Widget Of The Week
Sinclair Q16 Loudspeakers, 1969
One of Clive Sinclair’s more successful forays into the home
entertainment market was Project 60. It launched in 1969 and comprised a set of
ready-made audio modules. Over the following year or so more were added and
eventually the system included three power amplifiers, a preamplifier, an
active filter unit, a stereo FM tuner, a selection of power supplies and
matching speakers. The idea was any moderately adept DIYer could assemble the
parts, into a housing of their choice, and by building it yourself and spreading the cost, create a
relatively competent custom Hi-Fi system; sometimes it even worked…
The Project 60 speakers are the focus of this episode of dustygizmos, they’re
Sinclair Q16s, an upgrade of an earlier and slightly smaller shelf speaker
called the Q14. Project 60 modules sold well and initially, and in common with
many of the company’s products received a fair amount of favourable publicity.
This was thanks, in part, to Sinclair's genuinely fresh and stylish looking designs, and a somewhat imaginative approach to marketing.
Whatever else has been said or written about the Q16, there is no
getting away from the fact that they were, and still are quite striking. If
you know anything of sixties audio then you can imagine how they stood out
against the mostly dull and dreary competition that had changed little over the
years. The elegantly simple square shape, solid teak surround and
oddly shaped backside had an almost futuristic -- for the 1960s -- appearance. Sinclair’s famously
over the top advertising blurb only added to the impression. Phrases like
‘sealed and contoured pressure chamber’, and ‘specially designed driver system’ promised a bold new
era of audio excellence.
The actuality was a little more mundane. Inside the enclosure
there’s a single, and pretty much bog-standard, elliptical speaker nailed
(really…) to a slab of chipboard. It’s identical to the sort of speakers used
in countless radios and television sets of the time. The ‘pressure chamber’
reference concerns the Q16’s sealed rear cover. It’s moulded from what looks
like a resin-bonded paper or fabric and has no openings. It’s a well
established speaker design technique and the key advantage is that because
sound pressure waves can’t escape from the back of the speaker they act on the
moving diaphragm like a sort of acoustic spring, resulting in a cleaner, crisper sound.
The downside is it is less efficient because no sound comes from behind the
speaker, via openings or ‘ports’ in the front or rear of the enclosure. To
overcome this the speaker has to be driven harder to produce the same kind of
sound levels as an un-ported speaker. Fake screw-like mouldings on the rear
cover add to the illusion of compexity implying there’s more going on inside the box than
there is. As you can see from the photos it is all quite basic, and the less
said about the ‘special cellular foam front, chosen for its ability to pass
audio frequencies’, the better. (It had a tendency to crumble into dust)..
To be honest it is doubtful that many in the late sixties were
much concerned by the finer points of Hi-Fi. That was still to
come and for those who did take it seriously, it could be a very expensive business.
The home audio market, such as it was, was awash with clunky mono record
players and stereo radiograms – the latter more an item of furniture than an audio system -- but things were about to change. Project 60 was at the leading edge of a minor revolution providing a
low cost route into something a little more refined.
In the scheme of things Q16 speakers didn't sound too bad, they were a touch pricey perhaps but other parts of the system -- the amplifier
modules in particular -- had a bit of a reputation for reliability, or rather, a lack of it. As was
often the case with early Sinclair products the design of the electronics could
be innovative but was let down by unreliable and sub-standard components, or failed
from being pushed beyond their limits.
The Q16s featured here came from ebay and were fairly described as
being in good condition and full working order. Bidding was surprisingly subdued and I snagged
them for £53. This was a tad more than I meant to pay but it was a moment of
weakness as I had been after a pair for years, since they first appeared in fact. They had been lightly restored
and this included replacing the original foam front covers with a smart-looking
suede material. Unfortunately the dense structure muffled the sound somewhat,
so they had to go.
