Can 60-year old speakers and electronics sound state-of-the-art: the Quad 33/303 with the ESL 57s

godofwealth

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Feb 8, 2022
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We often forget how wonderful antique hi fi can sound, as we follow with bated breath each little wrinkle of progress in the high end audio industry. Yet, with the possible exception of streaming and high resolution digital recording, very little actual progress has been made in the past 40-50 years that‘s of much significance, IMHO!

Case in point: I am currently listening to Quad’s legendary solid state electronics — the famous 33 (orange faceplate) and 303 (used by none other than Pink Floyd for their recordings) solid state amplifier Into the greatest-hi-fi-product-of-all time, the Quad ESL 57s. The system is set up in a guest room, in a location where most speakers would fail (KHorn style, against each corner, spread wide apart, and I am listening in the near field). The 33/303 are light, compact, and run cool. The 33 has fabulous tone controls, as was the case for all of Quad’s preamps. Peter Walker firmly believed in tone controls. Quad’s logo was “the closest approach to the original sound”. Walker believed properly designed tone controls got you closer to the actual sound, rather than so-called purist designs.

Listening to this setup with a modern streaming source, it sound stunningly good. Let’s just say it would put to shame many modern speakers and electronics, most of which don’t have the same well-thought out design. The 303 power amplifier, which was designed to drive the 57s, after Quad’s famous Quad II tube monoblocks, used an extremely clever “triples” output transistor configuration and was unconditionally stable into any load. It is also completely regulated at the output stage. The sound is unlike any other solid state amplifier I have heard. It is, to use a cliche, “tube” like in its sound.

I had the 33/303 professionally restored with all new caps and transistors upgraded. The 57s are original with no upgrades. They just function day in day out with no complaints.

We forget how good hi fi was 60 years ago. Sometimes it takes listening to a system like this to remind us that antique high fidelity systems can still match anything made today.


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adrianywu

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Thank you for the interesting observation. I ran a pair of ESL57, restored with new panels and EHT unit, until I put together my horn system about 15 years ago. I have tried driving them with contemporary British amplifiers including Quad II, Leak TL12.1 and Pye PF91. Never thought of trying the Quad SS amps, as I was perhaps biased against early transistor equipment. By far the best result was obtained using the Mark Levinson ML2. You actually get decent bass out of these speakers with the ML2.
 
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godofwealth

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Since I have mine set up in a relatively small listening room, and I am sitting close enough that the speakers subtend an almost 90 degree angle (Blumlein mike configuration), they sound incredibly dynamic with the 33/303. Listening now to a Beethoven sonata, and the piano fortissimos are quite stunning in their impact. The 57s can go from start to stop in a whisper as there is no sluggish big cone woofer that needs to move its ass! This speaker was made for small British listening rooms and Walker knew the average owner would likely have to place them close to a wall, space being at a premium. So, the speaker works in configurations where most fail. You can listen really close and still get a coherent sound from them.
 

audioresurgence

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Jul 30, 2019
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I've fond memories of driving a pair of 57s with a Leak Stereo 20 back in the early 90s. I had to leave both amp and speakers behind when I moved from the UK to the USA, but I picked up another pair of 57s a few years back just to satisfy a nostalgic itch.
They didn't last long the second time around, sadly. I couldn't get past the constant feeling that something was going to 'let loose' at any moment. Irrational perhaps, distracting nevertheless.
 

Dogberry

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The tone controls on the 34 pre-amp are different again, with fairly subtle effect. I have used them in combination with the 306 and have bought the upgrade kits from Dada in Holland. I'll have to get round to some soldering one of these days, but in the meantime I'm enjoying the Tim deParavicini-updated Quad tubes (TwentyFourP, QC-Twenty Four and II/forty monoblocks) along with 2905 speakers. Those speakers lasted 12 years of heavy use before panels started to fail. I replaced all the panels with new ones (which seem to have a good deal more glue in them) for a quarter of the price of the new 2912 speakers.
 

godofwealth

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I have indeed been very lucky with my 57s. I bought them from someone in Scarsdale, NY, when I was living in the east coast about 10 years back. They survived the trip to the Bay Area, fortunately. I keep them constantly charged even when I am not listening to them. Touch wood, they work perfectly, which is more than I can say about several pairs of the 63-based Quads I have owned. I have a pair of 2805s that Sheldon Stokes has restored, and a pair of 2905s that Kent McCollum has restored. Bless them both. What would Quad owners do without them? But, owning Quads is not for the faint of heart. The speakers will need repair work every decade or so.

Here are my 57s tucked away near the corners in a relatively small guest room. The 33/303 are in the tiny equipment stand, driven by a Auralic Vega DAC and streamer. Separated quite widely considering the distance to the center listening spot, the 57s sound like giant headphones, except they are not sitting on your ear! You hear “everything”, by which I mean every rustle, every breath, and every squeak of the musicians. You are really eavesdropping on the musical event. With my much larger Harbeth Monitor 40.1 in a different room, the sound is remarkably different, sort of a filtered sound as if the music is emerging through an absorbent cloth of some kind. Peter Walker used to always say: “if you don’t like what Is coming out, pay more attention to what goes in!”. That’s why the tone controls on the 33 are so handy. The vast majority of recordings I listen to are poorly recorded, and the 33’s tone controls do wonders in restoring the sound to some semblance of the original event.

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