So what do £50,000 speakers sound like?

6th Nov 2009 | 13:00

So what do £50,000 speakers sound like?

We experience TAD's monstrous Reference Ones

The quest for TAD's Reference Ones

Any quest for audio perfection should ultimately bring you to within listening distance of TAD loudspeakers.

The brand, which since the 1970s has been a subsidiary of Pioneer, is arguably the most respected of all the sonic super-brands, but it's also the one least heard – given that a pair of Reference One floorstanders will set you back around £50K, it's perhaps not surprising that TAD (Technical Audio Devices) rarely graces the pages of the popular press.

TAD reference one-3

The native habitat of the TAD speaker is typically the high-end recording studio, but over the past few years Pioneer has been craftily squeezing TAD's design expertise and sensibilities into a range of other products: its EX Series of high-end speakers and a range of high-performance in-wall speakers for the custom theatre crowd.

Time then to track down the original Big Taddies. My mission for this was clear: get first-hand experience of TAD's monstrous Reference Ones and report back…

Reassuringly expensive

The Reference Ones are the brainchild of Andrew Jones, Pioneer's director of speaker engineering.

They hail from Japan and use beryllium, a costly material, to make what Pioneer calls a CST or Coherent Source Transducer, which uses a 35mm tweeter dome at the centre and a 6.25in midbass cone around it.

TAD reference one-1

Each enclosure also features two very high quality 10in bass drivers, crafted from a composite of woven aramid fibres and a foamed acrylic material, to form a light yet rigid piston. This can drive bass down to a portassisted in-room level of 21Hz – which is pretty deep.

TAD reference one-2

The CST devices go up to 100kHz as well, so 'full range' takes on a new meaning: bats to blue whales?

My search for the TAD R1 eventually led me to London's prestigious AIR Studios, which recently took delivery of a pair. Consequently, I found myself in a room with what at first glance appeared to be two grunters playing with a hi-fi.

In actuality I had chanced upon Tony Hickmott, from Pure Pleasure Records, working with AIR Studios' Ray Staff, a legendary mastering engineer. The duo were preparing an audiophile vinyl release of Motörhead's classic 1916, the early-1990s studio album from the British rockers, and now widely regarded as a genre classic.

AIR studios

Of course, to master a recording, you do need to be able to hear it in true reference grade conditions. This is where the TADs come in.

The boys may have been mastering hard metal mayhem, but they all had to take time out from Lemmy and Co. while I treated myself to a little slice of Adele. I was on a mission after all...

Big noise

The level of purity and utter beauty delivered by the Reference Ones was similar to something I had recently experienced in front of a set of room-EQ'd Steinways but the immediacy here was incredible.

Whereas the scale of the Steinways was as big as the temple at Abu Simbel, this TAD R1 set was more… human. The illusion of having the cute and cuddly Adele sat right before me on a high stool, emoting into one of those huge valve microphones, was perfect. The room appeared to melt away.

The reality is that no matter how naturally-gifted your vocal chords may be, the noise they make will be recorded no more finely than the studio's own speaker monitors can manage. No wonder these TAD R1 models are the speakers of choice for the music business aristocracy. I listened and I yearned.

Of course, Adele had to give way to the thunderous assault of Wurzel, Phil Campbell and Philthy Animal while Lemmy barked before me: 'And I marched and I fought and I bled and I died.' It was as if the band was performing live before me. T'was brilliant.

The tragedy is that so few will actually ever get to hear these Reference Ones in anger. The sound they make is a cogent argument for large-scale hi-fidelity, but sadly it comes with a frightening price tag.

Their finish is absolutely exquisite, with yard-deep lustre and lines that are almost enough to make you rob your local Post Office in order to afford them. Funny enough, when my photographer on this job was bragging later to some contacts about the kit he'd just snapped, before they knew what had been going on, one had said: 'So, not the sort of thing you'd listen to Motörhead on then, eh?' How wrong he was.

These TADs are the Ace of Spades – absolutely, unassailably, legendary

Visiting the TAD production facility

Even though speakers have been coming off the production line since 1966, virtually no media has been invited to tour the facility.

Determined to learn more about Pioneer's elusive megaspeakers, Home Cinema Choice magazine's Steve May eventually secured exclusive access, and trekked to Pioneer's remote Tohoku plant in rural Tendo, Japan to see where TAD speakers come to life.

Within its gates we found a small team dedicated to making these gargantuan boxes. Indeed, the speakers themselves are crafted by a mere handful of workers, some of whom been wrapping the same voice coils and assembling the beryllium drivers for more than 20 years.

'This is a specialised job,' said Takashi Suziki, the speaker division's GM. 'Even inside Pioneer, very few know how to make these speakers.' Mie Suzuki, who has been assembling and testing TAD speakers since the early 1990s, explains: 'A single operator conducts the assembly of each unit one by one, from start to finish. While there is a fair amount of stress and responsibility, the job is worthwhile.'

I dare say that professional sound engineers around the world would tend to agree.

Actually, the TAD production line is just a small part of the Tohoku operation. Elsewhere in the facility, speakers are produced for Pioneer's Carrozeria in-car brand, while R&D teams scrutinize everything from OEL displays to the latest innovations in mechatronics.

And somehow fittingly, the influence of the past still impacts on the brand's forward-thinking tech; close to the plant is the Tohoku Pioneer Museum of Automatic Music Instruments, an impressive, extensive collection of antique music boxes dating from the 19th century.

A passion of Pioneer's founder Nozomu Matsumoto, these are masterpieces of intricate engineering – just like the TAD R1s.

Mie suzuki

Mie Suzuki has been making TAD speakers for over a decade. She's part of a small team responsible for some of the world's biggest hi-fi kit

1. Here the voice coil – an aluminium ribbon wire insulated in alumite film – is attached to a TD-2001 high-frequency driver. The ribbon is hand-wound onto a bobbin formed from a high-polymer compound that's heat resistance up to 400ºC, providing a tolerance for high-energy input levels.

Step 1

2. After attaching the voice coil to the bobbin, any excess glue is carefully wiped away…

Step 2

3. Here, a voice coil wire is soldered to the lead wire on a TAD TL-1603 low frequency speaker. The TL-1603 is designed to work with a maximum input of 500W.

Step 3

4. A pure beryllium diaphragm is used to make the TD-2001 driver. It's designed to give an extremely flat frequency response with outstanding transient response and high-fidelity imaging. Here, the voice coil assembly goes through final adjustment.

Step 4

5. Every component in a TAD Reference One speaker has been optimised for performance, making the models a favourite of sound engineers worldwide.

Step 5

6. A voice coil is attached to a TD-4001 rear -compression driver and cleaned. One of the world's most lauded speaker designs, it can deliver stunning audio clarity.

Step 6

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First published in Home Cinema Choice Issue 174

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