The world was a different place back in 1972. Colour television sets were bleeding-edge technology, quartz digital watches were for millionaires, and computers only appeared in sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. “So many things that people have hobbies for now, just didn’t exist back then,” says Meridian co-founder Bob Stuart [pictured right]. Having studied Acoustics, Psychoacoustics and Electronic Engineering at Birmingham University, then on to Imperial for his MSc in Operational Studies, he didn’t have to think too hard about what to do with this education. “For people like me, if you didn’t want to design weapons systems or medical systems, hi-fi was the place to be”, he says. And so it was – after a house and a car, a sound system was the largest purchase people made.
At the same time, young Royal College of Art graduate Allen Boothroyd [pictured left] was beginning to make a name for himself, laying the foundations of a career that would see him become one of Britain’s most respected industrial designers. It was happenstance that he was introduced to Bob, via a company they both had worked with in differing capacities. Stuart had just won a competition in Wireless World magazine to redesign a famously unreliable hi-fi amplifier of the time, and was a precocious young talent…
“I suppose the real word is naivety”, says Allen about his first collaboration with Bob. He found himself being asked to co-design the now legendary Lecson AC1/AP1, an elaborate two-box amplifier that turned out to be one of the most striking looking things to have come out of the nineteen seventies. “Completely mad but quite interesting”, is how he now describes it – and that’s an understatement. This perspex and corrugated aluminium package is now on show in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
Its space-age styling was based on what Allen calls his (lack of) knowledge of how electronic products worked at the time. “I thought about it as an analogue of the signal coming in on the left hand side of the box and coming out on the other side of the box, and the coloured sliders were designed to give a graphic representation of what was going on inside the box”. He was trying to make something that’s normally quite mundane, look and feel exciting. “I think that’s what old Dyson tries to do with his vacuum cleaners, tries to show what’s inside the machine”, he quips.
In the case of the iconic Lecson amp, there was a lot of clever circuitry inside, and it impressed many people in an industry that was dominated by big beasts, a generation older and less free thinking. Suddenly, Boothroyd and Stuart became the Jobs and Wozniak of their day on the British hi-fi scene. Both brilliant in their field, neither were able to do the other’s work and together caused a tremor that – slightly – shifted the tectonic plates of the electronics industry. “That certainly got us off to a good start”, says Allen modestly.
Within a couple of years, Bob and Allen decided to start their own research and development company in Cambridge. “We thought we could frankly do our own thing better”, Allen remembers. Called Meridian because they were literally geographically at zero degrees longitude, the name had to be amended to Boothroyd-Stuart Meridian soon after because Allen’s wife, “…discovered there was a company in Leeds that made knickers or something”, as you do!
Allen’s styling of the Lecson certainly raised eyebrows, but Bob wasn’t about to be upstaged. He had the idea that amplifiers could sound different. It seems strange now, but the conceit of the day held that – to use Quad’s Peter Walker’s oft-quoted phrase – an amplifier was “a piece of wire with gain” and no more. How then could a group of transistors, resistors, diodes, and capacitors have a sound of their own? The only way something could sound different is if the circuit hadn’t been designed properly, and there was a technical fault somewhere – or so the received wisdom went…
To British hi-fi elder statesman Peter Walker, the young and long-haired Bob Stuart must have seemed an audacious upstart who needed teaching the ways of the electronics world. Bob published an article saying that his amplifier sounded different to others, and Walker was shocked. Indeed, “he told me to come around to his house, so he could have a look at it!” He adds that, “it was an interesting era in the early days at Meridian. There were too many dyed-in-the-wool engineers who believed they understand the world, but they didn’t. They’d tell me, ‘Young man this is no good, Stuart this can’t sound different!”
Meridian’s first product was the M1 loudspeaker. Rather than being a wide wooden box with countless drive units plastered all around its front baffle – which was the fashion of the day – it was tall, slim, narrow and elegant. More importantly it sounded superb, due to a combination of excellent cabinet design, top quality drive units and the decision to place the amplifiers in the boxes. Instead of needing a separate power amplifier, all the active M1s required to make (very powerful) music was a tiny preamplifier control unit. Thus was born the 101, another important Boothroyd-Stuart moment.
Launched in 1978, Allen says he didn’t want Meridian’s first ever hi-fi separate to look conventional, “so I put it into a window extrusion, a sort of mullion, and chopped that into bits, and tried to persuade Bob to fit the electronics into it”. It was tiny, and sported a dual-ganged silky volume control and crisp source selectors. Although not the dramatic visual statement that was the Lecson, the first Meridian electronics box “had a distinct style, and made the user interface as simple as possible”, says Boothroyd. He recalls it having nice flip switches which were, “much too expensive but gave you a feeling of quality. When you have a very small product like that you can’t have a fiddly switches”. In quintessential nineteen seventies style, it was finished in brown “because it was just a little bit different”.
A whole range of small form factor 100-series components followed. The 103 power amplifier was split into tiny modules, and the 105 followed the same theme. There was even a matching 104 tuner, little larger than a cigarette packet but still featuring presets for the listener’s favourite FM radio stations. It wasn’t just the packaging that was clever. The 100-series system sounded superb, thanks to Bob’s circuit design and decision to use unusually expensive components inside. By then, he recalls, “there was quite a movement about understanding the importance they made. It was nothing like the old reference designs of transistors – it was a complete reboot. People noticed, and Meridian had phone calls from all over the world; indeed Canada became the company’s largest market.
