The Silicon Valley Of Hi-Fi (And It's In Britain)

To find the future of high-end music systems, look no further than Huntingdon

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There’s attention to detail, and there’s attention to detail. “Tap that,” says Allen Boothroyd, design director and co-founder of high-end audio company Meridian, handing me a section of the material used to build its monolithic DSP8000 reference speakers, the ne plus ultra of sound reproduction. To keep the sound of different instruments separated, the DSP8000s must maintain just the right kind of stiffness.

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“You don’t want something too rigid that rings like a bell, or too flexible like wood,” Allen says. So the company builds cabinets from 19 layers of laminated aluminium and plywood sandwiched together, then curved. They call it Meridium. I tap the sample section.

“Better than a piano, isn’t it?” Allen adds with a smile. “Wood and aluminium provides the right amount of give, and the laminate ensures that there is no sonic signature at all.” Birchwood is used. “Russian birch. The trees grow more slowly further north, so you get a tighter grain.”

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These giant, gorgeous objects – some way between a pharaonic obelisk, a Fifties jukebox and a robot priest – contain five independent amplifiers calibrated for separate bandwidths, and two bass units horizontally opposed to cancel out each other’s vibrations (“like Porsche engines… hugely powerful”). Function shaped their beautiful, alien form. Co-founder and acoustic engineer Bob Stuart believes that familiar sounds come from familiar sources, so the DSP8000 has a top section for vocals that mimics the structure of the human head.

Such a meticulous approach doesn’t come cheap; the DSP8000’s RRP is £35,000 a pair. But to clients at the luxe end of the market, they are irresistible. One customer requested Dutch Huguenot marquetry on theirs, so the raw cabinet went to Holland for fine woods to be inlaid before returning to Britain for finishing.

The same client wanted, and got, a red faux lizard-skin finish on a different DSP8000. Another recently asked for a gold-plated pair. Surely that would interfere with the sound? “If the order comes in, we’ll make it work,” says Meridian’s VP of sales and marketing, John Buchanan. “This is a craft operation.”

Craft is the word. After a digital decade of iPods and MP3s – crushing sound files down to their minimum, emphasising iPod docks and Bluetooth, and prizing convenience over definition – users are rediscovering quality. They’re finding new technologies can bring out the best in digital as well as analogue music, and that the boxes can be style statements, too. Hi-fi is back – and it’s British.

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To audiophiles all over the world, one stretch of Middle England is a mythical place: Huntingdon, the flat and anonymous Cambridgeshire town otherwise known only for sending both Oliver Cromwell and John Major to Parliament. Huntingdon is Hi-Fi Land, historically home to brands like Quad, Mission, Cyrus, the ill-fated umbrella NXT, Avid and Meridian itself. To the enthusiast, the area has a romance belied by its drab industrial estates and Ballardian arterial roads.

“True audio fans have to have ‘Designed and built in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire’ somewhere on their box,” says Steve MacIntyre of International Audio Group. “It’s an article of faith.”

We’re talking in the spartan Huntingdon offices of International Audio Group, a hi-fi empire owned by Chinese millionaire twins Michael and Bernard Chang, two entrepreneurs who bought the UK brands Quad, Audiolab, Mission and Wharfedale with the aim of marrying British expertise and design with Chinese manufacturing.

“Our speakers are unique because we build absolutely everything ourselves, right down to the screws and the boards,” MacIntyre says. “Most manufacturers have the cabinets built in one place and the drivers somewhere else, then assemble them. We build it all in-house in Shenzhen, which gives us total quality control.” The company even makes its own wire.

As well as the Elite and Platinum ranges of CD players, pre-amps and power amps, Quad manufacture the beloved and covetable Quad II integrated valve amp, a beautiful thing with very Thirties Metropolis styling and a £4,500 price tag. “The valve amp creates a very warm sound that suits classical or jazz beautifully,” Steve says. “It’s an effortless sound and the customers like the fact that you can tweak the amp yourself and make it your own.”

The jewel in the range is the Quad Electrostatic Loudspeaker, a design classic created by Quad founder Peter Walker, first produced in 1957 and still made – with subtle improvements – today. Unlike conventional speakers, which push air in one direction, the ESL uses two charged plates to radiate sound outwards, utilising no driver units at all. You don’t “hear” the box, just an incredibly spacious and detailed reproduction of the music.

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Walker used to stage live concerts where the audience had to distinguish between a real orchestra and an ESL. Often, they couldn’t tell the difference. The Huntingdon lab still services ESLs and other products built as long ago as the Fifties. Engineer Ken Bunting often fixes speakers he himself built decades ago. He might even remember the customer’s name.

Down in IAG’s test room, we listen to some of its key machines in action. There is the Audiolab 8200 CD player – “the most popular CD player known to man” because of its superior digital to analogue conversion (DAC) and USB and optical inputs, at a very reasonable £800 – and the 8200A power amp at £750. A £1,200 8200AP processor and £1,600 Power Amp run through a Quad L-Lite 5.1 system at approximately £1,200.

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We watch an excerpt of Toy Story – it feels like I’ve been dosed up on some perception-enhancing drug. The soundtrack, usually a whisper behind the action,  swells and billows with a richness I’ve never heard before. We switch to the CD player and power amp through the ESL with a blues recording. It’s a revelation: the hi-hat cymbals sparkle, every squeak and detail on the guitar strings can be discerned, and the sound – not squeezed through the front of a conventional box but radiating in 360º from the ESL’s panels – is everywhere. The experience is immersive and intoxicating.

