Quad 34 preamplifier Sam Tellig

Sam Tellig wrote about the Quad 34 in August 1985 (Vol.8 No.4):

"You bought Quads again!"

Now my son really thought the old man was nuts. In my last installment, I told you how I sold my Quad ESL-63 speakers. A little later, I sold my Quad 34 preamp and 405-2 power amp. Unlike the speakers, however, the 34 preamp and 405-2 power amp were two pieces of equipment I wished I hadn't sold...there are the tonal balance controls on the Quad 34 preamp. Prevailing orthodoxy says tone controls degrade the sound; avoid tone controls. If you like a poorly recorded performance, suffer; if you want listenable sound, buy audiophile records; if the performance isn't great, well, who cares anyway? Isn't that the attitude of a lot of the snots who sell high-end equipment?

It sure is, and they want nothing to do with the Quad 34 and 405-2. But if you have an extensive collection of older records, and if you find the shrillness of many CDs just plain unpleasant to listen to, then the Quad 34/405-2 may be just the combination for you. "At Quad, we listen to music, not product," sniffs Quad's Ross Walker, company founder Peter Walker's son, hardly disguising his disdain for those audiophiles who have it all backwards.

I'll describe the 34's tonal balance con™trols in a moment. By way of preface, I'll first tell you of the joys of owning Quad electronics. First, they look nice. The 34 preamp and 405-2 power amp are remarkably compact and good-looking. Second, they're beautifully built. Though not as lavishly put together as some all-out, price-no-object American preamps and power amps, parts quality is high, construction superb. Third, they are beautifully designed—a great deal of thought has gone into these products.

Moreover, Quad electronics are known for their reliability. And they are well- behaved. The controls on the 34 preamp function flawlessly and quietly; they have the feel of quality. Quad doesn't keep changing models, so there's no phony obsolescence. They do make changes from time to time (witness their recent upgrade of the 34), but Quad Quad owners are usually able to update their equipment easily and economically. In fact, Quad has been known to supply some updates free, on request, for those who feel comfortable servicing their own units. But here's the payoff: you probably won't want to trade your 34 or 405-2 for a new model next year or the year after, because there probably won't be one.

Ergonomically, Quad electronics are a delight. When you turn on the 34 preamp, you also turn on the 405-2 power amp; the two units function as one. The preamp always turns on with the Radio input engaged—this to avoid a loud turn-on transient. Four buttons select Radio, Phono, CD, or Tape. The buttons work silently with a light indicating the function selected. This encourages you to use the Radio or CD buttons as mute switches when playing records.

What makes the 34 preamp really special are the tonal balance controls—no other preamp has anything like them. Four high frequency rolloff settings give you any amount of treble cut you could wish for. These work wonders with older recordings, and also with CDs that might be otherwise unlistenable because of an unpleasant high end. ("Of course you need tone controls," Ross Walker says, gleefully. And he's right. Unless, of course, every recording you own is perfect.) Aside from the high-frequency filters, there is a knob called Tilt which allows you to pivot the frequency response around a center point just below 1kHz. Turn it one way to add warmth, another way to reduce it. Finally, a separate bass control gives you bass boost or bass reduction. You could use Tilt, for instance, to add warmth, then use the bass control to cut back the low bass. A few hours and you're an adept at the controls; they involve far less fuss than a conventional graphic equalizer.

How does the preamp sound? Very neutral, with what one British reviewer describes as a euphonic midrange. Highs are clearer and more crystalline than I remember on the original 34—very, very good. There is a good sense of front-to- back depth, and imaging stability is excellent. Overall, the 34 is not as detailed as a killer preamp like the Klyne, but it's no slouch. Personally, I find the Klyne too good for anything but the very best source material. With the 34, I can listen to the performance and avoid the recording's defects.

By the way, the 34 comes with separate moving-magnet and moving-coil input modules, and both are quite good. The moving-magnet section is one of the few I've encountered that can handle the Rega RB100 cartridge without overloading.

For me, the exciting thing about the 34/405-2 combination is that it offers a true alternative to typical hi-fi equipment. The equipment is beautifully built, handsomely designed, very reliable, and a triumph of ergonomics. Instead of questionable features and fashionable buzzwords, you get unusual features representing original thought and respect for the consumer. At $595 for the preamp and $650 for the power amp, the price isn't exactly cheap, but these units represent good value. And you won't feel stupid tomorrow for having bought them today.—Sam Tellig

ST returned to the Quad 34 in March 1987 (Vol.10 No.3):

The Quad 34 preamp ($595) has been on the market for about four years. By and large, audiophiles have not taken it seriously. (The ESL-63 speakers they do take seriously.) The preamp has . . . tone controls!

