Debut speakers from iconic hi-fi brands – part 1

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Our first nostalgic trip down memory lane saw us reminiscing over the first decks from 13 iconic turntable brands, and our second has us delving even further back into hi-fi history.

From Wharfedale’s driver-only efforts in the 1930s to Q Acoustics’ modern beginnings in 2006, this list details the first efforts from some of the most renowned loudspeaker brands past and present. A second part will follow, covering all the major speaker brands.

So if you’re a fan of hi-fi nostalgia and you don’t ride the same wavelength as Lou Reed (who once said: “I don’t like nostalgia, unless it’s mine”), this one’s for you.

Wharfedale Bronze 2 (1932)

Wharfedale’s first speaker was built in the cellar of founder Gilbert Briggs' llkley home in 1932. The Bronze was purely a drive unit (in those days, radio enthusiasts assembled their own cabinets). A year later, it was housed in a wooden cabinet for those who wanted an ‘extension’ speaker. Shortly after came the ‘Nubian’ cabinet speaker in 1934.

But it was a whole decade before Wharfedale marked the first of many milestones: the invention of the first two-way loudspeaker. In 1945, the company combined a 30cm bass driver with a 25cm full-range ‘treble’ unit, using a crossover at 1kHz. And in the years after the company’s introduction of ceramic magnets to moving coil drive units and work in cabinet dampening, the company’s much-celebrated Diamond series was born.

MORE: That Was Then… Wharfedale Diamond review

Acoustic Research AR-1 (1956)

Acoustic Research was founded in 1952 by inventor Edgar Villchur and his student Henry Kloss. Based on the acoustic suspension principle patented by Villchur in 1956, its first model, the AR-1, sold for $185 (over £1000 in today’s money).

The AR-1's woofer used entrapped air in the speaker’s sealed enclosure to provide a spring for the diaphragm, enabling it to move back and forth - doing the same job as the more conventional mechanical spring.

That was followed shortly afterwards by the AR-2, but in 1958, the AR-3 became Acoustic Research's landmark speaker, borrowing the AR-1's acoustic suspension technology, but bringing onboard a newly designed midrange driver and tweeter.

Quad ESL-57 (1957)

Quad founder Peter Walker was the first to implement electrostatic technology in loudspeakers, waving goodbye to traditional driver cones and cumbersome cabinets. In their place, he put a thinly-stretched, electrically-charged diaphragm between two metal grilles receiving the music signal from the amplifier.

The first in what has become a brand-defining range of electrostatic speakers, the ESL-57 was in production for nearly 30 years, with the ESL-63 continuing Quad’s electrostatic legacy until the turn of the century. You can still see Quad's latest electrostatic efforts on show floors today.

KEF K1 Slimline (1961)

KEF’s oldest speaker was born out of founder Raymond Cooke’s desire to achieve outstanding sound quality from a slim, living room-friendly enclosure.

At 12.5cm deep, the K1 Slimline incorporated the same driver innovations as the Monitor versions that arrived alongside in the K1 series: the B1814 woofer with its flat rectangular diaphragm of aluminium skinned polystyrene, the M64 elliptical midrange unit with a similar diaphragm construction, and the T15 tweeter with its hemispherical Melinex diaphragm.

To minimise colouration, the wall panels of the braced cabinet were dampened with bituminous pads. And, lounge-friendly in their aesthetic as well as their size, the K1 Slimlines were finished in walnut with 'coffee' fleck grilles - a far cry from some of the designs it employs today.

B&W P1 (1966)

Beginnings don’t get much more humble than B&W’s. The year after founder John Bowers started hand-assembling speaker systems in the electrical store he ran with Roy Wilkins in Worthing, Bowers & Wilkins (then B&W Electronics Ltd) released its first loudspeaker: the P1.

The cabinet and filter were B&W's own, but the drivers came from EMI and Celestion - this was in the decade before the company started using the bright-yellow Kevlar woven composite. The profits from the P1 allowed Bowers to purchase a Radiometer Oscillator and Pen Recorder, meaning that every speaker the company sold could have calibration certificates.

