Quad ESL-63 loudspeaker Sam Tellig

Sam Tellig wrote about the Quad ESL-63 in July 1985 (Vol.8 No.3):

"You sold your Quads!!!"

My son had just returned home from college.

I wondered myself whether I had done the right thing. Probably I'd done it as an audiophile version of the three-year itch more than anything else—always trying something new. (That's why I became a reviewer: to save myself from personal bankruptcy!)

Or did I have good reason to sell the Quads? I still don't know for certain, but my time without them has convinced me that, as superb as they are, the ESL-63s are still not perfect.

For instance, I always had trouble placing them in my listening room—center fill was never quite right. And I detected a certain fuzziness, a lack of definition in the treble region. This was something that went unexplained until I read Richard Heyser's review of the ESL-63s in the June 1985 Audio. (Heyser found that early reflections within the speaker assembly were interfering with the direct sound at certain frequencies.)

Then there were the Quad mods. While I concede that certain mods are beneficial, I hate the idea of mods in general. When I find a mod that works I get mad at the manufacturer for not having thought of it first—optional metal armboards for the AR turntable (available from Audio Advisor in Grand Rapids, MI), for example. Also, the problem with mods is that once you start you can't stop.

On the Quads I was more than willing to go along with updated protection boards, which after all was an update rather than a mod—and made them more practical, to boot (that's not the case with all mods). Ditto for the Mod Squad capacitor bypass. But there was so much more: spike the stands; remove the grille cloths, they veil the sound (which indeed they do, but they also prevent the speakers from looking like industrial monstrosities); replace the chintzy spring-clip cable connectors with five-way binding post, either heavy-duty or standard; and a complete rebuild of the speaker's structure. (Some people insist that is the only way to the ultimate Quad Sound!) Oh yes, one more thing: you need a subwoofer—except that there aren't any that work. Catch 22.

Moreover, the ESL-63s are very fussy about amplifier and, to a lesser extent, preamplifier. The best sound I got from the Quads came out of the little Quicksilver mono amps I wrote up in the last issue. Also good were the NYAL Moscode 600 (though the 150 should do just as well), the B&K ST-140, and the Hitachi HMA-8500. In other words, Quads like tubes best, and MOSFETS nearly as much.

Quads can be a pain in the keester (thank you, Ronald Reagan) to own. They can be difficult to position, each speaker has to be plugged into an AC outlet (unsightly cords on the floor, not to mention the speaker cables), they're easy to tip over—particularly if you have small kids—and they protect themselves by shorting out your amplifier! That is, until the resistors which absorb the current from your amp until it shuts down sizzle a little.

But...the Quads do have tonal neutrality, exceptional spaciousness, and astonishing transient response. These are qualities that make it difficult to find speakers you can be satisfied with after living with Quads for any period of time.—Sam Tellig

Sam Tellig also wrote about the Quad ESL-63 in January 1987 (Vol.10 No.1):

Owning a pair of Quad ESL-63 speakers is like marriage to a difficult woman you love—hard to live without, sometimes hard to live with.

The $2950/pair ESL-63s are among the very few speakers I could live with for any length of time. They are as free of coloration as any speaker I know. Like other electrostatics (and ribbons), they are fast: transients are quick, and there's no sound trapped in the box because there is no box.

Weaknesses of the Quads are well known by now, and sometimes overstated. They do not play particularly loud. This can be a disadvantage not only with rock music, but also with large-scale orchestral works—Mahler becomes moderated, Bruckner bridled. Haydn and Mozart do fine, though, as does chamber music of all kinds. Known as a classical-music lover's speaker (kids into rock can't afford them anyway), the Quads are also terrific for jazz. Listen to a tenor sax on the Quads—driven by tubes all the way—and you know you're listening to the truth. The tenor sax is, for me, the most difficult of all instruments to reproduce.

Philips engineers use Quad speakers (and amplifiers) for monitoring their recordings. Philips recording artists like Bernard Haitink, Alfred Brendel, and Jessye Norman have purchased Quads for home listening (though Sir Neville Marriner uses Magneplanars).

I have yet to hear speakers I like better, though I have yet to hear the Sound Lab A-3s reviewed by JGH in Vol.9 No.6. Still, the Quads aren't perfect. I am not bothered so much by the fact that they don't play loud or that the bass doesn't go particularly low (although it goes lower than you think with an amp like the PS Audio 200C). What bothers me most about the Quads is a certain fuzziness in the treble, which I first heard identified by Richard Heyser two years ago in an Audio review. Along with this fuzziness goes a certain lack of precision in imaging. This might seem surprising, considering the sense of spaciousness and depth the speakers produce. I'm talking about two different things, however: spaciousness is not imaging.

I was surprised to see Alvin Gold savage the ESL-63s (in the September 1986 issue of Hi-Fi Answers) while reviewing the MartinLogan CLS speakers. True, the MLs do things the Quads don't: they have exceptional transparency through the treble, and image as well as any speakers I have heard. In fact, I was so taken by the MLs after hearing them at CES in the summer of '85 that I had a pair on order. Dick Olsher had problems with his pair, though, and I put the order on hold.

The first indication that there might be something wrong with the MLs—based not on home audition but on several listens elsewhere—came at last winter's Vegas CES. The speakers sounded thin, peaky, and deficient in the bass. And the bass bottomed out, just like the Quads, when cranked up on certain killer Telarcs.

For a while I entertained the idea of a pair of Apogee Calipers; they certainly made a favorable impression on everyone at last summer's CES. Subsequent auditions, though, revealed problems with those speakers as well. Yes, they may be more transparent through the treble than the Quads—a lot of speakers are, including the Celestion SL-600s—but they also struck me as bass-heavy.

So, at least for the moment, I am sticking with the Quads—my second pair, acquired earlier this year. If Bernie, Al, and Jess can live with them, I suppose I can, too. And, they are quite good for reviewing. One of the surprising things is that the Quads, without having much deep bass, reveal those amps which produce deep, tight bass. That's one of the first things I notice when I switch amps—a change in the bass. (The Quads reveal that the British Fidelity P-170 has deeper bass than the B&K ST-140, for instance; otherwise, these two MOSFET amps sound virtually alike. I can recommend both for use with the Quads.)