The Fifth Element #22

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Jeff Rowland's products. Going back to the Model 7 monoblock power amplifier and the Model 5 stereo amplifier of nearly 20 years ago, Rowland's designs always sounded essentially musical to me, and quite forgiving and non-fatiguing.

At a time when other designers of high-end solid-state equipment seemed to be pushing the envelope in terms of definition and detail—which, in some setups, was often at the cost of grayness or graininess (or at least fatigue)—Rowland's amps were usually a congenial refuge. Especially in the context of certain loudspeaker designs of that era—examples being the original Wilson Audio Specialties WATT, and the smallest ProAc screechers, I mean speakers—Rowland's amps were a countervailing influence, even a curative.

Those less charmed by the result could point out that there did seem to be a characteristic Rowland "house sound"; and, from that, infer that the amps (and preamps) imparted their own characteristic to the music.

Thus the battle was joined. Yea-sayers claimed that because Rowland's amps employed fully complementary dual-differential circuit architecture, achieved by use of input transformers, what one was hearing was the music, freed from the electronic hash that other designs allowed to ride along. Nay-sayers muttered that the transformers acted as midpass filters.

I will always remember a Rowland Model 5 driving Spendor SP1s (ca 1989) as one of the standout combinations from my on-the-upgrade-merry-go-round days. That combination had solidity and swagger, as well as subtlety. Organ music was particularly well-served. Back then, one of the things that made Rowland amps particularly desirable was the option of gold-anodized front panels (alas, no longer available, due to the difficulty of unit-to-unit matching). Rowland gear was always characterized by qualities of design and build that were robust and uncompromising, with the highest level of fit and finish, and the best switchgear and connection hardware.

In the 1990s, Rowland's styling further evolved with the use of diamond buffing on extraordinarily thick faceplates. The resulting uniform, extremely fine scratches acted as an optical diffraction grating (memories of Edmund Scientific catalogs from the 1960s!) that broke up ambient light into rainbow colors where two rows of the herringbone-pattern buffings met. Perhaps this struck some as a bit much; the next generation of designs was much more subdued, with rounded corners and a matte finish on the casework.

Industrial design was not the only thing that was changing at the Jeff Rowland Design Group (JRDG) in the 1990s. Rowland's circuit designs had always used discrete components. However, with the advent of Rowland's first integrated amplifier, the Concentra, JRDG for the first time released a product that used integrated circuits as output devices.

The Concentra impressed me mightily. My only reservation was that its treble seemed a bit too polite or reticent. I must not have been the only one, because the Concentra was revised as a version II, with greater output power (up from 100 to 150Wpc), and a distinctly livelier treble—but one that still did not call attention to itself. That revision brought the Concentra, for me, into the realm of products I could enthusiastically recommend, if your room acoustics and speakers and other associated equipment worked well with it.

Permit me to climb up on my soapbox once again. Audiophiles often obsess about things while looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Perhaps because swapping out wire goods is comparatively easy to do, people get hung up on it. But swapping out wire goods when your room acoustics stink is the moral equivalent of getting your teeth whitened when your real problem is that your cholesterol level just hit 400.

There is indeed a hierarchy (my, how the zeitgeist hates hierarchies!) of factors that influence how your stereo system sounds. The most important factors form a constellation of room acoustics, the interaction between your speakers and the room, and your listening position. Only after these factors does the essential sound of your loudspeakers themselves come into play. Please take a moment to ponder that. The essential, Platonic-ideal sound of your loudspeakers, in and of themselves, is less important than their interaction with your room's acoustics, and where you sit to listen.

After that, the factors include the source material you listen to, your source components, then your amplification, then the adequacy and cleanness of your wall current (good wall current is not that likely to help your sound a great deal, but bad wall current is very likely to hurt your sound a great deal).

I have listed eight factors so far, and only now do we get to wires. Wires can help a good system—that is, one in which all the more important factors are working together—sound good, but wires are unlikely to rescue a system in which something is basically wrong higher up the hierarchy.

Keeping these points in mind, the Concentra II's sonic character was such that I could both imagine situations in which it would be eminently satisfying (highly articulate speakers in a somewhat lively room), and settings in which it might be a source of frustration (somewhat reserved speakers in a damped room).

So it was with great anticipation that I began unpacking Jeff Rowland's latest full-boat stereo power amp, the Model 302. (The packing materials were, of course, exemplary.) For the 302's front panel, JRDG has gone back to the diamond-buffed herringbones, and I, for one, heartily approve. (The same basic chassis can also be had in mono, 2-channel biamp, or discrete 4-channel versions.)

While the first generations of Rowland amps had inch-square illuminated PhD (Push Here, Dummy) buttons on their front panels for power switches, the 302 has a small round metal Standby/On button about 3/8" in diameter, and a tiny blue LED that seems less than 1mm in diameter. These may be an indication that the 302 is expected by its designer to see duty in some dual-purpose listening rooms/home theaters.

The 302 is rated at 300Wpc, weighs 95 lbs, and, at 15.5", is just slightly narrower than the standard rack width. It is 10" tall and 18" deep. Hefty handles on its rear panel help when it comes time to position it, but in many situations, that will be a two-person job. Fit and finish are exemplary. The 302 takes both single-ended and balanced audio inputs, on RCA- and XLR-terminated cables, respectively. In the realm of practicalities, my only beefs were that its 20-amp IEC power receptacle accepted none of the power cords I prefer to use (although its stock power cord was beefy), and that the 302 has—darn it all—Euro-Nanny speaker terminals.

I am probably beginning to sound like someone's great-aunt—you know, the kind who thinks we lost our most important personal freedoms when the Food and Drug Administration, in the 1920s, outlawed the use of real sassafras in root beer and sarsaparilla (hint for foreign readers: that is pronounced sas-pa-ri-la) (footnote 1), but, really. Do people need to be protected from the risk of trying to plug their speaker wires into an electrical outlet? And if they do, is there not something to be said for the resulting Social Darwinism?

JRDG's Euro-Nanny speaker terminals are fine for what they are, and there are two dual terminals per channel for biwiring; it's just that they won't accept banana plugs (only spades, in fact). Seeing that the 302's terminals use one knob to tighten both the positive and negative poles for one speaker at the same time, this makes connecting speaker wires a job to be undertaken only with the amp unplugged. Nordost's Joe Reynolds graciously made up a set of triwire speaker cables from Nordost's very impressive new Valkyra (retail price about half that of the Valhalla), with spades at the amp ends and bananas at the speaker ends, and I was in business.

The design brief for the 302 (found in a white paper downloadable from the Rowland website) was to continue the sonic evolution of Rowland's previous designs in the areas of noise floor and transparency, while making great strides in the areas of power consumption, energy efficiency, and thermal efficiency. One does not need to be Carnac the Magnificent to intuit that, as laudable as those goals are, they also dovetail with the needs of home theater and custom installers.

Footnote 1: But I note that, apparently, one can now again buy absinthe. Go figure.—John Marks