Peter J. Walker 1916–2003
Peter had started his Acoustical Manufacturing Company (as S.P. Fidelity Sound System) in London before WWII to make public address equipment. After his premises were destroyed by bombing, he relocated to Huntingdon, near Cambridge, and after the war, decided to enter the burgeoning market for high-fidelity equipment. To distinguish his hi-fi gear, he coined the acronym "QUAD," for either "Quality Unit Amplifier Domestic" or "QUality Amplifier Domestic" (each has its proponents).
Peter's first domestic product was the QA12/Pre amplifier (1949), followed by the original Quad tube power amplifier (1951), the classic 15W Quad II (1953), a corner-loaded ribbon speaker, and then "Walker's Wonder"—the original Quad Electrostatic Loudspeaker, in 1957. This remained in production for 25 years, until it was replaced by the groundbreaking ESL-63 in 1982. In December, one of the current versions of the ESL-63, the ESL-989, was voted both Stereophile's 2003 Loudspeaker of the Year and its overall Product of the Year.
More than any other engineer, Peter Walker epitomized the English approach to hi-fi. His products featured innovative engineering—Peter's company was honored with the rare Queen's Award for Technological Achievement in 1978—idiosyncratic but immediately recognizable styling, and a design approach that aimed at sonic accuracy above everything. "The Closest Approach to the Original Sound" was Quad's motto for many years, and Peter was prepared to demonstrate the accuracy of the company's designs at the drop of a stylus. A musician himself—originally a saxophone player in a dance band, he took up the flute in later life, performing in local orchestras—he spent his life in the service of music.
Quad—by then called Quad Electroacoustics—was bought out a decade ago by an investment group led by Mission founder Farad Azima and is now owned by the International Audio Group, Ltd. In 2002 IAG commissioned veteran UK audio writer Ken Kessler to compile and edit a book celebrating Quad's and Peter Walker's achievements in audio. That book, Quad: The Closest Approach, is now available from Quad dealers or from IAG America's website. Ken had invited the many audio writers who had been privileged to know Peter to contribute their reminiscences; following are the four most vivid memories of mine. My thanks to Ken for the permission to reproduce them here:
Number one was in the spring of 1982, when then-Hi-Fi News & Record Review editor John Crabbe and I had driven up to Huntingdon to hear the prototypes of the ESL-63 loudspeaker and interview Peter for an article that appeared in the July 1982 issue of the magazine. Peter set up a pair of ESL-63s sitting on wooden kitchen chairs and bade us to take turns sitting in the sweet spot. The sound was magic—I have not heard ESL-63s sound so clear, so transparent, so tonally balanced since then! Peter then plugged a microphone into his oscilloscope, fed one of the speakers with a 300Hz squarewave and waved the mike around in front of the speaker until the 'scope showed a perfect squarewave. "Of course, why should a speaker being able to reproduce a squarewave matter at all, hmmm?" (Rhetorical questions played a major role in Peter's conversational style.) The afternoon concluded with Peter showing us the contents of his "ideas cupboard," including a novel piezo drive-unit that never saw commercial daylight.
Number two was at one of the audio shows that took place at London's Heathrow Airport in the early 1980s. The Quad system was making a most mellifluous sound. I commented on this to Peter and he showed me that the Quad preamp's HF-cut filter was engaged. "No-one is going to complain too much, hmmm."
Number three was being asked by Peter to record the Huntingdon Philharmonic in England's Ely Cathedral in July 1984. Peter played flute in the amateur orchestra and, stiffened with some professional musicians, they were accompanying no less than four choral societies in Edward Elgar's epic The Dream of Gerontius. (An excerpt of this recording appears on Stereophile's Test CD 2. A picture of the orchestra, with a white-haired Peter concentrating furiously on this complex music, can be found here and here.) Following the concert, we followed Peter's open-top Alfa Romeo Spyder to his house, where we listened to some of the performance, which had been recorded on a Sony PCM-F1 digital system. Much to my relief—as the Cathedral's authorities had not been too helpful regarding such matters as where I could place the Soundfield microphone—Peter declared himself satisfied!
Number four took place in the spring of 1992. I was returning to London from Vienna, following an Audio Engineering Society Convention. I took my window seat in the Austrian Airlines Airbus, and was drifting off to sleep when a couple took the seats next to me. It was Peter and his then wife! Peter took advantage of the serendipitous seating to grill me about subjective reviewing and audio magazines. His opinions on both subjects were both informed and well-formed, and I was definitely sweating by the time we reached Heathrow two hours later!
But as with all conversations with Peter, there was something to learn from every sentence. Whatever the subject, he had the uncanny ability to reduce it to its essence, to examine its implications from first principles. It was on this flight that Peter reiterated something that he first told me on the 1982 Huntingdon visit, and that has invariably proved true: that any problem in audio engineering can be successfully addressed with "an equal mix of Ohm's Law and common sense, hmmm?"