POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 39
Atlas amplifier and Metis preamplifier
as reviewed by John Potis
At a combined price of $2490 for both the Metis full-function preamplifier and Atlas power amplifier one can't reasonably expect perfection. Can one? Let's define our terms and see about that.
I would guess that it is generally accepted that the purpose of an audio system is to allow the listener to connect with the music and to serve that music by increasing one's appreciation of its deeper meanings. Let's ignore the anal audiophile (among whom I count myself) who declares a love not just of the music but for the hardware—hey, say it loud, say it proud; no reason to be ashamed. But for the time being let's concentrate on the average guy or gal who just wants to put music in the home and has no intention of catching the audiophile fever. At one time in my life I found myself among this group, too. I remember it well and I remember my frustration. I didn't have a clue that there was a high end out there and it had never occurred to me that the gear itself could function as obsession in its own right. I just wanted to play records and enjoy the music. I knew that slightly more expensive stuff existed but I bought something that I thought would do the job. But it didn't and I remember vividly why not. I didn't lament the fact that it didn't have deep bass and I wasn't all that concerned that it didn't play all that loudly without breaking up. Imaging? What the hell was that?
I recall as if it were yesterday the fact that this "system" made sound over there while I was sitting over here. It excluded me as part of the music or the experience. It left me completely disconnected from the entire encounter. I didn't even know if such a connection was possible but instinctively I craved that connection. I'd heard enough live music to know that not only does it fill the space—whatever space we're talking— with palpable energy but it reaches out and, if it doesn't quite pull you in, it certainly makes you feel included even if you really are sitting over there. Some call audio a solo sport but I don't think so. Not if you count the musicians that need to come alive for that link to be made. You've got to at least sense that they're nearby.
Over the years I've made many upgrades and system changes but what turns me on always comes down to that same thing; whatever brings me closer to the music and strengthens that connection is what I'm going to react to. These days I know that it's that intimacy and that immersion that, for me, is required for the kind of transcendence I've always craved. That's what's meaningful to me. In that regard and by that definition, the Metis preamplifier and Atlas power amplifier by Rogue Audio, without a doubt, achieve perfection for me. This package embodies intimacy, involvement and musicality in a manner that yields a natural connection to the music like only a handful of components I've used, and surely like nothing I've ever used at this price point. Does it succeed in connecting me to the music? Hell, it made me feel as if I was hard wired to it. Each session in the listening chair made me feel like Neo plugging into the Matrix.
The Metis Preamplifier
The Metis preamplifier is a deceptively complex piece. At 18 inches wide by 12.5 inches deep and only 4.5 inches high the Metis packs a lot of functionality into a fairly small and exceptionally neat component. At its price tag of $995 (another $100 gets you remote control machined out of a solid hunk of aluminum) one doesn't usually expect much more than a Spartan three line level inputs. But the Metis throws in a headphone amplifier, at no change as well as a, are you ready ...a phono stage with 35dBs of gain making it suitable for Moving Magnet phono cartridges.
Call that miracle #1: an American designed and manufactured tube preamp for less than a kilo-buck that handles three line level sources and a phono. You can plug your headphones right in, no need for an outboard headphone amp for your Grados! Are you ready for one more thing? How about a real balance control! Balance controls are disappearing, particularly among the budget ranks, but Rogue gives you all of that in an elegantly simple 16-pound package and throws in a pair of 6SN7 line stage tubes, just to make things even more difficult on the competition. Around back you find two sets of outputs; one pair variable and one pair fixed and it's here that you'll notice one cost-cutting measure. Rather than the big gold-plated chassis-mounted RCAs found on Rogue's more expensive gear, the Metis uses less expensive circuit board-mounted ones. Inside you'll find a slow-start feature that eases current to the tubes in order to extend their lives. In front you get a push-button power switch that's like butter, a softly illuminated blue pilot light of near-perfect intensity, a source selector, a volume pot and the aforementioned balance control. And keep this in mind; we are talking Made-in- America, folks. And have you seen what's happening to the prices of the Chinese gear lately? I'll just come out and say it; the Chinese and their importers and distributors have squandered whatever labor savings they once passed along and the prices of Chinese gear is going up and up. Once you take a look at the Metis you'll know what I'm talking about. Once you give it a listen you'll know that it's time to buy American again, baby!
