I first saw a working prototype of the Quad 9L Active desktop loudspeaker more than a year ago (at CES 2009), and thought from the outset that it was a cleverly conceived product that might make a great review subject for Playback. Now, more than a year after that first glimpse, the 9L Active has been tweaked, revised and refined en route to final production, yet without losing any of the cool features that made it seem like such a good idea in the first place.
What exactly are those features? Well, for starters, the 9L Active package, which sells for $800, includes two very compact, self-powered bookshelf speakers that leverage drive unit technology from Quad’s critically acclaimed L-series loudspeakers. Further, the 9L Active package is set up to support three inputs: digital audio via a USB port (yes, the 9L Active features its own built-in USB DAC), plus analog audio via either a front-panel mounted stereo mini-jack or a rear panel-mounted stereo pair of RCA jacks. Finally, the system is supplied with an assortment of necessary hook-up cables, plus a small, easy-to-use remote control unit. In a nutshell, then, the 9L Active system stands as a very high quality, plug-and-play, desktop-audio-in-a-box package, where all you need to add is a PC, a personal digital music player/disc player or a preamp (or any combination of these).
But the 9L Active system is also quite different from any of Quad’s earlier self-powered bookshelf speakers. Whereas Quad’s 11L and 12L Studio Active self-powered speakers were voiced primarily for use as true monitoring speakers, the 9L Active system is in every way—including speaker voicing—geared specifically for desktop use (a design choice we’ll comment on in depth in the SONIC CHARACTER section of this review, below).
In practice, this means the 9L Active system aims to provide a bigger, richer and thus more satisfying sound than most desktop rigs, yet while preserving many of the core sonic qualities that have made Quad’s higher-end speaker systems famous. Does it succeed? That’s a key question we will answer in this review.
Consider this self-powered desktop speaker if: you seek a desktop audio system that offers many of the sonic attributes of higher-end speaker systems (excellent detail, focus and soundstaging, with beautiful integration between drivers), yet that deliberately produces a warmer, richer, more full-bodied and more evocative sound than most desktop systems can. While some purists might consider the 9L Active’s “euphonic” voicing touches to be colorations (which, in a sense, they are), the fact is that the system manages to convey more of the feel of listening to a full-sized hifi system than to a small and potentially underwhelming and anemic-sounding traditional desktop system. At $800, the 9L Active system is certainly not cheap, yet we think it’s a bargain given the results you achieve.
Look further if: you want a self-powered speaker system to use for professional monitoring purposes or as a whole-room audio system. While the 9L Active certainly could be used for either of those applications, Quad’s 11L or 12L Studio Active models would frankly be a better fit, though at significantly higher costs. But for simply relaxing and enjoying music at your desktop, the 9L Active system is tough to beat.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced self-powered speakers)
- Transparency and Focus: 9.5
- Imaging and Soundstaging: 9.5
- Tonal Balance: 8 (see specific notes under SONIC CHARACTER explaining the 9L Active’s “desktop friendly” voicing)
- Dynamics: 8.5
- Bass Extension: 9
- Bass Pitch Definition: 8.5
- Bass Dynamics: 8.5
- Value: 9
Quad 9L Active System technical highlights:
- Features 1-inch fabric dome tweeter and 3.94-inch Kevlar mid-bass driver, both as developed for Quad’s higher-end L-series loudspeakers.
- Robust bass-reflex speaker cabinets with dual rear-firing ports.
- Each speaker features a high-quality, 60-watt built-in amplifier.
- Offered in a variety of exquisite “pearlescent metallic piano hi-gloss” finishes with names such as: Deep Black, Grey Tungsten, Purple Lilac, Blue Sky, Red Ruby, Pink Blush, Yellow Moon, and Yellow Green.
- Overall fit and finish of the product are exceptionally high (as denoted by the fact that the 9L Active manual comes packed with a set of white fabric gloves meant to help keep fingerprints off the glass-smooth surfaces of the speaker cabinets).
- Supports three audio inputs: one digital audio input via a rear panel USB port, one analog audio input via rear panel stereo RCA jacks, and one analog audio input via front panel 3.5mm mini-jack.
- Optional tilt-back desktop/tabletop stands.
- Left-channel unit serves as the “Master Speaker”, housing all audio input jacks, an analog audio output to drive the right channel speaker and all remote control receiver electronics.
- Right-channel unit serves as a self-powered “Slave Speaker” that receives analog audio inputs from the “Master Speaker”.
- Comes with a small four-button remote that provides volume up/down functions, USB/analog input switching, and a mute function.
As I mentioned above, the Quad 9L Active system has deliberately been given what I would characterize as “desktop friendly” voicing. In order for that comment to have any meaning, though, I think it is helpful to first ask what kinds of things can go wrong, sonically speaking, with typical desktop systems. When I consider that question, I come up with three answers.
