“I started Heybrook with my friend Stuart Mee because we both realised we would love to own a small loudspeaker with a very wide bandwidth, and such a thing didn’t seem to appear at the time”, says Peter Comeau. It was the late nineteen seventies, and he’d spent nearly a decade selling hi-fi, and latterly reviewing for hi-fi magazines too. Few people knew the speaker market better. Stuart was living with a pair of Celestion Ditton 15s, which he thought were good but not outstanding, and was looking for something better.
“He came into the shop I was managing at the time looking for a replacement, but I couldn’t suggest anything within his price range or that was of a similar size that would do the job”, remembers Comeau. “Sometimes when you get to be friends with someone, you get brain waves and the brain wave was to start designing something. Seeing that he couldn’t buy anything and I couldn’t sell him anything, we thought – why not design something, because if we needed it then maybe the market needed it?”
From this Heybrook was born in 1978, named after the scenic bay in Plymouth where the company was situated. It was the brand name of Mecom Acoustics (the name being a compound of Mee and Comeau) and Peter began designing the HB2, which was launched in the following year to an unsuspecting world. “That was quite successful for the company, and we carried on producing that loudspeaker for more than ten years, I think. So it was really a landmark product. It really set us on our way”, he remarks. Indeed it did, and raised many eyebrows in the process. Heybrook joined the vanguard of the new wave of quirky, specialist British hi-fi companies appearing at that time, from A&R Cambridge and Myst to Nytech and Rega. Some would go on to be household hi-fi brands, others soon disappeared…
When the HB2 was launched in 1979, there was no shortage of British loudspeakers on sale. Celestion, KEF, Tannoy and Wharfedale had vast numbers – often highly visually impressive, and/or offering very large boxes for the money. The unique sales proposition that Heybrook offered was sound, something that Comeau had worked on for the best part of two years with intensive listening allied to technical measurements. In truth, designers of that era of loudspeakers tended to concentrate on the latter; few would have carried out such lengthy and exhaustive auditioning, and some even denied the need for it. The nineteen seventies was very much an empiricist age – from turntable wow and flutter to loudspeaker frequency response, it was the statistics that counted. In those days, some thought subjective listening to be very much an indulgence…
“The HB2 was very much a combination of elements,” remembers Comeau. “We had a 15mm thick chipboard cabinet which was completely lined by 7mm bitumen pads. We had some excellent Audax drivers, including their six inch midrange/bass and their classic 25mm dome. We spent eighteen months developing the crossover, largely by listening, some of it by measurement, and I suppose the most interesting feature was that we put the port round the back. I don’t know if that had been done before but if it had, it had not been done in a speaker of that type. And it was a very well engineered port as well and gave us the bandwidth we needed down in the bass. I think it was just a very careful and considerate design with an awful lot of listening hours put into it. Cheaper speakers didn’t generally have that amount of effort thrown at them, I think that was the key…”
Not happy to rest on their laurels, Mee and Comeau came up with the HB3. Billed as a no-compromise loudspeaker, it was launched in 1981 as a three-way, sealed box design capable of handling 100W RMS per channel, compared to the HB2’s 60W. It offered a better 88dB/1w/1m sensitivity figure too, although by today’s standards it’s still pretty mediocre. It sported thicker 18mm wood veneered chipboard with 10mm damping pads on all internal panels. “We didn’t like the sound of MDF,” says Comeau. “I preferred the sound of chipboard and still do. It was heavily damped with bitumen pads so we were controlling resonance that way, but also driving the panel resonance down in frequency. I’ve never done a technical investigation of it, but I suppose that would have a small amount of bloom to the bass, which probably helped. It certainly didn’t seem to do any harm, and probably added a little bit of extra bass power.”
He elucidates. “If you measure the two, if you do the right measurements, first if you look at panel resonance, MDF has a lot of sharp high Q peaks which give its midrange it’s very characteristic twang which chipboard doesn’t have because it’s not a consistent material. Chipboard is really like a sandwich of two highly compressed outer skins and a very loose inner filling. And it’s that aspect which also gives chipboard its lack of pass-through so sound inside the cabinet finds it difficult to pass through chipboard because it has to encounter this loose filling. It’s not a coherent material. Whereas MDF being coherent from one end to the other, when it hits its high Q resonances it’s a complete window into the interior of the speaker. So you hear all the midrange sound that’s rattling around inside comes straight out through the cabinet walls. A lot of it is delayed, so you get a lot of delayed resonance coming through a pure MDF cabinet.”
The high end HB3 was a formidable piece of work and garnered great praise, but Comeau was drifting away from his dream of doing a great, affordable loudspeaker. “The HB2 started life retailing for £130 per pair but quickly went up to £200 because as we got to terms with production costs, and then of course, we started attracting overseas distributors, we started to realise what the true costs of manufacturing were. So at £200 per pair in 1983, we realised that we had left behind what we originally set out to do, and that was to produce a pair of speakers closer to £100 per pair, so the HB1 was born.
