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Quad 303 and 33: The Budget Audiophiler

The Quad 303 and 33 are two of the best British vintage audio components from before you were born. How do they sound decades later?

Vintage Audio: Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier Closeup

As much as I want to say all of the great vintage audio came out of New York in the 1960s, that’s certainly not the case. We’re going to take a trip across the pond this week to discuss one of the most important British audio brands that is still going strong as part of the International Audio Group (Wharfedale, Audiolab, Mission, Castle Acoustics) and whose vintage audio products are heavily sought after by audiophiles.

The Quad ESLs established the brand as a major player in the world of high-end audio in 1957, but we’re not going to focus on Peter Walker’s revolutionary electrostatic loudspeakers right now – our focus is going to be on the Quad 303 power amplifier and 303 Control Unit.

Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier, FM-3 Tuner and 303 Amplifier with manuals
Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier, FM-3 Tuner and 303 Amplifier with manuals

Started after WWII and under the direction of Peter Walker, Quad introduced their first amplifier, the Quad 1, and subsequently in 1953, the Quad 2

Both were tube amplifiers and are quite collectible now if you can find a set. Everything changed for the company in 1957 with the introduction of the Quad ESL loudspeakers. The ESL, contrary to any other stories, was not their first loudspeaker. It was their first commercial success in the category. 

The original ESL, in production between 1957 and 1985, has been hailed in almost every audio publication in the world as one of the most important speakers of the 20th century. It was succeeded in 1981 by the ESL-63, which remained in production until 1999.

For all of its remarkable transparency, the Quad ESL was a very difficult loudspeaker to drive. If you’ve never heard a pair in great working condition, it’s an experience worth having. Especially when you realize that the technology is from almost 60 years ago. The listening sweet spot is also remarkably small; basically, one person. 

Vintage audio fans will spend a lot of money for a restored pair; and as I’ve discovered recently the same group of people have a lot of respect for the Quad 303 and 33. 

Quad introduced their first transistor amplifier unit in 1967 and that is where the Quad 303 and 33 enter the picture. Quad did not have a wide catalog of products unlike many of their competitors, and purposely built their products to have a long life cycle. 

Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier and FM-3 Tuner atop Harman Kardon
Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier and FM-3 Tuner atop Harman Kardon

The first thing you notice about all of the Quad solid-state equipment is that it looked nothing like any of the other equipment of the period; and nothing like anything that has come since. None of the U.S. or Japanese manufacturers created anything that looked or sounded like the Quad products of the period. 

The tuner, preamp, and amplifier were all separate units; you could hide the amplifier away from view leaving just the 10 ¼” wide and 6” deep preamplifier and tuner visible. 

The Quad 303 used rather interesting heatsinks to dissipate heat and while it benefits from ventilation, Quad knew that users would place it inside a console or cabinet. 

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Compared to the 20-24” wide models being created in Japan and the United States, the Quad 33 mini stack could fit just about anywhere. The Quad cases are grey metal with plastic orange and white buttons in contrast to the normal metal faceplates of the time that were common with Fisher, Marantz, and McIntosh. 

Audio reviewers were unduly harsh in their criticism of the color scheme, but consumers had a very different opinion about it. I find Quad’s choice of grey metal combined with the orange tuner dial, and white buttons to be strikingly more interesting than anything else being offered at the time from most of the manufacturers. McIntosh and Marantz had a very distinct look that is still prized today and the consensus online among collectors is that Quad hit one out of the park. 

Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier and FM-3 Tuner Front
Front View: Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier and FM-3 Tuner

Quad 33 Control Unit

The Quad 33 Control Unit features a Radio 1, Radio 2 (AUX), Disc (phono everywhere else on the planet), and 2 Tape inputs (one for record/play and one for playback only). The first thing anyone will notice is the use of DIN inputs. Naim Audio have used DIN plugs for decades and there are a number of companies making 3rd party RCA to DIN cables/plugs that you can use to connect the 303 to the 33 and sources. 

Not the end of the world as they can still be found but if you have a chance to buy one of these units ensure cabling is part of the deal; especially the Quad power cords as they are unlike anything I have seen in other units. Speakers are easily connected with banana plugs.

The Control Unit and Tuner weigh 6.5 pounds while the amplifier comes in at 18 pounds.

Aside from the volume dial, you can adjust the sound with bass, treble and slope dials as well as 5k, 7k, and 10k button filters. These are for removing record surface noise and high frequency distortion when used in concert with the slope dial. Quad provides diagrams for this in their instruction booklet, but I found it just as easy, and enjoyable to try the variety of options to dial in the sound I like. 

