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Quad II Reissue Preamp Reviewed

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HTR Product Rating

Performance
3 Stars
Value
3 Stars
Overall
3 Stars

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Hey, we couldn't have scripted a more outrageous tale, one which rivals for its stops, starts and convolutions. For its lunacy. For its preposterousness. Most of all, for its supremacy as an act of wishful thinking. And it happened exactly as follows, just so future audio historians can't practice any revisionism...

Meanwhile, sometime last year, it was decided that we would mark the passage of time with a display of vintage hi-fi equipment, a mouthwatering collection of products which reflect the evolution of the audio industry since 1956. Independent of the celebrations, we'd been planning to relaunch 'The Anachrophile' and I had been involved in refurbishing my own hi-fi museum, so the projects went hand in hand. Mike Poynter at Station Sounds had already started work on my collection of vintage hi-fi equipment, when I suddenly found myself the owner of another pair of Quad IIs, a bunch of Quad preamps and a pair of the original ESLs. (See the feature in the Classic Hi-Fi Supplement.) Mike told me that he could restore whatever I gave him, but the speakers really should go back to Quad.

Read other high end tube preamp reviews from the likes of Audio Research, VTL, VAC, Jadis and more by clicking here.

And then it happened: Quad was sold to the Verity Group. The turmoil which ensued, the rumours, the gossip on the Internet, the paranoia among collectors - it circled the globe and the usual batch of doomsayers heralded the end of Quad before even giving Verity (parent company of Mission, Wharfedale and other British brands) a chance to announce its intentions. So, to test the waters, I loaded up my car with old gear and headed Cambridgeward, ducking the flying bullshit to learn first-hand whether or not Quad's legendary service department had survived the transition.

Just when the idea hit me I can't say, especially since it was long rumoured that various retailers, distributors and customers had been begging Quad to revive the valve products for years and the answer was always a resounding, "No." I figured it was a lost cause, but I also knew that if it could be pulled off, would have the scoop of the decade, Verity would be able to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that its intentions were honourable, Quad would be able to celebrate its 60th in style and with optimism, and vintage hi-fi collectors the world over would have reason to rejoice. Me? I'd have the satisfaction of knowing, however much or little I might achieve in my lifetime, that I was at the very least instrumental in bringing back a classic. You know: the Anachrophile practising what he's been preaching. So, over lunch, I begged Farad and Henry Azima, Tony Jones and Dave Marchant of Mission - Quad's new custodians - to reissue the valve electronics and the original ESLs. I sat there, waiting to be laughed out of the restaurant. What Farad said to his minions was, "Do it."

So then I withdrew and waited for the finished product. Right on cue, reality intervened, strongly enough to make me fearful that the project might not go beyond that lunch. The original ESLs, I was told, couldn't be brought back, particularly since ICI had stopped producing certain materials needed in its manufacture (again, see the supplement). Then, the pre-amp fell by the wayside, Quad's engineers agreeing with audiophiles the world over that the original valve pre-amp hadn't worn quite as well, by current standards, as the power amplifiers. But the power amps themselves? They were given the go-ahead, with utter secrecy incorporated into the plan to protect the surprise value of re-launch. And of our June 1996 cover...

Under the auspices of Nigel Simms (?) and Ross Walker, the prototype Celebration Quad II Power Amplifier was hand-assembled by a team including David Timms and Roger Hill. It was over 25 years since the last of the original 100,000 Quad IIs were produced. No tooling survived, the correct valves were scarce (the KT66 was long gone in its original form) and none of the staff from that era still worked at Quad. Even the exact paint was no longer in production. And the great Peter Walker himself was enjoying his retirement.

Even so, given the commotion caused by a change in ownership and the need to re-establish Quad's links with the past, the project survived. Mission's Dave Marchant - surely the hero in this saga - nearly drove himself to drink co-ordinating everything, Quad staffers stopped at nothing to source the hard-to-find parts. Transformers were hand-wound. New metalwork was fashioned. Valve substitutes were evaluated and tested, the rare GZ32s and the even rarer KT66s replaced with the finest of modern equivalents. And less than 100 days after that momentous lunch, the Celebration Quad II was completed.