By the way, spend the extra $100 and get the remote. I love it. It's heavy and it's machined out of a single block of aluminum. True, it only has two buttons on it. It rotates that motor-driven volume control on the Metis up and down, that's all. This is because Rogue eschews all micro processors of any sort from the Metis as it's their feeling that they muck up the sound. I couldn't care less. In order to switch from CD to phono I have to get up to start the turntable anyway. If I wanted to be a pain I could ask for a slightly finer adjustment on the volume with each tap of the remote, but for some reason I've been in way too good a mood to quibble.
But let me get that bad news, such as it is, out of the way.
While at this price the phono stage on the Metis should be seen as a genuine gift and only a fool looks a gift horse in the mouth, it's my duty to inform you that, while certainly adequate, it doesn't quite live up to the standards set by the over-all performance of the Metis.
I'd better define those terms again and I'd better do it swiftly, lest I mislead anybody.
At this price if the Metis didn't have any phono stage at all, I wouldn't hold it against it. How they found it within their budget to throw one in at all is miracle #2. And how they can afford to throw it into a preamp with three line-stage inputs that sound nearly as good as those of the Metis makes for miracle #3. But as compared to the phono stage within my four-times-the-price Bel Canto Pre2p preamplifier, the Metis isn't as liquid, it's not as transparent and it doesn't project the same dimensionality either. How does it compare to other budget phono stages? I wish I knew. And to what would you compare it? A $250 piece? I don't think the Metis has anything to fear. I'm quite sure that the average music lover would be thrilled to have it included so that he can step up to an entry level turntable system without having to budget for a new phono preamp at the same time.
And it ain't bad; don't get me wrong, it's just not great. Not as great as the line-stage is, anyway.
Miracle #4 is that the line stage in the Metis is just sick. It's stupid good. Amazingly good. Just about incomprehensibly good. Is it perfect? Well, again, as defined by my terms as laid out earlier, yes. The Metis is a music-making communication machine. While there is certainly room for improvement in some areas—those certainly addressed by Rogue's more expensive preamplifiers, it pretty much comes down to this: if it's vital to the appreciation of the music, the Metis does it and does it extraordinarily well. If the Metis doesn't do it, it's not required in order to fully get pleasure from the music. If it's more about sonic bells and whistles and other audiophile minutia, the Metis will still give you a healthy portion of what you're looking for, but you may want to look at Rogue's other offerings. If they offer half the value of the Metis, that'll be a great place to start looking.
Finding nits to pick is an act of futility. It's not that the Metis is perfect, but if it cost twice what it does, I'd still recommend it to people with a budget of three times its price. It may not kick butt and take names among that kind of competition, but buyers should know how close they can come at one-third the price. So, what's missing? Inner-resolution, mainly. It doesn't quite allow me to see into the orchestra in the same way my Bel Canto does. It doesn't quite do the depth thing, but it ain't bad at all and it's anything but closed-in or claustrophobic. Stage height and width are first-rate. It doesn't slice and dice micro-dynamics like more expensive gear either. But it doesn't miss by much and when thrown in with all that the Metis does so well, it's easily forgiven and likely forgotten completely. I used it with both solid-state amps and with Rogue's own Atlas and after hearing both amps tethered to my Bel Canto Pre2p preamplifier before that, I'm not prepared to say that I was disappointed in any way. It's amazingly transparent and it didn't color the system at all. That's quite a statement considering I'm talking about a $10k digital system and $18k speakers; that's some lofty company for such an inexpensive preamp. In fact, the Metis does quite a bit very well but inasmuch as it has the same sonic signature as the Atlas power amplifier, I think I'll wait a bit and discuss the sound of the Metis along with the Atlas.
