Mention the name Quad to many home theater enthusiasts and you might get nothing more than a blank stare, but mention the same name to high-end audio enthusiasts and you are likely to see broad smiles of recognition appear. The reason for this is that the British firm is famous, at least within the audiophile community, for both its superb tube and solid state electronics and especially for the legendary Quad electrostatic loudspeaker—or ESL, for short. Ever since the ESL first appeared back in the 1950s, Quad’s electrostatic speakers—now in their fourth iteration—have been winning music lovers’ hearts, minds and ears, earning iconic status as among the greatest loudspeakers ever made.
If you have ever heard a set of Quad ESL speakers in action, you can probably understand why they are so widely revered. Few competing designs offer a more balanced combination of resolution, imaging, neutrality and stunning sonic purity—a combination of virtues that makes the Quads incredibly faithful to whatever types of material you choose to play. Not for nothing is Quad’s slogan, “The Closest Approach to the Original Sound.” Even so, many would question whether Quad’s electrostats are appropriate for home theater systems, since several pragmatic considerations limit their appeal. Specifically, they are large and unusually shaped, tricky to place for best results, harder to drive than conventional loudspeakers, tend not to sound their best when played very loudly, and are very expensive.
Given these factors, it was perhaps inevitable that enthusiasts would ask if Quad could develop a series of conventional speakers that would preserve essential elements of the Quad electrostatic sound, yet that would also be capable of handling the dynamic demands of movie soundtracks and that would be more traditional in appearance, easier to install and to drive, and—above all—more affordable. Happily, the answer to this wish list turns out to be Quad’s L2-series of “electrodynamic” loudspeakers, which are the subject of this review. Purists might object that because the L2 models are built in China, not in Great Britain, they are therefore not “real” Quads, but this is errant nonsense.
Unlike many A/V manufacturers building products in Asia, Quad enjoys an extremely close and cooperative relationship with its Chinese factory, in part because both Quad and its factory are owned by the same parent company, International Audio Group (or IAG, for short). Consequently, the factory builds nothing but Quad products and Quad even stations some of its own full-time British employees in China to live and work alongside their Chinese counterparts. The result is a range of speakers that realize the cost benefits of offshore manufacturing, featuring extremely high-tech components and assembly techniques while retaining an unmistakable touch of old-world craftsmanship and charm.
For this review, I assembled a 5.1-channel surround system based on a pair Quad’s flagship 22L2 floorstanders, used as main speakers, an L2 Centre center-channel speaker, a pair of 11L2 bookshelf monitors used as surround speakers, and a 300-watt L2 Subwoofer. The entire system sells for $4896—or less than half what a pair of Quad’s model 2905 electrostats would cost. Does the L2 system uphold Quad’s traditional sonic family values? That’s one of the key questions I’ll attempt to answer in this review. I’ll also try to assess ways in which the new L2-series speakers improve upon Quad’s earlier generation L-series models, which the L2’s effectively replace.
Consider this system if: you seek a speaker system that offers on the one hand exceptional detail, delicacy, and clarity, yet that on the other hand powerfully conveys a sense of dynamic energy and life, both for music and movie playback. The subwoofer is a major strong point, offering greater power, depth and controllability than many in its class. And did I mention that the system’s woodwork and finish quality is drop-dead gorgeous?
Look further if: you are by nature a comparison shopper, since there are worthy competitors in or near this price class, from manufacturers such as Monitor Audio, Paradigm, and PSB—to name just three. Even so, the Quad system’s balanced mix of killer workmanship and refined yet powerful sound is tough to beat—especially so in light of the system’s sensible (though certainly not cheap) pricing.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced surround speaker systems)
Transparency and Focus: 10
Imaging and Soundstaging: 9
Tonal Balance: 9.5
Bass Extension: 9
Bass Pitch Definition: 9
Bass Dynamics: 9.5
Quad 22L2 floorstander, L2 Centre, and 11L2 monitor highlights:
- All L2-series models use a version of Quad’s improved 1” fabric dome tweeter complete with what Quad calls a “Dual Catenary" tweeter dispersion plate that “enhances the dispersion characteristic, to prevent ‘beaming’ and to widen the listening ‘sweet spot’.”
