Tuesday, 16 April 2013

My early fascination with vintage tube amplified audio systems




My own experiences around vintage tube audio components started in the late 1980ties. At this time I stayed frequently in London, most of the time in an apartment of a friend. The next underground station from there which I always used, was Edgeware Road Station. There in a little side street was shop located which had stacked old british amplifiers in its window up to the ceiling. The most of them were colored with golden paint, some as well were grey. This was my first contact to Leak and Quad tube amplifiers, a brand I did remember from my youth with very unusual designed components with orange and brown colors in very small enclosures.

One Leak TL12+ amplifier (1987)

Every time when I was in London I visited this store again and looked completely fascinated to Leak Stereo 20's or TL12+'s in its window display. In these days (1987) a unit did cost 85 £, the latter mono units costed around 60 £ (with vintage tubes, unbelievable from todays post ebay perspectives). After my third visit I decided: "Next time when you are there, you are buying one of this amplifiers". So I did do. As well I did buy a pair of Rogers LS3/5a, which had a famous reputation in these days, because they did stand extensivly for a complete newer generation of speaker designs originated by the BBC in the 1970ties. As I did not know anything about tube amplifiers and efficiency matching, of course I got completely guided wrong (like the most people).

In order to improve the sound quality of my new system I bought a Meridian CD player to match. I did not like the sound at all, it was very straight forward, with a main issues at the middle frequencies. I came from a very lean 1970ties Yamaha receiver. To me the sheer detailed resolution of the Leaks was a very forcing challenge. Some people did advice me to get a tube preamp to soften the overall sound. I had read in London hifi magazines about Croft preamps, but unfortunatly I was actually not in London and my impatience did not allow any delay. So I did buy a german tube preamplifier, sold as a kit. I did not have any knowledge in assembling tube amps, so this was going to be a very basic experience. I did like doing it and I had fun to get it work. Shortly after that project I started to restore my Leak amplifiers. I learned a lot from a friend of mine, who was some sort of professional expert in this field, as well from Peter Quortrup whom I did visit once in Brighton. I was so fascinated by the old Leak amplifiers, that I mostly bought another next model when I was in London (I got several ST 20, TL12+, TL25+, TL10.1, ST60 and the Quads, but even than I could not afford the legendary TL12.1). So I restored step by step all amplifiers myself, I learned to get them to work smoothly, to set working points, to use the right components, mostly vintage parts like carbon comp resistors, as well to use paper in oil capacitors, the right wires and learned to get more of the vintage stuff from the specialized dealers in London. I had already realized how good this old amps were, better than almost anything else available now (more about that topic soon). New hobbies create new contacts, so I did meet more and more people with similiar interests and similiar equipment. 

Leak TL12.1 

I learned that the Japanese were already long term customers for years in London and just only wanted mint components, as well did the koreans and that the italians were the most interested in Europe into vintage hifi in these days. After a while I did know every resource in London to find the right things. I bought as well on fleamarkets and later in other cities in the UK.

One day my friend asked me to bring a pair of Tannoy speakers from London for him, called HPD. I never had heard from these before. I asked my dealers in London and had to learn that these speakers are as well collector items in the asian markets and there where quite expensive. So I brought a pair of ruined15' HPD's back and had to pay 120 £ (japanese customers would not have bought these). When I came back my friend had already aquainted a pair of good 12'' Tannoys Cheviots in Germany. The 15'' HPD had the typical detoriated surrounds and next time in London I visited Lockwood Audio, a specialist on Tannoy service and spare parts to buy a so called 'recone kit' for 185 £, which I found very expensive. When my friend had his HPD's reconed, he brought the Cheviots to my place and said: listen.
I did. First time in my life I was able to listen to a adult sized speaker and a compression HF horn. It fitted so perfectly into my musical taste of jazz music and its typical instruments, like trompets and saxes, that I could not believe how realistic these got reproduced. As well the lower middle tones and the all around dynamics seemed to be from a different planet, comparing them to modern small  scale living room friendly two way concepts of that time. After two weeks of extremely pleasured listening, my friend came and took the Tannoys back. When I switched to my Rogers dwarf coffins, I did not want to life anymore. I had to accept, that I got completely adicted to Tannoy speakers and their unique qualities. 

