Golden Age sentimentalists often allow nostalgia to colour their opinions. They soon learn that because something is old (or glows in the dark) doesn't mean it's good. But one antique which does live up to its reputation is the tube-laden Marantz 10B FM Tuner, and that's not open to discussion.
Although there were a couple of attempts in the 1980s at making modern valve equivalents of this desirable collector's item (most notably from Klimo and the late, lamented New York Audio Labs), the real successor came earlier in the form of a solid-state device. The Sequerra Model 1 of the mid-1970s, designed by Dick Sequerra (who assisted the great Sid Smith with the 10B), was to the tuners of its day what the Goldmund Reference is to turntables: pure, unadulterated, cost-no-object overkill. Naturally, this tuner was an American product, because only the Americans have airwaves which can justify FM as a primary source.
Before Trevor Butler stabs me with his green biro, let me clarify that statement. Even though we in the UK enjoy some of the finest sounding broadcasts available anywhere, the most consistent, easily-accessible transmissions are only of interest to classical or 'spoken word' listeners, or less than 10 percent of the CD/LP-buying public. They can therefore ignore the last sentence in the above paragraph because they're ideal customers for the Sequerra. All that's left for other radio users are the other Beebs, a couple of halfway decent stations in the major cities and a load of diabolical local stations.
The USA, on the other hand, has an FM waveband crammed to the edges with stereo transmissions to satisfy fans of every genre. Because of this congestion plus sound quality which can do with whatever help is available, American radio users of the high-end, fat-wallet persuasion can justify the purchase of overkill tuners.
Anyway, the Sequerra soon entered the annals of hi-fi as the best-ever post-Marantz 10B tuner, but the company itself went through a shaky period. (Would you want to run a business based on an FM tuner which costs as much as a VW?) In 1984, the Davidson-Roth Corporation acquired the rights to the Sequerra, which they re-introduced as the Day-Sequerra FM Broadcast Monitor, the new tuner being an extensively updated version. On
looks alone, the Sequerra stops audiophiles dead in their tracks, as does the price tag. #13,000 for a tuner? I can hear 'Fed Up In Neasden' already penning his paean to the Quad FM3...
Enter the Day Sequerra FM Studio Tuner, the 'budget' version of the living legend. Still absurdly priced at #3,950, the baby is a much newer design which one or two colleagues have suggested sounds even better than the Broadcast Monitor. The Studio, styled like the Broadcast, features two vertical arrays of six buttons per side, a rotary tuning dial, large red digits and the 4.5in instrument-grade oscilloscope...just like the Marantz 10B. (Note to Fed Up In Neasden: I'm told that this particular 'scope on its own would cost roughly a third of the price of the tuner.) While the less-expensive model loses the spectrum analysis facility on the 'scope, it does replace other functions with more sensible commands. Gone are the earlier unit's Dolby facility (heh, heh, heh...), panel dimmer and three buttons' worth of muting options.
The 12 controls for the new model include four buttons to operate the oscilloscope, absolute polarity inversion, contour defeat, narrow, normal and wide IF bandwidth selection, 'mono forcing' (a mono button to us OFTs), muting defeat and power on/off.
At the back are an IEC mains input, a US-style (screw-threaded) 75 ohm aerial input and four pairs of phono sockets. Two pairs are for signal out, either normal or inverted, while the other
pairs – also normal and inverted – allow you to feed the oscilloscope for assessing other line-level components, accessed by pressing the button on the front panel marked 'External Vector Display'. The normal and inverted signal-out sockets also allow you to install the Sequerra in balanced mode with suitable preamps.
The massive owner's manual contains an in-depth technical description, running to six single-spaced pages, so all I'll include here are the salient points. A sophisticated analogue tuning system was employed in preference to digital tuning because the company finds the trade-offs unacceptable, arguing that digital synthesis tuning is, among other things, noisier and less accurate. The company suggests that digital tuning has resolution of 12.5kHz with an actual 'set-on accuracy' of greater than 8kHz; the Day Sequerra is tested for set-on accuracy of better than 100Hz. (Does this mean that we're going to hear a chorus of 'I told you so' from all of those other makers who eschewed digital tuning and pre-sets on the grounds of sound quality?)
With sound quality as much a priority as the sophistication of the tuning circuitry, the company went for true dual-mono audio amplification designed by Dan D'Agostino of Krell, each channel using entirely discrete devices and offering the aforementioned balanced operation. The success of balanced operation in high-end audio applications is pretty much a fait accompli for pre-amps and power amps; Sequerra's FM Studio is, as far as I can tell, the first balanced tuner to appear. The Studio also features six separately regulated power supplies via a custom-made 250VA toroidal transformer. Military spec parts are used throughout, including 1% Dale metal film resistors, and Roederstein and Mial capacitors.
The FM Studio Tuner, when connected to live mains, rests in a stand-by mode, with half-illumination of the 'scope's matrix to indicate this status. Because the tuner takes at least 30 minutes to deliver optimum performance when switched on from cold, this pre-warming stage is a boon; full performance is then available within a minute. Pressing the ON button illuminates the digital counter, the twelve legends next to each button and the oscilloscope. Despite the abscence of presets, the Sequerra is a doddle to tune. The large rotary control has a nicely weighted feel, the digits are large and clear, and the oscilloscope's tuning matrix is foolproof.
Read more on Page 2.
Pressing the top button on the left hand array produces the grid over the oscilloscope. Between stations, there's a blue blur at the bottom of the scope. As you near a station, the blur takes on the shape of a small arc, circling up the matrix. The higher the arc travels, the stronger the signal. For dead-centre tuning, just turn the knob until the blue arc is centred over the middle vertical line on the grid; the words 'stereo pilot' light up over the station counter when you've located a stereo broadcast.