- The 11L2 and L2 Centre speaker use light, stiff 5” Kevlar mid-bass drivers, while he 22L2 uses a dedicated 6.5” Kevlar woofer and 6.5” Kevlar mid-bass driver. In the L2-series, these larger drivers benefit from an improved chassis design, which Quad describes in this way. “Using very low profile (chassis) legs, we can virtually eliminate the temporal-smearing effect of rearward waves being reflected back through the cone—it’s as if the cone were itself just floating in free space.”
- All L2-series models feature “audiophile grade” crossover networks that use “metallised polypropylene capacitors,” along with “perfect layer, air-cored inductors,” with components mounted on “glass-fibre PCBs with non-interlacing tracks.” L2 models also incorporate “improved terminals, spikes and plinths.”
- The 11L2 and 22L2 are ported design, while the L2 Centre features a sealed-cabinet enclosure. Quad says all L2 speaker enclosures, including the smaller bookshelf models, enjoy improved internal bracing that is “designed specifically to randomise the internal reflections and cause rapid dissipation of internal standing waves for a clean, fast bass response.”
- Given the enhancements listed above, Quad describes the L2 range as “a follow-up to the original L-series (that) has been updated and improved in every respect, whilst maintaining the same clear identity and level of refinement.”
- All speakers in the L2-series (except the subwoofer) carry 6 Ohm impedance ratings meaning, says Quad, that all L2 speakers “are compatible with all standard 4 and 8 Ohm amplifiers.”
- L2 models are offered in several visually stunning piano-grade finishes, including cherry, rosewood, birdseye maple, and black.
<h5></h5><h5>L2 Subwoofer highlights:</h5>
- 12” “tri-lam” woofer. By way of supplying more details on the woofer’s construction, Quad says, “The 'tri-lam' or Tri-Laminate cone is a composite construction comprised of a hydraulically molded and thermoset lamination of three materials. The inner layer is bi-directional weave carbon fiber, while the two outer layers are bi-directional weave glass fiber. In addition, the outer rim of the cone incorporates rim-edge stiffening within the design... The resulting cone is extremely rigid and lightweight, ensuring very low energy losses, even at extremes of volume.”
- 300-watt amplifier.
- Features a remote control with an extensive set of control functions, including controls for power on/standby, volume level, phase settings, and low-pass filter frequency settings (with settings for Off, or for 35Hz – 85Hz crossover frequencies in 10Hz increments). The remote also allows users to program and then access up to four sets of level, frequency and phase settings.
- Features a front panel display that illuminates briefly when the remote control is activated.
- The L2 subwoofer is available in the same finishes as the L2 speakers.
Resolution and definition are qualities most listeners can readily appreciate in a good loudspeaker system, but the caveat that in most speakers as level of detailing increase, so too does the probability that the speaker will—at least under some circumstances—sound overly analytical or a bit strident. Not so, the Quad L2-series system. One of the first things I noticed about the Quads, and that many guest listeners commented on as well, is that they sounded almost effortlessly detailed and revealing, yet silky smooth. Even listeners familiar with other high-quality contemporary speaker systems found the Quads special because of their ability to deliver astonishing clarity without any unpleasant side effects such as edginess or glare.
Tonal balance for the Quad system is commendably neutral and off-axis response is well-balanced, too. In practice this means that if you choose to use an automated room EQ system with the Quads, you may not hear a very big before/after difference (except perhaps in the very low bass region, where room EQ systems can often help compensate for room-induced bass anomalies). What you will find about the Quad system is that it has an unusually open-sounding quality that makes both instrumental and vocal material sound particularly lucid—especially through the broad center of the midrange. This isn’t because those frequencies are given any sort of extra emphasis, though, but rather because they are so well-balanced, with timbres and textures rendered with great purity and focus.
