Let’s talk about the Quad ESL57. I don’t recall the exact year, perhaps around 1994, when I first encountered the legendary Quad ESL57. This was in a day before the internet had infiltrated all our homes. At the time I was living in the little village of Norden, in Rochdale, Lancashire, back in the United Kingdom, and information on anything related to this old Quad electrostatic could be found via old print publications only.
My system at the time was built around a Linn LP12, a Cambridge Audio CD2 CD player, amplification from Linn (LK1/LK2), and a very nice pair of Sonus Faber Electa speakers (and later, QLN Signature Splitfield II). Perhaps a year or so prior to encountering the 57s I was tooling around a junk sale and came across a couple of interesting items that I snagged for around 50 quid. The pair consisted of a vintage Leak Varislope preamplifier and a matching Leak Stereo 20 valve amp. The Varislope looked brand new, was in its original carton, complete with all paperwork, and sounded, well….pretty horrible. The Stereo 20 amp had some signs of wear but worked beautifully. Mated with the Sonus Faber Electa, the Leak Stereo 20 brought some of the finest sound quality I’d heard up to that point, into my home. Vocals were incredibly dense and rich, brass instruments sounded real, everything had warmth and body and a presence that made music such a pleasure to listen to. This was well before the day that audiophile neurosis had completely taken over my psyche. I was actually just in it for the music back then, I wasn’t chasing the last nth of detail or some unobtainium ‘live sound in your home’ that I became obsessed with in later years.
I was using a pair of Linn LK2-75 power amps at the time, to drive the Sonus Fabers, and I’d pretty much determined that two amps didn’t sound any better than one, so I decided to sell off one of the amps. I can’t even recall where I placed the ad. There wasn’t a Craigslist or even an Internet that I had access to at the time, so I probably placed an ad in the local paper, unlikely as that seems. I got a call from a fellow who wanted the amp but wanted to offer up something in part exchange. He’d a few things available so he suggested I come along to his home to take a look. The first thing of interest I saw was a pair of KEF 104/2 speakers, nestled in the corners of his room with a large fireplace extending into the room between the two speakers. I had a quick listen to the KEFs and decided that I’d never heard a more natural-sounding and better imaging speaker in my life. They sounded fantastic, but he wanted my amp plus an amount of cash that I didn’t have. We poked around in his listening room looking at this and that but nothing was really standing out, so he took me into another part of the house and showed me a pair of stored Quad ESL57 speakers. The Quads looked original and in good condition but he wasn’t able/willing to hook them up, so I took a chance on them and we exchanged Linn LK2-75 for Quad ESL57.
Getting the speakers home, it was quickly established that these things weren’t going to be allowed in the living room, where I had my main system set up. The only other available room was a spare bedroom which was not much bigger than the typical walk-in closet you’d find in an American home today. Perhaps 8’x8′ at the most. And that’s where they lived for the next couple of years, hooked up to the Leak Stereo 20 amp and the Varislope preamp, with an old CD player and an old FM tuner used as sources.
Thinking back I recall being fairly enamored with some of what the Quads could do in this small room, but they were very much second choice to the main system with the Sonus Faber. Listening to the Quads in that small space it was necessary to sit on the floor with my back against the door and the speakers perhaps four or five feet distant. There wasn’t much low bass to speak of, but the midrange was pretty incredible. They really did provide a transparent window into the recording space and there was something really special in the way they reproduced anything small in scale, and in particular, anything acoustic and unamplified. There was certainly a synergy with the old Leak valve amp, it imbued some needed warmth and body on instruments, fleshing out the images in a way that the Linn LK2 could not do.
The speakers remained in my possession for perhaps two or three years, until an opportunity arose for me to move to the USA on a 6-month work assignment. Eventually, the move became permanent, and I returned to the UK for a couple of weeks to clear out my home of all the worldly possessions that couldn’t be transported economically with me across the pond. Out on the curb for the garbage collector went the vast majority of my vinyl collection, and an old pair of Quad ESL57 loudspeakers.
I waited over twenty years for my next encounter with the Quad ESL57. This time it was at the 2019 Capital Audio Fest, in MD. I landed in the demo room of Robyatt Audio to see the wonderfully restored Quads sitting there winking at me. I hadn’t heard of Robyatt Audio prior to the show so I was keen to learn what this fellow, a Brit as it happens, was all about. It seems he’s a dealer for several high-end brands and that he represented a Quad resto company, Electrostatic Solutions [visit Electrostatic Solutions’ website here].
