Heed Audio produces a Hungarian Rhapsody in the form of the exquisite Quasar phono stage
HAVING SAVOURED THE delights of Budapest on a recent trip to Europe, little did I know that just a few months later I’d have a Hungarian audio component in my hot little hands: a Heed Quasar phono stage, the 2-box flagship of Heed’s phono preamp range.
It’s an unusual story, this one. The world has become a smaller place, especially because of the internet, and that’s where Nelson of i-enjoy.com.au comes in. I was looking around the world for a replacement PSU (power supply unit) for my Pink Triangle turntable, and having heard of the Heed Orbit power supply, I contacted Nelson in Australia, who promptly ordered me one from the factory. He had a look at Witchdoctor, and thought it a good idea to send me over a couple of products for review: the new Beresford Bushmaster ‘budget’ D/A converter and the Heed Quasar.
Now, given that imports from Australia over a certain value are subject to GST and potentially duty costs, it was to prove an interesting exercise – there are plenty of phono stages available here, both less and more expensive. Could the Quasar cut the mustard in the value for money stakes?
The company was formed way back in 1987 as Zsolt Audio, and in those days they were an import-only outfit, representing the best of the British audio industry at the time – brands such as Audiolab, Arcam, Rega, Spendor and Ion Systems, to name but a few.
It was the association with Ion Systems that was to head them in a manufacturing direction. Previously Nytech, the English brand was responsible for the shoebox-styled Obelisk amplifier. Before long, manufacturing was shifted to Hungary, and although a success in Britain, the Obelisk was a huge hit in its country of manufacture, paving the way for the creation of Heed Audio once Ion Systems closed up for good in the ‘90s.
They went on to produce a number of successful amplifier designs afterwards, but it was their Orbit turntable power supply that put Heed squarely on the map. Designed as a drop-in replacement for the on-board Rega Planar PSU, this made a significant upgrade in sound quality terms for those decks. In fact, the Orbit is compatible with most turntables using AC synchronous motors – Linn, Systemdek and Pink Triangle included.
Watch this space for the resurrection of my Pink Triangle LPT, this will arise from the dead courtesy of Heed’s Orbit PSU.
Once the package arrived (within a few days ex- Sydney – very prompt service) I hastily removed the Quasar and PSU from their sturdy boxes, and assessed them visually. The front fascias on both units look identical: both sport a smart black powder- coated steel chassis with glossy black Perspex front, but things are a bit different on the connection panel. The rather hefty PSU has an on/off button and a full-sized IEC power socket, and a DIN socket for the umbilical cable supplied when powering up the Quasar. A juicy 60 VA toroidal transformer supplies ultra-low noise current to its partner, and Heed’s literature suggests a noise floor similar to running from a battery supply off the grid. This is impressive stuff indeed.
The Quasar’s rear panel is altogether more interesting though – two sets of inputs along with two output connections hint at what’s under the hood. The Quasar has separate amplifier stages for both MM and MC and although running two turntables concurrently is not an option, changing from MM to MC is a task made simple with internal jumpers and a good manual. The Quasar can run long cable lengths due to its low output impedance and high current delivery, while the ‘High Out’ outputs can drive a power amplifier directly.
Both units are quite small at 9 x 7 x 23cm, and won’t take up much space on an audio support. Would small equate to a giant sound? Read on.
The Quasar replaced the Audio Innovations P1 tube stage on my hi-fi table, and I’d set it up to accept the low 0.25mv output from my lovingly DIY’d aluminium-bodied Denon DL103R by following the manual (yes – for once!) and changing the jumpers over to suit. The turntable used for the review was my trusty Pro-Ject Studie RPM12, with the DL103R mounted on the 12-inch carbon arm.
The next few days were spent playing vinyl while pottering around in the kitchen, chatting to mates on the phone and wandering down to the letterbox – in other words, I gave the Quasar a reasonable burn-in time before plonking myself on the couch for some critical listening. There are doubters amongst us regarding burn-in of audio components, but rest assured it does make a difference.
With a cup of tea (Darjeeling this time – my body is a temple) steaming away on a protective coaster on the coffee table next to my comfy couch, I carefully lowered the 12-inch tone arm and watched as the 103R’s spherical stylus entered the lead-in groove on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. This recently purchased 180gm recording has a lush tonal quality befitting this landmark soul album, and listening to it via the Quasar was an extremely enjoyable experience.
For a solid-state amplifier, it has a tube-like presentation – albeit one with no loss of detail or scale. Gaye’s voice was captured with no harshness or congestion through the mid-band, while the bass performance just felt right, with excellent pace, rhythm and timing. There was an appreciable increase of ‘air’ around the performers as they did their thing on the imaginary soundstage, in comparison to my Audio Innovations preamp – and with a subtle increase in detail.
All good then, although the tube stage still presented the performance in a ‘warmer’ fashion.
Turning to rockier material, I placed The Cult’s 1987 Rick Rubin-produced Electric on the platter. Definitely punchier than the P1, the Quasar really brought this grungy recording to the fore with crashing cymbal sounds, a ragged edge to the guitar and a real boogie factor. Astbury’s guttural vocal performance also took precedence here, and I really got into the kick-arse delivery of tracks such as ‘Love Removal Machine’ and ‘Lil’ Devil’ via the Heed. The album isn’t exactly a ‘go to’ for audio reviewers in terms of soundstaging, so I turned to Kraftwerk’s 180gm Tour De France double album.
Once again the Heed proved my enthusiasm for it by reproducing this recording excellently: the analogue synths appeared between and outside the physical boundary of my Voigts, creating a shimmering soundstage that was at times quite breath-taking. Deep, deep bass combined with robotic human voices – superb stuff, if you like that sort of thing of course.
The female voice is one of the litmus tests for any vinyl review, so up stepped Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album. The introduction of the bass guitar on ‘Talkin’ ‘bout A Revolution kicked the groove into gear in a most positive fashion, and her vocals were seamlessly centred between the loudspeakers in an ‘I can picture her on stage’ fashion. Her strummed acoustic guitar had realistic timbre and body, while percussion sounds were taut and underpinned the performance. What was most impressive was the sense of space around the musicians – no mean feat considering the studio-based nature of this reasonably modern recording (well, 1987 isn’t that long ago, is it?)
I really like this phono stage. I’d say it’s a clear cut above my previous 2-box Trichord Dino in terms of performance, and a bit better than my Audio Innovations P1, in most areas. On the latter, I’ll pack it off to local tube guru Clarry Schollum for a tickle up at some stage: perhaps a new set of tubes could close the gap in terms of sonic performance with the Quasar. There’s just something about glowing tubes on my rack, and I’m not quite ready to give them up just yet.
Rest assured though, Heed Audio has a stunning over- performer in its Quasar phono stage. It’s excellently built, has enough flexibility to drive ultra-low MC cartridges and just sounds terrific. My only wish was to be able to use both MM and MC inputs concurrently – that’s my only reason for not giving the Quasar a 5 star review, but unless you have two turntables (or a turntable with two arms) it’s a non-issue.
Heed Audio doesn’t have representation here in NZ, but www.i-enjoy.com.au has distribution for NZ as well as OZ, and they are available ex-stock. Add a bit of GST (and possible duty charges) and the landed price should be around the $1400 mark.
Move quickly and you’ll be able to grab a Quasar on special from Nelson for AU$743.75, shaving about $150 off the landed price. An outstanding component for the price, Heed Audio’s sublime Quasar phono stage is a little beauty! GARY PEARCE