Sound Quest SQ-88 Integrated
I was asked to take a look at Sound Quests website to help me decide whether Id be interested in reviewing
their SQ-88 integrated amplifier ($1479 USD), I thought, "Sure, Ill do it.
Im due to review something with an On/Off switch." (My previous two reviews
were of speakers and cables.)
What I didnt realize until Id visited the Sound
Quest site was that the subject of this review is not your run-of-the-mill
electronics-superstore special, designed to drive the latest speaker from a company whose
name rhymes with a prominent part of your face. Rather, the SQ-88 is an honest-to-goodness
all-tube combination power amplifier and preamplifier. I call it a power/pre
instead of an integrated amplifier for a reason. With the power amps and
preamps individual tubes mounted right into the top of the unit and exposed in all
their glory (unless you actually want to leave in place the metallic grid that acts
as a tube protector -- i.e., if you have kids), its easy to see that the
SQ-88 is a well-thought-out melding of two functionally distinct electronic devices
designed to operate synergistically and efficiently as a whole.
Isnt the vacuum tube yesterdays technology,
supplanted by the virtues of the transistor around the time the original Volkswagen Beetle
bit the dust and somewhat before the humble turntable and its vinyl progeny were replaced
by bright, flat, unnatural-sounding first-generation CDs and CD players? Everyone knows
that transistors are more linear, more thermally stable, and can drive low-impedance loads
better than tubes. And theyre so damn convenient -- you dont replace
transistors when they finally kick, you just run down to your local stereo store and buy
The answer to my somewhat rhetorical question is an
emphatic "Yes!" Solid-state circuits usually measure better and last longer than
tubes, and even good solid-state gear is readily available everywhere. Solid-state and its
evil twin, digital, are by most accounts todays technology.
But tubes can sound downright seductive. While not without
some sonic liabilities, tube gear has an inherent sound that is hard to describe. Tube
components have been accused of sounding "euphonically warm," "loose,"
and "sloppy" in the bass, and rolled-off in the treble. They have also been
described as sounding "present," "dimensional," "liquid,"
"alive," and "natural." But to truly appreciate these qualities, you
have to hear good tube gear yourself.
Not all tube gear sounds great, of course -- and some
solid-state components are genuinely awesome. However, most tube designs these days
possess the above-mentioned positive attributes in some measure. The ultimate quality of a
tube component is very much a function of how its designer has balanced such qualities
with the less-than-ideal characteristics inherent in the technology.
Tubes for the 21st Century
The Sound Quest SQ-88 is striking-looking in the
Scandinavian minimalist vein. Built on a moderately sized chassis weighing 40 pounds, its
case of silvery gray is handsomely trimmed with a 2"H by 1"D strip of solid
maple that runs the length of the front panel. The tubes are top-mounted; when the unit is
on, they emit a warm orange glow and a lot of heat. The SQ-88 strikes me as looking both
beautiful and interesting, and thats hard to achieve. Overall, its looks and
construction belie its low list price.
The SQ-88 has both 4- and 8-ohm taps, which means it can
mate more easily with speakers of various impedances; Sound Quest rates its output as
55Wpc into 4 or 8 ohms. (I used the 4-ohm taps for my Magnepan 1.6QRs.) The binding
posts are clear polycarbonate and are of good quality. Inputs are provided for three
sources. The front panel has but two knobs: one for volume, one to select the input, both
highly polished. The SQ-88 also comes with a simple remote control, which I found to work
Of significance here is the choice of tubes: four KT88s for
the power amp, two 6SL7s and two 6N8Ps for the preamp. A lengthy dissertation on the sonic
attributes of each tube type available is beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to
say that, particularly with regard to the choice of KT88s for the SQ-88s power-amp
section, its reasonable to assume that the designers goal was stout power
transmission (read: a lotta watts for the money), good control and depth in the bass, and
a high degree of tonal neutrality. These are admittedly not tubes traditional
strengths, but the KT88 can be viewed as being sonically closer to transistors than, for
example, the much-loved and somewhat euphonic-sounding (i.e., warm, round) 12AX7s
in my fathers 1960s Ampeg guitar amp, which made the sounds that formed my first
musical memories. In my experience, the KT88 is, among tubes, bold, dynamic, muscular, and
capable of good bass reproduction.
My review system was as follows: Sony SACD-222ES SACD/CD
player, B&K PT-3 preamp-tuner ($598), B&K ST-2140 two-channel power amplifier
($698), Magnepan 1.6QR loudspeakers, Kimber PBJ or Harmonic Technology interconnects, and
original Monster Cable or Harmonic Technology biwire speaker cables.
