Compact stereo amps are all the rage at the moment. Products such as the Monitor Audio Airstream A100 and NAD D 3020 have been a breath of fresh air, bringing clever design, smart features and excellent sound to the world of hi-fi.
They’re a great shout for those of us who consume music over multiple sources, whether CD player, computer or high-tech smartphone.
Build and design
The appeal for such products hasn’t been lost on Quad, one of the most respected hi-fi brands in the business. The Vena may be chunkier than the NAD and more sedate-looking than the Monitor Audio, but it looks and feels the part – build quality is excellent, the design cut very much from Quad cloth.
The ‘Lancaster Grey’ finish gives a classic look - if you want something with a bit more pizazz, it’s worth casting your eyes over the three optional finishes (piano black, piano white or sapele mahogany) – although note that each one will set you back an additional £100.
The front panel is a minimalist affair with a motorised volume control and a line-up of buttons corresponding with the amp’s inputs. Everything’s there bar a built-in phono stage for a turntable.
Both Type A and Type B USB inputs are on the back: the former allows you to charge an iDevice and play music directly, the latter is the go-to socket for hooking up a computer. Optical and coaxial digital inputs and outputs complete the line up. Sample-rate support extends all the way to 24-bit/192kHz high-res files.
Bluetooth also gets the nod for added convenience and the fact there’s aptX support means you can take advantage of higher quality audio beamed from a compatible smartphone or tablet. Because of the aluminium chassis and the effect it has on a wireless signal, you need to use an external antennae – supplied in the box.
This is a slightly untidy solution, but it can fold away out of sight. If you buy one of the optional finishes, none of which use the aluminium casing, there’s no aerial socket to contend with.
We start with a quick blast of Up Is Down from Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End – and a blast is exactly how it feels. It’s quite unlike the traditional Quad character to which we’ve become accustomed.
The track sounds big, bold – even quite boisterous. There’s serious weight and power on show, as wave after wave of orchestral attack crashes down on the listener.
Stream a CD rip of Jay-Z’s Already Home and the Quad shows a superb sense of control. Faced with the meaty, concentrated bassline the Vena keeps a firm grip, offering depth and control in equal measure. The soundstage is wide but all the elements are held firmly in place. Strings sound explicit, the vocal focused and straight to the point.
We play music through the headphone amplifier and we’re pleased to report the Quad’s lively sonic character continues. Faced with Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, the Vena doesn’t shirk its responsibilities, placing tight, punchy drum thwacks alongside the track’s guitar riff.
Switch to Bluetooth, pair up a smartphone, and even though there is the inevitable drop in quality that the streaming system brings, along with a loss of scale and dynamics compared to a wired connection, you don’t experience the thin, hard quality that often blights the use of Bluetooth.
It’s when music calls for a little more restraint and delicacy that the Quad can’t quite stand up to scrutiny. Play Hozier’s soulful Take Me To Church and the tune sounds just a touch rushed. The soundstage is still well organised and there’s plenty of detail and attack on offer when the chorus kicks off – but we’d like greater finesse and more of a feel for the track.
The Quad sticks to one speed, however, and isn’t able to shift up or down the gears depending on the demands of the track. The emotion and intimacy of the piano and vocal at the start of the Take Me To Church don’t latch on to your senses like the very best amplifiers at this money can.
Nevertheless, the Vena is still an interesting proposition, not least because of the apparent shift by Quad to a more driven, potent sound.
Whether this direction is taken with the company’s future products remains to be seen – but for now, Vena is a good option to have in this flourishing sector of the market.