GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published October 1, 2005


Sound Quest SQ-88 Integrated Amplifier

When I was asked to take a look at Sound Quest’s website to help me decide whether I’d be interested in reviewing their SQ-88 integrated amplifier ($1479 USD), I thought, "Sure, I’ll do it. I’m due to review something with an On/Off switch." (My previous two reviews were of speakers and cables.)

What I didn’t realize until I’d 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 amp’s and preamp’s 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), it’s 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.


Isn’t the vacuum tube yesterday’s 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 they’re so damn convenient -- you don’t replace transistors when they finally kick, you just run down to your local stereo store and buy another amp.

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 today’s 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 that’s 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 effectively.

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-88’s power-amp section, it’s reasonable to assume that the designer’s 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 father’s 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 Segovia’s The Segovia Collection: Five Centuries of the Spanish Guitar [CD, MCAD- 42071], I heard sustain that just lasted and lasted. I could hear the instrument’s wooden body -- nice harmonic expression from the guitar, and very good flow. The Sound Quest was as fast as Segovia’s 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 Monk’s Straight, No Chaser [SACD, Columbia/Legacy CS 64886] sounded enormous, with a you-are-there presence to Monk’s 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 Rouse’s 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 Monk’s 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, it’s 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 Beck’s "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 don’t quite breathe as much within the stage.

Beck’s crying guitar on "Cause We’ve 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 Krall’s The Look of Love [SACD, Verve 314 589 597-2], has a warm-toned jazz guitar that’s 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 it’s supposed to be here), and palpable. Krall’s 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 Costello’s 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 that’s 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 Costello’s nice, chunky groove down pat. Bass was tight and had good pitch, though not at quite the same levels as the B&K rig’s. 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 that’s 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 couldn’t 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

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