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The Quad 99 Preamplifier and 909 Amplifier

With a Midrange This Right, How Could You Go Wrong?

Dan Dzuban

16 August 2002

Specifications

Quad 99 Preamplifier
Sensitivity: Aux & tape inputs 100, 300 or 775 mV, Phono inputs -MM (MC) 1, 3 or 7.75 mV
Distortion: Aux & tape inputs <0.002%, Phono inputs -MM (MC)<0.005%(<0.01%) Frequency response: Aux & tape inputs 10 Hz to 20 kHz +/-0.3 dB (3 Hz to 56 kHz +/-3 dB), Phono inputs -MM (MC) 20 Hz to 20 kHz +/-0.5 dB (7 Hz to 53 kHz +/-3 dB)
Pre-Amplifier output: 775 mV (3.3V maximum)
Tape output level: 100,300 or 775mV(10V max)
Retail: $999

909 Stereo Power Amplifier
Maximum Power Output 140 WRMS at 8 ohms (0.5% THD)
250 WRMS at 4 ohms (0.5% THD)
Maximum Output Current 11 Amps peak each channel
Total Harmonic Distortion <0.02% (100 watts into 8 ohms; 20 Hz to 20 kHz)
Input Sensitivity (phono) 775 mV
Output Impedance 1.5 µH parallel with 0.05 ohms
DC offset voltage less than 10 mV
Frequency Response 13 Hz to 40 kHz (+0dB/-1dB)
Crosstalk at 1 kHz -90dB
Signal-to-noise ratio (70w)>108 dB (20 Hz to 20 kHz)
Retail: $1499

Address:
Distributed in the US by:
IAG America
15 Walpole Park South
Walpole, MA 02081
Telephone: 508-850-3950
Website: www.iagamerica.com

Don't you mean Quad "Electrostatics?"

Quad is most known in the U.S. for its legendary series of electrostatic loudspeakers. However, they have been producing electronics for more than 40 years, and their products have attained an almost cult-like loyal following. The stuff's got a reputation for tonal accuracy and an overall musical sound. American audiophiles, however, can't seem to get past the equipment's quirky styling and mediocre imaging capabilities. Well, at risk of showering it with damning praise-Quad finally fixed the imaging problem. What we have now is a preamplifier and amplifier pair that is musical, is a true high-end thoroughbred, has excellent build quality, is very reasonably priced… and has, well, quirky styling.

When I say quirky styling, I don't mean ugly styling, just quirky when compared to the usual 17" or so by 12" black and silver boxes. The 99 is roughly 12" wide by 12" deep by 2" high. The 909 is roughly 12" wide, 10" deep and 5" high. Both are finished in a semi-gloss gray with satin silver faceplates. The 99's display and buttons are dark blue. Although I would have preferred some shade of dark gray for the buttons, the blue is not at all obnoxious-just different. The 99 seems pretty light for a component, yet the metal casing is relatively thick and it is extremely well built. In fact, I would have liked to have opened it up to check out its parts quality, but there are virtually no seams and no apparent structural screws. In contrast, the 909 feels like a solid brick of metal. It has a satisfying hefty compactness and feels like it is a continuously cast piece of metal. For some reason it reminds me of Boulder equipment with its beveled edges with beefy, die-cast heat sinks. The 909 has a contrasting band of silver metal around it, which makes it quite attractive, but unlike the unit's otherwise solidity, the band makes an unexpected hollow "plink" when tapped.

Quad's decision on the styling of their electronics makes sense if you think about them in terms of them being "lifestyle" components; i.e., electronics that are meant to fit unobtrusively into a décor rather than dominate it. Indeed, the Quad's small size and quirky style would make them an excellent mini system to be stacked neatly on a table or shelf. Quad even includes a balanced "QuadLink" bus cable to minimize the amount of cabling behind the electronics.

But for us audiophiles, this would be selling the Quads short. Instead, the Quads must be treated like the audiophile components that they are; don't stack 'em, use your favorite tweaked tiptoes or supports, use audiophile approved cabling, and of course ditch the stock power cables. Interestingly, the Quads will default to single ended cable connection even when the QuadLink is left plugged in. This way you can use the 99's remote to turn off the 909 as well. But what this also did was show me how much better audiophile cables sound than the supplied QuadLink; one of my single ended connections became loose, and the left channel defaulted to the QuadLink. The sound stage deflated in size and nearly drove me crazy until I could figure out what happened. Upon extended comparison, even budget Kimber PBJ bested the QuadLink in every aspect.