It took me exactly two weeks off drugs to find a pair of 15'' Monitor Golds with crossovers offered by a guy nearby. He was very undetermined to sell his pair. He had bought the speakers once and never had used them properly nor did he have any idea what to do with them. I exchanged them to a pair of Leak amps from my collection. The next day they were lying down on the floor in their dedicated card board crates and were playing my favorite music instead the miniature speakers. What I could hear I did almost like better than the Rogers could perform (a typical case of complete addiction, because of its nonsense- Of course are the LS3/5a are extremely good speakers, but for a tube amp?). Now I needed enclosures for the Monitor Golds. My friend had got copies of original drawings from Tannoy showing some well known enclosures of their history, the GRF rectangular, the Autograph and the GRF professional. All three were really huge sized cabinets and all three were back loaded horn concepts. With 1.80 meter and alternative 1.50 meter height the latter two were out of dicussion.

OK, I was adventurous and decided to build myself the GRF rectangulars, the by far smallest of this three cabinets with 1.10 meter height. It took me two weeks time of woodwork, 600 german marks on material and as a result I had this speakers standing in my living room, where there was now no more size to have any living ...?

Tannoy Monitor Golds 15'' in GRF rectangular cabinets, 1993

This was going to be a first real trial with classic speakers and backloaded horn enclosures. Horns had a very poor reputation, they were called colored and intransparent in general, I didn't like these any better. What I could hear, did not even remind me to the lovely Cheviots. It had a big lower mid boost (of course, the back loaded horn is a lot to small and to short to work in the lowest regions). I soon had added pillows to damp the horn systems (around 100-200Hz). From today view it has to be said, that the room was a lot to small to get them properly set up, so these GRF's had a foreseen end. I got the chance to exchange my heavy plinth Garrard 401 with 12'' Ortofon tonearm, which I did not like either against two pairs of Tannoy IIILZ. These early nearfield monitors were the complete opposite of the GRF's, in size and as well in sound terms. They fitted physically in horizontal position on top of the GRF's without extending the width. They had almost no bass, but wonderfully controlled mids (thanks to the 3'' voice coil) and the already well known HF-horn with a smooth resolution of finest details. Within my next London trip I got a pair of Chatsworth cabinets (predecessors of the Cheviot) from Lockwood Audio where I did install the 10'' Tannoy chassis from the IILZ. I lived with these small floorstanding speakers quite well for some years, but always had the impression that they never could perform like the bigger brothers in term of LF dynamics. I took the rare chance, when it came up by coincidence, to sell the GRF's 1996 to somebody who really liked them a lot. I now concentrated my search on finding 12'' chassis, this time it should be the rare red version instead of golden ones, but in pre-ebay times the supply in Germany was limited to almost zero.
In the meanwhile I did know several people with Tannoy speakers. There was a clear dedication towards the pre 1978 chassis with alnico magnets. Some had speakers from the last serious generation before the company got sold, called HPD's (1974-78) like Berkeleys, Ardens and Cheviots, others had some of the predecessor Golds in Lancaster, Chatsworth or IIILZ cabinets (1967-1974). And even others had actual speakers from the reissued prestige series, the RHR, the Canterbury and the famous Westminster Royal as a side effect of a very clever operating hifi dealer nearby bought for serious money. But I did not know one person with rare and famous Monitor Reds (1958-1967).

One of the most famous power tubes in history, the british KT 66

I did not know at that early stage that Tannoy speakers would accompany me the most of my life. 

Read on soon the long way to the Autograph speakers, Volker