I wrote a brief report on Robyatt Audio on returning home from CAF2019, and you can read the show report and my experience with the restored Quad ESL57 here. My conclusion after a half hour or so in the Robyatt Audio room is summarized in this paragraph taken from my CAF 2019 review:
“I know the Quad sound pretty well, even though it’s been over twenty years since I had the misfortune of having to place my 57’s curb-side for the garbage collector. I would never have described the Quad-sound as veiled, even sitting off-axis, but that’s what I heard. Pleasant enough but lacking in dynamics and soul. Since others have indicated a more pleasurable experience, I’ll give Robyatt [Audio] the benefit of the doubt and try to catch them at a future show.”
There’s nothing much else to be said about what I heard at the show. In writing this (February 2022), I visited Mr. Wyatt’s website at the link above and no longer see mention of Quad or any affiliation with Electrostatic Solutions, so perhaps his involvement was a fleeting one. Still, my memory of the classic Quad 57 was somewhat diminished by the experience of hearing them at CAF2019 courtesy of Robyatt Audio.
Much has changed since the early days of owning the Quads, almost a quarter-century ago. A LOT of gear has passed through my system in the intervening years and I’m cognizant of the fact that somewhere along the way the emphasis shifted a little from enjoying music to enjoying gear. One of my pastimes has become the relentless search for new stuff to play with, new gear to bring into the system, and to that end, I spend an hour each day scouring through various classified ads, including my local Craigslist. And so my eyebrows raised one fine summer’s day in 2021 when I spotted an ad for a ‘nice pair of Quad ESL57s’ just a couple hours Northwest of me. Let’s take a look at what I found –
As you can see from the above, this particular pair was in close to mint condition – unrestored, unmolested, cared for, and with my name written all over them.
I spent a happy month or two with my new toys and I believe that I finally got to hear the Quads how they were meant to sound; in a high-quality, well-curated audio system. My old Quads never really got to play with the big boys. The Leak Varislope preamp I used back then was horribly veiled, I’m sure it needed a complete recap and restoration. And though I also used my Linn LK1 preamp, even the Linn wasn’t really up to the task of letting the music flow unfettered through the wonderful Quads.
In my 2021 system, I was fortunate enough to use some quality gear and to hear just how special the 57s really are, even by today’s standards of audio reproduction. As you can see in the photo above, my front-end was primarily vinyl – the excellent Origin Live Resolution MKIV and Illustrious tonearm, a Manley Labs Steelhead phonostage, the incredibly transparent Emotive Audio Epifania linestage, and my trusted Thor Audio TPA-60 monoblocks.
Sound of The Quad ESL57 Speakers
I’m sure you’ve all read about the main qualities of the ESL57, the incredibly open and transparent window to the recording space – and its midrange. It’s one thing to read about it, and you can try to use some point of reference from your own system to understand what’s meant by the term ‘transparency’, but you really don’t know what’s possible until you actually get to hear the 57s properly set up and in a good system. There’s literally nothing else like them, and given their age, that’s quite a remarkable statement in itself. The closest I’ve heard any other speaker come to capturing the transparency of the Quads was with a set of early Martin Logan CLS. But even they were off the mark in ultimate terms. I could waffle on a bit here about what the term ‘transparency’ actually means and why it’s so difficult for a conventional loudspeaker to remove itself from the sonic landscape. But it’s easier for you to just think about the term in a literal sense, and imagine that you’re in the room where the recording is happening and there are no mics, nothing electronic capturing the sound, it’s just you and whoever is singing or playing instruments on a stage. Other lesser speakers (and most, if not all speakers are ‘lesser’ when compared to the Quads in the realm of transparency) place you there but there’s always a sense of opaqueness, always some small filter that comes between your ears and the sounds being made.
