With the recent Olympic and Paralympic games still fresh in my mind I got to thinking how incredible as a nation the United Kingdom is. The fact we came second in the medal tables for both games, coming just behind the USA in the Olympics and China in the Paralympics was amazing. The Chinese in particular couldn’t believe how a nation of our size could do so well given their population is about 1.4 billion and ours is roughly 60 million.
Now what has this got to do with hifi? Well the British bulldog tenacity has always been strong ever since the Romans left the British Isles, and although the Vikings and William the Conqueror dented our pride for a while, as a nation the British have shown a remarkable ability for innovation.
Let’s look at a few of the companies and pioneers.
Leak audio had been making audio-related products since 1934. In 1946 Leak introduced their first “Type 15” audio power amplifier, which drew upon “wartime research” for its four stage, negative feedback design. It was soon replaced by the very popular and long-lived TL/12, which Leak continued to build for many years.
Another British company, Quad was founded by Peter Walker in 1936. Although better known today for their speakers, Quad’s first commercial product was a power amplifier, the Quad 1. It wasn’t until 1956 that Quad unveiled their first speaker, the legendary ESL57 which remained in production for twenty-eight years.
In England, the Lowther company was making raw drivers such as the Type P.M.2, which had a published frequency response capability from 18 to 20KHz. Lowther also made “the Horn Cabinet” which was a corner-loaded cabinet based on a “tractrix” curve in its horn design. A lot of Lowther owners did then what they do today – build their own cabinets and they are still revered today.
Tannoy was the trade name of a company formed by Mr. Guy R. Fountain in 1926. The name originates from a solid-state rectifier invented by Guy Fountain made from an alloy or mixture of Tantalum and Lead.This Tantalum-Lead Alloy produced the name Tannoy. The name stuck fast to the company’s products over the years and eventually became the company name, Tannoy Ltd.
From 1926 through the recession of the thirties and during the Second World War Tannoy produced many different products all to do with speech and music communications. One innovative design was a universal speaker system designed for a travelling circus. The speaker requirement was for high quality speech and music for announcement and entertainment purposes in the largest travelling circus of Bertram Mills. The speaker had to be efficient because all the amplification was by tube amplifiers (design and built by Tannoy of course) and the power supplies were derived from not very efficient motor generators and rotary converters. Of course Tannoy became a commonly used term in our language to describe a public address system such as used in train stations.
Tannoy, was already making their 12″ and 15″ “Dual concentric in the 1950’s. With their nominal 15-ohm impedance the Tannoys were easy to drive with the small triode valve amps that were so common at that time. Tannoy made a wide range of designs from domestically acceptable models to the large corner horns the GRF (Guy R Fountain). Tannoy is famous worldwide for its innovative, unique and very accurate sounding Dual Concentric. A Dual Concentric speaker unit is very different from the standard speaker industry drive unit. It has the tweeter or treble unit mounted at the centre of the bass unit so that the two units operate in total harmony with each other. Many manufacturers such as JBL, Altec, KEF, Pioneer, TEAC, have recognized the benefits of the co-axial or concentric arrangement of woofer and tweeter to cover the whole audio band from a single apparent point source. Tannoy Dual Concentrics are by their very nature complex to manufacture and therefore you will not find them in a low price system.
Sadly recent announcements from the company suggest that production of the vast proportion of their loudspeakers will now be in China.
There are many other companies from the UK that have made their mark more recently such as Meridian Audio which was founded by Bob Stuart and Allen Boothroyd in 1977. They continue to lead the company with Bob Stuart heading all technological developments and Alan Boothroyd leading the design team. Since the company’s inception, all Meridian products have been conceived, engineered and built in the UK. The company was the first to introduce active loudspeakers (loudspeakers with power amplifiers inside the cabinet) designed for the domestic market, and was the first British company to manufacture a CD player in 1983. The Meridian MCD, launched in 1985, was the first audiophile CD player. Meridian also created the first digital surround-sound processor and the first DSP-based digital active loudspeakers.
So we Brits have certainly made our mark in the audio industry and apologies to the many other companies I haven’t mentioned, but there are so many I could only take a snapshot of a few favourites.
Alan Dower Blumlein
It’s not just the equipment manufacturers that have made their mark though. Stereo as we know it today would never have been around if it wasn’t for the genius of its inventor Alan Dower Blumlein (29 June 1903 – 7 June 1942). He was an English electronics engineer, notable for his many inventions in telecommunications, sound recording, stereophonic sound, television and radar. He received 128 patents and was considered as one of the most significant engineers and inventors of his time.
In 1929 Blumlein joined the Columbia Graphohone company. His first project was to find a method of disc cutting that circumvented a Bell patent in the Western Electric moving-iron cutting head then used, and on which substantial royalties had to be paid. He invented the moving-coil disc cutting head, which not only got around the patent but offered greatly improved sound quality. He led a small team which developed the concept into a practical cutter. The other principal team members were Herbert Holman and Henry “Ham” Clark. Their work resulted in several patents.
Early in 1931, the Columbia Graphophone Company and the Gramophone Company merged and became EMI. New joint research laboratories were set up at Hayes and Blumlein was officially transferred there on 1 November the same year.
During the early 1930s Blumlein and Herbert Holman developed a series of moving-coil microphones, which were used in EMI recording studios and by the BBC at Alexandra Palace. Blumlein may or may not have invented the long-tailed pair, but his name is on the first patent (1936). The long-tailed pair is a form of differential amplifier that has been popular since the days of the vacuum tube (valve). It is now more pervasive than ever, as it is particularly suitable for implementation in integrated circuit form, and almost every operational amplifier integrated circuit contains at least one.
In 1931, Blumlein invented what he called “binaural sound”, now known as stereophonic sound or simply “stereo”. In early 1931, Blumlein and his wife were at a local cinema. The sound reproduction systems of the early “talkies” invariably only had a single set of speakers – which could lead to the somewhat disconcerting effect of the actor being on one side of the screen whilst his voice appeared to come from the other. Blumlein declared to his wife that he had found a way to make the sound follow the actor across the screen.
The genesis of these ideas is uncertain, but he explained them to Isaac Shoenberg in the late summer of 1931. His earliest notes on the subject are dated 25 September 1931, and his patent had the title “Improvements in and relating to Sound-transmission, Sound-recording and Sound-reproducing Systems”. The application was dated 14 December 1931, and was accepted on 14 June 1933 as UK patent number 394,325. The patent covered many ideas in stereo, some of which are used today and some not. Some 70 claims include:
- A “shuffling” circuit, which aimed to preserve the directional effect when sound from a spaced pair of microphones was reproduced via stereo headphones instead of a pair of loudspeakers
- The use of a coincident pair of velocity microphones with their axes at right angles to each other, which is still known as a “Blumlein Pair”
- Recording two channels in the single groove of a record using the two groove walls at right angles to each other and 45 degrees to the vertical
- A stereo disc-cutting head
- Using hybrid transformers to matrix between left and right signals and sum and difference signals
Blumlein’s binaural experiments began in early 1933, and the first stereo discs were cut later the same year. Much of the development work on this system for cinematic use was completed by 1935. In 1934, Blumlein recorded Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham at Abbey Road Studios in London using his vertical-lateral technique. This is just the tip of the iceberg for this prolific inventor relevant to audio, and we as music lovers have so much to thank Alan Dower Blumlein for.
He died during WW11 on 7 June 1942, aged 38, during the secret trial of an H2S airborne radar system then under development, when all on board the Halifax bomber he was flying in were killed when it crashed in Herefordshire.
So three cheers for the Brits and long may we continue to inspire.