from the now less taxed speaker. Again, we are less concerned with harmonic distortion and flat response in guitar land, warping the signal at every stage to form something personal and entirely unfaithful to the original plucked string.
I tried the EVMs in three enclosures: an open-backed combo, a sealed 2×12, and a full size Marshall cab. The most striking configuration, found by accident in a moment of transition, was mounting one speaker in a detuned, i.e. the second hole left empty, 2×12. Like stepping on a magic pedal, this boosted everything at once – vibrance, punch, bass, clarity – yet held it all together even more tightly than before. (Interestingly, cabinet guru Kevin O’Connor of London Power published plans for the perfect 1×12; one 12-inch speaker and one 12-inch, detuned port – basically a 2×12 with a speaker missing.) I’ve run more traditional speakers this way, before I knew what it was, with great results, but something about the range and vigor of the EVMs seemed to latch on and make the absolute most of it. Unfortunately, it is a pig to mic, two mics being required to pick up the split duties of the speaker and the port. Fine if you can set it and forget it in a studio, but less casual for a dirty demo in the basement, or for the soundman who points the same 57 at the same part of every player’s speaker, night after night, now being told that he needs two mics, positioned just so, because you’re special. Very possibly you’ll end up with one of the standard setups, which imbue their usual flavors: a bright, detailed, dispersed sound from the open-back; a woodier, punchier and much more directional effect from the closed-back.
Eminence DeltaLite II 2512
This 250 watt speaker with the wacky new magnet material – neodymium – is an alternative replacement for the EVM-12L, and as such, players often want to know if a DeltaLite II can deliver that same, strident tone while saving their spines (and wallets – it’s currently around $100 cheaper.)
Physically, it is the more attractive option. At 6.8 pounds it’s lighter than most guitar speakers, let alone the 19 pound beast with which it competes, and it still has a serious looking die-cast frame. The binding posts are better, screwing down like hi-fi gear, but these and the EVM types are both annoying for guitarists to deal with, who almost universally have incompatible slip-on connectors inside their cabinets.
It’s immediately noticeable that the DeltaLite II has less treble than the EVM-12L. It’s not subtle, something you need to go hunting for with your eyes half closed, but apparent right away. Switching between each speaker in opposite sides of the same 2×12 combo, the DeltaLite II is muddier when playing low notes at the bottom of the neck, when some top end clarity can help describe what’s happening with overtones. Not so little top that you have trouble playing accurately; there still a nice fast attack which keeps you from getting lost, but the sound isn’t as wide or full. A benefit of this cribbed treble is that the speaker exhibits less shriek than the EVM, won’t leap out and spike your ear if you hit something unpleasant. With less fatigue, it’s easy to crank away on the DeltaLite II for hours, and a pleasure to do so. There’s something comfortable about it, stony neutrality with a warm top end. It is however a lighter and less vibrant tone across the range; there’s not the surprising life or illusion of heft that the EVMs impart. While nimble and inspiring, then, for our purposes here the Delta doesn’t fit the bill as an EVM-12L impersonator.
The take home message is that EVMs sound neutral – not pushed or hyped in certain frequencies, like the highly flavored speakers we are used to – and powerful. Though on paper ‘neutral’ may read as boring, the opposite is true. There’s a sense of opening a doorway to the sound your amp is really making, rather than listening down a strangely shaped nozzle. This comes at a price – the money, the weight, the inconvenience, the forceful high end – but returning to normal speakers, all of which seem somehow diminished, like they don’t try as hard, flush with their own permanent coloring, is telling. EVMs just do more. Whether or not they do too much is going to vary from application to application, person to person.
If you like the idea of getting off the speaker-swapping rotary, with an outside solution that exudes capability, these may be the last speakers you buy.