Jeff Rowland's Continuum S2 Integrated Amplifier was a recent capital purchase for Audiophilia. This, after a lot of research and auditions, tube and solid state. It's a superb all rounder and received a very positive review in these pages [read here].
Joining Team Audiophilia was the new Rega benchmark for vinyl playback, the RP10 with the RB2000 arm and Rega's Apheta mc cartridge. I needed a phono stage for the Rega. I auditioned and reviewed Rega's Aria phono stage [read here]. It was a wonderful partner to the turntable. But, I'd still need a full featured preamplifier to manage everything.
After hearing the Continuum S2, I was hooked. Better still, an add on phono stage card was available. And for $350. I was taking a bit of a chance on the card, with only a few reviews available. Considering Jeff Rowland's lineage, placing my faith was an easy thing.
The phono stage is not a full featured monster like those from Manley and Audia Flight, but for the mainstream vinylphile, the adjustments will do just fine.
There are three gain levels, 40, 50 or 60 dB, and the choice of a 47, 400, or 100 load. The board is mounted (can be done by a hobbyist, but mine was installed by the dealer) to the input PCB.
As the board is hard mounted, adjusting the gain and/or load will be a royal pain unless you have some confidence. I sent the Rega Apheta mc cartridge requirements to the dealer and she set it all up. If you are a tweaker — and I’ve heard the most miraculous transformations with cart loading tweaking — then this phono stage solution is probably not for you. But, expect to pay a lot more money for the same quality sound from a specialist box.
My favourite phono stages, the Manley Steelhead and the Audia Flight Phono, are both spectacular, full featured and can handle anything. One thing you’ll notice with the Rowland phono stage is the low noise floor, emulating, if not quite matching, the bottomless pits offered by the Manley and Audia Flight. Both Manley and Audia are 20 times the price of the Rowland card.
So, to the sound. Much like the Rega Aria and Zesto Audio Andros, the Rowland produces a full figured, refined sound. When the music gets really loud, almost ear busting levels, the Rowland board sulks a little. It cannot portray life like dynamics as the more expensive designs do. That’s not why you purchased it. Right?
What I love about the sound is the balance and timbral accuracy. Look, there’s no way an aesthete like Jeff Rowland is going to allow anything in his kit that isn't first class. At the price and logistics, I’m sure he made some compromises. But you’ll be hard pressed to find them under day to day listening conditions.
The very first album I put on was The Reiner Sound. I listen to Rhapsodie Espagnole, specifically. Listening for the sheen of the violins, the accuracy of the timbre, clarinets and bassoons in particular, and the noise floor — Reiner, the old goat, let some second flute intonation go (flat on a low D — a pissy note on the flute). It’s way down in the mix. All my tests passed with flying colours. The sheen on the muted violins was spectacular, the specific sounds of the Chicago woodwinds were captured beautifully and the noise floor was good enough. And good enough to hear the London tube under Kingsway Hall in Jean Martinon’s Shostakovich 1st Symphony with the LSO on RCA. My second test.
For your $350, you get a wonderful phono stage that matches the sounds if not the features of much more expensive phono stages. Your dealer will do all the grunt work. All you have to do is sit back and reap your vinyl rewards. Highly recommended.
Further information: Jeff Rowland Design Group