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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Audiophile Review!
Rogue Audio Pharaoh
Hybrid Integrated Amplifier

Audiophile Integrated Amplifier

Price: $3,495
Likes: gorgeous sound, HP amp.
Dislikes: it lacks nothing, really
Wow Factor: the ultimate in tube/digital
More info: Rogue Audio Pharaoh

by John Gatski

  Two years ago, Rogue Audio introduced one of the best sounding amplifiers I have ever auditioned, the forward-thinking, tube/digital hybrid Medusa. The 200-wpc 12au7/Hypex digital-output module based amp projects a stunningly accurate sonic portrait that is neither analog or digital, soft or hard. it just relays the music. The better the resolution, the better it makes my speakers sing. I eventually added one to my collection, and it gets perennial use in the review rig.
  With this successful design under his belt, Rogue Audio President and Chief Designer Mark O'Brien introduced several products using this hybrid blend, including the Sphinx amplifier and the new integrated Pharaoh reviewed here.

  Priced at $3,495, the Pharaoh wears the familiar look of the Rogue line of products — in its classic black and silver motif. It also is available in black. The integrated Pharaoh outputs a solid 185 wpc at 8 ohms (and 340 wpc into 4 ohms), has unbalanced input and a number of unbalanced I/Os, onboard tube phono preamp and an all-tube headphone amp.
  The key to the amp’s sound is its hybrid digital internals. Similar to the Medusa, the Pharaoh utilizes a 12AU7 tube-input stage, three-stage analog power supply and a Class-D output stage, incorporating the Hypex digital modules with MOSFET output. The analog signal path also contains a number of high-end components, including Mundorf oil-filled coupling caps and Vishay resistors.
  Rogue Audio’s Mark O'Brien said there are some differences in the Pharaoh, compared to the Medusa design, to make the integrated’s amp section match the on-board preamplifier.

Kudos to Rogue for building more products based on the Medusa hybrid amp. As technologies evolve, there is more than one way to arrive at the “perfect” listening experience; the Pharaoh is mighty close. I only had to listen to it for about five minutes before I selected it for an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

  “The Pharaoh is loosely based on our Medusa amplifier — with the addition of a fairly sophisticated preamplifier circuit and all of the features that go into a high-end integrated,” O’Brien explained. “With the Pharaoh, our goal was a one-box amplifier solution that would satisfy both the hard core audiophile, as well as fit into today’s lifestyle approach to high-end audio.
  O’Brien said the use of digital output modules encompasses the latest in modern design, yet he did not forget about his tube customers. “The preamplifier circuit is based around a pair of 12AU7 tubes in a mu follower configuration. We use variations of this in a variety of our products because I really like the sound of it, and it does a great job with power supply noise rejection. It also offers a low-output impedance to the amplifier for proper signal."
  O’Brien points out that, like the Medusa, the Pharaoh does not contain a digital power supply, but a high-quality analog linear supply. “Another important aspect of this design is its use of large linear supplies for both the power amp and preamp sections. I’m a firm believer that the switching supplies used by many manufacturers are responsible for the “edginess” detectable in some amp designs.

The King has plenty of connections

  Feature-wise, the Pharaoh has a flexible array of connections, including four sets of unbalanced line inputs (CD, Aux I, Aux 2, Unity), phono input and fully balanced L-R inputs. The output connections include separate fixed and variable unbalanced RCA and a line-level processor loop. A pass through-unity gain set of RCA connectors can be used as a home theater bypass. The speaker binding posts are located near the top on each side.
  The front panel has just enough controls to reflect its versatility and looks totally cool in its black/silver, classic Rogue Audio scheme that has been used since day one. The controls include power switch, rotary input selector, processor loop button, center-mounted volume control, unity gain switch, balance rotary pot and the headphone amp engage push button. You will also notice the remote control sensor and a mute light. The silver aluminum remote duplicates the front panel functions, while reinforcing the classy design approach to the Pharaoh; no plastic remote here.
  The headphone amp circuit is entirely tube, with the load driven by a hand-selected 12AU7. Through my AKG K702s and Shure SRH-1840 ‘phones, the sound was deep, wide and rich in sonic layers — with a silky smooth sheen that does not betray the music accuracy.
  Just because it contains digital parts, don't think the Pharaoh is a lightweight. With an 18.23-inch width and 17.5 inch depth, the heavy duty chassis build and chunky power supply parts push the Kings poundage to 40 plus.

