Pigeonholed

June 30, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

One of my readers reminded me that I don’t like either electrostats or vacuum tube output stages.

Funny thing is, it isn’t true.

There was a period in my life where all I listened to was through electrostatic loudspeaker powered by vacuum tubes.

I moved away from electrostats because I missed dynamics.

I moved away from vacuum tube output stages because I missed the control afforded by high damping factor amps.

But just because I moved on doesn’t mean that at the time I wasn’t in love with what I had.

In each phase of our development, we define ourselves by where we are in time.

And then that changes.

It’s the tradeoffs in life that define where we are at the moment.

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53 comments on “Pigeonholed”

  1. I had to sell my Quad ESL-63 under threat of divorce. I sold them to perhaps one of the few people who is both a professional audiophile (part-time) and a lifelong professional classical musician. He bought them for his son, a trainee conductor, as in his opinion there is no other speaker that is as detailed and realistic with amazing imaging. They also operate best at significantly lower volume levels than conventional speakers. Peter Walker stated they were designed primarily with classical and jazz in mind. Heavy metal did not exist when the ESL-57 was created. The ESL-63 had enough dynamics for me.

    Curiously, the Quad ESL-57 were originally designed to be used with Quad II valve amps as solid state was not yet available. The Quad 33/303 pre/power solid state amplifier was specifically designed to drive Quad ESL and they were only released when Peter Walker was satisfied they measured and sounded as good as his valve amplifiers. Hence they came to market quite late because solid state was new and he didn’t rush things. His view was you don’t need valve amplifiers, you just need a good amplifier.

    The Quad ESL-63 also seem to have enough dynamics for a lot of people, as they have been in production largely unchanged for over 60 years and have sold in huge numbers. The same goes for the Quad valve and solid state amplifiers, which remain popular.

    Other manufacturers then added bass units to electrostatic and planar panel designs for the reasons Paul elucidates. Quad never did that, thanks heavens. electrostatics are a good reason to have two systems for different music, wife-permitting.

    1. My buy sell story is in reverse of yours.
      I bought ESL 57s from a concert violinist. Then I bought a pair of Gradient
      Subs that served as the new base for the ESLs. They were then bi amped
      Using a Quad 405 and a Dynaco 70 as
      Amps and a Boulder Pre amp.
      The combo sounded terrific and being a Jazz fan I was super pleased!
      In another listing room at home a had a pair of Maggis powered by McIntosh pre and amp which also sounded great!

      I had three other rooms at home all with solid state amplification and boxed speakers- these sound good as well but different!

      BTW I just heard for the first time a young jazz musician and composer in So Florida named Kemuel Riog- his music is available on Qobuz and deserves trying out!

      Well my “listening palace” has been sold and now I am in auditory solid confinement- one listening room, two sets of bookshelf speakers powered by a class D amplifier. Surprisingly the set up sounds good and provides adequate
      Masking for my tinnitus. Surprisingly the
      Gear sound good but my only problem is that my preamp display is stuck at 44.1 irrespective of the sample rate of the input irrespective of the sound source! Much to my dismay I’ve been told by the manufacturer that this cannot be repaired! I’m not sure if all is processed at 44.1 or it’s just a display
      Issue.

      I’m seriously looking for a different pre and amp even though the current gear is within warranty. It’s just difficult to
      Live with a broken item ,under warranty ,and no resolve from the manufacturer.

      Larry

      1. Well Larry, you’ve come to the right place because I’ve heard that ‘PS Audio’ has a great range of affordable pre & power amps that you can listen to for a month before you send them back or ‘pull the trigger’ on 😉

    2. NEVER! Love comes in many different forms. Sound and audio reproduction are happiness! We have two ears and one mouth… music can never be truly reproduced by electronics.. but there is 5 billion 100 and six million women on this planet! You dont need that headache from that one my friend! LOL!

  2. If Quad is looking for a new head of the PR department…I happen to know the right man for the job !

    btw., there was a time in my life where I actually owned the Quad 33/303.
    Yes I know, I had lost all self-esteem. But then I got older and fortunately wiser 🙂

    1. I don’t think my affection for Quad ESL, and their limitations, is different from most others who have owned them.

      The longevity of Peter Walker’s designs and the numbers sold is testament to his extraordinary innovation. The 33/303 was a landmark in low distortion, but the 405-II current dumper proved how you can make a great amplifier with very low distortion and very cheap components, whereas most brands make a big thing about using the most expensive components. He also introduced a proprietary balanced ampbus connection (QuadLink) years before people started doing such things.

