The Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2-SC preamplifier and Model 125 amplifier are soooooo tiny.
How tiny are they? When the boxes arrived at my front door, I said “This can’t be right. These boxes are way too small to be the Rowland separates I’d been expecting.” I thought maybe the shipment had been split, and these two small and somewhat light boxes were, I don’t know, maybe just the preamp and an external power supply? A couple of remotes perhaps?
When I opened the boxes, I found that I had indeed received the brand new Capri S2-SC preamplifier in one box, and the Model 125 stereo power amplifier in the other. I pulled each one out of its box with a single hand. They weighed less than ten pounds each. Somewhere, somehow, a vital piece of information escaped me when I arranged this review with JDRG’s Lucien Pichette.
(Wait. Doesn’t Phillips know that the Model 125 is…? He has to know, right?)
Oh yeah, I thought, Jeff Rowland Design Group does, at times, make relatively small components. I remember riding in an elevator with two audiophiles a few years ago, some high-end audio show or another, and they were arguing about Rowland. They both clearly loved the brand, but one of them had a problem with the smaller designs. “Rowland did this for the Far East market,” he explained, “because they love small amps and preamps over there.”
His buddy gave him roughly the same look I probably did, one that implied, “What a typical American audiophile response! ‘I’d buy those amplifiers in a heartbeat if they were just a little bigger.’ We’re talking ROWLAND, pal!” But I know plenty of audiophiles who think that way. They’re worried about what their audiophile buddies will think if they’re powering their big audiophile speakers with an amplifier the size of a couple of paperback books laid end to end.
As for me, I have a peculiar yet enduring relationship with products that are smaller than you expect, much smaller than the norm. I always wanted to get a Mazda Miata. I always wanted a little two-seat convertible that wouldn’t be in the shop all the time. I like to smoke Padron No. 35 cigars, which is a superb petite corona that can be smoked in just 25 minutes. It’s little, but still one of the greatest cigars you can smoke. Oh, and when I bought a Naim NAIT 2 integrated almost thirty years ago, another amp that can be carried with one hand, I started having dreams where I’d just stick the Naim in my pocket and visit other audiophiles. When I borrowed a pair of Trenner & Friedl Sun monitors a few years ago, those same dreams returned.
I’ve thought a lot about the size of the Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2-SC preamplifier and Model 125 amplifier. I look at the two amps, sitting on my rack, along with other small boxes that have dropped by such as the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3 with the LPSU, or the Merason Frerot DAC with its LPSU, plus all assorted external power supplies for all the reg’lar-sized stuff, and I think how different this all is, especially after futzing around with the enormous Rotel Michi X5 integrated that had everything you need in a whomping 100 pound metal box. (The Rotel left before the JRGD gear arrived—and now I wish I’d been able to photograph them side by side.)
Yes, the Capri S2 and the Model 125 are tiny. As you might be expecting, this is a tale of an appreciation of small things with big aspirations.
(And with particular circuit designs, right? When’s he gonna talk about that?)
Why I Wanted to Review the Capri S2-SC and the Model 125
After reviewing—and enjoying—both the Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor phono preamplifier and the Continuum S2 integrated amplifier, I told Lucien Pichette that I’d enjoy reviewing more. Next up on the release schedule for this Colorado Springs-based company was the Capri S2-SC preamplifier, which replaced the very popular Capri S2.
One of the interesting developments in the Capri S2-SC was the inclusion of the same HP phono card that I had enjoyed with the Continuum. This was one of the best inboard phono stages I’ve heard—it’s detailed and clean and quiet—and Lucien felt it would serve as a baseline for evaluating the rest of the Capri S2-SC, as well as the Model 125.
So how did the Model 125 get to the party? If you read my review of the Continuum S2, you’ll notice I include my trepidation with using high-powered solid state amplification—in this case we were talking about 400 watts per channel. I joked near the end that I was relieved that I didn’t blow up the house with so much power, but I still wouldn’t mind a Continuum with just 100 watts per channel or so. Lucien read that and told me, “We do have a power amp like that, with only 125 watts per channel. Interested?”
Sure I was interested, especially after learning that it was just $3300. (The equally small Capri S2-SC, on the other hand, has a base price of $4950—but it’s got a lot of goodies inside.) An honest-to-goodness Jeff Rowland amplifier for just over three grand? But when it arrived I pulled the little Model 125 from the box and thought oh, this is why it’s so affordable. Some audiophiles, like that guy in the elevator, would certainly think that. As for me, I knew this was a Rowland, and it wasn’t going to let me down.
This was around the time that I started doing a little research on the internet about the 125, by the way. I couldn’t find a specific mention of JDRG’s Class D amplification, at least during a somewhat casual search. That’s when I decided that I didn’t want to know until I had formed a solid impression of the performance. It sounded like great, intrepid journalism at the time.
Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2-SC Preamplifier
First, let’s get back to the Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2-SC preamplifier which was the initial reason for this review. I’m not going to mention the size, because preamps are allowed to be small yet mighty. But I will say this—the Capri still packs an incredible amount of tech in a small but brilliantly gleaming box.