Bass is both well-defined and deeply extended, and can also be—when circumstances warrant—very powerful. Many systems in this price range have good subs, but ones that seem, when pushed to their limits, just a bit under-matched relative to their respective systems. The Quad L2 Subwoofer, however, can more than keep pace with the other elements of the L2 system so that, when big low frequency swells come along in music or movie soundtracks, the woofer always seems to have headroom to spare. Even though the Quad sub uses a large 12” woofer, I found that it sounded quite agile and was capable of much better than average pitch definition.
More so than many systems in its price class, Quad’s L2 system offer very good imaging and surround soundstaging. The ideal, of course, is to have speakers that “disappear,” so that sounds seem to emanate from precise, 3D points in space—not from the speaker enclosures, themselves. The Quad rig does a very good job in this respect, I think because the revised L2-series tweeters (and their associated “dispersion plates”) really do work as advertized, smoothing treble response both on and off-axis while enhancing dispersion. The result is that very subtle spatial and reverberant cues in music and movie soundtracks seem to float free from the speaker, rather than tugging at your ears in a distracting way. This, in turn, fosters the sort of very nearly seamless “wraparound” imaging that is highly prized by music and movie enthusiasts alike.
If you’ve heard the old myths about British loudspeakers sounding warm, fuzzy, and “polite,” you should know up front the Quad L2 system never got that memo. True, the L2 system is capable of great delicacy, but its sound is also precise, bold, dynamic, and alive—especially so on well-crafted movie soundtracks. During the opening scenes of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the more delicate side of the Quad system comes into play, doing a great job with the subtle sound of wind in the ship’s rigging and sails, the almost subliminal creaking of the hull as the ship rolls on gentle ocean swells, and the sounds of a night watch officer deftly stepping around or ducking beneath crew members’ suspended hammocks as he makes his rounds below decks. These details are presented clearly, but without any extra emphasis or spotlighting, and perhaps for this reason they seem all the more believable.
But minutes later in the same film, a very different and more aggressive aspect of the L2 system’s sonic character is called upon. When the H.M.S. Surprise suffers a surprise attack from the French privateer Acheron, the ensuing racket is almost stupefying. Sounds of cannonball sizzling overhead, of heavy rope lines snapping, of yardarms falling, and of wooden planks and fixtures being blown to smithereens all fill the soundstage at once. What was very impressive was not just that the Quad system reproduced these sound effects with plenty of dynamic punch, but that it kept each of the sounds clear and distinct at the same time. What really wowed me, however, was the way the Quad rig handled the loud, sharp “craaAACK” and low-pitched “BOOoom” of the Surprise’s own cannons being fired. Typically this passage sounds at least somewhat compressed through most home theater systems, but through the Quad system it took on an altogether more powerful and incisive quality, momentarily pressurizing the listening room and slapping me in the chest with a potently concussive bass wave. This kind of realism is bracing, invigorating, and all too rare.
Those of you who have read my equipment reviews in the past know that I value speaker systems that can walk a sonic tightrope, of sorts, balancing dynamic energy, “grunt,” and muscle on the one hand against accuracy, detail, and finesse on the other, and I found the L2 system was extremely good at pulling off such balancing acts. To hear what I mean, try a track such as “If You Love Me Like You Say” from blues guitarist Debbie Davies’ Holdin’ Court [Vizztone]. Ms. Davies certainly qualifies as a “master of the Stratocaster,” and on this track makes judicious use of a wah-wah pedal to explore the more vocal, singing, crying and even howling qualities of her instrument’s voice. It’s a sound that is at once very precisely controlled, yet full of barely restrained energy and dynamic power. Add to this Casandra Faulconer’s granite-solid Fender bass lines and Don Castagno’s percussion (which combines Swiss-watch precision and old-school Arnold Schwarzenegger-style muscle), and you’ve got a track that demands excellence from a speaker system on many levels at once. And happily, the Quad L2 system does not disappoint, but rather wades right in and nails the penetrating howl of Davies’ guitar, the throaty drive and pulse of Faulconer’s bass, and the exquisite shimmer and pop of Castagno’s drum kit. Not many speaker systems in this class could have equaled the L2 system’s performance (though comparably-priced systems from Monitor Audio, Paradigm, and PSB—to name just three—might give it a run for its money).
