The Fifth Element #22 Page the Older
But, you may ask, how did it sound? The one-word answer: wonderful. The more extended answer is that, while the 302 retained the stateliness and subtlety that Rowland aficionados crave and treasure, it had a more open and extended treble than any Rowland product I have heard before. That didn't mean that the treble called attention to itself as such; it just meant that if, in the past, the treble reticence many heard from the 302 had put you off, perhaps you should now listen to it with fresh ears, and without preconceived notions. The 302 did not sound like a "solid-state" amplifier, let alone one with digital goings-on inside.
As I write this, I am listening to classical guitarist Göran Söllscher's recital disc, Cavatina (CD, DG 413 720-2), and the balance of liquidity, warmth, articulation, and ring-out is just about perfect. Spatial localization is eerie—I felt that I was hearing (as well as visualizing) Söllscher's hand sliding several inches down the fretboard (toward the tuners) as he changed positions.
The source is the Orpheus Zero one-box CD player, and the line stage is a Rowland Synergy II (generously lent by Goldman Audio, of Newington, Connecticut), all hooked up with Nordost Valkyra balanced interconnects. I also played both pop and orchestral music rather loudly, and the 302 never lost its composure. I think that its 300Wpc are more than I would ever need in my medium-size room.
Caveats? A few. The 302's bass was ample, but perhaps not as energetic as that of Plinius' SA-250. However, the Plinius SA-250 might be in a class by itself in that regard.
A more perplexing issue was caused (in part) by a lack of total attention to detail by me. The 302's owner's manual stated that the amp was non-inverting of absolute polarity. I took that as a given, and neither read nor thought further.
However, I also felt—over weeks of listening—that, swap things around as I might, I was just not getting all that the 302 was or should be capable of. In a phone conversation with JRDG's Rich Maez, I was brainstorming possible explanations, and mentioned that it sounded almost as though the amp was inverting polarity. To which Maez responded that it did. Ah.
The owner's manual did state that the 302 was non-inverting, but, more specifically, only when it was connected by an XLR cable for which Pin 3 was hot. Ah. Here in the US, Pin 2 is more likely to be hot (footnote 2). I used the Orpheus Zero's menu commands to invert polarity, and suddenly everything fell into place. Ahhh...much, much better.
It has been my experience that the more revealing a system is, the more it will suffer from polarity inversion. Once that issue was resolved, my reservations about the 302 evaporated, with the exception that its $14,000 price is a lot of money, and there is a lot of competition in that neighborhood.
To sum up: Pros: a wonderful-sounding amp from one of the High End's great companies; gorgeous looks and bulletproof operation, with high energy efficiency and flexibility of placement and installation thrown in. Cons: delicate treble requires elegant system synergy; idiosyncratic connection architecture requires special care in hookup regarding proper signal-throughput polarity; high price.
DALI Euphonia MS5
The primary reason I had been interested in trying out Rowland's 302 was that I knew I would soon be auditioning DALI's next-to-top-of-the-line loudspeaker, the Euphonia MS5 (list price $12,000/pair). I wanted an amp that could do the DALIs justice. ("DALI" does not refer to the Spanish surrealist painter; it is an acronym for Danish Audio Loudspeaker Industry (footnote 3).
DALI's top model is the Megaline. Despite their modular construction, however, I just could not imagine the Megalines working well in my room—just too much speaker. Phono-cartridge importer Jay Bertrand, who has been using Megalines for some time, not only assured me that that was the case, he had reservations even about the MS5's two 8" woofers in my room. But seeing as there was a review pair of MS5s on the East Coast, I decided to give them a shot and rearrange the room if need be—or, worst case, send them back and ask for the next smaller DALIs.
For weeks I struggled with bass woolliness, only to find out that I was playing all my favorite discs, and even some of my own recordings, ass-backward (note to foreign readers: we know that that expression does not make sense, but it's what we say) as respects absolute polarity, owing to the Rowland amp's idiosyncrasy in that regard.
I got that fixed, and suddenly the bass tightened up. Regardless, these are not speakers for nearfield listening. A listening position at least 8', if not 10', from the (not toed-in) speakers' centerline is necessary for midrange coherence.
