We're celebrating all things British hi-fi this week on What Hi-Fi?, so we had to include our updated round-up of our favourite sets of speakers to have emerged from these isles.
This list includes some big, some small, some heavenly high-end, some much more affordable – but all straight from the top draw when it comes to performance-per-pound value.
Our verdict? The hi-fi industry has been, and continues to be, spoilt with British engineering talent, as you can see for yourself from the following list of superlative hi-fi speakers...
- Read all our British Hi-Fi Week 2023 news, features and reviews
Wharfedale Diamond I (1982)
The original Wharfedale Diamonds were the seeds for what has become one of the most successful speaker ranges of all time.
While speakers these days come in more shapes and sizes than ever before, these pint-sized efforts, standing at just 24cm high, were designed for those who needed a speaker to fit into a tight space.
They had a particularly praiseworthy midrange and bass considering their budget price, though they were slightly fussy in terms of partnering kit, working better with more upmarket amplification.
Heybrook HB1 (1983)
Heybrook was a British hi-fi manufacturer that started life in 1978 and was named after Devon's Heybrook Bay, which was near the site of the company's original factory.
Heybrook got off to a flying start after its inception, with the Peter Comeau-designed, entry-level HB1s proving a highlight of What Hi-Fi?'s early years. It was the first product to win three What Hi-Fi? Awards in a row, no less.
With a sealed box design, they worked well close to a wall, but aside from that, thanks to a high-quality finish and dynamic sound, the HB1 were another example of a speaker that could hold its own against much more expensive efforts.
Acoustic Energy AE1 (1988)
Acoustic Energy's AE1 were also smaller speakers whose performance belied their size. They were capable of impressive punch and dynamic reach - in part thanks to their metal drivers, which were rare at that time.
They also weren't limited to one decade, evolving over several years and several variations to inspire what is today one of our favourite active speakers, the suitably-named AE1 Active.
Epos ES11 (1991)
We enter the '90s with Epos' ES11, which were similar in sonic character to the legendary ES14 but available for a fraction of the price. A win-win, then.
As was usual for the brand, the crossover was minimal – it employed a single capacitor for the tweeter – helping them produce surprisingly sturdy bass and excellent resolution, in addition to superb rhythmic drive and dynamic expression.
A modest-looking but really musical pair of speakers, they could deliver just the right amount of aggression, delicacy and restraint as a song demanded.
Monitor Audio Studio 20 (1992)
The Studio 20 were, back in 1992, one of the most detailed-sounding speakers we'd encountered.
They needed some fine-tuning and a fair bit of running-in thanks to those metal drivers but, these issues aside, they were incredibly well finished and sounded terrific.
It was no surprise that their successors, the new-and-improved Studio 20 SE, arrived a few years later and occupied our test rooms as our reference model for many years.
Mission 753 (1992)
The 753 were an important speaker in Mission's history, ushering in a new slim floorstander design no wider than an, erm, ice skate (see above).
Both looking and sounding the business, they had a smörgåsboard of drive units with four 13cm drivers – two mid/bass drivers, two low bass units – and a single 25cm dome tweeter, through which a fast and punchy sound ensured whatever they were playing was enjoyably involving.
Tannoy Mercury M2 (1997)
The Mercury M2 made an immediate impression when they burst onto the scene in the late '90s. Back then, we said they were the closest anyone had come to creating the perfect mass-market standmounter.
Quite frankly, our ears hadn't heard a more satisfyingly musical all-rounder at their price (£150), so it's hardly surprising that we called them "an extremely safe bet [that] will suit a wide variety of systems".
Wilson Benesch A.C.T. One (1999)
Five years after launching its first product, the Wilson Benesch Turntable, the British company launched a second: the A.C.T. One speaker.
Unveiled at the 1994 Frankfurt High End show, the floorstanders, were made mostly out of carbon fibre (like many Wilson Benesch speakers after them), introducing the world’s first curved carbon fibre composite panel in a speaker design.
These superbly-engineered and elegant-looking towers were the most analytical and musical speakers we'd heard before the turn of the century.
Read the full Wilson Benesch A.C.T One review
Quad ELS 2805 (2008)
This side of the millennium we have the Quad ELS 2805. After all, it would be sacrilege to not include one of the British company's legendary electrostatic speakers in this list. So here it is.
"Fifty years after its electrostatic speakers first wowed the hi-fi world, Quad breaks new ground," we said of the 2805 in 2008.
These one-way speakers (meaning there was no crossover in the signal path) fired equal amounts of sound backwards and forwards, so care was needed setting up. Any bother was well worth it, though. The lack of punch and slightly lumpy bass were drawbacks, but in every other way they were truly exceptional performers.
Read the full Quad ESL-2805 review
B&W 800 Diamond (2012)
Continuing the high-end trend, these £18,500 speakers represented the pinnacle of B&W's cutting-edge technology back in 2012. "The ultimate expression of all the company’s trademark technologies." This has since manifested itself in the latest Diamond range.
