Fern & Roby Amp No. 2 integrated amplifier

I stalk a few audio forums because the chatter shows me what different varieties of audiophiles are thinking about, what's pleasing them, what's making them angry, and—potentially—what issues reviewers like me are failing to address.

Similarly, I watch a lot of DIY and audio review videos on YouTube. I especially love watching my friend Steve Guttenberg's Audiophiliac "Viewer System of the Day" videos (footnote 1), which provide a global view of the gear choices real people in normal houses have made. I am especially fascinated by how these diverse audiophiles place their components in normal rooms. A few have the heavy stuff sitting on low platforms close to the floor. The majority use audiophile-approved component racks. But more and more often, I'm seeing prized components crowning family-approved bureaus, credenzas, buffets, and sideboards. This pleases me.

In my view, bureau-top music systems are more family/home/group–listening friendly than systems with chrome skyscrapers surveying sprawling amplifier farms covering acres of floor, with power-conversion facilities and 1000W monoblocks roosting on industrial-grade platforms, connected by thick wires perched on cute cable lifters.

So I appreciate components that are bureau friendly. By "bureau friendly," I mean real-world audio gear designed to look attractive on top of a nice cabinet in a domestic setting. In our Stereophile world, that usually means a sexy-looking integrated amplifier accompanied by a matching DAC-streamer and a smart-looking turntable. Systems like this succeed fully when they make records sound enticing in a "Shush! I want to listen!" way. Danish brand Bang & Olufsen has flourished catering to this aesthetic, and the Europeans have embraced it, but most American audiophiles have been reluctant to endorse any system that does not look serious and tech-savvy.

I know from experience that the manner in which a sound system occupies its environment affects every listening session, its feel and its quality. Which is what first attracted my attention to Fern & Roby products: This is serious, quality audio gear that looks elegant and unpretentious. The component I'm about to describe, Fern & Roby's new, $8500 Amp No. 2 integrated amplifier, is bureau friendly. It looks more stylish than tech-savvy, and it is not big or heavy, but its sound quality would put the sound of many amp farms to shame. A system consisting of an Amp No. 2, a pair of Raven speakers, and a Montrose turntable exemplifies owner-founder Christopher Hildebrand's materials-based, simple-is-better, form-follows-function design ethic.

Describing the Amp No. 2, F&R's website says "Our goal for this project was to produce something that will turn your living room into the best listening room possible."

The Amp No. 2 story
Christopher Hildebrand is the creative force behind Tektonics Design Group (footnote 2) and Fern & Roby Audio, which began operations in 2010. He is perhaps best known for his serious but elegant-looking turntables made from Richlite (footnote 3) and brass, and as the affable, talented industrial and mechanical designer behind Linear Tube Audio's line of preamplifiers, power amplifiers, and integrated amplifiers.

In an email, Hildebrand wrote that Fern & Roby's Amp No. 2 is the product of a collaboration between himself and analog audio designer Michael Bettinger, and Luke Smith, another regular F&R collaborator, who helped with the No. 2's digital controls. It's Fern & Roby's second collaboration with Bettinger, who has been designing and building solid state amplifiers for 45 years, starting with G.A.S. Audio in 1981, after fashion-forward engineering savant James Bongiorno's Great American Sound (G.A.S.) amplifier company went out of business. Since '81, Bettinger has built a loyal following for the work he has done keeping the mad-cool Ampzilla amplifier and its legendary cohorts alive. More recently, Michael's company, Bettinger Audio Design, has developed a range of original designs including F&R's Amp. No. 2.

Fern & Roby's integrated Amp No. 2 was launched at the 2023 Capital Audiofest. It is manufactured in Richmond, Virginia, by Tektonics Design Group and described as a "JFET input based 25 watt power amplifier, biased as 5 watts class-A, transitioning to class-AB at higher signal levels." (footnote 4) In an email, Bettinger wrote, "The quality of the circuitry in Amp No. 2 lies in its combination of established circuit topologies and careful selection of high-quality component parts, refined over time for musicality and simplicity."