Albeit in pre-pre-pre-pre-production form.

Lest for a moment your nostrils suggest that you detect a rodent, note that the only details still to be finalised at the time of writing are primarily cosmetic. What you see in these photos is pretty much what you'll get: brand-new Quad IIs. Only they're probably better than the originals because they're entirely reworked, hand-built and, well, . As you who use vintage gear know, if you were somehow to locate a pair of original Quad IIs (or any other Golden Age valve amp) which had never been out of the box, the intervening decades would have caused some degradation. So, before the less romantic among you start bellowing about the plethora of good used Quad IIs out there for a few hundred quid, note that the Celebration is newer than a Jaguar XK8.

Yes, it's a dead-ringer for the original, although the new nameplates will be fashioned from brass rather than plastic. The old speaker sockets, which only accepted banana plugs, have been replaced with multi-way binding posts of the highest quality. Those ornery Jones plugs, which carried the signal and the on/off switching from the pre-amp, have been replaced with gold-plated phono sockets and a separate on/off switch. By doing so, the Quad II has been rendered more easily useable with all sorts of pre-amplifiers.

Then there are the valves themselves. You don't have to 'phone that many restorers to find that proper KT66s are about as common as Bugatti camshafts, Rolex Bubbleback winding crowns or Leica 5cm viewfinders. The last 'new old stock' pair I heard about had a price tag more in keeping with a pair of pre-war Western Electric 300Bs. What Quad is fitting to the Celebration is labelled a 7581A, not unsurprisingly listed in the as the only KT66 replacement. And while, by virtue of its non-shouldered glass, it doesn't look quite so sexy as an original KT66, it does work very well indeed. The only alternative to this, if you're prepared to wave very thick wads of £50 notes at your local Quad dealer, is the Chinese-made and hideously expensive Edicron KT66-2. Price? On personal application, in writing, to Nigel Simms. Oh, and make sure that you also supply your Dun & Bradstreet rating.

The rest of the tube complement? The GZ32 is now a GZ34, while the EF86s remain unchanged. Again, to silence the naysayers, for a full appreciation of Quad's latest achievement I replaced all of the new valves of the Celebration version with the best KT66s out of my old Quad IIs and the GZ34s with GZ32s. And I could only detect one consistently unmistakable, repeatable change. It's inescapable but I must report: the new output tubes are less powerful than original KT66s, due no doubt to less generous plate dimensions. But not to worry: I was informed by David Timms that the Quad engineering squad still had some final tweaking to perform, so the power output might increase to the old levels. But power wasn't what concerned me so much as sound quality, especially considering that the drop in wattage wasn't debilitating. (The most vivid way to illustrate the power loss is like this: with the old Quad II on the left channel and a Celebration on the right, and the system fed with a mono signal through the McIntosh C22 pre-amp, I had to turn the balance control to just past one o'clock to centre the image.)

Before going any further, a word about the original Quad IIs I used for the comparison. From a half-dozen I owned, two were beyond hope but provided some parts. The remaining quartet was refurbished by Mike Poynter, for my money the best vintage hi-fi restorer in the UK. What appealed to me about Mike was his purism: he restores everything to its original spec rather than perform any hotrodding. I tell you this only to assure you that I compared new with genuine old, the latter being the best standard examples imaginable rather than some warped and/or bastardised rebuild. And the findings, when new was compared to old, were beyond encouraging. They reaffirmed everything that the cognescenti know about Peter Walker: he the closest audio has to a superhero. And his 43-year-old design still kicks, er, bottom.

After compensating for level differences with my trusty digital SPL meter from Radio Shack (pester your local Tandy for US catalogue number 33-2055) and soliciting a second opinion from SH, the 'new' Quad II was shown to have lost some of the excess warmth and 'rosiness' which makes the old Quad II so loveable. But it demonstrated far better transparency and speed, making it that much more useable in 1990s terms and for 1990s listeners. As David Timms pointed out, many of the materials are superior by virtue of their newness, and the transformers were wound in march of 1996 whereas the transformers in my old Quads dated from the days when the Beatles played the cavern. And that's in addition to the different tubes. Is it any surprise it sounded, well 'newer'?

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