“Why did you buy those, where are we going to put them? No, I don’t like them”
This was my long suffering wife’s reaction at my first step into vintage HiFi when I came home with my Quad ESL 57s.
There’s an old saying that you can judge a man by his haircut, shoes and watch. You can obviously add car, house, boat, wife and more to this list but HiFi is often overlooked as a key indicator of a type of man. Especially in the digital age, where taking the time to sit, listen and appreciate music seems to have disappeared.
The first time I became aware of HiFi was when my father came home with some enormous boxes from Harrods with the word SONY on the side. He slowly and carefully unpacked the heavy and beautifully made turntable, receiver and speakers, as if they were precious porcelain. It’s difficult to believe that no-one had heard of SONY.
As a family, we would sit in the living room, drinking tea, listening to bands like The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones on Dad's new HiFi. The HiFi enabled you to hear a wonderful depth of sound; it smelt nice too–it must have been all those valves and plastic heating up.
Then there was Ray’s HiFi: he had an eccentric English brand, called Quad. His system had the most amazing, huge, flat speakers called ESL 57s. The name is the abbreviation of Electrostatic Loudspeaker 1957. They were flat because in the pursuit of audio perfection, the chaps at Quad decided to run an electric charge through a large, flat speaker, rather than a cone shaped one (this is obviously a very basic explanation). Quad invented thin electrical equipment as a by product of perfecting sound.
As a young Account Director at Y&R, I met Tim Broadbent, who was one of advertising's greatest planners. Tim was an exceptionally intelligent man, and spent his life being patient with us lesser mortals. He was a fellow obsessive, and we’d spend hours discussing the joys of bespoke suits and fine shoes. He loved his Rolex GMT, and he adored his Quad HiFi, and would eulogise on the benefits of gold cables.
One night, I came home drunkety drunk-drunk, and found myself on eBay. eBay is a dangerous place for any obsessive, but for a drunk obsessive, it’s the devil incarnate. I have no idea why I typed Quad ESL 57 into the search bar, but to my surprise, a pair appeared. I bid a derisory amount, and went to bed.
The next day, accompanied by my hangover and my father, I headed to deepest Hackney to collect my prize. We arrived at a small Victorian terraced house, where a gentleman audiophile wearing a cardigan opened the door, and, slightly grumpily, welcomed us in. His wife sat smugly at a small table, while the large, flat radiator-like speakers sat in the middle of the living room.
He played a strange CD of sounds to prove that they worked with clarity at different sound levels. My hangover didn’t enjoy this. Then, pointing to his wife, he moaned that he had to sell his beloved speakers because, “She was sick of the sight of them." She smiled, and rolled her eyes.
He went on to complain that I’d pretty much stolen them from him. I asked why he hadn't set a reserve? This angered him further, as he didn’t know that he could. Then, a dastardly grin appeared on his face, and he said, “You do have the correct set up for these? Because they’ll ark and burn out if you use the wrong amplification.” On this note, he handed me the service documents (yes, these speakers have service history, just like a valuable car), and chuckled to himself as he waved goodbye. My hangover felt worse.
It took a small fortune, and a lot of time, to track down a pair of original Quad Classic II amplifiers (the serial numbers must be reasonably close), plus the matching radio and receiver; and then yet more money to get them all restored and serviced by London Sound in Harrow, who did an amazing job, and are audiophiles who exist in a stereo galaxy far, far away.
I love my ESL 57s, but my wife hates them, and we need to build an extension to house them.
This article is dedicated to a fellow obsessive, Tim Broadbent, 1st October 1953-7th July 2015.