      His big failing was putting power switches on the back panel of speakers and components.

  3. Paul, with your passion for home audio electronics, I can’t imagine that there’s much gear out there that you don’t like…except maybe BOSE, Klipsch & Rotel 😉

    I’ve never listened properly to ‘tube amps’ & never owned electrostatic loudspeakers, however, since my main genre is Rock ‘n Roll I probably didn’t miss much, & so I never comment about them.
    I jokingly poo-poo vinyl because the vinyl that was available in Australia in the ’60s, 70s & 80s was just so woeful in it’s quality, groove & surface noise.
    All the pressings made here sounded like they were made by the ‘Kellogs’ label.
    The JVC SK-33’s, the Yamaha NS-500’s & the 15″ three-way Cerwin-Vega’s (model escapes me) that I owned before I turned twenty-one, were rubbish (but I was young & financially challenged) compared to the Ditton 66’s.
    Harbeths were also a very good (amazing) experience (interlude).
    Pioneer, Sansui, Marantz, Luxman, Denon, Onkyo & now Musical Fidelity (1976-2021) amplifiers were all dynamic enough for me at the times in my life when I owned them.
    Only three turntables until my first CD player in 1984… “And then that changes” …from 1987 no more vinyl, only CDs.
    Paul says ‘tradeoffs’; I say ‘compromise’, but it’s basically the same idea.
    It’s not logical or productive to pigeonhole anything in home audio because of individual taste, individual hearing & individual budgets.

    I sold my Onkyo – ‘A9070’ yesterday for AU$750; it’s off to Byron Bay with TNT couriers.

    1. I expect the buyer is hoping for an ‘explosive’ sound. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

      Think some of that 60’s-80’s vinyl was later imported into the U.K.

  4. I also owned Quad 33/303. I wonder how many others here did or still do? Bought mine secondhand from a local chap along with a Transcriptors Hydraulic Reference Turntable. I still have the turntable but only as a piece of art, no phono input on my DAC 🙂 Probably got my money back on the 33/303.

    Later I had a 66/306 combination. I loved that table top remote of the 66 with rotary volume control. I was never going to lose that, until I heard a passive volume but without remote. I loved the transparency of the passive but didn’t want to lose the luxury of remote volume. Better sound won out in the end though and the 66/306 was on its way. Fortunately never difficult to sell Quad stuff, no doubt due to its reputation.

    Things have now moved on again and my last three DAC’s have taken care of volume control duties, and remotely. So that defines where I am. I feel it gives me a definitive sound, for the moment.

  5. Paul. I love electrostatics, including for their dynamics – if you have the right ones. And you live in Colorado, the land of large electrostatics ! You must have heard Roger West’s Soundlabs ? Each model is fantastic – but the Majestic is their pinnacle 🙂 I own these, way off in Perth in Western Australia (and you have said you have been here ha ha). How do you rate these against your Infinity Reference’s or the Genesis ? (which was. I believe, the reason you were in Perth, many years ago – to install Genesis 1’s). I use large Class A amps to get them moving and under control 🙂 And I expect that you fabulous mono amps would be a great match as well.

      1. That’s the new 3.7 version. They’re getting rave reviews. They are an all ribbon design and if I had the money I would trade up but there is a point when I have to say enough. I need money for my retirement which I am already in and hope that I’m gonna live another 20 years. I know that Magnapan was hiring new employees left and right because they cannot keep up with the demand of all of their models. That says a lot about the company and their designs. Steve Guttenburg was invited to a New Jersey audio salon and did a video about his experience with Wendell Dillard the head of Magnapan who brought what he called the ultimate design for an audition and Steve’s reaction was that this demo model was the closest to live music that he ever heard. This design may never go into production though and I’m not sure why.

