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Thai Soup?
A Thai friend once invited me home for supper saying her mother had just made a big pot of soup. When I got there I found a large pot of noodles and vegetables in a plain broth. On the counter there were at least a dozen jars of dried peppers and other spices. The diner was encouraged to “spice” the soup to their liking.

And that is the ESL-2805s. Of all the speakers I have known up-close-and-personal, the Quads were the most responsive to changes in the rest of the system including wires and tubes. If someone told me they heard Quads and did not like them I would not be surprised. I was able to take the Quads from “Yuck” to “Oh Baby, Baby” by changing speaker placement and upstream “ingredients”. They are not for the impatient but enlightenment is the journey’s reward.

With that lengthy preface I confess I can only report on the general nature of the ESL-2805s. Cymbal shimmer, horn honk, and other common parameters are at the mercy of the associated components. Please note that I firmly consider cables to be components and included them unconsciously when I use that term.

Nature or Nurture? (The Company You Keep)
The age-old question of heredity or environment came to mind while working to optimize the performance of the Quads. I had the opportunity to hear a pair of Antique Sound Labs (ASL) 55wpc monoblocks. The ESL-2805s responded well to the additional power and made me wonder how much of the Quad reputation was due to speaker design (heredity) and how much was due to the usual company they kept (environment).

As much as I enjoyed the Quad Classic Integrated amplifier there were times I longed for more power. Not to play louder because maximum volume was not even a remote issue with the Classic Integrated. I have learned that more power relates to headroom and speaker control even at moderate listening levels. I have experienced that numerous times. I was also faced with the dilemma of how to evaluate loudspeakers with too many variables (unfamiliar equipment) confounding the experiment.

I decided to ease in one of my Spectron amplifiers even though its power rating greatly exceeded amplifiers normally paired with the ESLs. Why? Well, because I could and inquiring minds need to know. My Aesthetix Saturn Calypso Signature preamplifier used in the low gain setting (minus 12dB) combined with a dialed-down output from my Memory Player provided the restraint needed to prevent the Spectron from overpowering the Quads.

Even at normal listening levels the Spectron amplifier offered more dynamics and control. I did not play music louder; there was no need. I think many people play music too loud in a futile attempt to get more “excitement” out of the music. What they are really looking for is dynamic response both in magnitude and speed. More power made the ESL-2805s take on a different personality like a kindergarten teacher after a few drinks letting her hair down on the dance floor. Compared to the Quad integrated, the ASL was a couple of drinks and the Spectron was a couple drinks more.

Was the Spectron too much power? Not when used judiciously with the Calypso Signature at its low gain setting. I am not recommending that much power. I am merely suggesting that the ESL-2805s respond well to more power than they are typically paired with. More importantly, the Quads will respond to whatever they are paired with so you can have them mild or wild. Even with the Spectron amplifier, the ESL 2805s were somewhat more laid back than dynamic driver (moving-coil) or planar magnetic speakers. Admittedly I do find some dynamic driver speakers (but not the majority) excessively dynamic as if they are trying to impart an undeserved excitement into the music. I preferred the more balanced presentation of the ESL 2805s. Purists should note that Quad offers several solid state and tube amplifiers more powerful than the Quad II Classic integrated. They are designed to be excellent companions to the ESL speakers thus removing any “guess work”.

According to the Quad website their speaker design strives for specific ideals. “Quad's patented panel technology results in a combination of the speed and accuracy only possible from an electrostatic loudspeaker; together with the imaging and sound-staging only possible from a theoretically ideal point source; and the coherence and continuity of a single drive unit.” The concept intrigues me because I value coherency very highly, perhaps above (but not exclusive of) all other attributes. Yes, I value tonality but I know I can change that by changing tubes, wires or amplifiers. Coherency lies largely in the domain of the speaker.

The Quad ESL reputation for transparency and cohesiveness combined with sparkling detail is well earned and the reason for the company’s longevity in the market. Certainly that is what garnered my interest. I was not disappointed. Those traits were proven again and again in my listening room. Now it is my task to elaborate on what I heard and I find words failing me, or at least being tricksters. I am sure the word transparency creates a different image for different people, and maybe especially so when it pertains to electrostatic designs. I have heard electrostatic speakers that created an audio image so thin and spacious it was unrealistic. They were like a seductress, at first beguiling, but ultimately false.

The ESL-2805s on the other hand avoided that artificiality while simultaneously avoiding coloration often found in box speakers. In the midrange and upper reaches at least, there was a tangible body to the music more akin to well-designed planar magnetic speakers. Image sizing also took on appropriate dimensions. Readers should note that my reference speakers are Apogee Mini-Grands (with custom crossovers) that I have spent the best part of two decades getting “right”.

