I have been enjoying the Rogue Ares phono preamplifier for several months and have to tell you that listening for faults is work. Hearing deficiencies is not a simple matter when the tubes I am trying seem to have more of a sonic signature than the Ares itself. It may be the best phono stage I have heard under $10,000. The list price is $1,995. I bought it just a couple of weeks after it arrived. The Ares is not the best phono stage on the planet, but I will tell you "hear" and now that the deficiencies are very few and minor.
The Ares uses four tubes - two 12AX7 and two 12AU7. The latter can be replaced by 12AT7 for about 9 dB more gain, or 12AX7 for about 12 dB more gain. For this review, 12AT7s supplied by Rogue Audio were used because they better matched the gain structure of my system. The substitution of 12AT7s for 12AU7s did not change the sonic signature. For the additional gain required by low output moving coil cartridges, the Ares has step up transformers, coincidently CineMag 3440s which are the same model of transformers that I previously reviewed and still have on hand. The Ares has a very substantial outboard power supply which connects to the phono preamplifier with two umbilical cables. The circuit boards are very high quality and are similar to the quality used in the $7500 Lamm LP2. While the black faceplate and metal casework generally matches the quality of the interior, and looks quite at home next to my Levinson 326S preamplifier, a couple of the lid screw holes in the cover are slightly misaligned with the threads in the chassis. Replacing tubes is easier if you first remove the cover.
Other components on hand during the audition included a SOTA Cosmos vacuum turntable with Triplanar VII u2 tonearm, SOTA Satellite turntable with Origin Live Zephyr tonearm, Miyajima Kansui, Shilabe and Premium Mono phono cartridges, Bob's Devices CineMag 3440 step-up transformers and Bob's brand new CineMag 1131 "Blue" step-up transformers, Mark Levinson No. 326S solid-state preamplifier with built-in phono stage, Lamm LP2 vacuum tube phono preamplifier, Prism Orpheus Digital Interface with custom Windows 7 computer/music server, YG Acoustics Kipod Main Modules speakers, YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature Main Modules (OMG), Dali Mentor 5 speakers (from the home theater system), and Gallo TR-3 subwoofers. Power amplifiers included Levinson 532H, B&K Reference 125.2, Cary SA200.2, and Manley Snappers. All interconnects and speaker cables are Mogami. All front end components, including the preamplifiers, receive their AC power from a PS Audio AV-5000 power conditioner which is connected to the wall power with a 1 meter length of PS Audio PerfectWave AC-10 power cord. Other AC-10s were used elsewhere in the system, and I use Jerry's DIY power cord on the music computer and Levinson preamp. An Audience aR2p-TO power conditioner or PS Audio Quintet are normally used for the power amplifiers.
Like any component, the Ares benefitted from being run in with an audio signal. I used the output of my tuner, through a reverse RIAA box with volume control, for about 200 hours to accomplish this tedious but necessary task. The sound was probably 95% final after 100 hours, but the extra 100 hours were sonically worthwhile in added smoothness in the upper frequencies and better resolution in the lower frequencies. Under a small door in the top of the Ares, held in place with two captured thumb screws, are all of the settings for gain and loading. Please read Rogue's online information for a complete description of the extensive adjustments that should accommodate any cartridge you might have.
Let me tell you what the Ares does not do. It does not alter the spectral balance of the incoming music signal. Many phono preamps make unwelcome changes to your music, such as push forward the upper midrange or lower treble, or curtail the upper treble, or soften the bass, or "warm up" the midrange. While the Prism Orpheus is also not the best phono stage you can buy, it is neutral in terms of overall balance. For that matter, so is the built-in phono stage in the Levinson 326S preamplifier. With either of these solid state devices, while they don't have the bloom or holographic airy openness of the Ares, they are "dead nuts" flat in their perceived frequency balance. The Ares takes this very welcome character and adds just a bit of richness, just a bit more focus on each performer, and just a bit better separation of individual performers on the stage. There is also a noticeable improvement in the feeling of listening to live performers instead of to a recording, which is probably a result of all of the above "just a bits" put together to provide a more complete sonic image.
The sound is very nimble and quick, but does not gloss over notes to move on to the next note, as the Audio Research PH5 does. On the contrary, the lowest low-level harmonic content is extremely well presented and easily on par with the best phono stages I have heard. On the Doobie Brothers "I Cheat The Hangman" from the Stampede LP, the soulful lyrics are filled with emotion. And in "Texas Lullaby", it is engrossing to identify with the lyrics:
"I was always hearing music, always wanna play me some
As a full-time friend or the way to ease the end of a woman that swayed me some."
OK, not an "A" paper for English Lit, but a great tune, nonetheless. Of course, "Slat-Key Soquel Rag", an often-mentioned favorite of mine, is a real treat when played through the Ares. Stampede is one of the best of this iconic band's recordings and a perfect example of why they have a place in the history of modern music.