The Capri S2-SC starts off with that compact and sealed chassis, milled from a solid block of aircraft-grade aluminum, which also helps to control resonances and isolate the circuitry from RF and EMI. Inside you’ll find thin-film resistors, a four-layer PCB (which, of course, explains the reduced size of everything.) Further isolation is delivered through input-transformer coupling and ensuring that all ground loop hum is eliminated—something I’ve been exploring for the last few months.
Then there’s the SC designation, which distinguishes this Capri from its predecessors. SC stands for supercapacitors, four of them, that are now employed within. Lucien told me of one gentleman who remarked that his older Capri was musical, but the Capri S2-SC was now lyrical. Both were sonic signatures were highly desirable, but one was clearly different from the other. You can see them in the photo above, a little blue quartet, taking the Capri in an allegedly new direction.
You can get the Jeff Rowland Capri S2-SC preamplifier outfitted with either the standard phono card for $400 or the HP (high-performance) phono stage for $1150. The HP gives you more flexibility with loading options than the standard card, and yes, it sounds fantastic. It’s so good, in fact, that you’ll question your need for another box in your system. Keep it simple and compact with the HP version of the Capri S2-SC—that’s sort of the whole point.
Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 125 Power Amplifier
There are two ways to look at the Model 125 power amplifier. One, as I mentioned, is that it’s a genuine Rowland, every bit a member of this distinguished family, for just a tad over $3000. It’s not low-powered or minimal. It has 125 watts per channel, impressive parts quality and a superb circuit design. It drove every pair of loudspeakers I had, and it sounded great doing it.
Or, you can be an audiodork and complain about how much that little box costs, or that you’re still not impressed with the sound of class-D amplifiers even if it does have Rowland on the front panel. I don’t have a lot of patience these days with such provincial attitudes, but even I found myself looking constantly at the Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 125 and wondering what I was missing, wondering how you could fit so much amp into such a little box.
Here’s another talent the Model 125 possesses, from the Rowland website:
“From a single M125 in stereo mode powering an intimate analog system, up to several bridged units driving a multi-speaker setup, down to a bridged pair controlling demanding 4-Ohm monitors, the energy-efficient Model 125 power amplifier delivers consistent resolution and authority with Rowland finesse.”
In fact, some of that research I initially pulled up for the Model 125 suggested that this is the approach for many owners. I saw many ambitious systems powered by a bank of 125s, and that’s why they’ve been a success for JDRG for the last several years.
A Short Discussion of Class D Amplification
Doesn’t he know that the Model 125 is Class D, and that’s why it’s so small and light?
Of course I do. As I mentioned, I ignored that aspect of the Model 125’s design for much of the review period. Why? Well, I’m not sure that I have a fully-formed opinion about Class D amplification yet, at least now in 2021. I’ll tell you about my relatively limited experience with it.
I first encountered Class D amps when I reviewed an active MartinLogan hybrid speaker many years ago. I detected a dryness in the upper frequencies, which I attributed to the internal digital amps, but overall I liked the speaker and gave it a decent review. Since then I’ve heard tons of Class D amps powering systems at dealers showrooms and hi-fi shows and I’m not sure I can if I can draw up a general statement about the sound that I heard. I’ve heard lackluster class D sound before, but not in a long time.
In addition, I’ve heard absolutely first-rate systems run with Class D amps from the likes of Merrill Audio and Devialet. I know that Class D can sound great, although many tube-lovers I know won’t agree. I know the technology is evolving and moving forward, winning audiophiles’ hearts and minds. I also know that Jeff Rowland has been quietly producing Class D amps for a while—I even read another reviewer’s survey of the sonic differences between Jeff Rowland Design Group’s AB amplifiers and D amplifiers. According to this chap, there’s basic sonic differences. While he prefers the ABs, the Class D amplification is still quite special to him.
I decided to ask Lucien about all this, in a very general sort of way, and he decided to ask the man himself, Jeff Rowland, about the overall approach they had for Class D amplification and how they dealt with some of those prevailing audiophile attitudes:
“Your question points out one of the many issues Jeff has been fighting all along since he first discovered Class D as a tool he added to his tool box. If I am not mistaken, ICE was the first mainstream offering of Class D modules. Bang and Olufsen was the first company to pioneer widespread use of the original modules. I recall hearing a sales rep referring to the new Rowland Class D amps as ‘a B&O product.’ You may recall while B&O was opening stores all over the country (think Apple), other high-end companies found them an easy target and a way to be dismissive about Class D.
“Jeff has always said the module is just a piece of the puzzle, and in fact many manufacturers found the Class D concept simply a way to make cheap amps, and so many did, and the result was predictable. As Jeff says, many were just dropping a module into a chassis. Clever power supply and input transformers, to further isolate line noise, and combined with a RF defeating chassis, combine to make an exemplary presentation. Many left to start new companies, PASCAL, N-Core, and others. ICE came back with the current module we use and we were more than happy to utilize it.”
