Jeff Rowland Design Group Consummate preamplifier Page 4
Another revealing recording, which music editor Richard Lehnert had left lurking about on its way to Bob Deutsch, was the new original London cast recording of a revival of Carmen Jones (EMI Classics CDC 7 54351 2). This recording was a very pleasant surprise, in my judgment generally superb in both performance and sound (except for a brass sound which was too, ah, brassy, footnote 7). Especially striking was the natural vocal perspective and soundstaging, including an excellent depth perspective. The singers sounded like performers on a stage for a change, instead of like performers screaming into studio mikes. The Consummate captured this quality completely. Over the Consonance, the voices were marginally less clear, the sound dryer. In short, over the Consummate it sounded like a better recording, though the less expensive preamp suffered only in the comparison. Overall, the Consummate has more of a "see-through" quality, with more of that "intertransient silence" some reviewers like to talk about.
Compared through their phono stages (using the unbalanced inputs to the Consummate phono stage), the more expensive of the Rowlands also came out a winner. With the vinyl version of the same Woman of the Heart (AudioQuest AQ-LP1002) referred to above on CD, the Consonance was very subtly grainier and less smooth, while the Consummate had the superior clarity and a tighter low end. There was also a greater overall ease with the Consummate, although it was not dramatic. Other differences were also evident. On the musically rather bizarre but sonically challenging River Music (Wilson Audio W-8521; out of print, I believe) the Consummate had the greater differentiation between individual instruments. It was less cluttered, more able to make sense of the instrumental interplay. And on Liz Storey's Part of Fortune (RCA 3001-1-N) the Consonance's midbass seemed warmer, the top end less incisive.
This was not necessarily a negative, but overall the Consummate provided, to me, a clearer window back to the original performance. As it should. The difference in sound between these two units was definitely nowhere near comparable to the difference in cost, but that's the sort of reality we must deal with in this rarefied price category. If I were rating these two preamps on a one-to-ten scale, ten being best, I'd rate the Consummate a 9 (only TV movie critics give 10s), the Consonance a 7.5. Maybe an 8.
I also had the opportunity to compare the Consummate line stage with those of two other preamps, the Levinson No.26S and the sample of the Krell KBL reviewed last year by Lewis Lipnick. These brief comparisons were measured in hours, not days or weeks, including the time needed to accurately match playback levels (which was done in all of the comparisons in this review) and to insure that absolute polarities were the same (Levinson and Krell use a different balanced terminal convention than does Rowland). The intent was not to perform a shootout at the audio corral, but to place the three preamps in some sort of context. If you want more detail on these products, based on extensive listening to them, beam over to our already published review of the KBL (Vol.14 No.8), or hang in there until our review of the '26S is published.
I found the Krell to sound somewhat "darker" than the Rowland, with a rather sweeter sound and with somewhat larger images. More "bloom" perhaps, but accompanied by a bit less precise focus. The Rowland was a bit more laid-back, the Krell more forward. The No.26S, in comparison, seemed more laid-back than the Rowland (we're talking fine gradations here, not row A-Z). The Levinson was the leaner of the two in sound, with voices a bit less full. The Levinson sounded "faster," the Rowland more relaxed and warm. But the Levinson is yet to be thoroughly reviewed; further comparisons here would be skating on thin ice indeed. I did convince myself that the Consummate definitely belongs in the company of these other two preamplifiers, and while the sonic differences between them are definitely not in the "noise" category (footnote 8), it is definitely in the category where system matching will determine the "winner." (Yes, even at this price level, you can't ignore system-matching if you want to obtain the best results.)
I also had the opportunity to compare the Consummate phono stage with one of the best such devices around, John Curl's Vendetta Research SCP-2B dedicated phono preamp (reviewed by JGH in Vol.11 No.6), which Stereophile subsequently purchased. The cartridge loading on the Vendetta, which is designed to be continuously variable, was set by ear to what turned out to be 65 ohms. The latter was measured across the Vendetta's input, then the phono stage of the Consummate was set to the same value with its calibrated dials. A 0.5m pair of the newest AudioQuest Lapis connected both phono preamps to the Consummate line stage; the only difference was that the connection from the Consummate phono stage was balanced while that from the Vendetta was not (the latter only has an unbalanced output).
Footnote 7: By which I mean the upper harmonics of the brass emphasized at the expense of sufficient "weight."
Footnote 8: Metaphorically, of course. Strictly speaking, all of the preamps are very quiet. Except when they're operating.