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Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Digital Source: Musical Fidelity A5 CD, Accuphase DP55
Amplifier: Musical Fidelity A5, McIntosh MA2275, Onix SP3
Speakers: FJ OMs, Rogers LS 3/5a
Headphone system: Musical Fidelity Xcanv3, AKG K701
Cables: Zu Gede, Zu Libtec, Slinkylinks RCA and XLR [on loan]
Power Cords: Cobalt Ultimate
Powerline conditioning: Monster Power HTS5100mkII
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics and speakers, Standesign stand
Room size: 15' x 30' opening to 3 other rooms. Short wall setup
Review component retail: $1,200

Just another upsampling Chinese CD player? That probably was your first reaction when faced with today's review. It would have been mine as well if said player had not been authored by Steve Monte of Quest for Sound and NAT distribution. The man has an uncanny ability to detect great value performance as his introduction to the US of both Opera Audio and Raysonic has already aptly demonstrated. He also is the one who 18 months ago told me "You have to listen to these!" as he was referring to the FJ OMs speakers, John Potis' product of the year 2005 and my reference speaker ever since. So when Steve Monte mentioned a few months ago that he was "very happy" with his new CD player, I could have discarded it as usual marketing hype but decided to actually give it a listen instead, trusting there could be more than met the eye at first.

The SQ-12 is the fourth upsampling digital source going through my system this year but unlike the three others it does not claim any magical technical solution to this or that ailment traditionally plaguing musical reproduction. The Musical Fidelity A5 has its secret chip and rare tube output stage; the Atoll CD200 its specially damped mechanism; the Headroom DAC module its completely balanced architecture with dual DACs - but in the end they all sound unremarkably similar. Small differences can be detected through careful analytical listening but they all offer a dynamic, detailed, neutral presentation with a touch of sterility and remaining digital glare throughout as well as great extension at both ends of the spectrum - overall solid, rhythmic and unbiased sources to be flavored at will with other components. That's what they have been designed to do and they do it very well but nothing to get really excited about as John Potis wrote in his review of the A5 CD player. That's in a nutshell what I was expecting of the SQ-12, thinking its value resided mainly in its aggressive pricing. I was right about the aggressive pricing but had it all wrong when it came to its true value.

Let's get the obvious out of the way first: the SQ-12 has a maple front plate which gives it a fairly unique look and guaranteed wife appeal compared to some of the tank-like alternatives on the market. It will match flawlessly Sound Quest's other gear as well as the recently reviewed Almarro A318B and will be non-obtrusive in most interiors. Yet despite the emphasis put by the brochure on this feature and the wooden remote, this is not why you will want to listen to the SQ-12.

Of more interest will be the existence of both balanced and RCA outputs of good quality but the player is not balanced by design and the XLR connectors are offered for convenience rather than sonic benefit as was confirmed by my listening sessions. I believe I could discern slightly blacker backgrounds in balanced mode but it could as well have been the balanced input of the McIntosh amplifier or the balanced Zu Gede cables that caused this. The good news is that you will be able to enjoy the full musicality of this player whether your preamp of choice accepts balanced connections or not.

A little less satisfying was the overall convenience of use. I really don't mind the power switch hidden under the front of the player. It is actually a nice aesthetic touch once you've read the manual and figured out how to turn the player on and off (what reviewer does read a manual, I ask you?). Since it is all solid state, I just left it on most of the time anyway. I was a little less happy with the fact that the open/close button is actually the third and furthest away from the tray, contrary to any other CD player I have ever seen and resulting in many confused button pushes over the initial first weeks. In the same slightly annoying category was the fact that the two RCA outputs are located so close together that tightening locking RCA plugs is almost impossible without leaving serious marks on the plugs (even the non-locking Eichmann bullet plugs of the Slinkylinks rubbed against each other). Considering the amount of room on the back of the player, this oversight seems hard to understand or justify.

The remote is a very hefty chunk of wood, very stylish too but because of weight and sharp edges I do not recommend leaving it around if you have small children - a drop of the remote on a small foot will generate ample tears and cries (don't ask me how I know). Thankfully, any remote using Philips' IR protocol will work just fine so if you have young kids, just store the heavy piece of wood until your children know better than to try and play with it and instead use the cheap plastic controller provided with any player costing far more than the SQ-12.

Finally, Sound-Quest includes four of their Isol-pads to use for shelf contact instead of the player's rubber feet. As my past experiences have proven that those pads do indeed provide significant improvements and all my equipment currently sits on them, I did not consider it necessary to test the player with and without pads. The pads come standard and therefore I did all my listening with the SQ12 resting on four Isol-pads, just like any other player it was compared to.

To cut though the chase, the best way to share my first impressions of the SQ12 is to reproduce the content of an email I sent Srajan after a few weeks of audition and which still holds true after over three months: "The SQ12 is a sublime piece, very smooth and almost analog sounding. I had not realized the MF A5CD had some of the digital glare (not much yet some) that some of the high bit, high sampling rate players exhibit, until I put the SQ12 in my system."

