Tangent RS4 loudspeakers – review & test by Howard Popeck

Tangent RS-4 speakers

This image comes from a VERY interesting site devoted to Tangent.

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By  Howard Popeck / Stereonow

This brief review and non-technical focuses on what I truly believe was, and possibly remains (by today’s standards and the low used prices for these speakers, if you can find them in working condition) one of the finest loudspeaker designs of the 1970s – and possibly of all time.

The Tangent RS4 looks boringly ordinary. Internally though, it’s far from that. In 1974 they were £210, which pitched them against established stalwarts such as the Spendor BC1 and the KEF 104aB.

The cabinet contains a KEF T27 tweeter, wired out of phase with a 8” Audax bass / mid driver. Conventionally then, a 2-way design. However the crossover is unusually complicated for such a design and certainly more complex than was common at the price. The cabinets are from memory about 25” tall by about 12” x 12” – and designed to be stand mounted, about 10” off the floor.Cabinet construction is ‘thin-walled’ as was the norm in those days and is line with foam for acoustic damping.

The first external oddity / curiosity is

that the reflex port is square and of plywood rather than round and cardboard. I met the designer in the late 1970s (John Greenbank) and if he told me of the reason for this, then sadly my memory has long faded. On the back were the conventional 4mm banana plugs and from time to time the virtually useless (by today’s standards) 2-pin DIN speaker connectors.

From my notes at that time it seems these are rated a 70 watts peak and the impedance is typically 8 ohms. Frequency responses was quoted as 40 to 30,000 +/- 3dB. I used mine with a Lecson AC1/API and have no recollection of these being either difficult to drive nor inefficient.

John was in those days one of the most intriguing designers I’d met.

Apart from anything else, he was ex-Lecson and had been engaged in loudspeaker design there. I was introduced to him by Bob (now Robert!) Stuart. John had great ambitions and envisaged a range of 5 models, with the RS4 being second only to the RS6. I don’t think there was ever and RS5 – but I might be wrong about this.

I really really loved the RS4 design. I found them to have very low colouration with a clean and uncommonly (for the time) natural feeling. My notes from the time indicate that I was surprised and perplexed that the designer seemed, to my ears at least, to have achieved a mid that on demanding material (male voice in particular) seemed to approach that of the Quad 57s. allied to this was the impression that there was a slightly recessed presentation. Certainly not ‘in-ya-face’. However, there was an uncommon sense of spaciousness.

I asked John if there was a connection between what I perceived as the apparent recessiveness and the spaciousness. This normally ebullient man, in response, became monosyllabic. Single word answer – “yes”. He chuckled. It was an infectious chuckle. A rather decent person I thought.

Depth and width of image

In those days I really wasn’t that interested in depth and width of image. I was though, even in those early days, intrigued by height of image and indeed I still am. Other than the previously mentioned spaciousness, I cannot recall (and my notes don’t indicate) if the imaging was pinpoint or not. But it seems that I was impressed about the height of the image. My guess is that I tested this by standing up, and then sitting down – and so on. Hardly scientific I know, but surprising useful – even today.

I seem to recall John was a pianist. Possibly an accomplished one. Somehow I ended up listening to classical piano on these and was, despite my comparative ignorance of classical music all those years ago, very impressed.

Up against the might Meridian M1 actives

My reference then (and still today), the Boothroyd Stuart Meridian M1 actives although not as spacious as the Tangents had a visceral excitement to them with a bass quality that even today is very hard to equal, let alone exceed.

In a nutshell, bass from a Meridian M1 is solid, fast, tight, explosive and in my room clean to 25Hz. Strange to report (at that time) the Tangent RS4s demonstrated seemingly identicalcharacteristics, excluding ultimate sound pressure level and extension. I noted at the time that I was “astonished”.

In summary?

Even without my contemporaneous notes, my memory of these speakers are very favourable indeed. Looking at the notes today, that favourable impression is reinforced. Their visceral excitement without any hint of fatigue, detail at low level and to produce true out-of-the-box imaging made them at that time truly outstanding value. The only remaining mystery to me is why I didn’t stock them at Subjective Audio. Again, lost in the mist of time.

Anyway ….

I’ve seen pairs for sale on eBay (apparently in fully working condition) for £100 or less. Do remember though that replacement drivers might be impossible to obtain. Just because they physically fit does not, repeat NOT mean that they mirror the electrical nor sonic characteristics of the original drivers.