Atlas Power Amplifier
I wish I could be a little less amazed at all the hardware one gets for less than fifteen hundred dollars with the Atlas. But today's market doesn't allow it. Again, a lot of the Chinese competition, even if it doesn't compete from a sonic perspective, seems to start at twenty five hundred dollars and up. It's crazy what Rogue is able to produce at this price point. Fifty-five watts of EL 34 tube power on a chassis that weighs in at a whopping 50 lbs and measures 18 inches wide by 17 inches deep and 5.5 inches high.
I can whine about one thing, though. These days most of the competition gives you the choice of connecting to the output transformer appropriate for either 8 or 4 ohm speakers. In other words, for each channel you get a binding post for 0, 4 and 8 ohms. Not with the Atlas. It comes connected for 8-ohm speakers and if your speakers present a more difficult impedance, you're not out of luck. If you change speakers and wish you could try a different connection, you're out of luck. Well, not totally out of luck, but you have a bit of a chore to undertake before you have access to the possibility of maximizing your speaker/amplifier interface. What you're going to have to do is remove the top of the chassis and gain access to the inner connections of the positive (red) binding posts. What you're going to have to do is pull off the lead from the 8-ohm tap on the output transformer and connect up the lead from the 4-ohm tap. Sounds difficult? It's not. Not even for me. In fact, I didn't even have the requisite 5/8" wrench on hand and I still managed alright and it was kinda cool. Which did I prefer? I discovered that the 8-ohm terminal was indeed the appropriate one for my speakers; the Tidal Pianos. Just as it came from the factory was just fine. The 4-ohm connection provided what at first seemed like better bass and indeed, the walls were a-flexing. But it didn't take long to realize that things were too bloated and the big bass was mostly without transient snap and tonality. Articulation was greatly reduced. Now it was time to swap those leads again, lock it all down, cover it up and move on with the review… or at least some music.
As far as build quality goes, while the red and black plastic capped binding posts look a little pedestrian, they certainly do the trick. The RCA inputs are of the ultra-sturdy chassis-mount variety and while the lack of transformer covers saves everybody money, there are just no other signs of scrimping on anything. Tube biasing couldn't be easier. Twist off two thumbscrews to remove the hatch on top of the amplifier and expose the biasing pots. Flip a toggle switch next to a biasing pot and use the included screwdriver to rotate the pot until the meter on top of the amp reads 35milliamps. Flip the toggle back and repeat the process three more times and you're done. As you twist the biasing pots just remember that it's counterintuitive; a clockwise turn reduces bias voltage as indicated by the biasing meter. Simple, simple, simple. What's not to like? The included screwdriver even snaps into its own bracket for safe-keeping behind the transformers; if you lose it, it's all on you.
While my review sample came equipped with Svetlana EL 34 tubes, KT 77s are available for $50 more. A pair each of 12AU7 and 12AX7 tubes complete the tube complement. And if the brushed Aluminum face plates aren't your favorite you can order both the Metis and Atlas in anodized black. Overall I'd suggest that the lack of transformer covers confers a slightly retro look to the Atlas, which I happen to like, but if you desire or even need to cover it all up, a tube cage is available from Rogue for an additional $100.
Once connected and all fired up I had three initial observations on the Metis/Atlas combo. First, it was astoundingly quiet. It didn't utter a sound. No hum, no hiss. Nothing. The second thing was bass that didn't sound like an EL34 amplifier at all. I mean, everybody knows that the EL34 is a midrange tube; they're rolled off at both frequency extremes. But that's not what I heard. The Atlas produces bass that belies both its choice of tubes and its conservatively rated modest sum of 55-watts per channel. Not only is the Atlas surprisingly robust in terms of both quality and quantity of bass, it's one extremely alive sounding amplifier. It's amazingly articulate in the dynamic realm. Bass quality and quantity aside, there's something very different here. The Atlas conveys a sense of compelling impact throughout the rest of its frequencies that comes across as both forceful and dramatic. Simply put; from top to bottom the Atlas has real gravitas and it sounds much more powerful and surefooted than its rating of 55-watts per channel would suggest.
