Jeff Rowland Design Group Synergy line preamplifier Paul Bolin part 2

Shaken, not stirred
Some components of the solid-state persuasion are like deconstructionist French literary theorists: they dissect every part of the music with a taxonomist's precision and fanaticism, leaving behind only a skeleton of sound rather than a body of music. Each atomized element may be interesting in the manner of a butterfly tacked to a board, but compelling it is not.

The Synergy was the antithesis of this. It combined a free-flowing and light-footed musicality with excellent resolution and a full-bodied harmonic presentation, and did a fine job of keeping everything in order. On "Domination" and "Marakesh," from Peter Kruder's Peace Orchestra (CD, G-Stone G-CD 004), deep and thunderously powerful synthesized bass shares the stage with the most delicate of scattered percussion. The Synergy allowed the sparkle and extension of the latter to remain utterly unmolested by the bass orgy going on beneath, with no smear or loss of focus. The epic live version of the "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" suite from Frank Zappa's You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol.1 (CD, Rykodisc RCD 10081/82) asks much from a line stage. Zappa's large band is superbly recorded, with a great sense of liveness. The Synergy provided exactly the right sense of place and space, with the band stretched out across a large, fairly deep stage. The murderously fast switchbacks and time changes of "St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast" didn't ruffle it a bit, and Ed Mann's amazing percussion work stood out in properly high relief.

The Synergy IIi did just as well with acoustic material. The multimiked, hyped-up soundstage of Bernard Herrmann's Fantasy Film World (LP, London Phase 4 SP 44207) make it a definitive example of wowie-zowie hi-fi. But it also has some of the most richly saturated tone colors to be heard on record. With the Steelhead/Synergy combo, the enormous brasses and glittering harps of Journey to the Center of the Earth were as voluptuous and luxurious as anyone could wish for. Boundary definition was excellent: instruments inhabited individualized spaces with none of the artificial etching that makes a component sound more detailed than it actually is. The Synergy did an excellent job of bringing an effortless focus to the whole rather than the individual parts.

Though the Synergy IIi came very close to the overall performance of the $14,500 Coherence II, it did yield to its discontinued big brother in the areas of ultimate bass power and low-level resolution, where the C-II was audio royalty. The difference was surprisingly small, but nothing plugged into a wall socket—or even an audiophile power conditioner—can quite match the dead silence of batteries, and the Coherence's battery power allowed for a shockingly low noise floor.

Not that that was much of a sacrifice—the Synergy was, by any other standard, as quiet a component as you'll find. Music emerged from a silky-silent background, and retrieval of low-level detail was excellent, if not quite the equal of the Coherence II's. On the famous Reiner/Chicago Scheherazade (RCA Victor/Classic LSC-2446), inner orchestral voices, as well as those at the edges of the immensely broad stage, were painstakingly detailed but not unduly highlighted. The Synergy didn't diminish or truncate the vividly captured stage-wall reflections that describe the size and contour of the stage itself. When Reiner stands on the gas, which is often, the Rowland brought the mighty Chicago brass right into the room. With great recordings, the Synergy's presentation was as suave and sophisticated as a tuxedoed Cary Grant pouring Audrey Hepburn a glass of Moet & Chandon.

The Synergy's tonal character was refined and a tad warm, but never slid into rose-tinted romanticism. The Rowland leaned more toward the forgiving than the "ruthlessly revealing" side, and was somewhat kinder to lesser recordings than are the Ayre K-1x or the Krell KCT. This is not to say that the Rowland covered the music in a flattering, overly romantic glaze. Rather, by focusing on the music instead of the sound per se, it didn't draw as much attention to the recordings' sonic flaws. Whether it was the solo cello, rumbling double basses, and surging violins of Scheherazade, the diaphanous strings of Herrmann's Sinbad, or Sir Granville Bantock's Celtic Symphony (CD, Hyperion CDA66450), the Synergy seduced me with its blend of natural timbres and perfectly blended details.

But if a component can't make Emmylou Harris' Roses in the Snow (LP, Warner Bros. BSK 3422) come alive, I'm not going to be a happy camper. Through the Steelhead/Synergy Harris was oh, so present and almost touchable, not a mere "singing head." The male voice was also a treat through the Synergy. The 24-bit/96kHz Classic Records DADs of Louis Armstrong Meets Duke Ellington (DAD 1031) and Muddy Waters' Folk Singer (DAD 1020) showcase two of the most distinctive voices in American music. Waters' moans, roars, and old-school soul knocked me for a loop, and Armstrong's friendly growl put a huge smile on my face as he bopped his way through "Duke's Place."

The Synergy IIi's treble was, if anything, a bit more extended and open than the Coherence II was able to manage. Buddy Guy's acoustic guitar on Folk Singer had immediacy, and the transient attack of pick hitting string was easily discernible. Brushed snare drums, percussion of all sorts, and the upper reaches of pianos were lively and airy. With its multitudinous guitars and percussion, Tiny Island's eponymous CD (Opus3 CD19804) is a veritable festival of delicate high-frequency information. "Effortless" and "natural" is how my notes describe the Synergy's way with this lovely music.

The size and shape of the soundstage was determined by the recording alone. The Rowland was sufficiently transparent that it neither added to nor subtracted from what was on the source material. The killer-good SACD of Dylan's immortal Blonde on Blonde (Columbia CS841) had its familiar boxy sound, but the enormous amount of information afforded by SACD came through the Rowland seemingly unimpeded. At the other extreme, Reiner's Scheherazade threw an enormously wide, superbly detailed soundstage. Everything in between was handled just as well.

Jeff Rowland Design Group
2911 N. Prospect Street
Colorado Springs, CO 80907
(719) 473-1181