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Quad, one of the most respected British hi-fi brands, have been producing high quality expensive hi-fi for many decades now. The 34 is no exception in either respect, though, now that it's been superseded a few times, it can be picked up for under £200 if you're lucky.
The 34 is an elegant-looking piece of equipment for something produced in the eighties - it's roughly twelve inches wide, eight inches deep and three inches high, and has a large volume dial to the right, with Quad's trademark tilt and bass controls - which are long, flat rotary knobs, to its left. The source and filter selection buttons are over to the left, along with a small LED next to each. The 34 comes in two different colours: early models were finished in a powder-metallic brown with yellow source selectors and black filter buttons; later models in a much more 21st-century-friendly powder-metallic grey with dark grey source selectors and light grey filter buttons. The 34 is the smaller (and, in my opinion, neater and more attractive) brother of the 44 - a vastly configurable amplifier with many different input modules available. You don't lose much functionality choosing a 34 over a 44, but you do lose one input. Despite the Quad being a small and quite lightweight amplifier, it's a very solid piece of kit. It survived the fall from my hi-fi shelf (see my review of the 405-2 for details on that very nearly heartbreaking mishap) without so much as a scratch. I try not to drop-test my hi-fi, especially this beauty!
In addition to the two different colours, two different output configurations were also produced. Earlier models carried 5-pin DIN sockets for each input except the turntable; later models used the standard twin phono sockets. You'll also find a 3-pin kettle-style power output on the back, which is switched by the main power switch - handy for daisy-chaining your 405-2 power amplifier and FM4 tuner in. The 34 has four inputs: tuner, tape, CD and turntable, and Quad produced various turntable input modules.
The 34 is only a preamplifier, which means that you'll have to seek out a separate power amplifier, though often the 34 is sold with a Quad 405 or 405-2 power amplifier (see my separate review for details on what I consider to be the finest power amplifier ever made). So, rather than speaker terminals, the Quad is equipped with a line-level output - again, on earlier models this is a 4-pin DIN; later models, I believe, use two phono plugs.
There's no tricky configuring to do with the Quad - just plug everything in where it's meant to go and you're away; press a button to select a source, and the light by it lights up (the Tape button toggles tape monitor on/off). The simplicity of the kit is one of the things that attracts me to it - the front panel is clean and the controls are simple and well-labelled. It's incredibly understated - the Quad name appears in 3mm-high lettering under the bass lift and tilt controls. Whilst the balance control, a lever which moves around the volume knob, moves smoothly, the volume, bass lift and tilt controls have a click to them. The volume control moves from 0 to 21 in steps which give the unit a feel of much higher quality than any normal volume control, either digital or analogue. The bass lift and tilt controls have these steps so that separate circuits can be used - this results in a much higher quality when such sound enhancements are used.
Perhaps the first slightly odd thing you notice about Quad's amplifier is that the two tone controls aren't, as you might expect, bass and treble. One is labelled "Tilt", and provides a linear bias across the frequency spectrum. Put into plain English, that means you can add a steady increase in volume going from bass towards treble, or the other way round. This is a lot better than the traditional "tone" control, or even separate bass/treble controls, as it means that the music retains its original character - you don't change the emphasis in the music. If you like your music with a little more bass, or indeed a little more top-end, the tilt control performs admirably - most amplifiers will make the treble sound too tinny, or take half the mid-range with them; not so the Quad - to the extent that you only really know that the tilt is in use when you've just changed it. The reason for these controls being long flat controls now becomes obvious: put a little tilt on, and you can see from the other side of the room the shape of the tilt that you've just applied. You can see that a lot of thought has gone into this one - the design is absolutely flawless.
Quad's controls are aimed towards solving the acoustic problems in your room and with your speakers than to change the characteristic of the sound - they aim for "the closest approach to the original sound". The 34 has little effect on the sound unless you're using one of the audio controls, meaning it's up to your power amplifier and speakers how things sound.
The second rotary control on the front of the Quad is labelled "Bass Lift / Step". Turn this one anticlockwise and it'll make the sound drop off below a certain frequency; this is designed to eliminate problems with reverberations which happen especially when you put your speakers in the corners of a room. It's not designed for people who don't like their music bassy, in the same way as the Tilt control is designed to modify the sound to compensate for the acoustics of your listening room.
Turn the Bass Lift / Step control clockwise, and (you can tell this is good because I've devoted a whole paragraph to it) you get up to 9dB of boost to the lower end of the spectrum. This is the most amazingly clean, refined bass enhancement I have ever heard. Designed to remedy problems in loudspeakers with poor bass response, this control does so much more than just that. If your CD player doesn't have much oomph to it, notch the bass lift up to 3dB and suddenly you've got it back. If you've bought a CD that sounds "compressed" (no matter how much is going on, it's always at full volume), give it a little bass lift and suddenly your bass comes back. Push it up to 9dB and watch your speakers don't fall off the shelf. The effect this has is simply incredible, especially on tracks with strong, punchy bass lines. Throw the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Aeroplane" at it - I guarantee you'll have heard nothing like it. Yeah, so every amplifier has a bass boost button. No amplifier can hope to provide such a clean lift as the Quad. Somehow, it manages to provide such a smooth increase in the bass frequencies that, not only is all the bass made louder and clearer, but it doesn't take any of the midrange with it. The effect overall is just phenomenal - not even a dedicated subwoofer can produce anything even halfway towards what the Quad manages to do with a simple pair of bookshelf speakers and a 405-2 power amplifier.
The Quad is also equipped with a few filter controls to improve the perceived sound quality of older recordings and poor FM reception. These filters seem as impeccably designed as the bass lift and step controls - you simply can't fault them. There are two filters available: one provides a small drop in the high end of the frequency range, the other provides a similar effect to a greater extent. A third button allows these filters to be brought in at a slightly lower frequency. Where there's hiss in the input to the Quad, these filters do an incredibly good job of removing it. You will lose some of the detail, but that's inevitable if you have a poor recording. I'd challenge you to find a neater way of removing FM noise. The FM4 tuner (Quad's FM tuner in the same range as the 34 preamp) comes with no option to limit the output to mono, so the 34 provides a mono switch to allow this.
For an amplifier made in the 1980s, the Quad provides more functionality than you can shake the proverbial stick at, and in better quality. It's hard to find anything in the second-hand market that competes with the Quad - it's an absolute bargain at £200. It's easy on the eye, too - you may think that a design over twenty years old would look outdated, but it'd certainly be at home in a modern room. There's just one problem with it - it's absolutely impossible to find anything to match it. Quad didn't introduce a CD player into their range until the CD67 several years later. I've got a Marantz CD6000OSE, which probably doesn't do justice to the fine Quad amplifier, but has similar sound characteristics. It's not hard, if you look around, to find modern equipment that sonically matches the Quad, and the effort is well worth it.
When I write about my Quad equipment, I feel impassioned to say that I love it. The true beauty of the Quad equipment, though, is that, sonically, there is no special thing that it does that you could fall in love with - it doesn't stick its footprints all over the sound. Put a CD into your CD player, put it through a Quad amplifier, and it sounds as if you're there. It doesn't need any trickery to do this - it is simply the nicest preamplifier to my ears, and one of the simplest to use. If you want the closest approach to the original sound, this is it - and, not only does it sound like it's worth twice its price, it also feels it. Is there anything at all I can fault this on? Not in the slightest.