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Price: 19 900 zł

Distribution: Audio Center Poland

ul. Malborska 56
30-646 Kraków
tel.: 012 265 02 85
fax: 012 655 45 12


Polish language WWW: LUXMAN

Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Translation: Krzysztof Kalinkowski

Some devices are more “trustworthy” than others. Some devices are so worked out, are such complete designs, that we can tell, they survived the passage of time well. And we can name quite a few – despite the claims made by some manufacturers and salesmen – but I just want to talk about two of them, I deal with on a daily basis, and which we tested: the cartridge Denon DL-103 (and its derivatives - DL-103 R i DL-103SA), and the McIntosh amplifier MC275 (test of the Commemorative Edition HERE). In both cases there are fan clubs, counting many members, and the products remain in the catalogs of their companies until today – at Denon, although it is now a big AV company, that does not have much in common with analog any longer, and at McIntosh – although its leaders claim, that the era of vacuum tubes has ended there long ago. So there must be something in those products, which organizes their users, their potential clients in a way, that they are “forcing” their continuous production. What is that? I think it is very simple: they are just good products.

The amplifier SQ38u, introduced this year by Luxman belongs to the same exclusive bunch. This is an integrate amp with classic looks, in an additional wooden cabinet, with a built in phono preamplifier, that was presented first in 1963(!) and was called SQ38. So last year we had its 45th anniversary. The project was so upgradeable, that it was not replaced with something else, but every few years a new version was presented, slightly bettered, carrying a letter after the designation. Let us mention them in chronological order:

SQ38D - 1964
SQ38Ds - 1965
SQ38F - 1968
SQ38FD - 1970
SQ38FD II - 1974
LX38 - 1978
LX38u - 1983
SQ38s - 1995
SQ38D - 1998
SQ38u - 2008

As you can see from that list, this amplifier was manufactured for 45 year uninterruptedly. And this does mean something. The device was designed by the Luxman tube “guru”, Mr. Kazuyuki Doi, responsible for the NeoClassico and MQ-88 systems. Conservatively spec’d at 2x30W the amplifier is based on EL34 tubes in push-pull ultra-linear setting. It was equipped with a phonostage with selectable impedance and step-up transformers in the MC section. There is also a remote control and a selector of the loudspeaker outputs. We can also find a headphone output and a “Separate” switch, which allows integrating the SQ-38u with a home cinema system, decoupling the power stage from the preamplifier stage. In my opinion this is the most beautiful version of this amplifier. Period.


  • Yoko Ono, Open Your Box, Astralwerks, ASW 88710, CCD.
  • Depeche Mode, Sounds Of The Universe, Mute/EMI Music Japan, TOCP-66878, CD+DVD; reviev HERE.
  • Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio, What a Wonderful Trio!, First Impression Music, FIM DXD 079, silver-CD; reviev HERE.
  • Wynton Kelly, Kelly Blue, Riverside/JVC, JVCXR-0050-2, XRCD2.
  • Sonny Rollins, Sonny Rollins&The Contemporary Leaders, Contemporary Records/JVC, VICJ-61337, K2HD.
  • Frank Sinatra, Only The Lonely, Capitol/Mobile Fidelity, UDCD 792, gold-CD; reviev HERE.
  • Wong San, Feel Like Making Love, Pony Canyon, PCCY-50014, HQCD; reviev HERE.
  • The Beatles, 09.09.09 [sampler], Apple/Parlophone/EMI, 6844142, 2 x CD, reviev HERE.
  • Cantate Napoletane Del’ 700, Capella della Pietà de’Turchini, Eloquentia, EL 0919, CD.
  • King Crimson, Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, WHD Entertainment, IECP-30006, HDCD/HQCD.
  • The Modern Jazz Quartet, Pyramid, Atlantic/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-25125, CD.
  • Paula Cole, Courage, Decca, B0008292-02, CD; reviev HERE.
  • Ariel Ramirez, Misa Criolla, José Carreras, Philips/Lasting Impression Music, LIM K2HD 040, K2 HD; reviev TUTAJ.
  • Barney Kessel, On Fire, Interplay Records/Pony Canyon, MYCJ-30538, HQCD.
  • Carol Sloane, Hus-A-Bye, Sinatra Society of Japan, Muzak, XQAM-1031, CD.

