It’s been a long journey for someone who started off reading Electronic Engineering at Plymouth University back in the early seventies. Now, four decades later, Peter Comeau is running a large engineering department with many staff, supervising a wide range of projects for famous IAG-owned brands like Wharfedale, Quad, Audiolab and Castle.
Like so many people working in senior roles in hi-fi today, Peter originally got into the industry via retail in the mid-nineteen seventies, although admits he, “could go back to the sixties for when I first started tinkering.” His fascination with hi-fi caused him to read a degree in electronics, and after this a retail job funded his hobby upon graduation. “There were openings for people who knew something about hi-fi. Unlike now, not many people did back then. Representatives of companies would come to our shop and ask us what we thought of their products. In some ways I was used as a research tool – I remember Leak coming down and showing me their supposedly phase-perfect, stepped baffle loudspeakers, to see if the R&D people had done their job properly!
Peter loved this, and rapidly became highly knowledgeable in his field. This lead to him doing some reviewing, principally in Hi-Fi Answers magazine, in the mid seventies. “It enabled me to get a viewpoint across,” he tells me, “the reason I started reviewing was that working from retail, I was coming from the point of, ‘well if you’ve got these loudspeakers, you need this amplifier’. Not many people did that. If you looked at reviews in Hi-Fi News for example, they would spend two or three pages describing the circuit design and technical specification of the product, and then there would be a paragraph at the end about the sound quality, almost like a throwaway. There would be much more time spent on whether it developed a perfect 10kHz square wave. So I was able to get into print and say, “no don’t use this amp with these speakers”. Not only was this a much more experiential approach, it was more informative.”
In fact, Peter was one of the first writers to use this approach, one that is now taken for granted and considered to be the norm. But by 1976 he had itchy feet. It was prompted by hearing how bad so many budget loudspeakers were. “What was apparent was that at that time, in order to have a good sounding speaker, you needed to spend a fair amount of money – there wasn’t such a thing as a good sounding speaker. My friend Stuart Mee and I saw an opening; we thought that if we can’t buy a good affordable speaker then no one else can! So in 1976 we started Heybrook and launched the HB2 two years later. The HB3 and HB1 followed on, and the latter has become the stuff of legend for its wonderfully musical sound even today. ”On the forums people still rave about them”, he adds!
One of the brands that he now curates is Wharfedale. This is a budget line, but fiercely competitive market sector and the Diamond series gets regular updates to keep it selling well. He is just putting the finishing touches to the Diamond 200s, coming out around October time in the UK. “I this find particularly interesting,” he tells me, “because some forty years ago, I designed my first pair of speakers which sold for £129 per pair – the Heybrook HB2. And now, here I am still designing speakers which cost £129 per pair! It makes you wonder how this can work, but obviously there are advantages of manufacturing in China – economies of scale and also the economies of materials are much greater now than they were back then. It’s fascinating that we can still make loudspeakers, not just at that price, but which perform as well as they do at that price, because people are much more demanding now than they were in 1978 when I first started working on them!”
He confesses that he loves doing the new Diamond designs because it’s such a big challenge. The Diamond of course is the jewel in the Wharfedale crown. The original miniature speaker was such a breath of fresh air back in the mid-eighties, but Peter is adamant that it’s a veritable fossil compared to his latest range. “If you look at the sophistication that goes into the new drive units, it’s extraordinary that we are using a woven Kevlar cone which has a moulded pattern to stiffen it, and we also control the break-up with a specific pattern on the surround which absorbs the energy from the edge of the cone that much better. Thanks to computer aided design the drivers can now be made more efficient, more linear and lower in distortion. Then there’s the cabinet, which uses chipboard with outer layers of MDF which not just controls resonance, but also what we call ‘hear-through’ – the ability of sound wave to get from inside the cabinet to the outside of the cabinet.”
Comeau describes the crossover as, “a work of art” no less, and goes on to explain how modern technology has allowed him to do much more precise things. “It took me eighteen months to develop the HB2, because it was literally soldering components onto a board and trying to figure out what sounds good and what doesn’t. Now I can use computer software as a tool to enable me to see roughly what the speaker looks like and sounds like even before I have made a prototype. This gets me there faster; of course I have to do extensive fine tuning, but it has taken me just two weeks to do one pair of speakers for Diamond 200 range, to get to the point where I am happy for them to go into production. That’s only two weeks, plus a few days of manipulating the software, not eighteen months! There has been a major advance in the way we can design speakers now to make them far more revealing, far more accurate. Basically the most important thing is that they’re far more musically enjoyable than before.”
