QUAD: The 44 pre amp; an in-depth test review of a minor classic in its day

Howard Popeck writes:

Back in the 1980s at Subjective Audio, I was a keen if not particularly successful QUAD retailer. I sold sufficient of their electronics, but not too many loudspeakers. I can’t clearly recall how or why this imbalance occurred. What I do recall was with some models, questionable reliability – but this marginal irritation was mitigated by the sort of old-world true professionalism and service that is rare these days with any supplier.

So, today’s feature is a backward glance, with some nostalgia and via my notebook from the time, resurrecting long forgotten memories – and happily too!

Used examples in good condition are currently available for around £250 in the UK. This begs the questions, are they of sufficient quality for inclusion in a modern system (or put differently, are QUAD 44 units undiscovered classic bargain?) and secondly, are they good enough to be part of a 2nd or 3rd system?

In a nutshell, the QUAD 44 preamp is:

The bigger brother of the QUAD 34 preamp. It has more inputs and almost unequalled versatility in terms of input configuration via exchangeable input modules. Traditionally it was partnered with the QUAD power amps of the time such as the 405 and of course previous issues such as the 303 and subsequent ones such as the 606.

It has some, for the time, clever touches including three tone filters, a tilt control and much more. Ergonomically, it’s not very clever. Alan Boothroyd of BS Meridian would have made a far better job of the front panel layout. On the other hand, it’s lightweight at around 4kg – with a small footprint. Dreadful colour though – unless you happen to like desert-storm camouflage. However, eventually they went over to a very cool looking grey, a helluva lot smarter and pretty good looking even today.

One example of why contemporaneous notes can be so useful in situations like this:

Hmm. I’d forgotten this fact. During the course of its production run the 44 was progressively upgraded and the sound quality improved noticeably.

So already we find a complication. Any attempted answer to my original questions (above) now requires ideally, multiple answers because of course given this progression, we need to focus on which aspect of the production run is being considered. Moreover, how might one find out the history of the serial numbers and what they mean? Well … err, I'm not sure. Perhaps that data exists on a QUAD enthusiasts’ site or forum. Maybe the excellent Ken Kessler book on the QUAD company (QUAD: The Closest Approach) and its products might help. Anyway, pressing on …

My notes on which this article is based are dated 1984.

I was back then (and there’s no valid reason for me to change that view 24 years later) impressed by the design’s versatility. There were a range of input modules, and you could order the pre in whatever combination you wanted with all 5 slots filled. I had one that had five LP/Vinyl inputs. I used this as a high quality comparator which depending on my mood and the requirements of my customers could accommodate 5 different turntables all using identical arms and cartridges, or 5 identical turntables using different arms with identical cartridges. Ah yes, those were the days.

So, drifting off topic for a moment, using a QUAD 44 I’d offer comparative demonstrations of the Pink Triangle, Linn LP12, the Logic DM-101 and whatever else was lying around into a reference system. Looking at my notes though, seems like I quickly tired of using the QUAD 44 for this and moved over to the ill-fated by sporadically brilliant Meridian Component (Zebra to you, John) modular preamp or modular integrated. It sounded faster and was even more flexible than the QUAD. But not as reliable though.

Where the 44 scored over Meridian in this respect though was the comprehensive facilities to adjust cartridge input loading and sensitivity. The Aux input module could be specified with a lower sensitivity to accommodate the then very new CD format.

The LP input modules had both DIN and RCA/Phono input sockets and extra capacitance could be added for cartridges if desired. Even the tape facilities were out of the ordinary. They offered both DIN and RCA/Phono connections. Uniquely for the time, and very rare at all other times, there were 3 levels of signal strength available from the output sockets. This meant that any power amplifier could, electronically if not sonically, be accommodated with ease. As was typical at the time, the preamp had three IEC mains outputs to power your power amp, plus 2 other items.

However ...

The effects of power supplies and power-drain was in its infancy back then and so although superficially useful for those that had an almost psychotic desire for power cord tidiness, the effect on the perceived dynamics of the preamp were noticeable, I noted. I didn’t stop to think about it, other than even back in those days, I preferred to power everything from a QED power distribution strip.

The tone control facilities, in terms of their scope and range are mightily impressive.

Thoughtfully, QUAD introduced a cancel button, which is pretty much how I and many customers used it. Most useful of all we found was the Tilt control which in simplistic terms carefully boosted treble while simultaneously cutting back bass, or vice versa, around a central frequency ‘pivot’. It actually worked. Very useful with bass-heavy Celestion Ditton speakers and some IMF Transmission Line speakers I see from my notes of the time. And that pretty much sums up the facilities of the unofficial named ‘Mk1’ issue.

But as for the sound ...

I’ve not mentioned the sound though. Well, actually, it wasn’t all that impressive I wrote at the time. Partnered with the then QUAD 405 (Mk1) I found the sound to be “slow, sluggish, sort, boring – etc”. The treble was “inoffensive” and the mid-range only “adequate”

Okay, before jumping to conclusion and telling yourself that because of my comments, the 44 isn’t for you, please consider the following. First, I was at that time smitten by the fantastic Krell KSA 50 power amps – back then and even today one of the finest audio devices!