I am not sure if I warned you – if not, then I am sorry, and let this be a part of explanations I should have made long ago. In my life, also the professional one (I mean that part, which is related to the job I do) I spent most of my life with headphones on my head. I started as a kid, listening to the adventures of Pinocchio and the Moomins, not even mentioning other heroes, and later listened to what happening in a recording studio, where I just placed the microphones, and now musicians played. So I am a person “poisoned” with this kind of listening habits, and I “think” about sound with headphones. This is important, as – from a simple statistics – it seems, that this is a minority among the listeners. And this means, that in my choices I am not as objective, as I would be, if headphones would be something additional for me, something imposed on me by circumstances. In that case, the main way of listening to music, would be the loudspeakers. And lack of objectivity by a reviewer, a journalist, would be something suspicious. Because it is assumed, that people dealing with transmission of information, evaluation, etc, will be completely free from what is around them, including their biography. In my opinion this is rubbish, a logical and methodological error, but – like I said – this is an ideal. So I am not objective against that ideal. Another thing is related to some “tendency”, which every journalist, me included, has in his heart for some companies or people. I have a soft spot like Leben, McIntosh, etc, but also for a certain “way of thinking” about a given construction. Thinking, I spotted in the SQ-38u amplifier from Luxman. So this will be an absolutely unobjective test, but yet completely true.

I started the session with the observation of the built-in headphone amplifier. I had my Leben CS300, which I use mostly for that function, Tri TRV-88SE (tested this month) and Cary CAD-300-SEI, with the comparison of the Luxman against the Leben being most important. The threefold difference in pricing did not have big importance for me, because we are talking about hi-end here, and there is no “price-performance ratio” here – either something performs or not. There are also some headphones to check – first of all my AKG K701, Ultrasone PROLine2500 and Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro (600 Ω), but also the Ultrasone Edition 8 and Sennheiser HD800. Let me just add, that an impulse for this sequence of review was the a review made in the magazine by Srajan Ebaen (HERE), where he called upon my experience with Leben and placed a photo of a part of my reference system.

First impressions after plugging in my beloved AKG were not too good. K710 are brilliantly coherent transducers, but they have this shortcoming, that they are not ultra-resolved on top end. PROLine 2500 are better in that aspect, and the Edition 8 do not leave any doubt that it can be done better. In general the mentioned AKG phones sound slightly warm with the emphasis put on the midrange. But with the Luxman I heard something different – the sound was a bit “thin” and the upper midrange sounded stronger than with the Leben. But the most surprising event was, that the resolution of this sub-range and its richness were limited. This was really a big surprise, because it would seem, that a more expensive amplifier would sound better. But it turned out quickly, that this was not the device itself, but the combination with the headphones that did this. Switching to the Ultrasone 2500 the sound became more vivid (yes!) and the treble cleaner. More importantly the tonal balance improved as well. But because the Japanese amplifier features a tone control, which cannot be switched off, and it has no fixed “zero” point as well, we can use it freely. With the AKG I needed to add bass, not much, like putting the knob at “1”, but still. With the 2500 it was not needed. Switching over to the Edition 8 showed, that the amplifier has incredible capabilities in creating an impressively resolved, very thorough sound. Also the sound planes, if we are used to the headphone presentation, we can discern them, were incredible in that combination – even better than (I think that, but I am not fully sure) that what I heard from the top Stax electrostatic system (HERE). But they needed the addition of some bass. Also the sound did not have that palpability the Leben AKG combo has. I think that you should better try the HD800 Sennheiser or the top Grado, that should be it.

With the best combinations, meaning Leben+AKG and Luxman+Ultrasone (or Sennheiser) the sound of the systems differed completely. Luxman sounded much more precise, in more transparent and open way. This was a true “monitor” and would like to have something like that in the years I was making recordings (I used the Beyerdynamic DT-990 plugged into the mixing table headphone output then). This sound reminded me what I heard from the studio monitors, when musicians were on the other side of the sound path, and not a recording. It was not the same, but close, especially in terms of showing each detail of the sound. It reminded the sound of the Cary amplifier with the Edition 8. On the other hand, my Leben with the AKG had a darker, more pleasing sound, Luxman was not brightened, or sharpened – my systems just accented more the lower part of the sound spectrum, there was not so much information in the opposite region as with the Luxman.

Bass was more precise from the latter, what was shown by the discs Yoko Ono Open Your Box and Sounds Of The Universe Depeche Mode, where there are a lot low passages. But the Leben added more mass to those sounds, they were a bit closer, more intimate. I think, that the Luxman just shows things as they are, and Leben with AKG “improves” them a little. The same is true for the midrange. Vocals, like Carol Sloane, the already mentioned Yoko Ono or Paula Cole were splendid from both amplifiers, but presented differently: Luxman showed its richness with reverbs, with all extra-musical events, but not forgetting, that music is the most important factor. Leben (but also Tri) concentrated on fluency and coherence, just not presenting some of the information.