The 99 Preamplifier

The preamp is remotely controlled with a large fluorescent green digital readout of source and volume. The remote covers all of the 99's functions, but it is covered in rows of anonymous buttons, which are nearly impossible to keep straight in the dark. The pre has loads of features, some useful and others not so much so. Kind of like the Coelacanth and the full-sized spare tire, the 99 is equipped with something nearly extinct, an inboard phono preamp. I understand that it is of pretty high quality, but since I am a child of the digital age, I cannot vouch for it other than to mention its existence. The 99 also has its own version of tone controls. I couldn't get an answer as to whether they switch out of the circuit when not in use, but I think they do, since I could detect their presence in the form of a bit of veiling when used, and because the EQ switch must be turned on in order to use any of the equalization settings. The Bass Boost switch muddied the midrange, so I never used it. The "Spectral Tilt" feature was a closer call. It supposedly keeps the midrange as a fulcrum, while simultaneously increasing or decreasing the treble and bass respectively. This is supposed to keep the midrange intact while addressing the great interaction that the dipolar Quad ESLs have with a listening room. I didn't always like what Spectral Tilt did to the sound, but the gradations of change were subtle and really made a difference as I moved the ESLs around my room. Since dipoles are notoriously dependant upon room acoustics, I am tempted to say that dipole owners might want to try out the 99, if for nothing else, just for the Spectral Tilt feature.

The 909 Amplifier

The 909 amp is a high-current design that delivers 140 watts into 8 ohms and 250 into 4. The 909's Current Dumping circuit is similar to the Nelson Pass Threshold Stasis circuit, which I have heard referred to as one of the best sounding circuits ever created. I am a little fuzzy on the specific differences between the two but basically the concept is analogous to using two different grades of sandpaper; within each channel of a single 909 amplifier, a "rough amplifier" provides the muscle to drive a speaker, and then another "finishing amplifier" provides error correction to create a summed signal of high accuracy. I was unable to determine whether there was any other type of feedback applied to the circuit, which is relevant because Quad ESLs do not interact well with solid-state amplifiers with large amounts of global negative feedback. Audiophiles typically don't like the sound of such feedback either, so perhaps the 909's sound is influenced by a mandate to avoid traditional feedback methods. Whatever the engineering reasoning, the sonic result is a success.

The Sound

The overall sound of the 99 pre and 909 amp together was very balanced and neutral. The pair were completely unfatiguing without being overtly smooth-which may be attributed to the 909's lack of traditional feedback. There were no specific sonic artifacts to interrupt my listening, nor could I ever hear any colorations at any point in the spectrum. From memory, the combo had the neutrality of the Chord SPM 3200 preamp and CPM 3000C amplifier combo I had at one time in my system. However, the Chord combo had an effortlessly dynamic bottom end and a lot more air on the top.

The Quad pair did not have the deep bass or the upper treble of the Chords - which is my segue to the most important aspect of the pair's personality; the focus seems to be on midrange performance. For example, the Quad combo has an amazing ability to extract a lot of detail from a recording. As we all know by now, it is very difficult to walk the line between resolution and harshness. This pair walks the line as well as almost any combo has ever done at this price. Its performance would not raise any eyebrows if it were coming from a $10,000 combo (or $16,000 for the Chord combo). But Quad chose an interesting way to walk this fine line: the pair's resolution capabilities are not uniform throughout the spectrum. Resolution is often glossed over in reviews as applying to a component as a whole. The Quad system is a perfect example on why this is often a generalization.

The Quads possess world-class resolution in the midrange. The highs and lows are not lacking per se, but it is clear that they are not in the same league as the mids. It is like getting Levinson performance, but in the midrange only. This is an interesting situation. Conventional wisdom says that if you get the mids right, all else will be OK, so maybe, for the price, this is the best of tradeoffs. In this case, you don't get that sense of effortless bass dynamics or infinite high-end air. Yet, there is no obvious roll-off and there is no fatiguing edge. Instead you get a sonic spotlight on vocals and live instruments rather than the more common focus on room acoustic, ambiance and bass slam. You get…music. The sound is tonally neutral, meaning you still have the highs and lows, but they simply do not stand out as clearly as midrange sounds. The end result literally sounds as though you are seeing performers in a dark room illuminated with an individual spotlight on each performer. In contrast, the Bel Canto Evo 200.4 illuminated the performers, the wall behind them, and every nook and cranny in between - which created a better illusion of the acoustic space. Perhaps the Quad's performance can simply be characterized as having an "up front" midrange, but I don't think it is that simple. No part of the spectrum seems prominent or recessed in terms of quantity or placement. It is just that midrange details are simply easier to follow. Soundstaging freaks may not like this characteristic of the Quad system, yet being one myself, I was still impressed by how starkly performers stood out in my room. I suspect that a music lover who is more interested in the musical performance than in audiophile attributes would be pretty impressed.

