Quad has done an incredible job in progressing from the original ESL57
via the ESL63 and its 988/989 descendants to the current ESL-2905, with
but one exception: it's larger than Peter Walker himself felt
necessary. Unconvinced by the desire for overwhelming bass (which I
believe he considered to be "an American affliction"), PJ never went
this far. But he would have been pleased, because the world's most
famous full-range ESL can now go louder and deeper without compromise.
Moreover, while not having gone quite to SME lengths, the entire
structure is more rigid, so detail is even more precise, the bass
tighter and the treble a shade sharper. As I wrote before, it's
probably the finest speaker in the world if used within its operating
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QUAD 99CDP-2 CD Player (£999.95)
My sub-£1500 reference for some time, the CDP99 II is a clever little
bugger: a top-flight CD player AND a digital pre-amp in a single
compact chassis. If you're running an all-digital system, its three
coaxial and three TOSlink inputs preclude the need for a separate
preamp. The analogue signal from its DAC fed straight to the volume
control. In my system, this unit has yet to hiccup, and its detailed
and involving sound always satisfies.
QUAD 99 Pre-amp (£749.95)
Like the 33 or 44, then this spiritual successor will delight you with
its balanced mix of necessary functions and clever features. Nothing
frivolous distracts you or upsets the sound. With the Quad Link bussing
system, this controls amp and CD player, in a set-up as convenient as
anything on the market; Quad never feared progress. With a useful,
fairly flexible phono stage, great build quality and smooth, coherent
sound, consider it a little gem.
In a system where everything is just right, like Goldilocks' porridge,
the 909 stands out for punching way above its class. It staggered me on
first listening, not least because its 140 watts have always proved
ample, regardless of the speakers I've subjected it to, including
Wilsons and Sonus Fabers. More closely related to the 405 II than the
303, it vindicates the Current Dumping philosophy, and - when used with
the Quad Link system - operates with truly balanced signals. If you
want to know what never leaves the Kessler system as a solid-state
workhorse, this is it. And the price just ices the cake. Trust me: it's
the BMW 3-Series of amplifiers.
Two things rarely occur these days for audio scribblers. One is being allowed to revisit equipment already reviewed. I looked at the Quad 99 CDP-2, the ESL-2905 and the 909 amplifiers in 2006 when I reviewed the speaker and compared new Quad with old. Secondly, it's rare to review a single-make system simply because there are so few worth considering.
Much though it annoys the more ambitious manufacturers when this is pointed out, few are capable of moving from one discipline to another. The most consistent and successful brands stick to what they know best. But egos and commerce being what they are, a number of manufacturers want the whole pie, not just a slice. Their argument is irresistible: when a system is designed as a whole, with each component matched from birth to the others, you eliminate all potential for mismatches.
Quad, more than any other separates brand still in existence, has had longer experience with producing the whole chain, though its first source was a tuner. From the outset, Peter Walker made amplifiers and speakers and Quad has continued to do so ever since. This is not to dismiss long-departed makers or others who returned to their core products: AR and Leak are typical of the former, with Tannoy and Sonus Faber examples of the latter.
What this system hopes to achieve is the twenty-first century equivalent of the classic lineups of the past, only we've opted for the CD source rather than the tuner. Given that each component making up this system can hold its own without its siblings (I've fed the 99 CDP-2 into everything from McIntosh to Audio Research to Krell preamps, and driven all manner of speakers with the 909), one may anticipate without a shred of blind optimism a display of consummate synergy in the all-Quad chain.
It should also be noted that numerous permutations of this system will suit various budgets and technical biases. They include the smaller ESL-2805 speaker, valve electronics instead of solid-state - I can't wait to get my hands on the II-Eighty monos - and the 99 mono or stereo amps.
As one would expect, set-up poses nothing dramatic beyond the manhandling and assembly of the ESLs. Whether using the Quad Link set-up, recommended because it operates in balanced mode, or playing around with designer cables, the constituent parts simply mesh with each other. Aside from a table, courtesy of G.M. Accessories, the only other elements I provided were Yter speaker cables and experiments with assorted interconnects.
While Super System reviews by their very nature beg for consideration of the package as a whole, it would be remiss of us to ignore each item on its own. As I mentioned earlier, all of these can hold their own in systems not made up entirely of their siblings, and one suspects that, globally, the ESL-2905 is probably driven by as many non-Quad amps as it is by 909s, 99s or their valve alternatives.
For many, Quad means ESLs more than it means amplifiers, so the '2905 will be the focus of their attention. I suffered no hesitation in declaring it to be one of the greatest speakers money can buy. More than anything, its ability to fill the room from wall to wall is so utterly compelling that it surely must be the dealmaker when a critical listener has to choose between Quad's biggest and the other usual suspects at £6000 per pair.
