If you go to enough audio events and pay attention, you'll soon see that certain companies are invariably talked about and used in exhibitor showrooms. In time, these products establish a cachet appropriate to the target audience and delineate what one should hear at various price points. Take the iconic Wilson Sasha and TAD CR1 loudspeakers, for example. Perhaps I like them because I've heard them so often in carefully prepared settings and now accept that this is what thirty to forty grand speakers "sound like." More likely, however, is that those who make a living in high end audio incorporate products that offer superior sound, unfailing reliability, and high brand recognition in their exhibition space or showroom. Products like these dominate their price category at events and in print, usually for good reason. Naturally, I actively seek out brands that have a reputation for delivering the goods at a cost that fits this column. Rogue Audio is just such a company, so I set out to see for myself why exhibitors and dealers spotlight their products time and time again.
Fortunately for Positive Feedback readers, Gary L. Beard wrote an excellent and favorable review of the new Rogue Audio Pharaoh integrated in a recent issue. Keeping in the spirit of Positive Feedback's review philosophy that allows products to be covered, "By more than one of our staff… heard in different systems and different rooms, by people with different tastes in music and different preferences about how an audio system should reproduce music," I contacted Rogue Audio's Mark O'Brien to bring in the Pharaoh and see what all the fuss was about.
I know it's not fair, and Gary L. Beard is probably right when he states that the real beauty of the Pharaoh is what's inside, but there's just something about me that equates build quality with how much I have to strain to hoist something out of the shipping container. At nearly forty pounds, the Rogue Audio amp gets my dead-lift seal of approval. Pictures don't do it justice, because the Pharaoh is impressively solid in real life, and the oval cutout and round knobs in juxtaposition with the industrial rectangular chassis makes for a pleasing aesthetic. Although there's something to be said for slick and modern design (Devialet, anyone?), I find myself appreciating the old school premium on weight and mass for products at the Rogue Audio Pharaoh's $3495 price point. Hey, if it's my money, I'll be as superficial as I wanna be, and this is an integrated that will inspire many "Wow, nice stereo!" comments from your family and friends. Especially if they help you unpack and move it! But, Gary's right, amps are made for listenin' not lookin', so how does the Pharaoh sound?
Clean and powerful. If this is the marriage of tube and solid state DNA (long plate 12AU7 tubes in the preamplifier section, Class D MOSFET in the power amp section), I'd have to say the solid state genes are dominant. In this case, that's a good thing, as there is something unmistakably honest about the sound of music when the Pharaoh is in the system. Sinatra's voice on the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab version of the Nice and Easy album is wonderfully recorded, and the Rogue Audio integrated conveys it faithfully and without embellishment, as it should do. Strings, woodwinds, and the crooner's voice are distinct and distinctive in proportion, and the song "Dream" flowing from the speakers is worth every penny of the Pharaoh's asking price.
All amps impart a tonal character, but the Rogue Audio integrated seems to just play the music without any discernible tint. Mind you, of the amps I've written about, I love a really rich sound like you hear in the Cary SLI-80 tube integrated, and I also like the lightning fast response of the Tripath chip based Virtue Audio Sensation amplifier. The liveliness of the Primaluna Dialogue Premium is thrilling, and the stately smooth sophistication of the Ayon Orion II is seductively appealing. They're all wonderful choices, especially if you know beforehand the sound that you like. The Pharaoh differs, however, in that it is not identifiably quick or warm, which makes doling out effusive hyperbole a real challenge.
It's not sweet as a mint julep in July or frothy as whipped cream on steaming hot cocoa after a day of schussing down the Alps. It doesn't excessively impart any of those sonic signatures or make it easy for blatherskites like me to put into words. What it is, is the snarling hot guitar in the middle of Nirvana's "Lithium." And, it's the richness of Eden Atwood's voice in "It's A Quiet Thing." Or, it can be the puerile punk percussiveness of L7's "Pretend We're Dead." The point is, whether the music soars, snores, or spits is largely left to the recording and the rest of the system. "Neutral and transparent" is how my colleague Gary L. Beard put it, and it's hard to argue his point.
Yes, the Pharaoh incorporates Class D and tube design, but you'd be hard pressed to hear the stereotypical expectation of either in the sound of this integrated (as an aside, I've heard Class D amps that sound warm and lovely and tube amps shrill as an ex-girlfriend's bitter sister, so beware of audio generalizations). Of course, everything in a system makes a difference, and neutral does not mean invisible. To illustrate, in my system, the Rogue Audio Pharaoh emboldened my Nola Contender loudspeakers to the point where a particular low frequency periodically overwhelmed my small room. When I replaced my Contenders with a pair of Vandersteen ICi loudspeakers, the transformation was immediate and remarkable, and the Pharaoh made the Vandy's sing in a manner that eluded my erstwhile Peachtree Audio iNova integrated. This experience may indicate that the Pharaoh was giving a more honest accounting of the sum total of the overall sound of my room and partnering components. The Vandersteens were detailed and coherent, which especially stood out when playing vinyl. It's coming on summer, so out comes the Analog Productions Phoebe Snow album which, when played on my vintage Denon DP-80 turntable, filled the air with musical melancholy of the likes I haven't heard since...last summer. Splendid, indeed! Guitars, especially, appreciate the extra oomph that the Pharaoh can deliver, and the bass, slide, and acoustic guitar accompaniment that distinguishes the Snow album demonstrated just how masterful the Quality Record Pressing of this 45rpm can be with the right system. I kept the Vandersteens in the system for a good long time, until, reluctantly, I cursed myself for being lazy. I brought back the Contenders, and really took my time adjusting speaker placement and tweaking the listening room. After plenty of sweat, and copious amounts of salty language for which I am well-noted, the Nolas locked into place and sounded positively sweet and lovely. I have a strong suspicion that the Rogue Audio integrated is the sort of amp that reveals, rather than defines, the character of the system in the listening room. To me, that's a smart way to ensure long-term compatibility and personal satisfaction.
The Pharaoh integrated achieves success in a number of important ways. I like the look and feel of the input and volume knobs. The phono stage is marvelous in every detail. No foolin'! I wasn't expecting much, but it really sounds superb. And I love that the Pharaoh integrated has the muscle and finesse to give recordings heft and definition. A vast assortment of connection options doesn't hurt, and I don't even mind that the amp lacks the ubiquitous inclusion of an on-board DAC (most of which sound pretty ordinary, IMO). You're likely to add your own, anyway. And I should restate, the casework, flawless operation for the entire review period, and consistently excellent performance all indicate that this amp will work well for as long as you want it to. What didn't I like? Well, I didn't like the heavy, volume and mute function only aluminum remote, but I'm the sort who prefers a cheap plastic thing with plenty of features.
In the end, I can see why Rogue Audio products are so well-respected. They're cleverly designed to avoid the tonal excesses of audio fashion, and appear to be rugged and reliable. If the Pharaoh integrated is any indication, they also sound great right across the board. The Rogue Audio Pharaoh can be the mainstay of a fine sounding system, and its lack of tonal excess ensures that one can use it in a constantly evolving system for years to come. An impressive product from a standout company, and something that I can easily recommend.