This is what really gets my juices flowing about the Atlas-- its convincing demeanor from top to bottom. It has a very weighty and compelling presentation that creates a palpable sense of the original performance occurring in real time and space. It creates one of the most convincing illusions of thereness that I've heard from amplifiers at multiples of its price. The $8750/pr Canary CA 160 EL 34 mono blocks had it, the stunning $16,000 solid-state Bryston 28B SST had it and the class-leading $3990 Bel Canto e.One Reference 1000 monos have it too. It's that thereness that accounts for that connection with the music that I was talking about earlier. It's that palpability, a tangibility the Atlas delivers with such conviction that either brings the performers into your room or transports you to the site of the performance. Which scenario will depend on the recording itself. In my review of the Bel Canto amplifiers I referred to a sense of presence and that's exactly what I'm hearing from the Atlas. It's that palpable presence which conveys an almost physical dimension to the performance—again, what I've already refereed to as a hard-wired connection with the music.
There's more to like about the Atlas but this is why, like the Metis, if it's required to serve the music, the Atlas does it. If the Atlas doesn't do it, it's unessential to the whole musical purpose. Moving beyond what the Atlas produces is more about providing the audiophile bells and whistles than getting closer to the music. The Atlas presents so strong a case for itself that moving beyond its attributes seems a clear case of gilding the lily. Simply put: this thing just reminds me of live music. Most of what it doesn't do are things you won't get from live music, either.
Whoops, I'd better clarify that last observation. I don't think there's anything that the Atlas doesn't do. But there are things that more expensive amplifiers may do better. I'm talking the kind of things—refinements—that we audiophiles do obsess about. Mainly I'm referring to artifacts of the recording process that audiophiles enjoy hearing. Unfortunately, often this minutia becomes more about hearing the equipment than the music. While in possession of very good detail, the Atlas doesn't put as fine a point on things as some other amplifiers do. It's also got a very sweet and somewhat polite top-end that telegraphs neither an ultra-resolved treble nor the most airy of highs. But close inspection shows that all of the musically important detail is there, it's just not quite as spiritually enhanced, as surreally textured. However, one area that might come as a pleasant surprise to lovers of the EL 34 tube is the degree of detail to the treble performance. Veiled? Muted? Truncated? Of course not. And while just a touch on the polite side, this EL 34 circuit conveys a sense of presence, which might prove a revelation to fans of this midrange happy tube, yet mellow enough to make the Atlas particularly well suited to speakers in and around its price range, which isn't to say that it isn't equally synergistic with a lot of more expensive speakers, too.
The Atlas throws a tall and wide soundstage with adequate depth. But it doesn't map out the layers and layers of instrumentalists as more accomplished amplifiers do. Still, particularly in light of its asking price, ask me if I care? This is one of those things that you just can't get from live music either. It's one of those things that you dare not dream about when writing about an under $1500 amplifier that you're pretty sure shouldn't achieve perfection, so you dig around looking for these failings, no matter how superficial..
In the end I was quite happy with the retrieval of musical detail provided by the Atlas. I found it very natural sounding...never over-done, mechanical or analytical—quite the opposite, in fact. While I unapologetically categorize myself among the imaging freaks of America, I rationalize my obsession with super-natural imaging as my recompense for not being able to be out there in the audience in the first place. Having a strong almost visual sense of the musicians helps me suspend disbelief. But the Atlas has such a superb sense of presence that I don't feel that I have to locate each instrumentalist with laser precession to be able to sense their existence.