For its unerring capacity to simply disappear, for top-to-bottom consistency shared by no multi-driver, crossover-hampered rival, this speaker will charm the wallet out of your pocket. Yes, it delights in small acoustic works, and rare acoustic recordings from folk legend Karen Dalton revealed the way these massive panels transmit intimacy.
But unlike the level-limited ESLs of yore, the '2905 will neither shriek nor break if asked to reproduce the Ramones at satisfactory (for head-bangers) levels. Yes, I can sense the wrath of Peter Walker and Alastair Robertson-Aikman showering down on me from Heaven for subjecting the '2905s to "Teenage Lobotomy" and "Blitzkrieg Bop," but never has an NYC sneer sounded so real in East Kent.
As for the electronics, they face a far greater number of rivals simply because, unlike their full-range ESL sister, they are not per se unique. True, the 99 CDP-2 has a built-in digital pre-amp, but that's hardly the point: it still has to contend with CD players between £649 (the cost of the 99 CD-S - the equivalent sans preamp and with 24-bit/96kHz rather than 24-bit192kHz processing) and £1200 or so, while the preamp and the power amp are not short of competition. Even so, all three share enticing price tags, superb build quality, refreshing looks and a very Quad-like sound that will not be unfamiliar to seasoned readers who worked their way through the Walker-era offerings.
On their own, then, the 99 CDP-2 can be characterized as smooth and coherent, and detailed without being aggressive. Robust music, including the rousing soundtrack from Glory, showed that this politesse never hampered the dynamics, and its lower registers possessed both mass and attack for the militaristic percussion, but with control not far removed from indecently dearer players.
As it should be, the 99 preamp is a bit leaner and more analytical, always desirable in the component at the heart of a system, its very neutrality making it a performer with which to reckon. I wouldn't go so far as to describe it as a threat to my personal faves like the LS17 from Audio Research or Krell's Evolution preamps, but those cost substantially more.
Read Much More on Page 2Still, there's a sense of command that reminded me especially of the LS17. If you have the time in the shop during a demo, take a vivid, textured vocal recording, like Marianne Faithfull's Before the Poison, and listen for the tiny tics that distinguish her from another raspy chanteuse. Listen it through both Quad's 99 CDP-2 and 99 CD-S and the 99 pre will let you know immediately how/if the former is superior to the latter.
What's intriguing is what happens when you run the 99 CDP-2 via the 99 preamp, and then directly into the 909s. Acute listening suggests that the removal of the 99 preamp from the chain enhances transparency and openness, not least because a box full of circuitry and an entire pair of cables has been bypassed, which is a heckuva reward for a slight loss of system flexibility. But only you know whether or not you need what the 99 preamplifier offers over the preamp section of the 99 CDP-2, so its presence or absence is down to the individual.
As ever, though, the 909 remains the best kept of Quad's secrets. It may just represent the best value in a stereo power amp on the market today, a sub- 1000 tariff for an amplifier that has no problem driving hungry speakers, let alone an ESL. A peculiarly British blend of bruiser and gent, like a Bentley, it shows enviable finesse with airier works, and its speed is something to behold. I dug out some Antonio Forcione CDs on Naim, noteworthy for the powerful attack on acoustic guitar, and the 909 honored the transients, the tonal diversity and, above all, the sheer power, gliding from delicate to hammering in a single phrase.
So armed, and using the Quad components as a whole, it seemed as if some wizard of a tweaker had ensured a fully complimentary experience, the voicing of each part of the system so right that it was hard to identify where one component stoppe
d and another began. Of course, each has its role and the ESL-2905 could only be the window into the sound. What it showed - having been used with far dearer components in my system - was that none of the other parts let it down.
Whether coping with the dynamic capabilities of the 909, unraveling the intertwined drumming on the Allman Brothers' Live at the Fillmore East, or ensuring access to every tiny detail and sonic layer in Roy Wood's masterpiece Boulders, retrieved by the 99 DCP-2 and transported by the 99 pre-amp, the '2905 did something which is anathema to most other speakers: it simply never got in the way of the sound, which is what most speakers do. They're transducers. You can almost hear them struggling as they convert one form of energy to another. Not the Quad ESLs, especially when they're attached to the most sympathetic system available.
Scoring with numbers rarely informs: you need to hear what equipment can do. While the Quad set-up will not deliver the levels or deep bass of systems blessed with Wilson Alexandrias, for example, it is not just one of the most coherent packages around, it's also stupendously good value for money. If ever there was a case to prove the wisdom of buying a single-make system, Quad has the evidence. And if you need evidence that Quad has retained its greatness, look no further.