Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 2 power amplifier Page 3

The Model 2 represented a distinct change from the traditional "Rowland Sound." The top sounded open and extended, while maintaining exceptional freedom from the "electronic" quality that is the bane of solid-state amplifiers. With the right source, like one of the Reference Recordings HDCD releases played through the HDCD-equipped Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 Mk.II, instruments with significant treble energy were reproduced with crispness as well as delicacy.

Throughout the entire range, but especially in the highs, the Model 2 had stunning transparency, providing resolution of detail but adding little sound of its own. In fact, the aspect of the Model 2's performance that impressed me the most was its resolution. Parts of the sonic landscape that were slightly obscured with other amplifiers were clear and distinct through the Model 2. Depth and ambience seemed to be limited mostly by the recording itself. Through the Model 2, I could also easily hear the sonic effects of changes in associated equipment—such as the superiority of the Mk.II version of the Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 over the original.

Two areas of performance where moderately powered amplifiers are often thought to be compromised are dynamics and bass extension. The Krell KSA-100S certainly suffers in these areas compared to its more powerful KSA-300S stablemate. I didn't have a chance to compare the Rowland Model 2 with the more powerful Rowland amplifiers; however, the Model 2's dynamic liveliness and firmness of bass response made it easily competitive with the various other high-powered amplifiers I had on hand.

My usual bass-and-dynamics torture test, Mickey Hart's Planet Drum (Rykodisc RC-10206), was reproduced with a high "startle factor," the bass shaking the floor in a manner that was only marginally less convincing than when using a high-powered bass champ like the Bryston 7B. Although I no longer had the Krell KSA-100S around for direct comparison, my recollection was that the Krell, which is rated at 100W, was less dynamic and had subjectively less impressive bass response than the 75W Rowland (footnote 4). The quality of the bass was excellent: tight and tuneful.

In terms of sheer volume, the Rowland Model 2 had no trouble driving the Dunlavy SC-IVs to any level that I found tolerable. At levels that I found intolerable (peaks of 103dB, "C"-weighting, on the Radio Shack meter, which is known to underestimate short-term peaks by about 6dB), the Bryston 7Bs and the Carver Lightstar Reference did sound more effortless, but this was apparent only in direct comparison. In normal listening, I never felt the need for more power. I should note, however, that my listening room is small, and the Dunlavy SC-IVs have a 91dB sensitivity. Those with large listening rooms and insensitive speakers may not be satisfied with the Model 2's 75W. The Rowland Model 6 monoblocks, with their 150W/channel output, would likely be more suitable in these situations (footnote 5).

Shoot it out
My formal listening to the Rowland Model 2 concluded with a three-way shootout: matched-level comparisons (peak spls around 90dB) among the Model 2, the Threshold T-200, and the Carver Lightstar (reviewed in Vol.18 No.4. and Vol.18 No.5, respectively). For a test piece I used Sylvia McNair's recording of what has been called the best American popular song ever written: Kern and Hammerstein's "All the Things You Are" (from Sure Thing: The Jerome Kern Song Book, Philips 442 129-2). For this comparison, rather than concentrating on detail, imaging, depth, bass extension, ambience, etc., I just allowed the sound to wash over me, and I used the extent of my involvement in the music as an overall indicator of the system's effectiveness in creating an illusion of reality (footnote 6).

I have a lot of respect for both the Threshold T-200 and the Carver Lightstar; I'm particularly fond of the Threshold, which I had thought worthy of a Class A "Recommended Components" rating (Vol.18 No.4).

Nevertheless, in the head-to-head comparisons, my preference overall was for the Rowland Model 2. With the Rowland amp in the system, the illusion of the presence of Sylvia McNair's voice in the room was just a bit more convincing; I had to do less work of imagination to pretend that I was listening to a real singer and real instruments rather than an electro-mechanical contrivance.

So, does the Rowland Model 2 offer good value? Can you get sound that's just as good from amplifiers that cost much less than its $5800? Ultimately, answering these questions with any confidence would require familiarity with every amplifier on the market as well as knowledge of what's important to the individual audiophile. I possess neither, but I set myself up to answer these questions, so I'd better at least take a stab at it.

Given today's high-end audio marketplace, and assuming an audiophile ethos that finds it acceptable to spend large amounts of money for what are arguably small sonic improvements, I think the Rowland Model 2 does represent good value. By a small but significant margin it's the best, most natural-sounding amplifier I've had a chance to evaluate. The battery power supply that's about to become available (which I will report on in due course) promises further improvement.

Can the Rowland Model 2's sound quality be matched or exceeded for less? This is a really tough, even impossible-to-answer, question. There are a lot of amplifiers out there, with new ones being introduced all the time. You can get very good sound from amplifiers that cost much less (you'll find some of them listed in Stereophile's Class B of "Recommended Components"), and if you have insensitive speakers that you like to play loud in a large listening room, the Rowland Model 2 clearly would not be your best choice.

However, power considerations aside, I can't think of a less expensive amplifier that fully matches the Model 2's collection of sonic virtues. It's the kind of amplifier that, in the right system, is likely to make you forget about amplifiers and just listen to the music

Footnote 4: Of course, the difference between 100W and 75W is only 1.25dB.

Footnote 5: Although you have to look closely at each amplifier to tell the difference between the Model 2 and a single Model 6 monoblock, the Model 6 is not just a bridged Model 2. In fact, the Model 2 cannot be bridged for mono operation (it's already bridged); but, with suitable adapters, a pair of Model 2s could be used in a biamped setup.

Footnote 6: I listened to each amplifier several times, varying the order of presentation, and used the Sonic Frontiers SFD-2's polarity-reversal switch to compensate for the different XLR pin assignment conventions (pin-3 positive for Rowland, pin-2 positive for Threshold and Carver).