“Part of our success is that we never wrapped boxes around electronics, and most other companies did. Well, we have occasionally done so, but it never really worked”, says Bob. “We’ve always collaborated right at the conceptual stage of the product”, adds Allen. “I think it’s sensing process cause I have to sense what’s important to make the thing work properly, not compromising the performance. Bob then tries to accommodate my more wild suggestions as to what the product might be, because there is no point for a British company to try to make something that looks like it has come out of the Sony factory! First of all we can never compete with their price, and secondly life would be duller if we didn’t have more interesting product.” The toughest job, says Bob, is when they have to design a “pragmatic” piece of equipment. “This is the worst challenge, to say here is a white box and has to be this wide and that tall, and then to make it pretty. We prefer it when we have more freedom to create something like sculpture, as in the 100 series.”
For the early part of the nineteen eighties, Meridian vowed the hi-fi world with its 100 series and matching M1 and then M2 loudspeakers. However, the company lacked a disc playing source component; traditionally Meridian systems were fed by turntables, their pickup cartridges driving the phono module of the 101. But then along came the future and radically shook up not just what Meridian was to do, but the wider world in general. Bob and Allen began working on a new generation of electronics, one which was better optimised for the digital world which awaited them, that was more versatile and able to work across a wide range of sources.
“With the arrival of Compact Disc, we began to think about the possibilities,” says Allen. “Bob disappeared into his digital hole and had a marvellous time trying to work out what this was all going to mean, in terms of products. We didn’t know what people were going to buy, whether they were going to add digital sources to their existing systems or replace everything they’d got with new. But something wonderful was about to arrive, so we produced a wild concept called the Modular System, which was a way of plugging together sources together rather like Lego. You could decide how many you wanted, to get the system to do different things. It had a preamp on one side, a power supply on the other and you could put a number of inputs between it, or an FM tuner or whatever.”
The Meridian Component Amplifier (MCA) that came out of this has proved one of the less we’ll remembered Boothroyd-Stuart products. This is a shame, because the idea to offer a source-agnostic amplifier, with a range of expandable modules, phono, tuner, line inputs, etc., was a prescient one as well as being good common sense. Very much of its time, it reflected a feeling that abounded in the early eighties of us all entering a brave new technological world, with the old certainties hi-fi gone. In this context the MCA was perfect, but it also made commercial sense too. Allen notes that having just the 101 preamp and a pair of speakers to sell the world “was a difficult sell to the industry”; audiophiles might have wanted fewer boxes but retailers didn’t! So the MCA, with its multiplicity of add on units worked in this respect too…
Alongside the ‘DISC MM’ and ‘DISC MC’ input modules on the options list for the MCA was one market ‘DISC CD’. It provided a line-level input for the amplifier tailored to the output voltage from the very first Compact Disc players. The technology was launched in Japan in autumn 1982, and reached the UK in spring 1983, and by this time Meridian was actively developing its first CD player. Indeed, the MCD, as it came to be called, was the very first British silver disc spinner, and conferred audiophile respectability on a format that most people knew relatively little about at the time. “We thought we better get into this,” remembers Allen, “and we couldn’t afford to make our own laser arrangements so Bob took a Philips CD100 machine apart and decided which were the good bits and which weren’t…”
“Actually, we worked closely with Philips”, says Bob. “At that time we were lucky they were looking for a company with some credibility to give to CD, because when it first came out, there was a lot of gnashing of teeth, particularly among turntable manufacturers, as you can imagine. Even the music industry itself was suspicious; one of the bits of history that’s not well remembered was that CD launched in Europe and the American music industry fought it for a year, saying things like we don’t give away our crown jewels, we don’t want to make the product too good, and so on…”
What Bob liked about CD was that it was consistent. “Vinyl was disaster because the needle kept getting broken and the discs were scratchy, it never sounded right, especially when you got to the end of the groove. Vinyl never sounded natural and was never grounded. When I examined Compact Disc I knew what it was capable of. We’d done quite a lot of work on digital before CD, so spent a lot time making it sound right, and quickly got into a zone where there were clear differences between different digital sources.”
The MCD, launched in 1984, and the MCD Pro which followed a year or so after, didn’t just put Meridian on the global hi-fi map, it put Compact Disc on it too. Philips were delighted with the positive reviews that its format was now getting. “We weren’t doing them any harm, indeed I think we did them quite a lot of good. We got specialist reviews that said CD was better than vinyl, and to them that was important. Later, the fact that we were able to make the MCDP Pro sound so good was incredible for us cause it actually changed the whole perception of the brand.”
Just seven or so years after its inception, Boothroyd-Stuart Meridian had been responsible for some of the most innovative active loudspeakers ever made, done some of the most beautifully packaged and finest sounding separates and invested the new Compact Disc system with copper-bottomed audiophile credibility. Indeed, it arguably did more to get CD accepted by audiophiles than anything Philips or Sony ever did. Surprisingly though, the pace of innovation did not slack, and Meridian Audio has continued to do some seriously interesting things, with more still to come, says Bob Stuart. Still, few can doubt that the period from 1978 to 1985 was a remarkable time for the company, and for audio itself. Bob and Allen were key players, and made their own little bit of history.