Quad 2812, Audio Note System, Phase Tech EA-1 IIs
A rare occasion: all of a sudden, I found myself with a little time on hand. I first arranged a quick visit to my old friend and occasional taskmaster icefox (see previous visits, which include audition of Quad ESL57). The object of desire was a pair of Quad 2905. Funny thing, the pair actually belong to another friend, who as yet cannot let them into his own home. This is a common thing in HK, where space is at a premium. A few days later I followed up by visiting another friend, lovingly nicknamed Wo Sir Sir (WSS) by his friends, to audition his Quad 2812. How about that! First, digression...
Hysteresis and Hysteria
Electrostatic loudspeakers have always had a following, and Quad of course is the most well known and loved. But, like many vintage aficionados in HK, vintage Quad ESL lovers in HK are also in my experience among the most exasperating, stubborn and prejudiced. These people overlook all the considerable (and to me unacceptable) deficiencies of older ESL's but nick-pick faults with speakers of any other type. Members of the closely knit group feed off each other, only becoming more and more limited in palette - that is hysteresis. These people regard vintage Quad ESLs as the best ever and frown upon newer Quad's - that is hysteria. More on these people later in the Quad Overview section. For the moment, suffice to say, most of these people get pretty bad sound out of their vintage ESL's.
Mind you, I can appreciate the qualities of ESL, though they are ultimately not for me, a horn lover. Perhaps my friend whlee said it best: "...the only people who should play with ESL's are people like icefox, who has several pairs of speakers of other types..." We recalled one time at icefox's place, where we listened to both Spendor SP100 and ESL57. In icefox's large space, an opera cut was magnificent on the SP100 but hopelessly distorted on the ESL, but the ESL crowd still praised the latter - that is how biased they are.
Perhaps Gordon Holt said it best: "...After all the positive reviews of the Quad system—34 preamp, 405-2 power amp, ESL-63 speakers—that I have read (particularly in the British press, whose views are generally in accord with mine), I must confess to some disappointment now that I have lived with these components for a while...The system sounded smooth! But while there is no denying the musicality and listening ease of this system, the sound is simply not realistic, nor even a reasonable approximation of that. It is too smooth, too rich, too polite, and while certain instruments—fiddles, for example—are reproduced as well as I have ever heard them, most other instrumental sounds are more-or-less tainted with an almost cloying warmth that not even the Quad 34 preamp's Tilt control can cure. Gone is the bite of the trumpet, the thrum of the cellos, the blat of the trombone, the twang of the piano's upper-bass strings...I am not speaking here of preferences in reproduced sound, and there are doubtless many people who will like this kind of reproduction. Indeed, it is exactly the kind of sound that many record collectors, given a choice, will prefer to the hyperdetailed renditions of an audiophile-type system. But to take a $3000 speaker system with the imaging and detail of the ESL-63s, and drown those attributes in a sea of haze strikes me somehow as a moral felony.
I love the richness and fullness of live orchestral sound, but I also love the rough edges that much live musicmaking produces, and it is those that I miss in this system. I still have the feeling that the '63s, mated with the "right" electronics, could deliver that level of fidelity without sacrificing their positive attributes (imaging, balance, detail). But I have not heard that sound from these speakers as yet, and until I do I can only say: Audition them for yourself. You may disagree with me.—J. Gordon Holt
Quad 2905 (Official Brochure)
Forget about the HK vintage ESL crowd. The newer Quad ESL's, the 29 and 28 series, introduced in 05 and updated in 12, have garnered praise everywhere else. For the 2905, the hometheaterreview (which has unannotated but interesting quotes), What HiFi review, and TAS review by Cordesman Part I, Part II all use dependable Quad electronics, which is the way to go. I will forget about reviews by the likes of 6moons.
Chez icefox This time the equipment is almost like a studio. Digital: Studer D730; Preamp: EAR 912; Amp: Quad 50E.
