For audiophiles, British loudspeaker brand KEF is no stranger to the music and sound industry. Known for its iconic collaborations with designers like Marcel Wanders and Ross Lovegrove, KEF is also a leading authority in innovation, with hundreds of awards under its illustrious belt, some dating back as early as the 1970s.
In conjunction with KEF’s 60th anniversary, we take a retrospective journey into founder Raymond Cooke’s life, and see how his unwavering dedication towards high-fidelity sound shaped the company into what it is today.
THE EARLY DAYS OF COOKE’S CAREER
Coming from a working-class family, Raymond Cooke served as a radio operator in the British Royal Navy in the Second World War. After the war ended, he decided to continue his tertiary studies, graduating with a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of London. From the early days of the war, he’d actively pursued his hobby in sound reproduction, and with his new academic qualifications, he delved fully into the world of audio, spending most of his Naval gratuity on high-fidelity equipment. In a deleted entry in Gilbert Briggs’ Audio Biographies, Cooke described his “keen interest in music, which demanded better reproduction than that obtainable from commercial instruments.”
It’s said that Cooke met Briggs sometime in the late 1940s, possibly at one of the British Sound Recording Association’s many conventions in London. He was already familiar with Briggs’ book, Loudspeakers, but was not necessarily in agreement with some of the content. “I took some work that I’d been doing at university in my spare time, and I challenged him,” said Cooke in an interview with The Gramophone. At the time, Briggs was already an established figure in the audio industry, having founded Wharfedale Wireless Works in 1932.
Surprisingly, Briggs requested Cooke to help him revise the book, and being a student “in need of money”, Cooke readily accepted the offer. This marked the beginning of a collaboration, which evolved from the editing of Briggs’ books to full-time employment at Wharfedale as technical manager.
Before transitioning to Wharfedale, Cooke had also worked at the BBC as a recording design engineer in the Designs Department for two years, where he became part of a team that developed tape recording and disc replay equipment for broadcasting use. There, he began creating all-new designs as well as modifications of existing hardware.
STARTING OUT ON HIS OWN JOURNEY
Cooke stayed at Wharfedale from 1955 to 1961, even after the 1959 sale of the company to the Rank Organization. By then, Cooke was focusing on new materials for diaphragms, hoping to move away from conventional paper cones. However, he was aware that the company was not interested in diversifying into a completely new technology. And so, in his own words, “the only way was for me to risk everything and start on my own.”
The Nissen hut in Maidstone, Kent, where KEF Electronics began its operations.
KEF Electronics was officially registered in September 1961 at Maidstone, Kent. Operating from an old Nissen hut, the small company shared the same grounds with Kent Engineering and Foundry (where KEF derived its name from). The original Kent Engineering and Foundry specialised in casting and assembly, including agricultural sprayers. In addition, they also accepted orders from nearby farmers to repair or modify their machinery, supplementing the core of their manufacturing business. Because of the existing equipment, KEF didn’t have to make additional purchases. As draftsman Denis White recalled, “We didn’t need to buy a decent drilling or milling machine – at the end of the day, it was a model shop. Anything they wanted knocked up in metal or wood in the early days, that’s where it was done.”
Cooke’s early days at KEF kept him busy for long periods of time. Countless experiments were done at home with various materials, making components and then baking them in the oven. There was much entertaining with business acquaintances and testing of speakers in the living room to be done, too.
A MAN WITH A MISSION
Barely a month after KEF was set up, Malcolm Jones became its first employee. Having known Cooke through an academic visit to Wharfedale, Jones wrote to enquire about a possible job opening. After a two-and-a-half hour talk with Cooke, he was later offered the job. “When I first arrived, there was an initial semi-prototype K1 system in the Nissen hut. There was test equipment: turntable, various bits and pieces, a hand-winding machine for voice coil – basically that was it. I had to learn literally everything about making loudspeakers, because until I knew how to do it, I couldn’t teach anybody else and we couldn’t take them on,” said Jones.
The decision to operate KEF from Maidstone made sense: it was the mid-point between London and the coast, where Cooke would ship speakers for export. London was the centre of business, and also one of his favourite places to enjoy concerts and dining out. Cooke’s son, Martin, shared, “My father enjoyed his trips to see overseas distributors immensely. He once said to me, he thought that one of the reasons behind Sony’s success was that Akio Morita was always out and about meeting people instead of sitting behind a desk and letting someone else do it.”
“Having to go to war as a teenager messed up Dad’s chances of post-secondary education: he ended up studying for a degree while my sister was on the way, and did guided tours of London to make a bit of extra money. I think it was Dad’s longing for a better life, his love of fine things and a great belief in himself that got him through university and on the road to success,” continued Martin.
Cooke with his daughter, Ann and son, Martin.
Ann Crayford, Cooke’s daughter, had similar memories. “By the 1970s, my father was travelling all around the world. He had educated himself in many ways, was a marvellous host, and became familiar with fine dining and good wines, visiting the world’s best restaurants. He was open to new experiences, and particularly enjoyed telling me about all the strange foods he was served by his hosts, in honour of his visits. His pride at being accepted into different cultures overrode any misgivings about sampling strange delicacies.”
Cooke was, according to Ann, impeccable in dress and presentation, and these qualities served him well in his dealings with the many countries and cultures he had contact with in the early days of KEF. In fact, he was said to wear a suit and tie even on his days off!
