July 2007Sound Quest SQ-12 CD Player
by John Crossett
What should you expect if you upgrade from an inexpensive CD player to one that crosses the thousand-dollar threshold? Should your new CD player be merely competent across the board, albeit somewhat better than the player you already have, or should it have traits that are truly exceptional? Similarly, just how much engineering and R&D should be allotted to a player in this price range? After all, there are inexpensive alternatives available -- some that are actually quite good. There are more expensive units out there as well -- many that are truly exceptional. What does this kind of money buy you these days in terms of Red Book replay?
These questions, and a few others, popped into my head when I was asked to review the Sound Quest SQ-12 CD player, which retails for $1200 USD. Just what would be arriving on my doorstep? One hellaciously good-looking piece of audio gear, that's for sure. With its gorgeous maple faceplate, this understated CD player will certainly pass the looks test with flying colors. But weve all seen audio equipment that looks fabulous without being able to back up those good looks with commensurate sound quality. Would the SQ-12 fall into this category, or would it transcend it and surprise me with top-notch performance to match its looks?
Are you tired yet of rhetorical questions?
Nuts and bolts
Once you tear your eyes away from that beautiful front panel, youll find that there are a number of other things about the SQ-12 that may make it more than merely attractive. Inside youll find a Crystal CS4396KS 24-bit/192kHz multilevel sigma-delta DAC with synchronous upsampling. What you wont find is any form of filter, either digital brickwall or analog. Sound Quest decided not to use any filter at all. Jitter is kept to a reported low of 12 picoseconds; the SQ-12's Sony KSS 2130 transport mechanism deserves some credit here.
That lovely wooden faceplate has a few blemishes -- the disc drawer, the display, three buttons and a large knob along with the logo and front panel info. All are black except for the display, which lights up a soft blue when the SQ-12 is in use, and the logo, which is stamped into the wood. This makes for an understated elegance that is sure to please the eye. The display is not adjustable, but it isnt obnoxiously bright. It is, however, small and hard to read from across a room. Knobs are uncommon on CD players, but the one here is for track advance/rewind, which is handled simply by turning it one way or the other.
You may by this point be asking where the power switch is. "Power" is stamped near the bottom edge of the faceplate, but there is no associated front-panel button. Some groping underneath along the front of the unit yields the switch, hidden away from prying hands. Cute, but inconvenient. Of course, if Id bothered to read the manual first I would have found that piece of information right there in the first line.
The remote is a solid, square-edged rectangle made of the same wood as the front panel and with black metal plates top and bottom. Dont drop it on your foot unless dancing around your listening room on one foot cursing the audio gods is your idea of a good time -- the thing is no lightweight, and those square edges hurt. Curiously enough, the remote does not include power or open/close buttons, or numeric choices. It does include Mute, CH+, CH-, Vol+, and Vol-, none of which is used by the SQ-12. The other issue I have with the remote is that in order to access the battery holder you have to take the entire top plate off -- with an Allen wrench, which is not included.
Around back things get more interesting. Youll see the digital output, the IEC power-cord receptacle, and the output jacks -- both single-ended and balanced. The SQ-12 isnt truly balanced -- no dual differential DACs and redundant circuitry. The balanced outputs were added for user convenience. Still, its nice to see balanced outputs on a player in the SQ-12s price range, as they show a commitment to quality, even if they may not lead to improved sound.
The SQ-12 clocks in at 17"W x 3 1/4"H x 11 1/2"D and a solid 22 pounds. It's assembled and packaged right here in the US from a chassis and circuit boards built overseas. Sound Quest is Stephen Monte's brand; he's the US distributor for a number of audio brands, many from Asia. Stephen includes a set of four Isol-Pads along with the SQ-12. These ribbed-rubber/cork/ribbed-rubber squares are designed to be used as footers instead of the attached hard-rubber numbers, and they are a nice bonus.
Sound Quest sound quality
The SQ-12 requires plenty of run-in before it begins to show how good it is. I had it on constantly for two weeks and it still continued to improve sonically as time passed. If you take one home for an audition make sure it has been well burned in. A weekend will definitely not be enough time with a fresh machine to let you truly hear what its capable of.