The No. 2's back panel features three line-level inputs: one balanced (XLR) and two single-ended (RCA) plus a phono input (RCA) that's switchable inside the chassis for use with moving magnet or moving coil cartridges. There is also a subwoofer output, on RCA, and of course, two pairs of loudspeaker binding posts of fancy, gold-plated copper.

The No. 2's asymmetrical front panel is made of solid ¾"-thick walnut and reads like a primer for Fern & Roby's relaxed, materials-centered design aesthetic. The amplifier's name and Fern & Roby's discrete logo are subtly engraved in the faceplate's lower-right corner. The face- plate features six buttons in patinated brass and a volume control knob sporting the company's trademarked arrow symbol. Christopher told me in an email, "The arrow in our logo became our symbol for adventure as we launched Fern & Roby, setting our sights on a distant goal and developing the quality of product necessary to hit the mark."

Standing alone to the right of the No. 2's volume knob is a Mute button. To the right of that is the receiver eye for the remote control; the remote provided is a standard Apple remote. Farther right, a row of four buttons allows input selection: Phono, and the three line-level inputs. The No. 2 comes with a three-year limited warranty.

Readers please note: The Amp No. 2 is made in Richmond, Virginia, in-house, from raw materials. Fern & Roby provides real, local full-time jobs with benefits such as health insurance and paid time off for all employees. Hildebrand says, "These commitments encourage great people to join our firm and make lifelong careers with us." If that's how they treat their staff, it's a good bet they treat their customers with the same respect.

Setup
I auditioned the Fern & Roby Amp No. 2 with my best digital sources—the dCS Lina DAC and Master Clock, Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC—and a Dr. Feickert Analogue Blackbird turntable feeding MoFi's MasterPhono phono stage. All connections, including tonearm and speakers, were made with Cardas Clear Beyond cabling. For an alternative perspective, I used a full loom of Triode Wire Lab Spirit II interconnects and American speaker cables. Auditioning the Fern & Roby with two brands of wire helped me separate out the cable sound from the amplifier's sound.

When the time came to audition the No. 2's phono stage, I started with the EMT JSD 6 moving coil cartridge, which I reviewed in Gramophone Dreams #78—so I removed the No. 2's cover and flipped two toggle switches (one for each channel) from the MM to the MC position. The insides of the No. 2 looked more expensive and luxurious than its modestly conceived exterior. Its quality parts, smart layout, and bright, machined heatsink were treats for the eye.

Listening with the Falcon LS3/5a
I can't imagine anyone not enjoying "Bonaparte's Retreat" (AFS 1568), performed by W. H. Stepp on a Library of Congress anthology entitled American Fiddle Tunes (Rounder CD 18964 1518-2). I am betting this famous American fiddle tune will march and dance you to a higher form of consciousness, just as it was intended to do. I've heard this infectious song a hundred times, performed by a score of different artists, but this high-speed W. H. Stepp version is borderline transcendent. Wikipedia says "Stepp's version of this song was used as a major component of Aaron Copland's orchestral composition 'Hoe-Down' from the ballet Rodeo. Copland most likely learned it from the transcription found in the Lomaxes' book Our Singing Country."

"Bonaparte's Retreat" was recorded by Alan Lomax and his new bride Elizabeth in 1937, according to the 72-page fact- and photo-filled booklet that came with the CD. The track's extreme high sound quality suggests that it was recorded electrically, direct-to-disc (one microphone, one cable, and a Presto instantaneous disc recorder; footnote 5). More traditional renditions of "Bonaparte's Retreat" move slower, like Irish airs, and celebrate how happy residents of the British Isles were when Napoleon was repelled from Russia in 1815. Stepp's 1937 version modernizes and Americanizes the tune, revving its speed up for Paganini-level thrills bathed in Irish-poet soulfulness and pure Stradivarius tone. Yep, Maestro Stepp played a real Stradivarius. He talks about it on this recording.


Footnote 1: See youtube.com/watch?v=IstWDWAaoFM&t=367s.

Footnote 2: See Julie Mullins's April 2023 Re-Tales column. Tektonics Design Group also manufactures the bronze metalwork for DeVore Fidelity's O/Reference speaker system and the metal parts for the Komuro Amplifier Company.

