Product: ESL-989 electrostatic loudspeaker
Manufacturer: Quad - UK
Approximate price: e7000 (UK), e9000 (export markets)
Test sample: auditioned at dealer's (multiple sessions)
Reviewer: Werner Ogiers
This is easily the best loudspeaker I have ever heard. This dawned on me as I was positively dreaming away in the music, only minutes after starting a listening session. My ESL-57s can have the same effect, yes. Sometimes. But now I was not even in the mood for music. And I was not in my own room. I was in a listening room I know pretty well, but all the same, a room I need several hours in to get into the groove. So, I say it again, for me the ESL-989 is the perfect loudspeaker.
Too bad it isn't perfect.
But more on that later. Without any doubt, the 989 is also a mythical loudspeaker. Its existence, or rather, the plans for its existence, were rumoured years ago. Back in January 1998 I wrote on Visions in Audio:
Quad will issue brand new electrostatic loudspeakers in 1998, beginning at the WCES. While I was in the know about a potential successor to the legendary ESL and ESL-63 models, I only was expecting it at around 2000! Listening to the grapevine revealed that three models are to be made available. The first, dubbed ESL-989, will be a large high-end panel speaker, equivalent to one-and-a-half stacked ESL-63. The second, 988, will be a cosmetically updated ESL-63, and the last (987) will be a smaller model for home theater use (and this is the one I'm really interested in): it will be 150cm high, and will consist of a 1m high narrow electrostatic upper section, the lower part of the speaker being a plinth. There are also rumours of a Quad subwoofer which should excel at blending with the room acoustics to produce a never-boomy bass. Hmm. Prices? Count on US$11500 for the larger electrostatic model. Ouch... Available at the end of this year. Start saving now!
It has its definite plusses, hanging around grapevines. But it remained with rumours and vapourware. Quad was in trouble. The evil Verity empire that bought the company off Saint Peter couldn't care less as it was too preoccupied getting NXT off the ground. It was only with the take-over by International Audio Group and initially with Stan Curtis at the helm, that Quad got a bit more much-needed breathing space, and that serious developments could start.
Not everyone saw this as a good sign. There have been anonymous e-mails sent off to the net's hifi regulars painting a bleak future for the Quad lovers, depicting the new products as low-quality Chinese-produced gear aimed at suckers going for the Quad name tag. Of course there was reason for concern: look at what happened to that other IAG company, Wharfedale. On the other hand, Wharfedale is now probably making money, even when the brand itself is almost an insult to its own past. But if money is being made, money can be put to use... And anyway, I don't care if something comes from Huntingdon, Buckingham Palace, China, or Mars, and as for build quality: more on this topic later ...
And then last year the new ESLs materialised. But tough luck for those who wanted to buy. Even today the delivery time is 12 weeks and counting. But hey, my prophecy also became true: it had to be 2000 before we got the new Quads!
In name a re-hash of the older ESL-63, the ESL-989 is in effect a totally new speaker. For starters, two bass panels have been added, increasing extension in the lower octaves and dynamic range / loudness abilities as well. These bass panels sit one above and one below the four small horizontal panels we already knew from the '63. These latter act as one single radiator mimicking a true point source - the Holy Grail in speakerland - as they are driven through concentric electrodes from the centre to the perimeter, with added delay towards the outer rim. The high-voltage power supply and the actual delay lines have been redesigned with better components. And last but not least, overall rigidity has been improved. A lot. An awful lot. Compared to the new 989, the ESL-63's construnction was a sorry joke. But the new loudspeaker? Well, at one instant they were emitting subwoofer-like oodles of bass (oh oh, such a giveaway) and their frames did not tremble a bit. So much for build quality.
Aesthetically they are a let-down. Tall, boring black monoliths. Just what the world needed. And indeed, the plastic top plate is a disaster, as Ken Kessler already wrote in his HFN&RR review of July. Do expect wooden add-ons from independent sources emerging everywhere. But OK, we were talking black monoliths. Don't like them. But there is a simple solution.
Strip them bare naked!
Yes, taking off the top plate and sock reveals the black cage in which the shiny panels reside. This makes for a positively high-tech appearance that will do well in modernly-furnitured rooms (mind, the photograph to the left doesn't really do them justice). Of course the bare speakers will need some tidying up of the now-exposed fixings for the cloth and such, but a distributor worth his salt should be able to take care of this. And anyway, I predict that the pressure for naked ESLs will rise sky-high, so Quad themselves might well come up with a final solution.
Stripping them also yields you a light show for free, and no, we don't have to revert to panel arcing this time! As with all older Quads, the diaphragms still reside in a translucent dust-proof 'room'. This keeps dust out with the speakers continuously powered, and so live is prolonged considerably: no stories here of slowly deteriorating performance and premature death - smoking truly is bad - as with almost all other brands of electrostats. But anyway, these dust covers reflect whatever lighting you have in your room, and with some bass going on in the music, you'd be forgiven thinking you're in a discotheque :-)
First listening sessions with a full Quad 99/909 stack were very promising, but not conclusive. As always, and even though the power amps are competent, Quad's pre-amplifiers sound neutral enough, but lack finesse, detail, and overall liveness.
No, the serious listening was done with the Trichord Orca and Alecto monoblocks (120W class AB MOSFET things, and formerly sold under the name of their parent company, Michell Engineering), and an assortment of CD players. But not in my own room: the ESLs crave space. A lot of it, actually.