I must also point out that the ESL-2805s will not automatically make all recordings sound great. They are chameleons and definitely reflect the quality of the recording and upstream components including the power cords on the speakers themselves. When set up correctly and paired with the proper associated equipment they proved to be the most transparent and cohesive speaker I have ever experienced.

                      

What It’s All About—the Music

I find Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi [Nonesuch 480380-2] a troublesome album. After playing it I frequently wake up at three or four AM with a few strains of “Dear Old Southland” or “St. James Infirmary” stuck on repeat in my brain. When fully awake and listening to it on the ESL-2805s I enjoy the presence of the trumpet in my room (but not in my face) while Allen Alternates between attacking the keys and seducing them. The delicate multi-layering of the recording is fully evident. When I close my eyes I can almost smell the bourbon and sawdust.

Melody Gardot shines on vocals and piano on her CD My One and Only Thrill [Verve B0012563-02]. I think Melody Gardot is the queen of pace, rhythm, and timing. Some popular female singers can’t seem to get the words out and their performances suffer a slow, painful death. I want to scream-“Yo B___, spit it out!” Melody seems to get it perfect for me and somehow combines a bluesy, sultry, laid-back style with a simultaneous propensity to inspire finger snapping and toe tapping.

The ESLs also got it just right for me. They excelled at PRAT because they did not have multiple drivers competing for the same task. They are fast but give a sense of layering music into a room instead of launching it like a missile. Cohesive is the operative term here. MS Gardot skillfully blends vocals, tenor sax, trumpet, bass, drums and Hammond organ on “Who Will Comfort Me”. “Your Heart is as Black as Night” features a prominent piano and powerful yet seductive vocals with an edge of moth-to-the-flame irony and inevitable disappointment. Quads are renowned for their clarity and accuracy in the mid-range. The newest models uphold the tradition unfailingly. The ESL-2805s capture all the subtle nuances and transitions of MS Gardot’s performance, inviting multiple plays of the entire CD.

On the track “Rosewood” from Yo-Yo Ma Plays the Music of John Williams [Sony B00005YVQ8], the solo cello was reproduced with excellent PRAT, and was articulate and sweet. Unfortunately, a little too sweet. This is a test track I use at CES and other shows so I have heard it on numerous systems. The Quads exhibited the characteristic more or less common to two-way speakers. The bottom end was missing along with the visceral impact. I have heard this recording reproduced with more grunt and growl.

Sometimes it is more telling to use a single non-percussive instrument with a sustained note to judge bass response. The Quads have a significant mid-bass response that, along with room reinforcement, can be quite satisfying and mask the lack of true low-end bass response. But, even though the cello does not have the lowest bass output, it doesn’t lie. Neither do the kettledrums and kick drums which can sound deficient on the Quads. Quad’s published specifications list –6dB at 37Hz acknowledging the perennial vulnerability of the design and the only weakness I could find.

I must not fail to mention how much I appreciated the sound staging with the ESL-2805s. The sound stage always seemed so appropriate-neither compressed nor exaggerated. There was generous depth and size but simultaneously excellent focus and definition. Some electrostatic and planar magnetic speakers have a presentation that is unnaturally large or diffuse. And moving-coil speakers can do gosh-awful things to a soundstage due to the different dispersion characteristics of the multiple drivers. The sound stage presented by the ESL-2805s combined with the uncompromising midrange performance and cohesiveness make these speakers stand out performers equaling or exceeding the performance of many more expensive speakers. In fact, I have heard few rivals.

Conclusion
The Quad ESL-2805s are not merely a bargain. They represent a real entry into high-end performance. They will sound great with modest components but also respond to equipment upgrades and allow the user to grow their system without feeling the immediate need to replace loudspeakers.

During my many years of wandering the halls and exploring the rooms at the CES and other shows, I found precious little that amused me and even less that excited me. The Quad ESL speakers were an exception. I felt compelled to bring a pair home for an extended visit. Despite the bass-shy performance the other attributes were more than compensatory; they were compelling. After spending several months working on the Quad review I knew I would regret it severely if I returned them. Consequently, I purchased the review pair for my personal use and as an additional reference speaker. I can pay no higher tribute.



Specifications:
Four-panel electrostatic loudspeaker
Impedance 8 Ohm nominal
Frequency Range: 37Hz-21kHz (-6dB)
Dimensions (HxWxD): 41”x27.4x15.2 (add 1-2” for feet)
Weight: 77 pounds each
Price: $8500/pair in standard black ($9500 in the Classic finish)


Address:
USA Distributor:
TAIGA LLC
310 Tosca Drive
Stoughton, MA 02072
Telephone: 781-341-1234
Fax: 781-341-1228
Email: info@taigallc.com
Website: www.quad-hifi.co.uk