From the Sweet Spot

You’ll Never Take the Amp Away From Me

Issue 148

I know I’m not the only one who gets that overpowering urge to explore new looks, sounds, and possibilities with a different piece of audio equipment. I spent all of last winter and spring obsessing over tube amplifiers and checking daily the pre-owned section of the hi-fi shop where I bought my first serious integrated amp, the Rogue Audio Sphinx V2. Then one day, a used Rogers High Fidelity tube amp appeared on the website. But for an occasional magazine ad, I had never seen nor heard one before. Not to be confused with the loudspeaker manufacturer in England, Rogers was founded in 2009 in Warwick, NY, before moving to North Adams, Massachusetts, in 2019. Owner, designer, and engineer Roger Gibboni builds a line of tube integrated amplifiers ranging in price from $20,900 for a handsome dual-mono beast at 100 watts per channel, down to the 25 wpc 65V-1 at $4,200 delivered new.

Although the shop’s price with a trade-in seemed achievable, I didn’t love the 65V-1’s barebones appearance as much as Rogers’ high-end pieces with their fire engine red chassis, silver faceplates, and power meters. I considered finding something more stylish and affordable online. Indeed, fifty feature-laden tube amps between $500 and $1,500 popped up in my search. They certainly looked sharp and had impressive comments: “Sounds better than my $20,000 amp!” Another said, “Audio Nirvana!” and “Done with overpriced audio!” But some negative reviews gave a clear picture of the risks: missing and broken parts, complicated repairs, inconsistent quality, short warranties, indecipherable manuals, and murky contact information. One amp might last three months and another three years, but most will eventually end up on the heap of electronic junk we’ve all helped to create.

Frankly, I was hoping to trade my Sphinx for Rogue’s all-tube Cronus Magnum, but pre-owned models are rare, as so few people give them up. Furthermore, the Magnum would require me to open a little hatch on its chassis in order to bias the tubes, using a tool to move switches while reading an onboard gauge. With my lack of technical knowledge, this was a bridge I dared not cross. I can barely understand specs or explain the differences between classes of amplifiers (A, B, C, D, etc.), whether they’re single-ended or push-pull, or what triode, pentode, and ultralinear operation modes really mean. All I know is that some amps have power tubes and others don’t, and they sound different.

I kept circling back to the auto-biasing capacity and brawny appeal of the Rogers 65V-1. At first glance, the gray-black metal box, with its toggle switches, blue display, and precision volume knob, is like something from a Cold War Navy vessel I once toured. And it’s probably no accident the 65V-1 is built that way. Before making audio, Roger was an engineer for RCA, General Electric, and NASA, designing aerospace, radar, and communications equipment. This product’s no-nonsense aviation-grade exterior conceals the same wiring and parts used in military applications. The gear is made to last, and Roger is not subtle about its longevity: “your kids will fight over these amps when you’re gone.” I have no children, but it would have been fun to change my will any time those spoiled brats disappointed their pop. The more I stared at the 65V-1, the more it called to me – exuding the quiet mechanical confidence of a parked muscle car.

 

Rogers 65V-1 integrated amplifier.

Rogers 65V-1 integrated amplifier.

 

I still loved my impeccable Sphinx with its tube pre-amp stage and could have sent it to Pennsylvania for a complete set of upgrades, essentially turning it into the newest V3 version on the market for the price of the cheapest other tube amp I was considering. All I had to do was talk to the production manager, Nick Fitzsimmons, as I had done over the years with loads of amateur questions. If Nick doesn’t know the answer, owner and engineer Mark O’Brien also works onsite in Brodheadsville. But after swapping out the stock 12AU7 tubes for 1960s Dutch and English valves, I had taken the Sphinx as far as I could in my current setup.

Unless it was at an audio show, I had not listened to many tube amps, and if I did, they usually played audio show music, i.e., whispery female singers. The Rogers 65V-1 was only 25 watts, down from the Sphinx’s 100 wpc, and I wasn’t sure if it was suitable for me in the first place. So, I called the boss, Roger himself. After we chatted about music, bourbon, and the future of live entertainment, Roger confirmed that the amp works great with high-efficiency speakers like mine and referred me to Herb Reichert’s column in the March 2018 issue of Stereophile.

Reichert’s analysis of the Class A 65V-1, paired with his Zu Audio Soul Supreme loudspeakers at 16 ohms and 97dB sensitivity, described spatial realism, lifelike voices, intense textures, and three-dimensionality. One sentence, in particular, finally convinced me: “Rogers High Fidelity’s 65V-1 is an uncommon audio product in search of uncommon audiophiles. Might you be one of them?” Yes, Herb, I am. While I don’t have Soul Supremes, I was positive that my entry-level Zu Omen Dirty Weekends at 12 ohms and 97 dB would also perform well.

 

Zu Audio Dirty Weekend II loudspeakers.

Zu Audio Dirty Weekend II loudspeakers.

 

Ready to invest, I called Roger back and asked if it were possible to renew a warranty on the used 65V-1 I had found. “You should just buy one from me!” he said. Roger was matching the price for one of his thoroughly checked and updated demo units, complete with in-home trial and lifetime warranty – a bold move in the era of planned obsolescence. Not only was Roger generous with information and time, but he also saved me shipping, service, and potential repair charges. I guess it was meant to be – the uncommon audiophile with quirky speakers gets his uncommon amp. I sold off a bunch of audio clutter and found a new home for my Sphinx (bench tested by Rogue) with a man who was building a new system.

