September 6, 2009

Small but Hot - Jeff Rowland Model 201 Monoblocks

When I was plugging the Jeff Rowland Model 201 monoblocks into my system, I was nonchalant....
Jeff Rowland Model 201 Monoblocks, the fascia still protected by the plastic sheet they came with

When Big E asked me whether I was interested to listen to these diminutive monoblocks, I said yes. I intended it as a learning experience as I wanted to know how class D amplifiers (also known as switching amplifiers) sound. In addition, I love the chance to listen to a Jeff Rowland in my system.

Their manual recommended that they be left on permanently. The power draw at idle was a low 9w. After a few day of being powered on continuously, there was just a trace of warmth detectable from the chassis. These amplifiers were indeed 'green', I even set the air-cond in my room a few degrees higher during my listening sessions compared to when I was using my own Pass Labs XA60 monoblocks which ran in full class A.

The other attractions of these monoblocks were their power rating, and their high efficiency in converting electricity into music signal (>90% I gathered). The Jeff Rowland Model 201 thus was small, running cool, but was able to put out 250w @ 8ohm and 500w @4ohm.

I have to confess that I have a preconception of class D sound, I was 'poisoned' by the opinions of some friends - I thought it would be slightly hard, less analogue and somewhat mechanical. So I did not have a high expectation.

When I was plugging the Jeff Rowland 201 monoblocks into my system, I was nonchalant..... I started by feeding them my usual vocal favourites - Shelby Lynne, 2v1g, Rickie Lee Jones - I presumed I would hear the difference immediately, especially coming fresh from my Pass Labs.

After a few minutes, I was squirming in my seat. I could not detect much if any meaningful difference. I glanced at the power metres on my Pass Labs a few times, they were indeed NOT playing. I could not detect any soundstage difference - width, height, depth remained the same, I could not detect significant differences in tonal balance, and I did not have less musical enjoyment which was the most important factor for me.

Prejudice was indeed a dangerous game. These amps shattered my prejudice in a few minutes. They indeed should be seen in the same terms as any other amplifier - whatever the technology employed - in their ability to make music.

After a few days of listening, I started to get a handle on the performance on the Jeff Rowlands. The Model 201 were hooked up to my Pass Labs X2.5 pre-amp initially, only later did the Jeff Rowland Capri pre-amp came into play.

With 250w on tap, the 201 displayed impeccable control on my loudspeakers all the time, whatever the music, at all humanly acceptable volume level. The region that benefited most was the bass, it now exhibited better slam and better definition. I put on the Sheffield Lab Drum and Track Disc, the iron-grip displayed by the Model 201 was so complete that I kept upping the volume for greater adrenalin rush. Dynamics was awesome, the drum whacks were truly exciting and there was no 'split-ends' in the treble.

However, they were by no means aggressive, Jeff Rowland never had such reputation. They always kept a gentlemanly demeanour, things never went overboard.

In other areas - the Model 201 put a slightly greater emphasis on the leading edge of each music note. On guitar for example, the emphasis was on the initial pluck and less so on the decay of the note itself. I thought this gave a slightly more exciting listen than my Pass Labs, though the latter would portray better ambiance.

Images were very well defined with the Model 201, the image edges were more well focused though not etched. There was no excess warmth in the mids, which also had good body. The highs were crystal clear and extended. The overall sonic image was always clear and clean, so one got more of the 'open window' feel. I would say that the Jeff Rowland pair were modern sounding.

Jeff Rowland Model 201 monoblocks - rear view

With this level of performance from the Jeff Rowland, would I change from my Pass Labs XA60? Big E actually threw me that question. Well, since I was already owning the Pass Labs, I wouldn't. However, if I am looking for an amp at the moment, and the Pass Labs XA60 and the Jeff Rowland Model 201 were put in front of me, I would actually go for the 1/3 cheaper Jeff Rowland (RM25.5k for the pair).

That was how good the Jeff Rowlands were. Though I felt that the Pass Labs were subtly better in some areas - such as musical flow, naturalness, and smoothness, the magnitude was not so big to justify the price difference - the law of diminishing returns bite hard here.

The user-friendliness of the Model 201 was very high. Its size and weight made movement and placement extremely easy. The connections were easy to use, I want to circle out the loudspeaker terminals, to me they were the best that I have come across, their sizable knobs were easy to turn and they clamped down tightly on the spades.

At the tail end of the listening period, I replaced the pre-amp with Jeff Rowland's Capri (RM15.5k). Resolution and focus improved and images further tightened up. We'd write up on the Capri more in the days to come.

Jeff Rowland Capri pre-amp, Model 201 monoblocks. Their size in contrast to a CD

A close friend texted me after he heard the Model 201 in his own system, "brother, I confess I have been wrong. I always thought that class D amps were unlistenable, but now I know the class D amps of today are unlike those from the past!". I don't think there was a better vindication for Jeff Rowland and their class D technology.

Hot as 'cili padi' indeed.

Jeff Rowland is carried by CMY Audio & Visual, contact John Yew, Ph: 03-21439406


Unknown said...

Great review!! I would love to hear those monoblocks. These amps I can actually carry without any that to my McIntosh MC402 :(

Unknown said...

I can't help but wonder if you are being fair to Class A when you compare a no longer in production model with a current Class D model.

OdioSleuth said...

Thanks for the endorsement. :-)

My article is not about comparing 2 different technologies (class A vs class D), is it? It is about the Jeff Rowland Model 201 and there is a contrast section with a Pass Labs amp, which happens to run in class A.

Anyway, if a currect class D amp can stand up to comparison with a reputable, albeit recently out of production, amp of traditional technology, isn't it good for us audiophiles as we now have more choices?

I do not thrash class A, nor am I an advocate for class D, I am for music enjoyment.