Book Review: Quad: The Closest Approach

Quad: The Closest Approach
by Ken Kessler. Cambridge, England, UK: International Audio Group Ltd., 2003. Hardcover, 12" square, 215 pp. ISBN 0 954 57420 6.
Available from: Quad dealers or IAG America, 15 Walpole Park South, Walpole, MA 02801. Tel: (508) 850-3950.

The number of high-end audio companies it would make sense to write an entire book about is quite small. There cannot be more than a dozen companies whose longevity, product innovation and quality, and cumulative impact upon not only "the industry" but the larger society as well, would justify such an effort (footnote 1). An even more acute question is whether such a book, once written, could hold the interest of any but the brand's most rabid, trivia-hungry fans.

I am delighted to report that Ken Kessler's Quad: The Closest Approach should captivate not only all fans of the pioneering English electrostatic-loudspeaker marque, but also anyone who is at all interested in the history of the effort to make "the closest approach to the original sound." This book should fascinate anyone who is interested in business or social history.

The 50 years since the Acoustical Manufacturing Company Ltd. (founded 1936) changed its focus from manufacturing public-address equipment to designing and building equipment to enable music to be enjoyed in the home with unprecedented fidelity have seen successive (and interrelated) revolutions in society, music, broadcast and recorded media, consumer electronics, international trade, and business organization. The history of the company and the people who made Quad electronics and loudspeakers is not only informative and nostalgia-inducing; it is thought-provoking.

The Quad brand-name never had anything to do with quadraphonic surround sound. The name began as an acronym for either "Quality Unit Amplifier Domestic" or "QUality Amplifier Domestic." This was to identify that product's intended use, as distinct from the company's industrial PA-system amplifiers. The QA12/Pre domestic amplifier was introduced in 1949. The original Quad tube power amplifier (1951) had an output of about 12W. The Quad II (1953) was rated at 15W.

This lavishly produced coffee-table book is equal parts scrapbook, family reunion, and clear-eyed retrospective analysis. The book's large format (12" square, to fit perfectly on an LP shelf) allows nearly-full-size reproduction of dozens of advertising pieces and sales brochures, from over the decades and around the world, as well as owner's manuals.

There are absorbing snapshots of Quad gear on display at hi-fi shows and at dealers, as well as of the famous live-vs-recorded concert events from the 1950s, for which Quad provided the amplification and Wharfedale the loudspeakers. The more important historical source documents, such as the chapter on Quad founder Peter J. Walker from Gilbert Briggs' Audio Biographies, and articles from Hi-Fi News and The Gramophone, are reproduced in full. Appendices include model-by-model production figures, technical papers, two circuit diagrams, and a listing of all Quad reviews from Hi-Fi News & Record Review.

The family-reunion aspect is even more treasurable. It was people—strong, individualistic people with no shortage of foibles—who made the company what it was, and who imbued the products with such dedication to musical values. Primarily it was Peter J. Walker and his son Ross, and their engineering and business collaborators. Ken Kessler interviewed all the important personalities, and solicited additional contributions of varying length from just about everyone who matters in the hi-fi firmament. To take just a few: John Atkinson contributes several personal anecdotes about time spent with Peter Walker; Tim de Paravicini writes insightful technical analyses; and Ralph West provides a fascinating personal historical perspective. I was particularly gratified to read Peter McGrath's reminiscences of first hearing the ESL-57, and of later selling Mark Levinson's HQD, a hybrid loudspeaker system based on the ESL-57.

The clear-eyed analysis is the book's most thought-provoking aspect. I knew that Quad the company had gone through a decline in the early 1990s, but had not realized—until I read Kessler's sensitive but probing interview with Ross Walker—that the company was, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt when it was acquired (or rescued) by Mission Audio's founder, Farad Azima. Even less had I imagined that, due to lack of attention to production engineering and cost controls, Quad never made money on either the ESL-57 or the ESL-63 speaker. Sobering.

Fortunately for us all, under the stewardship of the International Audio Group, Quad has a positive outlook for the future. This book's coverage extends to Stereophile's 2003 Component of the Year, the ESL-989 speaker, successor to the ESL-63. There's even an appetizing tease shot of restyled future models.

Many companies contributed to the first decade of high-fidelity playback. Few are still in existence. Only one made a product—the original ESL loudspeaker—that a respectable minority of well-informed people still believes set a standard for midrange coherence and transparency that has never been surpassed. That's Quad. Fearless, no-brainer prediction: The first printing of this book will be a collector's item.—John Marks

Footnote 1: Had I to make a list, it would begin with: Quad, Nakamichi, ReVox-Studer, AR, KLH, Levinson (all incarnations), Klipsch, Bose (lavorsi ta boca).—John Marks