The Cancel button allows you to hear the music without alteration and having to adjust any of your preferences. A modern version of a bypass switch.

Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier, FM-3 Tuner and 303 Amplifier
Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier, FM-3 Tuner and 303 Amplifier

Quad 303 Amplifier

The Quad 303 is rated at a very respectable 45 watts per channel into 8 ohms making this very easy to pair with speakers of the time. When I cracked open the case, I appreciated the forward thinking layout which was designed for easy servicing; something that is not the case with a lot of the receivers from the 1970s.

Quad wanted these components to last and if parts had to be replaced, the goal was to make it easy for a qualified technician or owner to do so. 

I’ve seen restorers of these products change the DIN connections to RCA input jacks and that’s certainly an option if you have technical ability to do it.

Quad 33 Performance Curves
Quad 33 Performance Curves

The Quad Sound

The Quad 303 and 33 definitely have a sound; and I’ve noticed from other users online that a lot of people like them with the BBC LS3/5a models (15 ohm version produced by Rogers is a very good choice), Quad ESLs, Tannoy, Wharfedale Diamond Series, and older KEF and Spendor loudspeakers.

I would not blast music through the Quad 303. It was designed to work with high impedance loudspeakers (8 ohm or higher) at conversation levels.

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In terms of my own vintage loudspeakers, I found the experience rather interesting.

I used the Quad 303 and 33 in my main system with the Ohm F’s on a Niles A/B switcher with the other system being a McIntosh C28 with an SAE 2500 amplifier.

With some adjustments of the filters, tone, slope, and volume, — it was actually hard to tell the two systems apart. It was really that good. The Quad combination is definitely “well mannered” and certainly not a forward sounding combination with propulsive bass response. You need to adjust the tone and filters to create a more “modern” sound. 

Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier and FM-3 Tuner Back
Rear View: Quad 33 Pre-Amplifier and FM-3 Tuner

One area where the Quad 303 and 33 truly shine is when you adjust the sound to conversation levels with better recordings. The warm tonal balance is almost impossible to ignore but the detail retrieval was surprisingly quite good.

Some might find the overall presentation slightly too relaxed, but I think it really depends on your choice of loudspeaker and I was quite amazed at how much I enjoyed music through this combination. It’s definitely a pairing I want to own at some point. 

Not everyone has a pair of Ohm F’s available, so I also used the Quad 303 and 33 with my Dynaco a25’s, Advent Large, and my new EPI M100’s. The 303 drove them all quite effortlessly, highlighting the bass response of the Advents, and the overall balance of the Dynaco loudspeakers. 

The Quad 303 and 33 threw me for a loop. I didn’t know what to expect and they were a wonderful combination that made a lot of modern music (especially poorly recorded albums) sound a lot better. They are popular with collectors so prepare to pay a decent amount for a set in very good condition.

There are people who specialize in their restoration but that comes with a serious price tag. Quad hit one out of the park with the 303/33 combination and I think music lovers in the U.K. were very lucky to get their hands on them first. 

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Chris

    June 10, 2021 at 10:17 pm

    Great article, what a cool piece of equipment.

    • Ian White

      June 12, 2021 at 12:53 am

      It sounds even better in person. Quad hit a homerun with this series.

    • E.T. Nolan

      May 28, 2022 at 11:59 am

      I bought mine in the late 70’s. No issues with them and paired with a Rega Planar deck and Spotify from a Samsung a22 I have all the music I want.

  2. Guy Grundy

    June 17, 2021 at 10:38 am

    Great memories. Had that magnificent combination with a Goldring Lenco 75 source and a pair of monstrous Tannoy Monitor Gold 15’s. Wonderful sound.Built like a tank.Built to last.

    • Max

      February 4, 2022 at 9:22 pm

      Certainly built to last. I’m using my 45 year old set right now. I bought some new Quad speakers about 25 years ago. I don’t expect to ever buy another amplifier or speakers.

  3. TC

    June 18, 2021 at 3:49 pm

    My brother has a Linn LP12, LSA/5a’s and the 303/33 very hard to beat. At the time I used an A&R Cambridge A60 with a Linn LP12/Ittock and B&W DM10 speakers. Sounded great, the speakers have long gone but still have the Linn and A60 both still in full working order and with modern speakers sounds great. Unfortunately day to day now is a Chord TT2 fed direct from a PC driving two Cambridge Audio 851W power amps into B&W 705-S2’s…

    • Ian White

      June 18, 2021 at 4:07 pm

      I think it’s interesting that you used the term “unfortunately” in regard to your current system that sounds pretty good to me.

      A lot of people who had some of the great pieces from the past miss them dearly.