Also I was playing around with Levinson gear, was the World’s mist successful Meridian specialist and so on. Naturally against these – in absolute terms – the original (rather than subsequently issued version) 44 would compare badly. But just look at the price comparison, to get a fairer perspective.  The Quad 44 in 1984 was £339 whereas a fully configured Meridian pre was considerably more and the Mark Levinson ML7a with L3 MC input (surely THE preamp of all time, sonically at least) was £4k

And then, a complication

QUAD quietly and without fuss brought out a Mk2. Except they didn’t call it that. I can’t recall if they even told the retail trade or the press. However according to my notes, there was a noticeable improvement in the sound quality. Vinyl replay took on a dynamic quality that was sorely missing from previous issues. All they told me at the time was that the mother board had been totally redesigned and the then state-of-the-art ALPS potentiometers had been used “where appropriate

And then, initially at least, another complication – and then a solution.

So how can today’s buyer know if they are considering a Mk1 or Mk2? Well, as far as I can tell, the external colour, from desert-storm camouflage beige to sharp grey is not the clue. Possibly they ran both colours for a while before phasing out the beige. My notes from the time don’t say. However, here are the clues.

  • On later models, the filter/tone cancel indicator LED on the Mk1 is missing.
  • The bass control has an additional cut position compared to the Mk1
  • The tone controls can no longer be separately switched out of circuit, but that’s no problem because you achieve this by setting those controls to zero.
  • The tape monitor buttons are brown rather than red as previously
  • There is a designated labelled CD input rather than the previous Aux input.
Does the “Mk2’ improve on the ‘Mk1’

According to my notes from the time, yes, and in a big way on LP. Nothing seems to have changed sonically re the tape, and radio inputs though and I certainly felt more confident using the dedicated CD input, than the Aux. However my notes don’t indicate if that was an imagined psycho-acoustic effect on my part, or that it really was an improvement over the Aux.

Interpreting my words from that time, I was impressed by the improvement in transparency. I didn’t use that precise word at the time. As was typical for the era, I said it was “less grey

I still thought the various filters were a bit too ‘sledgehammer’ in that they seemed at that time to rob the sound of some “body” which looking back, I probably used to describe a dilution of dynamics. I was very impressed with the Tilt control, wondering at the time if this would ever appear in other makers’ models and musing as to why some makers persisted with the “almost-always-wrong” loudness control!

The low pass filter was useful on some poor recordings and would still, I guess, be useful if not very useful today. Vinyl fanatics – take note.

But did it image, John?

Back then, phrases such as ‘spatial imaging’ and ‘perspective’ were less frequently used and their meaning even more nebulous than today. My own comments from the time via my notes indicate that the sound wasn’t particularly “open” and I did note that music and speech seemed a bit “compressed”. However, I cannot determine if I was at that point referring to the dynamic or the imaging, or both or indeed neither. Ho hum.

Points against the QUAD 44:
  1. LP/Vinyl replay, even with Mk2 is still at best, only adequate by today’s standards – but see notes below
  2. Confusing ergonomics.
  3. Well intentioned ‘conventional’ tone controls that are best left set to zero.
  4. Err, that’s it
Points in favour:
  1. Terrific value on today’s market. Just £250 for a near mint example with use-fit modules for just £30 on eBay. Avoid the dull beige issue though. Be patient and wait for a grey finish.
  2. A dream come true for the home analogue recording enthusiast
  3. Unbeatable and useful facilities for getting the very best out of old, worn and damaged records – but see notes below.
  4. Brilliant use of the Tilt control – surely one of the cleverest audio inventions of the 1980s
  5. Small foot print
Would I pay good money for one?
  1. Depends on my requirements. For example, if used as a line-level switcher, I most certainly would. Must be best value for this facility on the market today.
  2. For home recording, say cassette to reel to reel or vice versa, yes indeed. Pretty unbeatable here too.
  3. For replaying pristine vinyl, no. Many modern units are superior dynamically.
  4. For handling bass-heavy speakers, power amps with a poor/low damping factor, over-emphatic bass from a difficult room, and related issues, yes – without question. The Tilt control is brilliant in this respect.
  5. Coping with the bass bloat inherent in some issues of the Linn LP12, yes, I would. But then again, I’d use a more neutral deck.
How could vinyl replay be improved here?

Easy. For recordings in good condition and above, use a LFD phono stage into the 44’s Aux input. Terrific.

By doing this, you retain all of the very clever QUAD 44’s functionality for coping with poor recordings, such as the sophisticated low-pass filtering with its variable slopes and choice of turnover frequencies. In some respects it could be argued that a PS Audio GGPH equipped 44 might be the most comprehensive, most usefully flexible and best value solution for all vinyl replay requirement – short of true state-of-the-art requirements.

Important note:

Is not obligatory to have to wear bottle-green hand-knitted ill-fitting cardigans with worn leather patches on the elbows in order to gain full pleasure from a Mk2 QUAD 44. I can confirm that. I’ve checked. Young people are enjoying these preamps even as I write this. Also it is not necessary to be a pipe smoker in order to appreciate the full benefits of this design. I checked that too.

In summary then?

An initially and appropriately sonically maligned device which emerged like a butterfly to become something really rather good. History is unforgiving though and it was too little, too late – as is reflected in the woefully low typical selling price. If you can find a Mk2 (please read the precise guidelines here earlier re this) in grey and in fully working condition, then grab it.


It occurs to me, but I’ve had no direct experience of this though, that somewhere out there are a group of dedicated QUAD 44 DIY engineers (pipe, slippers and dozing golden retriever nearby – all optional of course) who know precisely how to upgrade the innards to truly elevate the performance. Go seek!

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