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Desktop Audio Upgrade

I needed some new speakers for my desktop computer system at home. I've been tolerating JBL creature 2.1 system for a couple of years now and I'd finally had enough. The JBLs suffered from a depressing lack of critical midrange detail. This, coupled with the fact that the kids now hog the main system in the front room, means that I can't get access to my iTunes library readily.

 

A few years ago I was doing some research into speakers and I came across the Quad 11l actives. They were very well reviewed in a couple of Australian and New Zealand hi-fi publications. From what I could gather at the time they were not widely available in the UK. When I did eventually track them down their price tag was £600 for a pair. Prohibitively expensive for a desktop audio system. These things are marketed as pro-level near field monitors. They have their own build in amps. Two per speaker. 60W for the bass driver and 40W for the treble driver.

 

Anyway a couple of weeks ago I decided to have a casual squint at eBay and see if I could pick up a second hand pair at a vastly reduced price. There were none available. One seller was selling individual speakers new for £250. apiece. Still too expensive. Crestfallen, I gave up. A couple of days later I had another look. Another seller was offering a pair of Quad actives for £229. Stunned, I had a closer look. Apart from a different badge, Quad Industrial, these looked identical to the Quad 11l actives. Plus, they were brand new, in unopened boxes.

 

After a few hours of research I discovered that IAG, Quad's parent company, has an Industrial division that market audio equipment for hotels, conference centres, lecture theatres, and the like. Hence the different branding. The speaker also goes by another name, the Quad QPM1. Other than that it is identical in every way to the Quad 11l active monitor.

 

This was a game changer. Prior to this I was considering the Audioengine 2 model as my desktop speaker replacement. I phoned the supplier to check that there was no mistake in their pricing in the advert. They confirmed that they were on sale for £229 for the pair. I placed my order immediately.

 

I was very excited to hear these speakers given the reviews I'd read. I'm also a big fan of the Quad sound. My front room consists of the Quad 12l2s as main speakers in my 5.1 kit, Quad Centre, Quad l-ite satellites for rear and Quad l-ite subwoofer. Now I could have the Quad sound as part of my desktop system at a fraction of the price.

 

Quad speakers are known for being extremely neutral. In other words they take nothing away from or add anything to the original recording or source. Although my Quads were all very well reviewed at the time of their release, around 2004-2007, there are other great speakers out there. For me I liked the cachet associated with being a Quad owner. I clearly liked the sound and most importantly I got all the kit at bargain prices. Most of it was ex-dem so I saved at least 20% on the normal retail price. Another important factor was matching the speakers across the whole 5.1 kit. All of them should work well together. The 5.1 kit is driven by an Arcam AVR 300 that again was ex-dem. The front speakers are bi-amped and bi-wired. This affords them 120 watts per channel and per driver.

 

Being a hi-fi enthusiast makes you a bit picky about what you’ll listen to. So how do the Quad actives sound? Well put it this way... I've not stopped playing them since the minute they arrived in the house. I've thrown everything at them. From Led Zepp to Beethoven. Alison Krauss through to Prokofiev. Unbelievable! If anything the Quad actives may sound better than the 12l2s in my front room due to the fact that their bi-amp design is perfectly matched to the drivers in a way that any other amp would struggle to better. There is plenty of power and the signal path is not compromised by additional cabling and junction points. So the sound could be characterised as being clean, clear with tight bass control and a surprising amount of depth considering the cabinet size. However being nearfield monitors they are very revealing! If the recording is poor it sounds poor through these. You are very conscious of it. Also after a few days I became very aware of the deficiencies of the iMac's sound card. There was a constant low hum and other nasties such as buzzing and clicks. Hissing too. Another issue was that I wanted to run an old radio tuner through these. All I could lay my hands on at short notice was a phono switchbox. This worked but it was difficult to control the volume of the tuner other than messing around at the back of the monitors. Not really ideal.

 

I realised I need to look for some kind of preamp. Nothing suitable for desktop audio seemed immediately available. Initially I started looking at pro audio solutions. Mixers and the like. Not only were these really expensive but they also took up a lot of desk space. The other thing that seemed clear was that some kind of external signal processing solution would improve on the sound the iMac was capable of producing. Looked like a DAC was required. This took me into a whole new ballpark. It came down to two companies in the end. Cambridge Audio’s Dacmagic or NuForce’s uDac or Icon products. Fundamentally it came down to my need to switch sources easily and the ability to control volume at the turn of a dial or via an installed remote app on an iPhone. The Dacmagic looked very tempting but there was no preamp function or headphone amplifier. This left me with the NuForce products.

 

NuForce’s website information is confusing. Being new to the world of DACs and desktop audio I knew little about using USB as a means of feeding an external digital to analogue converter with a digital signal. I was familiar with toslink optical links from the Arcam processor but USB was new to me. So I started reading about jitter and the degrading effect is has on sound quality and the technology used by NuForce to take correct these issues. I also read some astonishing reviews on their uDac, Icon 2 and Icon HDP products. Turns out NuForce are an American company that specialises in really high end digital amplifiers and DACs. We’re talking thousands of pounds. Their ‘desktop’ range is much more affordable however. The uDac was offered to me for £55 for example. In the end I got a fantastic deal on the Icon HDP. I had to make a couple of phone calls at this point. I can’t say how much I saved but I got a better bargain on this than I got on the Quads! The Icon HDP is a combined class A headphone, preamp and top quality DAC rolled into one. Perfect for my needs.

 

Now we have the combined effect of the iMac and its ability to feed a purely digital signal from iTunes or Spotify Premium to the NuForce Icon HDP via USB and then onto the Quad QPMs. The effect the Icon HDP had on the system was staggering. This truly is a phenomenal product. Undoubtedly the most accomplished, best sounding and most useful piece of hi-fi equipment I’ve ever bought. The whole soundstage opened right up. Subtle nuances present in the recordings were revealed in extraordinary detail. A truly three dimensional space is presented to the listener. Given I’m used to the full Quad/Arcam experience in the front room it’s amazing how lifelike and articulate my bargain desktop audio solution really is. The Quads in themselves are remarkable for the price but the Icon HDP is literally a revelation.

 

As you’ll see from the photos I’ve experimented with this system in all sorts of combinations. At one point I even hooked up the Quad sub to hear the difference it made. I concluded it’s really not required the system is already capable of producing almost terrifying levels of deep controlled bass without it. Midrange too is superb. Treble crisp and smear free. I’ve been particularly enjoying the albums below. I’ve pretty much moved into the backroom! All in all, a pretty good October week…

 

Trentemøller – The Very Last Resort

Mercan Dede – 800

Sergei Rachmaninoff – Rachmaninov

Alison Krauss – Lonely Runs Both Ways

John Hiatt – Hiatt Comes Alive At Budokan?

Booka Shade – Memento

Avishai Cohen – Aurora

  

By the way the Quads are still available on eBay, last few remaining. Other speakers shown for comparison.

 

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Taken on October 11, 2010