Jeff Rowland Design Group Synergy line preamplifier Paul Bolin August 2002
Why the Jeff Rowland Design Group does not have a higher profile in American high-end circles is something of a puzzle to me. For nearly 20 years, Rowland has consistently produced electronics with superior sound and stunning looks. Perhaps it's simply that it's not in Jeff Rowland's nature to loudly toot his own horn. Rowland is a quiet, thoughtful man not given to hype-ridden pronouncements or publicity-grabbing annual updates of his products. His components typically have long commercial lives: the Coherence II line stage ran from 1994 to 2001, the Cadence phono stage has been in production for more than five years, and the Synergy line-stage preamplifier has been around since early 1996.
Since 1999, I've had the good fortune to live with and review a number of Rowland components, including the 8T amplifier, the Cadence, and the Coherence II (footnote 1). The C-II had held pride of place as my reference for more than two years—a long time in an audio reviewer's life—when it was phased out of production. When Rowland's Rich Maez asked me to send the Coherence back to Colorado Springs, he offered the latest Synergy, the IIi, to ease the pain of the C-II's departure. Maez assured me that I would find little difference between the Synergy and the Coherence, a piece so costly to manufacture that Rowland couldn't make any money on it, even at $14,500 retail. Though the Synergy was only a bit more than a third the price, Maez touted it as being extremely close to the C-II in overall performance. I accepted his offer, but as I packed up the C-II and bade it a fond, sad farewell, I remained skeptical.
So, Q, how does it work?
As in all Rowland components, the Synergy IIi's control unit and power supply are each machined from a single ingot of 6061 "airframe-grade" aluminum (footnote 2). Only enough metal is removed to accommodate the bits that live inside, including the custom-made transformers used to couple all inputs and outputs. The results are chassis that, despite their compact size, are seriously nonresonant and heavy.
The Synergy IIi provides plenty of flexibility in configuration, with two sets of outputs, a bypass for a home-theater processor, and selectable impedance termination and total gain for each of the five inputs. As long as the Synergy is plugged in, it remembers the termination impedance, gain, absolute phase, balance, and stereo/mono settings for each input. The remote control handles input selection, loudness, and balance; absolute polarity should be there as well, but isn't. The slim but solid power supply can sit beneath or atop the control unit, to which it is connected via a custom Cardas cable. The power supply also acts as the remote's receiver, and on its front panel features the readout for the volume control, which displays in 0.5dB increments.
The Synergy offers only balanced terminations for all inputs and outputs. A pair of Cardas XLR/RCA adapters is supplied. I ran everything balanced except for the Manley Steelhead phono stage, which required a pair of Cardas female/male adapters at the Synergy's input.
The principal differences between the Coherence and the Synergy IIi are that the Synergy lacks the exotic, heavy, very expensive computer-controlled battery power supply (and its hefty chassis), and is much shallower, measuring less than 5" deep. But like the Coherence, it's strikingly beautiful, with Rowland's hallmark thick front panel, diamond-polished to make its flat surface appear scalloped. The Synergy quietly reminded me of its luxury and elegance every time I pushed a switch, spun the silken, weighted volume knob, or hooked up a cable to the hefty, tightfitting XLR jacks that are mirror-imaged on the rear panel.
The Synergy's power supply is, according to Rich Maez, a "typical linear supply with a transformer and filter caps," and has more than enough muscle (and sockets) to drive the Synergy and Rowland's matching Cadence phono stage. Buried within its solid aluminum casing, the power supply is well shielded from the smog of RFI and EMI that permeates our microwave-filled world. The Synergy's small size is made possible by extensive use of surface-mount technology, in which individual parts are affixed directly to the multilayered circuit boards, not by pushing leads through the boards and soldering them down. This, says Maez, not only affords space efficiency, but also eliminates the inductive effect of the leads, allows for optimal location of each part, and provides extremely short signal paths.
I had found with other Rowland gear that extensive tweaking had little effect on the sound, and so it was with the Synergy. After fiddling around with various power cords and isolators (no easy task, given the units' truncated physical depth), I settled on the Nordost El Dorado AC cord and three PolyCrystal footers (points up) between the Synergy's power supply and my Ultra Resolution Technologies Bedrock equipment rack, and Rowland's own rubbery "feet" between the control unit, the power supply, and the Cadence. When I stacked the Synergy IIi's power supply atop its control unit and the Cadence atop the power supply, there was a low but persistent 120Hz hum that I could not get rid of except by reversing the positions of the Synergy's power-supply and control sections.
After working through my cable collection, I settled on Wireworld's Gold Eclipse 3+, which seemed to bring the best sense of balance to the system's sound. Nordost Valhalla added a smidgen more air and space, but shaved off just a bit of palpability. Cardas Golden Reference also worked very well, but the Wireworld gave the best overall combination of extension, palpability, and resolution. Your mileage may vary.
Footnote 1: The Coherence and Cadence were reviewed for Stereophile by Shannon Dickson in September 1999 (Vol.22 No.9).—John Atkinson
Footnote 2: Reader George Flanagin let us know that there is nothing particularly exotic about 6061 aluminum. "It is cheap, soft, easy to machine, weldable, and it can be heat-treated. However, it is seldom used for anything requiring any great strength," he wrote. Such are the dangers of believing the things that manufacturers tell you.—Paul Bolin