This review highlights an international divide in the audio industry. Write about ‘Quad’ to many international audiophiles and it summons up images of classic electrostatic loudspeakers from the 1950s through to the present… and not a lot else. The same doesn’t apply to UK audiophiles, who also think of the company as the maker of some of the most reliable audio electronics in history, and a brand with a following that would make McIntosh blush. In fact, there is a generation of UK audio customers for whom Quad was the only trusted brand for audio electronics, even if they never used Quad loudspeakers.
The reliability of Quad electronics was so legendary, people bought the products on a generational basis: someone might only buy new Quad when they handed their decades old, still working perfectly amps on to their children, and 25 years later the pattern would repeat itself to the next generation. That changed recently, although not for the reasons one might think – more for the fact that audio technology moves at a faster-than-ever pace, and the notion of holding onto a device for a quarter of a century or more is alien to many modern audio buyers.
Products like the Quad Artera Solus, then, have to walk a tightrope: lean too far in one direction and the company risks disenfranchising its thousands of buyers who update at a glacial rate, but too much in the other direction and there are a lot of ‘mature’ products in the catalogue. The Artera Solus packs a lot into its one small yet heavy box. It’s a CD playing integrated amplifier that can replay at up to DSD256 performance from an attached computer using a USB port, has updatable firmware through a second USB port, and can stream music from an external source via aptX Bluetooth. There is no provision for network streaming on this model (but a second device is said to arrive by the end of the year with greater wired and wireless networking capabilities).
The chattering classes in high-end audio already have CD long dead and buried. They moved on to SACD long, long ago, and have now moved on to DSD over PC replay and full UPnP streaming. However, each time we review a product like this, a few quieter voices speak up about how they are still far from abandoning CD. The argument isn’t necessarily that they prefer the sound of CD (although many still prefer spinning polycarbonate to hard disk or SSD stored media), it’s simply because they might have been collecting CDs for decades and feel no pressing need to either rip those discs or migrate over to a Tidal or Qobuz. Quality disc-spinning all-in-ones are rare (AVM springs to mind) and even rarer at a reasonable price, so the Quad Artera Solus has something of a captive market.
It might be understandable, then, if Quad took a bit of a back seat on design, as competition is scarce at the price. This could so easily have been a ‘knock it out quick’ product that was simply a parts bin of Quad’s other devices thrown together on the cheap. But, outside or in, compromise was not on the list of development parameters. On the outside, it’s a minimalist piece of equipment (as is common to the rest of the Artera range, and a wider design brief shared the whole Quad electronics line), with a slot-loading CD drawer, a fluro display that doubles up as a control touch panel, a headphone socket, and a remote eye. The rear is more comprehensively equipped, and speaks of the Artera’s amplifier background, as there are line level RCA inputs and both RCA and XLR outputs, and a gaggle of coaxial and optical inputs and outputs. Heatsinks flank the sides of the Artera Solus.
Inside, the Quad Artera Solus is solidly designed and built. The slot-loading CD loads data into a buffer so it, like the USB input, feeds asynchronously to the DAC. The digital stage itself is based around the ESS ES9018 Sabre DAC, a 32bit eight-channel DAC that can support up to 32bit, 384kHz PCM and up to DSD 256 through DoP protocols from a computer. As the Artera acts as a DAC here, it’s platform and program agnostic (I used Audirvana Plus, as Quad recommends for Mac users, and would have gone with Foobar for PCs), although PC users will need to download drivers from Quad to unlock DSD and higher-rate PCM (a mini CD is supplied, but you can download from the Quad website). Quad allows the user to specify one of four filter settings; Fast (default), Smooth, Narrow, and Wide. I found the default to be perfectly fine in every setting, but your tastes and system may dictate otherwise. aptX Bluetooth music replay is also included, and the single rear-mounted aerial pulls in signals for about a 10m (in real terms) radius.
In solid-state electronics, Quad is perhaps best known for its feed-forward or ‘current dumping’ design circuit, which it has been using in its power amplifiers since the 1970s. However, fitting a current-dumping amplifier circuit inside the Artera Solus chassis proved impossible, as that chassis already comes filled with digital and analogue preamp gubbins. Instead, Quad went with a dual mono 75W Class AB design, fed by a large central 300VA toroidal transformer.
In a way, this is a hotly contended market, with many traditional brands releasing similar ‘all-in-one’ models. But, in another – probably more important – way, the Quad Artera Solus is almost in a market of one, thanks to its aggressive price point. Granted the more up-scale products from rivals come with WiFi streaming (something that should prove to be retrofittable when the next product in the line is released), but even in the light of that the Artera Solus still has a keen edge in price. And best of all, it doesn’t show! This looks, performs, and even sounds like an expensive product… just one that forgot to actually beexpensive.
