From War Radios to World-Class Speakers: The Journey of KEF founder Raymond Cooke

From War Radios to World-Class Speakers: The Journey of KEF founder Raymond Cooke

In the tumultuous world of 1925, Raymond Cooke was born, a spirit destined to echo through the annals of audio engineering. By the time the clouds of World War II gathered, young Cooke found himself thrust into the vast expanse of the Royal Navy. While the sea’s mighty roars and the skies’ thunderous clashes became all too familiar, it was his work as a radio operator on an aircraft carrier that would whisper the first notes of his lifelong symphony with sound.

The demanding environment of wartime, where accurate communication could be the difference between life and death, provided Raymond with a profound understanding of acoustics. This early immersion ignited the nascent stirrings of a passion that would define his life. After the war, this spark drove him to further his education, leading him to obtain a B.Sc. in electrical engineering from the University of London. Briefly exploring the world of television production at Philips, Raymond quickly realized that his true calling lay in the realm of audio.

This burning passion eventually led him to the BBC’s Engineering Designs Department. Here, alongside audio luminaries such as D.E.L. Shorter and Dudley Harwood, Raymond honed his craft, further developing his unique perspectives on product design and engineering methods. This period was more than a professional engagement; it was the cultivation of a deep-seated love for sound and the foundational steps of a legacy in audio engineering.

While the exact projects Cooke worked on remain a bit elusive, his tenure at the BBC coincided with a period when the corporation was actively pushing the boundaries of loudspeaker design. One notable creation from the BBC’s research department during this era was the LS3/5A loudspeaker, a compact monitor that would go on to earn legendary status among audiophiles for its impeccable sound quality. Though we cannot definitively credit Cooke with its design, his immersion in this culture of innovation undoubtedly shaped his understanding and appreciation of audio engineering.

Colleagues and contemporaries spoke highly of Raymond’s commitment to quality and his insatiable curiosity. It was this quest for knowledge, coupled with his wartime learnings, that laid the groundwork for his future endeavors. As Gene Pitts once mentioned, Raymond was a “brilliant electronics engineer” and had an uncanny ability to make theoretical concepts practically applicable in real-world scenarios. His time at the BBC was more than just a job; it was a masterclass in the world of sound, preparing him for the legendary journey he was about to embark upon.

Cooke with the KEF Research Group in 1973.

Wharfedale: A Fusion of Tradition and Innovation

In 1956, after his fruitful period at the BBC, Raymond Cooke decided to make a pivotal move in his career. With an unwavering vision to elevate commercial audio, he returned to his roots in Yorkshire, joining Wharfedale Wireless Works, in Bradford, as their technical manager. Later, he ascended to the role of director, solidifying his position as a driving force within the company. Founded in the 1930s, Wharfedale was more than just a loudspeaker manufacturer. It was an emblem of British audio prowess, its legacy deeply rooted in a commitment to unmatched quality.

The corridors of Wharfedale resonated with the whispers of its storied past, but they also echoed with the innovative ideas that Raymond brought from his previous experiences. His aspirations to redefine acoustic brilliance were met with mixed reactions. While many admired his innovative approach, some remained apprehensive.

One significant collaboration that blossomed during this period was with Gilbert Briggs, the founder of Wharfedale. Briggs, an influential audio personality of that era, was both a mentor and collaborator to Raymond. Their professional relationship was marked by intense, prolonged discussions where the juxtaposition of traditional speaker manufacturing methodologies and Raymond’s forward-thinking approach became evident. Yet, through these debates and discussions, they reached moments of shared understanding. They co-authored a series of books on the art and science of loudspeaker design and use. These publications garnered significant attention within the audio community, primarily due to the way they presented complex technical ideas in an accessible manner. This revealed another facet of Raymond Cooke, the communicator—a skill that served him in various facets of his professional life, from business negotiations to his valuable contributions to the Audio Engineering Society (AES).

1957 saw Raymond’s audacious spirit come to the fore. He collaborated with Gilbert Briggs and Peter Walker in organizing and executing “A Concert of Live and Recorded Music” at the iconic Royal Festival Hall in London. Historically significant, these might have been the pioneering “live vs. recorded” tests. Their success became a testament to Raymond’s innovative approach and his commitment to pushing the boundaries of audio excellence. One of the soloists during these remarkable performances was the celebrated oboist Leon Goossens. Fate intertwined Raymond’s personal and professional life, as he later married Leon’s daughter, Jennie.

Yet, for all his successes and collaborations, Raymond’s journey at Wharfedale wasn’t without its challenges. Some, especially those in the higher echelons of the company, regarded his groundbreaking ideas with caution, if not skepticism. However, undeterred, Raymond Cooke continued to champion his vision, preparing for the subsequent chapters in his illustrious audio journey.