Desktop problem number one is that bass response often sounds thin, anemic, or in some sense truncated. This is not just a frequency response problem, per se, but also a problem where the foundational mid-bass weight underlying the music (or at least many types of music) seems to have gone missing.
Desktop problem number two involves a nominally unpleasant quality of treble shrillness or edginess. In many cases I suspect that the problem is simply that the listener is seated so close to the loudspeaker that what would ordinarily seem very minor (or perhaps even nonexistent) tweeter response anomalies are suddenly laid bare and thrust into painfully sharp focus. Either way, what you may hear are disruptive traces of edginess and glare that break through to spoil the music.
Desktop problem number three, which may be related to number two, is a failure to achieve desirable soundstage depth, width, and three-dimensionality. While some listeners might prefer a relatively up-close listening perspective and others a more distant one, I think we all enjoy the sensation of hearing 3D soundstages that break free from the surfaces of our speaker systems—something many desktop systems seem unable to provide.
The Quad 9L Active systems addresses all three of these problems in creative ways.
First, the 9L Active system addresses the problem of overly lean bass (and general lack of bass weight), first by offering unusually well extended bass response for its diminutive size (claimed response down to a respectable 50Hz), and second by building in a small, well-controlled dollop of extra mid-bass emphasis. For obvious reasons, some will consider this gentle mid-bass lift to be a sonic coloration (which, technically speaking, it is), but if so it is also a decidedly “euphonic” coloration—one that helps the 9L Active supply those missing touches of bass weight and gravitas that many competing desktop systems lack. While the 9L Active system can’t reproduce truly low, deep bass (no speaker system this small can), the system’s response curve tends to make the bass that is present feel much more satisfying.
I found that, under some circumstances, the 9L Active system could sound just slightly under-damped in the mid-bass region, though this could be mitigated by repositioning the speaker either closer to or further from the back wall of the room. However, another great option—and one that proved very effective for me—is to try placing the 9L Active speakers on small foam damping pads. I placed a set of Teo Audio “Damping Diamonds-in-the-Rough” foam pads beneath the Quad speakers and got great results. With the Teo pads in place, bass power and punch remained, while textures tightened up and traces of looseness melted away.
Second, the 9L Active system addresses the problem of treble edginess and glare in two ways. First, Quad’s 1-inch fabric dome tweeter is unusually smooth sounding, which is always a good starting point, and second—in the 9L Active—Quad gives the tweeter a judicious bit of high-frequency roll-off rather than the more-or-less ruler flat response curves used in its 11L and 12L Studio Active speakers. Again, purists might object to this touch of treble roll-off as a sonic coloration, but if so I would argue that it is a coloration that serves the music well if you start with the baseline assumption that the listener will be seated roughly at arm’s length from the speakers. The roll-off is subtle and shallow enough that you can still hear plenty of high frequency overtones and harmonics in the music, but at the same time it gently suppresses many of the treble response anomalies and “rough edges” that could potentially tug at your ears and disrupt the flow of the music. For many listeners, I think this will seem a brilliant design compromise where a small amount of accuracy has been sacrificed in order to buy a large increase in overall listenability.
Finally, the 9L Active tackles desktop imaging and soundstaging issues, partly through its calculated touch of treble roll-off, but especially by doing a remarkably good job of driver integration. Individually, the 9L Active’s mid-bass driver and tweeter are both capable of very high levels of resolution and focus, but what’s really impressive is the way that they play together. From the upper bass through the body of the midrange and on up into the lower treble region, frequency response is for the most part neutral, with—and this is the real kicker—almost no sense of transitioning from one driver to the other. As a result, the 9L Active throws wide, deep, well-focused and highly three-dimensional soundstages that unfold well behind the plane of the speakers.
One overarching comment I would offer is that, while the 9L Active system performs very well when fed by high-quality analog sources, it was at its best when fed lossless digital audio files via its USB DAC input. When so driven, the 9L Active system exhibited heightened qualities of focus and resolution, which is especially impressive when you consider that some USB DACs cost as much or more than the entire 9L Active system does.
To experience the richness and three-dimensionality of which the 9L Active system is capable, try listening to a well-made recording of symphonic material, such as Leon Jessel’s Parade of the Wooden Soldiers as conducted by Frederick Fennel on the Dallas Wind Symphony Sampler [Reference Recordings]. Under normal circumstances, large-scale symphonic works tend more to expose the weaknesses than the strengths of most desktop systems, but no so with the Quad 9L Active system. Instead, the familiar march theme of Parade of the Wooden Soldiers unfolded with real power, weight, and a jaunty, brassy exuberance. In my notebook, I jotted that the sound of the Quad system was “lush, smooth, big, and dynamically expressive.” What is more, the wonderful three-dimensional qualities for which Reference Recordings are justly famous were reproduced beautifully through the Quads. It’s an eerie but very pleasurable experience to sit perhaps two feet from the Quads, yet to hear them cast a wide and deep soundstage whose arc extends well beyond the back wall of the room.