Quad also faces the challenge of meeting the demands of existing users and new buyers, with the former often wanting the more mellow sound of components of a bygone age. And it’s here that Quad really hits home. There is an excellent sense of poise to the sound that answers the demands of Quad’s old and new fanbase perfectly. This is never going to be the most forward-sounding, beat oriented amplifier around, but neither does the Artera Solus fall into the ‘pipe and slippers’ trap. That’s a difficult tightrope to walk, and the Artera Solus walks it without faltering.
How this comes across is in a sense of true dimensionality to the soundstage, a more dynamic presentation than is usually associated with the brand (more in line, in fact, with the original Quad 22 power amps being fed by a more dynamic-sounding preamp), and lots of mid-band detail, which nonetheless retains the refinement and ease of long-term listening that Quad’s army of fans crave from the brand. And of those inputs, the CD acquits itself as being the best (followed by USB, then the standard connections, and Bluetooth bringing up the rear but doing so surprisingly well). This source combines the Artera Solus basic midrange clarity and detail with a sound that has some real drive behind it. Quad fans would baulk at discussing anything aside from classical music, so I played… Trentemøller. Even ‘Chameleon’ [The Last Resort, Poker Flat] with its gut-churning deep bass and the demands that places on a system, sounded energetic, full-bodied, and powerfully malevolent.
Of course, classical and jazz are Quad’s home turf, and the Artera Solus doesn’t disappoint. The Takacs Quartet’s interpretations of Beethoven’s late string quartets [Decca] are like a complete walkthrough of classical nuance, mixing drama, pathos, and even humour with a mastery that few have ever recorded with success. The Quad Artera Solus tracks changes in musical intent with precision, and yet does so with a sense of effortless dynamic range as a force behind the refinement.
Even power-chords and swampy 4/4 rock didn’t phase the Artera Solus, and it played ‘La Grange’ [ZZ Top, Tres Hombres, London] with gusto. OK, so perhaps not the same degree of gusto as experienced with a Naim Uniti Nova or a Moon Neo Ace, but gusto all the same. The headphone stage matched the rest of the amp perfectly, and it has its own amplifier behind it allowing for more demanding headphones to be played well. OK, so gruelling headphone loads might phase the Quad, but in the real world, it’s more than enough.
I almost missed the point here, because it’s so easy to associate Quad with classic British loudspeakers, that I hooked this to a pair Chartwell LS6/f floorstanding loudspeakers, and got that classic British sound – with a lovely midrange, albeit slightly soft at the top and bottom. Swap out the loudspeakers for a pair of meatier-sounding Wilson Duette II (not a combination I would necessarily recommend, but it worked all the same) and the full drama and dynamic impact of the Artera Solus came to the fore.
It’s always a sign of a good product that when you assiduously avoid knowing the real price and play the price-tag guessing game, you think the product is worth a lot more than its real price tag. And in playing that ‘guess the price-tag’ game, the Quad Artera Solus came out at closer to £3,000, rather than £1,500. OK, if it were £3,000, I’d be more concerned about the lack of wired or wireless network streaming, but that would be the main criticism (and given that a Wi-Fi module is said to be in the pipeline, even that crticism seems somewhat churlish). In sonic terms, style, and build quality, I’d say the Quad Artera Solus punches above its weight, even if it’s far too graceful a performer to ever throw a punch.
Type: CD playing integrated amplifier with built-in DAC and Bluetooth connectivity
Inputs: 2×pair RCA single-ended line inputs, 2×TOSlink digital, 2×coaxial RCA digital, 1×USB A (for updates), 1×USB B (PC/Mac connection), Bluetooth aerial socket
Outputs: 1×pair RCA single-ended, 1×pair XLR balanced, 1×6.3mm headphone jack, 1×pair loudspeaker binding post terminals
Audio file formats supported: ALAC, WAV, FLAC, AIFF, WMA, MP3, AAC-HE, AAC+, DSD64, DSD128, DSD256
Sample rate: 44.1kHz-192kHz (digital inputs/outputs), 44.1–384kHz (USB B)
Rated Power: 2×75W into eight ohms
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz (±0.5dB at 1kHz)
THD: < 0.009% (10W, 20Hz–20kHz)
Signal to noise ratio: >100dB (A Weighted, ref 75W)
Available in: Black or silver front panel
Dimensions (W×D×H): 32 ×32 ×10.5cm
Manufactured by: IAG Ltd
Tel: +44(0)1480 447700
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