Robin Marshall: A Modicum of Genius

One of the things that fascinates me about the field of box loudspeaker design is how few original talents there are capable of designing a model from first principles. Yes, armed with the Thiele-Small papers on bass alignment, an understanding of filter theory, and a working knowledge of the OEM drive-unit field, almost anyone can, and has, come up with one commercially and sonically successful design—given a fair degree of luck. And the teams of well-trained engineers at companies like KEF, B&W, and Celestion have shown that they can produce a steady stream of affordable boxes with a high ratio of performance for the dollar. But for an individual to create more than just one good box speaker requires a modicum of genius, and genius is thin on the ground.

I would put forward the names of Jim Thiel, Kevin Voecks, John Bau, and Richard Vandersteen as examples of creative US designers who can produce a succession of dynamic loudspeakers that rise above the merely excellent. In the UK, Proac's Stuart Tyler, Martin Colloms, Richard Ross of Rogers, Phil Ward (once with Mordaunt-Short), and Robin Marshall have all proved that they have the ability to square the acoustic circle on a consistently good basis.

Robin Marshall, the last-named, seems to be on the crest of a wave at present. After spending the 1970s designing good-sounding budget models to be sold under the Audiomaster brand for the British retailer KJ Leisuresound, he blossomed in the '80s, producing a number of sonically stunning speakers for Monitor Audio, including the R352, R852/MD, and R952/MD, which respectively impressed me, Tom Norton, and the Audio Cheapskate in 1988; set up his own company, Epos Acoustics, to manufacture another of his designs, the ES-14, another Cheapskate favorite; and recently became chief engineer at Mordaunt-Short. I met with Robin at the 1988 Chicago CES and asked him what had prepared him for a life at the sharp point of creative speaker design:

Robin Marshall: I was with the BBC, though not so much on loudspeaker design. If you ask an engineering graduate where he wants to go, how's he going to know? He doesn't know what the options are. The BBC therefore has a system where you can spend a short amount of time in every area of the BBC's engineering section. You could spend some time at Broadcasting House in the studio, you could then go to the design department and do a little bit, you could go to the equipment department and build things. This is a two-year contract they have. And then at the end of that, you choose which area you feel is most suited to you.

Atkinson: So an engineer entering the BBC from university would find himself very quickly acquiring a broad-based experience both behind the mixing console and in R&D.

Marshall: And if he can work in all those options, he may discover something he's never ever thought about doing.

Atkinson: How did you evolve from being a general BBC engineer to being a loudspeaker designer?

Marshall: I didn't feel any specific interest in loudspeakers when I went to the BBC. I didn't actually know what I wanted to do. I had studied mathematics and computer science; I considered myself a mathematician. Yet once I got into the engineering section, I realized hands-on engineering was really what I enjoyed doing most. I'm the kind of guy who likes to have a soldering iron in his hand rather than a calculator. I did a little bit of work at the BBC on acoustics and on loudspeaker design and got a fair grounding on the theory of the thing.

Atkinson: Did you work with any of the classic BBC speaker designs?

Marshall: Oh yes—every BBC engineer does. What I wouldn't like to say is that I was responsible for this, that, or the other. I mean, there are so many people at the BBC who'll get involved in a design, or, in the production engineering side of the design, making a design happen. I was involved in quite a number of speakers, including the LS3/5A, but I wouldn't claim that I made any real contribution to it.

I left the BBC in 1972 or '73. The politics within the BBC are very curious. While I was there, you didn't get promotion on merit. You got promotion on whether your face fit, on whether you were standing in the right place at the right time. Also, perhaps I've matured a little bit now, but in the past I was a very forthright person, I tended to speak first, think later. That didn't go down too well a number of times, and I didn't feel I was making any progress. Though I'm not a high-profile person, I do like to have some profile. I don't like to be faceless.

I was dabbling in a career in the music business at that stage, dabbling and doing session work. I'm basically a frustrated musician. I always wanted to be a musician but could never quite make it.

Atkinson: What instrument did you play?

Marshall: Bass, electric bass—like you.

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