The Sound Quest SQ-84 V-2 is an updated and improved version of the original integrated amplifier that Enjoy the Music.com’s Scott Faller reviewed favorably (click here). Scott found the original version excelled on tonality. It favored ‘making music’ over the more familiar audiophile presentation that fixes attention more on detail, resolution and transparency. I have not heard the original version and so cannot comment on what Scott and other reviewers have reported hearing. The designers of the SQ-84 obviously felt that they were on to something and were encouraged by the positive response to their initial efforts. At the same time they found some of the concerns voiced by reviewers worth attending to and turned their attention to upgrading the original design. If my two months of listening to the integrated are any indication, the new version is even better than the original.
This leaves my second system located in the living room of my apartment in New York City. For a New York apartment, the living room is surprisingly large in part because it opens to the dining room (alcove) and the front hallway. The concepts of ‘dining room’ and ‘hallway’ have distinct meanings in the context of a New York City apartment. They are defined spaces by name only. I have not put as much attention to optimizing a system in my apartment since I rarely spend time in the city with the intention of focusing on listening to recorded music. To the extent the arts occupy my residential life in New York it is the visual arts: paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture. Music is not quite an afterthought; it does rank above watching television, but just barely. Most of my time in NYC is spent outside the apartment and the apartment is as much a place for my children to hang out with my wife and me as it is a place for adult interests.
I shift back and forth between the DeVores and the Quads and when I do I replace the Montile with a Radford RTA – 15. The Radford was designed to mate with the Quads, which it does quite well. On the other hand, the Radford has so much gain and global negative feedback – the standard solution for managing the Quad’s nearly unbearable load – it makes a poor match for most preamplifiers. Sigh. This is the nature of high-end audio isn’t it? Solve one problem and in doing so create a couple of new ones.
Which brings us to my time with the SQ-84 V-2.
My first conversations with Stephen Monte of Quest for Sound, manufacturer and distributor of Sound Quest components began with sharing my thoughts on the Raysonic CD player that he distributes here in the states. The much admired Raysonic player is a genuine high value component, a concept that does not normally figure prominently in the items I review. Stephen suggested that I might want to hear other similar high value components, in particular the SQ 84 V-2 that he was especially fond of. The thought of hearing a system built entirely around high value components appealed to me, and the fact that Enjoy the Music.com had previously committed to doing a follow-up on the new version sealed the deal. I had none of the reviews of the earlier version of the integrated and once having agreed to review the new one I resolved not to read them until I had formed my own judgment of the second iteration of it.
I further resolved that when it arrived, I would pair the SQ-84 V-2 with the Raysonic and the DeVore 8s. The DeVore 8s are voiced to provide a satisfying tonal balance by the way of a nice bump in the mid bass reminiscent of the BBC series of LS35A monitors. A hump and a bump that was missing, for example, in Jim Rogers JR 149 speakers that employed the same drivers and produced a more accurate sound but one that I found a bit harder to love. The original DeVore 8s remain one of the more enjoyable, easy on both the ears and pocketbook, two way floor-standing loudspeakers I am aware of. While lacking some of the resolution and high frequency resolution and extension of the Super 8s, the originals strike a musically satisfying balance among the full range of audiophile and music-lover values: timing, flow, dynamics, resolution, transparency, soundstaging and so on. The integrated lacks a phono stage and so I confined my listening to the digital domain. Listening to digital in my apartment is the norm, but doing so critically and for review purposes is not. Things change.
Enter The SQ-84-V-2
There are two RCA inputs and the amp features 4,8 and 16 ohm taps that I found very useful in mating the amp with the speakers I had on hand. The SQ-84-V2 also has a headphone jack switch that automatically disconnects the speakers and turns the unit into a tube headphone amp. I don’t use headphones and so I was unable to test this feature of the amp. The reviews of the first version of the amp suggest that it makes for a terrific headphone amp, and I have no reason to think that the V-2 version would be any different in this regard. If that were not enough, there is a volume control (albeit a very flimsy one), which I tested (it worked), but did not employ. Four Sound Quest Iso feet are included. (I found no change in performance when using them under the amp and did all my critical listening without them.)
Once I unpacked the amp, I removed the Shindo electronics, interconnects and A-23 speaker cable from the system and replaced the lot of them with the integrated and JAS Zion interconnects, power cord (for the amp) and speaker cable that Monte is fond of with Sound Quest electronics. They performed very well in the context of the system under review and strike me as worthy of further investigation on their own. As is my custom, I connected the components and kept everything playing at various volumes for several days paying no attention to sound and giving no thought to critical listening. After a week of settling in, I was ready to set the system up for sustained critical listening.
