Jeff Rowland Design Group Consummate preamplifier Page 3
My first impression of the Consummate, gleaned through listening to its line stage with CD input, was of a tightly detailed yet sweet-sounding preamp. This impression held up over time. Yet the Rowland was chameleon-like, a quality it shares with the best high-end gear. Getting a handle on its inherent sonic characteristics means comparing it with other competitive products, which I will do presently. But judged on its own, inserted into a system with B&W 804s on the back end, allowed the open, detailed, yet unassuming quality of those loudspeakers to assert itself. Vocals were palpable and three-dimensionally rounded. On well-recorded CDs the top end was precise yet not etched, the midrange focused and in-the-room. The soundstage was well-defined in both depth and width, with a big, expansive sound, but only when called for by the program material—never at the expense of naturally defined images. Bass, though not strikingly deep, was naturally sized yet impressive when called for.
With the Apogee Centaur Major loudspeakers (review on the way) in the system, the Consummate displayed a tight, almost crisp definition from the low bass to the top of the range. (The Majors appear to go down to below 40Hz in my listening room, but do not plumb the depths of the 20Hz/low-30Hz near-subwoofer region.) Ana Caram's voice on Amazonia (Chesky JD45) was suspended in space between the loudspeakers, accompanied by instruments which were detailed without being analytic. The overall sound was rather cool but very clear, at times almost strikingly "present." For the first time, I could clearly hear the musicians "whistling" in time with the piano—something which they actually did during this session. (On most systems it merely sounds like a fuzzy piano.) The imaging was tight, and voices and instruments had dimensions rather than being cardboard cutouts. On this and other well-recorded material there was a natural sense of space and "air." The Rowland leaned toward clarity here rather than warmth (a quality of the Apogees as well, based on listening to them to date), but not to the exclusion of a believable, natural musical balance.
On to the phono section. The Dynavector XX-1L is a superbly detailed, tight-sounding cartridge, though it does have a tendency to sound analytical through the Consummate and the Apogees (the latter have some of the same tendencies). Fljten spelar-dansen gar..., one of those superb late-'70s Bertil Alving choral recordings from Proprius (7759) (footnote 3), was a bit short of warmth and "glow"—qualities which appeared to be due more to the combined tendencies of the Dynavector and the Apogees than to the Consummate. But inner clarity throughout was superior. Ambience was finely reproduced, soundstaging was precise. Pulling out another very different recording from the same era—Boiling Point (Toshiba-EMI LF-95009), a Japanese direct-to-disc effort (footnote 4) consisting of a well-recorded jazz combo and solo female vocal—I found the sound to have a sparkling clarity. Again, the balance was somewhat on the bright side of neutral, but not to excess. The vocals (the soloist's English pronunciation is admirable, except for an occasional gaffe, footnote 5) were in the room without being in your lap. The bass was clean and tight—not especially rich or punchy, but completely lacking in any sense of boom or mud.
One of the best all-around recordings I have for listening tests is an Ortofon sampler which, to my knowledge, was never distributed here (at least not widely—I purchased my copy on a visit to London about eight years ago). It is the Ortofon Pick Up Test Record 0003. I remember clearly when I bought it because that particular recording was far more impressive sonically than any of the early CDs I heard on the players of the day. Most of the cuts on it come from the Opus 3 catalog—certainly a good choice—but the rest are equally good and very much in the same sonic mold as Opus 3's: open and spacious, with extended highs, controlled if slightly lean bass, and soundstaging that is never less than good and frequently striking.
On "Black Beauty" (from Opus 3 8003, Tomas –rnberg Blue Five), the bass was tight and snappy, the saxophone reverberant and rich. The bottom end of the organ on "Part of Fantasia on Vi Love Dig" (Otto Olsson from Opus 3 8202, Sjgren Guilmant) was not extremely extended into the lowest octave, but was detailed and superbly controlled, and the depth and sense of the acoustic environment here was dramatic. The chorus on "Bred Dina Vida Vingar" (Anders –hrwall, from Kalix Ungdomskor, KXLP 8007 (footnote 6) had a fully developed feeling of space and a good balance, though the somewhat analytical nature of the system detracted from the bloom and "swell" which this selection is capable of.
But to repeat what I have previously stated here, getting a real handle on the sound of the Rowland demanded that it be compared with other preamplifiers. You can never judge a single component in isolation; it remains a prisoner to the system it's inserted into. Going from a good but not exceptional preamplifier to the Consummate would likely be a revelation. Going from the Rowland Consonance, which had been in my system for months before the Consummate's arrival, to the latter is something else altogether. While there was no denying the caliber of sound I was hearing from the Consummate, the less expensive Consonance is a strong contender, and substituting its big brother certainly did not lift a thousand veils. Or even seven. We're talking about the law of diminishing returns here. There was definitely an improvement. But just how much?
Footnote 3: Some of the best—if not the best—choral recordings ever done, in my opinion.
Footnote 4: I came into a whole slew of these Japanese oddities about 12 years ago. Only two of them (including this one) ever make it to my turntable with any frequency.
Footnote 5: Her enunciation of "My Fanny Valentine" does get your attention, though.
Footnote 6: Don't ask where you can find this clearly superlative choral recording; I've never found a copy myself.