TAS Legacy: Quad ESL-57 Loudspeaker

TAS Legacy: Quad ESL-57 Loudspeaker

Since the mid-Forties Peter Walker had believed that the electrostatic principle would be, as he once put it with typical understatement, “a nice way of doing it.” The principle was simplicity itself: a thin plastic sheet with a conductive coating suspended between two perforated metal plates, the plastic diaphragm, charged to a high voltage, moving in response to signal voltages applied to the plates. But implementation proved challenging: The diaphragm’s lightness promised unprecedented transparency and transient response but could move only small amounts of air, so sufficient bass extension and loudness required a physically large speaker and restricted dispersion of high frequencies to a narrow sweet spot. It was inefficient yet had an absolute limit to how much power it could absorb before the panels were damaged. And then there were the high voltages, which mandated metal grilles that put many in mind of space heaters.

Yet when the speaker appeared in 1957, the impact was profound and revelatory. (“57” was never an official model number, merely a moniker of convenience coined by journalists and consumers to distinguish it from the later ESL-63.) Nothing up to that time and precious little since could lay a patch on the 57’s transparency, lack of coloration, neutrality, and an openness that caused one reviewer to observe, “All sensation of listening to a loudspeaker is lost.” With no illusions about either the possibility or the desirability of placing a symphony orchestra or dance band in one’s living room, Walker’s preferred metaphor for home reproduction was “a window onto the concert hall.”

Although the 57 officially ceased manufacture in the Eighties, its popularity became such that a whole cottage industry of modifiers and restorers has grown up to cater to the thousands of used 57s in need of refurbishing, true devotees preferring restoration to modification. Given the high enthusiasm of 57 owners, it may be necessary to point out that they’re not delusional, being the first to concede limitations. But, they counter, it plays adequately loud in most normal or smaller rooms and actually goes deep enough (below 40Hz), and the response, not falsely augmented by cone/box resonances, never thin or lacking in warmth. The 57 is a speaker for all seasons, though it is certainly not one for all reasons. Yet even today it remains a reference for midrange transparency and natural reproduction of vocal and instrumental music in the home. (TAS reviewers Paul Seydor and Jim Hannon use 57s—restored by Wayne Piquet of Quads Unlimited—for both reviewing and pleasure.) As for their putative shortcomings, let a paraphrase of Randall Jarrell’s famous words on some lines by Whitman be the reply: There are limitations in this design but they do not matter.