Howes Custom Quad Ii (£2500)

Around 90,000 of Quad's model II valve amplifiers were produced between 1953 and 1970. Thanks to John Howes, this classic monoblock continues to live on in full colour!

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John Howes has been tweaking, modifying and restoring vintage hi-fi equipment long enough to have a healthy approach to the purity of spot-on restorations. It’s a philosophy he applies to the customising of Quad’s classic II mono valve power amplifier. Because he’s also a realist, he also knows how to recognise if a product is a basket-case, useful only as a donor for spares. As the original sold well over many years, there are sufficient beyond salvation. John has found a way to provide them with a new lease on life.
   First, he takes ‘dead’ Quad IIs and dismantles them. All that he retains are the chassis and covers, and – this is the crucial bit – the transformers. Everything else is his idea, and what emerges is, to be fair to both Quad and Howes, effectively speaking a new amplifier.
   I first saw it at one of his Audiojumbles, in February 2008, I believe, looking great in burgundy or green metallic paint and sounding sweet through horns. As for that new livery, John told me that he believed many vintage audio collectors would be horrified to see an original Quad II re-sprayed in a non original colour and that it was this very fact that originally gave him the idea to make the
hot-rodded rebuild his own creation. John said he’d let me try a pair one day, and he’s kept his word.

Even calling them ‘John Howes Modified Quad IIs’ is misleading because there’s nothing left of the donor amps bar the chassis and transformers. From there, John has turned to classic valve circuitry (he’s a devotee of Reg Williamson, whose DIY designs would regularly appear in Wireless World in the ’60s) to create his own ‘reinterpretation’ of the Peter Walker masterpiece, in the way that someone might change the pick-ups on a 1950s guitar that was beyond saving.
   As John puts it, succinctly and without any equivocation, ‘all areas of circuit design, power supply and ventilation have been reviewed.’ In the interests of safety, he’s updated it to what he feels are modern standards.
   John has fitted 1% resistors in all ‘critical’ positions, he’s employed solid copper bus-bar earthing, there’s a higher capacitance power supply than the original enjoyed and connections are made through high quality phono sockets and superior, multi-way binding posts. And it runs cooler than the original too. Good ventilation in any valve amplifier is crucial for reliability and this important area has been addressed by drilling the original base plate with extra holes and fitting a feed to improve air flow. Also fitted is an IEC mains socket, so you can play with AC cables to your heart’s content, but I do wish John had fitted an on/off switch. That is my only complaint, though as John reminded me, the original didn’t have one, either. I seem to recall, however, that it could be switched via the preamp...
   No question about it, the biggest change, as far as a direct effect on sonic performance versus that of the Quad II is concerned, is the move from KT66s to ‘new-old-stock’ STC-designed equivalents of the American 807 beam tetrodes. In the review amp, they were 1960s ITT-labelled 5B/255Ms – two per chassis – plus a pair of Mullard ECC82s and an unlabelled rectifier, probably the equivalent of a GZ34. According to John, the output should only be a watt or two more than that of a standard, KT66-equipped Quad II, but they certainly demonstrate more grunt.
   Flip it over, remove the bottom cover, and the view inside is enough to warm the heart of anyone who thinks PCBs were invented by Satan. Hard-wired with love and care, neat and tidy and containing wonderful ceramic valve bases and top-grade caps, cleanly soldered joints and the sort of other labour-intensive details lost in the 1970s, you wonder how he can sell a pair for £2500. He then finishes it off with a superb paint job (colours negotiable), fits his own professionally-made badge and supplies a two-year warranty excluding valves. But, as he told me, the valves he uses are plentiful, and he’s certainly not short of stocks.

Absurdly, John insisted I use the amp with the Wilson Sophia 2 loudspeakers [see HFN May ’09]. All I could imagine were shards of glass and whiffs of smoke. Stone me if, with either the Belles VT-01 or Quad QC-twentyfour preamps, it didn’t drive them, and well, at that.
   Of course, you could hear them straining a bit, so I swiftly moved on to Tannoy Mini Autographs and LS3/5As – a magical combination – but it was interesting to see that they could hold their own in a system role usually occupied by some 300W behemoth.
   If you’re expecting a sounding-like-new Quad II, look elsewhere. This has more in common with Radfords of the same vintage, in that the bass is better controlled, deeper and faster. It will not convince you like, say, the Belles SA-30 Class-A tranny amp nor the 100W/ch McIntosh 2102 valve amp, but it saw off my original Quad IIs, which may or may not be up to specification.
   Kick drum courtesy of Hall & Oates’ band on ‘Rich Girl’ had the extension if not the control, but it was never what you would condemn as soggy. And when the voices soared over it, you could appreciate a case for buying a pair for use with small two-ways. As I did.
   American-born singer-songwriter Jackie De Shannon is one of my all-time favourite vocalists, and the production of her epic ‘Put A Little Love In Your Heart’ is a great showcase for mixed textures. Her voice hovers over and in front of lush strings, supported by too-rich bass, with backing vocals of angelic sweetness. Through the Howes, the affair took on a silkiness that smacked of all-analogue 1969, yet possessed both detail and precision simply not available from an aged Quad II. (The brand-new Quad II Classic is another story entirely, but that will have to wait.)

Perfectly-executed, well-mannered studio recordings, however, always present systems in the best light. ‘Too Much Of Nothing’ and ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ on the recently reissued Dylan/Band Basement Tapes is a dense, churning recording that exists almost like a set-up to foil hi-fi systems.
   Despite its loose and sloppy, demo-quality slackness, it had a presence that almost suggested a removal of layers – though we know a sound system cannot provide transparency missing from the recording.
   In-between is the new Willy Deville album, Pistola, clean and modern, but just loose enough to skirt with being ‘undisciplined’. Indeed, the opening track sounds like DeVille doing an impression of Dylan. Howes’ makeover of the Quads delivered a wonderfully coherent, well-balanced, nicely-textured portrayal of DeVille as if he were auditioning for the Faces. It jangles, swings and boogies, nothing lumpen, nothing dragging. As much as I love the Quad II, its sound does personify ‘vintage’. This amp is a Quad II that’s been fed Cialis.

What you want to know is precisely how the Howes version differs from the donor amp. OK, here goes: it’s leaner, drier and better controlled. It goes louder. Hard rock and funk, especially tracks like Mel & Tim’s ‘I’m Your Puppet’, were revealed with greater liquidity/fluidity, the lower registers reproducing bass rhythms with less effort.
   Although the Quad II can boast slightly sweeter treble, that may be roll-off or ageing; the flipside would be to say that the Howes is faster, more crisp, and the cymbals in DeVille’s ‘Been There Done That’ brought that home in spades. So let’s not look at this as a Quad, anymore than fitting an original Porsche 356 Spider body to a brand-new Audi TT chassis would still be a 1950s Stuttgart convertible.
   Where does this leave John? This amp is good enough to market as a ‘John Howes Model I’, in its own new chassis and with modern transformer; after all, Quad II transformers are of finite supply.
  Whether he does that or not, I’m inviting him round for a shoot-out like our LS3/5A bun-fight [see HFN June ’01]. This time of course, it will be original Quad II, gold reissue Quad II, Quad II Classic, Quad II-forty and John’s modified version. Jam fingers at dawn anyone?

While part of you will want to look upon these as modern Quad IIs, they have no more real resemblance to the originals than the new Mini has to Issigonis’ design. This must be regarded as a modern amp that just happens to use a recycled chassis. It’s punchy, musical, warm and involving, and deserves success as more than a retro curio. Maybe Howes might be encouraged to put them into serial production?



Originally published in the August 2009 issue