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Frederic Beudot
Financial Interests: click here
Source :Esoteric X03SE, Weiss Minerva [in for review], Acoustic Solid Classic Wood, AS WTB211, Grado Reference Sonata 1, Denon DL103, Clearaudio Nano, Audia Flight FL Phono [on loan], ASR Mini-Basis Exclusive [in for review], Esoteric E03 [in for review]
Preamp/Integrated: Esoteric C03 [on loan], Wyred 4 Sound STP
Speakers: McIntosh MA2275, Genesis GR360 & MDHR, Esoteric A03 [in for review]
Headphone: Musical Fidelity Xcanv3, AKG K701
Cables: Zu Varial, Zu Libtec, Slinkylinks RCA copper, Esoteric Mexcel balanced interconnects [on loan]
Power Cords: Zu Mother, Accustic Arts Ferrite 2 [on loan], Isotek Elite [on loan]
Powerline conditioning: Monster Power HTS5100mkII, Isotek Titan [on loan], Isotek Nova [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics and good 'ol wooden chest
Room size: 12' x 13.5' x 8'
Review component retail: $1595

Part II of my series on phono preamplifiers visits SoundQuest’s SQ-PH-1t, one of the two tube phono stages currently included in the program. With its wooden face plate typical of SoundQuest gear, the SQ-PH-1t departs somewhat from what would otherwise have been a fairly industrial looking box with six tubes, two switches and a knob. No offense meant to the designer but - when sitting next to the superb Esoteric E03 or Audia Flight or even the semi-transparent ASR Mini Basis Exclusive, comparisons are hard to avoid. That said, an Ongaku too would look under-dressed in a similar situation. It is also hard not to be reminded that the SQ-PH-1t, made in China, plays in a different league. It really should be judged against true competitors, not the outstanding but far pricier phono stages sitting in my music room right now. So although I may mention the E03 or Flight Phono on occasion, comparison will mostly rely on the Clearaudio Nano ($300) and the ASR Mini Basis Exclusive ($3000) for reference. Neither match the price of the SQ-PH-1t closely but provided enough context for analysis.

The SQ-PH-1t utilizes six Chinese tubes (4x 12AX7, 2x 6G2) for gain and power regulation. The phono stage offers two separate inputs for MM and MC cartridges. The first offers a total gain of 40dB, MC enlists the second pair of 12AX7 tubes to reach 66dB gain for low output cartridges. Loading adjustment is not possible for either MM or MC. If I can easily understand the omission of capacitive loading for MM, I have a harder time accepting the lack of flexibility with MC cartridges. The $300 Clearaudio Nano or the $450 Jolida JD-9A both offer a simple way of adjusting the load. You may look at it as a tweak for obsessive audiophiles. My experiences with the Flight Phono and ASR Mini basis confirmed however that it is a very critical step in a system - at least with my Denon DL103 but I don’t think the Denon atypical amongst MC pickups.

A feature of the SQ-PH1t that you may or may not find desirable is the large range of attenuation achievable through a volume knob on the front fascia. The admitted objective is to offer the ability to connect the phono stage directly to a power amplifier in a one source system. I personally question the likelihood of this scenario though versus the unavoidable loss of resolution from unnecessary attenuation and additional circuitry.

On the positive side, even if a cursory look at the SQ-PH-1t could seem to indicate more humble origins, built quality is surprisingly high. The enclosure, tube cage and transformers are far heavier and substantial than I had expected and seem well damped. The RCA connectors inspire confidence and are chassis-mounted; the grounding posts (two for reasons I cannot guess) are massive. All in all, it is a very well put together preamplifier with better parts quality that one would expect. It explains a price that would otherwise seem quite high (a Jolida JD-9A goes for less than a third but does not offer the same construction quality).

The SQ-PH-1t comes with a set of four Isol-pads and I strongly encourage using them. They have a very beneficial impact on transient clarity. While on performance optimization, an upgraded power cord is no luxury though I found little benefit in going all the way to pricey cords like the Accustic Arts Ferrite II. The far cheaper Isotek Elite worked very well in this context. I strongly urge potential owners to drop the metallic sleeves included on the tubes. I heard absolutely no benefit on RFI shielding when they were on but far more detail when they were off. Quality tube damping and shielding may be valuable but the stock solution was detrimental in my setup at least.

My initial impression of the SQ-PH1t after burn-in (count about 30 hours of music playing for the unit to settle) was not overwhelming. It was definitely out of line with the exciting sound I had heard at Quest for Sound a couple of weeks prior. As mentioned, testing power cords and removing the tube sleeves allowed for significant improvements but one question remained unsolved. Initially the unit proved excessively noisy, more than I would consider acceptable at any price on a phono pre. I could not get above 9 o’clock on the unit’s volume control without very high levels of tube rush. Thankfully my system offers far more gain than necessary. I could easily operate with smaller upfront gain. But then, 97dB speakers fronted by a 360-watt amplifier are hardly common, are they?