Jeff Rowland Design Group Synergy line preamplifier Paul Bolin part 3

The dynamics of small ensembles like Tiny Island or the Armstrong/Ellington group were irreproachably rendered. The Synergy IIi was near the state of the art in handling small- to medium-scale dynamic contrasts, resolving every subtle shading of intensity with loving care. But for all the sophistication and dignity of its appearance and overall presentation, the Rowland showed no aversion to real rock'n'roll stompage. Classic's remastering of "Achilles' Last Stand," from Led Zeppelin's Presence (Swan Song/Classic SS 841), roared out of my Apogee Duetta Signatures with tidal force.

The IIi was a tad less surefooted on large-scale orchestral or organ recordings with little compression. It was happier going from pp to f at a microsecond's notice than going from mf to ff. I couldn't describe the Synergy as sounding compressed, but it was a bit less forceful toward the top end of the dynamic spectrum. This isn't as big an issue as it might seem; unless you've heard components on the level of the Krell KCT or the Ayre K-1x, to name two standouts, it won't be apparent.

I suspect that the Synergy IIi will appeal more to the music-lover than the hi-fi fanatic—like every Rowland component I've ever experienced, it satisfied the whole man. When the recording allowed the music to be presented in a holistic and continuous way, the Synergy could stand and deliver at every turn. But I had to listen actively to the Synergy to realize how good it was. Like the Coherence II, it was so self-effacing that it seemed it could be overshadowed in a shoot-out with a component "voiced" to emphasize one or two attention-grabbing areas of performance at the expense of overall balance and sonic quality.

Just a moment, Mr. Bond...
I can hear the catcalls: "Last time you raved about the Ayre K-1x, and now you're telling us the Rowland Synergy IIi is the line stage to have. Wuzzup with that, anyway?"

Guilty as charged, but they're both great line stages, and the Rowland and Ayre share a remarkable degree of commonality. Each is solid-state, innovatively designed, far more aesthetically appealing than much audio equipment, and built in Colorado to an impeccable standard of workmanship. Furthermore, they share their designers' fanatical dedication to the creation of pure and isolated internal environments devoid of RFI and EMI, though this end is achieved by very different means. They're even priced head to head: the phono-equipped Ayre costs $8600, the Synergy-Cadence combo $8800. The Rowland provides more features—individualized input memories, separate processor loop, input impedance selection, absolute polarity switch, more functions controllable via remote—while the more purist Ayre offers only listen/record selection and remote-controlled volume and mute. But both offer tremendous resolution, cavernous soundstaging (when called for), and timbral characters as close to neutral as can be found, with nary a stereotypical solid-state nasty to be heard.

What the Rowland and the Ayre are not is sonically interchangeable. While their sounds are more alike than different, the differences may be more or less important to any one potential owner. The Rowland was more spatially laid-back, placing me a few rows farther from the stage, and its macrodynamic performance was less explosive than the Ayre's. However, what the Synergy IIi conceded to the K-1x with one hand it took back with the other, with its extra measure of deep-bass power, ever-so-slightly-greater image density, and a certain self-effacing seductiveness that I found irresistible.

The choice is not one of good/better or even better/best. These are two superb line stages with slightly different emphases. Both Porsche and Jaguar make magnificent automobiles that offer everything one might reasonably want or expect, but they have slightly different personalities—a 911 is not an XK8. With such thoroughly worked-out products as the Rowland Synergy IIi and the Ayre K-1x, the choice comes down to personal taste and preference.

Which did I ultimately prefer? Whichever one I was listening to.

The Jeff Rowland Design Group Synergy IIi is a first-class line stage, and a must-hear for anyone who can afford its $5500 price. Its combination of stunning build quality, great looks, flexibility, and excellent sound makes for a most appealing package. By itself or paired with its wonderful sibling, Rowland's Cadence phono stage, it is an inspiring and utterly musical component. Like all Rowland Group products, it can be expected to have an extremely long and trouble-free life that offers full value for every dollar of its price. By any measure, the Rowland Synergy IIi is a winner. I recommend that you make its acquaintance as soon as you can.