Footnote 3: See richlite.com/whatisrichlite.

Footnote 4: The best way to describe such an amplifier, I'm thinking, is that it is a class-AB design that is biased up to 5W in class-A.

Footnote 5: See preservationsound.com/2011/09/presto-recording-corp-pioneers-of-instant-analog-disc-recording.

COMPANY INFO
Fern & Roby/Tektonics Design Group
702 E 4th St.
Richmond
VA 23224
(804) 233-5030
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Archimago's picture

Wow. For a device >$8000 with relatively low output power, there are quite a few issues!

Knowing JA's standard tests over the years, I would have thought that all audiophile companies by now would have tried to ensure quality over obvious concerns like hum, channel imbalances, phono compensation errors, etc. which could be quite audible in certain systems before submission for reviews! (That the subjective reviewer was unable to notice some of these concerns is unfortunate but perhaps not surprising.)

So when the manufacturer comments that "All the items in the technical review have already been addressed in our production units.", is it normal for the reviewers to test prototypes/non-production units? Maybe they're saying that early units like the one being reviewed has problems - if so are they recalling these early units with issues?

For potential consumers, hopefully an actual "production" unit might be tested to confirm the claim that things have been improved.

Jim Austin's picture

The unit reviewed was a production unit or was presented as such--and I believe it was; certainly it had a serial number. I talked to the proprietor (Hildebrand) at AXPONA; the electronic design was outsourced, and the designer didn't know what he had. In some respects--particularly the RIAA correction--this seems like a misfire, a product we should not have reviewed--except that it has some special qualities, as Herb's listening notes make clear. And I trust Herb's ears completely--not as a proxy for measurements (we've got that covered) but as someone who knows and can vividly describe good sound.

So when Hildebrand writes, "There is always something valuable to be learned, and an opportunity to improve a design, when someone else runs your product through a rigorous independent analysis. All the items in the technical review have already been addressed in our production units," I believe he means all production units "from now on." And I believe he is sincere.

Best Wishes,
Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

David Harper's picture

So if I understand you correctly you're saying that in spite of the obvious technical flaws and inferiority of this amp your faith in Herb's golden ears convinces you that the amp must have some sound quality that is inexplicable and therefore unfalsifiable. The perfect audiophile argument.

teched58's picture

One must applaud Jim's forthrightness in confirming that this is a production unit, esp since the reader takeaway from this is that this company needs to work on its QC.

Jim Austin's picture

So if I understand you correctly you're saying that in spite of the obvious technical flaws and inferiority of this amp your faith in Herb's golden ears convinces you that the amp must have some sound quality that is inexplicable and therefore unfalsifiable.

That is indeed pretty close to what I'm saying. Your choice of words in characterizing it, though, betrays a profound naiveté--specifically a measurements-first hierarchy: If you can't measure it, it isn't real. That's an attitude that has, fortunately, been rejected by most of those in our industry who make things. Real quantitative chops and deep knowledge of theory and best practice are essential for a skilled engineer, but almost all will tell you that that gets you only part of the way there. I can think of only a few exceptions. There's no need to attribute good sound to anything mystical, but often it is inexplicable. But even if it isn't explicable, it is audible, and all hearing it requires is experience and ears that are open--not golden.

I saw the amp in question at AXPONA, but it wasn't playing music, so I can't comment on the sound. But I'll take Herb's many decades of deep-dive experience over any half-assed skeptic. If he says it sounds good, and it measures poorly, then it sounds good in spite of measuring poorly.

I see advantages in your apparent worldview. It is nice to think that things are so explicable, so easy to trace every effect back to some obvious cause. But the world doesn't work like that, or not as often as we wish it did.

I have no time to continue this conversation. Go ahead, do your best, I won't respond. And don't forget to tell the folks over at ASR about it.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

David Harper's picture

My choice of words was unnecessarily antagonistic. I can agree with most of what you say.