At that time, I had absolutely no idea that the SQ12 was a filterless design. I only found out about this characteristic a few days before starting to write down my already formed impressions. The most interesting part? I had so far taken the claims of the filterless community with a grain a salt and here I was, claiming for the SQ-12 the very attributes that the absence of digital and analogical filters is supposed to confer on a CD player. It is hard to explain what this digital glare sounds like but it is fairly easy to detect when missing. Its absence usually translates into a more natural reproduction, a better definition of space, a feeling, hard to define, that one is not listening to a recorded event any more which in turn translates to a more relaxing listening experience.

It is especially true on vocal music and smaller classical ensembles where the SQ12 absolutely shines. Over the past few weeks I have gone through most of my collection of operas to enjoy the increased level of realism injected to the voices of my favorite singers and capture the smallest inflections and nuances that they are capable of, but also their weaknesses, just like they would have come through in an opera house.

In Don Giovanni directed by Sir Georg Solti [Decca 455 500-2], Bryn Terfel is a very dark Don Juan, inhabited more by the disenchantment at the heart of the character in Moliere's play than by the careless seduction usually attributed to the Don in Mozart's opera. His dark baritone tone fully expands with all its power through the SQ12, a performance usually reserved to far more expensive players. Tenor voices too are in for a treat; Herbert Lippert's Ottavio came across as a fragile and doubting young man but this time I was also able to appreciate the elegance of his timbre and as with Terfel, the subtle nuances he adds to his lines.

On the other hand, John Vickers' somewhat nasal tone did not really appreciate this extra dose of realism as I quickly found out in Verdi's Aida [Decca 417 416-2] - some things are just better left slightly veiled. On the bright side, Sir Georg Solti's ultra precise direction allowed me to discover another strength of the SQ12: soundstaging. With a well-recorded orchestra, the SQ12 delivered the deepest soundstage I have heard in my house so far, extending far behind the speakers and presenting layers of instruments, singers and choirs as they must have been laid out for the recording session, plainly contributing to the enhanced impression of playback realism.

While I was able to fully enjoy this recording of Aida, one of the limitations of the SQ12 also became obvious. On the most complex and loaded passages of the opera when both chorus and orchestra join with all their might, the presentation of the SQ12 sounded just a little dynamically limited and compressed. To ensure that it was not just a limitation of the CD, I played the same passages through the A5 CD player which handled the tuttis with greater ease, never seeming to reach its dynamic limit while also never revealing the same tonal complexity and nuances as the SQ12.

On Leonard Cohen's I'm your Man album [CBS 460642-2], his voice is already miked extremely closely, making any system tuned for midrange glory really shine but with the SQ12, the spotlight effect on Cohen's voice was even more pronounced than usual. Though this player is all transistors, it exhibits the ability of tubed gear to pick, highlight and magnify a part or another of the midrange while throwing the rest of the music further into the background than usual. Surprisingly to me, the A5 with its tube output stage was far more linear than the solid-state SQ12 and completely avoided this type of spotlight effect for a more true-to-the-recording if less involving rendition of the music..

When I cued up another of my usual musical delights, Renaud Garcia-Fons' Oriental Bass [ENJ 9334-2], a few other characteristics of the SQ-12 became obvious. Its bass reproduction is definitely not as tight and controlled as what the A5 CD player can deliver and is a little lifted in what seemed to be the same frequency range as the FJ OM speakers. This yielded a bass presentation that seemed to have quite a few extra pounds and lacked the punch and nimbleness I expected. On this type of music, all about dynamic contrasts, attacks and speed, the A5 outshone the SQ12. On the other hand, the same disc played through the
lean, somewhat dryer and faster Musical Fidelity XCanV3 benefited greatly from the slightly warm SQ12 presentation and its relaxed reproduction of bass notes. Coupled with the Slinkylinks silver cables, the presentation was quite magical indeed and I would expect the SQ12 to be especially successful with systems and speakers in need of a little extra dose of warmth and fluidity. It may not be the right candidate if you are into 'edge of your seat' presentations and massive dynamic contrast with huge jump factor.

That said, I actually enjoyed the Gorillaz' eponymous CD [Virgin 7243 533748 0 8] on this system as the boomy upper bass reminded me somewhat of my younger years when I was hearing their music through portable stereos that could only reproduce one indistinct note below 100Hz – nothing that dramatic here of course but the Gorillaz and boomy bass have always seemed to go together for me since then.

Oriental Bass also confirmed that if the A5 could throw a wall-to-wall image, it was relatively flat whereas over the SQ12, while almost as broad, it also revealed instruments in their holographic positioning with a lot more precision where especially depth and layers of
musicians were easier to identify. The last attribute of the SQ12 that must be mentioned is a slightly foreshortened top end. Where the upper midrange and lower treble are gorgeous, with sopranos just as intensely rendered as their male counterparts, when it comes to the shimmer of cymbals or the full impact of metallic percussion, I always felt the very last level of extension was missing when compared to the A5.