“You have to play something really nice through these speakers,” MacIntyre says, “because they’re so revealing. Every single element becomes clear. You’d never hear a band like Oasis, for instance, at a hi-fi show. Definitely Maybe is a classic album, but it just doesn’t work on this kit. Mind you,” he admits, “I’ve got a daughter, so I have to listen to Olly Murs all the time…”

Across town, at the well-appointed factory HQ of rival manufacturers Meridian, there’s a signed Star Wars poster on the wall, a thank you from Rick McCallum, co-producer of the prequel trilogy, whose sound was mastered on Meridian kit. “Google ‘Star Wars home theatre’,” says Meridian CEO Tim Ireland as he leads us into the factory. “There’s a guy in Seattle who’s recreated the Death Star in his home, with DSP8000s in there.”

Meridian build most of their kit in Huntingdon, printing and soldering their own circuits in a factory that combines assembly with an exacting regime of tests. All components are subjected to a mixture of manual and automatic testing throughout the process and at the end they “soak”– that is, they remain switched on – for up to 72 hours. By the time a Meridian box leaves the factory, it has been inspected nine or 10 times.

“We build things for a lifetime of use,” Tim Ireland explains as he shows us round. “Better that it goes wrong here than at a customer’s home.” These devices are constructed to withstand a range of temperatures from -20º to 70ºC. On their way to their end user, they might be stored on a freezing train in a Russian sidings or on a truck across Dubai.

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Allen Boothroyd and Bob Stuart founded the company in 1977; Meridian were among the first manufacturers to build “active” speakers with dedicated amplifiers inside the cabinet. It went on to build digital speakers and the first audiophile CD player in 1984. (“There was a rumour that the accountants at Sony and Philips made the engineers take the quality, the expensive circuits, out of CD players,” Allen says mischievously. “We put it all back in.”)

This expertise with digital signals eventually crossed over into video, resulting in Meridian’s 810 Video Reference system, the only 10 megapixel home cinema set-up yet available. Because there isn’t enough storage space on a DVD to create a 10 megapixel moving image, Meridian’s technology extrapolates entirely new pixels with eerily lifelike effect. “The scale-up is creating about 85 per cent of the picture that you see,” Allen says, “between the lines, as it were.”

Later that day, we watch some sample movies on the 810 with an audio set-up built around the DSP8000s – a stupefying £450,000 worth of technology, suitable for a billionaire’s yacht. The effect is hypnotically real. In a clip of BB King playing at Montreux, we can clearly see not just the sweat on the venerable bluesman’s forehead, but refractions within those tiny beads. On the soundtrack, we don’t just hear the scratch of guitar strings and the subtlest reverb – we can clearly detect the wires in a snare drum vibrating in harmony. It’s not like being there. It’s more than being there.

Not that this sort of technology is only available to the wealthiest customers: Meridian make two small plug-in digital-to-analogue converters for home audio and computer users, the £249 Explorer and £449 Director, which “upsample” digital music, filling in the blanks just as the video system does with images.

“You can never put back what’s missing,” Allen says, “but a DAC can do a lot to fix the errors and ensure that the system gets the absolute maximum information. So far, the technology has restrained performance. But bandwidths are getting broader and storage is getting bigger. We think you’ll see a demand for more quality coming through.”

There’s a thread of continuity through Allen Boothroyd’s designs for Meridian. The curves and textures grow from function, like the M6 Digital Active Speaker – which radiates bass close to the floor, leading to it resembling a warhead – or the arch-like M80 portable sound system, a co-brand with Ferrari. His work has appeared in MoMA and the V&A. Is he ever annoyed at the assumption that audio equipment wasn’t beautiful until Jony Ive and Apple made it so? He laughs.

“It’s no worse than that Larkin poem,” he says drily. “How did it go? ‘Sexual intercourse began/In 1963/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And The Beatles’ first LP’. It’s amusing that people think that way. I don’t mind. We’ve made our mark and we’re still making it.”

Out in the darkening car park, I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a luxuriously appointed black Range Rover. As part of Meridian’s partnership with Jaguar, the car is equipped with the audio company’s in-car surround-sound system. This painstakingly detailed combination of algorithms and hardware is designed to make all the psychoacoustic drawbacks of in-car listening – the hard surfaces, the artificial environment – disappear. A system called Trifield removes the need for “sweet spot” allowing anyone anywhere in a car to hear the music perfectly. As built-in communications and connectivity become increasingly important, in-car audio is becoming a point of luxury with utility, too.

The Beatles’ “Yesterday” fills the cabin, its familiar simplicity remastered on the fly so that 1965 sounds like today – or is it vice versa?– and the Fab Four seem to hover around us like beneficent ghosts. This is the sort of system that Jay Z would buy, I say. Someone says that he has. So, I pair my phone with the car via Bluetooth and bounce A Tribe Called Quest to the surround system, my none-too-special MP3 recording suddenly full of bassy warmth and imminent with life. All around us the streetlights are coming on in Hi-Fi Land. May they stay lit long into the future.

Taken from Esquire's Spring/Summer 2014 Big Black Book: The Style Manual For Successful Men. Buy it here.

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