Jim Austin's picture

I appreciate your generosity.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

teched58's picture

JA2 wrote:

: If you can't measure it, it isn't real. That's an attitude that has, fortunately, been rejected by most of those in our industry who make things. Real quantitative chops and deep knowledge of theory and best practice are essential for a skilled engineer, but almost all will tell you that that gets you only part of the way there.

Mysticism may perhaps sometimes be helpful to explain phenomena which are refractory to the human brain and/or experience.

But to think such nonsense is operative when you're measuring frequency reponse or noise or the many other well-characterized things we do when we seek to characterize the performance of electronic equipment, that's just laughable.

MatthewT's picture

over at ASR you remind me why I don't.

Steeler's picture

On a pedantic, non-hifi note, Bonaparte was repelled from Russia in 1812, hence the 1812 Overture, which celebrated the event. 1815 marked his final defeat at Waterloo.

ok's picture

it's a bit strange (and consumer unsettling) that the last three amplifiers tested at stereophile arrived all damaged.

Anton's picture

If a manufacturer can't get an unbroken "production" model to Stereophile, then I'm out.

Glotz's picture

Small boutique manufacturers are great until they're not...

supamark's picture

but when I was reviewing stuff I was occassionally like the 3rd or 4th person to review it and the boxes I got were beat to hell. I don't think many mfg's bring the items back to the shop between reviews either.

Not lying, when I saw the picture then JA's comments about the volume control I pictured in my head that the knob turned a twig inside the amp.

MatthewT's picture

Fred Flintstone probably had one of these.

Axiom05's picture

JA should be charging for his lab service to measure these unfinished products. Clearly these companies aren't investing in the proper equipment to evaluate their own prototypes. Why should they? Just send it to Stereophile and get free data.

georgehifi's picture

Anton: "If a manufacturer can't get an unbroken "production" model to Stereophile, then I'm out."

Yeah, this happens all too often for my liking also, go back over the years there are way way too many of these "faulty" ones showing up for testing/review.
You would think the one the manufacturer sends to Stereophile is even better spec'd and adjusted than a retail one, and wrapped up in bed mattress for delivery so it makes it safely.

Cheers George

Anton's picture

“Close enough for a subjectivist!”

100% pure joking: trying to bridge the divide between Ashla and Bogan!

John David Spoon's picture

This review and the manufacturer's response present quite a dilemma to me as someone in the market for precisely this integrated amp's feature offerings and for whom the price point fits neatly within the scope of what I'm looking to build. On the one hand, I'm quite willing to grant the esteemed Herb Reichert the benefit of the doubt and concede that his experience in evaluating systems significantly exceeds mine. He variously offers that the system sounds "crisp," "pristinely focused," and "transparent" among numerous positive descriptors across the breadth of supporting electronics and speakers. These are all things a potential consumer would want to hear from someone knowledgeable and experienced in evaluating these things.

But at the same time, few people I know would be intrinsically happy purchasing something that was known to be notably flawed. If the sampled unit sounded that way with the issues identified in the changes, should we be reassured that the shortcomings have indeed been addressed in a unit we purchased? Moreover, if those attributes and descriptors are a function of the unit functioning as-is, is it not reasonable to expect that making whatever corrections are necessary to remediate those issues will, at least to some extent, change the fundamental perceived performance it delivers? Would it be unreasonable to expect to see this model revisited soon with a revised listening and measurement re-evaluation? I have to say, I'd be extremely reluctant to pull the trigger on this, as it stands.

David Harper's picture

My only problem here is that $8K for this particular component, given the reported performance of it, seems more than a little unjustified. Consider that a Schiit Vidar amp can be had for about $800. If one reads and compares the specs of these two amps there can only be one conclusion.

funambulistic's picture

... the one conclusion being the Amp No. 2 is an integrated and the Vidar is strictly a power amp. That is what you were going for, correct?

helomech's picture

of an underserving boutique brand attempting to exploit the naïveté of audiophiles and their proclivity to of correlating aesthetics and price with performance. With exception of the faceplate, knobs and milled remote, this product likely cost less to manufacture than any $400 mass market AVR.

Hopefully the out-sourced electrical designer made off like a bandit too.

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