KVG Laboratories

The ESS Transar (USA)

Anyone remember the ESS "Transar" speaker? For those who don't, it was billed as a "full-range" Heil-equipped loudspeaker, and was quite stunning looking for its day (mid-to-late ‘70s). It was also very expensive - $5,000 - a helluva lot of money at the time.

Actually, a "full-range" Heil, was a misnomer, as the woofer portion had nothing whatsoever in common with the large Heil used as a midrange/tweeter (same unit as in the AMT-1b). The "woofer" portion consisted of what appeared to be opened up black plastic cups, stacked about 8" above one another, through which sheets of Lexan were connected via four carbon fibre rods that ran the full height of the speaker. These strips would vibrate, much in the manner a paper cone would on an "ordinary" speaker, and generate frequencies far lower than the Heil midrange/tweeter was capable of doing.

In order for a dealer to carry the Transar, he had to attend a week-long class at ESS -- at his own expense — to learn all there was to know about the speaker, and also to know how to assemble it. Transars were paid for up front, and "custom-made" for their owners: each had a placard that said, "Custom Designed for..." with the customer's name added. Certainly the height of panache, and part of the speaker's appeal. The speakers were shipped, unassembled to the dealer who then actually built them in the customer's home. All of this carried a sense of uniqueness, which was another aspect of the speaker's appeal. To have a speaker quite literally "custom-made" in one's own home was something no one else could claim.

Unfortunately, few of the Transars ever worked properly. Most of the very large (and expensive) walnut panels didn't fit into the base for the speaker. The required amp (originally made by ESS, and then later redesigned by Carver) emitted a loud hum from its chassis, and the cement used to hold the Lexan sheets in place hardened and resulted in a loud "crack" at certain frequencies. With all of these sheets "cracking" the sonic results were an annoying "buzz," which certainly wasn't particularly welcome after having shelled out five grand!

So, what did ESS do to appease all of its angry customers and dealers? Basically, nothing, other than discontinue the speaker's production. Afterwards, mentioning the ESS name, or "Transar" to any of the handful of dealers who attended the class and sold some of these clunkers almost got one killed!

Then, in 1981, the Transar II was designed. It was a less expensive speaker ($3,900) that was smaller, and which came with a coffee-table styled subwoofer, since the so-called "Heil woofer" didn't do particularly well at very low frequencies. The "II" model also didn't require any special amplification and would work off the owner's existing amplifier.

While listening to the Transar II by itself, it seemed to sound pretty good. It played very loudly, with very impressive bass, and little or not audible distortion. The key phrase here is "by itself." One day, we took the Transar II to a local retailer who compared it to a similarly-priced pair of Martin-Logan speakers. I'll never forget that comparison for as long as I live: the Transars sounded awful by comparison!

What also told me I was in "deep s**t" was that I was supposed to be heading up the sales department for these speakers, and the Chairman's retort to the comparison between them and the Martin-Logans was something of the following order: "Music isn't always genteel, and dealers need to know that." In other words, if the speaker sounds harsh, well that's how it should sound.

That turned out to be my last week at ESS, along with my immediate superior. Not too long after that, the company declared bankruptcy, and the Transar II simply faded into memory.

I worked for a number of different companies in this industry, but none ever so mistreated their dealers as did ESS. While the Transar II didn't require assembly in a customer's home, I can only imagine the problems that might have arisen, and how ESS would, just as they had in the past, completely ignored them.

Just another "stroll down memory lane." [Name withheld for privacy.]