Sound was excellent. In HK, icefox got better sound out of the ESL57 than anyone else I have heard (here), but the 2905 is clearly superior, and by a wide margin. As you can see from the pic, the placement is not optimal, very far from the listening seat in this cavernous loft. I am sure in a somewhat smaller space, with better placement, it will be even more awesome. No matter, compared to the 57, the following are clear:
- Image is tall and full-sized.
- Much larger sweetspot.
- There is good bass, and it goes surprisingly deep.
- Although still limited with big orchestral pieces, it can play a lot louder. Of course, small combo's like jazz are even better. The Youn Sun Nah album is simply magnificent.
- It is every bit as refined, actually more so to my ears.
2905 vs Tannoy Actually , we spent more time listening to icefox's main loudspeakers, the Tannoy York housing Gold 15". In icefox's hand, the sound is surprisingly not too far off from Quad, with a very transparent treble and midrange. The York sounds quite modern, though a tad slower than the Quad. The 2905 is also "blacker" in background. But when it comes to large classical pieces the Tannoy wins hands down.
Click to enlarge. Note the WE349A in the "Jinro"
Quad 2812 (official brochure)
The 2812 is the updated version of 2805. It is about half the size of its bigger brother, more in keeping with vintage obviously made to suit smaller rooms. Fewer reviews: HiFi+, What HiFi (and you may want to read Stereophile review on predecessor 2805).
Chez WSS In complete contrast to icefox, Wu Sir Sir's space is very small (maybe 150 sq ft), but exquisitely furnished. Equipment is quite interesting, basically completely high level Audio Note connected with AN XLR cables:
Analog: JC Verdier La Platine/SME3012R-Air Tight PC-1/Ortofon TA210-SPU (not auditioned)
Phonoamp: Phase Tech EA-1 IIs (no MC; step-up by EAR MC-4) and ARC Reference Phono 2 (not auditioned)
Digital: AN CDT4/DAC5
Preamp: AN M8
Amp: AN Jinro Shochu
Sound Notes Basically, the 2812 is cut from the same cloth as its older brother 2905, and most of the comments above are as valid here:
- Due to the small space, image is inevitably not as tall, but still very good and way superior to ESL57.
- JC Verdier and Air Tight Inevitably, the analog rig out performed the digital by a considerable margin. This is to be expected, as the Verdier La Platine, father of magnetic suspension, is a triumph of engineering, a class-defining icon as worthy of the term classic as, say, Garrard and Thorens. We only heard the SME3012, which BTW is the arm JCV uses himself (though with Denon DL-103). This also confirms that the Air Tight PC-1, which I use also in NYC, is a very even performer of the highest caliber. Apparently, WSS prefers the SME/Air Tight combo to the Ortofon combo. I'd think so too, as I have always found the SPU to be too slow.
- Phase Tech Phonoamp I have followed Japanese Phase Tech (best known for cartridges) for a while. Previously I have heard the discontinued solid state EA-3 phonoamp (here), and the company has since changed its name to Phasemation (website). I have always wanted to hear the flagship tubed EA-1 (now discontinued and replaced by EA-1000), and I am glad with the help of the excellent EAR MC-4 steup transformer (see my EAR Overview) this setup did not disappoint. The pic to the right shows the version with input transformers. What a nice dual-mono, tube-rectified design!
- AN Jinro Shochu Strangely, this power amp version of the Jinro is not listed in in the products section of the AN UK website. However, the EU website lists it, but with the wrong pics. Even more strangely, the UK website has a pdf file of the Jinro Sochu which I found only by searching. WSS has substituted the WE349A for the 6V6. I asked him what is the difference, and he thinks its warmer, but in this setup I did not quite hear the sinuous quality WE often delivers, particularly in terms of PRaT. If you would like to read more about the integrated AN Jinro, here is the detailed review by Art Dudley in Stereophile.