“We had done some research for the HB3 which came out in 1981 on using loudspeakers on walls – based on research done in the US on using the room as an extension of the cabinet. We’d worked on the HB3 extensively as a closed-box design that used the rear wall as a way of extending the bass further down than you’d normally expect a closed box to go… so I really continued that idea for the HB1. It was a closed box, we chose an eight inch VIFA unit and married that to one of their 25mm plastic dome tweeters. So the frontal area of the cabinet was reasonably large compared with today’s bookshelf speakers. In those days it was still quite a small box…”
Unlike the HB2, which had a very complex crossover, Comeau had been working extensively with measurement facilities and doing listening iterations to see how simple he could make crossovers without losing the qualities of the speaker. “So the HB1 had a first order for the treble unit and a fairly straightforward second order for the bass unit. But both of those were married very carefully to their acoustic responses: the electrical responses didn’t matter, it was the acoustical responses that mattered. And particularly the blend through the crossover region. I’d really been working hard at making that as seamless as possible. In a lot of speakers around at that time, especially three ways, you could actually almost hear each drive unit doing its job. That wasn’t right. So that was one of the things I set out to do first in the HB3 and most successfully in the HB1, was to get that seamless blend through the midrange to really reveal the quality of vocals and the new advances of midrange instruments.”
The HB2 was the speaker that put Heybrook on the map, wowing the world who had not expected a modestly priced mid-sized domestic product to sound so good. The HB3 garnered much critical acclaim and sounded superb, but the higher end speaker market proved a hard but to crack given Heybrook’s modest marketing resources and the fact that the big boys had things pretty much sewn up. The HB1 however was where Heybrook found its niche; the budget stand mounter market was more open and fluid, and it was able to make a big impact quickly. Comeau remarks, “yes, it had a very ear-catching sound, and that helped a lot when it was demonstrated in shops because people either loved it or hated it immediately; they either latched onto it and perceived its qualities or moved to something else. There were no peaks, just a superbly measuring loudspeaker. It was this seamless quality through the mid range that really set it apart.”
The HB1 really took off, winning What Hi-Fi?’s best loudspeaker in 1983, 1984 and 1985 – not many companies’ products have done that three years in a row. “And that really developed the company tremendously, we moved the factory, at one point I think the HB1 got about fifteen percent of the share of the market of loudspeakers below £200 which was quite something! I can’t remember what the number of employees we got up to was but we did expand quite fast and I think probably about twenty five employees at that time. We bought in cabinets which ended up being produced with a kitchen manufacturing company in Cornwall. We had a very close alliance with them which meant that whenever we wanted to do anything, develop anything, keep quality standards up if you like, they were only a short drive away, so that was nice. And the drive units came in from Scandinavia.
“When you get into it, you realise that designing a loudspeaker is far more complex than you ever could have believed. I think like a lot of people start off thinking ‘that will be easy to do, we’ll finish it in a few months’, but that doesn’t happen. The combination of electronics and mechanics actually getting an electrical wave form and translating that into pushing air around is phenomenally complex”, says Peter Comeau. That’s why the HB2 had such a long development period. Frankly, listen to the speaker, and it shows…
The HB2 sounds nothing like anything around now – in a good and, you might say, in a bad way. It is warm, even and smooth – silky up top and fulsome down below, with just a hint of bass bloom. The midband is wonderfully lyrical and the music washes around you and draws you seductively in. But there isn’t the pin-point, ‘laser-guided’ precision of modern mid-price speakers, and not does it image quite as accurately. Yet still, you keep coming back to the charming and erudite way it makes music; for less intense genres like soul and jazz, it’s sublime. It also makes rock music fun and classical is lucid and emotive. The HB2 sounds oddly dated, yet strangely musically satisfying in an easy and generous way that few modern designs can match.
The Heybrook HB2 is one of those lost gems of British hi-fi’s past. Although it looks very much like a nineteen seventies loudspeaker, in truth the design practices it used weren’t the last gasp of the old age of speaker design, but the coming of the new. Despite having a wide-baffle (nothing wrong with that in sonic terms, although it dates it visually), it’s a cleverly done mid-price two-way. As the eighties unravelled – from the Celestion SL6 to the Epos ES14 – we saw more and more of these designs. Huge amounts of listening and finessing went into its design to product that great sound, rather than marketing-friendly gimmicks. It was a mid-sized speaker than sounded better than a great many larger ones, and ushered in the era of downsizing boxes. The HB3 that followed was a superb product, but a little unfashionable and out of time, but it spurred Heybrook on to make the HB1, which dominated the budget standmount market and was a true slice of budget esoterica. All three are great secondhand buys, but the HB2 remains the most iconic.