If Wharfedale is IAG’s cheap and cheerful brand, the Quad occupies precisely the opposite end of the market. He is working on two new ranges of conventional moving coil loudspeakers, both likely out in December, which share some some technology with the new Diamond range. “It’s a different formulation though,” he says, “and we are using different basket and a different surround. Basically we are still making sure there are differentiation between the brands, largely because of the customer expectation for what the products of a certain brand do. For example, the Quad customer traditionally will probably play a lot more classical and jazz than they would pop. There are still plenty of Quad buyers who play rock music, but looking across the full spectrum of Quad owners they tend to fall into the type of the listener who expects to be drawn into the music rather than having it pushed out. It’s a different aspect to the performance, so we have to use different methods, different technologies and materials to achieve that.”
One key example is the new ribbon tweeter. This marks a big departure for Quad, and should take the treble performance much closer to that of the range-topping electrostatics. “The ribbon is ‘just’ a tweeter, it doesn’t do the midband”, he tells me. “I know a lot of people have tried, but it is fraught with problems – the major one being directivity. You can get good horizontal spread but it’s very difficult to get good vertical spread, and that’s so oddly obvious. The unit itself has been designed with a Chinese manufacturer; we’re not trying to invent the wheel, rather we want to bring our own flavour to get what we want. It uses a composite foil; if you use a single aluminium foil as it used to be done in the old days, then the problem is power of handling, it just breaks if you ask it to handle any kind of high power. Doing it my way, a composite sandwich then you can get very good dispersion and still keep a clarity of sound.”
“Over at Audiolab, we have been developing some exciting active loudspeakers,” Peter says. “Indeed, the active speaker concept is an interesting one for me because the first time I got into it was with Heybrook. The breed was promoted heavily for a very short period of time, but it didn’t work then because people were buying hi-fi in a very traditional way. For example, there was a lot of emphasis on the customer buying the best turntable he could, then the best tonearm and the best cartridge – all from different manufacturers. So naturally you’d buy the amp from ‘the best’ amp maker, and the speakers from ‘the best’ speaker brand, and so on. The idea of active loudspeakers involved us going to the customer and telling him that he didn’t need ‘the best’ amp anymore because the amp was now built into the speakers. This was reducing his choice, so the buyer would go, “no, I’m not comfortable with that, and anyway I’ve already got this great amplifier, all I need is a decent pair of speakers, and I don’t want to buy speakers with amplifiers in.”
When Peter was doing Heybrook, he got involved in the Active Loudspeaker Standards Organisation along with Arcam, Linn, Meridian, Naim and Nytech, “and then we watched the bottom drop out of the market”. He’s a little sad about this, because he’s convinced that active speakers sound better than passive designs – providing everything else is equal. This is a big caveat he says, because, “you can’t apply the same filter technology to active filter technology as you can to passive filter technology”, he explains.
“You haven’t got the resistances, inductances and capacitances between the drive unit and the amplifier any more. You’ve got an amplifier driving a drive unit, so the amplifier somehow has to cope with the characteristics of the drive unit, and the drive unit behaviour is altered by the characteristics of the amplifier – so that alters how you design a crossover. The pluses are that as a designer you have much greater control of what the end product with be; you’re not just putting a speaker out there which will have a peculiar impedance across the frequency range, and expecting the purchaser to marry it up to the perfect amplifier. Every amp you latch a pair of speakers on to, the system will sound different. That equation is solved in the design of an active loudspeaker, because you can now go ahead and design a speaker that performs exactly as you expect it to.”
For Peter, the downside of active is, “in the mind of the designer”. He thinks that some tend to fetishise certain aspects of a design – for example they will go out of their way to achieve ‘zero distortion’ which results in something that sounds “utterly boring, or screechingly, horribly awful” because they’ve taken their eye off all the other things that go on. “It still makes me laugh when I look at amplifiers which are claimed to be ultra-wide bandwidth. Why? Why would you ever want to do that? At the same time you have plenty of amps out there that sound really good but which are bandwidth-limited.”
For Comeau, such people are not asking the right questions. “They’re not looking at the loudspeaker as a music reproducer, they’re looking at it as some technical device. I’ve seen people come into our research department and they start playing around with some technical problem, and they start trying to ‘correct’ that with DSP, for example. That’s where things go wrong in active loudspeakers – people think, “at last, I’ve got full control therefore I can correct everything. A lot of this approach to acoustic design comes down to whether you’re a theoretician, or a craftsman. My feeling is that the craftsman approach gives the greatest benefits of yielding an enjoyable musical performance at the end of the day.”