Back to Musical Realism: The Quad System - Part 2

Equipment report
Categories:
Audio,
Solid-state preamplifiers
|
Products:
Quad 99
Back to Musical Realism: The Quad System - Part 2

This is Part 2 of Anthony H. Cordesman's Review of the Quad system. You can read Part 1 here.

Quad 99 Stereo Preamplifier

If you are a true high-end puritan, you are going to be even more irritated by my comments on the Quad 99 stereo preamplifier than on the rest of the Quad system. To put it simply, the preamp is going to be a creature of the devil to those audiophiles who have a religious belief that that every piece of high-end equipment should have as few features as possible.

Like its matching tuner and CD player, the Quad 99 is an extraordinarily small piece of electronics in comparison to most of today’s units.8 Yet, it still manages to provide both filters and tone controls. This use of tone controls has led to the public burning of a Quad preamp at the traditional place for such thing in Britain: the intersection of St Giles', Magdalen Street and Beaumont Street – just outside the Balliol College at the University of Oxford. In fact, a similar auto de Fe was only avoided at an earlier CES because the audio purists involved had not yet fully mastered the use of fire.

8  The Quad 99 preamp’s relatively small size can create other ergonomic problems. For example, the back of the preamp crams a lot of sockets and connectors into a very small space. This, in turn, requires use of Quadlink or DB-15 cables to provide balanced inputs and integrated control features with the 909 amp and the matching CDP-2 player and FM tuner. The problem, however, is that the Quad-supplied cables cannot be tightened with a screwdriver, lack flexibility, and come in dysfunctional lengths. (Be aware, however, that any computer cable store on the Internet sells DB-15 cables that can be screwdriver tightened and that are available in reasonable lengths for dirt-cheap prices.) There are no balanced XLR adapter options so the only way to use the balanced input is with DB15 cables.

The rear of the preamp cabinet extends over the connectors and can make connections difficult. The RCA sockets are very close together, and you need RCA plugs that can be tightened, or fit very tightly, into these sockets, and flexible RCA cables to ensure good, reliable connections.

Moreover, the Quad 99 departs from audio Puritanism by having even more useful features. I realize that I challenge the audio equivalent of today’s religious terrorists when I even insist on a balance control – although I still insist that no amount of set up can get the best imaging and sound stage out of most recording without a slight adjustment of the balance control for that recording. The remote for the Quad preamp makes that easy and the front panel read out shows the exact level of adjustment. I find this essential in a preamp, and I would not personally want to own one without it. The Quad also allows you to adjust the sensitivity of each RCA input – not to create exact matches but rather to compensate for gross differences. This is not as vital as a balance control, but it is handy.

The Quad 99 also has a very good phono input, and while this too departs from Puritanism by adding features, it also makes the preamp a real bargain. The phono stage offers both moving magnet and moving coil options with variable sensitivity. While it is slightly warmer in sound character than the line stage, I’ve heard separate phono preamps that cost $500-$1,000, that did not sound better, and which had considerably more noise. I would be careful to use a low capacity and/or short cable from the tone arm, and one with full grounding of the shield at both ends, but the Quad 99 reminds me that the ability to combine a phono gain section and line stage in one affordable preamp used to be the key test of a competent designer. Given the rising popularity of the LP, it may be time to bring back the phono gain stage as well.

Where the Quad 99 preamp excels, however, is in the set of features that true puritans will hate the most. Its tone controls consist of a tilt control that raises or lowers the treble by 1 dB per setting in four steps, while making the opposite adjustment in the bass, and with a turnover around 450 Hz. This doesn’t sound like much change at the minimum setting and it isn’t – at least at the technical level. It is amazing, however, how well either a rise or cut of even 1 dB in the treble, with the opposite in the bass, can either cut the hardness of a recording or bring it to life. It is equally amazing how often going to 2 dB can make a bad recording far more listenable.

This tilt control worked far better with my ordinary and slightly bright recordings than I can explain. Moreover, it did so with my Vandersteen 5As and a review pair of Ascendo C8 speakers as well the 2905s, and did so in two different listening rooms and after considerable experimentation with speaker placement and listening position. Even if you are enough of an audio puritan to be a “roundhead” today, it is really worth listening to what such controls can do. You may yet become an audio “cavalier.”