Could The Little Integrated That Could Do?
To get the best sound from the system I had to fiddle a bit with placement of the speakers. They needed to be further into the room and somewhat closer together than is the norm with the Montile. While the Sound Quest could not match the Montile for subtlety and nuance, it displayed a genuine musical soul. The character of the sound was reminiscent of what I associate with the mid priced British Audio Note electronics. I mean that as a compliment. The emphasis is on musicality, tonal rightness and a relaxed but moderately dynamic presentation. The amp is not the final word in either resolution or detail and the bottom end while weighty and full is not as well-defined as one would expect from the very best amplifiers. The ways in which this integrated amplifier falls short simply did not matter to my appreciation of the music. In listening sessions, one’s attention is not drawn to what the amp does not do so much as the focus in on what it does do. It sounds right. It is as detailed as it needs to be; as dynamic as it needs to be; as alive and resolute as it needs to be. Needs to be in what sense? In order to convey the musical message: nothing more, nothing less.
After listening to the amp for a month I had the sense that the amp would make for a welcome companion in a wide range of systems. One wouldn’t mate it with extremely resolving components; it wouldn’t be up to them in terms of resolution. On the other hand one would not want to mate the amp with less than reasonably refined and revealing loudspeakers. The essential rightness of the amp reminded me of the way I felt about the Naim Nait 5 preamp. If one is ambitious for one’s system, one moves beyond the Naim Nait 5. But if one is happy to hear good music, consistently well presented, there is no point in doing so. This is the impression I had of the Sound Quest integrated. It is just right for what it does. You cannot ask it to be what it is not; yet you should never sell it short.
At this point, the only amp I had in house was the Montile. My experience with the Montile/Quad combination was surprisingly satisfying. The Quad has a very tube friendly impedance in the lower frequencies mated to an impedance dip in the upper registers that is a nightmare for most tube amplifiers. The net effect is a lot of energy in the lower frequencies through the midrange and a serious steep roll off thereafter. The sound from tube amps with the Quads is therefore often lush, full, rich and dark: chocolaty in both the good and bad sense. The Montile did better than that. While the sound was on the darker side and the tonal balance shifted down somewhat (both to be expected), it was not unnaturally fat, bloated or leaden. Pace, timing and rhythmic flow were very good. On the other hand, the leading edge of notes from the upper midrange on up was blunted somewhat and the sound was more rounded and less resolved overall. Like all Shindo amplifiers (save one) the Montile is designed for speakers presenting a friendly load and the fact that the Quad does not was revealed in the match between them. If I was planning on keeping the Quads (and I was), I would have to find an amp that made for a more appropriate match.
I thought there was nothing to lose in throwing the Sound Quest to the wolves and paired the little integrated with the Quads. The Quads impedance ranges from roughly 64 ohms in the bass to 2 Ohms in the upper frequencies: not a smooth or flat frequency response. The SQ amp has three tap options and my thought was that the 16 Ohm tap would provide the best match. To that point, I had yet to hear a classic tube amp that did not feature gobs of global negative feedback sound right with the Quads, and so my expectations were not high. As it happens I was in for a very pleasant surprise.
The Quad 57 is rightly praised for its midrange transparency and neutrality. On the other hand, the Quads impose a very strong hand on the sound. It is not so much that the speaker edits as it is the fact that it has a very distinctive sonic character. Unlike the very best high sensitivity horn loudspeakers (I favor) that allow one to hear the most subtle differences among upstream components, the Quads minimize differences by imposing their distinctive character on the sound.
The Quads do not call for a highly refined, expensive tube amplifier; they demand one that can control their load. Historically, amps form Leak and Radford control the speaker well and allow it to impose its distinctive breathtakingly lovely and seductive signature on the presentation. Leaks, Radfords and a few others aside, the fact is that very few classic tube amps are up to the task. Still, many listeners prefer the Quads with tubes of all sorts, but I don’t. Too often, the sound is overly warm and inadequately incisive and revealing. There is no denying its musicality, pleasantness or ‘naturalness’ but it lacks insight and energy.
