Ecological Review of the amazingly priced ($99) Qinpu Q2 headphone / integrated tube amplifier
This is a quick review of the Qinpu Q2 integrated amplifier. I have been using it for various functions for about 3 months now and I am actually quite happy with it. It’s not audiophile quality, but for what it does do at a whopping $99 is pretty impressive. But the question for us here is whether it qualifies as being green. As such, this isn't a review about the performance of this amplifier as much as it is about how green it is. There are several reviews online about how this amp sounds - just Google Q2 for a quick list. Here we will be evaluating the Q2 and Qinpu based on the following criteria:
- Energy-Efficiency and Heat-Dissipation
- Product Quality and Simplicity
- Adequate Packaging
- Toxicity of Components
- Company Labor Relations
- Product Recycling
- Fair Pricing
The Q2 is the least expensive integrated amplifier sold by Chinese manufacturer Qinpu. It retails for $99 at many online resellers, including Audio Advisor, where I purchased mine. It is primarily billed as a tube-based headphone amp but it also happens to have speaker binding posts, which makes it quite versatile. However, at only 2.5 Watts RMS, this isn't an amplifier that is going to drive electrostatic speakers; it will drive primarily highly sensitive speakers.
Energy-Efficiency and Heat-Dissipation: Score = 4
The Q2 was quite remarkable in this area, considering it is a tube amplifier. While not running as hot as other tube amps (after all, it only has one), it does put out a very small amount of heat. I listened to several LPs amplified by a Project PhonoBox phono preamp into the Q2’s RCA CD input. The Q2 dial was at 50% and at the end of the fourth album (classic rock: Rush 2112), and I took a temperature reading on the tube of 103 degrees. A bit high, but considering this is from a single tiny tube doing all the work, that’s not too bad. (Actually, the Q2 is a hybrid amp, so to say the tube is doing all the work, isn’t completely accurate, but the tube was the hottest part of the amp - hence the reading). Other parts of the amp were cool to the touch.
Energy consumption is low, but considering that it only puts out 2.5 Watts RMS at 8 ohms, this is expected. The Q2 uses a comparably low 10 Watts (119.1 volts / 0.11 amp) of energy during typical operation - actually I drove the amp pretty hard and that was the reading - I measured this while running the volume dial at 50% listening to first Ravel's Bolero and then the more dynamic Mysterious Mountain from Allan Hovhannes. Not bad.
A note about the power & the volume: I am using the amp with a pair of Zu Audio Soul Superfly speakers rated at 101dB SPL @ 1W/1m and 16 ohm. Those are extremely efficient near-full-range speakers and not typical fare. The power output was acceptable and the sound quality about average. I then also tried a pair of Klipsch RB35 speakers at 96dB and 8 ohms, and the performance was already slightly diminished. That said, those Klipsch speakers are still very efficient, so I don’t expect this amp to be a good match for many mid-priced speakers out there. Perhaps a more down-to-earth load was through the Talon Audio Khites, 90dB SPL and 8 ohm, which is about average for today’s bookshelf speakers. This combination still produced respectable music, but this was no longer what I would consider Hi Fi. Dynamics were diminished, volume was quite a bit lower, and the bass was anaemic. To put it succinctly, the sound was thin and lost much of what makes tube amps so unique. This may be acceptable for background music, but this was quite a bit to give up. Considering that many higher end speakers are far less efficient, this makes matching the Q2 to the right speakers something one must do very carefully.
Product Quality and Simplicity: Score = 3
At first I was pretty impressed, but I have to say that after some moving around of the unit (headphone amps tend to get moved around more than other components), I noticed that the tube was a bit loose – I had to straighten/re-seat it a couple of times already. The RCA jacks and the headphone inputs & outputs on the back are a little flimsy as well. Also, I just noticed this week that the power supply (the heaviest part) was loose. It looks like I will have to open the amp to tighten the screws in the near future. The selector and volume buttons, white pretty solid feeling, are also off-center. This is a pet-peeve of mine and seems to be quite common in mass-produced equipment.
While it certainly has a distinctive look, I also have a very small bone to pick about that. It has lots of surfaces that collect dust and grime. Its unconventional shape also makes it a bit inconvenient to pick up & move. One also needs a recommended 8” of clearance between shelves if placing it on a rack or bookcase. Granted, it’s not very big (5.3" x 7.1" x 3.1"), but it does have an awkward shape and because of its weight (4 lbs.) it is not as easy to pick up as other headphone amps that have come across my desk.
