In 1972, The electronics world was a dramatically different place. Colour television sets were bleeding-edge technology, quartz digital watches were for millionaires, and computers only appeared in sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. "So many things that people have hobbies for now, just didn't exist back then," says Bob Stuart...
Bob had a passion for playing and listening to music. Having studied Acoustics, Psychoacoustics and Electronic Engineering at Birmingham University, then on to Imperial for his MSc in Operational Studies, he didn't have to think too hard about what to do with this education. "For people like me, if you didn't want to design weapons systems or medical systems, hi-fi was the place to be", he says. And so it was - after a house and a car, a sound system was the largest purchase people made back in the day.
At the same time, Royal College of Art graduate Allen Boothroyd was beginning to make a name for himself, laying the foundations of a career that would see him become one of Britain's most respected industrial designers. It was happenstance that he was introduced to Bob, via a company they both had worked with in differing capacities. Stuart had just won a competition in Wireless World magazine to redesign a famously unreliable hi-fi amplifier of the time, and was obviously a precocious young talent...
"I suppose the real word is naivety", says Allen about his first collaboration with Bob. He found himself being asked to co-design the now legendary Lecson AC1/AP1, an elaborate two-box amplifier that turned out to be one of the most striking looking things to have come out of the nineteen seventies. "Completely mad but quite interesting", is how he now describes it - and that's an understatement. This perspex and corrugated aluminium package now looks so striking that it could easily have been some sort of elaborate computer in Gerry Anderson's Space 1999. It's now on show in New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's V&A.
Its space-age styling was based on what Allen calls his (lack of) knowledge of how electronic products worked at the time. "I thought about it as an analogue of the signal coming in on the left hand side of the box and coming out on the other side of the box, and the coloured sliders were designed to give a graphic representation of what was going on inside the box". He says he was trying to make something that's normally quite mundane, look and feel exciting. "I think that's what old Dyson tries to do with his vacuum cleaners, tries to show what's inside the machine...", he quips.
In the case of the iconic Lecson amp, there was a lot of clever circuitry inside, and it impressed many people in an industry that was dominated by big beasts, a generation older and less free thinking. Suddenly, Boothroyd and Stuart became the Jobs and Wozniak of their day on the British hi-fi scene. Both brilliant in their field, neither were able to do the other's job and together caused a small tremor that - just slightly - shifted the tectonic plates of the electronics industry. "That certainly got us off to a good start", says Allen modestly.
Within a couple of years, Bob and Allen decided to start their own research and development company in Cambridge. "We thought we could frankly do our own thing better", Allen remembers. Called Meridian because they were literally geographically at zero degrees longitude, the name had to be amended to Boothroyd-Stuart Meridian soon after because Allen's wife, "...discovered there was a company in Leeds that made knickers or something", as you do!
Allen's styling of the Lecson certainly raised eyebrows, but Bob wasn't about to be upstaged. He had the idea that amplifiers could sound different. It seems strange now, but the conceit of the day held that - to use Quad's Peter Walker's oft-quoted phrase - an amplifier was "a piece of wire with gain" and no more. How then could a group of transistors, resistors, diodes, and capacitors have a "sound" of their own? The only way something could sound different is if the circuit hadn't been designed properly, and there was a technical fault somewhere - or so the received wisdom went...
To British hi-fi elder statesman Peter Walker, the young and long-haired Bob Stuart must have seemed an audacious, precocious upstart who needed teaching the ways of the electronics world. Bob published an article saying that his amplifier sounded different to others, and Walker was shocked. Indeed, "he told me to come around to his house, so he could have a look at it!" He adds that, "it was an interesting era in the early days at Meridian. There were too many dyed-in-the-wool engineers who believed they understand the world, but they didn't. They'd tell me, 'Young man this is no good, Stuart this can't sound different!"
Meridian's first product was the M1 loudspeaker. Speakers date as badly as cars - they're invariably styled to follow the fashion of the day - but the M1 appeared as if it was from another world. Rather than being a big, fat, wide wooden box with countless drive units plastered all around its front baffle - which was the fashion of the day - they were tall, slim, narrow and elegant. They do look a little 'retro' now, but in a most pleasing way, rather like the nineteen seventies Bang and Olufsen designs of Jacob Jensen, for example.
More importantly, the M1s sounded superb - due to a combination of excellent cabinet design, top quality speaker units and the decision to place the amplifiers in the boxes. Instead of needing a separate power amplifier, all the active M1s required to make (very powerful) music was a tiny preamplifier control unit. Thus was born the 101, another important Boothroyd Stuart moment...
Launched in 1978, Allen says he didn't want the thing to look like conventional hi-fi, "so I put it into a window extrusion, a sort of mullion, and chopped that into bits, and tried to persuade Bob to fit the electronics into it!". It was tiny, and sported a silky volume control and crisp source selectors. Although not the dramatic visual statement that was the Lecson, the first Meridian electronics box "had a distinct style, and made the user interface as simple as possible", says Boothroyd. He recalls it having nice flip switches which were, "much too expensive but gave you a feeling of quality. When you have a very small product like that you can't have a fiddly switches". In quintessential nineteen seventies style, it was finished in brown "because it was just a little bit different".
A whole range of small form factor 100-series components soon followed. It's important to remember that, back in the day, British high streets were being assailed by massive hi-fi stack systems, all fronted by vast brushed aluminium fascias, bristling with knobs and buttons. A Sony, Pioneer or JVC amplifier package with a tuner of the day could easily take up the size of dressing table. By contrast, the 103 power amplifier was split into tiny modules, and the 105 followed the same theme. There was even a matching 104 tuner, again little larger than a cigarette packet but still featuring presets for the listener's favourite FM radio stations.
It wasn't just the packaging that was clever. The 100-series system sounded superb, thanks to Bob's smart circuit design and decision to use more expensive (than the usual) components inside. By then, he recalls, "there was quite a movement about understanding the importance they made. It was nothing like the old reference designs of transistors - it was a complete reboot. People noticed, and Meridian had phone calls from all over the world - indeed Canada became the company's largest market. Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength.
Alongside Bob, Allen remains a key player at Meridian, and has been responsible for a range of often beautiful designs, including the F80, which was possibly the world's most exquisite ghetto-blaster (and the most expensive for that matter), with a special casing made by none other than Ferrari. Boothroyd also runs Cambridge Product Design Ltd., and was responsible for - among many other things - one of the most iconic pieces of technology of the early computer age, the BBC Micro.
Two young men who went on to make their mark on the world, Bob and Allen are still going strong today. "We had an ethos that we stuck by," says Bob. "Every part of a Meridian product - the shape, the texture, the material - has to work together. Form fits function."