Derek Hughes – from Spendor to Graham Audio

Derek Hughes is a true legend in UK speaker design. He's been working for the best brands in the country and trained at the BBC. His history is closely linked to the history of English sound.

How did you start working in audio engineering, and how did your career then evolve?

My interest in audio started in early teens. My father Spencer worked in BBC Research Department in the Acoustics section, so from an early age I had the advantage experiencing of all sorts of professional equipment which was borrowed to play with.

Derek’s father worked at the BBC Research Department

Also they occasionally had a clear out of experimental designs which were no longer needed, and employees were free to take anything they wanted. Among those were various loudspeakers so I had great fun playing around with them.

I also was able to work there during the summer holidays, so had the opportunity to meet and talk with some very skilled engineers and use the equipment they had, such as Dudley Harwood. I’m not sure how many teenagers have had an opportunity to test speakers in a full scale anechoic chamber!

I’m not sure how many teenagers have had an opportunity to test speakers in a full scale anechoic chamber!

It was a natural progression to choose a career in the BBC and I joined when I left school.

I worked in Television News as a sound engineer for 7 years and it was during this time the Spencer made a pair of speakers that were to eventually evolve into the legendary BC1.

I remember taking them to Alexandra Palace and setting them up in one of the studios. Everyone was amazed at the quality being as good as the monitors at use at the time.

I eventually left the BBC and joined Spendor the small company my father & mother founded.

I gradually got more and more involved with the design side, initially with the electronics, as we were making amplifiers to fit in the back of BC1’s for studio use. My first serious involvement with speaker design was helping with the SA1 and SP1 designs. Being a small family firm I got involved all aspects, production design, stock control etc.

I eventually got to design a speaker myself, the SA3, which was specifically for WDR broadcasting in Germany who had over 100 BC1’s but wanted a higher power speaker for their music studios, but with a similar balance to the BC1.

I worked with Spencer and my mother Dorothy until my father’s untimely death in 1983 after which my mother and I carried on running the company until she wanted to retire and it was sold to Soundtracs, a professional mixing manufacturer.

Since trying to retire my self I have been approached by various companies for design input, Stirling Broadcast, Harbeth Audio and currently Graham Audio.

Can you quote some of the speakers you’ve been designing? The most famous and those you’re the most proud of?

The first speaker I designed after my Spendor days was a new version of the BBC LS3/5a for Stirling Broadcast, for whom I also designed the BBC LS3/6.

BBC LS3/5a for Stirling Broadcast

With my present work with Graham Audio I have also been designing modern versions of BBC designs, the LS5/9, LS3, LS5/8 and just recently the LS5/5, as well as other speakers, notably one for the Royal Opera House for high quality music in their main auditorium.

It’s hard to say which is the most famous design, but my favourites have to be the Spendor S100, the Stirling LS3/6 and the recent Graham Audio LS5/5.

It’s hard to say which is the most famous design, but my favourites have to be the Spendor S100, the Stirling LS3/6 and the recent Graham Audio LS5/5.

Can you talk a bit about the famous « BBC speaker » style? What makes this kind of design so timeless and unbeaten for many audiophiles?

The BBC design approach has been written about extensively, I would recommend looking through the BBC research publications which are online.

They typify the ‘Monitor Speaker’ approach, aiming for neutrality without emphasising any part of the musical presentation. A major milestone was the work on plastic cones and damped thin wall cabinets undertaken during the 1960’s, research which my father was intimately involved in and also was the foundation of the BC1 design as well as the original LS5/5.

The timeless quality of this design approach is simply the result of the rigorous application of acoustical engineering principles, and quality engineering is timeless.

The timeless quality of this design approach is simply the result of the rigorous application of acoustical engineering principles, and quality engineering is timeless.

It must also be remembered that the BBC had probably the most advanced testing facilities at the time and an engineering design team that it would be very difficult to assemble these days. A pretty much bottom less pot of finance also helped!

They also had access to high quality concert halls and so were able to directly compare speaker performance with the real orchestral sound.

What kind of listening feeling(s) do you look for when you design a speaker? How can you still innovate within the « rules » speakers design?

It is very difficult to describe the subjective part of my design process.

I always start with measurements of the drive units as they are fundamental to the direction of the design and chosen with regard to the overall design goals in terms of size and power handling. The initial aim is always a basically flat response, as much as a starting point than a final objective. With  that more or less achieved I would move to listening to pick up aspects of the sound that are not necessarily initially obvious in measuring.

An anechoic chamber used for test recordings

The foundation of any of my designs is accurate speech and I have recordings of various people made in an anechoic chamber. My approach is that if you get the frequency band which male speech covers accurate, then you have a good foundation for progressing to the rest of the spectrum.

If you get the frequency band which male speech covers accurate, then you have a good foundation for progressing to the rest of the spectrum.

It is is difficult to choose music to judge performance as one does not usually have any idea of the recording environment, but I have a few recordings which I use regularly.

As a designer I find that getting involved emotionally in the music is often a hindrance to being objective in the listening part of the design process, which is basically a ‘loop’ of measuring and listening.

Can you talk a bit about your own hifi system at home?

My own listening system varies, depending on what I am working on at the time, but presently I use a pair of Graham Audio LS6’s but I also have Spendor BC1, FL10 and original SA1 speakers. I use Audiolab monoblocks for power amps, and a home brew passive gain control unit & Pioneer CD player.

What would you like to say to the inventor of MP3? More seriously, what’s your opinion about the evolution of audio industry?

Regarding MP3s, I think the codec has a useful place in general sound reproduction. Although there are obviously more competent modern systems the fact that it is scalable depending on the quality and storage space limitations gives it an important role.

I am always perplexed by the lack of genuine progress in the industry, certainly in the area of accurate reproduction of many modern loudspeakers.

I am always perplexed by the lack of genuine progress in the industry, certainly in the area of accurate reproduction of many modern loudspeakers.

I appreciate that commercial considerations drive most designs and unfortunately this seems to result in speakers that try to be ‘different’ acoustically and therefore fail in terms of my perception of neutrality. Bearing in mind that we should be trying to convey to the listener the original intention of the artist & recording engineer, rather than impose our own interpretation, surely there should be a convergence in the end result, not divergence as seems to be the case.

There are obviously improvements in materials over the years, but these need to be used carefully to improve quality not just an advertising ploy.

I appreciate these views may be considered to be somewhat reactionary by many, but I believe that the engineering principles developed by the BBC and others in the industry (e.g. Peter Walker’s ‘closest approach to the original sound’ aim) still stand the test of time.

More about Derek Hughes

Official website: http://www.derekhughes.co.uk/

Latest designs: https://www.grahamaudio.co.uk/

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