  6. Like FR I mostly listen to Rock ‘n Roll and The Blues. And, also like FR, I have never had electrostatic speakers ( although I have heard them at audio shows ). My journey started in 1970 with a Heathkit SS amp ( which I built ) and JBL L88 two way speakers. Around 1986 it became an NAD receiver and ADS three way floor standing speakers. In 2002 it became all tube conrad-johnson amps and Audio Physics Virgo III speakers. And about five years ago it became c-j tube preamp and phono preamp with a Constellation SS power amp and Magico S7 speakers. I have always played vinyl ( except for a period in the 90’s when I did not have a proper place to setup my TT ) and I started playing SACD’s in 2001.

  7. I guess it could be easy to become or classified as pigeoned holed. If someone has preferences and doesn’t want to deviate from them then that’s fine. Really it’s not much different than brand loyalty, Although sticking the ears out of the hole once and a while may lead to other considerations.

    I remember one time hearing quad ESL’s at one of the Stereophile shows in NY in the late 80’s very early 90’s. I was there with my ‘old man’ and grandfather. (Both ardent audiophile’s and Macintosh lovers). We stopped and listened to a quad set-up in one of the rooms. While BS’ing amongst ourselves I made a comment on how close they sounded in the midrange to a pair of another brand I had at home. This enraged some jerk who was at the show – he had come and parked his ass in that room never listening to anything else –

    Out of respect for who I was with (along with all the others there) I bit my tongue as was he was in my face throwing a tirade. My grandfather stood 6ft 4 about 280lbs, my father was smaller but a golden gloves boxer who wasn’t afraid to scrap with anyone. I tried to diffuse the situation by heading to the men’s room. The jerk followed and started getting physical as I headed into the restroom. Both of who I was with looked at each other, then at me and said we’ve got the door and your back If needed.

    To hear them describe what happened next always brought a smile to my face. A lot of screaming from the jerk, and then a loud don’t f**king swing at me comment from Mike . Then a fair amount of kluds and scuffling. Finally the unmistakable sound of a flush.

    While explaining what happened to the nice security folks, the jerk emerged with a wet head and clothes. One might say he got pigeon holed in the loo of life.

    So while I like the sound of the ESL’s in certain aspects I could never own a pair because of that experience. I also haven’t been to a high fi show since…

  8. Good story, Mike. I never thought of hifi as a contact sport, but I guess it pays to be wary of people with strong opinions. Which reminds me, I thought the Quads were decent, but easily beaten in transparency, resolution, and tonality by the Stax F83’s. Also, as I recall, the Stax amplifiers became the inspiration for the work of several top US amplifier designers.

    1. Thanks Jim…. I don’t normally think of hifi as a contact sport either. (Although it could be a training regime lifting some amps and speakers 🙂 ) Strong opinions don’t even bother me, but in your face (physical) over the top jerks do. Being one who is more like Tony or FR in overall musical taste many electrostats don’t fit my ears as well as other types of speakers do. I lean towards planar dipole ribbons as my favorite, supplemented with well integrated subs for that deep frequency air movement.

      There are more choices and combinations in gear than any one person could possibly try. Just reading here points that out. Your choice(s) will be different than mine. My choices will be different than the largest percentage of others. That’s what makes the audio world go around.

      I would much rather have a spirited discussion with someone over a beer or two 😀

      1. Mike,
        Speaking of Apogee’s, here’s what’s printed on the back
        of all of my Bob Ludwig remastered Rolling Stones albums:

        “Remastered using ‘UV22 Super CD Encoding’ by Apogee Electronics, Santa Monica, California. Apogee UV22 is a unique new process capturing all the
        fine detail of the original analogue master on standard audio equipment.”

        They got that right!
        Probably not that new any more though.

        1. Apogee Electronics is different from the original or current Apogee Acoustics. Although if studio good enough for Bob, probably something special. But also now on the list of obsolete products.

  9. I have Magnepans and won’t give them up. The thing about them is that they put out as much energy backward as forward, making placement and room treatment paramount to them sounding their best. Additionally, they need the right amplifier, with lots of current. Without the exact setup they sound marginal, but totally transform when everything is just right.

    I more than suspect that most owners of Magnepans have not heard what they are totally capable of producing, primarily because of environment limitations.