I had initially attributed this midrange "spotlight" phenomenon to the Quad ESLs, because my Magnepan SMGcs seemed to reconstruct the room acoustic better than the ESLs. I tend to think that the Quad electronics and electrostatics do indeed share a bit of the same design priorities with regard to the focus on midrange performance (which is probably a safe design philosophy.) However, the ESLs possess less of this midrange focus than the electronics. This became clear with the substitution of the Bel Canto amp because the change in room acoustics was much more dramatic than even switching the Quad 989s for the Maggies.

The preamp and the amp share the same general signature, but I think it is the 909 amp that has a bit more of this midrange resolution. The 99 pre seems to possess resolution more in the general sense, throughout the entire spectrum. For example, I experimented with running the Sharp DX-SX1 SACD player directly into the Bel Canto Amp by using the Sharp's volume control. This resulted in a voluminous sound stage where no performer or instrument seemed more detailed than the rest of the picture. This is not meant to say that this combo did not produce defined images, because damn, did it. I did not have another preamp on hand for direct comparison, but when I reinserted the 99 between the Sharp and Bel Canto, I could not hear much, if any at all, loss in fidelity. It seems like there may have been a smidgen more resolution with the Sharp running directly into the Bel Canto, but I just can't say for certain. The catch is that without another preamp I also couldn't be absolutely certain that the Quad didn't sound completely transparent because I cannot vouch for the quality of the Sharp's variable outputs over its fixed ones. When I ran the Sharp directly into the 909, it did not sound very different, if at all, than the Sharp into the 99 pre, then into the 909.

The 99/909 combo preferred music that plays into its strengths. For example on Sade's Love Deluxe [Epic EK53178], the 909 ceded control of the deep synthesized beat found in many of the songs; they were not as taut as I have heard elsewhere. Similarly, at moderate to loud volumes, electronica such by Moby or Dirty Vegas did not have the rhythmic punch it needed - instead some of the bass lines were consistently blurred. I don't know if that is a weakness of the amp or whether it was simply a limitation of a 140 Wpc amp. I found that both the Quad ESL-989 and Magnepan SMGc need a lot more wattage to come alive than what is typically suggested for them. I suspect that for bass heavy music, the 909 is just does not enough power even for its own brethren the ESL-989, and unfortunately I did not have other speakers on hand that would have been a better match for the 909's power rating. Sade's Diamond Life [Portrait RK39581] does not have as much bass as Love Deluxe, and the 99/909 combo sailed through spotlighting Sade's voice in all of its glory. Similarly, Alison Krauss' Now That I've Found You: A Collection [Rounder CD 0325] sounded stunning; Krauss' voice stood out starkly from the background, as did each of the acoustic instruments when it was their time to shine. It seems axiomatic that equipment that excels in midrange reproduction would excel in reproducing music with predominantly midrange content, but to actually hear the 99/909 with vocals or acoustic instruments defines what it means to "get the midrange right."

Conclusion

It is clear that the Quad 99 and 909 offer a terrific synergy, but it is still difficult to pin down which one is the better value. The 99 preamp is overall more neutral, and at $1000, is quite a bargain in that it does so little wrong by just plain getting the music right. Moreover, I was impressed by how well the 99 acquitted itself in the company of much more expensive components. Add in the convenience of a remote, a phono stage, and the Spectral Tilt feature and what else is there in the high-end market that competes with it? At $1500, the 909 amplifier is in much more competitive territory. There are many excellent amps at or about that price, and certainly many possessing better treble extension or deep bass authority, but I would imagine few that have the 909's midrange performance. So it is a question of where your musical priorities lie.

If you are a music lover without the audiophile gene and you set up the 99 and 909 right out of the box to pair them with a set of those miniature Gallo speakers, you will have a Bose-crushing, stylish-but-minimalist, lifestyle system for background music. On the other hand, if you are an audiophile and you treat the Quads as the high-end components that they are, you will be suitably rewarded. Give 'em first rate interconnects, power cords and vibration control and you will have an attainable system that performs way out of its pricepoint, bested by few at any price with superb neutrality, resolution and unfatiguing musicality and a midrange on par with the best of the best. The best bass slam and treble air? No, but perhaps more high-end designers should forget about these goals and concentrate on achieving the midrange that the engineers at Quad have.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quad 99 Preamplifier and 909 Amplifier