The usual audiophile stance is that tone controls degrade the sound. If the source material doesn't sound good without tone controls, you should seek source material that does. Unfortunately, many of the best performances are not particularly well-recorded, following Holt's Law: "The better the performance, the worse the sound."

It's a question of what comes first: the sound or the music (performance). If you put performance first, you may find the Quad 34's tone controls a Godsend. They can make older recordings, which sound shrill with most of today's audiophile preamps (tube or solid-state), sound listenable. Are the highs too strident? Roll them off with the high-frequency filters—which cut in at either 7kHz or 11kHz, with a steeper slope available at either setting.

There's also a bass control and something called "Tilt." No, this is not a pinball machine. You twist the tilt lever up to add warmth and reduce brightness, down to achieve the opposite. The tilt lever acts around a center point of around 1kHz.

The advantage of these unusual tone controls is that they are easy to use and they make musical sense. It's not at all like using a standard graphic equalizer, where there is a constant temptation to twiddle. With a little practice, you instinctively know where to turn the tilt and set the high-frequency filters. You can then forget about the controls and listen to the music—something very hard to do with an equalizer.

The 34 preamp sounds better than I last remembered. Perhaps improvements have been made over the last few years. Or maybe it's that the preamp now comes equipped with RCA plugs rather than DIN connectors—thus allowing you to use the interconnects of your choice.

The phono section of the 34 produces a wide, deep soundstage—no peculiar effects, but also no extension of the soundstage beyond the edges of the speakers. Imaging is very good, with instruments precisely located (this is one area where I think I hear an improvement over my original sample, no longer on hand). Detail, however, is another story. This is not one of the most transparent preamps I've encountered. In his original review of the 34, J. Gordon Holt talked of a euphonic "velvet fog;" it's still there, but less noticeable than before.

What's more troublesome, though, is a certain heaviness or muddiness of sound—an overripeness in the midbass that comes through even when playing CDs, and with amps other than the Quad 306. (Yes, the tilt control was set flat and the high-frequency filters switched off.) Cable changes did little or nothing to change the situation. I would have to wonder—conclude is too decisive a word—whether the Quad 34 is the most neutral of preamps. It is certainly not one of the most transparent, as a comparison with the Adcom GFP-555 preamp shows.

Like the 306 amp, the Quad 34 preamp excels in listenability. The sound does not put you on edge. It is smooth, creamy textured, and unfatiguing. Audiophiles looking for crisper, more crystalline and leaner sound had best look elsewhere, though—for instance to the Adcom GFP-555.

The Quad 34/306 combination, then, is highly recommended for certain people. Maybe you're one of them. The 34/306 combination sounds so nice that I'm tempted to give up all this audiophile nonsense, settle in with the Quad electronics, and just listen to music. And the combination looks so nice that you might forget that the Adcom GFP-555/GFA-535 combination costs a third less. If you're like many Quad aficionados and keep your equipment for 10 to 20 years, why worry about paying an extra $400 over the Adcom combo?

More than any other preamp/power amp combination, these products force you to decide who you are: audiophile or music lover. If you like big sound and lots of balls, you'll hate the Quad electronics. If you like delicate sound at moderate volume levels—especially if you listen to imperfect source material which can benefit from the Quad 34 preamp's tone control treatment—then you'll love the Quad stuff. Your move.—Sam Tellig

Quad ElectroAcoustics
US distributor: MoFi Distribution
1811 W Bryn Mawr Avenue
Chicago, IL 60660
(269) 262-1612

volvic's picture

Still do, one day maybe will get that with a 306 or 405-II as well as my other must have a Tandberg pre/power amp combo. Yes, they (Quad's) don't sound great but they are built to last and the design and ergonomics I think are beautiful.

spacehound's picture

That Mr Holt used it with the 405 amplifier, which is woolly, confused, and muddy. Used with a better amplifier the sound of the preamp is uncoloured and clear. Though I never found the tone controls and 'Tilt' very useful.

I purchased mine new in the 1980s and still use it, seeing no reason to change. I use it with a modern Naim NAP250 and it is fine, though I have modified it slightly to give a 2 volt output (500 mV was the DIN standard and used by many European suppliers).

Incidentally I am amused by the 'New, outstandingly modern technology' of the Devaliet amps. The Devaliet is just a Quad 405 'current dumping' amplifier with Quad's Class A/B power section replaced by an equally crude and inaccurate PCM power section. It's the little Class A part in both of them that does the real work and I have no doubt that Devaliet got the idea from the old Quad.

In the UK they were not supplied with any MC input card, that was an extra, so you did not waste money on a 'standard supplied' one you might not use or on which the sensitivity was not what you wanted.

Quad made a nice matching FM tuner too.

To volvic. Buy the 34, it will be fine and they are not expensive. But I wouldn't bother with the 405. If you want a nice matching look the FM tuner is not expensive either and is fine, though it's no Sequerra.