Going forward, I really don’t care if the Model 125 is Class D or not. It’s best to eliminate any bias that I have right here and now.
The Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2-SC has two single-ended RCA inputs, and one of those is dedicated to the HP phono card. There is, however, an RCA input for home theater bypass, which can also be configured as a third. (It’s what I would do.) The other three inputs are balanced XLRs. I used a single pair of Cardas Audio Clear Beyond XLRs between the Capri S2-SC preamplifier and the Model 125 amplifier. Suddenly I noticed that I was suspiciously short of more XLR interconnects, a growing problem since I seem to be making balanced connections in the system more frequently than ever before.
Fortunately, AudioQuest just sent me a few products to try out, and that included both Red River and the very ambitious Wind XLR interconnects. That made it much easier to use the Brinkmann Edison Mk. 2 phono stage while still leaving the HP phono section hooked up, and I was also able to stream through the Merason Frerot DAC if I so desired.
Many pairs of speakers were hooked up to the Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 125 during its stay. I used them while evaluating both the Qln Prestige Ones and the Sonus faber Lumina IIs, and the 125 was used on my two pairs of reference monitors, the Brigadier Audio BA-2 and the Trenner & Friedl ART, as I further evaluate the Acora Acoustics SRS speaker stands as an ultimate tool for listening to bookshelf speakers. I also enjoyed the Rowland amps with the TotalDAC d100 speakers, which are anything but bookshelf monitors.
I’m starting to get a handle on the Jeff Rowland signature of sound on his gear, and it seems to reflect that “don’t worry, we’ll take care of everything for you during your stay with us” sort of swagger. It’s Pierce Pachett in L.A. Confidential, whatever you desire. I felt this confidence with both the Conductor phono pre and the Continuum S2 integrated amplifier, and now I have it with these diminutive yet stellar performers.
Right away I was impressed with the Capri S2-SC/Model 125 combo in the system, the way these little boxes sounded just like many big boxes in terms of an open, sizable soundstage and strong performance at the frequency extremes. I also noticed plenty of inner detail without ever sounding too analytical—both through the line stage and through the HP card. I gravitated toward some of my favorite classic rock LP reissues, the usual from Dire Straits’ recent MoFi releases, as well as gems such as my Nautilus Half-Speed Masters of The Police’s Ghost in the Machine and The Cars’ Candy-O, because the HP had such a wonderful and visceral quality to the beat—we’re talking both power and finesse.
I’ve been receiving a lot of jazz from around the world lately, mostly from Switzerland and Japan and even a stellar new title from Russia—the LRK Trio’s Memory Moment. Other extraordinary titles include trombonist Florian Weiss’ Alternate Reality and Satoko Fujii’s Piano Music. One thing these adventurous jazz albums have in common is astonishing sound quality and a fidelity to the minimalism that differentiate these performers from their North American counterparts. I felt like I could dive into the sound delivered by the Rowlands and really figure out what these compelling artists wanted to tell me.
It took an integrated that was twice as expensive as both the Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2-SC preamplifier and Model 125 power amplifier to illustrate what the little combo couldn’t quite supply. The Allnic Audio T-2000 Anniversary brought forth so many organic details in the music, those cherished musician-instrument interfaces that I yammer on about every review, all those rich additional textures that you can only get from a tube amp, especially running in triode.
The Capri S2-SC and the Model 125 sounded just a bit too smooth in comparison, a little sanded off perhaps, but that’s not exactly fair. Start looking at other solid-state amplifiers that are the roughly the same cost, anywhere just below $10K, and you’ll start to appreciate just how refined and composed these Rowlands are. Not only is the Rowland pair performing at that same precise, accurate level of reproduction, but you have the option of moving the goalposts by adding another Model 125, or jumping up to the HP phono card if you started off with the standard.
Oh yeah. You get that phono stage too, possibly one of the very best inboard modules available. For many audiophiles, the HP will be the ultimate deal-sweetener. I totally get it.
Jeff Rowland Design Group Conclusions
If I was the World’s Greatest Reviewer, I would have never mentioned the size of the Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2-SC preamplifier and the Model 125 power amplifier. What does the size have to do with anything? I only judge based on ultimate sound quality! How dare you suggest otherwise!
The reason why I think it’s important to look at these separates and comment about their size is because it does get right to the heart of whether bigger is better in audio—my adventures with two-way bookshelf monitors should tip you off about my priorities there. But I think this goes back to my review of the Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a MoFi Edition monitors and how this level of high-end audio performance can be enjoyed with someone who is working with a small space, or maybe just a crowded domicile. How many new audiophiles could be recruited when we stop showing them photos of dedicated listening rooms with 1200 lb. loudspeakers and 500 lb. amplifiers?
If you want, you can have all that. That’s why “lifestyle” products are all about. The Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2-SC preamplifier and the Model 125 power amplifier are, just like the Falcons, a way to shake things up and do it your own way and get great sound the way you want it. Something that challenges my beliefs in this manner deserves a Reviewer’s Choice Award.