The crossover is unusually complex and it might well be that some of the components had their values sand blasted off to reduce the ability to copy. So to bring you up to date, what the current closest approach to these long forgotten classics? Difficult to say with certainty, and of course I’ve not heard all the contenders, but my guess would be the Harbeth Compact 7-ES-3.

Click HERE to search for Tangent RS4s

Click HERE for Stan Curtis’ recollections about John Geenbank, Lecson – and more

Click HERE for a bit of Tangent technology chat

Howard Popeck hp@no-alibi.demon.co.uk

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4 Comments

  1. Hi,
    Read your review with interest. I am sitting in front of a pair of RS4′s listening to acoustic guitar as I write this. I can confirm these are excellent speakers. I bought mine for around £25 from someone who didn’t know any better in about 1982 and they have been my main speaker since. They are really good on acoustic music – well recorded guitars are really well focussed. I use them as reference speakers in my home studio to test my mixes and would never willingly part with them. They have superb depth of field and are refreshingly honest – a bad mix sounds bad. You do need to set them up right and they have quite a restricted sweet spot – but that may be my room. I find they work best on solid stands about 9 inches above the floor and slightly angled in.

  2. I have a pair of these which I bought new in 1980. I replaced them with a pair of Mission 753 Freedoms in 1996 because the Tangents are slightly inefficient and can only produce modest volumes, but I got them out a few weeks ago and they aound absolutely amazing.

  3. Interesting that one of the relatively few permutations possible with two drivers in a rectangular box can produce a vivid memory that sticks with you. As a would-be speaker builder it would certainly be interesting to analyse how that is. Are we saying that this design is unequivocally as good as a modern speaker? One thing that modern speaker designers go on about quite a lot, is cabinet edge diffraction, and another is driver directionality vs. baffle width. The modern style is narrow cabinets with very rounded edges. If an old speaker with wide baffle and sharp corners is considered one of the best designs of all time, are the modern speaker designers barking up the wrong tree? Clearly cabinet edge diffraction can’t be all that important if this design is noted for low coloration and total lack of listener fatigue..?

    • Hello Ray, and thank you for your observations, and your questions. I’ll do my best re the latter. And I appreciate the former.

      Interesting that one of the relatively few permutations possible with two drivers in a rectangular box can produce a vivid memory that sticks with you. As a would-be speaker builder it would certainly be interesting to analyze how that is.

      Yes, I can see why you would.

      Are we saying that this design is unequivocally as good as a modern speaker?

      Not particularly. However, at the typical asking price for a used pair and assuming in full working condition I would certainly put them up against any new pair from any maker at a retail circa $600. However this begs the question, what is meant by ‘good’? Of course it depends on the context. There’s too much to go into here on this sub-topic. However what I will say is that in terms of conveying the sheer joy of listening to exuberant musical performances which are well-recorded, these Tangents are really rather fine.

      One thing that modern speaker designers go on about quite a lot, is cabinet edge diffraction, and another is driver directionality vs. baffle width. The modern style is narrow cabinets with very rounded edges. If an old speaker with wide baffle and sharp corners is considered one of the best designs of all time, are the modern speaker designers barking up the wrong tree?

      No, not at all. When Tangent were designing, as indeed were other clever makers of that era (Harbeth, Chartwell, Rogers, Monitor Audio, Lecson, Spendor and so on; note I don’t include Linn) spatial imagery, depth of field and related issues were not given the priority they are today. Thus, for example, one of the most engaging speakers of all time, the majestic Spendor BC3 (a 4-way design) had a wide front baffle and little if any discernable ability to convey depth and perspective. Mr. Hughes and other peers were focusing on other priorities. Design perspective are a function of fads, availability of components, advances in driver design and much more. Thus to conclude that a speaker of say 25 years ago compared to a modern design is unlikely to achieve worthwhile useful outcomes simply because the number of variables, and the context in which these are prioritised contains just too many variables.

      Clearly cabinet edge diffraction can’t be all that important if this design is noted for low coloration and total lack of listener fatigue..?

      I am unqualified to answer this. As an aside though, I personally remain unconvinced that edge diffraction can lead to listener fatigue.

      Howard Popeck

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