From the B139 to the T27: Raymond Cooke’s Visionary Leap with KEF

Nestled by the tranquil banks of the River Medway in Tovil, Kent, the early days of KEF unveiled more than just another speaker company—it showcased an audio revolution in the making. Raymond Cooke, informed by his past experiences and a fervent belief that the loudspeaker technology of the 1950s was yet to reach its full potential, joined hands with Robert Pearch of Kent Engineering & Foundry to birth KEF Electronics. The duo, situated in a primitive Nissen hut, which once stood on the grounds of a metalworking company, envisioned a brand that would leverage the newest materials, design, and manufacturing techniques available.

Fueled by this mission, Raymond’s audacity knew no bounds. He ventured into uncharted territories, crafting woofers in non-traditional forms, like the renowned B139—a flat, oval-shaped bass driver. Made from unconventional materials, such as expanded polystyrene reinforced with an aluminum skin, the B139, while an outlier in its design, offered unparalleled sonic clarity. Its success was so profound that it remains in production even today.

But the innovations didn’t stop there. KEF’s repertoire burgeoned with gems like the B110, sculpted from a pioneering plastic known as Bextrene, and the T27, a Melinex dome tweeter. These weren’t mere products; they symbolized a manifesto—a testament to KEF’s commitment to remaining at the cutting edge of audio advancement.

However, Raymond’s vision extended beyond pioneering products. Recognizing the importance of a strong foundation, he instilled in KEF an undying respect for solid engineering. He established an elite engineering department, fostering relationships with universities. This resulted in pioneering applications of digital measurement techniques for both loudspeaker design and manufacturing quality control. Despite the company’s modest size, KEF invested heavily in comprehensive engineering instrumentation and facilities—a move many would deem audacious but would prove instrumental in setting KEF apart.

This emphasis on research and development, combined with Raymond’s tenacity, attracted a cadre of the industry’s brightest minds. United by a singular vision, this collective pushed boundaries, relentlessly pursuing excellence and positioning KEF as the epitome of audio innovation.

And so, from the modest environs of former wartime Nissen huts, KEF wasn’t just manufacturing speakers; it was reimagining the very future of sound. This period, marked by every innovation, every experiment, echoed Raymond Cooke’s indomitable spirit and unwavering commitment to delivering unparalleled auditory experiences.

The Nissen hut in Maidstone, Kent, where KEF Electronics began its operations.

The Unyielding Odyssey: Raymond Cooke’s Golden Era and Lasting Legacy

The 1970s and 1980s saw Raymond Cooke and KEF firmly established as titans in the world of high-fidelity audio. However, success did not breed complacency for Raymond. These decades were marked by persistent innovation, audacious experimentation, and an unwavering commitment to excellence.

As the world evolved, so did KEF. The rise of digital technology in the late 20th century presented new challenges and opportunities. Raymond was quick to adapt, steering KEF into the realm of digital sound processing, ensuring that the company remained at the forefront of the ever-evolving audio landscape. One of the many ventures that highlight his innovative spirit was the unique performance at the 1980 Edinburgh Festival. Drawing inspiration from his earlier days at Wharfedale, Raymond orchestrated the “live vs. reproduced” performance of Berlioz’s Te Deum. When the local organ proved unreliable, Raymond’s solution was to use an organ from a cathedral a mile away, reproduced through 36 KEF 105/III loudspeakers. The experience was so immersive that the organist, after finishing his distant performance, made a swift entrance on stage to rapturous applause, thanks to a speedy police car.

Yet, it wasn’t just about technical prowess. Raymond had a deep understanding of the emotional connection people shared with music. This sensitivity guided KEF’s designs, resulting in speakers that didn’t just reproduce sound—they recreated experiences. Every note, every nuance was delivered with an authenticity that made listeners feel as if they were right there in the recording studio.

Beyond products, Raymond’s leadership spanned further than KEF. He was an active member of the society, having joined the British Sound Recording Association in 1947, which paved the way for the AES British Section. His dedication to audio engineering culminated in a series of roles, from being elected a governor, to serving as the AES president in 1984. He was subsequently honored with the society’s bronze and silver medals for his outstanding contributions.

Raymond’s leadership style extended to his interpersonal relations— he was known as a bon vivant, an exceptional communicator and linguist, and a confidante who truly cared. He cultivated a work environment where ideas flowed freely, where risk-taking was encouraged, and every team member felt valued. Outside of KEF, Raymond was an ambassador for British engineering and design. Recognized for his contributions, he was bestowed with an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1979 for his services to export and the audio industry.

Raymond Cooke passed away in 1995, but his influence endures. KEF stands as a tribute to his vision, offering unparalleled sound experiences globally. In the annals of audio history, Raymond Cooke remains an icon—a visionary, an innovator, and a true lover of music. His journey, from wartime skies to acoustic preeminence, showcases the sheer force of passion, perseverance, and vision.

2023 PMA Media. All rights reserved.

Search for a Topic

and join our monthly sweepstakes


Email field is required to subscribe.