This is all true, but after a longer listening session, the accents on which we concentrate change. It turns out, that midrange sounds quite strong, especially in its higher part, somewhere along 1kHz. So we need headphones, which can temper it a little. And although Ultrasone Edition 8 showed the incredibly clear treble of the amplifier brilliantly, and its splendid sound stage, but sometimes they lacked the physical support for the voices, stronger entrance of the contrabass and similar. This was not a big shortcoming, but for me it is better to search for something, what would compensate for that, especially in lower midrange, because bass can be adjusted with the proper knob. I tried also to access the power amplifier directly, using the preamplifier built into my Lektor Prime, but this only confirmed what I heard earlier, and I couldn’t use tone controls in that setting.

When I switched over to the loudspeakers, it turned out, that there is all that what I already described with headphones. I could just change the names to loudspeaker manufacturers and voila! But not to become labeled as a lazy idiot, I will refine that, telling about combinations I tried myself… The amplifier has quite an open and transparent sound. The treble and upper midrange is breathtaking and surpasses most of that, what can be bought at that price, regardless of the utilized technology. Because the SQ38u does not sound like a “tube amplifier”. This is completely different device than – for example – the Leben CS600. There is no warming, softening of the frequency band edges, perceivable distortion, etc. The latter are there, but they manifest themselves as in Ayon gear – with diminishing of the resolution and texture (compared to the reference system). And not by damping, or something like that. The ability to show the acoustics of the interiors, where the voice of Carol Sloane was recorded for the disc Hush-A-Bye was just incredible. This is an extraordinary ability, regardless the price. The voice itself was also very precise, the differences between recordings were clear, etc. Similarly beautiful was the guitar of Barney Kassel from the tasty disc On Fire. Big impression is also made by the way this amplifier controls bass – this for an A+! An tube amplifier, which does it better than most transistors up to 20000zl is really something! The Depeche Mode discs showed, that this is a device, where no tricks were used, everything was just made to sound solid.

There is however one basic requirement we must fulfill to enjoy this sound: pick the right loudspeakers. With transparent, rather laid back in terms of color, and unforgiving loudspeakers like my Harpia Acoustics Dobermann the sound will be overly light. And all of my remarks were made with the bass knob set to 1 or 1:30 hours – but this did not change the saturation of the lower frequencies, which remained too small. This is why you need to search further. Anyone who heard the Luxman play with the new Monitor Audio Platinum 200 Monitora Audio (with Luxman D-06 player) tells that it sounds great. And this is a combination you should try out. You could also listen to this amplifier with Harbeth or Spendor loudspeakers. During the test I had also the Harbeth HL Compact 7ES-3 at hand, and they sound nicely together. Clearly the SQ38u needs slight warming somewhere in the sound path, an addition of depth in the midrange. If we do not provide it, then it might come, that upper midrange will dominate the sound – maybe not even the part responsible for brightness, but changing accent in the vocals to the upper harmonics. And we do not like that…

For sure all those options should be tried, because this clarity of sound happens really rarely. And we should not fear to use tone controls – they are always in the sound path, and they do not destroy the transmission. In contrary. The circuit employed is called LUX, and was designed by Luxman in 1863 to influence the sound as little as possible. It is similar with McIntosh, where I also use the knobs provided. Lets add some bass, cut some treble and attach one set of the loudspeakers mentioned earlier and off we go. The search is done. Not because it cannot be done better – that is of course possible, and for the money it can for sure be done differently – but because in the SQ38u we have unique design, history and sound combined. And I did not even write a word about the phonostage! This is a very good product, maybe not world champion in terms of resolution, but still very nice. I think, that there is no need to buy an external preamplifier, unless we are of the impulsive-compulsive type, who needs to change everything all the time. In the last issue of “Twój Styl” (yes, I read my wife’s magazines…), in an article devoted to decision making, I found something, that I want to place in my magazine all along, and what I would like to talk you into: in the last chapter named Wystarczy dobrze (good enough) they talk about a pragmatic, English attitude with “Good Enough” being the motto (see E. Pągowska, Decyduj szybko!, „Twój Styl”, 10/231/2009, p. 178). It is all about a compromise between the “expected” and that what we receive in reality. Then it turns out, that life is much easier. I know, that the main audiophile slogan is “it is never good enough”, and it is in fact driving the progress, the approach to “ideal sound”. But in life we can be a bit more selfish, and think about the here and now. And Luxman is the “here and now”. This is not a flawless device, midrange can be more saturated, treble and bass can be more balanced, etc. But with the right loudspeakers it can be the end of the search – not because it’s the best we can get, nut because it’s good enough.