Dynaudio P-series (1977/78)

We have to pedal back 40 years to find Danish brand's first speakers – the five P-series models in 1977. However, they were shortlived, had limited distribution and, while using the company’s own crossovers, were the only Dynaudio speakers to rely on OEM drivers.

The P series (P for 'passive') comprised the P16 (pictured), P21, P31, P46 and P76. All models used specially coated soft dome tweeter with high power handling - something Dynaudio would later become renowned for.

The first range to use Dynaudio’s in-house MSP (Magnesium Silicate Polymer) woofers and tweeters (designed by its engineers in Skanderborg) and receive international distribution was the four-strong MSP series in 1984. Dynaudio has used its own drivers ever since.

ATC S50/S85 (1978)

After a few years making drive units, ATC produced its first speaker systems in 1978: the bass-reflex S50 (pictured) and infinite baffle S85, which established a naming tradition representing the internal volume of the speaker. Inside the plywood-based 50- and 85-litre cabinets were 2.5cm soft dome tweeters, a 7.5cm soft dome mid driver and a 22.5cm woofer (two in the S85).

Unusually, the crossover arrangement allowed for true active tri-amping, allowing the owner to, via a rotary switch, access either the internal passive crossover or use an external electronic crossover.

Acoustic Energy AE1 (1987)

With the introduction of the AE1 Loudspeaker in 1987, Acoustic Energy Ltd was officially born. The concept was to create a compact studio monitor (it measured 30cm tall and 18cm wide) that could handle the high volumes and dynamics of larger speakers.

To achieve this, Acoustic Energy lined its cabinet with a concrete/plaster compound to eliminate as much resonance as possible, and developed a new mid/bass driver. It featured a 10cm cone of spun aluminium, thicker at the centre than the edges and anodised to create a ‘ceramic sandwich’, and used an oversized magnet assembly that allowed the AE1 to accept 200W of power.

The AE1 was refined in several revisions until 2016, when its SEAS tweeter went out of production. The design has since resurfaced in the amplified AE1 Active model.

Neat Petite (1991)

Neat Acoustics began life as a hi-fi shop in Darlington called North Eastern Audio Traders. After identifying a gap in the market for a small musical speaker, its owners developed the Neat Petite.

When we reviewed them in 1993, we heralded these speakers a musical success. We called their sound 'hugely stimulating', mostly due to the way they portrayed timing and dynamics - something we’ve heard in the brand’s more recent speakers.

MORE: That Was Then… Neat Petite review

PMC BB5-A (1991)

After a stint as the manager of BBC's Maida Vale studios, Peter Thomas and former BBC engineer Adrian Loader designed the first PMC speaker, the BB5-A. It introduced the company’s hallmark Advanced Transmission Line technology, in which drivers were used to improve bass output.

In a recent interview with What Hi-Fi?, Thomas said: “The design was certainly not conventional. Whereas the majority of speaker designers used ported or sealed cabinets, we found that a transmission line system for bass loading, if refined, gave a performance that significantly exceeded conventional bass loading principles.”

Wilson Benesch A.C.T. One (1994)

Five years after launching its first product, the Wilson Benesch Turntable, the British company launched a second: the A.C.T. One loudspeaker.

Unveiled at the 1994 Frankfurt High End show, the A.C.T. One used carbon fibre, introducing the world’s first curved carbon fibre composite panel in a speaker design. It sported the sloping top and solid metal baffle that remain part of the company’s distinctive designs today.

While many years before the implementation of crossover-free midrange driver designs in the company’s current flagship Eminence series, the A.C.T. One placed great importance on phase coherence and the reduction of crossover elements.

Q Acoustics 1000 series (2006)

Q Acoustics may not have the heritage of some other brands, but the British company’s debut, the six-strong 1000 series in 2006, has been one of the most notable of the 21st century.

Still recognisable next to the company's current 3000i range, the 1000 series comprised the 1010 and 1020 bookshelf speakers, 1010C centre channel, 1030 and 1050 floorstanders and 1000S active subwoofer. Each model featured the same ferro-fluid cooled, micro-polyester weave tweeter and Linkwitz-Riley crossovers, and every drive unit was ‘torque mounted’ into its front baffle.

The 1010s were five-star performers in their own right, and later received another five-star review as part of a complete multi-channel surround package.

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