The Ares can also rock. Listen to "You Need A Man" on Loggins & Messina's Full Sail. If your foot isn't tapping, check your pulse! Experience how the riveting bass line in "Coming To You" grabs the cohones and pressurizes the listening room. I could go on and on, and on and on, with more examples, but to summarize: from the locomotive-powerful low bass to the sweet air in the upper treble, the Ares gets it!
The Rogue Ares blows away the Lamm LP2. While the Lamm presents a somewhat larger apparent recording space, its disturbing corruption of the tonal and frequency balance of all music makes for short listening sessions. Specifically, the LP2 is very rolled off in the upper frequencies and is seriously lacking bass extension and resolution. It has a very nice midrange, though. I tired of the Lamm after several evenings; I still enjoy the Ares after several months.
The phono stage in the Levinson 326S preamplifier, a $1400 option, is pretty good. A Levinson trait, the bass is powerful and detailed. The higher frequencies are grain-free. (Used as a line level preamplifier, the Levinson 326S is truly outstanding. This preamp approaches perfection in the bypass test.) The Ares matches this quality overall, but has just a bit more upper bass presence and a hair less of the lowest bass power than the Levinson. Solid-state versus vacuum tubes, maybe. With the Ares, the soundstage expands forwards more to include the room. The Ares is also better at presenting more fully formed 3-D images and is a bit richer in the midrange; not more forward or louder, but with greater harmomic depth. The treble extension is similar in both units, although the Ares gives cymbals a nice extra bit of metallic shimmer that is more true to life. One thing I noticed, in comparison to the 326S phono stage, is a very small, and I mean very small, reduction in the linear depth of the sound stage, but the volume of the performance space is larger with the Ares.
I wish I still had a Manley Steelhead on hand for a comparison, as I am guessing, using the fallible resource of aural memory as a point of reference, that the Ares plays in similar territory. However, going by my memory of how much I enjoyed the Steelhead and now enjoy the Ares, I venture that yes, indeed, they are competitive. The upper frequencies of the Ares has a small added texture or "whitish" quality in MC mode which uses its internal CineMag 3440 step up transformers. This is not consciously noticed until it is gone. Which brings us to the subject of moving coil step up transformers.
A few weeks into the audition, Bob's Devices sent their very new $895 CineMag 1131 step up transformers, a limited production product based on a highly-refined design. Bob confided that the new transformers are a challenge to wind and CineMag's owner builds these new transformers personally. The new "Blue" CineMag 1131 step up transformers are a large improvement over the "Red" CineMag 3440s. The sound is much smoother (less harsh) and clearer, more transparent in the upper frequencies. The bass is tighter and better defined than with the 3440. Actually, in comparison, the 3440 sounds coarse with that "whitish" quality noted above. I compared Bob's Devices Blue CineMag 1131 and Red 3440 side-by-side using the 47k Ohm inputs of both the Levinson phono and the Ares to arrive at this conclusion. (The CineMag 1131 makes the built-in phono stage in the Levinson 326S preamp sound pretty darn good!) It was then a simple matter to compare the Ares configured in MC mode using its internal CineMag 3440 step up transformers, to the Ares configured in MM mode using the external CineMag 1131 step up transformers. And I fell in love!
Some folks would quickly spend many hundreds of dollars on NOS tubes to get the best performance from a vacuum tube component. Let me suggest that if you are of that persuasion, you use the stock tubes, which are excellent, and try the new CineMag 1131 step up transformers with your Ares. This combination, at $2890, is easily the best, most involving, most resolving, most enjoyable sound from LPs you are likely to get for under ten large. For resolution, dynamics, bass-midrange-treble lifelike performance, and just pure pleasure, the Ares/CineMag 1131 is THERE!
The Ares works very well with a PS Audio PerfectWave AC-10 power cord. Dynamics slightly increase over my standard Jerry's DIY power cord which the Levinson preamp adores. The AC-10 helps the Ares to offer a charming see-though quality in the midrange and slightly leaner and better defined bass that brings musicians a step closer to being alive in the room with the listener. However, I would place little weight on these power cord observations. They probably reflect issues of personal preference and system matching more than actual performance.
The Ares is not "scary" good. It is wonderfully, delightfully and often enchantingly good. You would not be compromising with the Ares. Instead of grudgingly mumbling, "I could do worse", you will confidently proclaim, "It doesn't get much better!" If you are in the market for a high quality phono cartridge preamplifier, one that has all of the gain and loading options most cartridges require, one that is very quiet and very reliable, one that is so good that its sound, especially in MM mode is not readily discernable, you should check it out the Rogue Ares.
Overall Rating: 9.5 LPs
Used in MM mode with Bob's Devices CineMag 1131 Step Up Transformer: 10 LPs
Link to manufacturer's Web site: Rogue Audio
My thanks to Robin Wyatt at Robyatt Audio for turning me on to this outstanding unit.