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.

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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.

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