And It Isn’t Just Transparency That The Quad ESL 57 Does Well
It’s relatively easy to describe transparency, but it isn’t so easy to put into words the sense of microdynamics that the electrostatic panels in the 57 are able to produce. Transients in the microdomain appear from the speaker almost instantaneously, with notes starting, blooming, decaying, then stopping effortlessly on a dime. Listening to well-recorded acoustic music, the Quads can present sounds with an ethereal quality the likes of which most of us have never heard. It’s certainly safe to say that I’ve never heard microdynamics, coupled with this level of sheer open transparency, from ANY box speaker, at any price. And I’ll extend that into the realm of other electrostatic speakers I’ve heard over the years and other conventional dipole designs. Take something like the Spatial Audio X3 that I recently owned and reviewed. In comparison to the 57s, the Spatial X3 was dark, slow, colored, and lacking in inner detail. Sure, their macro dynamic capability was far beyond that of the 57s, in fact, the 57s would have been reduced to ash had I put them through what the Spatial X3 went through in my listening room.
Another aspect of the 57s performance that is difficult to express in written form is the way in which they image. If you get the speakers well away from room boundaries, at least 48″ from the front wall, then tuck your listening chair quite close to the speakers, perhaps within 6 feet or so, and the speakers around 6 feet apart on center, with around 15-20 degrees of toe-in, there’s a chance that you’ll hear imaging unlike anything you’ve heard before. Of course, it’s a function of what you’re feeding into the Quads, but feed them from a good source, with a neutral and transparent preamp, and give them a handful of quality tube watts from a good power amp(s), and you’ll literally have the performers right there in the room with you. (I’m not talking about the unnatural, hyper-focused, and etched images that you hear in many small stand-mounted speakers). Turn the lights down low, pour yourself a glass of Talisker 18yr old single malt, and just relax into your listening chair. There’s no other experience quite like it.
Midrange / Highs
Each Quad speaker has three electrostatic panels – a high-frequency panel flanked by two bass/midrange panels. Many electrostatic designs are renowned for the ability to reproduce the human voice with tonal accuracy. I’ve heard various stats over the years, Martin Logans, Soundlabs, etc, but none I’ve heard capture the human voice in the same way as the 57s. You’ll hear the wonderful tone, timbre, and richness of the human voice like you’ve never heard from a music system before. You’ll hear every inflection, every breath, and you’ll hear the ambient space around the singer come alive with information and become a part of the performance.
Better than voice reproduction is the tonality of strings. You’ll discover for the first time the audible effect of reproducing strings without any coloration. At first, you might be tricked into thinking that there’s something missing. And in a sense, there is. What you’re not hearing is the grungy overlay of a cabinet resonance coupled to a slow-to-respond ‘dynamic’ driver that’s thumping out the music. What you’re not hearing is the shrill woosh of air as it passes through the cupped hands of a horn-shaped driver. What you are hearing, to coin a phrase from the past, is the closest approach to the original sound.
What, No Bass?
That’s right, there isn’t any real low bass extension to be had from the Quad ESL57s, but you already knew that – expect bass output to around 45 Hz, and pretty much nothing by the time you get to 40 Hz. But what you do get is quality bass, natural bass, completely void of any cabinet coloration or boominess.
Those Quad fanatics who need more bottom end will either try to stack Quads, (four speakers, each channel a pair of 57s stacked one on top of the other in a custom frame), or they’ll try to integrate subwoofers into the mix and likely screw things up. I’m not saying you can’t run subs with 57s, just that there’s a way to do it properly, then there’s the way that most people will attempt to do it. Properly integrated, subs won’t get in the way of the Quad magic and you won’t notice that they’re even there. You mustn’t assume that since you were able to integrate a sub with a conventional dynamic speaker you have what it takes to do the same with Quads. Even those of you who’ve had some success with integrating subs with Magnepans, Apogees, or other speakers known to be difficult candidates for sub integration, may need to rethink your strategy. In my experience, the key to using subs with Quad ESL57’s, is to use sealed subs, have a system for measuring the frequency response from your listening position, have some method of equalizing the subs so their output behaves sympathetically with the room, be prepared to position the subs closer to the listening position than the speakers, and accept that the sub output is going to need to be dialed down quite significantly so as not to upset the tonal balance of the 57’s. Also, keep any EQ out of the signal path to the main speakers, and run the 57s full range.
Perhaps I’ll write more on this at a later date, but for now, here’s a list of the equipment I used to get quality low bass with a Quad 57 setup-
- Modified Aerial Acoustics SW12 (pair)
- Crown XLS2502 power amp driving the SW12’s
- HSU VT3 subs for rear corners, pair.