  10. My history of speaker enlightenment began with my third pair at around age 23 when I went to visit a friend who had just purchased Dalquist DQ 10’s. WOW! The next day I purchased a pair to replace my JBL’s. Several years later I traded in the Daquist’s in for a pair of Acoustat-X electrostatics with built in tube amps. Electrifying! Next came Infinity RS1-B’s (Holy Moley!) which stayed with me and a combination of a solid state and tube electronics in a dedicated 22’ by 28’ listening room for well over 12 years. Then one day around 2002, I walked into Lyric HiFi and walked out with a pair Maggie 3.6 R’s (Instant Love} which I still have in my system today driven by a tube amp and still can’t believe their synergy to this day.

    “Time passes, things change”? Today I must say that I am enthralled by the sound of my music system at age 74….finally. Thank god because my back can’t handle carrying heavy equipment anymore. I know this because my 21 year old Audio Research amp came down with an OC resistor in the bias circuit after all of these years without one minute of problem. That meant shlepping this 63 pound bulky amp to-and-from a recommended bench tech.

    Hoping things stay the same audibly from here on. I am totally drawn into the music on so many of my recordings now since this repair and full tube replacement. That’s the downside of owning tube equipment besides heat.

    1. I still have the Holy Moly Infinity RS1b, a speaker that cries out to be driven. My setup is the lovely Manley Steelhead preamplifier going via a seven metre pair of Wireworld Silver Eclipse 8 (don’t ask) to the equally wonderful Manley 250 Neo-Classic mono power amplifiers. To keep the bass towers happy with 800W of Classe monoblock power. I love both vinyl (Koetsu Onyx Gold) plus a Choir Audio SUT-H7 boost. SACD is the lovely Ayre C-5xeMP.
      Several sources catered by the Manley Skipjack selector i.e Dynalab Etude tuner etc. Headphones Sennheiser HD800 with their HDVA600 headphones amplifier. I’m one happy camper not deciding if I like vinyl or SACD the best, changes with the recording quality I guess.

      1. Allen G…Monster equipment!

        I didn’t spell out all of the equipment that I own but I’ll give you a short synopsis of what I currently use in my system:

        PASS XP-15 phono pre
        PASS XP-22 Line stage pre
        PASS EPA Headphone amp
        QUAD EPA-1 Planar Cans
        Wadia 830 CD player
        PS Audio DSD DAC/Streamer
        PS Audio BRIDGE II
        ROON Nucleus
        SOTA Sapphire with Goldman platter and clamp and Graham 2.2 arm with Lyra Lydian cartridge
        PS Audio P-12 Regenerator
        Carver True Subwoofer
        Audio Research VT-100 Mk III Amp
        Maggie 3.6R’s
        Audioquest, VH LAabs, Harmonic Technologies Power Cables
        Siltech and Discovery Interconnects
        Discovery Speaker Cables
        VPI Bricks, Synergistic Research Orange fuses and other of their products plus too many other tweaks to even mention.

        I don’t know how this reply posted above your comment but I hope you see it.

  11. Need to repeat my shameless plug for Sanders Sound Systems ‘stats. These play plenty loud if you intend to maintain any hearing throughout your life and have amazing dynamics if the recording provides them. I’ve never heard any speaker more lifelike and coherent. Covering all but the lower (3) octaves with a single driver (panel) properly EQ’ed seems like the best way from my engineering-centric brain. And, the TL woofer with proper crossover and EQ mates brilliantly with the panel. They are not efficient and do require amps capable of driving the difficult load of the panel but (2) of Roger Sanders’ Magtech (900W/channel) work quite nicely.

  12. Reading (some of) today’s comments I get the feeling this is the day we all have confess our (audio-)sins to father Paul (McGowan).
    So here we go, beginning in the 1970’s, and to make a long story not too long only the highlights…
    Amp :
    Pioneer int. (SA 500A), Yamaha receiver (CR700), Quad pre/pow (33/303), Amcron pre/pow (IC150/D150A), Technics pre/pow (SU9070/SE9060), Bryston pre pow (1B/3B), Bryston pre/pow (BP20/4BST), Densen/Levinson pre/pow (B200/431), Levinson pre/pow (326S/431), Levinson pre/pow (326S/532H)

    Speakers :
    Pioneer CS53, Kef Chorale, Kef RR104AB, IMF TD50, Infinity Monitor Jr, Magnepan MG-1, Magnat AR10, JM Lab PS 5.1, Thiel 1.6, Thiel 2.4 and now back to Magnat (sold the Thiels), REL 2 subs (T/9i)

