Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 2 power amplifier Bob Deutsch June 1996
To get a handle on the YBA 1 Alpha HC's performance in comparative terms, I spent a lot of time switching back and forth between it and the Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 2. In many ways, these amps are natural peers/competitors. They have similar power ratings (Rowland, 75Wpc; YBA, 85Wpc); they're in roughly the same price range (Rowland, $5800; YBA, $7000); they're both small but heavy; and both represent their designers' at-times-fanatical pursuit of the twin goals of accuracy and musicality. The Rowland Model 2 is firmly established as a Stereophile Class A Recommended Component. When I reviewed it in 1995 (Vol.18 No.8), I thought it was "by a small but significant margin, the best-sounding amplifier I've had a chance to evaluate," a statement that I would still stand by now, but I would add "solid-state" before "amplifier." (In some respects, I prefer the tube-based Balanced Audio Technology VK-60 to the Rowland Model 2.)
Although the YBA 1 and the Rowland Model 2 have certain sonic similarities—both are superb by almost any standard—listening comparisons revealed that each amplifier has a distinctive character. I've already commented that the Rowland evinced better bass performance (at least when driving the Dunlavy SC-IVs); it also had a somewhat more incisive and dynamic sound, the YBA 1 sounding a bit more polite or laid-back in comparison. Several times, after switching from the YBA to the Rowland, having matched levels at 1kHz and corrected for absolute polarity, I thought that the music played through the Rowland was louder. Each time, I rechecked the test signal voltage at the amplifier terminals, and confirmed that it was within 0.1dB of the YBA, even on the low side (eg, YBA, 1.207V; Rowland, 1.197V).
The Rowland seemed ever-so-slightly more forward than the YBA, with a subjectively more extended top end that gave percussion instruments, especially cymbals and bells, greater presence. Is the YBA, in its pursuit of a grainless upper midrange, "shaving off" some information, or is the Rowland adding grain that emphasizes detail? Tough call. If the measured performance of the YBA 1, like that of the Rowland Model 2, is beyond reproach—as I suspect it is—the answer is not going to be found there, so we're back to listening to recordings.
Do we, can we, know what a given recording really sounds like? I don't think so. Every recording has to be listened to on some kind of system, and every microphone has sonic characteristics that are apparent only when you listen to the sound it produces through an amplifier and speakers, each with their own sonic characteristics. What I can say is that with some recordings—like most Dorian, Chesky, and Reference Recordings releases—the sound of the Rowland Model 2 was more exciting and involving than that of the YBA 1. With others, such as the typical multimiked efforts from nonaudiophile companies, the YBA 1 allowed for a more relaxed, less in-your-face listening experience. It was not a matter of the YBA 1 being less revealing, but rather a matter of what it was revealing—which was, if you like, a "kinder, gentler" sonic world.—Robert Deutsch