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A Conversation With Mark O’Brien of Rogue Audio

Issue 131

Rogue Audio manufactures a wide range of tube, solid-state and hybrid audio components including integrated amplifiers, preamplifiers, power amps, phono stages and headphone amps. Located in Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania, the company states that its engineering goals include superior sonics, high quality and reliability, appealing design and high value. We spoke with Mark O’Brien, president and general manager of Rogue Audio.

Don Lindich: Please tell us a little more about yourself. Where are you from and how did you become an audiophile?

Mark OBrien: I'm originally from New Jersey but have lived most of my life here in Pennsylvania. As a kid I was fascinated by electronics and started messing around with speaker design in my early teens. Being interested in both electronics and acoustics, I studied physics in college and earned my BS from California Polytechnic State University. I took some further grad school courses in physics but wound up getting an MBA so that I could better understand how to run a successful business.

Mark O'Brien of Rogue Audio.

Mark O'Brien of Rogue Audio.

DL: When and where did you launch Rogue Audio, and how did you get your start?

MO: I became really interested in amplifier design while I was working at Bell Laboratories in the early nineties. I was fortunate because I was working with some really bright electrical engineering PhDs who were a never ending source of both information and inspiration. At the time, the amplifiers and preamplifiers I built were all for my own use. The early versions were pretty crude but after a while, I started getting some really pleasing results. Eventually I convinced two of my colleagues to jump ship with me and start Rogue Audio in 1996.

DL: Where are your products made now? Are any Rogue products made overseas?

MO: All of our products have always been hand built here in Pennsylvania. We also locally source most of the parts we use to build them. A couple of years ago we built a brand new factory from the ground-up in Brodheadsville. It was a really nice step up from the old industrial building we had been working in for the previous twenty years (think air conditioning!) Rogue Audio has always had a great work environment in terms of our company culture and the people who work here. I would never want to change that.

DL: What is your design process and philosophy?

MO: I would say that our overarching design philosophy is to create great-performing audio products at attainable prices. That doesn't mean that they are inexpensive, but rather that we offer excellent value. From an engineering standpoint, we design our products to be reliable, work properly with other well-designed products, and most importantly, to remain faithful to the original audio signal. We don’t try to “flavor” our sound by using components that artificially alter the signal. We also design our products to have low output impedances and high input impedances so they will work well with other solid-state or tube brands.

DL: Looking at your product line, Rogue components use various combinations of tube and solid-state electronics in their designs, and some novel applications of Class D amplifier technology. Is there any combination of these technologies that is your favorite or that you think leads to the best overall sound?

Sphinx 3 integrated amplifier.

Sphinx 3 integrated amplifier.

MO: That's a great question. While we are primarily a tube amp company, almost all of our products incorporate solid-state devices in their design to one degree or another. In the case of our hybrid products, we have taken advantage of the best of both technologies. We use a proprietary technology we call TubeD that forces the solid-state devices to sound (and test!) like large high-performance tube amps. Essentially TubeD employs a small amount of feedback from the tubes to create tube-like behavior in the Class D output modules.

We were all very proud when The Absolute Sound chose our new DragoN amp, which is a hybrid tube/Class D design, as a 2020 Solid-State Power Amplifier of the Year. Our hybrid products are perfect for people who want tube sound without having any tube maintenance.

Magnum preamplifier.

Magnum preamplifier.

Personally, I really enjoy designing in both spheres as well as writing the software to operate the products. Many companies have their embedded engineering (the software) written by outside companies. We bit the bullet several years ago and brought that technology in-house. All of the software we use to control the displays, the remote control operation, the input switching et cetera is all developed at Rogue Audio. This gives us the luxury of super-fast turnaround when we want to make any changes.

DL: What tubes do you use and how do you choose them?

MO: Our primary considerations are sound and reliability. For the small-signal tubes (used in the preamps and input stages of power amps) we mainly use 12AU7 and 12AX7 tubes because they are readily available and work great for audio applications. For the larger output tubes in our power amps, we use the KT120 tube. It sounds excellent and has proven to be extremely reliable. One of the fun aspects of tube amplification is being able to fine-tune the sound by swapping out different tubes. As a manufacturer we need to use tubes that are currently in production, but the end user has loads of choices in terms of what they can use in their gear – the world is truly their oyster.

DL: What are your most popular products?

MO: Needless to say, we sell more $3,000 Cronus Magnum III integrated amplifiers than we do $15,000 Apollo Dark monoblock amps but on the whole, our products are pretty popular across the board. I believe that they all offer terrific sound and meet a wide variety of needs.

DL: Who is your target customer, and what are the reasons they should buy a Rogue Audio product compared to other choices on the market?

One of several listening rooms at Rogue Audio.

One of several listening rooms at Rogue Audio.

MO: Our target customers are critical listeners who are not only passionate about their music but are also intelligent buyers. They recognize that our products not only sound great but are a good long-term investment in their audio systems.

DL: Your products are what most audiophiles would consider “affordable high-end.” Do you ever see Rogue expanding into the mass market, or conversely, into the more expensive and esoteric ultra-high-end market?

MO: No and no. I view our employees as craftspeople rather than assemblers. For example, the people who hand-solder our circuit boards do so at what I would consider an artisanal level. It takes several months to train someone to [even] begin to solder boards at the level we expect and a year or more to fully come up to speed. The same holds true for all of the other positions here. This level of craftsmanship pretty much precludes the possibility of mass-market production. As far as more esoteric products are concerned, it simply isn't who we are as a company. I view most of the super-expensive gear as electronic jewelry more than hi-fi gear. Much of the pricing seems to be arbitrary or a result of costs that don't really have anything to do with performance.

Adeline of Rogue Audio is adept at the fine art of soldering.

Adeline of Rogue Audio is adept at the fine art of soldering.

DL: What is the origin of your logo?

MO: I have always been a bird lover and the raven is a highly intelligent bird that doesn't necessarily go with the flock. When we started Rogue Audio we saw that as symbolic of our company and our goals. That still holds true, but now has also become symbolic of our terrific customers.

DL: Anything else you would like to add?

MO: Only that I feel truly gifted to be able to do such interesting work alongside great people and within a really fun industry.

RP-9 preamplifier.

RP-9 preamplifier.

 

The factory in Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania.

The factory in Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania.

All images courtesy of Rogue Audio.

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