Truly great hi-fi kit isn't just a treat for the ears; it's a treat for the eyes too.
Sometimes it's a case of form following function, and sometimes vice-versa, but now and again companies produce products that sit in the hallowed ground where sparkling audio performance and visionary (or just plain outlandish) design intersect. Here we honour twenty such icons of hi-fi.
B&W Matrix 800 speakers (Early 1990s, US$18,000/pr)
Think iconic speakers from British company B&W and the obvious choice is the Nautilus, looking like a giant snail auditioning for a part in Aliens 6. But the company has a history of mad speakers, and the Matrix 800, with its triangular bass enclosures top and bottom of the midrange and treble sections, certainly fits the bill. Mainly sold in the States – then, as now, the Worthing company exported most of its production – the speakers look impressive in the picture. Then you realise they were as tall as very lanky blokes, at 1.86m (or 6ft 3in) – and weighed a substantial 240lb a pop.
Here's some slightly odd video from DJKnight of the Matrix 800s in action – and yes, they do occasionally come up for sale second-hand.
EAR Yoshino V12 amplifier (Current, £7000+)
If you didn’t know that designer Tim de Paravicini was a car nut – many a hi-fi industry bod will tell you stories of being terrified by his driving – then this £7000+ valve amplifier lets the cat out of the bag. Literally so: the design is inspired by de Paravicini’s love for the Jaguar V12 engine, and so for this clean-sheet amplifier design he went for two banks of six valves to provide the 50W per channel. They’re indirectly heated EL84/6BQ5s, valve-spotters, and used in Balanced Bridge Mode, in case you were wondering. No 0-100kph data is available.
Here’s a lovingly captured Japanese demonstration of the V12 in action.
Transrotor Tourbillon FMD turntable (Current, €25,000+)
Complete with ‘Smashy and Nicey’ power switch – that’s it down at the bottom of the picture, this is one of the high-end models in the extensive range made by German specialists Transrotor. And yes, we did swerve the fact that one of the company’s best-known models is called the Fat Bob, and is available in S, Plus (Fatter Bob?) and Reference versions.
The Tourbillon could be yours from €25,000 – without the arm(s) – and uses Transrotor’s Free Magnetic Drive bearing, on which that massive platter floats. Even better, it’s not even top of the company’s range, as this video shows.
Quad ESL57 speakers (Late 1950s, £50 each)
OK, so it’s a speaker design that’s well over 50 years old, and although well over 50,000 were sold many have been lost along the way as fashions changed.
They look like copper-coloured radiators, they have limited bass and volume, and yet Quad’s original Electrostatic Loudspeaker is still prized by audio collectors, and there’s a thriving restoration industry.
Over the years, and notwithstanding the lethal voltages within, they’ve been modified, ‘upgraded’ and even stacked in pairs to get more volume out of them, but while a pair of the current Quad ESLs, the ESL-2912, will set you back £8000, there are still originals for sale, as this video shows.
Michaelson Audio Chronos pre/power amplifier (1990s, £10,000)
Produced by a sister company to Musical Fidelity, the Michaelson Audio Chronos took its name from company company founder Anthony Michaelson, and its styling – described by one review as ‘Montezuma meets Gaudi’ from influences as diverse as the Hoover Dam and the Art Deco buldings around the company’s factory in Wembley. Well, Art Deco until they flattened the old Wembley Stadium, anyway.
Valve-powered, massively powerful and delivered in four boxes – preamplifier, power supply and two mono power amps – the Chronos was originally planned to look even wilder: the original sketches had chromed 1920s-style winged women on the front as handles!