- MiniDSP 2x4HD controlling all 4 subs
- UMIK MIC for room measurement
- REW software
[Of course, there are other approaches available, one option being the use of servo subs, another being the addition of open-baffle bass drivers. In fact, Magnepan makes a bass enhancement module for us with their speakers, the DWM I believe. It would be interesting to experiment with a pair of those alongside the Quads].
Higher SPL Concerns
So low bass is obviously the Quad’s main weakness and also the fact that you can’t play them loud without risk of destroying the panels [and potentially destroying the power amps driving them.] There are modifications that you can have retrofitted to the Quads that essentially provide a current-limiting feature, so you can’t physically over-drive the panels to destruction. My 57s did not have this feature, but even with protective circuitry, you can’t defy the laws of physics and recreate concert levels through the 57.
Back in the day, the ingenious folks at Quad decided to design an amplifier that would act as the perfect companion to the 57s, and by virtue of its low-rated output would not have the capacity to damage the Quads during playback. The amplifier designed specifically for the Quad ESL 57 was the Quad II monoblock. Each channel was capable of a maximum output of only 15 watts, limiting the maximum SPL to around 100db measured at 1 meter from the front of the speaker. Given the increased output produced when operating the speaker as a stereo pair, 100dB might seem quite reasonable. Of course, as you double the distance from the speaker you’re hearing a 6dB drop in sound pressure level, which invites the listener to sit more nearfield to the Quads, as I’d mentioned earlier. So at 6 feet or so from the speaker, you may be able to drive the Quads to around 94dB, enough to enjoy most types of music comfortably. However, if your amps are capable of overdriving the Quads, how is one to know that we’re not going to go over 94dB on loud peaks and transients? And what about the age and condition of our speakers, is it safe to assume that 94dB at 6′ is OK on a relic from the 50’s that’s never had a restoration?
And what about your amps, are they safe for use with the 57, not just from the perspective of the speaker imploding and taking the amp with it, what about the speaker load presented to the amp under normal conditions? The restraining factor on the Quads isn’t watts, it’s actually volts, 33v being the maximum permissible output from an amp before the speaker panels might arc and throw in the towel. As a load, the 57 is hardly benign, it is in fact very reactive with an impedance peak at around 100hz of 40 ohms, a drop down to under 2 ohms in the treble region at 17Khz, and a stated efficiency around 84db/1w/1m.
So you need an amp capable of driving the Quads not just with a 15-watt capacity, but something capable of delivering the goods unrestrained into as low as a 2-ohm load.
No one said Quad ownership was going to be easy.
Living With The Quad ESL 57.
And so we come to the crux of the matter, is it possible to live with Quads and use them as your daily driver? The answer is obviously “it depends”, but from my own perspective, the answer is no.
Firstly, I do like to play loud music loud. Think about that. There’s music that doesn’t need to be played at higher volumes, but some of it does. I call that ‘loud music’. And it isn’t just Rush or Led Zeppelin, think about a good deal of classical music recorded with a wide dynamic range. Set the volume such that you’re comfortable listening to a piano section in your favorite classical piece (the musical term for playing quietly or softly is called piano), then sit and worry like a crazy person that when a forte is encountered, you’ll be scraping pieces of 57 from your wife’s favorite red velvet curtains.
I also think that every track has its own optimal volume setting, where it just sounds right. That’s the main reason I sold the wonderful Emotive Audio Epifania preamp, it didn’t have volume control. So yes, I sit listening to music generally with the remote in one hand and a gentleman’s drink in the other. It’s how I roll. I don’t want the system to be the constraining factor on how loudly or quietly the music should be played. I also don’t want to sit there like a bag of nerves, wondering if the next loud passage that comes along is going to be over the volume threshold for the speakers. And yes, with the Quad ESL 57s, I’ve actually sat there holding my iPhone with an SPL app open.
So for me, the ideal way to own this classic speaker would be to have the luxury of being able to afford and provide space for two separate systems.
It was with a heavy heart that I finally decided to part ways with the classic Quad ESL57.
I placed an ad online and a couple of weeks later a gentleman made the long drive down from the DC area for an audition. He was a nice guy, though clearly not used to being around higher-end audio gear. He didn’t offer up any audiophile ramblings nor did he try to verbalize his thoughts on hearing Quads for the first time. He basically sat there slack-jawed and mesmerized, and would have remained there for as long as I’d allowed him to, of that I’m sure.