Rogue Audio RP-1 preamplifier
After nearly two years of prattling for Stereophile, I am finally grasping the full veracity of that statement. When I read reviews that jabber on about highs, mediums, and lows, and that rely exclusively on nonmusical vocabulary, I come away with feelings of acute cognitive dissonance. Not to mention: if a review has a lot of initialismsADD, S/PDIF, DXD, HDMI, etc.my ADHD kicks in and I stop reading by the third paragraph.
I prefer equipment reports in which the reviewer conceals the identity of the component being reviewed behind descriptions of the music he or she was listening to through that component. I believe the most important thing an audio component can do is disappear into the one-song-after-another matrix of the reviewer's journey. (Did you hear that guitar solo?) When wondrous music finishes playing, the best audio systems inspire the listener to reflect, after a long silence, "Wow! That was nice!"
Therefore, I try to choose components for review that I hope will contribute to an immersive, sensual, time-melting sense of ebb and flow. My main audio goal is always astonishment. If I become stressed or detached, look outthen comes the angry review.
But if I become locked on, amazed, excited, it might be because I'm investigating something really funsuch as the first standalone preamplifier I've reviewed. My very first review for Stereophile was of Rogue Audio's Sphinx hybrid integrated amplifier. Since that fateful, fortunate dayperhaps because of itI've been drowning in a sea of integrated amplifiers. My superiors knew not how I longed to run with the big dogs and review some high-quality separates. In hopes of shifting my editorial trajectory, I decided to parlay the rapscallion luck that got me here into a review of Rogue's brand-new line-phono preamplifier: the RP-1.
Rogue Audio's RP-1 tubed preamplifier ($1695) is made in the US. It has no DAC, but it does have a big Balance knob, and a moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage with adjustable gain and cartridge loading. The choices of phono gain are 45dB (MM) and 60dB (MC). The choices of resistive loading are multitudinous: 30, 50, 75, 100, 230, 300, 1k, and 47k ohms. These options can be selected by removing the RP-1's top panel and moving two sliders (gain) and two DIP switches (resistive loading). The gain provided by the RP-1's line stage is 9.5dB.
The RP-1's most impressive features are on its rear panel. In addition to the single-ended phono input and a ground screw are four pairs of line-level RCA inputs and a unity-gain home-theater input. There are one fixed and two variable outputs, all RCA.
The RP-1's nearly symmetrical aluminum faceplate is a simple, timeless design that should look elegant 20 years from now. At the left is that big, beautiful Balance knob. (When was the last time you saw one of those?) Push this knob to turn on the supremely readable OLED display, then turn it to display the Left/Right balance in relative dB, in letters so big I could read them from across the room. Besides being easy on the eyes, the display always indicates the volume level and the input selected. Between the Balance knob and the display is a large, firm-acting Power button. To the display's right is a ¼" (6.35mm) headphone jack, and a Volume knob that matches my beloved Balance knob.
The hybrid headphone amplifier is driven off the output of the RP-1's two 12AU7 (or ECC82) tubes. The voltage is then dropped via a voltage divider and sent to a small solid-state power amp. The output impedance is about 8 ohms, which, according to Rogue Audio founder Mark O'Brien, "is sufficient for most typical dynamic headphones."
The plastic remote control can be used to adjust the volume and balance, select inputs, and Mute the RP-1's output. I lost the remote the first day. When I found it, I rigged it with a strap and safety-pinned it to my shirtsleeve like an idiot mitten. Problem solved.
Listening: with the First Watt J2 power amplifier
Seeking sonic and musical complexity, I began my preamp journey with music by Louis Thomas Hardin, aka Moondog. The combination of Rogue RP-1, First Watt J2 power amplifier ($4000, review in progress), and Technics SB-C700 speakers ($1700/pair) gave me the cleanest window yet on my ol' pal, The Viking of Sixth Avenue (2 UK LPs, Honest Jon's Records HJRLP18). Moondog wrote hundreds of compositions for dozens of unusual instruments in no fewer than 27 tempos, and I do believe the time-keeping capabilities of this modest Rogue-anchored hi-fi showed me at least 23 of them. Someday I'll own everything Moondog recorded, but for now, Technics' SL1200GAE turntable and Ortofon's M2 Black cartridge through the RP-1's MM phono stage made Viking sound as I'd never heard it. With this system, Moondog's compositions were overtly three-dimensional, solid, and more noticeably melodic than ever before. The near-hyper-dimensionality seemed not the result of phase anomalies, but real and corporealand tangible in a way that showcased Moondog's artistic intentions.
Moondog's compositions and the recordings thereof are sound collages. How the individual instrumental or ambient tracks combine spatially (as in multimono left/right and up/down imaging) is a big part of the composer's intended experience. In many selections, the individual tracks seem to be laid out in squares defined by the vertical and horizontal axes of a wall-sized grid, the sound of each track spewing forward into three-dimensional space from its unique position on the grid. Through this system, bass tracks emerged in an especially delectable manner, with the illusion of dense waves starting low, near the floor, then billowing out and rising. The RP-1's window on all this was so clean that I could speculate about the types of microphone and recorder used for several of the tracks I'd identified on the grid. My finest Moondog experience ever. "142434445464748494, who 4? And what 4? I don't know!"
The best audio systems do not simply reveal or re-create: to be engaging and satisfying in a musically meaningful way, they must show me some of the physical energy matrix that went down on the day the record was produced. They must give me something to feel with my body that communicates the attitudes of the artists. Obviously, the transducersthe cartridge and speakersplay major roles in generating this energy matrix, but of nearly equal importance are the low-level signal amplifiers. If the first stages of signal gain lose the kick, presence, or structure of a recording, all the amp and speaker can do is make that failure more obvious.
Think of the audio system as a body, and the preamplifier as a gland producing hormones that control the vitality, strength, gender, and attractiveness of the musical presentation. To me, a well-engineered preamp is essential in preserving the music's physicality. Unlike most preamps, the Rogue RP-1 did not eviscerate the music. As record followed record, I became gleefully aware of just how consistently the Rogue RP-1 was preserving the strength and expressiveness of whatever musical genre I played.
Moving-Coil: After installing the new Hana by Excel EL low-output MC cartridge and setting the Rogue RP-1's phono stage to high gain and a 300 ohm load, I chose Ravel's Piano Concerto in D Major for the Left Hand with my new favorite Ravel specialist, Samson François (19241970), and André Cluytens conducting the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris (LP, EMI C 069-10867). Like Moondog, Ravel employed jazz harmonies, and frequent changes of tempo and key signature.