The Sound

Some generalities first. For those unfamiliar with the firm's house sound, the Rogues major in Montana-clean airy highs, fast punchy taut bass a world removed from the soggy lumps some valve amps favour, and an open, well-balanced midrange. The amps are bat-fast yet capable of a surprisingly delicate, nuanced delivery. They sport none of the rounded-over "liquidated" sogginess less successful valve designs are battling with. Inner resolution is probably above average for the class. Instead of spending every last kernel of energy digging into the recording, they project the instruments well into the room. In fact, the Sixty Six does this with abandon, seemingly hurling its energy right out to the listening seat like solar flares. Soundstage is excellent, with width extending outside the speakers proper. While depth is not exceptional, the instruments spread into the room with a holographic, impossible to overlook presence that's one key to the great attraction these amplifiers stimulate in the keen listener. This is accompanied by a pleasantly effortless palpability which paints a sonic landscape a world removed from the ordinary doldrums of the sewing machines of audio reproduction.

Let's return to what makes great music. Valentina Lititsa plays piano with an uncanny ability to make the instrument capable of extraordinary emotions. Take Rachmaninov's "Opus 16" on Audiofon's Virtuosa Valentina Vol. 2 [CD72070]. How does her interpretation capture the essence of eternal Russian sorrow? Before we hint at that, some of the performance qualifiers can be understood in standard audiophile terms. Compare her interpretation with one from a competent student. Valentina's attacks are stronger, producing greater dynamic range and the sensation of darker blacks. Her phrasing is considerably more subtle, her mastery of rhythm more assured. She elicits suspense about the next note, culls from a huge range of different pressures whereby to caress, coax, command and crennelate the keys with.

This finesse of touch produces minute variations in volume and overtone density which allows the instrument to become a vehicle for interpretation. Still, these audiophile qualities fall well short of telling the whole story. Far more subtle things occur to evoke the underlying spirit of melancholy, with resignation, hope and despair combining in equal measures. The technical parameters of this achievement are difficult to conceptualize but viscerally obvious. You simply know yourself to be in the presence of true greatness set apart from a merely mundane, hackneyed interpretation. I suggest that the Rogues are justly famous and popular amplifiers because they share important qualities with Lititsa, making for greatly illuminated artistic executions.

All sweetness and light then? Well, timbre with the Sixty Six wasn't a particular forte. Its presentation traded subtlety and nuance for a more boisterous, slightly colour-by-numbers approach. Nor did it sport the transparency and detail characteristic of genuine High-End efforts. For those who seek this kind of no-compromise sound, Rogue provides the Ninety Nine Magnum. The 66-combination didn't unearth raw recording data (miking positions, cabling, the exact distance between voice and mike) to the extent of my resident solid-state Lavardin. Instead of focussing on the recording technique, the Rogues preferred to concentrate on delivering the musical essence instead. Thus complex orchestral suites such as Philip Glass' Itaipu [Sony SK 46352] didn't exhibit the last word in clarity and spacial definition.

The interactions in the introductory blasts of basses, bass horns, kettle drums, choir and wind instruments got slightly blurred and blancmanged together, this being true of many preamps to be fair. But while these observations might seem to indicate serious drawbacks, they weren't nearly as serious as appearance would indicate. The fact remains, these Rogues didn't leave me asking for more, and much of the time one would never notice in the first place. (For the record, substituting the Ninety Nine Magnum for the Sixty Six beautifully sorted out the whole Itaipu thing, and with huge scale to boot).

While the explosive scale of massive orchestral tracks might have remained out of reach of the 66, dynamic finesse, pitch and tempo were exemplary. The guitar duets on Antonio Forcione's Acoustic Mania Talking Hands [Naim] appear to be deceptively simple while really constituting complete nightmare material for amplifiers (I bet Naim uses this disk to show off the tight PRAT factor of their creations). Like their Brit brethren, the Yankee Rogues carried off this test with stunning alacrity. Harmonics were full and rich, timing and pitch perfect, with rare in-room presence and a clear sense of the guitarists' unique two personalities in full flow. Competing, showing off, becoming one, pulling apart again, this transcended mere HiFi to unmask the sheer joy of music-making.

Rock? What about John Cale's The Island Years compilation [Island 524235]? Make no mistake, this was the real thing - effervescent, visceral, fabulous stand-up punch-the-air stuff. This romping excursion had me stuck in a head loop for days, with the refrain from the ballad "You know more than I know" punctuating most waking moments. How about that line "and bury meeeee among the weeeeeeds that creeeeeep" ? As you may have anticipated, I started to stare long and hard at my wallet at this point. A precautionary cold shower assisted in wrecking my brain for possible downsides. Truth be told, my resident Lavardin is a considerably more resolved amp at low listening volumes (but as with all the above comparisons, it's worth remembering that this French piece puts up a very high bar for any amp to jump over, particularly in the areas where it excels).

Turn up the volume though and the sheer exhilaration, joy and "let's bring the room alive" energy of the 88 Magnum was impossible to deny. While your local TV repairman could cook up a basic valve amplifier, it takes a master chef like Mark O'Brien and his fellow rogues to make them taste this fresh.

Looking back over my copy, I was stressing over having, perhaps, been unduly harsh on these Americans. This was likely prompted by my, for some time now, having given up on the quest for an affordable tube pre/power combination that I could settle down with permanently. I'd always find myself stuck with a fly in the ointment that eventually grew into a pesky, oversized and blood-sucking mosquito. I'm delighted to now have found the winning ticket in the Rogues. I'll fork over my sweaty wad to become a bona fide Rogue owner.

In the end and for my particular sonic tastes, the Rogue Ninety Nine/Eighty Eight Magnum duo combines the energy and joyfulness of the 66/88 with the higher resolving power of loftier kit and is the one I'm going to plunk for. However, that should not take away from the considerable achievements of the Sixty Six Magnum, a preamp which, when partnered with the Eighty Eight, manages to produce a truly involving and immensely enjoyable musical experience that only concedes certain resolution shortcomings when compared to its dearer Ninty Nine (review forthcoming).

Which returns us circularly back to the opening: True but cold truth versus spirited interpretation? I used to favor the former, perhaps partially because it rang true conceptually - high fidelity to the original signal and all. However, exposure to systems walking the dark side of this equation have dragged me kicking and screaming across the other side of the fence. Is the grass greener there? For now it certainly seems that way, hinting at high fidelity first to the spirit of the music, then the mere technicalities of photocopying the signal. The fact that this turn of event renders me nouveau rogue has a deftly resolved appropriateness if I may say so.

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