Q Acoustics’ Brand Director is a quietly spoken but erudite fellow – with a long history of working in the British hi-fi industry. He hails from the north of Scotland, but has spent much of his life in Edinburgh and central London, where he has played an important role in the histories of several big British hi-fi brands. His career began around the time that the hi-fi industry became a professional global business, rather than an assortment of smaller companies catering for enthusiasts and DIYers. Alex has seen some big hi-fi brands up close and personal, so to speak, and watched the world change as technology moved on apace…
“Things started for me with a deferred entry to do English and Philosophy at university,” he remembers. “But during my gap year I kind of had an epiphany and thought, what on earth am I going to do with English and Philosophy? Fortunately I was able to able to switch to electronic engineering instead. During my third year, I’d always loved music so I applied to as many UK speaker companies as I could. One in Maidstone replied to my letter, so I got an interview and a summer job with KEF. At the end of the summer, Laurie Fincham kindly said he’d like to have me back. In this harsh commercial world I can still barely believe that they payed me for doing what I did because I enjoyed it so much…”
He joined the company full time in 1979, when he says, “there was a sort of digital arms race going on between KEF and Bowers and Wilkins.” He continues, “they had just begun to work with impulse analysis techniques for measuring loudspeakers. Instead of solely using anechoic chambers they had a big open chamber where you’d put an impulse through the speaker and do a Fourier analysis on it, so you could get its frequency and phase response but without room effects, because you gated it before any room reflections came back to interfere. We had new computers from Hewlett Packard, and with great excitement we were able to actually store eighteen seconds of digital audio on a disk the size of a Frisbee…”
“What this allowed us to do was to understand a lot more about the effect of frequency response-versus-the performance of the product”, he explains. “We didn’t always get it right but did at least mean that we understood consistency. Laurie and Raymond Cook were very concerned about variations in speakers one to another. I mean, if you didn’t have a left and a right speaker that were identical, you’d get an imprecise stereo image. So, the higher end ranges were actually pair matched. We’d measure every single speaker in a production run and form them into the maximum number of pairs. So that each had a serial number and were to be used as pairs. Unfortunately, it meant that if somebody blew a tweeter you had to replace the left and the right in order to retain the matches. It was that attention to detail that was so impressive about the business at that time.”
Alex worked for KEF during the golden years of the British hi-fi boom, first as an engineer and then Sales Director, and then Managing Director. “From there I was headhunted – probably because of my accent – to go back to Scotland – and I became MD of Tannoy for ten years, from 1991 through to 2000. The KEF days were special because some of the brand’s most iconic products came out during that period – like the 104-2 loudspeaker. It coincided with an entry into the American market, and they absolutely loved it. We were literally manufacturing thousands each month…”
He continues, “it was also the time that KEF’s Uni-Q technology was conceived. Technical director Laurie Fincham always believed in point-source concepts, but wanted to be able to truly align the tweeter with the woofer in both axis – rather than just the one that’s facing you when you’re sitting in front of the speaker. With new measurement systems, we were able to actually able to tell what the true source of the woofer and tweeter was, and align them. That was only possible because the price of neodymium came down sufficiently, because of the opening up of the Russian market. We were able to purchase it at a sufficiently competitive price to be able to include in a consumer product.”
The smaller size and higher power of magnet that this material allowed meant that KEF could now make a tweeter that would properly fit inside a woofer. “Tannoy had done something similar with the Dual Concentric but they effectively had the tweeter behind the woofer and then used a horn to connect the two”, he adds. “As someone with inside experience of both companies, it’s fair to say that both had their qualities. At KEF the Tannoy solution was deemed not to be quite sufficiently precise, while at Tannoy the KEF solution would have been deemed to be a bit dull and not lively and exciting enough. It’s very often you find this is engineering, when everybody is facing at the same target and there is more than one way to skin a cat…”
“Uni-Q would have been around 1989. It was a risk taking a brand-new technology and trying to implement it into something that the company relied on you making thousands of each month in order to keep its revenue. Quite a lively time; indeed there was a roll out of new technology and new approaches which meant life was stimulating, and you felt that you were ahead of the curve, leading the science behind what you were doing. It was, as I say, purely because the people running the business were prepared to invest disproportionally in that aspect.”
One of the nice associations of that period was the BBC LS3/5a mini monitor,” recalls Alex. “It specified KEF drivers, so even though there were several different manufacturers producing it, it was four figures every month in terms of the driver kits we were shipping. Interestingly we didn’t actually take out the licence ourselves, but instead we had our own equivalent called the KEF Reference 101 which used the same drivers and size with a slightly different design approach. Still, the LS3/5a was a true classic.”
Alex’s move to Tannoy certainly raised eyebrows in industry circles, around the turn of the nineteen nineties. “At the time, KEF was a bigger business that Tannoy but Tannoy was very ambitious. What attracted me personally to them was that they had a pro audio part to the business. Both in terms of doing studio monitors and in terms of providing a public address, sound reinforcement systems, commercial audio systems. The very name Tannoy comes from a commercial audio system. It was a new playing field for me, but when I went in I had to be cautious about wanting to reinvent things. You’ve got to spend quite a bit of time trying to work out why certain aspects have been successful and why certain aspects are less so.”