The product is pretty simple. No unnecessary features or buttons, although it does have a lot of capability in such a small package. I would say that this is more of a plus than a minus. The power rocker switch on the side is a bit odd, but otherwise it’s fairly straightforward. One doesn’t need a manual to figure out how to set it up. The manual, by the way, is pretty sparse and covers other Qinpu models as well, but it’s adequate.
The power cord is attached, so it cannot easily be replaced should it become frayed or weak over time. It can also not be upgraded with an after-market cord, of course. Likewise the included RCA to 3.5mm cable is a generic back/white/red cable that will likely not last more than a few years of active use.
The black surfaces of the amp are brushed aluminum which means that fingerprints are less visible and scratches are also harder to notice. The red plastic is also pretty solid and while glossy, it is unlikely to deteriorate or become scratched too easily. The tube cage is a little flimsy. It is made of chromed metal of some sort, so I don’t expect too much trouble there, but it is fragile. I would not accidentally drop something heavy on it.
Adequate Packaging: Score = 3
The Qinpu Q2 came in a single standard white packing box, made of non-recycled cardboard. It’s reasonably solid, being able to withstand at least 2-3 shippings, but not much more. The amp is not double boxed, and I believe all amps should be. Inside, the amp is in a plastic cover surrounded by thick foam on six sides, although this does not cover the entire amp. A puncture of the box in the wrong place could damage the exposed tube or tube cage, although the rest of the amp would probably survive this type of mishap.
Toxicity of Components: Score = (3)
Qinpu does not offer any information about this. I am going to presume that minimum requirements for shipment to the US market are met. However, this does not suggest many of the safeguards that are typical in products manufactured in Europe such as the use of lead-free solder. I have no way of testing this thoroughly, but a quick look inside suggests a rather rushed manufacturing process typical of mass-produced components. I emailed Qinpu repeatedly to ask them to offer more input on this issue, but I received no response. Unfortunately, I have little more information to relay than the picture below.
I wish I knew more about China’s regulations on this issue, but unfortunately I don’t. I have therefore no choice but to give a rating of three on this category. If anyone has additional information to offer on this issue, please add a comment at the end of this post.
Labor Relations: Score = (3)
Qinpu products are manufactured in Guangzhou City, at their factory. They have 12 years of manufacturing experience and I have not found any labor issues with this factory. This doesn’t mean it is without issues, but there are no formal reports or complaints, so I must presume that the employees are treated fairly. that said, the price-point of this product makes this suspect. I asked several manufacturers what it would cost to manufacture this type of product here in the US and the price was several times more. While a comparatively poor wage by our standards goes further in China, that is still out of proportion with the $99 price tag of this unit. Considering that shippers and resellers typically account for roughly 40% of the retail price of goods manufactured abroad, that would make the manufacturing cost of the Q2 roughly $60. I don't know how that is possible and I really don't know if the math adds up.
Product Recycling: Score = (3)
Because the products ship from abroad, there is no real product recycling or exchange program after the useful life of the product. The US distributors will offer to take products back, but there is no information on whether Qinpu then takes ownership back. Actually, the only reseller that responded to my inquiries on this was Audio Advisor (they have fairly comprehensive recycling and green initiative programs in place, and returned audio equipment is refurbished and resold via the second-hand market - come to think of it, I should probably do a story about this).
Fair Pricing: Score = 5
Obviously, this is one area where the Qinpu Q2 shines. The product is about as inexpensive as can be. I do not think anything manufactured abroad or locally can be priced any lower. As such, it represents an amazing value. I wish I could combine this with viable information about manufacturing and labor, but unfortunately that is not possible at this time. So I'm giving it a guarded but deserved score of 5.
Conclusion: Average Score = 3.4
I wish I had more information on Qinpu's corporate practices. Unfortunately, with them being located in China, this is a bit hard to ascertain. I have attempted to contact Qinpu and its resellers but the only ones who were responsive were Audio Advisor (hence the reason I purchased from them), but they could only respond about their own corporate policies and could provide little info about Qinpu. I believe they purchase the product from another US distributor, so AA is even further removed from the company.
Elsewhere on this site I also mention that I expect customers to bear part of the responsibility for ensuring that products are green. Of course, my decision to purchase this product without being able to confirm that it is manufactured in accordance with my own standards does smack of hypocrisy to some extent. I could excuse myself by saying that I hadn't exactly established these standards when I purchased the amp, but that would be a cop-out. I therefore bear some responsibility for encouraging the manufacture of products that may not be fairly produced. That said, the whole point of this web project is to try an redeem myself from these mistakes. I do intend to find something better to replace it. As a matter of fact, I already have two new amps on the docket, including the Schiit Audio Asgard and the NuForce Icon2 - stay tuned.
As with all my posts, please feel free to comment and let me know how I can improve things.