But the Quad 9L Active is more than just a “classical music” speaker system, as you’ll discover if you put on a record such as the 30th Anniversary edition of Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon [Capitol]. On “Breathe”, for example, the classic “heartbeat” intro had real depth, weight, and punch through the Quad system, though of course not the subterranean lows you would hear through a true full-range system. Similarly, the various small treble textural details that made this album seem such a marvel when it was first released were captured by the Quads with a kind of smooth, effortless clarity and focus. Most importantly, as the lyric of the song begins, the vocalist sounded evocative and alive though the 9L Actives, yet not at all shrill or edgy (as can often be the case when this record is played through lesser systems). My listening notes for this track read, “expansive, percussive, never shrill, with a response curve whose shape means you don’t miss the very low bass of which the track is capable.” That, in a way, stands as good summation of what’s so very right about the 9L Active system.
Let me provide comparisons to two competing self-powered desktop systems: the Focal XS system and the Dynaudio MC15 system.
Quad 9L Active system vs. Focal XS system
- The Focal system ($600) is priced $200 below the Quad 9L Active system ($800).
- The Focal is a three-piece sat/sub system, where the working assumption is that the Focal subwoofer would be positioned beneath the desk. The 9L Active system is a two-piece desktop system. The tradeoff, here, is that the Focal sub may offer slightly deeper bass than the Quads can produce, but is also significantly more elaborate to set up.
- Both systems feature built-in USB DACs and analog inputs, and come with hand remote controls. The Focal system, however, incorporates an iPod dock whereas the Quad system does not.
- In terms of focus, resolution, imaging, and soundstaging, the Focal system is very good, but the Quad system is even better (albeit at a higher price).
- Stylistically, the Focal system is a perfect match for use with iMacs (the two products look as if they were made for one another), though the Quad’s are beautifully finished and—depending on your finish choice—potentially much more colorful (the Focal system is offered only in a two-tone silver-and-black finish).
Quad 9L Active system vs. Dynaudio MC 15
- The Dynaudio MC 15 ($1299) is considerably more expensive than the Quad 9L Active system.
- Though the two products initially seem conceptually similar, they are actually quite different. The Dynaudio is a quintessential self-powered professional monitor for desktop use. As such, it incorporates an elaborate set of EQ tuning controls designed to optimize flat frequency response for monitoring applications. Dynaudio also offers an optional matching powered subwoofer for those who wish to extend flat bass response down into the mid-20Hz range. In contrast, the Quad 9L Active package is intended more as a ready-to-use desktop audio system that incorporates “desktop friendly” voicing, which, while not truly flat in the way that a monitoring-type speaker would be, is nevertheless very engaging and listenable.
- The Quad 9L Active incorporates a remote control, a built-in USB DAC, and two analog inputs, where the Dynaudio does not.
- The Dynaudio comes standard with metal, tilt-back stands, where such stands are extra-cost options for the Quad system.
- Purists and those looking to use their speakers in true monitoring applications would, I think, gravitate more to the very accurate and revealing Dynaudio system. But that said, I am also aware that some guest listeners found the Dynaudio system to sound, at times, a bit “cold,” "analytical," or “unforgiving.” By contrast, the Quad system’s desktop friendly voicing trades away some measure of strict, textbook accuracy in order to deliver a somewhat warmer, more full-bodied, more forgiving, and more listenable sound overall. Music lovers, therefore, might potentially find the Quad’s admittedly more romantic sound more enjoyable overall than the strict purity of the Dynaudios.
The Quad 9L Active system stands as a beautifully made and quite versatile desktop-audio-system-in-a-box. The system’s voicing very specifically targets the perceived inadequacies of typical desktop systems, trading off a small degree of accuracy to achieve a warmer and more full-bodied sound overall—which is just what some listeners have been waiting for.
While the 9L Active might not be the ideal choice for purist monitoring applications, it makes a delightful vehicle for enjoying music at your desktop, while preserving many (though not all) of the virtues that have made Quad’s higher-end speakers famous. Considering its sound quality, versatility, and fit and finish, the system is also very well priced.
Quad 9L Active self-powered desktop speaker with built-in USB DAC
Driver complement: One 1-inch fabric dome tweeter and one 3.94-inch Kevlar mid-bass driver ?
Frequency response: 50Hz – 21 kHz, ± 3dB
Maximum output (short-term peak SPL): 105 dB?
Internal amplifier power: 60 watts/speaker
Sensitivity: 0.775 V (0dBu)?
Input impedance: 10k Ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 9.76” x 5.98” x 9.33”?
Weight: 22.93 lb. (complete system, including both speakers and accessories) ?
Warranty: 1 year, parts and labor?
QUAD HIFI/INTERNATIONAL AUDIO GROUP