Jeff Rowland Design Group Consummate preamplifier Page 5

Here the Consummate more than met its match. The Vendetta edged it out with respect to clean detail and overall balance. And as if to rejuvenate an old truism—you don't always hear the flaws in otherwise first-rate components until you hear something better—the Consummate's high end had just a trace of grain compared with the pristine sound of the Vendetta. Complex percussion was easier to follow on the latter, and detail more gracefully rendered. All was not one-sided; the Consummate had more apparent depth and three-dimensionality than the Vendetta—a more direct "look" into the soundstage. It was not an easy choice by any means. I vacillated considerably in my preference, but ultimately found myself leaning toward the Vendetta for phono playback.

But the Dynavector at the front end and the Apogee Centaur Majors at the back made for a rather incisive, somewhat analytical combination, as I've already stated. I therefore substituted the significantly sweeter Benz MC-3 into the system to reassess these two preamps (the loading was left unchanged). (The Benz is not only audibly softer than the Dynavector, it has measurably less upper-octave output.) The Vendetta remained detailed, though definitely less obviously so than it had been with the Dynavector. The good points of the Vendetta remained, but now the Consummate took center stage with its tighter, more immediate sound. It remained a close call, but of the four possible combinations of these two cartridges and two phono preamps, my top vote-getter was the Dynavector driving the Vendetta, followed closely by the Benz driving the Consummate phono stage.

Again, it's clear that proper matching will pay dividends. It's no less true at the cartridge/preamp interface than at the amplifier/loudspeaker. Incidentally, the Vendetta is noted for its quiet operation. Nit-picking between it and the Consummate would be a matter of paranoia; subjectively, I found no reason to choose one over the other on that basis.

One capability of the Consummate which I unfortunately did not get the opportunity to experiment with is the balanced phono input capability. The first set of Cardas cables sent to us were unusable, since they required a nonstandard hookup at the cartridge end: four RCA jacks, two for each channel. By the time this was discovered and a replacement set sent out from Rowland (using a slightly different Cardas cable), time was too short to perform a conclusive listening test. Not to mention that I felt that a comparison of the balanced and unbalanced configurations would be appropriate, and a set of identical unbalanced interconnects was not on hand to ensure that possible cable differences were eliminated from the comparison. A "Follow-Up" will definitely be scheduled on this matter, either from myself or from AB, who has a Consummate on hand and will comment on his impressions in a later issue.

Finally, some sort of bypass test on the Consummate—at least on its line stage—seemed in order (footnote 9), I decided on a slight variation of this, comparing the Consummate with an arguably first-rate passive preamp, both located next to the power amp to minimize the effect of cabling on the passive box. For the latter, I chose the First Sound Reference II. In my opinion, passive preamps are not necessarily the way to go in all circumstances. Loading problems must be considered, and with some systems there will just not be enough gain. But there is enough favorable opinion and press on the passive side to make such a comparison worthwhile. For this comparison, 20' of AudioQuest Lapis were used for the run from CD processor to preamp or passive preamp; 1m of Lapis connected either of the latter to the Krell.

With levels matched, the two were very close. But it was clear that a further small layer of grundge was removed by using the passive device. The Rowland seemed to add a small increment of brightness and grain in comparison to the liquid sound of the passive device. I should also note that the passive device was being used full up in level to get sufficient gain (the output of the ARC processor being used as the source is somewhat lower than is typical of such devices). In any event, the difference was minor but not entirely negligible. Even the best active devices are not, apparently, entirely transparent.

The Consummate is unquestionably a Class A preamplifier. Both its line-level stage and phono stage are among the best in the business. If it is not unequivocally the best in all ways, that merely underscores the fierce competition that exists at the top of the high end. Its phono stage was first-rate, yet marginally bettered in some (though not all) respects by at least one highly rated competitor. Its line-stage was only bettered by a top-of-the-line passive box. And the latter, as do all passive boxes, has real functional limitations—primarily the lack of gain and the care needed in choosing the type and length of interconnecting cable—that may make it unsuitable for use in some systems. It would seem possible that Rowland, if so inclined, could create a version of the Consummate with a no-gain option, but still retain the control and switching functions of the current unit. Perhaps buffering could be another selectable option. The only disadvantage of such an arrangement is that a balanced output could only be generated with a balanced input.

But enough of dreams. In the real universe, the current Consummate is a terrific performer. It is not cheap, and the law of diminishing returns has not been repealed. But for those who can afford it, the Consummate is a further step in that paradoxical half-the-distance-at-a-time journey to perfection. Engage.

Footnote 9: Phono-stage bypass tests are theoretically possible, but involve an external, non-cartridge (and thus nontypical with respect to loading) source combined with external padding and an outboard RIAA network. The latter must be absolutely ideal and transparent.
Jeff Rowland Design Group
P.O. Box 7231
Colorado Springs, CO 80933
(719) 473-1181