- Large vs Small In terms of ESL, for me, larger is better simply because of better image fidelity. In terms of room size, I think icefox's is too big and WSS's is too small. You can't have everything in this world! :-)
Over the years, I have owned and heard a lot of Quad equipment. There are tons of info on the net, so I shall be brief in citation. Here are my 2 cents:
- So far, the best I have heard is the 2905 and 2812 (would love to hear the 2912 ).
- Then, trailing a good distance behind, I have heard a couple of reasonably good ESL63's (image taller than 57).
- Now, the heresy: most of the ESL57's I have heard are terrible. A pair in good condition, raised (like daiwok's pair we heard at icefox's place, cited above) can be good. I am also sure stacked pairs, which would raise the image heights and enlarge the sweet spot, are even better (I am sure SME's Alastair Robertson had his reasons). But the average pair in the HK average room (small) is terrible: pinpoint sweet spot (don't you dare move your head!), dwarf-sized images...come on folks, there is nothing real about this (unless you are Japanese, sitting on the tatami instead of a chair, or perhaps you are a fan of Murakami's IQ84)! Even my humble pair of hybrid Martin Logan Source (report here) is way superior.
- ESL 57 Caveat-Conundrum-Room Size: I don't know who wrote the wikipedia article, but did you notice this paragraph? "...In 1957, the company made history when they released Quad Electrostatic Loudspeaker (ESL), the world's first production full frequency range electrostatic loudspeaker renowned for sonic transparency and very low distortion. Its sonic neutrality and transparency were offset by its extreme directionality, moderate power handling, the need for a large room, and moderate bass extension...". Now, large room? This coincides with my view. In 2010 I wrote of icefox's ESL57: "...As soon as I was inside, I was surprised by the big and reasonably dynamic sound the Quad ESL57 produced in this large space, firing in the opposite direction as Spendor...I believe icefox was drivng them with a pair of Manley 4xEL84 PP monoblocks. At less than 30 watts, the music was fluently rendered, once again proving that an EL84 amp is one of the best matches for Quad ESLs. The most surprising thing was that images were full and tall, the sound big. Once again this proves a large room sometimes works wonders. I have heard more "refined" Quads, but I prefer this big-hearted performance..." There, I believe most, if not all, of the HK ESL57 is wrongly used in small spaces. No matter how small, the ESL57 is not going to deliver high SPL, but in a larger room, it works better. I rather think that was the original intention.
- Buyer Beware: unless you are sure someone competent is going to restore it for you, buy ESL's with extreme caution. I have heard too many stories of "restored" ESL's that fail again, yet again. Ultimately, this kind of design is ill-suited to humid Asia.
Tube Amplifiers-vintage Basically we are talking about the venerable Quad II, a wonderful amplifier. It doesn't stand out, or shout (the antithesis to many Leak models), and I love its black background (not something that can be said of most Leak's) - perhaps the ESL of tube amps (I still own 3 pairs)! Tip: imho the Quad II sounds best with its matching preamp, be it the stereo Quad 22 or a pair of mono Quad QC/II.
Tube Amplifiers-current The current crop were designed either by Tim Paravicini (EAR) or Andy Grove (AN) and they are very good, but they do not quite sound like the older Quad II's.
SS Amplifiers-vintage I still own the 303, 405mkII and 306, and have heard the 50E. They are all very good, stable and confident, in a word, mature! My battered specimen of 303 is rather dark in color, but maybe a service is needed. The 306 on the other hand is my favorite for its looks and crisper sound. The 405-II is somewhere in between. ymmv. As for the 50E I reserve my judgement because of a bass issue I am not sure about. The 606 is also great.
SS Amplifiers-current and recent I am familiar with the Quad 77 to 99 range, and they all sound very good.
CD Players I have high opinion of the CDP-2 (mine has the Philips transport). The older CDP-77 and CDP-67 were both very good.
Tuners I own the FM4. Very good.