The other displays are more for assessing signal and stereo quality rather than for tuning. Pressing 'Tuner Vector Display' produces an x-y grid, which shows the instantaneous peak deviation of right and left audio channels. Music programme produces an egg-shaped burst emanating from the centre point, while an announcer's voice yields a near vertical line; in the case of speech with the voices at stage left and stage right, the two lines veer in the direction of each speaker, the further apart the better the separation. Mono broadcasts should produce a vertical line. 'Tuner Balanced Vertical Display' is selected when the tuner is used in balanced mode. In either mode, an absolutely perfect stereo broadcast would show a burst in the shape of a ball; the 'egg' effect is indicative of the limited separation of broadcasts relative to direct sources like CD or LP.
Depending on your technical abilities, the 'non-tuning' functions of the oscilloscope are either a great source for inducing paranoia or merely a source of amusement as a mini-light show. But even if the 'scope only showed the tuning grid, it's still the best tuning device I've used since the Magic Eye on my old Lowther. Or the 'scope on my 10B. Once you've read the owner's
manual, you'll find that the scope can tell you with great accuracy the exact signal strength, separation, peak deviation of L and R channels and more, the scope being expecially useful in
helping you to set your aerial if you live in an area plagued with multipath problems.
Most of the controls are familiar and self-explanatory, but the 'Stereo Contour Override' deserves comment. Although 'blend' facility is fast disappearing, most manufacturers assuming that you'd prefer mono to contoured stereo, Sequerra has fitted a contour which has been designed to achieve the best compromise between stereo effect and noise. This is with the button in the 'out' position, so those who don't read the manual will be listening to contoured sound aimed at achieving separation of 50dB at 1kHz and 40dB at 10kHz, while maintaining an S/N ratio of 70dB. Push the button in for defeat and you receive the unprocessed signal – the opposite of 'blend' controls which operate in the 'in' position.
Conditions in the wilds of Kent didn't really provide much for testing the urban panacaeas, but I did have ample opportunity to try the muting defeat, finding that the Sequerra's muting is too
fierce. The review sample shut out far too many stations which delivered listenable stereo, as well as a number that were rendered listenable in mono. At this price, user-adjustable muting thresholds would not be out of order.
The only real complaint, though, was the sensitivity – or lack thereof. The cynic whose listening room I use spent days antagonising me with how his 'in-car Pioneer' blows away the
Sequerra when it comes to pulling in the stations. Despite a good, roof-mounted aerial, all I could capture were the usual locals; a phonecall from the USA revealed that the company sets
up the tuners at the factory according to the market. Dealing with a Londoner, they had no reason to assume that the rest of the UK was any different, so I received a tuner set up for
maximum selectivity rather than sensitivity. To be fair, this is the way I'd want a Sequerra to operate if I lived in London, especially with its current crop of hyperactive pirates jostling for space. In the boondocks, though, I'd gladly trade the selectivity for sensitivity.
Still, I had Radios 1 through 4, Invicta, Kent and a few others, mixing unadorned speech, recorded pop and classical, live classical, plays, etc. By keeping either of two CD players
pre-loaded with 'chart' CD singles, I also had the opportunity on a couple of occasions to compare CD to tuner, only to learn that the radio stations have nothing to match the Marantz CD12 or the CAL Tempest II Special Edition. Even so, I learned that the Sequerra is too good for most broadcasts.
As speech is a primary part of radio, I listened to a lot of chat shows and broadcasts. It's official: Invicta sucks not just for content but sound quality as well. Even Derek Jameson seemed more inviting than the spitty, raspy, honky noise emanating from what TB told me is the acknowledged turkey of UK broadcasting. Thanks, Sequerra: you've given me another reason never to let Invicta sully my hi-fi. But, aah! the Beeb sends voices across the airwaves with such authority! Rich, resonant and realistic, the three 'R's caught to full effect. No nasality, just the right texture – we're talking 'in the room', vershtais?
But this magazine is more concerned with music than speech, so I subjected myself to live broadcasts on Radio 3 – all in the line of duty, of course. A solo piano recital revealed enough about the Sequerra to justify its elevated price: this tuner reproduces detail, impact, lower register weight and a sense of space and depth like no other tuner I've used, bar the much noisier 10B. The piano was situated just to the right of centre, its position rock-solid and its size 'authentic'. The spatial effect was uncanny, with the venue's character transmitted across the length of Kent into the listening room, as convincing a display of sonic 3-D as I've heard regardless of source.
But so what? you're thinking, considering that – classical broadcasts aside – British radio has little to offer besides sound quality. Well, I did say that only the most rabid and wealthy of radiophiles could entertain such a purchase, so the Sequerra does have a niche to satisfy. But four kilo-quid?
Even if you could factor out the oscilloscope, the exquisite build quality, the balanced operation and a host of other niceties, you'd still be looking at a lot more than the cost of a
warmer-sounding, mint-condition Marantz 10B or one of the great McIntoshes of yore. But listen to me, please: no matter how good your 10B (and mine's a cracker), the vintage wonders cannot offer the silent, noise-free background, the transient attack or the drift-free tuning of the Sequerra.
Is it the best tuner in the world? Probably. Is it worth four grand? If I say 'yes', there'll be a flood of snide remarks about my lust for expensive goodies. If I say 'no', then I'd be doing a
disservice to the Sequerra and the fortunate few who can afford and/or justify it.
Aah, what the hell: YES.