You see, the 989 is the first truly full-range electrostat I've encountered. Its bass is marvellous, and starts at the lowest notes, pitch-true, rumbling when needed, dry and fast when called for. But your room has to support it. If they are less than 2 meters from the wall behind them, you can expect all kinds of comb filter-like response aberrations. Oh, they can be played in smaller rooms, yes, but in that case I feel some serious treatment with tube traps or other bass absorbers is required. If not positioned properly, bass quality turns lumpy. When done well, there is the mass and impact I'm used to from big moving coil speaker like the Synthese One.
Only, the panel's bass can be better, more coherent. And what's more, and this is the real wonder of the ESL-989s, its sublime coherence stretches out over the whole audible spectrum. Yes, from double basses up to triangle notes the ESL-989s sound as one single source, revealing all other speakers as hopelessly coloured.
Such neutrality and precision would be utterly wasted if the speakers rendered everything in a colourless and liveless fashion. We all have had enough of bone-dry analytical systems, not? Well, don't be afraid. The Quads make music sound like music!
Gentle, delicate, and firm and pretty loud when asked for, too. Musically-speaking the 989s are more like a big ESL-57 done-right than a successor to the sometimes-criticised ESL-63. Indeed, the stone-age 57s marvel with an almost-optimal midrange, offset by obvious limitations in the bass register, in imaging, and of course in overall loudness. Moreover, the resonant behaviour of the ESL-57s grille mesh tends to add a dirty, thrummy colouration to its output, making it sound a bit old-fashioned. But still, there are whole tribes of people wanting to die for its midrange, people firmly stating that the ESL-63 sounds too closed, too shut-in, to match its elder sister. Well, that lethal midrange is back, entirely without colourations, and stretched all over the spectrum.
Unless you count in ... No, wait for that.
Lest you think I'm going over the top: no, the ESL-989s aren't the most dynamic, the best-imaging, the deepest-going loudspeakers around. B&W Nautilus 801s go much louder. But they can't sound as good as the ESLs at whispering levels, nor as friendly and intimate. Apogees like the Caliper Signature portray a cello even more realistically. But they make a mess of the bass. And your horn-of-the-month is even more dynamic. But at what price, neutrality-speaking? Martin Logans may image more specifically, but then their plasticky colourations spoil the broth for me.
No, the Quads' forte lies entirely in the simple fact that they do everything consistently very good. Nothing ever draws the attention. And as such they are a window on the music and the performance. They paint a seemless area filled with sound, wall-to-wall, and you can only sit back and enjoy. There is no alternative.
Driving them is an interesting issue. Quad lists a sensitivity of 86dB@1m for 2.83V. The measurements in HFN&RR point more in the direction of a measly 82dB. The big Trichord amp played effortlessly, but after a while the question "what with tubes?" arose. Obviously.
Now the only tube amps at hand were a couple of seriously-modified Quad IIs. Still 15W KT-66s animals, those, but entirely crammed with Black Gate capacitors and Vishay resistors. Their owner, pondering the purchase of 989s, already was mourning, expecting having to retire these monoblocks in favour of something more muscular.
Not! With the tube amps in tow we got just the same kind of listening levels and dynamics as with the MOSFET monsters, and almost the same deep bass. Of course, the overall character of sound changed a bit: rounder bass, smoothed-over mids and treble, and a glow to everything. If you want, a slightly dated sound, but listenable and engaging too, even if the IIs slightly masked what the 989s truly could do. So far for amplification.
But alas, I am not finished yet...
I said they were perfect, but not without flaws. Their need for lots of space has been covered already: positioning them badly really can screw up the sound big time. They are demanding of the system up-stream, too. Much more so than the ESL-57 or ESL-63 were.
And then there is one aspect I still have problems with. Quite unexpectedly, loud voices can turn hard. It is not a full-time colouration, no, it really is an on/off phenomenon, like clipping or saturation. But what is the cause? I know there are people opining that the 989s midrange is a tad too prominent. I think it isn't, given the stellar performance it puts down 95% of the time.
Is it a problem with the amplifier, lack of current? I don't think so, as the hardening up was there equally with the 120W Trichords as with the 15W Quad IIs.
Is it simply the truth told about either the CD-players or even the recording? Is it a room-related thing?
Is it then a hidden hard limit to its dynamic capabilities? Such would be a shame, given the at times thundering and roaring bass.
Hell. I don't know, and I must try and experiment a bit more for a final verdict. I am awaiting some comments of Quad on this, but I feel and fear that it is a limiting in the speaker. This would be sad, as it would rule out some genres of music (funny then, full-blast symphonic sounds a dream, while Mary Black ...) On the other hand, I've been told of someone with huge Krells not having this problem.
Please read a follow-up of this review.
This is a wonderful loudspeaker offered at a high price. While owning a Quad in the past was always a remote possibility for each and everyone seriously interested in music, today I feel like the product is targeted at the filthy rich minority who seem to have replaced the hifi brotherhood altogether. There is a malaise in the high-end, and damn, now Quad is part of it.
But why should I rant?
The Quad is not more obscenely priced than many others, and at least it truly delivers. And how ...
© Copyright 2000 Werner Ogiers - http://www.tnt-audio.com