By Paul Basinski
The preamplifier. Such a simple yet critical device in a good audio system. After all, it merely has to amplify to line level the signal from your source and send it on to your power amp, also serving as a switching router among components. “Piece of cake”, you say? Frankly, I’m convinced that no device has the ability to make or break good sound and performance from the entire audio system more than this mysterious little box. In my numerous hifi systems over the years, the various active and passive preamps I’ve experimented with are a key link to musical satisfaction. That brings me to the Rogue Audio Metis tube preamplifier, the subject of this review.
I, for one, do not have a problem with the flood of Chinese gear currently on the market. Though some people have clotted the audiophile blogs with doom and gloom prognostications about it. Didn’t we have this same debate years ago with “made in Japan”? Good gear is good gear, wherever it happens to come from. And the prices of Chinese tube components have put a host of equipment in the hands of people who, otherwise, could barely afford to look at it. But the Rogue Metis is not an import. All Rogue components are currently made in a little shop in the home state of Ben Franklin: Pennsylvania. Rogue Audio is a small company with big ambitions. After just a bit over a decade in existence, most of their products – primarily tube amps and preamps – have been favorably reviewed in our audiophile press. Rogue Audio gives good bang for your audio bucks. All of their gear is reasonably priced by high end standards and have a record for reliability. Rogue is no FBN (fly by night) company and they have established a track record for simple and strong design statements in an industry clotted with competitors around the world.
The Metis preamp is a solidly constructed unit. At 16 pounds and just under $1,000 without remote, it is a no frills machine that looks like it is built to last. A thick aluminum faceplate is mated to a robust chassis with equally inspiring gold-plated RCA jacks around the back. Opt for the $100 remote if you consider purchasing this piece. It too is milled from solid aluminum and controls volume from the comfort of your listening chair. The Rogue uses Chinese 6SN7GT tubes and has a few nice features in short supply on many preamps such as a phono stage that’ll accommodate higher output cartridges and a headphone jack. The Greek-named Metis passes the Basinski heft-test. Lifting it into my equipment rack and settling in the connectors is assuring right down to the tube sockets that firmly grip those glowing bottles of audiophile delight. If you have never tried a tube component, the Rogue may the perfect place to start.
There are many who say that a solid state amplifier plus tube preamplifier generally equals a match made in heaven. Maybe. But there are so many variables, not the least of which is what type of sound you prefer, that blanket statements like this are hard to accept. What I can tell you is the Metis seemed to mate very well with my solid state Belles 150A amplifier. Plenty of gain, no impedance anomalies, and no reliability issues with the tubes.
The Metis is dynamic, robust, charged, driven. Compared to many tube preamps which give you lots of ripe mids but a slowing of the overall pace of music, the Metis was distinctive. There is some real juice to this unit. Vinyl, CDs, SACDs all sounded like they’d just prepared for the New York marathon. The Metis has a way of driving the music along and energizing the sound of a system like few sub-thousand dollar units are capable of doing. I have a great new German 180 gram pressing of the eponymous Eagles first album. We all know this music thanks to the “peaceful, easy feeling” it gives us as we “take it easy”. But try lesser known tracks like Earlybird or Take the Devil on side two through the Rogue and you’ll be impressed anew by the musical talents of one of the biggest acts of the 1970s. Frey and Henley burst from the speakers as they did onto the California music scene of the late 1960s.
The Rogue has a refreshing way of providing a new look on old music that you might have taken for granted. I loved the way it gave a crisp but full sound to the finely recorded guitars of Pat Metheny from his early ECM LPs. This was music I hadn’t pulled out in years, but the Rogue almost dictated I give it another spin. Prime indicator of good equipment: creating in the listener a desire to explore software that’s been gathering cobwebs for ages. The Metis inspired this behavior. If it’s about the music for you and not just sound, I think you’ll like what you hear.
From top to bottom the Rogue had a gutsy – stand up to attention! – sheen that leaves you wanting little more. Its bass is propulsive; the midrange acoustics “right there” in the forward plane of your soundstage; the treble sparkling and effervescent with great decay. Would some find this preamp a bit relentless in their pursuit of audio nirvana? Perhaps. After a month, I swapped out the Chinese tubes for some RCA NOS Blackplate 6SN7s fitted with a pair of Herbies’ tube dampers. What I had perceived as some upper midrange glare on less-well recorded CDs and poorly pressed vinyl with the stock tubes seemed to dissipate, but so did some of that drive that I so enjoyed. The RCA’s fleshed out the midrange frequencies nicely, though even the stock tubes’ mids already had superior palpability to my solid state Anthem. I put on one of Frank Sinatra’s greatest ballads One For My Baby (And One More for the Road), and could absolutely feel the ache, the longing for love lost, that the Voice communicates so plaintively with this beautiful song. But when I turned to more up-tempo numbers like Fly Me to the Moon some of the up-tempo rhythm seemed a bit subdued. Moral here: different tubes do dramatically impact sound even on non-kilobuck preamps. Your mileage may vary.
How did the Rogue stack up against my Anthem TLP-1? Feature wise, forget it, the Anthem unit has it all over the Rogue and is well equipped for any hifi needs of the new millennium. The versatility of the TLP-1 was a major reason I bought it and have stuck with it for a couple years. Sound-wise, in all respects the solid state Anthem is more laid back than the Rogue. You really notice the difference between the units with electric guitar in particular. You have to listen into the music more on the Anthem (nothing wrong with that), while the Metis taps you on the shoulder and says, “Time to rock”. There’s no more or less apparent detail on either unit, just a different way of presenting it to the listener. If I just want to relax into the music, late at night, the Anthem seemed preferable. But when I want my music to engage me directly – intently – then the Rogue is clearly the superior preamp. (I noticed this “alertness” the very first time I heard Rogue gear at a Stereophile show in Manhattan a few years back).
Downsides? A few. The Rogue is loud. There’s much more spurious noise through my 89 db sensitive Soliloquy 6.2s than I’d like, and not just tube rush. I did have some issues with hum as well. Listen carefully and you can hear this from your chair at around ten feet. Compared to my Musical Fidelity X-Can v. 3 headphone amp, the Metis is a noisy unit, including its headphone jack which produces a nasty crackle through the speakers when you plug in or out. The headphone jack and the phono stage on this model are okay, but they are not among its strongest suits. I wonder why the Pennsylvania boys haven’t ironed out these simple bugs in this device. It detracts from an otherwise fine experience. And from what I hear, it’s typical of much of their gear. Still, if you like the sound of tubes, you’re presumably willing to listen to your lamps being switched on and off through the Rogue. Different than the quiet of solid state. Want real hush and dynamics? Spend more.
A tube preamp for the rocker in you? Most certainly the Rogue is that. But it does expose the subtleties, the nuances, in recordings and brings a high level of musicality to the table as well. Here is a relatively inexpensive way to get your feet wet in the wonderful world of tube hifi, and to do it without even taking the boat to China. Enjoy!
Overall Rating: 9 LPs
Link to Rogue Audio