The Metis/Atlas combo is particularly synergistic with my Tidal Pianos, their tonal signature seemingly voiced precisely with these speakers in mind. The speakers have a very easy-going, musically relaxed personality that is well neigh unshakable. The speakers never get course, rude or flustered and they always respond with a smooth and warm presentation…unless the recording is just really bad. Much as a good cook has the experience and intuition to know how just a pinch of salt can wake up the flavor in a dish without changing its delicate balance or character, the Rogue combo imparted a slightly more energized upper midrange signature that conferred a hint of added zest and flavor—dare I say, excitement—to the Tidals. This made the Tidal/Rogue combination particularly agreeable on music from Green Day, Smash Mouth, New Found Glory, Bowling For Soup…you know [cough]...the usual audiophile-approved stuff. The Rogue Atlas' big, tonally dense presentation and powerful bass is just what this kind of music needs, particularly considering the often spotty recording quality. Lesser known [cough-cough] bands such as Pink Floyd and the Police, and those fronted by Stevie Ray Vaughn and Peter Gabriel, likewise benefited from the propulsive personality of the Rogue tandem. I had to keep reminding myself that the Atlas was only [damn cough] putting out 55-watts per channel, as it invariably sounded bigger and more powerful. I regularly experienced images seemingly outside the physical location of the speakers and the speakers disappeared as well as I've heard …or not heard them. All else being equal, perhaps the most important aspect of the Rogue gear—most important in terms of conveying life to this kind of music—was the aforementioned sense of dynamics. The Rogue siblings allow the music to pulsate with the kind of vibrant dynamic gestalt that such electrified, energized music requires to succeed on an emotional level. The music just connects and is involving as all hell.
One thing that really surprised me about the Atlas was the way it produced bass. Synthesized bass lines from Smash Mouth's Astro Lounge were huge swells that engulfed the room with power and energy while Every Breath You Take, the compilation SACD from The Police, produced deep and powerful bass of a very different character. Sharply articulated and fully fleshed out, Stewart Copeland's drums were nevertheless kept on a short leash as the Atlas exerted full control. Likewise, Sting's bass lines exuded tone, color and texture with a sharply articulated transient attack and excellent overall focus. This is stellar, dare I suggest, remarkable bass performance from an EL 34 tube amp, let alone one so affordable. Additionally, Copeland's cymbals on "Don't Stand So Close To Me '86" were depicted with such clarity, a sense of detail and authenticity so surreal, that I swear I could not only make out their tonal signatures, but their relative weight and hardness as he modulated from cymbal to cymbal.
From Diana Krall and Patricia Barber, to Harry Belafonte and Laurie Anderson, the fraternal twins from Rogue convey vocals in a manner that is warmly textured and smoothly present. One thing that didn't surprise me about the Atlas was its humanity. The EL34 is, after all, a midrange tube and if it can't quite match the absolute transparency and detail of the best triode tubes like the 300B, yet its warmth and harmonic saturation convey a very human quality and it absolutely excels at fleshing out vocals.
Lest lovers of classical music wonder if the Atlas will leave them out in the cold I ask, why should it? Immense sharply defined bass, large soundscapes and large dynamic swings are hardly superfluous to the classical experience and the Rogue twins do classical extremely well, too. Take Korsakov's Scheherazade [Reiner/Chicago Symphony, RCA Living Stereo], for example. From the very first moment the sound is big, bold and dynamic and the soundstage replaces the entire front wall of my room. Within moments the stage is quiet but for the sweet violin ever-so-naturally placed just inside the left speaker. As the music slowly builds again in intensity it swells like concentric rings on a pond and I can almost feel the bass purring beneath it all better than I can hear it—that's not a bad thing because the basses are subdued yet viscerally powerful. Lest anything I've said create the impression that the Atlas produced a two-dimensional soundstage, nothing could be further from the truth—the stage goes deep on this one and the focus and specificity are both completely natural. In this regard, reality doesn't require anything of the Atlas that it can't satisfy. Once again I'm treated to an almost visual experience and the Metis/Atlas combination serves the recoding in he same manner that I've now come to expect. Very well done, indeed!
I suppose that with all that the Metis offers at its price point, one should simply look at the on-board headphone amplifier as a freebie. Today you can spend multiples of the Metis' asking price for a headphone amplifier that does nothing but power your cans. So, is the headphone connection worth its asking price? Do we get what we're paying for? Well, it depends on what you're plugging in. The Sennheiser HD 580 is widely known as one of the more difficult headphones to drive and if you're using the 580s or the 600s, you'll want to invest in a hefty amplifier, so I'm chagrinned to report that the Metis can't quite drive the Senns to their optimum performance. I found the 580s and Laurie Anderson's Strange Angels lacking in some of their life, sparkle and drive when connected to the Metis. Much more to my liking was the sound of my Grado SR80s which were in full possession of said life and sparkle. In fact, the Metis drove them extremely well and allowed them to shine. Pink Floyd's The Wall was big and bold with plenty of bass, warmth, detail and upper frequency extension. For sure, unless you have particularly difficult-to-drive headphones, you're going to find even more utility in the Metis. And if you don't have headphones but have been thinking about it (save that you might have noticed how headphone outputs aren't exactly common place in high-end separates and the very thought of both headphones and an amp represent too large an initial investment), the Metis offers a great place to start—still leaving you with enough remaining coin to buy a better pair of Grados than what I'm using!
