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Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor Phono Preamplifier | REVIEW








 

Having a Jeff Rowland Design Group product in my reference system reminds me, in a roundabout way, of one of the greatest hi-fi systems I’ve heard. This happened nearly a decade ago, at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas.

I had just received my Trenner & Friedl ART monitors—yes, I’ve owned these little gems for almost ten years now—and I was invited to Bob Clarke’s Profundo room to meet Peter Trenner and Andreas Friedl. (This was the first time I had met Bob as well, come to think of it.) Bob had brought Trenner & Friedl’s newest version of their $175,000 flagship speaker, the Duke, all the way from Austria to Vegas at considerable cost, and after a couple of hours of listening and drinking and even dancing with Colleen, I came to the conclusion that every single track we played sounded glorious, and these were perhaps the finest speakers I’d heard up to that point. (I’m sure they still are, but it’s been a while.)

The system behind these magnificent speakers was quite simple. Obviously, everything was wired up with Cardas Audio Clear (T&F uses Cardas for their internal wiring), using a dCS Puccini transport as a digital source. The rest of the system was all Jeff Rowland Design Group—Aeris DAC, Criterion line stage and 625 power amp. While I knew about Jeff Rowland and his designs for many years, much of my opinion revolved around getting all googly-eyed from those hypnotic front panels. JRDG products always looked gorgeous. After my visit with the Dukes, I knew they sounded gorgeous as well.

A decade passed, and encounters with Jeff Rowland Design Group gear were rare. Colleen and I once wandered into a posh furniture store in La Jolla only to find a casual system in the store—I’d say static, but it was playing at very low levels—made up of JRDG and Avalon speakers. It was an odd and unexpected encounter, but it reinforced the idea that Rowland gear is beautiful and enjoyed by those who appreciate the finer things in life. It’s the kind of hi-fi gear that inspires you to work harder in life so you can own some of it.

The Conductor

I tend to visit the Jeff Rowland Design Group rooms at audio shows for a couple of reasons. First of all, Colleen is long-time friends with both Jeff Rowland and Lucien Pichette, JRDG’s Director of Sales, and she always tells me to stop by and give them her love. (I know, awkward.) But I obviously stop by because I know I’m going to hear something special.

At the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I stopped by the room and noticed it was a static display with most, if not all, of Jeff Rowland Design Group’s current products. Lucien was very excited about the new Conductor phono preamplifier—a very versatile product with multiple inputs that was innovative in the way each input is isolated from the others. He arranged an interview with Jeff Rowland and he told me in great detail about all the steps he took to make this one of the quietest phono preamplifiers ever made.

I made tentative arrangements to review the Conductor back then, but I didn’t get a review sample until just a couple of months ago. Lucien told me that Jeff is a very cautious and deliberate man, and he thinks everything through very carefully. If a product ever reflected the mind and personality of its creator, this is it.

The Details

Stripped to its essence, the Jeff Rowland Design Group is a phono preamplifier that offers four separate inputs—one MM and three MC, so you can accommodate four separate cartridges. (I’ve been running two ‘tables at a time lately, so I’m finally able to appreciate this feature.) For $8500 you get the basic Conductor with one MM input, although I can’t imagine someone getting a Conductor in this configuration. (Lucien confirmed this.) From there you can add MC inputs and other options such as amorphous cores for each of the transformers. You also get a choice between two power supplies—the smaller one I received, and the more expensive PSU which already existed for use with the Corus preamp and Aeris DAC.

The pricing structure is quite involved, as Lucien explains: “For the 3 MC inputs there are two options per input: a standard input transformer for $1870, or the amorphous input for $2750. (Most take the amorphous.) We originally designed the Conductor to be used with our Power Storage Unit (PSU) but when dealers asked for the less expensive power supply we added it. So, power supply is an additional $1400. Or if purchased with the Conductor the PSU is $8200. (PSU purchased alone is $9020.) There is an EQ module to be added soon which will be $750.”

The unit I received had three inputs—the MC input with a standard transformer and two MC inputs with the amorphous transformers. Total cost of this unit as configured: $14,520.

But there’s so much more to the Conductor than just the number of inputs and the type of transformers. As I mentioned, each input is fully isolated so there should be no noise transferred to the others. You can hook up each input through unbalanced RCAs or balanced XLRs. You get three MC gain settings—52, 64 and 72 dB for the MC inputs and 42 dB for the MM. Loading is done with toggle switches that are marked 400, 200, 100 and 50 Ohms, although you can obtain a number of other impedances by flicking a combination of the switches.

Set-Up

I had several turntable/arm/cartridge combinations that I used with the Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor. My only regret was not having some lofty five-figure cartridge that might usually be paired with a five-figure phono stage, but the ZYX Bloom 3 and the Hana ML are such unbelievable values that I didn’t worry about missing that much.

