Review: Bottlehead Quickie tube preamp

A product that functions imperfectly yet possesses a singular character can be as enjoyable to own as one that delivers unassailable performance. Before you argue the point, know that millions of Harley owners stand ready to back me up.

The reason for this micro-rant is that I’m reviewing a product of a type long ago abandoned by mainstream audio manufacturers, and barely seen in S+V since the days when it was called Stereo Reviewand everyone was raving about a new band from England with a drummer named Ringo. The product is a tube preamp, a category that supposedly became obsolete when transistors were invented. Yet many audiophiles feel that transistor electronics simply can’t match the warmth (or soul, or emotion, or whatever) of tubes.

There are still plenty of tube preamps to be had from dozens of boutique companies, but what’s special about the Bottlehead Quickie, and the main reason I’m reviewing it, is its $99 price. How can someone sell a tube preamp for $99 when they normally go for 10 to 40 times that? Well, there’s a catch: You have to build it yourself. There’s another catch, too: The enclosure is $40 extra. Oh, and one more catch: You can’t pick your color; you have to accept whatever random hue Bottlehead sends. And there’s yet another catch: It’s battery-powered. Plus two more catches: It has only two inputs and no remote control.

What’s that, six catches? Fortunately, the Quickie has more to recommend it than just its low price. Perhaps most important, it promises the warmth/soul/emotion of tubes. Second, whatever preamp you have now, the Quickie is bound to attract more admirers — and, perhaps, more detractors. Last, you get the pride of building a piece of gear yourself — or, perhaps, the agony of screwing it up massively.

The Quickie is built entirely on a plastic plate (that’s the part that comes in random colors) and uses 1930s-style point-to-point wiring. There’s no circuit board and nothing in the circuit but two capacitors, two resistors and one 3S4 tube per channel. The circuit design is single-ended, meaning it amplifies the entire signal with a single semiconductor device, rather than splitting the signal into positive and negative halves and using separate devices for each half the way most power amplifiers and many preamps do. The tubes are pentodes, but they’re wired as triodes, i.e., only one of the three control screens is used. Thus, it’s a single-ended triode design, which many audiophiles consider the best possible type of audio amplification. Whether or not that’s true is a matter of debate, but if you want a simpler way to amplify audio, you’re gonna have to get a megaphone.

The battery power supply has some audiophile-pleasing points, too. Because it’s pure DC, there’s none of the ripple that can occur when AC from the wall is converted to DC. Of course, batteries run out, and their performance starts to degrade long before they die. Bottlehead combats this flaw with the PJCCS, a $35 add-on circuit board that keeps current constant as the batteries run down. The company says you get 100 to 200 hours of life from the Quickie’s four 9-volt batteries and two D-cells, which by my calculations gives a worst-case operating cost of about 13 cents an hour.

All you get for $99 is the plastic plate and all the necessary parts. An unfinished wood enclosure costs another $40. It’s OK, but nothing fancy, just four mitered and routed pieces of wood. (There’s no bottom, but it doesn’t really need one.) Anyone with a miter box and some framing clamps could put together a reasonable substitute with scraps of 1-by-4.

Incidentally, the Bottlehead web site includes a forum that’s full of tips and tweaks for the Quickie, such as substituting chokes for the plate resistors to improve the sound, and adding transformers at the outputs to turn it into a headphone amp.