Quad Vena II Play Streaming Amplifier Review

Quad makes a retro mod.

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

44

Best Buy
Quad Vena II Play Streaming Amplifier Review
SRP: £799.00

What is the Quad Vena II Play?

The Quad Vena II Play is a Wireless Streaming Integrated Amplifier. Like a number of devices we have looked at in recent years, it doesn’t truly fit in any classic product category. This is partly because the nature of what we expect a product to do in each category is in a state of near constant flux. In the specific case of the Vena II Play, it’s also because this isn’t the first Vena II to appear. There is also a non Play version of the product which is very much more in the integrated amplifier class than the Vena II Play, perhaps explaining Quad’s terminology.

In fact, as we shall cover, this is much more an all-in-one system than it is a standalone amp but it retains enough of the functionality of the latter to be a rather more interesting device than the ‘standard’ Vena II. It also has some design decisions that put it in a different school of design to many rivals and mean it has functionality that isn’t commonly found anywhere else.

Quad Vena II Play

That’s great as far as it goes but does this newly exploited niche have genuine appeal or has Quad evolved their product into something that nobody really wants or needs? Some of this is unknowable - I can’t predict what is going to fly with the general public any more than I can pick the next winning lottery numbers. What we can establish is if the Quad is any good or not, so we shall get cracking with that.

Specification and Design

The Vena II Play is an evolution of the original Vena which proved something of a hit for Quad. In essence, it is a stereo amplifier with a selection of analogue and digital inputs. Two things made the Vena and the successor Vena II stand out. The first is that the basic Vena II costs £649. This isn’t impulse purchase territory but it’s still not a bad price for something wearing a Quad badge; which has a little more high end kudos and heritage than some of the other options for similar money.

The second thing about the Vena II is that it’s unusually traditional. Take the amplification for example. The claimed output of 45 watts into 8 ohms seems neither here nor there - particularly in the aftermath of testing a dinky power amp capable of outputting three times that figure into an eight ohm load. What’s notable though is that the Vena is exclusively class A/B. The amp is powered by a toroidal transformer and has a discrete output stage. This is design practice that seems to be less and less commonly encountered despite the performance it is capable of. There’s a phono stage too, built around JFET devices which is also relatively uncommon at the price.

 ... once I would have said it had no chance of ever getting there. Now I’m not so sure

Quad Vena II Play

Not everything is plucked from the trad playbook either. The digital inputs are decoded via an ESS Sabre DAC - in this case, an ES9018K2M. This is not in itself unusual - it’s possibly one of the commonly encountered DACs in quality audio circles - but IAG, the parent company of Quad was one of the first companies to make use of the Sabre and their expertise has shown in recent products - there’s even a sly dig in the accompanying press release noting that if you don’t know your way around the Sabre, it can be a little on the bright side.

The Play takes the Vena II and alters the specification by adding UPnP streaming in the form of DTS Play-Fi support. Interestingly, the changes that Quad has made to the Vena II to do this are relatively slight. The only difference between this version and the ‘basic’ one is that it is down a solitary optical input and has no digital outputs. This means you still have a coaxial, optical and USB digital inputs - the latter supporting 24/384PCM and DSD 256 - partnered with a pair of RCA line inputs and that moving magnet phono stage. In other words, this is still a device capable of supporting a wide selection of other equipment rather than becoming a self-contained streaming solution.

The nature of how the Vena II Play has come into being has some interesting effects on how it operates too. A criticism we’ve often raised about some modern streamers is that they are hugely dependent on their app to drill down into any of their features. The Quad is almost the complete antithesis of this. Not only is there a full set of front panel controls, you even get a small but perfectly functional IR remote control. This makes the extra connectivity of the Quad rather more practical to use - the appeal of having a phono stage is somewhat blunted if you have to use a tablet to select it.

Of course, the controls are a necessary part of the aesthetics needed to make the Vena II Play a Quad. This isn’t me being glib (for once) either. Quad understood the idea of ‘brand management’ at a point where many of the companies that are now seen to be masters of the art were still based in someone’s garage. At the core of this is an understanding that at least some parts of the range must trace their ancestry back to the earlier classic products that the company made - electrostatic speakers, valve amps etc. There are then products like the Vena II Play that are entirely modern in their outlook and intent but retain this classic aesthetic.

Quad Vena II Play

And do you know what? I love it. In a world of touchscreens, soft touch plastics and gesture controls, a battleship grey (Quad prefers ‘Lancaster Grey’ but various examples of the Royal Navy’s handiwork have strutted their stuff in the same finish), it is almost incongruous. The thing is that it is small enough and sufficiently substantial that it works on its own merit and none of the retro qualities impede how it operates day to day. The only caveat to this is that the combination of gently vintage casework and the trio of aerials (two Wi-Fi, one Bluetooth) isn’t the best piece of industrial design I’ve ever seen but if you use the Quad on a wired network line, it’s not an issue.

  This makes the extra connectivity of the Quad rather more practical to use - the appeal of having a phono stage is somewhat blunted if you have to use a tablet to select it

Now, after leaving it aside while we considered the merits of the Vena II Play itself, it’s time to talk about the bit that makes it a Vena II Play. On description alone, DTS Play-Fi sounds like an open platform equivalent of the barnstorming BluOS interface; support for many streaming services, UPnP for network audio playback and the ability to tie multiple Play-Fi devices together via the same control app. The catch has been that for a fair bit of the life of Play-Fi, the reality of the experience hasn’t met the promise. What’s interesting though is how my perception of the software has changed since IAG started to use it. It’s been a little less than a year and I’ve already seen more tweaks and improvements to Play-Fi than I have since between the Audiolab and the Arcam rPlay back in 2017. This is still not as good as BluOS but once I would have said it had no chance of ever getting there. Now I’m not so sure.