My favorite combo was the Palmer 2.5i turntable with the Audio Origami PU-7 tonearm and the Hana, followed closely by the Fern and Roby Montrose ‘table and arm and the Technics SL-1200G with the Acoustical Systems Arche headshell. Amplification was provided by the Mactone MH-120 power amplifier and XX-7000 preamplifier, the Vinnie Rossi L2i integrated and the Pureaudio Duo2 power amp and Control preamp. Speakers included the Von Schweikert Audio ESEs, the Trenner & Friedl Osiris, the Stenheim Alumine2 and the Joseph Audio Pulsar2 Graphenes. Cables were almost exclusively Cardas Audio Clear.

Sound

Over the last couple of years I’ve reviewed quite a number of phono stages, and I feel that they are starting to fall in one of two groups. First, you get the ones that sound as neutral as can be (Pass Labs XP17, PS Audio Stellar). The second group consists of phono stages that add a little character to the music (Lab12 Melto2, the inboard phono stage for the Vinnie Rossie L2i) and therefore sound a little different than most. You have to decide what category is the best for you—do you want the phono stage to stay completely out of the way, or do you want something with a little more personality? That decision, obviously, will be influenced by the rest of your analog rig.

Initially, I thought the Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor was somewhere in between the two groups. The Conductor was quiet and neutral and kept out of the way, but at the same time I felt I was hearing a sonic signature that I’d never heard before. The Conductor is ruthlessly quiet, so much so that you notice it immediately. Here’s how quiet the Conductor is—I’ve been using the AudioQuest Niagara 3000 power conditioner in my system for several months, and it usually makes a huge difference in lowering the noise floor for nearly every component plugged into it. The Conductor, however, sounded exactly the same whether it was plugged into the Niagara or not. It simply carried its own weight and needed no help from anything else in the chain.

I also noticed that the Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor presented a soundstage that was bigger and set further back from the speakers than the other phono stages I’ve used. There was a sublime ease and calm with this presentation, a sense that the music had more room to bloom on its own, independent of the rest of the system.

After a few weeks, I noticed the first remarkable quality of the Conductor, one that I don’t think about that often but should. In terms of dynamic contrasts, I’ve never heard a component that was so capable of sounding perfectly quiet during quiet passages, but completely untethered from artifice during crescendos. This observation may prompt some of you to bring up the Loudness Wars, and how so many of today’s recordings are compressed to the point where you don’t hear the dynamics that were there during the live performance.

I’m lucky enough to have a smattering of test pressings, collected over the years, that are wonderfully free from a step or two in the normal pressing process. (I procured a Wes Montgomery pressing that I’m not supposed to mention that I have, for example, cut straight from the lathe and placed in my hot little hands while it was still warm.) I also played a few direct-to-disc LPs that I own, and I consistent heard the type of dynamics that are often only heard from master tapes. The Conductor is so adept at capturing these swings that I found myself continually adjusting the volume of my remote-less reference preamp until I got the feel for the proper levels.

Listening

My time with the Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor coincided with me treating myself to the MoFi remasters of the first four Dire Straits albums. I’m not the most obsessive Dire Straits fan out there, but I get the warm fuzzies from the first side of Making Movies (“Tunnel of Love,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Rollaway”) and Love Over Gold (“Telegraph Road” and “Private Investigations”). I had high hopes for these 45rpm LPs because I’ve always been disappointed with the sound quality of the original LPs. For example, I’ve always considered “Private Investigations” to be a potential demo track except for the fact that my pressing has too much surface noise. It was like that from the first play. Bummer.

As soon as the MoFis landed on my front porch, I fired up the system and played that amazing song. For the first time, I felt that it was a true reference recording, absolutely quiet and shockingly dynamic. Then I moved to “Telegraph Road,” which is fourteen minutes long and usually sounds congested as it gets louder and louder toward the end. This time, I was able to hear every note of Knopfler’s guitar during the epic five-minute solo that closes the track. Those notes were clear and deeply felt. This band has never sounded better.

Conclusion

As I mentioned, I was a little reluctant to press on with the review of the Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor without an expensive cartridge at my disposal. This phono stage clearly performs at a level that I haven’t heard for a while. But that’s probably the wrong way to look at it, especially since my opinion of both the ZYX and the Hana were boosted considerably during the review process.

Instead, the Conductor can be treated as several excellent phono stages in one. The versatility of the Conductor cannot be overstated—this is the perfect tool for evaluating the performance of several audio rigs at once. It’s never been this easy to compare cartridges, arm and turntables. After I packed up the Conductor, I switched to an otherwise awesome phono stage that only offered a single input, and I immediately lamented the Conductor’s departure.

Versatility is certainly important when it comes to phono stages, but it would mean nothing if the sound quality doesn’t rise to the same standard. The Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor is obviously one of the finest phono stages I’ve encountered, a quiet and capable (and yes, gorgeous) piece of kit that brought my enjoyment of vinyl to an entirely new level. Highly recommended.