This is a review of the Quad Vena II Play. An all-in-one integrated amplifier with a small footprint and big sound. But let me start further back.
When I was nine or ten I discovered music. It had something to do with the tactility of the album covers in my dad’s record collection; the photographs and art on them. Waiting for the Sun was the first: I looked at the band backlit by the sun and knew that Jim Morrison was everything I wanted to be.
The reason I talk about this musical awakening – which everyone has their own version of – is because of the system that facilitated it. I didn’t consciously take notice of sound quality back then, but it is my belief that the sound of the system played a part in the awakening.
It was my father’s stereo and it consisted of a Quad 44/405-2 pre/power combo. The turntable and tonearm were a design by Hans Henrik Mørch. The speakers were Quad ESL 63. A very respectable setup in the late 80ties – maybe even a very respectable setup now?
I gradually caught the bug and my first stab at a real system was a CD player of some sort, Quad 33/303 amplification, with the Quad 11L2 speakers. The 33/303 had been my father’s and then my sister’s and finally it was mine. That system had a midrange and immediacy that I sometimes miss. Or maybe I miss the memory of the impression of that immediacy and if I heard it today I would be disappointed. But in my years after the Danish gymnasium and at University is was the perfect apartment setup. And to this day the 33/303 is the coolest, cleanest, most retro looking pre-power-tuner combo ever to grace this earth.
It is not by chance that Quad is the first brand to be reviewed on this site. The above is my full disclosure: Quad has played an integral part in my journey in audio and, so, when I’m about to review one of their products I’m at once hopelessly prejudiced because I really want it to sound good – and afraid that it will disappoint.
Vena I, II, and Play
The Quad Vena I came out in 2014. In 2018 the Quad Vena II (£649) was introduced. The Vena II runs the same Class A/B amplification, but with a new and improved power supply. It has two line level inputs. Digital inputs are USB, coaxial, and optical. It has a new upgraded DAC, a Sabre32 Reference ES9018K2M DAC, that allows 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 via USB. Coaxial and optical manages 24bit/192 kHz. It has also included Bluetooth support for both aptX and AAC – a nice addition for us Apple devotees.
There’s a pre-out to connect to a power amplifier, though the 45 watts per channel is more than enough, especially for my Guru Q60s, but also my Quad 77-10Ls, though they are a tougher load. It has also gotten a dedicated headphone amplifier with current-feedback circuitry. In the older Vena the headphone socket ran straight off the main amp. Significantly, the Vena II now has a MM phono stage built in.
It’s now late 2019 and Quad has introduced a spruced-up version of the Vena II: the Vena II Play (£799).
The Vena II Play that I have on my wall mounted sideboard is silver and appears much more elegant than the Vena I wrapped in mahogany I have sitting next to it. I generally don’t care for ornamentation and the mahogany of the Vena I looks superfluously clumsy next to the sleekness of the new Vena II Play. Curiously, the Vena II Play comes only in either a silver or Lancaster grey finish. If I had to choose I’d go with the grey: understatement and less is more and so on.
What sets the Vena II Play apart from the Vena II is the inclusion of WIFI and Ethernet streaming. Now we are looking at a very comprehensively equipped integrated amplifier. It really does do everything now. If you listen to music from many different sources this amp has you covered. Of course, if you only listen to CDs then there are probably more fitting amps out there. Likewise, if you are exclusively into vinyl there’s no need to pay for DAC and streaming board and Bluetooth. If, however, you have discovered vinyl (again) but also like to stream music and appreciate the convenience of Bluetooth and the intimacy of headphones, then this might be the perfect amp. I think it is a technological miracle that you can cram all that functionality and performance into a box of this size – and particularly at this price-point.
To stream to the Vena II Play you must use the DTS Play-fi app. As apps go, I have seen better and I have seen worse. It doesn’t come close to being as intuitive or aesthetically pleasing as Roon or even Sonos. But then again, what does? It’s not terrible, it’s not great – and it’s the only real objection I have toward the Vena. I would recommend the good people at Quad to make the Vena II Play Roon Ready. Pronto.
However, the DTS Play-fi app does have a clever trick up its sleeve. Play-fi allows you to build a multiroom system around your house with gear from different manufactures. There is a number of very reputable brands that use the Play-fi ecosystem and the app allows you to mix and match different gear to different rooms and use one synchronized app for control. Pretty neat, but not too dissimilar to what is possible in Roon with their Endpoints.
Audiophile wisdom (?) tells us that separates will sound better than an integrated solution. It also posits that we must have a hi-fi rack to administer all these black boxes of gear. And don’t forget the bespoke interconnects and the linear power supplies and the exotic power cords. But there’s a reason why integrated amps have had a welcome resurgence in this last decade. Not only does it save us from having our living room looking like a used hi-fi shop, they also sound exceptionally good. And so does the Vena II Play.
Can you find a better sounding mix of separates with equal functionality at this price? That is: an amplifier, a streamer, a DAC, a phono stage, and a headphone amplifier. Oh, and power strips and interconnects and of course a rack to fit it all on? That sounds better for £799? Possibly. And you can conceivably find similarly priced integrated amplifiers with similar functionality whose sound might be more to your liking. But trying to put together a batch of separates that sound better for the money is missing the point of an integrated amplifier. The Vena II Play is precisely for the people who doesn’t want to mix and match endlessly, trying to find the right DAC to go with this pre-amp which in turn must match the power amp.