Moreover, the Quad 99 has two set of filters. The treble filter rolls off gently above 7,000 Hz, and does a good job in minimizing excessive tape hiss and some aspects of record surface noise. It reminds me of why full feature preamps used to include variable treble and bass filters, and why they are still of major value if you have a collective of older records and analog tapes. The bass filter or “contour” control produces a slow rise from 300 Hz to something like a 3 db gain over 30-70 Hz, and a sloping cut from 300 Hz to 30 Hz that shelves off at -4.5 dB. I did not find this control all that useful with the 2905s, and the boost can be excessive. It will, however, be useful in boosting the bass in some small monitors and where you have to place a full range speaker where room reinforcement raises the bass too much.

I should, however, stress that these features in the Quad 99 are practical, not perfect. They do not allow precise adjustment to suit a given recording. And, the Quad’s control may not be tailored to adjust the parts of the frequency spectrum that are most critical with today’s speaker, I recently had an exchange with loudspeaker designer Richard Vandersteen on the real world need to bring back tone controls, and in that correspondence he offered some telling observations on what tone controls ought to do, as presented below.

“The Tact, Cello and parametric equalizers like the MAc are all too complicated so no one will bother to use them. Once a recording needs EQ it will never be SOTA anyway. What is needed is something very easy and quick. The most important requirement is a bass lift (shelf) to help warm a cold sounding recording in the region of 50-200hz. The next important requirement would be a broad control for the mids to adjust the region from 500-5000hz. Treble is not usually a problem as brightness is most often thought of as a matter of excess tweeter output, but actually is a matter of too much midrange. The Tact involves so much processing that the sonic imprint is too great except on CD's for me.

The idea is not perfection but a pleasant listening experience. Customers ask me all the time why, when they have a Hi End system, they need to listen to much of their favorite music in the car. My answer is if they EQ their Hi End system like the car the experience will be the same (big mid bass, much less mids, slight treble boost). Today there are many very well recorded LPs available, especially Jazz and Blues, so as a speaker designer I prefer to make the loudspeaker preserve the waveform as well as possible in all parameters instead of the common reverse phase in the mids and bloated ported bass. Just my opinion maybe but something has to explain why, when all things to do with our hobby are converging, the loudspeakers are diverging now more than ever.”

I don’t agree with Richard on the problems in using the Tact, or that its sound quality is not transparent if you use the analogue to digital input as well as use it as a DAC. The updates to the Tact 2.2X have steadily improved its sound quality, as well as its operating features and ease of set up. In fact, the ability not only to compensate for room problems, but also to program the unit for up to 10 different equalized “target curves” gives you a remote controlled ability to chose the kind of compensation curves Richard talks about, along with a range of others that suit other problems in recordings.

I also find the Cello Palette and preamp to be easy to use after even a couple of hours of practical listening experimentation. The problem with the Cellos is that they are long out of production, their price as used equipment is too high, and they are old enough to often require a major service and rebuild effort.

There is, however, a greatly underappreciated alternative – although it is a far more expensive preamp than the Quad. The McIntosh C-46 got an excellent review by Paul Seydor (TAS 147, April 2004), but his review only mentioned its range of tone controls in passing. In fact, the McIntosh manual treats them as an afterthought, with no help in how to use them, and the company actually recommended a full-scale equalizer when I asked whether it had ever developed such instruction.

McIntosh was, however, kind enough to allow me to borrow a C46 and I did compare it to the Quad 99 and the Cello Palette. The values of the tone controls in the C46 should not be underrated. They are really excellent, they cover eight different frequency ranges, and each is of major value. They don’t offer infinite flexibility, but they do allow a touch up in the bass and a cut in the upper midrange and treble that is even more effective in dealing with the problems in most recordings and listening environments than the controls in the Quad 99. They also are equally good in dealing with recordings with too much bass that lack midrange life, or drown the highs. Unlike far more complicated equalizers, the C46’s tone controls are easy to learn how to use, and their effect is easy to hear using the bypass switch.

I not only endorse Paul Seydor’s overall praise of the McIntosh C46 preamp, I believe that it makes a really excellent case for bring backing tone controls. All kidding aside, if you can afford a unit that is far more costly than the Quad 99, and you have the problems in listening to ordinary and lower quality recordings that I do, this is the unit to buy. If you are constrained by a real world income, you want the Quad.

Quad CDP-2 Compact Disc Player

Any careful reader of TAS is all too well aware of the fact that there are a handful of CD and SACD/CD players, and DACs that offer truly advanced technology and consistently audible advantages in sound quality at truly advanced prices. There is a good case for such state of the art units if you can afford them.

The case is a lot less clear for other expensive players. Cutting through the manufacturer rhetoric about filters, bit and sampling rates, and CD drives, most manufacturer claims do not translate into meaningful differences in sound. The differences lie more in how the output stage is voiced, and how it emphasizes one mix of sound characteristics over another.

