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The arrival of the Esoteric A03 review amplifier (2 x 50 watts in pure class A) proved that the issue did not reside solely with the SQ-PH1t but in its interaction with my Genesis GR360, a pure-bred class D amp of finest pedigree and absolute ruthlessness. When the GR360 was replaced by the A03, noise levels dropped significantly although they did not disappear completely but it now was possible to push the attenuator all the way to noon without jeopardizing overall resolution. More importantly, all I now heard was relatively innocuous transformer hum rather than higher-pitched tube noise (said transformer hum can also be heard from the amplifier directly at turn on but quickly disappears after a few minutes of warm-up).

Information taken from both Steve Monte of Quest for Sound and Gary Koh of Genesis confirmed that the association was indeed the issue. A similar phenomenon was observed by Steve Monte with other D-class amplifiers, especially the faster kind like Genesis and NuForce. Any tube noise seems to be picked up by those switching amps and or more likely as indicated by Gary Koh, isn’t "averaged out". I am not sure anybody fully understood the specifics but what I had started suspecting with the tubed NAT preamplifier was confirmed with the SQ-PH-1t: tube noise sounds far worse through some switching amps than conventional amplifiers, be those tube or solid state. It takes a completely silent piece of tube equipment to make for a good partnership. The NAT preamp is one such piece although failing tubes were easily noticeable. The more noise-prone SQ-PH-1t did not fare so well until the A03 arrived.

My following comments then are based on listening with the A03 amplifier. Consider association with a class-D amp with caution at least until you’ve had a chance to test it yourself. Once the antagonistic relationship was identified and removed, the SQ-PH-1t proved to be a very easy-to-listen-and-love phono pre. As delivered, it is clearly midrange centric with sweet and lush voices while both ends of the spectrum are shelved down. Comfort and ease are the key words, no sharp edges nor lightning reflexes, just enjoyable smoothness. Think vintage red Porto on a late summer night.

The SQ-PH-1t can do dynamics when called for and certainly throws a wide and deep soundstage but imaging will bring up soft transitions between musicians and instruments rather than clear edges and outlines. This was far more obvious with an imaging champion like the VPI Scout than my own Acoustic Solid whose strength is more top-to-bottom consistency and transparency than surgical imaging, both traits not necessarily as well exploited by the SQ-PH-1t. As I got to know the SQ-PH-1t, it became very clear why the association with the SoundQuest SQ-H10 hornspeaker had been so successful.

The speakers have a very 'outgoing' upper midrange and treble while the SQ-PH-1t counters with a gentle sweetening touch to a treble that could at times become aggressive otherwise. The SQ-H10 speakers also added reflexes and speed which do not necessarily count amongst the SQ-PH-1t’s strongest attributes. When pairing the SQ-PH-1t phono stage with the 86dB FJ OMs and McIntosh MA2275—a system of great transparency and midrange veracity but not famous for lightning-fast transients—the SoundQuest phono preamp played to its strengths. Voices were simply amazing while Rock and large orchestral pieces could have used a few extra shots of caffeine.

In my main system, records like Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around proved just how good the SQ-PH-1t can be on such closely mike, intimate recordings of the human voice. You can hear strain in the voice of a tired Cash far better with the SQ-PH-1t than ASR Mini Basis Exclusive for example. The ASR will nail the accompanying guitars and imaging far better but I doubt anybody would trade vocal intensity for imaging, not on this album anyway. Surprisingly the little Clearaudio Nano didn’t do half as bad as expected. It was not as detailed or transparent as the other two but picking its omissions with care, it actually gave an elegant and balanced presentation of this record.

Another album where the SoundQuest truly shone was the Speaker Corners reissue of Mozart’s Horn and Clarinet Concertos directed by Peter Maag for Decca. The lush and midrange-focused sonority of the SQ-PH-1t loves horns and clarinets to give them voice-like qualities, which is really enticing. Similarly to the Johnny Cash album, the Nano did a good job at picking its omissions while the SQ-PH-1t focused and enhanced the soloists and the ASR excelled at painting a detailed and wide orchestra with a more realistic yet not quite as exciting presentation of the solo horn or clarinet. The SQ-PH-1t clearly does not play the game of extreme resolution or absolute neutrality. Instead it takes what tubes do best (whether you find this a good or bad thing is a question of taste) and delivers plenty of that.

Nothing proved that better than Beethoven’s first Piano Concerto played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. The right hand was elegant, tonally superb and playing to the pianist’s delicate touch while the left hand and lower strings lacked in control, again very typical of what one would expect of vintage tube gear – midrange beauty and some weaknesses at the extremes.