This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

In short form but still accurately, today's system's overriding character could be called refined. This essence presented itself both when I first sat down to spin up the first disc and sample the sonic characteristics; and when I got up after the last album to pack up the gear and return it. Of course a lot happened in-between to help me understand and appreciate the nuances. Yet this overall core message which this customer by proxy received from Jeff Rowland was loud and clear.

This sound was smooth, soft and vivid whilst simultaneously very deep and well differentiated. Though the dominant trait was the pursuit of refinement rather than perfection, the scale of differentiation was puzzling. I'd compare this presentation to that of my Harbeth M40.1 speakers - at first warm and rather nice, after a while turning out to be incredibly resolute in fact but never as selective as I would wish.

Let’s talk about resolution and differentiation first. Warm components and speakers are usually and rightly so associated with selectivity that's not particularly good and resolution that's rather low. This is true as long as we remain within the basic and medium price ranges. Good designs costing about 20.000 Polish are much more varied and nuanced. Listen to the Lavardin IT-15 amplifier for example. In the ultra high-end where we assuredly find ourselves with Jeff Rowland, these qualities become unrelated unless a designer specifically intended—as is the case for the Convergent Audio Technology SL1 Legend preamp—to emphasize warmth as the leading and most important aspect of live sound. Today's system would seem to follow a similar path but the final point of arrival is quite different.

Take for instance the way it differentiates between recordings or even within a single track rivets us to the speakers. It doesn’t do it with an overwhelming amount of detail or the kind of dynamics and insight into a recording that knock us flat at least not at first glance. It does its thing through unforced clarity as the ability to show the maximum amount of detail per time unit internally linked together to create something more. This kind of sound doesn’t require any effort in our mind to reconstruct what took place in front of the microphones (hypothetically and potentially as we were not present during the recording though very credibly so despite these conditions).

And there's no need for super-audiophile recordings to hear it. No need to reach for Patricia Barber though her albums were auditioned as well. It’s not necessary to use special reissues such as XRCD24 discs from newly created Hi-Q Records whose mastering is handled by Kazuo Kiuchi, owner of the Reimyo and Harmonix brand. Still I did audition one of them, Bach’s Violin Concertos as performed by Yehudi Menuhin.

My biggest surprise was listening to the new Black Sabbath album 13. While it’s pressed as an SHM-CD, the material is intended for a far broader audience and hence highly compressed. First I listened to it at night over my HifiMan HE-6 headphones driven from the amplifier's current output. Even then I was struck by the great clarity whereby Ozzy Osbourne vocals and Tony Iommi's guitars were recorded and mixed. I used guitars as Tony’s guitar is really overdubbed and often doubled up with many spatial sound effects. The tonal balance was very well set without the proven wall-of-sound tactic which glosses over playback and recording mistakes. The sound was powerful and fleshy yet selective too. On these particular headphones the drums seemed somewhat lacking however, especially the bass drum.

Even so the Jeff Rowland system tastefully showed what was going on. It served up a very low punchy bass. When the kettledrums appeared at the beginning of "God is Dead?" they were conveyed vividly and fast, with rapid attacks, good body and depth. Similarly Geezer Butler’s bass guitar was superbly fleshy. Yet with that warmth the sound was neither blurry nor veiled. While Fang Bien’s magnetostatic cans would seem tailor-made to overemphasize fast transients which would have added further clarity to the Sabbath disc, nothing like it happened. My allegedly warm Harbeth speakers driven by allegedly warm Rowland gear merely confirmed what I heard on the headphones whilst adding more body and volume.

On the other end of spectrum, with music quieter by a few generations as recorded between 1932 and 1939 included on reissues of Mills Brothers recordings, I felt something even more tangible. It was as if the American system turned a better recording into a true musical event. I listened to tracks from two compilations of the History series of the Trumpets Of Jericho label's Swing Is The Thing and Spectacular released by Going For A Song. The former had been remastered in the digital domain with no further details available, the latter was mastered on a CEDAR system. The source in either case were old shellac discs. Without any doubt the latter was a spectacular specimen. It had a warm sound not only due to appropriate tone correction but to better volume and depth. Whilst perfectly correct, the former instead sounded flat and boring.