Also, make sure to give the SQ-12 between 15 and 30 minutes warm up, so the internal parts can stabilize, before you do any serious listening. I also noted that the SQ-12 sounded similar whether I used the single-ended or balanced outputs. The sound may have been a tad better from the balanced outs, but the difference wasnt great enough to spend any time worrying about. Id suggest just using whatever interconnects you have handy. I ended up using the balanced throughout the review.
The first thing to consider when auditioning the SQ-12 is that this is not a player that will grab your attention right off the bat. The SQ-12 kind of creeps up on you. One minute youre listening to what seems like ordinary sound, and then, as time goes by, you stop paying attention to the audiophile in you and suddenly find that the SQ-12 puts on a well-balanced musical show.
Once the SQ-12 was fully run-in, it had one of the juiciest top ends Ive ever heard. There was good weight, bite and a nice sense of the recording's space. On Eric T. Johnsons Herbie Nichols Vol. 1 [Summit DCD 351], the guitar overtones were spot on, fully fleshed out and very well reproduced. Via the SQ-12, the sound of the drummers sticks dancing on the brass cymbals was among the best Ive heard it. When I played Daniel Barenboims newly remastered CD of Mozarts Wind Concertos [EMI 7243 476918 2 9], the SQ-12 clearly defined and delineated all of the wind instruments -- no small feat.
If you like gobs of detail, the SQ-12 can deliver in spades. When I played "Drum Thunder Suite" from the Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers classic Moanin [Blue Note 7243 4 95324 2 7], I was completely captivated listening to Blakey run through his drum kit. Every whack, smack, rim shot, and wooden drum stick striking brass cymbal or drum head was acutely reproduced. On the Barenboim Mozart CD, each breath the reed instrumentalists took was there to hear. Not only does the SQ-12 retrieve all that detail, but does so in a musically coherent manner -- no spotlighting or microscoping.
Soundstaging was commendably deep, though it didnt stretch much beyond the outside boundaries of the speakers. When excited -- when playing music at too high a level -- the SQ-12 tended to push the midband forward, which lessened the believability at the heart of any listening session. Listened to at a reasonable level, the SQ-12 offers a row-F perspective.
The SQ-12 is also not the lightest on it feet when playing very bass-heavy music. It can begin to sound a bit ponderous when playing back a bassist such as Stanley Clarke or Marcus Miller -- when they get into a groove on their electric bass guitars. Alan Taylors Hotels & Dreamers [Stockfisch SFR 357.6028.2] demonstrated this well. The opening song, "The Beat Hotel," is a sung/spoken tune that depends on the bass to drive it along. When reproduced correctly, it flows slowly but smoothly. The SQ-12 slowed the pace just enough to rob the song of some of its momentum, thereby taking a bit of the rhythm away.
All of what I describe above was what I heard when using the SQ-12 as it came -- with its stock power cord and Isol-Pad footers. But when I replaced the power cord with a Harmonic Technology Pro AC-11, things took a huge turn for the better. I certainly didnt anticipate such a dramatic difference. Definition of instruments improved. Male vocals, which had exhibited a bit too much chestiness, now sounded alive and more realistic. Overall cohesiveness improved as well. If you are going to consider purchasing the Sound Quest SQ-12, you should plan on budgeting the cost of a good replacement power cord so that you can get the best out of the player.
Spurred on by what the change in power cord had wrought, I swapped out the Sound Quest footers for my normal Symposium Svelte Shelf/Rollerblock Series 2+/Smaller Svelte shelf setup, which really kicked the SQ-12 into high gear. This elevated the SQ-12 from the realm of a simply good, competent CD player to one that could hold its own in far more exalted company. On her smash Careless Love [Rounder 11661-3192-2], Madeline Peyroux was front and center, a 3D person singing. Her voice had that husky, world-weariness that causes so many people to compare her to Billie Holiday. Every inflection and every nuance was conveyed in a whole and natural way. Each instrument was alive in its own sonic space. This was quite a different presentation from that of the stock SQ-12 -- and a definite improvement.
The album that showed off the tweaked SQ-12 to it absolute best was Coleman Hawkins' The Hawk Relaxes [Moodsville/Prestige PRCD-8106-2]. The SQ-12 really nailed the mood of this album: laid-back, gentle and melodic. Each of the five instruments -- Hawkins tenor, Kenny Burrells guitar, Ronnell Brights piano, Ron Carters bass, and Andrew Cyrilles drums -- had its own space, though it was the interaction among them, each tonally correct and full-bodied, that made the music come alive.
