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Quad Vadis?

If you go back to the mid 1950’s, it’s was said that many of the major British loudspeaker companies made quiet plans to get into new endeavors. Why? They heard the Quad Electrostatic loudspeaker (now called the ELS57 or old Quad). Their fear was that the new, revolutionary speaker was so good that old style dynamic speakers would fade into the sunset! Of course, this didn’t happen, but it’s not hard to see why they could have come to that conclusion.

That the Quad electrostats were advanced for their time is obvious, there may be more words spilt over the Quads than any other high end credible speaker. So finding something new and illuminating to say is not easy. But how can you talk about the historical aspects of our aural journey without at least acknowledging their effect? It’s also been said that, for many years, rival loudspeaker manufacturers secretly (and not so secretly) had pairs of Quads in the back room, used to assess the evolving quality of their designs. Many cite the Spendor BC-1 (reviewed elsewhere on this site) as the point where dynamic speakers at least started to become truly able to run with the Quads in their areas of excellence. The Quads were designed in the mid ’50’s and the BC-1 matured around 1970, so they were unrivaled for at least 15 years, quite a feat! And I think there is little doubt that the presence of the ELS57 spurred improvement in loudspeakers in general to try and catch up with Peter Walker’s handiwork.

None of this is to say that the Quads were everyone’s favorites at the time. There were things like Tannoys, Altec (and other Theatre) horns, Klipschorns, early Acoustic Research, JBL’s and the like that excelled in certain areas, especially in the ability to play loud and deeper in the bass, both relative weaknesses of the Quads. But in the areas of their strengths, the Quads reigned supreme. Some would say they still do. They are still treasured by their owners and sound excellent even by modern standards. It’s quite a tribute that Walker’s design has stood the test of 60 years and still is relevant here in 2014 for their midrange purity and low distortion above their bass range. It was interesting to see a pair of these at an audio show with their anachronistic looks amazing new generations of audio enthusiasts with their performance. There has even developed a small industry dedicated to the care and repair of this classic design.

Walker struck again with the ESL63 which hit the market in the early ’80’s. This was perhaps even more innovative than the ELS57 employing concentric ring radiators coupled by delay lines to simulate the theoretical ideal of a point source radiator. But, as good as it was and as much as it at least started to address some of the limitations of the older Quad, it never gained the traction of that design. I suspect that one reason for this was how far speaker design came in the interval between the old and new. Another reason, in my view, was the audacity of loudspeaker designers in designing all out assaults on the summit without respect to practicality like the legendary Infinity IRS. Walker designed speakers with an eye to size and room compatibility (a bigger issue in the UK than the US) and, I suspect, his personal esthetic that mega volume levels and flat to 20 Hz bass extension were not characteristics desired by true music lovers.

But I suspect that the biggest reason was the very triumph that the ELS57 was. After the leap that it represented, a speaker that could revolutionize the market like the ’57 was just not possible. Still, it seems every “most influential loudspeaker article” that hits the audiophile press has the ELS57 at or near the top. Which is as it should be.