One has to be very careful about what you really get in from spending a lot on a CD player – if you can’t afford the best. Marantz, NAD, and Oppo all make decent entry level players with good sound quality. I like the Cambridge players towards the top of mid-level players. Beyond that, you have to buy one of the extremely expensive “absolutist” products or you probably should not invest. Music servers and streaming audio devices with very good sound quality are coming onto the market as the future of audio and the high end, so that expensive, but less than state of the art, CD players may well be an exercise in built-in obsolescence. Many will be boat anchors in a few years. The high end is moving beyond them and so should you.

I will, however, still make a case for the Quad CDP-2 CD player. First, it is somewhat misnamed. It is both a CD player and a DAC with three optical and three digital inputs, and an optical output. This means you can use it to upgrade a computer server, and sharply reduces the obsolescence factor. Unlike most CD players, it has both a fixed and a variable analogue out – meaning you can use it to drive an amplifier directly if you can live without a balance control.

It is a fast loading and reliable unit, which seems to have very low jitter. It has a quite decent, full feature remote, and its programming features are no more counterintuitive than those of all of its competitors. Moreover, both it and the Quad 99 FM stereo tuner can be hooked up using the DB15 “Quadlink” cables to the Quad 99 preamp and Quad 909 amplifier. This option offers something like a cheap “balanced” connection where the remote control on the Quad 99 preamp can then control the entire system.9

9  But one again, the “Quadlink” cables that Quad supplies are too short for many purposes, and relatively thick and rigid. They also do not allow the use of a screwdriver to fasten them firmly into the socket – a feature common to virtually every DB15 cable available on the computer market.

However, what really counts is its sound quality and the Quad 99 CDP-2 makes an excellent match to the sonic nuances of the rest of the Quad electronics. It has the same unexaggerated warmth and level of sonic detail and micro dynamics as the Quad 99 preamp, and its voicing complements the Quad 2095 and 909 amp. It cannot deal with the problems in digital sound as well as far higher priced units, but its overall sound quality still offers very good value for money. It also has better than usual midrange and upper octave sound quality – even compared to other units with 192 kHz/24-bits and oversampling. Error correction was particularly good with both my damaged CDs and test CDs.

Quad 99 FM Stereo Tuner

I initially assumed that the Quad 99 FM tuner would be the virtual cipher in this review – an “okay tuner but who cares” entry in the long list of today’s forgettable tuners in an era where FM at best follows virtually every other media in sound quality except AM, and where high quality FM broadcasting is steadily eroded by creating mass marketed elevator music.

Wrong! The Quad provided to be more sensitive and good at rejecting mulitpath – at least in an urban environment – than I expected. It also was voiced with the same slight tilt toward warmth as other Quad electronics. A surprisingly good product, but the key question is do you have good enough FM broadcasts to care? For me, FM has become a largely voice media – WETA in Washington aside – and getting the full range of voice as well as the more esoteric music broadcasts now requires the ability to listen to FM HD broadcasts in most areas.

Good for music if your local FM music is good enough to care, but you’d be better off with a cheap Sony XDRF-1 tuner if you are more into news and voice and you don’t have an absolutely top FM station for music.

Summing Up

I suspect from my brief exchanges with Peter Walker at shows in years back that he might be amused by this review, and possibly even feel validated by it. Few people in audio have been as innovative in product design, but Peter made it very clear to anyone who talked to him that he was more focused on the music than on audio technology. He also seemed to regard the puritan extremes of high end – even in a much less extreme and costly era -- as a cult that combined many of the elements of a circus freak show with an asylum where the inmates were in charge.

I’ve have indulged in the search for the absolutes in sound at a technical level for far too long, and spent far too much money in the process, to not quality as such a “freak.” I also have to admit that I sometimes got lost in the asylum. At the same time, I’m still moderate enough to believe that the Quad system exemplifies an emphasis on musical realism with the vast majority of real world recordings and that it has a very real place in the high end.

Today’s Quad equipment may be made in China, but Quad has not lost Peter Walker’s emphasis on real-world musicality. The Quad 2905 is a superb speaker by any standard, and if it is combined with Quad electronics, it becomes a system that offers very natural sound with good recordings and the ability to quickly compensate for the worst aspects of ordinary ones. Moreover, what the sound of this Quad system provides is a warning that an era of high-resolution recordings must not become even more of an excuse to emphasize detail and information over musical realism. At the end of it all, the goal still has to be to make music sound as natural as possible.