But the L2 system is just as much at home when playing high-resolution, multichannel music recordings, such as Marriner/Academy of St. Martin In The Fields performance of Gordon Getty’s “Overture ‘Plump Jack’ Ancestor Suite” from Orchestral Works by Gordon Getty [PentaTone, multichannel SACD]. The ‘Plump Jack’ Overture test the Quad system in interesting ways, in that it offers multiple passages that seem tailor-made for the purpose of showcasing individual sections if the orchestra. The piece opens, for example, with a powerful low percussion and brass statement, which the Quad system reproduced with terrific incisiveness, weight and sonority. Later, at a little past two minutes into the track, a brief, lilting string theme develops, which the Quad system rendered with the sort of gentle, clear, sweet string tone for which Quad’s electrostrats are justly famous. Further on, at about the three and a half minute point, a lovely descending motif is introduced by the strings, next echoed by percussion, then taken by the strings again, and finally handed off to a harp. The entire passage is very brief (not even a full minute long) but it makes for a beautiful side-by-side comparison in instrumental timbres and textures—a comparison test that the Quad system passed with flying colors. The point is that Quad’s L2 system is versatile and accurate enough to do justice to each and all the orchestral sections in turn—never favoring one section at the expense of another.
Like all really good loudspeaker systems, the L2 system is for the most part a transparent conduit for the material you choose to play—letting the sound of the recording speak for itself without any editorial embellishment on the system’s part.
Quad’s 22L2 5.1-channel speaker system is a very strong contender in the hotly contested near-$5000 price bracket, and it is a personal favorite of mine. The system will appeal to those who appreciate well-executed studies in contrast because it offers tonal accuracy married with vibrant tonal colors, definition and detail coupled with smoothness, and delicacy and finesse backed up by power and sheer “grunt.”
One aspect of the system not to be missed is its self-evident build quality and overall fit and finish, which together meant the L2 system earned more than its fair share of favorable comments from quest listeners. While many manufacturers claim their products offer “piano grade” finishes, Quad’s L2 system actually delivers on that promise.
SPECS & PRICING
Quad 22L2 2 ½-way, bass reflex floorstanding speaker
Driver complement: One 6.5” Kevlar woofer, one 6.5” Kevlar mid-bass driver, one 1” fabric dome tweeter with waveguide flange
Frequency response: 30Hz – 28 kHz
Impedance: 6 Ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 33.46” x 8.07” x 10.94”
Weight: 84 lbs. /pair
Warranty: All L2-series passive speakers, five years parts and labor
Quad L2 Centre 2-way three-driver, bass reflex center-channel speaker
Driver complement: Two 5” Kevlar mid-bass drivers, one 1” fabric dome tweeter with waveguide flange
Frequency response: 70Hz – 35 kHz
Impedance: 6 Ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 6.42” x 16.85” x 8.11”
Weight: 19.4 lbs.
Warranty: All L2-series passive speakers, five years parts and labor
Quad 11L2 2-way bass reflex bookshelf monitor
Driver complement: One 5” Kevlar mid-bass driver, one 1” fabric dome tweeter with waveguide flange
Frequency response: 45Hz – 28 kHz
Impedance: 6 Ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 12.2” x 7.48” x 9.57”
Weight: 27.8 lbs. /pair
Warranty: All L2-series passive speakers, five years parts and labor
Quad L2 Subwoofer powered subwoofer
Driver complement: One 12”tri-lam woofer
Integrated amplifier power: 300 watts
Dimensions (HxWxD): 21.06” x 13.58” x 18.31”
Weight: 75 lbs.
Warranty: Driver and enclosure, five years parts and labor; amplifier, one year, parts and labor
System Price: $4896 as tested
QUAD HIFI/INTERNATIONAL AUDIO GROUP