From tweeter domes made out of diamond, to cleverly braced and shaped cabinets, to cones made out of Kevlar, they were innovative speakers that at the time showcased unrivalled clarity, dynamic reach and volume. The bass was stunning, as was detail, and all of this sound was delivered with speed and punch.
Read the full B&W 800 Diamond review
KEF LS50 (2012)
The KEF LS50 were, and remain, blindingly good speakers. They've won multiple What Hi-Fi? Awards over the years and have recently formed the basis of active versions in the shape of the LS50 Wireless II and LSX, as well as the passive LS50 Meta – all three What Hi-Fi? Award winners themselves.
Of course, a hat tip deserves to be directed to KEF’s trademark Uni-Q array (an aluminium dome tweeter in the centre of a magnesium/aluminium–coned mid/bass), which was largely behind the LS50's insightful and musical, bassy yet balanced sound.
Read the full KEF LS50 review
Neat Iota (2012)
He who dares wins, right? With a sideways orientation that makes them look more like an AV centre channel speaker than a pair of stereo speakers, the 13cm-tall Neat Iotas were certainly different, but brilliantly so.
The Teesside-based speaker company's unusual design allowed us to experiment using them with the tweeters placed on the inside or outside, the latter of which we preferred. The Iotas sounded remarkable - big and bold, with plenty of detail, weight and scale on offer. And their tiny-boxed design only added to their appeal.
Read the full Neat Iota review
Q Acoustics Concept 20 (2013)
The strength of the competition at this price is always fierce, but it speaks to the talents of Q Acoustics' Concept 20 that they remain firm favourites.
They utilise what is still some of the company's top-tier technologies, such as the complex cabinet design that sees two layers of MDF separated by a lossy Gelcore material in an effort to dampen resonances. And due to such innovative engineering, they produce a multi-talented, all-round sound that delivers everything from punch and attack, to subtlety and precision.
Read the full Q Acoustic Concept 20 review
PMC Twenty 26 (2014)
Speakers from PMC’s Twenty range have not only been winning awards in recent years but also occupying our test rooms.
Few rival floorstanders are as musical or as balanced as the Twenty 26, whose strong dynamics, impressive detail, even tonality and seamless integration is hard to find fault with. These may not be the latest models in the Twenty range, but they are among our favourites.
Read the full PMC Twenty 26 review
Spendor SP2/3R2 (2016)
It'd be easy to dismiss Spendor's SP2/3R2 as a retro throwback, but that would be to miss out on a stellar speaker that very much deserves the attention of anyone with this budget. "Despite a design ancestry that dates back to the 1970s, there’s much this dinosaur could teach its modern competition," we noted in our 2016 review.
Sonically, they're huge, with a scale and authority that's made for epic blockbuster soundtracks. But there's absolutely no shortage of dynamics or detail either, and while they don't deliver the last word in punch or drive, rhythms are delightfully measured.
Read the full Spendor SP2/3R2 review
ATC SCM 50 (2019)
We’ve been using ATC’s SCM50 as our reference speakers for well over a decade, and in that time they’ve been connected to just about every piece of electronics that has passed through our test rooms. And guess what? They've never let us down.
Every so often we come across rival speakers – usually of higher cost – that better these ATCs in some respect, whether it’s outright resolution, openness, stereo imaging or rhythmic precision.
Yet we haven’t managed to find something that’s as satisfying an all-rounder or as practical to use as a day-to-day review tool. Considering the SCM50 was originally introduced in the mid-80s, that’s quite some achievement. It seems great engineering doesn’t date.
Read the full ATC SCM 50 review
ProAc Response D2R (2019)
Don't let the lack of curved cabinets or fancy cone materials fool you. The ProAc Response D2R are among the finest speakers we've ever heard and are more than worth of their spot on this list.
You'll need suitable stands, suitable electronics and to spend a decent amount of time tinkering with positioning, but once sorted, these exceptional standmounters deliver an intoxicating mix of detail and entertainment that is tough to beat at this price.
Read the full ProAc Response D2R review
PMC Fact Fenestria (2022)
The PMC Fact Fenestria might be one of the tallest speakers to have been through our test rooms; they're also one of the best speakers we've heard. We liked them so much that they unanimously won the Best Temptation Award in 2022 – high praise indeed.
Yes, they're very expensive, but they were designed as an opportunity for PMC to take a fresh look at every part of loudspeaker design and come up with engineering solutions that are as free from budget constraints as they can be. Highlights include a lot of decoupling of the driver units from the baffle (and the cabinet itself) and implementing techniques used in skyscrapers to mitigate the swaying motion for the construction of its tall cabinets. And it has clearly worked - these speakers deliver an awe-inspiring sound.
The Fenestrias deliver sound with an impartiality that’s deeply impressive, handling all genres of music with balance and precision, along with a deep, powerful bass that's never strained nor loose. These are big speakers so you can expect scale, dynamism and authority to match, all delivered with an incredible sense of realism and accuracy.
Read the full PMC Fact Fenestria review