    CD-player/transport :
    Philips CD101, Denon DCD920, Marantz 63SE, Classe CDP1, Levinson 390S (destroyed by a lightning flash), PS Audio PWT

    Dac :
    Arcam IRdac, PS Audio PWD, PS Audio DSJ (dac/streamer)

    Cables :
    from hardware store “quality” via Monster (I am ashamed now) to Siltech interlinks (Class. Ann. line).
    Speakercable and powercables Shunyata (Alpha line).
    That’s it for now folks.
    Ask me again at the end of the year and there could be some changes made (speakers ?, DAC ?, streamer ?).
    P.s. I never liked vinyl and ditched my lp’s and TT as soon as it was possible (invention of cd’s). So I am not mentioning my turntables. I am glad that era is over.

    1. Being an audio equipment consumer is an addiction far worse than many drugs. Once you get bitten by the bug it’s all over. So many of us have made so many changes over the years that it’s hard to remember them all. The equipment you have owned is awesome and seems well thought out.

    2. Father I have sinned. What is your sin my son? Father I gave up vinyl… Rumbles of thunder distinctly heard… and a shaking of the foundations.

  13. Totally get it……I’ve dabbled with just about everything over the years with the exception of horns.

    I started out as a Polk Audio SDA devotee and still have a soft spot for them. Boy, you don’t know the meaning of ostracized until you move on from the SDA faithful ranks. SDA is a GREAT thing….but it’s not a panacea and as I’ve found there is no such thing.

    For about 10 years, I had a pair of Quad 988’s and a pair of Heathkit W5M tube mono amps modified by Gary Dodd. I LOVED that setup. LOVED it…….but, dynamics were a thing and more than that, instruments just didn’t have the weight that you get with a good dynamic system.

    These days, I’m listening to Thiel 3.6’s and a pair of Carver Amazing Platinum MkIV’s with solid state amplification.

    There are things that each system does well and not does well……the things that the Quads and tubes did, man, it was otherworldly but at the end of the day no rig (I haven’t heard the IRS V’s or the Genesis 1’s LOL) is the end all be all and tastes and preferences change. As much as I love my Thiel’s…..I’m sniffing around a pair of Bozak Concert Grands (circa 1975). I’ve been lusting after a pair for decades and while I know that I have and have had better speakers…lust is lust.

    At the end of day….whatever keeps your rockin’ in the free world, y’know?

    Cheers,

    Troy

  14. I had the same experiences as Paul. Loved planars and let them go due to the lack in dynamics and bass extension and I also found hybrid power amps the best compromise at the end.

    If my living environment wouldn’t be suited for louder listening anymore, I could imagine to get back to planars, I just would have to find a way for a coherent sub integration. No idea so far for this task since decades.

    1. Jazznut…I have to say that since I had my amplifier retubed and repaired and added the orange fuses that for the first time I am very happy with the bass that’s coming out of my Maggies. It’s really deep, tight and well-defined. The harmonics on some of my bass reference recordings are just unbelievable now. Never expected this… Never!

    2. Jazznut…I can only comment about my experience with my Maggies. They were deficient in the midbass region but as of the past week since I had my amplifier retubed. repaired and added the orange fuse I am amazed at how things changed in the midbass. The subwoofer blends really well with the speakers now as an added bonus. It wasn’t terrible before but now it’s a whole new day.

  15. Hello Paul, I sincerely admire your statement: “It’s the tradeoffs in life that define where we are at the moment.” Succinctly perfect!

    I have owned a pair of ML Vista electrostat’s for about 4 years now and have wanted to move into a vac tube amp for them. I know very little about tubes other than I like the sound they produce with other speakers. However, I have never listened to one paired with electrostat’s, so I don’t even know where to begin with making a purchase. Considering I am working with a modest budget, do you have any advice on a brand, size, etc for them?

    Also, do you have any advice/info about how to know if the electrostatic panels need to be cleaned? I have listened to them for so long I don’t really know how to sound check them; and I don’t know anyone who has a pair I can compare them with. Thank you in advance for any wisdom you can share!

    Warm Regards,
    Robert

    1. If you do wind up cleaning them of course have them unplugged. I never cleaned mine so I cannot speak from experience but others I know had used small battery powered hand vacuum cleaners gently applied to pull the dust away. I am unconvinced it’s necessary.