“Often it has less to do with the products themselves and more to do with finding the right channels with which you can market them and sell them. What Tannoy had which was fascinating was a very early presence in China and that had come from having a very strong presence in Japan and Korea. So, as the Chinese consumer began to get a little more wealthy, they were purchasing high end hi-fi products and our partner in China took a remarkable approach. They effectively took hi-fi on tour and would hire village halls throughout towns and cities in China, and put on a hi-fi concert. They would fill every seat and they would have a well thought of radio personality to host the whole thing and play lots of recorded music, typically on a large pair of Tannoys. That did phenomenal things for the brand reputation and led to very strong sales in the Chinese market.”
After a fruitful period helping grow the Tannoy brand, early in the new millennium Alex became involved in a start-up called Audica. “There was a very clever engineer and industrial designer called Kieran Dunk, who put together this idea for a domestically acceptable approach to audio. He could see that audio and video were blending and wanted to create something that could integrate with flat screen televisions in a meaningful way. During the start-up period of the business we quickly realised there was an opportunity in the commercial installations for very attractive styled speakers. Particularly at the high end of retailers, hotels, et cetera. So, we created a commercial side which leant on experience I’d had in both Tannoy and Federal Signal. We asked Armour Home Electronics to be our distributor in the UK, and after a year or so came to an arrangement where they bought the business. Armour had just initiated the Q Acoustics brand, and it was decided that rather than carry on with both, we would focus Audica syncing into the commercial side and the style side of Q Acoustics, while focusing all our efforts on growing the Q Acoustics for home audio.”
What made this unlikely merging of minds possible was that Kieran Dunk had styled the Q Acoustics Products from day one. “It meant that there was a pretty straightforward integration,” explains Alex. “The person commercially at the centre of Q Acoustics at the time was a man called Tony Johns who had come from Audio T and had also worked at Mission. He set a very strong foundation for Q Acoustics which I was pleased to inherit later on, and become Brand Director. So there’s a strong heritage there; Kieran had also been at Mission too.”
Alex says that Mission once had a very strong hold on the ‘affordable audiophile’ speaker market – only to lose their way somewhat because of its interest in the NXT technology company. “They weren’t alone – you could say the same of Wharfedale at that time. Q Acoustics aimed itself foursquare at this market, and brought a British approach. The birth of Q Acoustics was a little bit like going right back to the beginning for me, and seeing the faith and investment that KEF’s Raymond Cook was prepared to put into the products. Armour Home has been an incredibly supportive parent of Q Acoustics. It is self-supporting now it is a bigger business, but still requires people to have the courage to say, for example, that we’re going to do a Concept 500 no matter what it costs.”
MY LIFE IN LOUDSPEAKERS…
KEF CODA II (1982)
Budget speakers that offered great value. The bass unit had 3 fixing points, to prevent the surround being distorted by over-tightening, which was original and the tweeter face plate had 4 dimples on the front which were flow marks and a terrible mistake as they should have been on the back!
KEF UNI-Q C-Series, (1988)
Uni-Q was a patented implementation of coincident midrange and tweeter drivers, striving to preserve phase integrity and match dispersion between the two drivers for improved stereo imagery. This was possible due to Neodymium magnets, with HF drivers small enough to be located inside the LF unit. It was a challenge to implement this new technology in a high volume range.
TANNOY MERCURY M2 (1997)
This budget standmount loudspeaker entered the market and made a strong impression and winning an EISA Award. The idea came from a Europe-wide alliance between Marantz and Tannoy, again providing good value and a great match with the very successful Marantz separates of the era.
TANNOY KINGDOM (1999)
Following the rich Tannoy tradition of producing large high performance hi-fi speakers, this was one of the first domestic designs to convey the full audio bandwidth from over 20kHz to 20Hz. Although the Holy Grail at the time, full bandwidth also had its challenges, often exciting room modes that you would rather not have.
Q ACOUSTICS 7000 series (2011)
Carrying the spirit of the style and commercial speaker start-up Audica into Q Acoustics, this product family was all about getting the best possible performance from very small, elegant and purposeful speaker enclosures. What made this product special was that these small speakers had enough bass extension to provide a proper crossover with the subwoofer, unlike many of their competitors.
Q ACOUSTICS CONCEPT 20 (2013)
The first Q Acoustics product incorporating Gelcore cabinets, and which focused on reducing the noise which comes from cabinet walls.
Q ACOUSTICS MEDIA 4 (2014)
A wonderful application of wide dispersion BMR driver technology, together with good old hi-fi values. A multiple award winner in soundbars.
Q ACOUSTICS CONCEPT 500 (2017)
It was seen as a high risk for Q Acoustics to leave its established speaker price bracket to do a high-end flagship product. But it received widespread recognition, and the freedom that this price point gave the design team has led to a number of innovations which are now being implemented elsewhere.