Music, plain and simple
On Gallardas, from Andrés Segovias The
Segovia Collection: Five Centuries of the Spanish Guitar [CD, MCAD- 42071], I heard
sustain that just lasted and lasted. I could hear the instruments wooden body --
nice harmonic expression from the guitar, and very good flow. The Sound Quest was as fast
as Segovias fingers -- it was as if I could hear him think. With the SQ-88, I
felt I was sitting on a portico after an evening meal, drinking sangría and watching the
warm Spanish sun sink as the master played for me. The Sound Quest portrayed
three-dimensional space better than my resident B&K power/pre combo, with superior
front-to-back layering and deeper images. The B&Ks presented a larger soundstage
overall; the SQ-88 made the experience a more intimate one.
The title track of Thelonious Monks Straight, No
Chaser [SACD, Columbia/Legacy CS 64886] sounded enormous, with a you-are-there
presence to Monks left-hand chords --and with surprisingly good, full bass. This
track exhibits excellent decays of piano notes, but a very slight residual brightness or
glassiness in the upper mids and lower treble. Charlie Rouses tenor sax carries the
melody, and sounded ultraclear and tangibly rooted in the stage through the SQ-88, with
full midbass as well as nice drive and pace. Low-bass weight is superior on my B&K
rig, however. Overall, the Sound Quest captured the gestalt of the tune slightly better
than the B&Ks.
There was a very quick and clear but slight tinkly quality
to Monks right-hand notes on "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,"
but that all but disappeared once the SQ-88 had warmed up. At first I thought it was
related to the Magnepans own slight emphasis in the same region of the frequency
range, its more likely that the SQ-88 merely needed sufficient warmup time. I could
hear talking in the background, as Monk was wont to do. There was very good microdynamics,
but the B&Ks had better bottom-end weight and extension and superior macrodynamics.
But, boy, the SQ-88 sure sounded more powerful than 55Wpc. I think I once heard something
about "tube watts" sounding more powerful. Perhaps.
Jeff Becks "You Know What I Mean," from Blow
By Blow [SACD, Epic ES 85440], was portrayed with pinpoint left-to-right imaging and
good center fill. Bass guitar was tight and had fine pitch and resolution. The solid-state
B&Ks paint a bigger picture, if one in which individual instruments dont quite
breathe as much within the stage.
Becks crying guitar on "Cause Weve
Ended" had nice depth; the SQ-88 captured very well his highly emotive touch. I also
heard excellent microdynamic shadings in the snare brushwork, particularly in the accented
notes. The bass guitar and kick drum were in lockstep -- the SQ-88 did time quite well.
Keyboards were liquid, clear, and seemingly just right timbrally, as were hi-hat and
tom-toms. Tom-toms are difficult to record accurately; through the SQ-88, it was easy to
tell that the drummer was using undamped batter heads for a typically reverberant and
powerful 1970s drum sound.
The opening of "Cry Me a River," from Diana
Kralls The Look of Love [SACD, Verve 314 589 597-2], has a warm-toned jazz
guitar thats placed far back behind the plane of the speakers. The Sound Quest SQ-88
accurately portrayed this. The guitar tone was superb -- round, mellifluous (as its
supposed to be here), and palpable. Kralls vocal inflections followed very well. The
B&K combo does this nicely, too, but places Krall ever so slightly farther back on the
stage. The bass underpinning was very good -- brushstrokes on snares had fullness and good
body -- and piano accents were very well delineated spatially.
Elvis Costellos voice was clear and smooth on My
Aim Is True [CD, Rykodisc RCR 20271], an album that sometimes strikes me as having a
vocal mix thats a little bit dry. Guitar chords had wonderful sustain and an
inherent tonal rightness that made this tune particularly involving and moving. The SQ-88
got the feel and propulsiveness of Costellos nice, chunky groove down pat. Bass was
tight and had good pitch, though not at quite the same levels as the B&K rigs.
Fine dynamic contrasts were in evidence on downbeats. The background vocals behind
Costello sounded real. In fact, all vocals had nice separation and a high degree of
palpability through the SQ-88.
All thats old is new again
I really enjoyed the Sound Quest SQ-88. What it did well --
space, midrange timbres, clarity -- it did very well. In comparison to the
twice-as-powerful B&K combo, the SQ-88 couldnt quite conjure up as large a
soundstage or generate the deepest bass or limitless dynamics. But the SQ-88 was, at the
very least, competent in those areas of traditional solid-state dominance, while retaining
the traditional virtues and avoiding the traditional vices of tubes. Very well done --
and, at the price, highly recommended. Tubes sound so damn good, at least as implemented
in the Sound Quest SQ-88.
...Chris J. Izzo
Price of equipment reviewed