Properly tweaked, the SQ-12 was a "sit back, close your eyes and enjoy your music" kind of CD player. It was a steady, even-handed music reproducer that would continue to entertain long after other players that might do one or more things better have become blasť. Just don't expect fireworks; the SQ-12 is far too subtle and understated for that.
The digital players I had to compare to the SQ-12 were not equals in various ways. The Oppo DV-981HD ($249) and Marantz SA8260 ($1295) both play multiple formats, and the Oppo player costs far less than the SQ-12. The Stello CD320 is a strict CD player, but it clocks in at $1995, well above the SQ-12's price. Still, a comparison would be enlightening -- and a reason to ask more rhetorical questions. Can the Sound Quest SQ-12 better the CD replay of the Oppo and the Marantz players, thereby justifying its purchase as an upgrade? How close to the sound quality of the more expensive Stello CD player can the SQ-12 come? Finally, does purchasing a dedicated CD player make financial and sonic sense if you're committed to SACD replay?
The SQ-12 demonstrated from the start that it was superior to the Oppo DV-981HD. Using the Art Blakey CD as a reference point, I found that the finesse and overall cohesiveness of the SQ-12 made the DV-981HD sound like a cheap imitation of the real thing. Sure, both offer upsampling, but the SQ-12's bigger power supply and better parts give it a decided advantage. The Oppo player sounded a bit ragged, with less of a sense of space and texture than the SQ-12. Clearly, unless you are willing to sacrifice some sound quality for the convenience of universal playback, the SQ-12 is the unit to consider for strict CD replay.
When I played the Art Blakey disc on the Marantz SA8260, it both narrowed and lessened the recording's acoustic space. At the same time, the SA8260 couldnt provide quite as much detail as the SQ-12, which seemed to pull it from the recording at will. The Marantz player also lacked the SQ-12s sense of ease and overall cohesiveness. Now, perhaps some of this can be attributed to the fact that the SA8260 lacks the SQ-12s upsampling. However, I bet that it mostly comes down to the SQ-12 simply being optimized for one thing -- playing CDs. That's the most important thing in this comparison.
Stacked up against the more expensive Stello CDA320, a dedicated CD player, the SQ-12 held its own far better than I would have anticipated prior to listening to them both side by side. Kendra Shanks Afterglow [Mapleshade 02132] demonstrated just how close the SQ-12 could come. Ms. Shanks vocals were those of an in-the-flesh person, not a cardboard cutout, and the instruments were well delineated, set in a wide (for the SQ-12) and deep soundstage. The CDA320, meanwhile, did all of these things but simply took them up a few notches. It added a few qualities of its own, such as greater weight, especially in the bass. There was also even more detail, and it was presented in a slightly more realistic manner -- with greater speed into and out of each note. Vocals sounded a bit more palpable, with Ms. Shank sounding even more like a living person standing in my listening room. The soundstage widened as well, now extending beyond the boundaries of my speakers.
There was no shame in the SQ-12s falling a bit short; after all, the Stello CDA320 is over 50% more expensive. What really impressed me was just how close the SQ-12 came. From my experience, the law of diminishing returns begins to kick in at the SQ-12's price.
Just what does spending $1200 on CD playback buy you? Well, in the case of the Sound Quest SQ-12, it gets you not only a lovely piece of eye candy but also a CD player that will continue to grow on you as time passes. Its many good qualities far outweigh its deficiencies, and swapping out its power cord and footers can elevate the SQ-12 to another level of performance. As an upgrade it stands well and truly above the pack of entry-level players. Its strong points are so well conceived and well executed that they make it hard to dwell on any area where the SQ-12 falls short.
Upgrading to the SQ-12 is a lot like marrying a beautiful woman. Youre willing to overlook a certain number of personality flaws to be able to wake up beside such loveliness each day. While the SQ-12 may not be the perfect CD player -- if such a thing even exists -- it does right by the music it plays. Unlike human beauty, which can disappear with the passing of time, the SQ-12s looks wont fade as the years march along, and the music it makes will continue to charm as the two of you grow old together. You cant ask for more than that at any price.
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