In speakers these days, there's a lot of action at the $12,000/pair price point. Last September I wrote up the Peak Consult InCognito; there are also the Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia, to which John Atkinson gave a full review in July 2002; the new, yet-to-be-reviewed Wilson Benesch ACT; and the evergreen Shahinian Diapason. I think that, for $12,000/pair, one should get a speaker for which no apologies or explanations are necessary.
In that precise regard, the Peak Consult InCognito is an instructive comparison to the DALI Euphonia MS5. I wrote that the InCognito might be the apotheosis of the two-way monitor, and indeed it had many extraordinary virtues—uncanny coherence and placement flexibility among them. However, although the Peak Consult had bass, it did not have deep bass; perhaps partly related to that, I felt that it did not come alive until turned up slightly more loudly than I would otherwise listen.
The DALI Euphonia MS5 was nearly as articulately coherent as the Peak Consult InCognito (although of course not as easy to place in a room), and went the Peaks two better in having just about as much deep bass as anyone could want, as well as—even more important for me—sounding remarkably rich and full at lower listening levels.
The difference in drivers and configuration goes a long way toward explaining this. The Peak Consult InCognito has a 6.5" woofer mid and a soft-dome tweeter, in a cabinet one would have been able to tuck under one's arm, had it not been permanently affixed to its stand. For the same price, the DALI MS5 houses two 8" woofers, a 6.5" midrange, a dome tweeter, and a ribbon supertweeter in a cabinet that stands 50" tall, 11" wide, 22" deep, and, as previously noted, weighs more than 150 lbs. So, at least on a parts-and-poundage basis, the DALI Euphonia MS5 seems like the bargain champ in its price tier. (This is no knock on Peak Consult. DALI is a very large company, and doubtless can take advantage of economies of scale not available to smaller firms. Further, they may even be pricing their high-end speakers aggressively, hoping to make it up eventually in volume.)
As I write this, I am listening to JA's first Cantus recording, Let Your Voice Be Heard (CD, Cantus CTS-1201, available from this website). For the first time, at the moderate volume level that seems, for me, congruent for image size and distance, on "Shenandoah" I can clearly hear—in the background, of course—the air-handling equipment that bedeviled those sessions. Not that I wanted to hear it, mind you: that is just a straw in the wind indicating the MS5's prodigious range and resolving power. As an example of hall sounds one does want to hear, ambience retrieval on Roy Goodman and Hanover Band's recording of Schubert's Symphonies 3 and 5 (CD, Nimbus NI 5172) was extraordinary.
Along the same line, my wife walked in as I was playing one of my 2002 "Records To Die For," Sir David Willcocks' recording of Vaughan Williams' An Oxford Elegy (CD, EMI 5 67221 2). No hi-fi fan, she spontaneously remarked that she could not recall ever hearing the inner voices so clearly. I assume she knows whereof she speaks; she and our kids have sung in the chorus of An Oxford Elegy. (This may be attributable to the midrange driver's being positioned close to the height of a seated listener's ear, or to a slight emphasis in the 1-2kHz region.)
The DALI MS5's cabinet is of a slightly Nuevo style. The top panel slopes downward slightly from back to front; the sides bulge out slightly from the front panel, then curve back; and, at the bottom of the rear panel, there is a bit of a cutaway. An eggshell-finish black polymer-granite plinth extends about ½" all around. The driver baffle, too, is eggshell black. Grilles are black fabric over some kind of thin composite board. The rear panel has two ports, each about 3.5" in diameter, and a terminal block set up for triwiring or triamping. Jumpers are supplied for single-wiring, as are spikes. The cabinet top, sides, lower front panel, and rear are veneered in some kind of dark amber burl veneer so perfect it looks fake; but it's real wood, for whatever that's worth.
To sum up: Pros: Superb value for dollar; all the bass extension one should need; rich and full sound at lower volume levels; engaging detail and musicality. Can go either way: weight, visual bulk. Cons: Not a speaker for small rooms or nearfield listening; bass extension requires care in placement; electrostatics or dynamic two-ways will often nose ahead in absolute coherence.
Footnote 2: Pin 2 hot is the AES Standard.—John Atkinson
Footnote 3: "Salvador Dalí" is an anagram of the Spanish words for "lover of (or hungry for) dollars": avida dollars.—John Marks