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To round out getting Modjeski's sensibilities as a designer, one more comment by him before we start listening, this on his just-released $1,850 245.1 SET and the -- gasp -- inclusion of feedback. "The center knob is for feedback selection. There are 6 positions from 0 to 15dB in 3dB increments. The damping factor is most affected, of course. I like to state it as output regulation, i.e. how many dB will the output voltage rise when the stated load is disconnected. Yes, it's okay to do that at low levels. The regulation ranges from 4dB to 0.6dB, which equates to damping from 2.5 to almost 20! There aren't any SE amps out there doing that. Gone is the boomy, woolly bass. It's very easy to hear the difference. I did this as an experiment/gift to the audiophile who has been so mislead as to the truth of well-applied feedback. We know there is a big push toward zero feedback and people wear it as a badge. But choosing 0 NFB means low damping and generally horrible bass. In addition, since most speakers are designed using fairly high-damping amplifiers (one can't allow for low damping without knowing exactly how low it is), the listener is never hearing what the speaker designer had in mind.

"The feedback also reduces distortion. 6dB cuts it in half, 12dB to a quarter. Once again, I remind people that 2nd harmonic is not benign on complex music, i.e. anything more than a solo. What people are missing is that large 2nd harmonic distortion also means there is large IM distortion and here I'm talking of the good old SMPTE test, 60Hz and 6kHz mixed at 4:1. The nice treble note riding on the 60Hz bass gets crushed in the valley of the 2nd harmonic wave. Doesn't anyone think about this? It's so obvious. I also reduce the resident distortion by setting the driver operating point so as to predistort the drive signal and thus reduce the overall distortion at any feedback setting. I get rid of more than half the resident distortion this way."

Re: sensibly pricing the 245.1:"$1850 includes driver tubes, outputs are indeed extra from $100 for good used ST 45s to $414 for Emission Labs Mesh which are beautiful to look at with the "M" filament showing through the mesh. I did it that way for people who already have their treasure chest of 45s [above with EMLs, globes and RCAs]."
Back to the RM 10. The only minor functional gripe I have is the proximity of the power IEC to the transformer case. Using my customary Crystal Cable  Reference, its plug casing proved a bit too bulbous to insert the IEC connector perfectly straight. The plug casing rubbed the transformer casing and while the AC connection was made, the plug went in somewhat torqued. Just a bit more real estate would have been sweet.

That's it for complaints.

On to sonics. As our own Jeff Day and Paul Candy in particular are hip to -- Jeff bought his review Tom Evans Linear A and Almarro loaners, Paul the Manley Labs Stingray and Mahi Mahis -- the li'l' EL84 is an oft underappreciated honey of a valve.

Honey, however, is very much the wrong word if you apply it to the sound. Unlike its bigger bluesier EL34 tone cousin, the EL84 appears to be an exceptionally linear, transparent and "fast" tube without much tonal enhancements. There's nothing honey'd or syrupy about it. The RM 10 brings to mind Steve Deckert's Decware Taboo. It's equally clean, open, fleet-footed and "non-tubulous". In fact, I could borrow much of what I said in the Taboo's review save for far more power, the ability to bridge to obtain even more go juice and -- perhaps because of this power equation -- a superior grip on the bass and larger (though not unlimited uncompressed) dynamic swings.

One way of putting it that goes straight to the jugular of the matter? The RM 10 Mk.II will appeal to transistor lovers who fault most valve gear for romanticizing and deccelerating to some extent. While the Music Reference retains the soundstage spread and tubular holography often equated with glowing glass (albeit not to the extent of my 45-based Yamamoto), it doesn't at all suffer the diffusive elements of reduced timing precision which some valve amps -- particularly 300B single-endeds to my ears -- exhibit. While the Music Reference completely avoids tonal flatness or etching things like a parched desert scene, it also mostly avoids rounding over musically relevant edges. All this by way of pointing at essential neutrality or the meeting ground of the best solid-state and thermionic gear. It attempts to cloak output devices, downplay sonic signatures of specific parts and get more or less out of the way to remain unrecognizable.

Compared to the Genesis M60s, the RM 10 doesn't sound as ballsy, plain huge and color intense. Compared to the Canary Audio CA-308s, the RM too is less color-intense but more articulated and faster in the bass. Compared to my Yamamoto, the RM 10 isn't quite as hallucinatorily presence factor endowed. And its transients lack the kind of bite the 45s can deliver when the material asks for it. Compared to the SilverTone permalloy monster, the RM 10 is more linear, more incisive and tonally not as fat.

Extrapolating from that, we can characterize the RM 10 as slightly on the lean, fast, accurate and linear side of the common tube fence. Comparing that assessment against what I sense are Roger Modjeski's sensibilities as a designer, it seems fitting, factual and deliberate.

That this amp utilizes feedback is audible if you've been sufficiently intimate with some that don't. It's tauter but also a bit drier. It's more damped than its let-loose compadres. There's assets -- more definition, better pitch accuracy in the low end -- and small liabilities (less swing if I may use a writerly expression). By swing I refer to a tangible but hard-to-pin sense of rhythmic elan. On amps I've had thru with adjustable feedback like the Manley NeoClassic, increased dryness and rhythmic stiffness were the effects of higher feedback though very modest
feedback in the 2-3dB range sometimes was overall preferable to none at all. Quality bass with non-feedback amps truly hinges on using speakers deliberately designed for them. They must offer excellent self damping, often at the expense of ultimate SPLS and extension. You could think of an axis with control on one end, looseness on the other. Where exactly you wish to pitch your tent depends on your listening biases. The RM 10 is somewhere off the middle, a bit closer to the control than loose end of the stick.