Summing up the Metis preamplifier is really easy: it's a fantastic budget priced piece. If you're using line stage components (no vinyl) you'll have to spend a lot more to get appreciably better sound. That's a fact.
Even if the Metis didn't offer consumers both a phono stage and a headphone output, I could still enthusiastically recommend it as a superb little preamp. It's also a great choice for those listeners making their first incursion into the world of high end separates, and if you already have a great high-end system and are looking for something that won't make you feel as though you're slumming it when you flip on your second system, the Metis is for you, too.
The Metis is at the top of my list for those with more brains than money, it's that simple. The phono doesn't quite measure up to the performance of the linestage, but it's more than good enough for those just looking to get back into vinyl. If you don't have the budget for a great table/arm/cartridge and phono stage, the Metis is a great place to start. You can always upgrade to a better phono section at a later date and I promise that you won't discover that you compromised on the line stage of your preamp when you do. And believe me; you're going to shell out some serious bucks for a separate phono stage that's going to be meaningfully better than what you get with the Metis. Maybe the price of the Metis itself and quite possibly more.
As good as the Metis is… the Atlas excites me just a little more. It's a small affordable amplifier that sounds neither little nor inexpensive. Like the Metis, I can go to the Atlas from much more expensive amplifiers and not feel like I'm slumming it at all. As a matter of fact, in many important areas I don't feel as though I'm moving backward at all. The phrase I could love with this little amp, while true, really understates its worth and doesn't do it justice. As I said before, if the Atlas doesn't do it, it's not important to the enjoyment of the music. More expensive amplifiers will give you more bells and whistles and they'll do more audiophile parlor tricks—mostly in the areas of image depth and focus and with respect to the retrieval of miniscule details, but few will improve upon what connects me to the music. Dynamically speaking, the Atlas is among the very best amplifiers I've used. That's a strong statement for an amplifier of only 55 watts per channel and yet it offers a superb tonal balance and sounds more extended at the frequency extremes—particularly through the bass—than many will imagine. If you're a diehard fan of quality solid-state gear and haven't heard a good tube amplifier in the last 10 years, you've just got to audition a Rogue Atlas. Chances are you'll be surprised by what you hear. I'm continually surprised by the firmly held convictions of people I talk to–some of whom have very good solid-state systems—who think tubes sound dark, slow and muted. That's crazy! They don't know what they're missing.
At a combined price point of $2490 (or $2590 with remote) I can't help but compare the Metis/Atlas combo to integrated amplifiers. After all, isn't the argument that integrated amplifiers are supposed to offer better value as they take advantage of cost savings like a single case, power cord and power supply? Well, throw in a pair of affordable JPS Audio UltraConductor 2 interconnects (I've been using them for years) at $199, and for a grand total of $2,799 you score the equivalent of a full-functioned integrated amplifier with a phono stage, headphone output and a balance control...that just happens to have both a tube preamp and tube output stage. You can also retain your independent power supplies and electronically separate the pieces. I'm not sure you can find all that in an integrated amplifier at any price and I'm confident that you won't find one that sounds as good. But if I haven't made the case for the value of the Metis/Atlas combo by now, I'm probably barking up the wrong tree. But if you're with me and you agree that, at least on paper, these Rogue products look like one hell of a deal, then get a listen for yourself and see if that doesn't seal the deal. For monstrously good sound and the kind of value that's getting difficult to find even in offshore products, you're not going to beat the Metis preamplifier and Atlas power amplifier from Rogue Audio. It's just not going to happen. John Potis
Atlas Power Amplifier
Rogue Audio, Inc