Fitting acoustically transparent speaker material to the front of the enclosure, without it looking really tacky or doing damage, proved to be a challenge. In the end I decided to mount the material on a lightweight frame made out of thin rigid plastic. The material was then stretched over the frame and glued to the edges. It fits snugly and invisibly inside the teak surround and a future restorer would have no trouble removing it and should they desire, return it to its
original state. The rear support foot on one of the speakers had come adrift at
some point. It’s supposed to be held in place by a screw attaching to a threaded
clip inside the rear cover. The clip had fallen off, making it next to
impossible to get it back into place. A previous owner had re-attached the foot
with a couple of small angle brackets and although they couldn’t be seen in
normal use. It just didn’t look right so the only thing to do was remove the
rear cover and retrieve the clip.
This also turned out to be easier said than done. It was tightly
bonded to the chipboard baffle board by thick glue that wasn’t about to give up
without a struggle. Cutting into the cover simply wasn’t an option so I tried a
variety of techniques to prise it off. The only one that showed any promise was
softening the glue with a solvent, sparingly applied with a cotton bud, then
slowly excavating the now sludgy residue with a thin 1mm drill fitted to my
Dremel rotary tool. It took nearly two hours eventually it came away, with no damage
to the cover or baffle. The screw clip was bonded to the inside of the cover,
so it shouldn’t get away again. I resisted the temptation to permanently glue
the cover back in place so I could carry out a side-by side comparison with the
other, still securely sealed Q16, to see how effective the pressure chamber business was. Younger and more discriminating ears than mine
might be able to detect differences but even in a blind test, to me they
sounded exactly the same. With all due allowances made for age, advances in Hi-Fi equipment and so on, bass is still in short supply but otherwise they produce a
quite mellow sound that’s not too far off what you might expect from a pair of
top-end budget speakers.
What Happened To It?
When Project 60 first appeared there really wasn’t much in the way
of competition, for the price at least. The home build aspect was also a lot
less intimidating back then; you can’t imagine anyone today building a Hi-Fi
system, case and all, from scratch. The first nail in the coffin, though, was
Sinclair’s change of fortune in the mid 70s, following the ill-fated Black
Watch incident and a subsequent change of direction, from home entertainment to
computers. The final blow was the rise and rise of the Japanese and Far Eastern
consumer electronics industry, churning out countless well-specified and very
attractively priced Hi-Fi products.
Project 60 modules and systems pop up on ebay every so often and
generally sell for quite sensible amounts but Q16 (and Q14) speakers are
amongst the rarest of Sinclair’s earliest products. I haven’t been able to find
out how many were made but the survival rate seems to be very low
indeed, if their ebay presence is anything to go by.
Vintage loudspeakers from iconic manufacturers or noted for performance can do well but Q16s lack the heritage and sonically they're nothing to write home about so most intetrest is likely to be from the small band of Sinclair fans. I'm happy to admit that I'm one and they’ve been on my ebay watch
list for a decade or more. In all that time I've only seen a handful
come up for sale. Buy It Now items are generally snapped up
really quickly and the few auctions I’ve followed have attracted some
quite lively bidding that rapidly exceeded my pay grade. The lack of numbers makes it hard to put a value on them but I
would not be surprised to see a pair in tip-top condition selling for
£100 or more. If you are lucky enough to find a pair they could turn out to be quite a good investment as they can
only increase in value. As a matter of interest, according to web inflation calculators the original selling price of
£8.98 is roughly equivalent to £150 in today’s money.
First Seen: 1969
Original Price: £8.19.6 (£8.98)
Value Today: £80.00 (0121)
Features: Single 145mm, 8 Ohm impedance
elliptical driver (possibly Audax), max 14 watt rms rating, claimed 60Hz –
16kHz coverage, ‘sealed pressure chamber’ construction, cellular foam driver
cover, solid teak surround, chipboard baseboard, screw terminals, foot stand
Dimensions: 265 x 265 x 102mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 9