Quad 989 Loudspeaker Reviewed

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Few products are of such great consequence that reviewers both covet and fear them. Imagine the impact of a Linn LP-13 or an LS3/5b. Magazines and reviewers would fight for the scoops, and the resultant articles would enter audio lore as the first coverage of said milestones. I assure you that none of this has been lost on me because I than no other product launch since the Quad ESL63 carries as much baggage as...a new Quad speaker.

Additional Resources
• Read more floorstanding speaker reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an amplifier to power the Quad 989s.

Why ? Why me? A mix of politics, favours owed, sweet-talkin', schmoozing, begging, casting of rune stones - I dunno. All I can say is that I definitely didn't sleep with Stan Curtis. While I was overjoyed with the prospect of getting my hands on the Quad ESL-989 before anyone else, I knew that the pressures related to this review were greater than with any other product I've ever covered. And it's all your fault, for you constitute the most loyal, Quad-lovin' constituency in the world. This is, after all, the only the only surviving hi-fi magazine in the world which witnessed the birth of the original ESL, the '63 and now the 989. Whew...

While the ESL-988 is the direct replacement for the ESL-63, the company offered us the ESL-989 first. But the two are as directly linked as any two models can be, because the 989 is absolutely identical to the 988 with the sole addition of two extra bass panels to improve both the dynamic range and add to sort of bottom octave weight of which Quad has been in denial since, oh, 1955. But this is 2000, and the world - not just the Yanks - want deep bass, the ability to go loud without tears and the capability of serving in a home cinema system without wimping out. So, in a way, this is also a review of the 988 in every regard save price and bass extension.

Note, though, that the published data doesn't state the frequency response difference between the two; all remarks below are referenced against ESL63s, not 998s, on the grounds that the two are sonically indistinguishable. Speaking to Quad, it's clear that their ESLs are difficult to measure because of the way the sound is dispersed. What is easily confirmed is that the 989 definitely goes louder and deeper than the 988/ESL63, but by how much is hard to say.

To the great relief of all, however, a side-by-side audition shows that the 989 easily justifies its �1001 increase in cost over the smaller model, especially if you have a room that will exploit the extra bass and levels. As a matter of rough guidance, I would say don't even consider 989s for a room smaller than 10x15ft. ESLs need to be spaced far enough away from the back wall to allow them to 'breathe', at least 1m, so your 15ft deep room is suddenly down to 12ft.

When you first see a 989, you'll notice that it stands taller than the 988, 395mm to be precise, and that the 988/989 look exactly like an original ESL63 that's had its elegant wooden top replaced with a nasty black plastic surrogate. No amount of coaxing, nor the batting of Angie Curtis' long eyelashes, nor discourses on the cost of creating an injection moulding will change my feelings about it: the wood on the old '63 is far more attractive. If I owned 989s, I'd be straight on the phone to my friendly local carpenter.

Both 900-series ESLs boast improvements in rigidity, the sort which was all-but-denied in an earlier era because it was deemed to be a mere audiophilic pretension; I seem to recall that the 'rigid' ESL63 was dubbed the pro version and sold to Americans, while the home market got the limp alternative. Quad states that 90% of the components have been upgraded to 'audiophile' spec and the speakers both have a 5 degree backward tilt for better dispersion.

It's important not to understate the resistance to improvement which characterised the life of the ESL63. Because the company was born in and flourished during an era before cables, spikes, etc., attained mystical levels of importance, the company pooh-poohed anything not based on hard science. The 988 and 989 are the result of recently-departed MD Stan Curtis' battle to pull Quad back from the near-death experience inflicted upon it by previous custodians. That's precisely why it now boasts audiophilic componentry, an improved power supply and added rigidity. Hell, the speakers even come with a choice of nylon sliders or seriously pointy spikes.

Imagine what Peter Walker would think of the inclusion of such...

Arriving in two huge boxes, the 989s are just about manageable without assistance. Each weighs just over 25kg and measures 1335x670x315mm (HWD). Finished in Spinal Tap black, the Quads are almost too sombre. They could do with some light relief, like a different coloured grille 'stocking'. And that black plastic, injection-moulded cap seems out of place on a speaker costing �4000 per pair. Another change from ESL63 practice which I found annoying is the placing of the speaker terminals and on/off switch at the back of the plinth, rather than on top of it as per the older model. It was much easier to use in the earlier position.

One other minor consideration which needs addressing. Although most people will leave their Quads on at all times, since energising the ESLs to optimum performance is a long procedure, it wouldn't have hurt them to put a teensy little LED on the front to indicate that the speakers are powered up. Instead, there's a whacking great red light...on the back. (Martin-Logan is guilty of this, too, although I note that their new Statement E2 makes a feature of a front-mounted 'pilot' light.)

However unusual an ESL may seem to users of conventional systems, the 989 (and the identically-spec'd 988) is no amplifier breaker. The impedance is a nominal 8 ohms and the sensitivity equal to 86dB/1W. Using a variety of amplifiers - tube and tranny, small and large - I had no difficulty in extracting the desired levels in a 12x18ft room. And, as if to foreshadow the hotly-anticipated new Quad valve amplifier, the 989 sounded best with tubes. Sorry, but that's the way I heard it. For most of the sessions, I used the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista pre-amp and Nu-Vista 300 or McIntosh MC275 power amps with various sources. Speaker cable was Kimber, while my preferred mains ring wiring was Siltech silver AC cable. Positioning was two feet from the side walls and six feet from the wall behind the speakers, with negligible toe-in applied - maybe 10 degrees.

