Jeff Rowland Design Group Synergy line preamplifier Page 2

At the risk of being considered an audiophile of less than truest blue, I'm going to argue that convenience can, in fact, influence performance. I believe this is the case when it comes to convenient setting of the optimal volume level. For every recording there is a volume where the soundstage snaps into place and the perceived distance from the performers seems realistic, and a dB or two on either side is too loud or too soft (footnote 1). To tweak volume, a fully continuous volume control would be ideal, but the half-dB steps of the Synergy are subjectively small enough to allow dialing-in of the optimal level. Remote control over volume makes it more likely that the listener will select the appropriate volume level. When I use a remote-controlled preamp like the Synergy or the Balanced Audio Technology VK-5i (reviewed in Vol.20 No.4), I can close my eyes and raise/lower the volume with the remote until the right level is reached (which often turns out to be considerably lower than the typical "audiophile demonstration" level).

Having acknowledged the usefulness of the Synergy's remote control, I have to say that the plastic case doesn't seem consistent with Rowland's quality image, and the ergonomics are not ideal. There are six small buttons of identical shape, laid out in a row. The buttons used most often, volume up and volume down, are the middle two, and this location makes it difficult to find them by feel. Press the wrong button and you'll end up changing the balance, and only the tiniest of indicator lights on the main panel will warn you of what you've done. (If you err in the opposite direction, you'll hit Mute, but the effect of that will be immediately evident.) Moreover, if the remote is to have only six buttons, I think it would be more important to include polarity rather than source switching. The effect of absolute phase is fairly subtle, and has to be evaluated from the listening seat. However, when you change sources, you probably have to get up anyway—eg, to take out the CD and put on an LP—so the provision of remote source switching would not seem to be as important.

System & setup
Not having a suitable phono stage on hand, the only source I used was digital: PS Audio Lambda II transport, Audio Alchemy DTI•Pro32 anti-jitter/resolution-enhancement device, Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 Mk.II digital processor, Illuminati D-60/Orchid digital links. Loudspeakers were Dunlavy SC-IVs driven by a Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 2 (complete with the BPS-2 battery power supply) or Sonic Frontiers Power 2 amplifier. Interconnects, speaker cables, and power cables were all TARA Labs Decade. Balanced connections were used throughout. (I tried the single-ended connection using the XLR/RCA adaptors just once to make sure that this setup works. It does.)

Accessories included a Chang CLS-9600 ISO power line conditioner (not used with the preamplifiers), Shakti "stones" placed on the SFD-2 Mk.II and DTI!SPro32, Shakti On-Lines on the interconnects, Original Cable Jackets on the power cables, and a Bright Star Little Rock atop the CD transport. A Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) VK-5i served as the preamplifier reference, with some use made of a Convergent Audio Technology (CAT) SL-1 Signature Mk.II. (The BAT and the CAT are tube-based designs.) When using the Rowland Model 2, input impedance was set to the recommended value for each preamp: high for the BAT and the CAT, low for the Rowland.

Speaker setup is often a tricky matter, requiring endless fiddling with position, but setting up a line-stage preamp should be a snap, right? You connect the inputs and outputs, plug it in, turn it on, and Bob's your uncle. (I've always wanted to say that.) With the Synergy, the process should be even simpler: Since there's no power switch, once you've plugged it in, it is on, and you're ready to listen.

Well, yes and no. The Synergy certainly worked out of the box, but the sound was rather brittle and flat, becoming smoother and more three-dimensional over several weeks' use. (The manual states that the Synergy requires at least 200 hours of continuous operation before its full sonic potential is reached.)

One setting I had not thought of adjusting was source gain. I was using just a single source, and the master volume settings at normal listening levels were comfortably in the middle of the range. It was a conversation with Shannon Dickson that made me think I should try turning up the source gain. Shannon was originally using the ultra-low-output Muse digital processor, which required increasing the Coherence's source gain. He subsequently found that the Coherence sounded better with higher source gain even when using processors that have a more normal output level. When he told me about this, I'd already done a lot of listening to the Synergy and had actually started writing the review, but felt I had to check out this effect for myself before proceeding further.

It's a good thing I did. With the Synergy's source gain increased by 8dB (and master gain decreased by an equal amount), the sound improved by a significant margin. The most obvious improvement was in dynamics, which had previously struck me as fairly lackluster, and there was also a greater sense of openness and less grain. With the Synergy's performance more nearly optimized, I was ready to listen again. Much of my listening was of the matched-level variety, comparing the Synergy with the BAT VK-5i. Both preamps control volume in 0.5dB steps rather than continuously, but, fortunately, the alignment of steps was such that I was able to match levels within ±0.1dB (measured with a voltmeter at the speaker terminals). In addition to the matched-level comparisons, I also listened to the Synergy and the VK-5i more informally, just playing all kinds of CDs at a variety of levels. Although not as controlled in the technical sense, listening that involves this sort of "statistical averaging" of sound levels, musical content, time of day, mood, etc. can be a telling indication of how much long-term satisfaction a piece of equipment offers.

Against the BAT VK-5i
Rowland electronics have had a reputation for sounding smooth, forgiving, refined, "musical," but a bit rolled-off at the frequency extremes, and not the last word in detail and resolution. Even more than the Model 2 amplifier, the Synergy represents a departure from the traditional "Rowland sound": its strong suits are clarity and low-level resolution. Listening through the Synergy, I became aware of fine details, like flutist Chris Norman's inhalations on his Beauty of the North CD (Dorian DOR-90190), and the precision of Hyperion Knight's piano technique on Stereophile's Rhapsody CD (STPH010-2). The low-level noises and the sense of ambience on the recent Delos recording of the Berlioz Te Deum (DE 3200) were delineated with a clarity that was superior to that of the otherwise excellent, $4495 BAT VK-5i.

Footnote 1: The notion of ideal volume level was introduced by Peter Walker of Quad, who drew a parallel between a preamplifier's level control and the focus ring on a camera lens.—Robert Deutsch
Jeff Rowland Design Group
2911 N. Prospect Street
Colorado Springs, CO 80907
(719) 473-1181