The setup
  I had several months to audition the Rogue Pharaoh, and I put it to good use in my main system, driving speakers from Legacy, Pass Labs, MartinLogan and Westlake Audio. I also used it at last year’s Capital Audio Fest in Silver Spring, Maryland, where we did our “Stack of DACs” listening sessions.
  For the main review, I connected to a multitude of sources, including Oppo BDP-105 universal player and numerous DACS: Benchmark DAC2 D, Mytek Stereo 192/DSD, Parasound Z-DAC and a Lynx Hi-Lo. A ClearAudio turntable allowed me to check out the Rogue’s vinyl preamp playback.
  Comparison amps included the aforementioned Medusa, Bryston 14B-SSTII and a Pass Labs X350.5. Amp-to-speaker connections were made via Alpha-Core solid-silver cables. All line-level connections were WireWorld’s premium cables. To keep the AC clean and smooth, I used Essential Sound Products (ESP) Essence Reference II power cables and power strip.

The audition
  My initial listening sessions came through the immersive Martin-Logan Montis electrostatics. Having procured a Medusa for reference several months prior and doing a fair amount of listening through the Montis, I was not surprised, at all, with the Pharaoh’s transparent character delivered through the same speakers. The Montis' uses a self-powered subwoofer from 300 Hz and lower, thus, the Rogue bass performance was not as apparent, but the rest of the spectrum, as  powered by the Rogue, was mighty good.
  On the Gene Bertoncini — Body and Soul SACD (now out of print), the nylon-string guitar player delivers incredible interpretations of familiar jazz standards. As with the Medusa, the Pharaoh rendered this music with uncanny accuracy, width and depth. The string transients from the guitar are so real sounding (as a guitar player I know a thing or two about guitar sound) that you are looking around the room for the instrument
  The Pharaoh lays down the tone via the Montis every bit as good as the Medusa — with just a hair more warmth, which I attribute to the more active tube preamp stage. I normally use a solid state Coda or Pass Labs solid state XP-10 pre with the Medusa, which is slightly less round on the upper bass. (It is a very small difference that is often insignificant when listening to solo acoustic music. I hear it more with electric bass guitar).
  Next I switched up to the Tom Jung-engineered, Warren BernhardtSo Real SACD. This jazz album, recorded in the late 1990s and mixed in surround and stereo, has very live-sounding piano and drums, and the dynamics that put you right smack in the studio session. With top-tier audio gear, the album's sound is about as real (hence the title) as it gets through electronic sound reproduction. Mr. Jung, who happens to write for EAN, says it is his best sounding recording from the DMP days.

A clean, tidy layout inside the Pharaoh

  As with the Medusa, the Pharaoh relays the recording’s drum sound with excellent bass tightness that many traditional tube and solid state amp makers can only envy. The bass character was more apparent through my passive speakers because the Montis onboard powered sub handles most of the mid bass and low bass. With full range speakers, the digital hybrid Pharaoh delivers tightness and speed better than amps I have heard at five times the price. The Medusa/Coda tandem may be just a touch tighter in midbass delivery than the Pharaoh, but I could not always tell in A/B comparisons. The Pharaoh is that good!
  Although there is a misguided perception that anything digital in the amplification stage is musical heresy, I would point to the Pharaoh’s ability to relay the gorgeous Steinway sound in “So Real.” That upper-register tinkle is delivered with a subtle reverb room ambiance that is easily heard in high-res. As with my Medusa, I was heartened that the Pharaoh resolved the music in the same fashion. I played a lot of piano music during my time with the King and was never left longing or came away disappointed that the amp had an adverse effect on the instrument.
  For classical music, I played a 24/352.8 (DXD) cut: the first movement of Mozart Violin Concerto in D major KV 218, I Allegro. This 2L recording (I paid a whopping $41 for the master DXD download) is the definitive violin recording — in terms of delivering all the harmonics and rich complexity of the instrument.
  To play the 24/352.8, I selected the TEAC UD501 DAC that can play 24 bit — up to 384 kHz sample rate. As with the Medusa, I was impressed with the Pharaoh’s ability to resolve all the bow-to-string harmonics and the orchestra’s lush width; it may even have been a touch smoother, thanks to its tube preamplification. Janos Starker’s Bach Solo Cello Suites (Mercury Living Presence) came through just as impressive. The definitive performance of these Bach cello pieces was not let down by the Pharaoh one bit.

