The Wonderful Part of the Sound
Let us listen first to the Irish harp on “Come Ye Back” [Joanna Mell, harp, Donegal]. The clarity and purity of the sound, the complete coherence of the speakers, the absence of any sense of material drivers, and the image floating in the air between the speakers are the sorts of things that makes one think that audio really can be as beautiful as live music. This reminded me of the end of the Lovejoy episode “No Strings,” where one of the characters remarks, after the ancient Celtic harp is played, “Music for the angels indeed.”
Or listen to one of the Water Lily Acoustics recordings of Ali Akbar Khan. The purity and coherence and perfection of imaging give one the feeling that this is as close as one is going to get to hearing the great man play live, and of being immersed in the original performance space as well, provided one sits in the right spot and near to the speakers.
These are the kinds of music where the Quads excel and where few other speakers are even close. In purity and delicacy and coherence there is hardly anything else like them.
Now it is worth pausing a moment to talk a bit further about the immersion effect, the sense of being in the recording venue. If one sits close to the speakers and rather low (the acoustic center of the speaker is only about two feet off the floor), then the dipole pattern all but eliminates first sidewall reflections, the sound off the floor is integrated with the direct arrival, and the reflection off the back wall is a long time in coming if you have adequate space behind. (Damping the wall behind is also very desirable, for maximum purity and focus.) In effect, one is not hearing much of anything except the recorded venue for a long time. The effect is quite remarkable. Remarkable things can also be done with using the sound off the walls on purpose (as with the Carver ALS speakers I reviewed recently), but there is something special as well in hearing primarily direct arrival at least for a considerable time interval.
One can become addicted to this. When I owned an earlier version of the ESL63 design (the “USA Monitor” Quads), I used to spend a lot of time with the lights out sitting on the floor listening into other voices, other rooms, and the music in them. Harry Pearson, who heard this system when he came for a visit, said it sounded like gigantic headphones—but he had to admit that on the right recordings, there was a quite overwhelming effect of being transported elsewhere. I really liked this effect then, and I still do.
None of this is to suggest that the Quads do not sound good at greater distances. It is just that they have this amazing immersiveness at close range. Most speakers lack the necessary coherence as one gets close. With the Quads, one can listen in something much more like the “nearfield” than usual with no sense of anything but perfect coherence. It is a unique and entrancing experience. One does notice, however, that the synthesized point source idea does not quite work out in practice. The sound at close range does not seem to come from a single point, but coherent it is.
The Other Part of the Wood
So far, we have talked about what in olden days HiFi Choice called the qualities that could assume such overriding importance that no other speaker would do. And that can happen (I used the Quads as my main speakers for many years). But there is another part of the story.
Let us start directly with music again. A little less than two minutes from the end of the powerful march that is the third movement of the Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” Symphony No. 6, just after a rising sequence in the strings, the violins stop playing and there is a bass drum and timpani roll accompanying a powerful brass passage. In real life, the drums are soul stirring. (They are marked ff and fff. This is letter DD in the usual edition). This sounds in description like the kind of thing that electrostatics do not do well, and the reader is probably prepared for remarks about electrostatic limitations. But as it happens, this passage was quite convincing. And it was loud enough, too, for a room of moderate size. All right, so it was not Cerwin Vega territory (the CV CLS-215s—now there are speakers for Tchaikovsky). Still, it was exciting—and loud enough unless you have a very large listening room and want to fill it, rather than sit fairly close to the speakers.
Admittedly, the Quads are embarrassed if one asks them for something like the Gnomus from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition arranged for organ and played by Jean Guillou on Dorian (an amazing bass passage). For this sort of thing, one needs subwoofers. But ordinary orchestral or rock music, which both mostly end around 40Hz, will be all right both for bass and for volume (within reason).
But the reproduction of full-range music does present a problem, even though it is not in the bass where you were perhaps expecting it. It is, rather, in overall tonal balance. The Quads are midrange oriented: There tends to be a definite hole between 150 and 500Hz or so. The Quads are not so much bass deficient—as far down as it goes they are quite good in the bass, as noted—but they are deficient in lower-midrange energy. And the upper mids and lower treble sound projected comparatively.