Luxman SQ38u is a subsequent, eleventh, version of the amplifier. It is an integrated amp, based fully on tubes. In this version the used tubes are the EL34 (in the original version 6RA8 were employed), working in ultra-linear push-pull setting, in AB class. In this version tubes come from Electro-Harmonix and are capable of delivering 30W per channel. Besides those there are seven more to find! One 12AX7 on input, two 12AU7 in the control stage for the power tubes and phase inverter, two 12AX7 in the phonostage and one 12AX7 on the input and 12AU7 on the output of the tone control circuit. All tubes come from China, and the preamplifier ones are inside metal shields. The signal for the headphones is taken from the output transformers.

The gramophone preamplifier of the PF-NF type has two stages – the first one, for MC cartridges based on transformers and the second one, tube based, for MM and MC-HO cartridges, with a separate load impedance selection. In this circuit the potentiometer is placed directly after the input selector and before the input tubes. The inputs are switched by means of nitrogen filled relays. There are five line level inputs, including one with a tape loop, power amplifier input, a preamplifier input and the mentioned phonostage input. The whole amplifying circuitry is built on one, big PCB, and the power supply – really worked out – on another. In the sound path we’ll find precise resistors and polypropylene RealCap capacitors. In the power supply capacitors from Swellong were used – they turned my attention to the characteristic mounting, elements, etc. I am sure, that this circuit was built in China. Circuits employed by the Japanese Tri (also assembled in China) and the Dutch PrimaLuna look very similar. And all of those employ RealCaps in a similar configuration. There is nothing to be ashamed of, this is very good manufacturing quality, but you just need to know. And on the back plate there is the marking “Made in Japan”, because most of the work was done in Japan. The enclosure is extremely solid, and the chassis is covered by a special, scratch proof varnish. The same as for the top and bottom grids. The rest of the enclosure is made from 16mm thick MDF, covered with natural veneer.

The front is made from a 8mm thick aluminum plate. There are eight knobs placed on it, in groups of four. IN the first group we have the volume knob, with a small amber LED, the input selector, cartridge selector (MM, MC and MC HO) and balance. In the middle a mute button was placed. In the second group we have the loudspeaker selector (off-A-B-A+B), monitor (for tape monitoring) and two knobs for tone control – unfortunately without a middle lock or the ability of disconnecting them! Between those three switches were installed – one for cutting off bass below 30Hz (for low class turntables – this is strange, but…), mono-stereo and tape monitor. Above there is a mechanical power switch and an amber halo indicating the powered state. The device looks very intriguing and stylish. There is also a remote control present. It is worth mentioning, that a CD player with a similar external design is planned, the CD D38 (I give this information after “6moons”), with a solid state and tube outputs, and a tube behind a window in the fascia…

g               a               l               l               e               r               y


  • CD player: Ancient Audio Lektor Prime (tested HERE)
  • Phono preamp: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC (tested HERE)
  • Preamp: Leben RS-28CX (tested HERE; soon to be changed to Polaris II, tested HERE)
  • Power amp: Luxman M-800A (tested HERE)
  • Integrated amp: Leben CS300 (reviewed HERE)
  • Loudspeakers: Harpia Acoustics Dobermann (tested HERE)
  • headphones: AKG K701, Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, 600 Ω version (reviewed HERE, HERE, and HERE)
  • interconnects: CD-preamp: Wireworld Gold Eclipse 52 (tested HERE; soon to be changed to Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, article HERE), preamp-power amp: Velum NF-G SE (tested HERE)
  • speaker cable: Velum LS-G (tested HERE)
  • power cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9100 (CD; reviewed HERE) and 2 x Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC7100 (preamp, power amp (reviewed HERE)
  • power conditioning: Gigawatt PF-2 Filtering Power Strip (reviewed HERE)
  • audio stand Base
  • resonance control: Finite Elemente Ceraball under the CD (article HERE ) Turntables change continuously, as do cartridges. My dream setup: SME 30 with Series V tone-arm and Air Tight PC-1 cartridge (also in the PC-1 Mono version).