The balanced XLRs were much appreciated during the review

  For pop music, I auditioned the recent high-res release of Phil CollinsFace Value, an analog-to-24/192 transfer available on HD Tracks site. Again, the Pharaoh nailed it. In the song “This Must Be Love," the width of the percussion, bass and vocals were all beamed with analog precision. That slight bit of warmth we all love from analog tape, yet with only the detail the best systems can deliver. Try hearing that subtle drum reverb with a MP3 boom box and an iPod.
  All the music that I played through the Pharaoh and the ML Montis, I also replayed through the other speakers. The Legacy Studios were a good match for the Rogue. In fact, I used the Rogue and the Studio HDs in my demo room at the 2013 Capital Audio Fest. Many of the attenders said they were impressed by the sound. In fact, a majority of folks who listened, but who were not familiar with the Pharaoh model, said they did not know that it was a hybrid digital until I told them.
  The Rogue Pharaoh also was mated with the Pass Labs SR-1 three-way towers. Again, the Rogue had no problem driving them. That warm, balanced tone of the Pass’ were perfectly personified through the Pharaoh.
  The Pharaoh also matched well with my personal Westlake LC8.1 bookshelf speakers, as well as the new Westlake Tower 6, a new 3-way that I have a review pending. I don’t think there is a speaker the Pharaoh could not work with.

The headphone experience
  Being an avid headphone listener, I listened a lot through the onboard tube headphone amp. Through the AKG K702 headphones, the sound was a bit more warm than the Montis speaker output in the midbass, but, man, does it have excellent width and depth. It blows away many a standalone headphone amp — and those built into some of the high-end DACs. It had no problem driving my AKG-K702 or the Shure SRH-1840, both headphones with ultra accuracy, especially in the bass.
  The Rogue Audio Pharaoh is the perfect marriage of a modern state-of-the art digital amplifier with a traditional tube preamp. With the same foundation as the mighty Medusa, the Pharaoh just gets out of the way when the music starts to play.

  On the Miles Davis —Someday My Prince Will Come SACD, the drum cymbals came through the Rogue and my Shure SRH1840 with that brushed metallic sheen that analog tape captures so elegantly. The trumpet was never harsh or exaggerated. The headphone amp never got hard sounding — even at high levels, and it was pretty darn quiet with no noticeable self-hiss.

Don’t forget vinyl
  The Pharaoh’s phono preamp is no slouch either. Through my ClearAudio TT and AT150-ML MM cartridge (about as accurate-sounding a cartridge you can get), I dropped the needle down onto Wes Montgomery’s “Full House,” the audiophile, half-speed mastered LP version of the classic club concert from 1963. The Rogue presented the LP playback in a wide, full image — without excessive bloom in the midbass, or softness in the top-end. Mr. Montgomery’s warm, thumb-picked tone via his Gibson L5/Fender Twin amp setup came through just fine. Like all of Rogue Audio’s tube products, the hand-selected tubes and choice component selection means a quiet phono preamp as well.
  I did not use the processor loop, but I did hook up the home theater bypass/unity gain input. The signal was clean and quiet with ample level for those who wish to integrate this integrated into a home cinema system.
  Speaking of level, I did play around with various outputs to see if I could upset the Rogue’s transparency and low distortion. Even when simultaneously driving all the unbalanced line outputs (fixed and variable) and the speakers, the music always sounded clean. This integrated has plenty of oomph.
  There was nothing to complain about during the course of my lengthy audition with Pharaoh. It was a brand new unit, with very little factory burn-in time, I just unboxed it and put it into active duty; no problems at all. At the Capital Audio Fest, it was on active duty ten hours each day — without any turn-off breaks.

The verdict
  The Rogue Audio Pharaoh is the perfect marriage of a modern, state-of-the-art digital amplifier with a traditional tube preamp. With the same foundation as the mighty Medusa, the Pharaoh just gets out of the way when the music starts to play. Impressive detail, not a hint of treble edge or objectionable over-bloom in the bass. You throw in the top-notch headphone amp, a quality phono preamp and plenty of I/O options, including balanced, it’s got everything you need.
  Kudos to Rogue for building more products based on the Medusa hybrid amp. As technologies evolve, there is more than one way to arrive at the “perfect” listening experience; the Pharaoh is mighty close. I only had to listen to it for five minutes before I selected it for an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

  John Gatski is publisher/owner of the Everything Audio Network©Articles on this site are the copyright of the Everything Audio NetworkAny unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.

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1 comment:

john madison said...

I bought this integrated a couple of months ago before any serious reviews were out and without listening to it in the store.
I felt comfortable doing this based on the reputation of Marc O. and his products.

I built a somewhat humble system around the Pharaoh. Magnepan 1.7s the Oppo Universal and some Kimber Select wires using the balanced XLR I/Os of the player and amp.Turntable is coming soon.

My wife has a passing interest in this stuff but I asked her to sit with me once I had it all set up.
It just took a couple of seconds of listening when she turned to me with dropped jaw! She said it gave her a chill! That made two us and it has only gotten better.

I keep saying to myself that this system sounds much better than I should expect.
I think the Pharaoh plays right into the strengths of the Maggies.
Air and sparkle on the top and that amazing midrange.The surprise here is that the Pharaoh is giving me more bass with excellent tonality than I expected with these speakers.

Wow! Wow! Wow! I am having so much fun with this thing...