I've been a big fan Jeff Rowland's audio gear for many years. Rowland's solid state amplification has always been a segment leader featuring smooth, detailed and powerful sounding products highlighting the best that solid state design can bring to the high end. If you have researched a legacy solid state product to purchase over the past few years, I'm sure a Rowland audition was scheduled.
Rowland's sound is echoed in his beautiful industrial design cues. Any of the gear is noticed by the unique case fronts, with their gentle, undulating waveforms in an extruded solid block of aircraft-grade aluminum. This look is maintained across the line, whether amp, preamp, DAC or on one of his full featured integrated amplifiers.
As an old friend likes to tell me, there's lots more life left in a full featured preamp. I think even more so in a full featured integrated amplifier. Think of it as the ultimate high end 'lifestyle' product. It uses less space, has a ton of features, and looks very sexy in the rack.
The Rowland will be the last for a while of integrated amps we've reviewed the past couple of months. Both the $4000 VPI Limited Edition 299D Vacuum Tube Integrated Amplifier and the GamuT Di150 Limited Edition Integrated Amplifier, in the same price ballpark as the Continuum, received very enthusiastic reviews. I would love to hear a Gamut/Rowland shootout. If anybody has heard both, please leave us a comment below.
Rowland makes two integrated amplifiers, the 2015 debuted Daemon 'massive integrated' and the subject of our review, the slightly less massive Continuum S2. CAD price for the S2 is $12,250 ($13,000 with DAC; $12,850 with phono).
Rowland describes the S2 as integrating 'the new Capri S2 preampfification circuit, input/output, and control features with an innovative 400 watt power amplification stage into a single chassis.'
In addition, you'll get flexibility through the optional DAC card or a fully redesigned phono stage. I'd love to do a follow up with either. Sadly, only one slot. So, you have to choose. With the Audio Research GS175 integrated, you get both (but at 20K).
My interest in the S2 comes through auditioning my present reference speaker, the Raidho X-1. Our local dealer had the Continuum on hand to drive the small X-1s. My reference power amplifier, the tubed Audio Research VS110 drives the Raidhos beautifully. The dealer did say that the Raidhos may need more power. The power the S2 has in spades.
To be fair, she's probably right. I still may take up the offer on the Rowland. I'm not sure there is a better solid state fit to these gem speakers, especially at the price and inherent value.
The Raidhos jumped to life through the 400 watts of Class D, yes, Class D, amplification. Rowland was one of the first legacy companies that accepted the challenge of making this tricky topology sound like top drawer high end. Tossed off by the maestro as if it's always been an option. As such, Rowland's working of the power delivery is flawless. No D grain or ugliness that I've experienced with other amplifiers. Cheaper options can lose it dramatically. Utter implosion.
Here, the treble was liquid -- dripping metal alloys of all colours. And smooth. Typical, if you know Rowland's house sound. In Burmester and Boulder league. And like Rowland's competitors, both famous for jet black backgrounds from which musical colours vividly come to life.
The Continuum is kitted out beautifully. Sure, the addon DAC or phono stage will be top notch, but both will be bettered by the very best specialist boxes. But, you're not buying an integrated for the best phono stage in the business. You're buying it for the one stop shopping and getting the equivalent of the stores of Mall Dubai not a strip mall on the corner.
The Continuum S2 has dual line-level outputs (balanced and unbalanced), balanced and unbalanced inputs, and also includes preamp bypass inputs. The rear panel has all the goodies but the front is a contrast in understated sexiness. Simple buttons, all modelled on the (unremarkable) remote, including four inputs, mute, bypass, phase, volume control potentiometer and volume display window.
The mixture of effortless power for deep, detailed, refined bass and the superb way the Continuum replicates its glorious midrange are other reasons the S2 is a musical winner. Both tessitura are married to the sweet treble without bumps or bruises. Connecting the musical dots is an easy task for such an accomplished design.
I was tasked to find some recorded gems during the brief, dealer-led auditions which led to my long term listening choices at home. One disc which should be in every serious classical collection is the Chesky CD of Fritz Reiner conducting Brahms 4th Symphony with London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It's a superlative musical document. Interestingly, especially with all the hoo haa over the catalogue of fabulous Chicago/Reiner recordings, this was Reiner's favourite recording.
Why? It's musically involving rather than a technical tour de force (it is, however, extremely well played). The recording is warm and feels like walking barefoot on expensive Wilton carpet, but has lovely detail. Yet most of all, it is such an honest Brahms performance - I'm sure it would be one of the composer's favourites, too. The tempos are perfect, the climaxes are flawless, and each movement makes the great symphony incredibly coherent.
Much can be said about the sound of the CD on the Rowland. The opening melts into rhythmic life, the sweetness of the strings is beguiling, the inner syncopating lines pulsate, and the strings of the bass section writhe and wrestle with musical pleasure. It's the complete picture. It was the one recording that convinced me to purchase the speakers. So, why not go all in on the Rowland?
Well, the 9K buy in on the speakers had to be the first step and they sounded fine at home driven by ARC matched tubes. But, if push came to shove, and for this tube guy it has to be a pretty big shove, the Raidhos were matched slightly better with Rowland. A case of hair splitting, but there was an effortlessness in the Rowland work load that makes for very involving listening,
The S2 has been designed to present stable power for all types of topologies. You have Maggies, electrostatics, baffle-less, boxes, no matter, Rowland's got you covered.
I remember listening to the S2 at a recent show driving an electrostat, the name of which eludes me. I used one of my favourite treble tests, begun during my time reviewing the very first Rowland integrated. I threw on the inexpensive Naxos recording of Bax' The Happy Forest. It's a rollickingly good time for a player. Shortly after the intro the woodwinds' transition the section up and up and up to a high C on the piccolo with a strikingly effective diminuendo. Every time I hear the player articulate the sweet high C so delicately, I get chills. This new S2 retains Rowland's magical treble and doubles down on the articulation. Still spot on, but even more centered as a note. Flawless. Perfectly in tune.
The Rowland Continuum S2 impacts repertoire of all types so positively. Voices sound present and pinpoint in space; Sinatra of the 70s has the ciggy rasp at the back of some phrases and Ella swings effortlessly. Miles is Miles, his one note saying more than a thousand others spinning whole albums. It gets all the things you'll ever need regarding your pre and power needs, but it's the musical magic it brings to the listening room and its adaptability that'll have you locking the door behind the dealer with the Rowland remaining in your rack. Very highly recommended.
Further information: Jeff Rowland Design Group