The British firm Quad has been revered among speaker aficionados ever since the legendary ELS 57 electrostatic loudspeaker came out in 1957. That groundbreaking design offered levels of clarity and sonic purity that were, and still are, mind-boggling. Because Quad has long been associated with exotic electrostats, it came as a surprise when the firm introduced its affordable and relatively conventionallooking L-series speakers. Nowadays you can buy a complete Quad LITE surround-sound speaker system for $1999—far less than even one modern- day Quad electrostat would cost. Can such an affordable system possibly deliver sound quality worthy of the Quad name? It can, and does.
Quad’s LITE system consists of four small two-way satellite speakers, a slightly larger two-way/three-driver center channel speaker, and a stout, substantial subwoofer. The satellites and center speaker are voice-matched, bass-reflex (i.e., ported-cabinet) designs that use the same high-quality 1-inch fabric dome tweeters and 4-inch carbon fiber woofers. Voice matching ensures tonal consistency throughout the system so sounds panning from speaker to speaker don’t abruptly change character.
Weighing in at more than 60 pounds, the sub features a built-in 300-watt amp to drive its 10-inch woofer and a handy remote control that lets you fine-tune the bass without leaving the couch. Besides controls for volume, phase, and crossover frequency (adjustable in 10 Hz increments), you can create up to four presets—one for music, one for movies, and so on.
LITE speaker and subwoofer cabinets are offered in four piano lacquer finishes: rosewood, cherry, black, and silver. Build quality is exceptional.
I’ve reviewed many $2000 surround systems over the past year, a handful of which were exceptional, and let me tell you straight up that the Quad LITE system belongs in the exceptional group—possibly up near the top. Despite the diminutive size of its speakers, the LITE ensemble sounded remarkably clear, energetic, sure-footed, and downright authoritative.
There’s a scene in The Prestige where the magician Robert Angier visits Nikola Tesla’s lab to see a supposed teleportation machine in action. When Tesla fired up his contraption, gleaming bolts of static electricity appeared onscreen, at which point the Quad system filled my room with swirling, sizzling, three-dimensional electrical noises that crackled with energy and intensity. At the same time, the biggest surges of energy were punctuated by deep, clear, very low-pitched sound effects that shook the room, making Tesla’s machine seem even more ominous and frightening. Few small surround systems can handle such densely layered effects well but the Quads delivered them with clarity and gusto. Part of the credit goes to the LITE satellites and center channel speakers, which are surprisingly smooth and detailed, and offer greater bass reach than they have any right to given their compact dimensions. But much of the credit also goes to the system’s subwoofer, which offers a compelling combination of power, clarity, bass pitch definition, and extension. The LITE sub is one of the best I’ve heard in any $2k round-sound system.
Turning to music, the LITE system reproduced instruments and voices with natural clarity and vibrant, lifelike textures. And like great Quad speakers from the past, the speakers had an uncanny ability to reveal subtle details—subtle vocal inflections and delicate fingering noises on stringed instruments— without overemphasizing them. There is a certain refinement about the LITE system, especially in the tricky transition region between the upper midrange and treble range, so that the LITE satellites demonstrate very good resolving power without overwrought transient edges or glare.
I developed a deeper appreciation for these qualities as I listened to the song “Wrap My Head Around That” from Lucinda Williams’ West [Lost Highway]. Through many systems the sound of Williams’ voice can be a bit of a double-edged sword, at once expressive and full of rich textures, yet at the same time almost painfully gritty and raw. But the Quad rig lets you hear the emotion and beauty underlying the rough edges in the singer’s voice, and without subjecting you to any of the piercing, shards-of-brokenglass sounds you might encounter in other small sat/sub systems. The Quads also let you hear how Williams and her co-producer Hal Willner combine multi-layered vocal tracks and selective touches of reverb in order to give the song its hypnotic, otherworldly vibe.
Dynamic clout is perhaps the one area where I felt the LITE system was not quite the equal of the best $2k systems I have heard. Because the LITE satellites and center channel have better-than-expected bass capabilities, it’s tempting to use a relatively low 80Hz sat-to-sub crossover frequency—a decision that works out beautifully from a texture and timbre standpoint. The tradeoff, however, is that low crossover frequencies also force the system’s 4-inch mid/ bass drivers to carry a bigger share of the bass workload than is ideal. So, when inherently loud passages such as the gunfight in Open Range are turned way up, the system can reach a point where its sounds slightly compressed and—if pushed further—even a bit rough and ragged. But avoid playing the system at crazy-loud volumes and I think you’ll enjoy its otherwise clear, expressive sound.
The Quad LITE speaker system is one of the four best $2k surround rigs I’ve ever heard (the others are in this survey). Its clear, natural sound is incredibly engaging and compelling— enough so that my first two guest listeners asked if the manufacturer might be willing to sell them the review samples (a reaction few other test systems have garnered). The system will be a fine performer in small to midsize living rooms, and can even work well in larger rooms if you keep its dynamic constraints in mind.