Videotone Minimax

Videoton MinimaxThe Videotone Minimax is the great little loudspeaker that history forgot. The story is all the more intriguing by the fact that Videotone was not – unlike about ninety nine percent of speakers back then – British. “Videotone” was the name of the UK importer, run by former Mullard and Philips engineer Cliff Hardcastle, whereas “Videoton” was the name of the Hungarian company that designed and manufactured the Minimax series. The latter was founded in 1938, became state-owned in 1955 and focused on consumer electronics until 1991, when it was privatised.

Cliff recalls, “I was amazed how good the Minimax sounded when I first came across it – in my view it was up there with the BBC LS3/5a, better even. They had some really gifted engineers at Videoton, which even then was a large company.” He formed Videotone Ltd. and began taking it around hi-fi shows; Harrogate was the first in 1972. There it got a great reception and soon he had 150 dealers and the speaker got rave reviews. As the British economy was ravaged by inflation in those days, the price went up considerably; to give you a benchmark it was £46 in 1977 which was much cheaper than the LS3/5a, but more expensive than many bookshelf designs. Cliff remembers that he bought it “incredibly cheaply” from Videoton in Hungary because they were desperate for foreign currency and jobs for their workforce.

At the time, small speakers were generally regarded with contempt by the mainstream hi-fi world – with only the BBC LS3/5a being taken seriously, and even then it was an acquired taste. Only in the eighties did speakers begin to downsize, with the likes of Wharfedale’s Diamond and then Acoustic Energy’s AE1 making the weather. Back in the seventies, the little Videotone initially had limited appeal. Highbrow hi-fi mags recommended it as a cheap way into Linn LP12 ownership; by buying these little speakers, they would argue, you would have more money left to buy their beloved Sondek! It often found itself on the end of a Rega Planar 3 with Nytech CTA252 receiver, and made a great noise – although Cliff recalls when one reviewer recommended that Amstrad music centre owners should junk their supplied speakers and buy a pair of Minimaxes instead, and sales duly soared!

“The secret to the speaker was the cabinets,” says Cliff. “They were real teak or walnut wood – not veneered MDF. You couldn’t get that kind of quality at the price elsewhere, and it gave them a lovely sound. The drivers were also really good too – the mid/bass unit especially had a natural rubber surround that gave a lovely quality. The treated paper cones were well done too, and the result surprised everyone who heard them. Measuring just 265mm high, 150mm wide and 225mm deep, it put out a far deeper bass than many expected, too.

Officially there was always only one Minimax – which was gradually tweaked over its long production run. “The company was obsessed with the German market, so we used to find them making small changes with this in mind”, he remembers. The speaker sported a 100mm paper cone tweeter and 125mm mid/bass driver; the latter was a high quality item, with rigid diecast aluminium construction and strong magnet. The wood cabinet was very heavy for its size, weighing 4kg, and sealed to give infinite baffle loading, which made for a low efficiency of approximately 83dB/1w/1m. This is very poor by modern standards, although it’s worth pointing out that it’s pretty close to that of the BBC LS3/5a. The speaker’s nominal impedance was 8 ohms, and the maximum quoted power handling figure was 20W – indeed, via a continuous sine wave this dropped to 15!

Numbers like this show you how far hi-fi has come in four decades; they’re shockingly bad alright, but the interesting this is that when you audition the Minimax, it sounds far better that the measured performance leads you to think. Indeed, in its defence, this speaker proudly wears the DIN 45500 hi-fi mark; this was a German industrial standard of how good hi-fi should perform, and complying with it wasn’t easy. In its day, the Minimax was a quality item – despite its small size and modest price. A frequency response of 55Hz to 20kHz was quoted, which very good at the price.

The Minimax went through a number of evolutions. Earlier Minimaxs, right up to the turn of the decade, ran DIN speaker sockets at the back, while later versions got banana sockets. In 1978 Videotone introduced the £75 GB3, a higher end British-designed derivative of fractionally larger size, complete with sophisticated cloth dome tweeter. All variants measured pretty much the same, although the power handling increased to 40W maximum music power towards the end of the Minimax’s lifespan. Arguably, the GB3 is the finest sounding derivative, although some say it lacks the life of the original.

Anyone who hears a well-preserved – or restored – Minimax for the first time is invariably surprised by just how detailed, open and musical it sounds. With no reflex port, the solid cabinet gives a tight, detailed and tuneful sound that’s almost totally devoid of bass boom. The speaker is surprisingly clear and detailed, yet animated too. It’s actually more fun to listen to than an LS3/5a, yet almost as open and detailed. Bass is unerringly enjoyable and extends down lower than many speakers at twice its size. Treble is fairly open and sweet, and on the GB3 turns into a thing of beauty. Imaging is excellent as you’d expect from such a small box, the only downside being its limited power handling; this speaker is for smallish rooms and low to medium volume levels only. Overall, the great thing about the Minimax is what people used to call its “tone”; it sounds smooth and sweet and inviting, and this makes extended listening a pleasure. Despite this, it’s not so coloured that everything sounds like it is recorded in the same studio. Videoton got the balance of this little speaker just right.

This quirky Soviet mini-monitor is not to everyone’s taste, but will charm many. Prices start from £50, but the bass surround may well need replacing – companies such as Anapeach [www.anapeachloudspeakerrestoration.co.uk] do this expertly. Meanwhile, that little state-owned hi-fi brand that no one had ever heard of in the seventies has done rather well for itself. Videoton is now a Contract Manufacturing company, the sixth largest of its type in the EU. It has ten manufacturing plants, 9,900 employees and assets of €454 million. The Minimax is testament to one small but special moment in its history.

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