      There’s a certain pleasant synergy between vacuum tube amps and electrostats, but having not been in the market for many years I’ve kind of lost touch, sorry to say. Prima Luna comes to mind as a good sounding more affordable choice. Maybe too check with the guys at Sciit Audio. They often have surprising products.

      For my tastes I wound using high power solid state amps and while I still; had electrostats that’s what I wound up using.

      1. Anyone who owns Magnaplanars, never use a vacuum on the face of the ribbon tweeters, never ever do this. Our housekeeper was warned never to vacuum the face of my 3.6R’s but she still did it twice and it cost me close to $400 each time to replace them. They are made of ultrathin Mylar and will rip immediately if a vacuum comes anywhere near them.

  16. I have tube amplification for my digital pipe organ system. Combined with Harbeths, I love the smooth fullness of sound. There is no percussion to control in classical pipe organs. I have solid state amplification combined with Von Schweikerts for my general listening system, to better handle the punchy bass in orchestral and rock music. But I could live happily with the tube amp or solid state amp in either system. Both are exceptionally transparent and full range.

  17. I’ve rebuilt & have a couple pairs of ESL-57, had the Braun LE1 (those looked like they coulda been speakers from the Space 1999 series..) and knowing the inner workings & principles behind the 4000 – 6000 volt charged stator panels, I’ve ALWAYS wanted to know:

    Just what would happen if your medium sized beloved family pet lifted a leg and wizzed upon the fully charged electrostatic panels whilst playing ELP at a respectable volume?

    Slight shock – circuit protection savior? Fanfare for the Common Man’s best friend? Nut Rocker? (Certainly NOT Lucky Man) A free neutering? That cartoon view displaying the hound skeleton superimposed over the mid-air legs-out sprawled electric pup? An in-tune howling along with the music? A free canine gender reassignment procedure? An explanation to your children how Rex has gone to the big wide open farm where he can roam free without his lil red rocket?
    Seriously though… what would happen??

  18. For those who dig planars but bemoan the lack of dynamics….I urge you to seek out a properly set up pair of Carver Amazing Platinum Mk IV’s (I hear his Amazing Line Source are pretty darn awesome as well…but I’ve not heard them). No lack of dynamics there. They aren’t perfect to be sure….but they are dynamic for sure. They are fussy about placement but, properly set up they are something. Disregard the Stereophile review….I’m not saying Stereophile had an axe to grind with Brother Bob but….

    Bob was on to something with the Amazings…..

    As a lover of tubes but I also like the bass control of solid state….I’ve found a tube preamp with a solid state amp can give you the best of both worlds. Further, a tube output digital player (I have a Jolida CD player and a ModWright modded Sony SACD player) is the olive in the martini.

    YMMV.

  19. There are some great dynamic speakers out there that have approached electrostatic sound. That’s what I’m looking for. On the other hand I believe state of the art electrostatic speakers are gaining ground on the strengths of dynamic speakers. Both are closing the gap.

  20. There are many qualities which make near realistic reproduction a possibility and very wide dynamic range and damping factor are not high on the list. In fact in practice ultrawide dynamic range is an overkill and not necessary. There are few recordings which require such ability. If Ultrawide dynamic range was the deciding factor than most people would be limited to a handful of recordings which they would listen to over and over again. As for damping factor quite a few solid state amps were and are over damped and sound unnaturally tight and dry unlike the real thing, all because of huge amounts of negative feedback required in solid state. Linearity has improved with subsequent reduction in negative feedback with improvement in sound. The current good quality tube outputs have much better damping and in fact are more realistic sounding in the bass and not being overdamped are more dynamic and effortless sounding. It’s the quality of sound rather than overhyped technology that matters. The decisions must have been made a very long time ago. Things have changed a lot. Remember the overcontrolled sound of servo speakers ? Regards.

    1. Oliver, I appreciate you pointing out the relationship between damping factor, negative feedback and sound quality. I will listen more closely when I switch from my solid state to tube amps next time, and vice versa.

  21. A friend asked me what I was listening to. To answer quickly and concisely, I gave him the names of three popular singers. Magdalena Kožená, Diana Krall, P!nk. Apparently I didn’t please him because I didn’t fit into any of his pidgeon holes.
    That list could have been much longer and much more confusing to him.

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