SPECS & PRICING

99 Preamplifier
3 Aux & tape inputs
    Sensitivity: 100, 300 or 775 mV
    Signal-to-Noise-Ratio: ›97 dB (A) ref.775 mV
    Distortion: ‹0.002%
Phono inputs - MM (MC):
    Sensitivity: 1,3 or 7.75 mV (100, 300 or 775 uV)
    Signal-to-Noise-Ratio: 78 dB (A) ref.775 mV (775 uV)
    Distortion: ‹0.005% (‹0.01%)
Pre-Amp Output Level: 775 mV (3.3 volts maximum)
Source Impedance: 100 ohms
AMPBUS Output Level: 2 volts (8 volts maximum)
Source Impedance: 20 ohms
Tape Output Level: 100, 300 or 775mV (10V maximum)
Source impedance: 330 ohms
Frequency response All input except MM & MC:
    10 Hz to 20 kHz +0dB /- 0.3 dB
    3 Hz to 56 kHz +0dB/- 3 dB
MM & MC inputs
    20 Hz to 20 kHz +/- 0.5 dB
    7 Hz to 53 kHz +0.5dB/- 3 dB
Dimensions (H x W x D): 70mm x 321mm x 310mm
Price: $1,100

99 CDP CDP-2 Player
Maximum Line Output (RCA): 2.4V RMS
Max. Output Level (QuadLink): 5.3V RMS, Balanced
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz (+0dB/-0.5dB)
Total harmonic distortion (THD): 0.002% at 1kHz
Signal to noise ratio (S/N)
    110dB, 24bit (20Hz – 20kHz
    95dB, 16bit (20Hz – 20kHz
Crosstalk: -100dB at 1kHz
Gain Error: 0.5dB (@-90dB, f=500Hz)
Maximum resolution: 24 bit
Maximum Sampling frequency: 192kHz
Upsampling: x2
Digital Audio Inputs
    3 x RCA Coax 75ohm, SPDIF
    3 x Optical TosLink, SPDIF
Digital Audio Output: Optical TosLink SPDIF
Disc Compatibility
    CD-DA Conventional Audio CD
    CD-R Recordable CD (finalized & animalized)
    CD-RW Rewritable CD (finalized & animalized)
Dimensions: 80 x 321 x 310mm
Weight: 4.5kg
Price: $1,550

99 FM Tuner
Tuning range: 88 to 108 MHz
Channel spacing: 50 kHz
Sensitivity (30dB quieting): Mono 8 dBuV
Sensitivity (50dB quieting):
    Mono 18 dBuV
    Stereo 18 dBuV
Full limiting: <1 uV (1.2 dBf)
Signal-to-noise ratio (1mV, 1kHz)
    Mono 72 dB (A)
    Stereo 67 dB (A)
Distortion (1kHz, 25kHz deviation)
    Mono 0.03%
    Stereo 0.05%
Capture ratio: 1.5 dB
IF rejection: >100 dB
AM suppression: >60 dB
Image rejection: >80 dB
Pilot tone suppression: >60 dB
Cross-talk: -40 dB at 1 kHz
De-emphasis: 50 uS or 75 uS
Aerial input: 2 x 75 ohms un-balanced
Dimensions: (H x W x D): (70mm x 321mm x 310mm)
Price: $1,100

 

<h4>Reviewer Reference Stereo Systems</h4>

Dynavector 20X, Sumiko Celebration, and Koetsu Onyx Cartridges
VPI TNT HRX rim drive turntable and JMW 12.7 tone arm
Tact 2.2X digital preamp-room correction- equalizer-D/A converter
EMM Labs SACD/CD player
PS Audio Perfectwave transport and DAC
Pass XP-15 phono preamp
Pass XP20 stereo preamp
Quad 99 stereo preamp
Pass XA160.5 power amplifiers
Quad 909 power amplifier
Vandersteen 5A speakers
Quad 2905 Speakers
Modified McIntosh G5 and Ipod remote control acting as music server for Tact
Audioquest Niagara and K2 cables, Kimber Select, Transparent Audio Reference XL, and Wireworld Super Eclipse and Eclipse interconnects and digital cables.

QUAD ELECTROACOUSTICS LTD
IAG House, Sovereign Court, Ermine Business Park,
Huntingdon, Cambs, PE29 6XU
Tel :- 01480 447700, Fax :- 01480 431767
www.quad-hifi.co.uk

Importer: QUAD
310 Tosca Drive
Stoughton, MA 02072
Phone: 781 341 1234
Fax: 781 341 1228

www.taigallc.com
Email: info@taigallc.com