The RM 10 does metal. Anything percussive involving brass, steel or other combinations telegraphs what it's made of rather than being mere clacking noises or bumps in the dark. The Brazilian jazz of Jovino Santos Neto's Roda Carioca | Rio Circle [Adventure Music 1023-2] and its drum work of Marcio Bahia and Fabio Pasoal sorted this out very well. Plenty of buzzing metal molecules doing the zing, zap, ring and smack. Because this amp's tonal balance isn't tilted, it doesn't sound lit up per se. Yet when you investigate, it lacks nothing on the top (meaning it doesn't sound dark either but simply, open and lucid).

Still on a tropical kick, Izaline Calister's Afro-Caribbean Curacao ballads on Krioyo [Network Media 26258] with its Creole flavors were next, mixing with strings, harmonizing backup vocals and plenty of hip-swaying charm. Female vocals -- the oft-cited providence of single-endeds with their sex enhancements due to THD liberties -- weren't as wet or sexed-up as my Yamamoto renders them. Yet compared to most solid-state I'm familiar with (FirstWatt F3 excepted), there's more moisture. Again, this amp occupies middle ground. Bass weight, the sense of heavy footfalls, isn't portrayed as deftly as KT88 amps manage. Whether those add beyond what's recorded; whether the RM 10 subtracts a little or is completely truthful - that's a discussion I leave to those psychics who weren't at the recording session but still have definitive opinions.

Where I am comfortable reentering that discussion? To call the RM 10's bass admirably flat and even, innocent of bumping up the midbass or attenuating the lowest registers. From somebody as publicly critical of widespread distortion worship and insufficient real-world drive acceptance in tube land as RM, that's to be expected. Otherwise you'd have to accuse this opinion holder of rash lip service. Not. In so many words, this Music Reference machine thus occupies solidly neutral ground. That, however, does not mean it's boring. There is, after all, a reason why Modjeski specializes in tubes rather than transistors.

Take Mirrored Nature Records' launch release of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor O. 50 [MNR 5001]. Think all Russian performers who arguably breathe and live this particular musical idiom. The RM 10 clearly conveys the high-resolution spatial capture and mic-feed ambitions at work here. There's no thickening up of the fabric, no "turning knobs and moving sliders" to alter the inherent far field perspective or the subjective diminishment of recorded air that's instead overlaid by ambient darkening. There's no sweetening up of Alexander Stark's violin, no brightening of the piano's presence region. There is, however, that skosh of overall texture which, generally, separates valves from transistors. It's not overt here but moving to a Tripath amp for reference quickly makes it meaningful.

There's one area where the RM 10 betrays its budget king heritage. Push the pedal to the metal on bombastic symphonic music like Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich and Berlioz and the amp's tonal center drifts upwards to push brightness. It's as though the bass levels didn't quite ramp up in lock step with the midrange and treble, having the presence region control the parade. I'm talking happy levels and challenging stuff like Sir Georg Solti leading his Chicago troupes through the thicket of Bruckner's 9th [London 417 295-2]. Perhaps bridging the mini would delay the onset of this effect or eliminate it entirely? Perhaps EL84s simply don't swing these types of peak voltages even over highly efficient speakers without compression kicking in? Perhaps a butcher power supply would be called for to engage in large-scale battles? Whatever the real reason, lovers of symphonic war horses at full blister will mount a different beast to ride to unmarred victory.

I don't wish to damn the RM 10 with faint praise when I call it a completely no-nonsense proposition. However, no nonsense captures its build, price, design objective and performance rather deftly. No flash, no glitz, no wonky liberties, no silly excess. This is an amp backed by a designer with a test bench who knows how to use it. He wouldn't spring something on an unsuspecting public whose every measurable performance aspect couldn't be justified. If that does reek of faint praise, it's because excess and flash seem more popular in the short term. Too, they're far easier to convey and write about.

Any component that endeavors to get out of the way like the best of conductors who let their symphony play as the crack ensemble they've helped train 'em to become ... such components don't merit flowery descriptions. For the mature listener who's been around the block, that exact lack of flowery verbiage signals an equally mature component. Little should be able to be said about it. The more said, the more divergence from essentially invisible by definition. To wrap up, the RM 10 Mk.II is more than just a starter amp for 'philes on a budget. The only thing it lacks compared to heavier, bigger and more expensive amps is ultimate scale and oomph. (One imagines that's why Modjeski makes his RM200.) This is a highly resolving, agile, very lucid little bugger. Far too little has been said about him in the press. Perhaps that's because our reviewer lot is more attracted by glitz and excess than we'd like to admit? I'd also be very surprised if the RM 10 didn't prove to be stone reliable. This circuit's been in the field for 10 years already.

So there you have it - a bona fide discovery of an amp that's anything but new. Even so and for many, it'll be new regardless (it was for me). On top of that, it's good news. Linear high resolution tubes with enough power for non-toy speakers while leaving money in your wallet for Hawaii. It's sensible, it's reasonable, it's friendly all around and as such, something my realsizing Jones identifies with and can warmly recommend. And it bridges with the flick of a switch in case the upgrade twitch gets unbearable. For most people, all the bases are covered. Good on ya, RM-10 Mk II!
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