After I reviewed the Dynaudio MC-15 minimonitors (see review in Playback Issue 2), I was hooked on using mini-monitors as desktop speakers with a PC (or Mac, in my case). And knowing the next set of PC-ready mini-monitors I would review was to be from Quad Electroacoustics, I was doubly excited. After all, here is the British company that introduced the electrostatic ESL-57s to the hi-fi community more than 50 years ago, and a number of folks who know great sound still use them as their reference speakers! So I was eager to audition the Quad 11L Active mini-monitor speakers to see if Quad Hi-Fi would devote the same kind of audio science their reputation is built on to these minis and thus carry on the tradition.
The Quads I chose to evaluate came in Piano Black eucalyptus veneer, and I have to say, they are very striking indeed (sitting on either side of my monitor, which is also black). The 11Ls don’t come with a tilt-up stand, as did the MC-15s, but they don’t really need one. They are taller (1-foot high), putting the tweeter close to ear level, and the woofer also seems ideally placed. Both combine to create a broad soundstage that also manages surprising depth.
The Quads 11Ls come with powered drivers. The 1-inch fabric dome tweeter is powered by its own 45W amplifier, and the 5-inch Kevlar cone bass/midrange driver is powered by a 60W amp. These bi-powered drivers go a long way toward explaining the stellar performance throughout the sonic range that we’ll get to in a moment. On the rear of the speakers is the power toggle, a bass-filter cutoff switch in case you use the mini-monitors with a sub, and 10 cooling fins. There’s not really anything to say about the Quad’s appearance that falls short of praiseworthy. They are beauties.
Kyle Eastwood’s Paris Blue [Rendezvous Entertainment] has become one of my favorite bass albums. I never seem to tire of listening to it. But when I played one of my favorite tracks from the album, “Marrakech” that I had ripped to my Mac, I was surprised at the many subtleties in the music captured by the 11Ls. If you can imagine what Marrakech as a physical locale might sound like with all of its Arabic influence, then you have some idea of what Eastwood tried to create with the piece. The sax carries a melodic serpentine line above the foundation of Eastwood’s fretless bass, the keyboard punctuates long periods of silence with chordal embellishments, almost like rainwater. So many interspersed sounds contribute to the overall exotic effect of the song that a speaker has its work cut out for it. The Qual 11Ls provided a much fuller envelope of sound than I was expecting. Imagine a large globe surrounding you, say five or so feet on each side and a similar dimension high and low—the Quad 11Ls easily filled that space. I had to remind myself that I was sitting at my computer with desktop speakers and not at home in my listening room.
I defy you to find a song more beautiful than Perla Batalla singing Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” (from the tribute Cohen CD and DVD I’m Your Man [Verve Forecast]). The song begins with a simple, and subtle guitar line and then Batalla’s incomparable voice, so resonant and melancholy. Her voice has an edge to it, a kind of gypsy signature that makes an already starkly beautiful song even more achingly heart-tugging. Again, the Quad 11Ls created a full soundstage that placed Batalla slightly out front, surrounded by instrumentalists and backup singers, as in a live concert. Could I easily imagine being able to reach out and touch her? I could.
On the same CD/DVD, Nick Cave sings “Suzanne” with Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen (longtime backup singers for Cohen himself) singing the same words slightly out-ofphase and at slightly lower volume. The effect is eerie, as if Cave has an echo made by sirens. These are tricky sonic demands that some speakers would end up scratching their heads over, to wax anthropomorphic. Not so the Quad 11Ls. They handled the challenge with aplomb. The out-of-phase voices each have a clarity that is haunting, making the song palpably effective. Cohen himself would no doubt approve.
The Quad 11Ls thoroughly convinced me they are star performers as desktop PC speakers, but I was hungry for more. Hooking them up to my Rotel integrated amp and Oppo universal player, I played the amazing CD Paul Galbraith plays Haydn. In doing so, I wanted to see how the mini-monitors would fare as stereo speakers that you might want in a small listening room at home, say, or in a college dorm. Galbraith himself bears a bit of explanation. He had an 8-string classical guitar specially made to accept a cello-style bent endpin, and he plays the guitar vertically between his legs like a cello, with the endpin resting in a specially designed resonating sound box. This setup gives the guitar a large, full sound.