Quad ESL-63 loudspeaker Sam Tellig's final comments
Not Fred Yando, of Quad USA. But FRED as in Full-Range Electrostatic Dipole—the now venerable Quad ESL-63, available in its new US Monitor version.
This is my third pair of ESL-63s—a very early pair, followed by a later pair, and now the new ESL-63 US Monitor. I guess I am a creature of habit. I've been married to these speakers now for seven years. And married to Mrs. Audio Anarchist now for 25.
"You're getting another pair of Quads," shrieked one of the Thursday night 'philes at Definitive Hi-Fi. "That's not progress."
AHC said as much several years ago, when he talked about the ESL-63 being a good speaker "in its day," implying that its day had passed.
Well, newer speakers have come (and gone). But you still have to go some to better the Quads. And now, having welcomed them back, I cannot name you a speaker I would more prefer to own. (My friend Lars says I have been suffering from metal-dome tweeteritis.)
Oh, yes, some speakers are more extended on top. Some are subjectively more transparent. There are definitely speakers which play louder and go lower. And yet...well, welcoming back the Quads was like climbing into bed with an old girlfriend after a long absence (in this case, the absence was 18 months). Not that I would know about such things. But I do love these speakers!
They are so neutral—so free of coloration. There is no discontinuity from bass to midrange to treble—it's all so natural. Transient response is excellent. There are no boxy colorations because there are no boxes. So what if they cost $3990/pair. I can put another 20,000 miles at least on the VW Jetta (it has 86,000 already—good car, cheap to run). To hell with the money.
When I first asked Ross Walker, of Quad, whether I should sell my old pair of Quads and buy the new US Monitors, he told me not to bother. (I suspected then, and still suspect, that Quad was trying to get rid of me as a customer.)
I asked Ross why Quad was introducing them.
Marketing considerations played a role, according to Ross. They were going to have to raise the price of the ESL-63 anyway because of the fallen dollar. So they decided to improve the product and put up the price a few hundred more.
Ross pointed out that Quad was already building a heftier version of the speaker—this for recording studios. Stronger, more rigid frame. Some other things, too—forget what. So the US would get a premium version, and the rest of the world, presumably more price-sensitive, would get the ordinary Quads, which are still to this day sold outside North America. I'm not sure what Canada gets.
Maybe Quad had another motive. Because of a price disparity between the UK and the US, some audiophiles were importing Quads directly from the UK. Quad dealers in the US were not so happy about that. If you try to import a pair of Quads from abroad now, you will be able to purchase only the ordinary ESL-63s, and only in 220/240V, although an overseas dealer should be able to change over the voltage.
It would be pointless to import a pair of "ordinary" ESL-63s from the UK, however, because you can readily find used ESL-63s on the market here in the US, and at reasonable prices—as low as $1000/pair for early-production ESL-63s, up to about $1500/pair for later production.
That's quite a disparity. $1500 for a pair of used, regular ESL-63s, $3990 for a pair of new ESL-63 US Monitors. I think I'd opt for a used pair. At the same time, I have to say that the new US Monitor version represents a significant improvement on the older ESL-63, which Quad still deems good enough for the rest of the world.
How has the speaker been improved? First, the bass. It's more extended. It's more defined, possibly because resonances in the frame are better controlled. (I use my Quads in sand-filled Arcici stands, and the bass is good enough that I wouldn't dream of adding a subwoofer.) Next, the treble—it's less confused, crisper, better defined, not slightly fuzzy the way it used to be. The speaker is more transparent. At the same time, the treble still does not "go over the top," the way so many other audiophile speakers do.
The word I keep coming back to is "listenable." The Quad ESL-63 US Monitor is the most listenable speaker I know—and for this reason (and also because I hate the notion of mods), I decline to have my speaker modified by Crosby, as touted by The Absolute Sound. With the Quads, I can forget the speaker, and forget the recording quality, for that matter. The Quads do not make poor recordings sound worse. Most of today's audiophile speakers do.
I have also noticed that I can enjoy listening to CDs with the Quads—I don't feel the urge to shut off my CD player and turn to my 'table. Lately, having returned several CD players to their respective manufacturers, I have gone back to an old 14-bit, Philips-based Marantz CD65 player. The soundstaging is so natural. Many very expensive, very sophisticated current players don't do nearly so well, including, I'm afraid, some offerings from Magnavox/Philips.
Incidentally, I found that the Quads take a while to break in. (Or were the speakers ready out of the box and I had to take time to break in? I don't know.) I felt that the speakers were smoother, cleaner, clearer after about a week to ten days. After my first day back with the Quads, I was reasonably happy, but not overwhelmed. After ten days with the Quads, I was in ecstasy because I felt I was listening to music rather than to audiophile sound.
While the Quads sound okay with such inexpensive amps as the Adcom GFP-535 or the B&K ST-140, they can use power. They like current. They like to be driven—they sound cleaner, the bass becomes tighter. An amp like the B&K ST-140 reveals all its strengths (tube-like midrange) and weaknesses (flabby bass, rolled-off highs, lack of ultimate transparency) when used with the Quads.
[A version of the speaker, called the 988, is still being manufactured in 2001. You can read Sam Tellig's thoughts on the 988 in "Sam's Space," November 2001.—Ed.]