Read more about the Quad 989s on Page 2.

HTR Product Rating for Quad 989 Loudspeaker

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While the 988/ESL63 and 989 are virtually identical above, say, 150Hz, from there on down it's another world entirely. Imagine finding the perfect subwoofer for the Quads - an impossibility if you hold that hybrid speakers can never succeed. (This, of course, is a misconception held only by those who never heard a properly set-up Gradient subwoofer with Quads, recent Martin-Logans or the Levinson HQD.) It's as if 45 years of paranoid conditioning have suddenly been swept away. I was able to drive the 989s to levels I wouldn't dream of attempting to extract from the '57 or the '63, while - owner's manual cautioning notwithstanding - there was an added sense of security in the comprehensive protection circuitry. That's not to say that you can feed 'em all that a Krell C600 delivers; they'll fry like a free-range egg. But I was able to set them to levels which I found truly uncomfortable, backing off before they did.

So far, so modern: if Curtis and Co set out to turn the ESL into a real-world product suitable even for boorish headbangers with large rooms, then he succeeded. I must remind you that I did not attempt to break them; I just want to impress upon you that they go louder than I found bearable without shutting down or doing an impression of a lit Cohiba. Alongside this increase in maximum SPLs came a renewed sense of freedom of constraint. The dynamic capabilities improved audibly, especially noticeable with large-scale percussive works such as the new batch of Kodo drummer CDs, the speaker entirely free from the sort of compression - no, make that the application of brakes, which characterised an earlier Quad trying to keep up with big-sounding performances. Here, the sound track showed differences in 'majesty'. The ESL63 was impressive. The 989? Positively stirring.

But - as we're all refined individuals who bangeth not head - the real test was to determine if the bass quota had been increased to acceptable levels for those who listen to other than spoken word recordings or solo violin. Let me put your minds at ease about one thing, especially those of you who own, enjoy and or adore ESL63s: the clarity, openness, transparency and disappearing act so beloved of the originals remains untainted. You will feel right at home with the 989, and will revel in a deliciously deep soundstage, neutral midband and transient speed challenged only by certain ribbons and electrostatic headphones. But now you can wallow in the weight and mass imparted only by huge woofers, previously denied to you.

I have no idea what formula would describe the equivalency; Apogee once equated their bass ribbons in terms of X number of 12in conventional bass drivers. But I can tell you this much: the 989's bass extension and power are so close to that of the WATT/Puppy 6 that I found myself worrying when unavailable-to-earlier-Quads bass extension or impact filled the room. Think of it: a Quad which will deal with rave as well as with Ravel. It was the first time I heard Willy DeVille's 'Assassin Of Love' via Quads without sitting nervously in anticipation of the biggest thuds. No break-up, no clipping, just glorious bass.

But I am not a bass addict; I'm a mid-band junkie who lives happily with LS3/5As. But I'm also a reviewer who needs full-range performance, which meant that I restricted my use of Quads for specific rather than general reviewing purposes. This is no longer the case: I could easily substitute the 989 for any other speakers in my arsenal, to audition any ancillary without feeling that they weren't doing justice to the bottom octaves. And now, so can you.

By any measure, the 989 is a triumph, as well as a bargain in high-end terms. I just find it both ironic and sad that it took the wresting of the brand from unsympathetic caretakers to allow the 989 to happen. If this speaker had been issued in 1981, Quad would now be the world's supreme high-end speaker manufacturer, the high-end reference, instead of a recently-troubled near-anachronism. Stan Curtis has overseen the creation of a Quad speaker to challenge all-comers, soon to be followed by the appropriate amplifier.

Now, let's see what they do with this no-longer-secret, possibly-world-conquering weapon.

Additional Resources
• Read more floorstanding speaker reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an amplifier to power the Quad 989s.

Quad 01480 447700

Categorically, the original ESL63 represented a departure from conventional electrostatic design, although at heart it is pure ESL. Unlike a cone driver, it works by using a diaphragm made from a very thin membrane, one-tenth the thickness of a human hair, with a special conductive coating. The diaphragm is stretched between two electrode plates with high positive charges relative to earth. A slight difference between the charge on each electrode will cause the negatively charged membrane to be attracted to one or the other, thus creating movement of the diaphragm. The advantages over cones are numerous, not least being the successful use of an ESL diapraghm as a full-range transducer crossover. Moreover, the assembly is housed in a an open frame, so there is no cabinet to induce coloration.

Where the ESL63, and now the 988/989, differs from its classic 1950s predecessor is in its behaviour as a near-perfect point source 'from which sounds waves ripple like a pebble in a lake'. Quad ESLs employ a series of concentric anodes instead of two plates to produce a spherical sound pressure pattern, in which a series of electrode rings are fed with delay lines. Each ring responds to the change in current a split second after the previous ring, to creating movement in the diaphragm identical to the 'ripple in the pond' analogy. What's so uncanny about the Quad ESL's output is the way the speaker disappears, a phenomenon familiar to users of ESL63s over the past couple of decades. The point source appears to exist behind the speakers; Quad attributes to this a smooth frequency response and a truly three-dimensional stereo stage.

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