On Haydn's Paris Symphonies directed by Karajan [Deutsche Gramophon 419 741-2], all the relative strengths and weaknesses of both players really came to a head in the fourth movement of Symphony 82 which is a lively, fast-paced piece with a dominating presence of the violins, oboes and flutes (a theme often said to be reminiscent of a dancing bear, hence the "Bear" nickname for this symphony). The A5's presentation was more dynamic and faster sounding, more agile and more airy than the SQ12's but very quickly it became also obvious that a slight stridency could be heard in the strings which sounded a lot more monotone and metallic than with the Sound Quest player. Again in this piece, both players threw a wide stage left to right but only the SQ12 managed to conjure up credible front to back layering of the instrumental sections. At first the openness, airiness and speed of the A5 was extremely compelling but over time the more complex and articulated presentation of the SQ12, though a little sluggish at times, won me over. With faster and leaner speakers than my FJs, the SQ12 would probably be an easy pick. In my system optimized for tone density and midbass opulence, it sometimes turned out to be too much of a good thing.

As I was preparing to wrap up this review I was lucky enough to hear the SQ12 in two other systems and even though it was only for a couple hours each, it allowed me to confirm all the great things I had heard in my own and learn a few more. The first system used FJ OM speakers but the amplifier was a SoundQuest SQ88 and I was able to compare the SQ12 to the Blue Moon award Raysonic CD128. Unquestionably, the Raysonic has a more open top end and its resolution throughout exceeds that of the SQ12. It is also more dynamic, truly justifying its award - yet the SQ12's ability with voices revealed a little more presence and palpability. Considering that the CD128 is 50% more expensive, the SQ12 confirmed that it is a great option if mated with the right gear; and the Raysonic that it is a more balanced, resolved and overall superior performer but not by a 50% margin. The famous law of diminishing returns clearly kicks in above the SQ12 price/performance level.

And speaking of perfect mates... I was also able to audition another Blue Moon award winner, the Mark & Daniel Ruby speakers, with amplification duties upheld by the promising Monrio MJ integrated. To put it simply, the Rubys are everything that people claim they are. Yes, the real paradigm shift is in the bass, deeper, tighter and more dynamic than should be possible from such a small woofer in this size cabinet; but what I had not expected was the level of resolution the Rubys are capable of – just oodles of details come at you in a huge soundstage. The midrange, though not quite as rich, weighty and nuanced as I would have liked, was highly resolved, airy, open and thoroughly coherent. That's where the smooth warmth of the SQ12, its gently rolled-off upper treble and its supple way with tones and inflections came as a perfect mate for the very resolved and aerated Rubys. Bass presentations were also very complementary, a little loose with the SQ12 to avoid sounding mechanical, tight with the Rubys to avoid losing control. Clearly both pieces of gear occupy the antipodes in term of musical presentations. Sometimes those arranged marriages work, sometimes they don't. Let's just say that in this case, I believe we have a winning team.

To sum it up, the SQ12's presentation is relaxed and focuses on accuracy and nuances in the midrange, note decays and imaging at the expense of the extremes of the frequency range and ultimate micro and macro dynamics, all this in a successful attempt to approach what keeps vinyl so attractive and alive for many people. If there has ever been a player exemplifying the alleged strengths and weaknesses of filterless designs, it would have to be the SQ12. I am really glad I did not learn of this aspect until way after my opinion was formed to know that I was not influenced in my judgment by a preconceived idea about what the player should sound like.

Of course the very best analog and digital sources will have the strengths of the SQ12 and none of its weaknesses - but none will do it all for $1,200. The SQ12 will be a great choice in any system in need of a little more soul, midrange elegance and overall supple warmth as was the case with my headphone rig or the M&D Rubys.

All in all, the SQ12 is among the most realistic and enjoyable players I have heard so far when it comes to reproduction of vocal music and small classical ensembles, a not so common quality that exceeds what its asking price would lead you to believe. One thing is for certain, this is not just another upsampling Chinese CD player. It is a very elegant if somewhat specialized musical instrument highly recommended for anybody with a slightly romanticized nostalgia for what vinyl used to sound like.
Quality of packing: Double cardboard box with solid foam inserts.
Reusability of packing: Can be reused at least once, easily more if not abused.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Very easy, remote control taped to box to prevent damage while shipped.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Included one set of Isol-Pads footers, a wooden remote control, a basic power cord and a full-size brochure.
Quality of owner's manual: Computer printout, simple but complete.
Website comments: Very minimal information on Quest for Sound's website.
Warranty: 2 years.
Global distribution: Sound Quest, Steve Monte's brand, is assembled in the US from parts sourced in China, for distribution in the US only at this point.
Human interactions: Professional and courteous, timely responses to questions, very quick shipment.
Other: Both balanced and single ended outputs, rare at this price point
Pricing: Competes on build and musical quality with units up to twice its price.
Application conditions: Mandates high quality interconnects and power cables to fully exploit all the nuances it is capable of (Zu and Slinkylinks cables both made great mates).
Final comments & suggestions: A very serious opportunity to save on both a CD player and a turntable to spend the money on music instead.
Manufacturer's website