THE STEADFAST SCIENTIST
From the very beginning, Cooke was a firm believer of science. In a 1994 interview with audio historian Ken Kessler, Cooke said, “How I came to leave Wharfedale... I could see high fidelity wasn’t going to get anywhere unless a lot more science was applied. Gilbert Briggs was a bit suspicious of science. Or, shall we say, of scientists. He was my mentor in the commercial sense but not in the technical sense; Briggs was not an engineer and he wasn’t a scientist.”
“It seemed to me, being a scientist, that when I looked into sound reproduction – which wasn’t my subject; I was originally a chemist and then an electronics man – if only one could bring scientific procedures even to the experimental work, like listening tests, and then to the production work, we ought to be able to produce a better loudspeaker, smaller and cheaper. I think I was the first person to realise that you didn’t have to have a 15-inch loudspeaker to get down to 20Hz.”
Cooke with the KEF Research Group in 1973.
This became the basis of Cooke’s first designs for KEF’s products designed for the household – loudspeakers need not be obtrusive, ugly, or over-dominant. From the K1 Monitor, the K1 Slimline was introduced, weighing only 40lbs compared to its 70lb predecessor. The K1 featured the use of Melinex, a polyester film known for its strength and stability, which was what Cooke had spent most of his career fighting for: the use of new, novel materials.
The smaller, bookshelf-sized Celeste came next, retailing for £22. For Cooke, this was the turning point that he believed “made the company”, because it was the first time ever a speaker of this size came along with such high-fidelity performance claims.
FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC
The youngest child of Yorkshire parents, Cooke took an interest in classical music from an early age, learning to play the violin and cello. “From the diaries and notes in my possession, I found out that my father had also performed in an orchestra as a young boy,” said Ann.
It was this love for music that eventually led to Cooke’s relationship with his wife Jennie, the daughter of famed oboist, Léon Jean Goossens CBE. “I first met Raymond in 1957 – he used to come down to our house in Sussex and visit. He was very good to my parents, and they adored him. I think he was like the son they never had, in a way. My sister and I always thought he was frightfully boring! He would talk about these dreary loudspeakers. He loved classical music, but it is really hard to know how much of the stuff he actually liked for what is was, and how much he thought it would be useful in a lecture, to demonstrate a certain sound,” reminisced Jennie.
Martin recalls going with him to Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s flat in London to deliver a pair of speakers: “Dad has a good relationship with EMI – Joan Coulson was his contact. My copy of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an original ‘not for sale’ promotional sample given to him by Joan.”
“As young kids, we were always being taken to concerts or the opera, and introduced to lots of classical music artists. Some of these musicians didn’t make a lot of money, so Dad would often treat them to a nice meal in a restaurant, and sometimes offer to let them sleep overnight at the house, if they were on tour nearby,” said Martin.
Cooke was said to be particular about his style, always donning a suit and tie.
At the Cooke home, there was a sound system set up in the listening room downstairs, which comprised a Quad amplifier and a pair of the latest KEF Reference speakers. Funnily enough, although KEF also produced car audio systems, Cooke preferred to rely on the factory-installed radio, listening to Radio 3 and 4. Whenever possible, he would go to concerts and live shows as much as possible, and had a soft spot for old movies and comedy shows. Some of his favourite comedians included Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Eric Morecambe, Gerard Hoffnung, and Kenneth Horne.
THE PASSING OF AN ICON
Cooke’s unwavering work ethic and appetite for travel would later take its toll on his health. He crammed every hour of his life into KEF, sleeping little, waking up early, and making copious amounts of notes. Mary Harper, who worked as Cooke’s secretary from 1978 to 1983, shared that he was dynamic, but also very sensitive. “He was a man of integrity; passionate about work but also passionate about the people who worked with and for him. He was the sort of person who would know everybody in the factory.”
Like in his literary collaborations with his previous employer Briggs, Cooke was fastidious about the use of English. “ He was an absolute stickler for perfection. We would spend ages sometimes trying to get a letter absolutely right. From that point of view, it was really challenging working for him. He was very demanding,” continued Harper.
Sadly, Raymond Cooke OBE passed away on 19 March 1995, following some serious health problems. Ann said he continued to remain deeply involved in the business even after his major stroke at the age of 67: “He never lost his enthusiasm and passion for his life work. He was dictating business letters to me in the week that he died, and on the last day of his life, I handed over to him his last pieces of dictation, typed up. That was the kind of man he was – unstoppable.”
Cooke’s dedication and achievements in high-fidelity sound continues to live on through KEF.
KEF TURNS 60!
“There is no substitute for good, British acoustical engineering.”
For the past six decades, KEF has been pioneering extraordinary sound quality through its remarkable, award-winning speakers, earning a justifiably devoted following of audiophiles, artists and creatives. KEF’s mission is to deliver sound with as little intervention as possible; from treble to bass, and everything in between. The best sound is natural sound – and that access to it is a right, not a privilege.
Since the introduction of its very first product, K1, in the 1960s, KEF has always been at the forefront of innovation, pioneering the use of synthetic materials to create compact speakers with high-fidelity performance. Many years and technological milestones later, KEF remains committed to sound before all else. Its latest Metamaterial Absorption Technology (MAT), which eliminates 99% of unwanted sound, is an amalgamation of the brand’s unwavering journey in perfecting the sonic experience for music lovers around the world. This has allowed KEF to design revolutionary products like its LS50 Wireless II, which delivers an unrivalled purity of sound.
Relive music through the times! To celebrate its 60th anniversary, KEF has curated six playlists, selecting iconic British tracks that best represent each decade, which will be available to download and stream on Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music. Click here for more information.
Cover Credit: All images courtesy of KEF
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.