Several days later, a parcel truck delivered a large crash-proof box. Wearing my white cotton archiving gloves, the subject of endless derision by the non-audiophiles in my life, I sorted the contents before placing the amp on the ventilated rack. I delicately inserted a pair each of JJ EF86 pentode tubes and Mullard EL34 power tubes, connected all the components, and flicked a switch to illuminate the Mullards in a soft orange glow. Warm first impressions of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira (1976), Chick Corea’s Akoustic Band Live (2021), and Yo-Yo Ma’s Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites (2018) streamed from my laptop through a Schiit Modi-3+ DAC. I fully expected the amp to play this music flawlessly, but there were new layers of realism and immediacy. Nevertheless, I kept in mind what Reichert wrote about the Gold Lion tubes, “KT88s delivered a bigger fist and a stronger blow – their detail was more etched.” That’s exactly what I wanted for my vinyl collection.

Chunky Gold Lion KT88 tubes lit up vintage records spinning on a restored 1982 Denon DP-57M turntable with a Sumiko Blue Point EVO-III MC cartridge and Parks Audio Puffin phono pre-amp. Cuts from (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973), We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll, Black Sabbath (1976), and Live! Bootleg, Aerosmith (1978) delivered thick bass, a spectrum of drums, and all the guitar crunch and screech I desire. As far as volume is concerned, there was no way I could drive the amp to clipping without someone calling the police. I made sure to inform Gerrit Koer at Zu Audio in Ogden, Utah, about this phenomenal amp/speaker combination, in case anyone else asks. After all the hand-wringing, research, and penny-pinching, I knew I had made the right decision. Rogers’ 65V-1 was the next level in performance, and, as luck would have it, my amp was made in Warwick, located about an hour away from me.

 

Parks Audio Puffin phono preamp.

Parks Audio Puffin phono preamp.

 

When I began searching for a new piece of equipment, the first impulse was to pay the least money for all my desires and imagined needs. Should I take a chance on that disposable yet attractive $500 amp? I have thirty days to get a refund from the importer if it’s a clunker. But then what’s the actual cost of a machine when it cannot be repaired, upgraded, and passed on to other audiophiles? More than its monetary value, a high-quality component handcrafted in my backyard brings assurance, convenience, and accessibility – not to mention the invaluable peace of mind if something goes wrong. No one mentioned above is a personal or business associate, but I greatly appreciate the relationships I have made with people who actually designed and built my gear – a statement that applies to nothing else I own! Plus, it’s hard to beat Roger’s customer service. You can’t just call the CEO of a multinational corporation with a ridiculous question like, “Hey, can your stuff play Motörhead, or is it just for fancy music?”

Header image: Rogers 65V-1 integrated amplifier and control app.

4 comments on “You’ll Never Take the Amp Away From Me”

  1. I make it a point to visit as many manufacturers as possible (visit Paul and staff in Boulder – what a visit!) and I’ve been to Roger’s shop and spent time with him. Great guy who really knows his stuff. And if you are a tube guy, his products are awesome! There’s a reason he offers a lifetime warranty.
    And northwestern Massachusetts – up against eastern New York and southern Vermont – is a beautiful area. If you can get there, make it a point to say hi to Roger and check out his amps.

  2. >> Should I take a chance on that disposable yet attractive $500 amp? I have thirty days to get a refund from the importer if it’s a clunker. But then what’s the actual cost of a machine when it cannot be repaired, upgraded, and passed on to other audiophiles? <<

    So true. Be grateful you didn't waste the money. :o)

    I bought a cheaper "disposable" "imported" amp that was making the rounds of the audiophile press, including one well-known reviewer (interviewed here in Copper a while ago) who raved about it for its price. But rather than import it with the shoddy no-name tubes that typically come with these (which I would have immediately replaced anyway), I ordered a version of the amp without tubes (supplying my own) and point-to-point wired in case I needed to make the inevitable repair or, down the road, upgrade the internal components. I chose well-known, new production reputable tubes. It sounded a bit dull on my desktop system, where it was going to live, but for kicks I tried it in my main system. It fell completely apart. Granted it wasn't the most powerful, but even at lower volume it was grainy, very dull (like a thick blanket over the sound), and lacked the rhythmic drive of my C-J tube amp.

    In short, it sounded like crap.

    And it upheld my assertion I made long before I got into tube amps–not all tube amps are good! It's just like solid state–there are great amps, good amps, and the mass-market sound that ranges from mediocre to terrible. This amp fell solidly into the latter category.

    Could it be improved? Who knows? Does it suffer from poor/cheap internal components? Are the components out of spec? Are the transformers any good? Hard to tell, and I'm not about to reverse-engineer this turd. At least it didn't cost much.

    While I couldn't afford a used C-J for desktop use (like the CAV-50), I ended up getting a much smaller class D amp for the desktop system with built-in DAC, made by a well-known audiophile company. Not quite tubes, but at least it's clean and can drive the speakers appropriately.

  3. Rudy, thanks for reading!

    As soon as things become popular, you can go to Amazon and find a cheap version of anything. As long it has tubes shoved into it, people will take a chance on it. I couldn’t afford to lose $500, $1000, or $1500 on something I would have to replace in a few years – if I had it that long. So, for a few hundred dollars more, I got something really good and dependable. I’ll always go for something I can personally research than depend on a bunch of fleeting reviews.

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