In some ways, the nineteen eighties was a troubled decade for loudspeaker design. Although a number of ‘milestone’ products appeared – such as Celestion’s SL6 and Acoustic Energy’s AE-1 – it’s hard to argue these were completely successful designs in themselves. Rather, they proved more notable for what they subsequently made possible, rather than for what they actually did. The decade is best remembered as an important ‘rite of passage’ in speakers, sweeping a new broom through a sea of big, bloated multi-drive unit seventies speakers and installing the rigour of metal dome tweeters, minimalist crossovers and small, pert cabinets in their place.
All of which has little to do with the speaker you see before you! In a world moving inexorably towards stand-mounted mini-monitors sporting aluminium dome tweeters, Monitor Audio’s R352 must have looked an anachronism upon its introduction back in 1984. Rather than being a ‘brave new world’ design, it was much more a case of ‘traditional values in a modern setting’…
Intriguingly, this loudspeaker was the brainchild of Robin Marshall, more famous for the brilliant work he went on to do with Epos and the ES14. He had started his career at the BBC, entering directly from university as a mathematics and computer science graduate. There he’d got to work on a number of speakers, including the famous LS3/5A. Upon leaving, he hooked up with the retailer KJ Leisuresound, whose owner John Read gave him a job making loudspeakers, effectively starting the Audiomaster brand. His Beeb connections ensured that it won a license to manufacture the LS3/5A, causing it to grow at an alarming rate. By 1981 the business imploded and it was then that Monitor Audio’s Mo Iqbal offered him a job. The MA R352 and R252 were his first two designs, and the aluminium domed R852/MD, and R952/MD followed. After two years, Marshall finally left to set up Epos Acoustics and launch the famed ES14.
He has described the MA R352 as a “mould-breaker”, saying that when he looked around at what other people were doing, he though it seemed pointless to “just make another clone”. Indeed it is not – at 640x250x318mm it’s a pretty big box and taller still on the custom MA stands, which are angled slightly up to improve dispersion. The cabinet is beautifully veneered – MA produced some spectacularly finished boxes through the eighties – and thick, strong and solid at 13kg apiece. Inside sit a 200mm plastiflex mid/bass unit and a 25mm soft dome tweeter, with a large bass port completing the front baffle layout.
Its driver complement is remarkable for being entirely ‘old school’, albeit done to very high standards. The combination of relatively unsophisticated drive units and a large, bass reflex cabinet made for an excellent 91dB sensitivity and a very benign nominal 8 ohm load. Compare that to the 85dB sensitivity of the then ‘flavour of the month’ Linn Kan (sealed box mini monitor) which retailed at a similar price to the R352’s £350 and you can see how different it must have seemed!
One obvious result of all this sensitivity is brilliant transient performance, and this is where the Monitor Audio shines. Don’t expect it to have the neutrality of a classic BBC design, or the clarity of an electrostatic – this is to miss the point. The R352 is all above about giving a fast, involving and tuneful sound, and this is what it does – in spades. Moreover, whereas price rivals like the Kan were also very musically engaging but had precious little bass, the MA has loads of it. Interestingly though, it’s not a seventies style fat, bloated low frequency performance. Rather, it’s decently tight, taut, grippy and tuneful. However, you still get the distinct impression that this is a big, barrel-chested loudspeaker that’s at home in something bigger than a box room.
This is the beauty of the R352 – it has that largish, quite warm seventies sound that so many of us living with nineties speakers yearn for, yet it has a good deal of eighties-style speed and rhythm – the best of all worlds, in other worlds. They were a popular product in the mid-eighties, but these days you see precious few around (either their owners are holding on to them, or their downright ashamed of them)! Prices range from around £10 for a tatty pair up to £300 for a mint set complete with the very desirable factory spiked stands. Either way, you’re getting a lot of loudspeaker for you money – precisely why people bought them all those years ago.