The new rage in tube amplifiers seems to be designing them so that they are capable of handling the same inefficient speakers that are normally the province of solid state amps. Some designers have taken this to new heights (or depths depending on one’s attitude) by increasing the capacity of lower powered tube amps featuring 300B output tubes to handle more complicated loads. There is no question that at least some of them have attained their stated ambitions, but to my ears at least, they have done so often at the cost of casting a glassy edge over the sound; the net result is a tube sound that makes one long for some familiar dark sounding transistor amp – if only to take the edge off and tone the spotlight down. There is no doubt that one can design tube amplifiers – even lower powered ones – to handle complicated loads on a par with solid state amps. The question is why do so. Why make tubes perform like solid state amps if the cost of doing so is to have them sound worse than solid state amps. I have always thought that the better solution is to return to making speakers that work well with well-designed tube amplifiers. This can be done, but it is harder to do if one insists on narrow front baffle speakers that seek to cover the frequency range from 20 Hz to beyond 20 kHz. Give me a wide baffle /two way speaker that goes from 45 Hz to around 15 kHz any day.
The situation Quads present for solid-state amps is no better. With the rare exception of the toaster hot Class A Bedini 25/25 (and others of its ilk) and the ASR (designed to drive Martin Logan CLZ electrostatics and coming in at over 20K), transistors are even less happy than tubes to find that that they have been asked to the dance by a lovely pair of Quad 57s. Many is the transistor amp that has come to a sad end when paired with a recalcitrant Quad 57.
It was against this background that I pushed the SQ amp into service. It proved to be unforeseeable fortuity as the little integrated that could prove to be an exceptional match for the demanding speaker. I was initially taken aback by how comfortable the SQ amp seemed to be. Music flowed with ease. The presentation fell perfectly between the somewhat overly incisive take I had heard before when listening to the Quads with a very modern, technically superb but musically challenged tube design and the inadequately resolved presentation of classic tube amps. The sound was full, but not bloated. The bass was not taut, but it was not plumy either. It was rounded and provided what seemed like the right weight and authority for the music at hand. Vocals were superb. The top end was slightly truncated and the leading edges of notes ever so slightly blunted, but the little integrated worked to provide insight into the musical presentation.
This was true on the smaller jazz ensemble pieces and the chamber pieces that are the staple of the Quads. What caught my attention first was its way with musical performances as diverse as Jason Moran’s piano trio, and Sutherland and Pavarotti’s Rigoletto. In each case, the amp/speaker combination (within the limits of both) provided a convincing reproduction that not only was a joy to listen to, but emotionally persuasive and musically convincing. The tonal balance was natural and even-handed (I don’t take the notion of neutrality in music reproduction seriously and am in any event unpersuaded that it is a virtue). More importantly, the sound was adequately incisive. By that I mean that it was revealing enough to convey the artist’s musical intention and detailed enough to allow me to follow particular themes and to focus in on particular players as I saw fit. Together, the SQ and Quad combination kept the music together as a fully resolved hole while allowing me the opportunity to listen in a more focused way to particular aspects of the presentation as the occasion warranted.
To be honest, I worried that I was getting a bit carried away in my praise of the combination and so I played the system to everyone who came to my apartment. This was a varied crowd, which included my family (of musicians), artists, audio-geeks, and the unitiated. The reaction was uniform and it was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone loved the sound and not just on the Quad staples. The sound was least convincing, as expected, on rock and large orchestral pieces and best on chamber music and small jazz ensembles; but it was more right than wrong with everything. More than that, it made folks want to listen – intently and not just in passing.
The real treat was its way with the Quads. In that context its limitations had little impact on the sound. Quads are not the most dynamic speakers and they are prone to round everything off a bit anyway. What impressed me most was that the SQ could control the Quad and allow them to flourish. The SQ is among the very best overall matches with the Quads that I have heard. Since returning it to Quest for Sound, I purchased the Radford, which is designed for Quads. To be honest, I am not sure which presentation I prefer overall. The Radford has a grip on the Quads that the SQ is not capable of. In addition it is a more incisive and powerful amp and one hears more of leading edge of the upper frequencies with the Radford than one does with the SQ. On the other hand, the Radford teeters of being a bit too commanding and revealing by comparison with the SQ. The SQ revealed the beauty that lurks in every Quad 57 without romanticizing it unduly. It was more even handed and listener friendly.
The SQ-84-V-2 is not just the little integrated that could; it is the little integrated that did. This is a genuine bargain that can be the centerpiece of a digital only system. Mate it with speakers as good as the DeVore 8s and a musical and adequately resolving CD player of your choice, and you will be a happy listener. If you own a pair of Quad 57s and like everyone else who does is looking to find the right match at a reasonable price, give it a listen. This little integrated is a real find.