      Ian White

  4. Science Gent

    February 17, 2022 at 10:10 pm

    Bought a 33/303 combo with tuner a couple of years ago. At something like £450 it seemed very reasonable. With an Arcam CDS50 at one end and my ancient mini magneplanars on the other, the sound is excellent and I don’t expect to change anything soon.

    • Ian White

      February 17, 2022 at 10:16 pm

      The 33/303 combination is really nice. It’s sadly selling for 2-3 times that amount here now from dealers who have refurbished sets.

      Ian White

  5. Louis McFarlane

    January 18, 2023 at 8:13 pm

    I had the 303, 33 & FM3.
    Sold the Pre-amp and FM tuner. Kept the 303 and added a 405 and 606. All still working after all these years.

  6. rl18856

    August 29, 2023 at 6:40 pm

    Resurrecting a column from 2021… Regardless. You mentioned use of a Niles A/B switcher. Does this device allow you to switch between using 2 amplifiers and 1 set of speakers, without having to constantly change connections ? If so, do you notice any degradation in sound quality ?

    • Ian White

      August 30, 2023 at 12:55 am

      RL,

      I do that when a column starts to generate interest again and this is one of those cases. When it was originally published, the QUAD 303/33 piece generated over 30,000 reads and I noticed over the summer that it generated almost 500 in July which is normally a rather slow period. People seem to be finding these for sale online (eBay) or Audiogon, and Jeremy’s article kept popping up. I will let him answer your Niles question.

      Best,

      IW

  7. Curtis

    August 30, 2023 at 6:24 pm

    The 303 has always amazed me. I picked one several years ago. Loved it so much I grabbed another when the price was too good to pass up. I always tend to go through system switch-ups for the hell of it (modern and vintage), trying to find that sweet pairing, and I have to say that I always come back to the Quad 303. I’m not sure what exactly it is about it, but it seems like one of those amps that has zero fatigue, it’s detailed with warmth but still punchy. Currently, I have it paired with a Bryston 11B pre and KEF 104/2 speakers. Vinyl only. Sublime.

    • Ian White

      August 30, 2023 at 6:51 pm

      Curtis,

      That does sound good. How much did you pay for the 303?

      IW

  8. Yud Reish

    August 31, 2023 at 9:48 am

    I’m also a proud user of the Quad 33/303 combo. Sources are Roon and Phono. My vinyls sound way better, probably because my Schiity basic DAC (will upgrade soon). My speakers are Magnepan .7s, which are 4 ohm / 86db speakers.

    I connect the 33 to a HSU 12V subwoofer amp. The HSU amp has a 60Hz low-pass filter (LPF) to the sub and a high-pass filter (HPF) back to the 303. I think this helps the 303 perform better, as it doesn’t have to handle the sub-60Hz frequencies. I’ve ordered 52Hz and 43Hz cross frequencies modules from HSU, I’ll experiment which works best for the 303 & MG.

    The sound is sweet, holographic, and quite detailed. I listen frequently and for hours end without fatigue. The music is delivered elegantly and effortlessly. Though I can, accidentally, cause the 303 to choke if I crank the volume up too high (happens with high dynamic classical recordings). But as long as I keep the volume in the 3-6 (33 volume dial) sweet spot it’s all perfect.

    I recapped the 303 in 2019, but lately I’ve been hearing crackling sounds from the right speaker after a long listen, even when all sources are disconnected. After power and cool down it goes away. I hope it’s not because of the 4 ohm load of the speakers.

  9. DAVE BRUNTON

    January 19, 2024 at 4:10 pm

    Very interesting article indeed. My firsat experience of the 33/303 combination was around 1985/87 if memory serves me well.
    I was running a few seperates, the names of which escape me bar the amp, it was a Trio.
    A friend of mine ran the 33/303 setup, I was amazed at the sound.
    Fast forward to 2017/18 I have been running a Denon D-100 stack, very sweet sounding indeed.
    I spotted on ad in our local marketplace for the said tw0 items ( 33/303) for sale. The elderly guy was clearing out his garage?sheds, he knew what they were possibly worth, but only asked £5.00 yes £5.00 for the 2 items. So with great speed I drove over to his place and happily paid the amount.
    Last year I took them to Quads in Huntingdon and there they servied them so for £229.75 I’m now the proud owner of a decent system.
    I run an old Technics deck, with a pair of Wharfedale diamonds ( Mk ? ) plus a philips CD deck ( the model escapes me at present ).
    As a footnote my cartridge is a Goldring Elan on the deck, any other recommendations would be gratefully received, to make improvements.

    Dave

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