Quad II Classic monoblock power amplifier Page 2
One other quibble: The feet of the Quad II Classic are self-stick domes, applied to the removable underpanel in place of the bolted-on originals. I wouldn't mind, except that the new ones seem to migrate a little after the amp gets warm and their adhesive loosens up.
I intended to borrow a pair of early Quad II amps, to use as a basis of comparison for this review—but I made the mistake of waiting until the last minute, and the loan fell through. Although it hasn't been too long since the last time I listened to the original, all I have to go on is a memory, albeit a good one.
The Quad II Classics were easier to install than the average modern tube amp, given their lightish weight and all-around good behavior: Not once during their time in my system did they exhibit the slightest hum, crackle, or other untoward noise, and they ran warm but not excessively so. Of course, the IIs contain no relays or delay circuits of any kind, so their tubes begin warming up at once—although the amps sounded their best only after 15 minutes or so. As to running them in, I thought the IIs seemed a bit uninteresting at first, but after about a week of steady use they really blossomed, their sound taking on a great deal more texture and nuance.
I began my serious listening with Classic Records' LP reissue of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony playing Strauss's Ein Heldenleben (RCA Living Stereo LSC-1807), one of those rare classical recordings that leaves me wondering why anyone would want to hear a different version when this one is so deeply thought-out, well played, and very well recorded and mastered. I was rewarded at once by a quality of sound that would become the Quads' hallmark during their stay, and which Quad II aficionados before me have confirmed many times over: There isn't a sweeter-sounding amplifier on earth. In particular, the Quads offered up volumes and volumes of beautiful, richly textured string sound, even going so far as to make Reiner's Chicago strings sound like the Boston Symphony strings of the same era: more burnished and bronzy, and absolutely gorgeous. On the down side, I couldn't help but notice some overhang in the lowest octaves: Notes played by the double basses, cellos, and even the lowest horns weren't as quick to stop as they should have been. And compared with the Lamm ML2.1 single-ended monoblocks, there was a slight but curious lack of focus—spatially, I mean, and not in the sense of pitch.
But the Quad II Classic's real métier was small-scale classical music. Were you to visit a Quad dealer with a bit of headroom in your credit-card account and a good recording of Beethoven's Septet in E-flat Major, Op.20 (footnote 4) and if you happen to audition that piece with a pair of Quad IIs and the Quad electrostatic speakers of your choice, I dare say you'll be bringing some new equipment home that day. In my experience, the amps' bass thickness didn't hurt the sound of Johann Krump's double bass in the least, and in fact added to the instrument's pleasant thrumming. The Quad IIs also endowed winds and strings alike with believable texture and presence. It was like the sonic equivalent of some unspeakably beautiful portrait; I simply couldn't take my ears off the sound.
The same could be said of the Quad II's almost peerless tone while playing the famous Juilliard String Quartet recording of Schubert's Quartet in d, D.810, "Death and the Maiden" (RCA Living Stereo LSC-2378)—or even Paul Goodwin and English Chamber Orchestra's recording of Elgar's bittersweet Elegy (CD, Harmonia Mundi HMU 907258). On those and other works like them, the Quad amplifiers consistently reached the highest level of timbral beauty, of solid believability in a spatial sense, and of deep emotional involvement overall. If that's your music, you needn't look much further.
Of course, if rock'n'roll accounts for more than a little of your listening pleasure, you may want to think twice. Mott the Hoople's great "Jerkin' Crocus" (from All the Young Dudes, Columbia 65184) sounded a bit bogged down, the electric bass line robbed of the snap that otherwise enables it to drive the song. (On the other hand, Verden Allen's unique Hammond organ style never came across better.) The same thing happened with Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years" (Can't Buy a Thrill, ABC ABCX758): While I enjoyed basking in the fullness of the sustained bass note at the end of every verse, there was too much sustain throughout the song to prevent that repeated line from tripping over itself, especially in the chorus.
But the slow bass was just that: slow bass—and there were no temporal problems I could hear throughout the rest of the spectrum. The version of Jimmy Martin's "Hit Parade of Love" on the recent LP Don't Cry to Me (Thrill Jockey THRILL145), where the sound of the distantly miked double bass is merely a suggestion, had all the momentum it needed, and every instrument sounded tight and snappy: a very involving reproduction through the Quad IIs. Similarly, the wonderful "China My China," from Eno's second solo album, Taking Tiger Mountain (LP, Island ILPS 9309), driven as it is by Eno's churning, stacked guitars, was great fun (and the typewriter solo never sounded better!). I couldn't help but wonder, How many English kids sneaked the LP onto their fathers' Quad systems in 1974 and heard it the way I did today? However many, I imagine the experience was transcendent—except now that I've had it myself, I needn't merely imagine.
A note about power: I have two Quad owner's manuals in front of me right now, one being the booklet I got when I bought my own pair of Quad ESL-989 loudspeakers, the other having arrived with the new Quad amps. The former suggests that Quad's electrostatic loudspeakers require an amplifier output between 20V and 30V (approximately 50–100Wpc, varying with impedance), and the latter says that a Quad II Classic amplifier can pass no more than 15 undistorted watts across an 8-ohm load. Are the two products incompatible? Not as far as I'm concerned. At the sane, realistic listening levels I prefer, the combination was nothing short of lovely in my 12' by 18' listening room. And while the single-ended and similarly powered Lamm ML2.1 amps had audibly more dynamic ease—or greater dynamic acceleration, if you will—I never heard the Quad amps go into obvious distortion: a bit of "soft" compression, yes, but clipping, no.
Have you ever had a dream that you could fly—or that your old sports car was right there in your garage all along, or that you still had all your hair? I've had all of them, but whatever pleasure they bring is more than canceled out when I wake up and find it isn't so. (I guess that's unbalanced push-pull.) The nice thing about the Quad II Classic—the lovely and almost giddy thing about it—is that the experience doesn't seem to require waking up. To live with these amps for a while is to know why some adults move back to their childhood neighborhoods, or why we think of certain foods—grilled-cheese sandwiches? mashed potatoes and gravy? cornstarch and suet?—as comfort foods: For all their faults in the context of here and now, the Quad II is the angel we do know. It's beautiful, it's true to the original, and it has more than a little soul.
I don't know if you remember or not, but back in 1996, Quad released a limited-edition Anniversary version of the Quad II—a vastly more expensive thing that differed from the original in some ways that couldn't have been helped, and a few that could. The Quad II Anniversary was a quality product, but it was like consoling a pop music lover who missed the Beatles the first time around by giving him a brand-new XTC album: very nice in its own right, but not really the same thing. For its part, the new Quad II Classic is like finding a wormhole in the time-space continuum and going back to the Cavern Club of 1962. Or, to paraphrase Ken Kessler paraphrasing Quad themselves, this is the closest approach to the closest approach. Go buy a pair of these, use a bit of nail-polish remover on a cotton ball to remove the silk-screening, and live it up—life is brief, and second chances are thin on the ground.
Footnote 2: Published in 2004 by International Audio Group, Ltd., Huntingdon, England. Available in the US only from authorized Quad dealers, and from IAG America ($79.99 plus shipping).
Footnote 3: In true Quad fashion, the original nameplate wasn't just a decoration: Its mounting screws served the additional function of fastening the mounting clamp for an old-style reservoir cap.
Footnote 4: I like the one recorded in 1959 by members of the Vienna Octet, which the vinyl specialists at King Records recut from the original Decca a few years ago and issued as KIJC 9111.