This is a one-box hi-fi system where you just add loudspeakers: it’s one power cord, connect to speakers and you’re done. It’s a minimalist’s dream – and sounds anything but.
Vena II Play and Speaker choices
The Q60s from Guru Audio are full-bodied speakers that go down below 20 Hz. They have a lush midrange that blends seamlessly into the highs. The midrange and the highs at first appear slightly muted or recessed but gradually they reveal themselves to rather be free of any top end sizzle. That makes for an all-round smoothness that doesn’t lack for detail but simultaneously is the opposite of fatiguing. They remind me of one of my favorite headphones, the Audioquest Nightowl. The Guru Q60s are simply very balanced speakers with a firm and serious low end and a smooth midrange and treble. The Vena II Play substantiates these qualities: it has more than enough power to control the bass so it doesn’t become woolly, and the clarity across the midrange and treble is frankly remarkable at this price point.
Soft, woolly bass is my main issue with the Vena I. It doesn’t have the authority to keep a track in, eh, it’s tracks. Playing Alva Noto’s Unieqav, the Vena I is in dire straits. It can’t get a grip on the bass and therefore the whole album suffers. This is the case with both my Q60s and the Quad 77-10L.
Not so with the Vena II Play: it is a much more authoritative presentation where the bass is tight and abundant. On the Q60s that equals quality and enormous quantities. The Quad 77-10Ls, which are small and bass light speakers, does everything else exactly right – and once again make the case that quality trumps quantity every time. On both sets of speakers the Vena II Play lets Unieqav sound precisely as eerie and ominous as it should. I’ve always felt that that album sounded like some distant asteroid belt mined by lonely robots. The Vena II Play affirms that feeling on both speakers.
Is the Vena II Play Quad-smooth
That the Vena II Play is an amp that is tilted to the warm side of neutral suits me just fine. Streaming Anenon’s Petrol from Tidal that is exactly the sound signature I want. Those opening sounds of a freeway and saxophone should not sound this envelopingly calming. But they do. It becomes a warm blanket of sound that is simultaneously full of inner detail. I find myself asking: do I really need more than this? This little integrated amplifier has no right to sound this warm and clear.
I’ve listened to Neil Young since my early teens and one of his best albums is the late bloomer Harvest Moon. Many of his albums, even the acoustics ones, have a rawness to them that Harvest Moon doesn’t have. It sounds smoother than his other albums. The Quad captures this quality exactly. The fragility of the guitar on You and Me and Nicolette Larson and Neil’s voices shimmering smoothly between the speakers. There is that word again: smooth. It’s not a bad overall description of the Quad either.
Speaking of smooth: I have a set of valve-hybrid Croft amplifiers, the Micro 25R (£1400) and the Series 7R (£1400). And they certainly sound better than the Vena II Play. The Croft combo sounds more fluid; it has better grip in the bass; it’s, well, smoother; it has better clarity across all frequencies; etc. But the Crofts are more than three times the price. And they are completely analogue, with a very, very, good phono stage. The 25R don’t do streaming, it doesn’t do headphones. And it certainly doesn’t Bluetooth. It is very high praise indeed that the diminutive Quad has me rethinking my current setup of separates. It does not sound as good, but it comes close enough to make me reconsider the hassle of separates.
About the headphone output: this has also seen a is significant develoment. It’s significantly better than the one in the Vena I. It is more detailed and more dynamic. Agnes Obel sounds even more intimate in Vena II Play than the Vena I. The Vena I had a headphone output that was fed directly from the main amp. Because of that the Vena I has a much more powerful headphone output. I can certainly play more than loud enough via the Vena II Play through my trusty HD6XX. But through the Vena I, well, I doubt there’s a headphone it can’t drive. The HP output is not just passable and acceptable. It is clear and rich but a with a slightly cooler signature than through the speakers. The headphone output is yet another argument for ditching the hi-fi rack of separates and go the integrated route.
When a new product replaces an older product it is natural to look at how relevant said replacement is. Has there been significant improvements? Or does it seen like a marketing ploy? This is a natural inclination for any reviewer or.
At Green Audio Review we care about perceived obsolescence. It is essential that a new product justifies its cost, both economically and environmentally. If this appears too sanctimonious ask yourself this: if we agree that we need to limit our consumption of everything from red meat to air travel, from oil and coal to the clothes we wear; if we need to manufacture more efficient cars, shouldn’t consumer electronics be counted among the things we need to make smarter choices about? Fortunately the Quad Vena II Play is precisely the kind of product upgrade we like to see: significantly better sound and increased functionality. Well done.
For those who think that anything coming out of China is automatically inferior the Quad Vena II Play makes a great case for reassessment. At Green Audio Review there are always concerns about the environmental production cost of a product. That is also the case here. But in many ways China is the factory of the world: it’s hard to know the environmental impact of a given product, just as it’s hard to not buy products from China. In the case of the Quad Vena II Play we can hope that it is produced responsibly.
The greatest case for the Vena’s green factor is the fact that it is a one-box solution that is truly all we need. The features, the performance, the aesthetics, at this price, is remarkable. I grew up on the Quad of old; I might grow old on the Quad of the future.