Quad Vena II Play

How was the Vena II Play Tested?

The Quad has been placed on a wired network, with network library provided via Melco N1A and powered from an IsoTek Evo3 Aquarius Mains Conditioner. It has been used primarily with a pair of Spendor A1 standmount speakers and additionally connected to an LG 55B7 OLED TV via toslink and a Michell GyroDec and SME M2-9 arm with Nagaoka MP-200 cartridge. Material used has been FLAC and AIFF with some use of Tidal and Qobuz as well as broadcast and on demand TV and some vinyl.

Sound Quality

In keeping with their understanding of brand values, Quad has also understood that a very important part of making use of your heritage is not to be wilfully nostalgic but instead to ensure that your ‘house sound’ is one that is identifiable across both time and product. This sound doesn’t have to be set in stone either but it pays to be able to see the evolution. Here, the Vena II Play excels.

 ... without needing any additional source equipment, it is capable of meeting a range of needs

What this manifests itself as is that the Quad sounds ‘correct.’ Founder Peter Walker is known amongst other things for saying that a perfect amplifier would be “a straight wire with gain.” By this he meant that the ideal was that an amp should impart no character of its own while it performs its job. Back when he came out with that quote, that was a task far beyond any amp in production but Quad was more accurate than most. Fast forward to the Vena II Play and the ideal is almost entirely reality.

Quad Vena II Play

This is not to say that the Vena II Play sounds soulless, far from it. It’s simply that the soul it shows is what’s in the music you play on it. I’ve been on a bit of an Otis Taylor kick recently - he’s one of the most significant, and at times iconoclastic blues artists and his music is at times almost distractingly crude. The Quad revels in it, it adds almost nothing in terms of embellishment to his work, it simply gets out of the way and lets it roll. Connected to the Spendor - still one of the finest examples of a compact monitor speaker you can buy - and the result is to be treated to the performance as Taylor intended.

  And crucially, in the time it has been here, the Play-Fi part of the experience has been positive too

There are aspects of character though. Once again, taking care not to suggest that only Class A/B designs are capable of this, there is an agility and impact, both to the bass response and the presentation as whole, to the way that the Vena II Play makes music. It’s effortlessly rhythmic in a way that benefits any music rather than just pounding rock. What’s notable about this is that Quad has managed to engineer this presentation as a combination of both analogue and digital sections. In keeping with many IAG products I’ve listened to in recent years, the Vena II Play really does squeeze a little bit more out of its ESS Sabre than some rivals. The detail and spaciousness is all there but less that slightly etched quality that can become wearing after a while.

Quad Vena II Play

This does mean that if you stray away from the network audio and digital inputs, the Quad changes its presentation slightly. Used via the phono stage, some of the confidence and extension it displays in the lower registers constricts a little and some of that immediacy is lost. All things are relative though. The Vena II Play doesn’t simply support vinyl as an afterthought. Given something like a Rega Planar 3, it will almost certainly do justice to what it is capable of. This matters because the Quad has an all round ability that some rivals can struggle to replicate. For people who want to turn their record player off and immediately turn their telly on and keep using the same core equipment, the Quad feels assured at this in a way that a number of rivals just don’t.

And crucially, in the time it has been here, the Play-Fi part of the experience has been positive too. I still won’t be ending my use of Roon to switch over to it but Play-Fi is at least now a stable and logical browsing experience. It’s a few tweaks away (largely to how it renders large libraries) from being on the strong side of acceptable and from there, it can push on to further improve (and if this sounds wishful thinking, I’m at pains to stress that BluOS hasn’t always been the polished performer it is today). No less importantly, this is not part of the Quad that is set in stone - it can be updated and the level of engagement between IAG and DTS makes this feel like realistic rather than wishful thinking.

 ... the Quad has an all round ability that some rivals can struggle to replicate

Quad Vena II Play

Verdict

Pros

  • Excellent sound quality
  • Comprehensive feature set
  • Well priced
  • Well made

Cons

  • DTS Play-Fi still a bit of a work in progress
  • Phono stage good rather than great
  • Grey finish might not be to everyone's taste

Quad Vena II Play Streaming Amplifier Review

The ongoing march of all-in-ones to be competitive system options for every price point up to (and including) many thousands of pounds has been one of the main stories of the last few years. Within that has come an acceptance that some of the things that they do will be more readily accessible than others. I love the NAD M10 but I’d advocate you use it for streaming and TV use first and vinyl use second simply because of how it operates.

The Vena II Play isn’t Quad yelling “stop the bus” but it is akin to them slowing the bus down and selecting a different route for it. This is still an all in one; without needing any additional source equipment, it is capable of meeting a range of needs. What is also does is make its additional functionality appealing and accessible in a manner than some rivals can struggle with. Last but not least, it does it while sounding fantastic and managing to deliver Quad’s unique design aesthetic in a way that works well in 2020. If you’ve been looking the M10 and Uniti Atom and thinking they’re just a little too expensive, the Vena II Play is almost certainly what you need. The Quad is an excellent all-rounder and an unquestionable Best Buy.
Best Buy

Scores

Build Quality

.
.
8

Connectivity

.
9

Ease of use

.
9

Features

.
9

Audio quality

.
.
8

Value for money

.
9

Overall

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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