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REVIEW: Rogue Audio Zeus Amplifier (Tube)

Model: Zeus
Category: Amplifier (Tube)
Suggested Retail Price: $5995
Description: 150 Watt Triode/ 225 Watt Ultra-linear Tube Power Amplifier
Manufacturer URL: Rogue Audio
Model Picture: View

Review by Chuckster ( A ) on May 05, 2003 at 16:22:53
IP Address: 12.89.12.53
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Rogue Audio Zeus (w/Vandersteen Model 5) Listening Demo/Audition; New (Ultimate) Reference?

Timing Can Be Everything

…I had the very fortunate opportunity recently to be the recipient of a listening demonstration featuring the new Rogue Audio Zeus amplifier, which was partnered with a pair of Vandersteen Model 5 speakers. I was ostensibly picking up some other Rogue equipment as a component upgrade to my own system ( Inmate Systems ), when I made a cursory inquiry regarding the Zeus. Much to my surprise, the response was, “Yeah, it’s set-up over in the demo room with a pair of ‘(the) 5s’-you want to check it out?” You ain’t gotta ask me twice. So quite unexpectedly, I found myself seated face to face with the Zeus, which had been instated into a system consisting of likewise top-of-the-line products from their respective manufacturers (see “System & Set-Up” below). The session lasted for approximately 90 minutes. This was an entirely impromptu happening, and I personally regarded the whole situation as a “There, but for Fortune go I” privilege (must be I’m “living right” lately?) and immediately recalled what to do when encountering a gift horse. I thought I would share my experience and offer my impressions-however they might be received and interpreted-of what I found to be truly superior audio reproduction.

Appearance & Specifications

I can tell you that if you have not seen the Zeus (MSRP $5,995) in person, it is one of those components where pictures (at least the ones that I’ve seen on the Internet) simply do not serve it proper justice! It is way bigger and much more handsome up close and personal, encased all around

with machined aluminum panels and a likewise 1” thick faceplate. Though some may find the overall appearance rather utilitarian, (and I’ll admit that it has conjured up the image of some sort of oversized neo-retro style power generator in my mind), I must state for the record that I do like the overall styling, and find the fit and finish to be very nice indeed. At the top of the front and back plates are elongated oval-shaped openings (reminiscent of the oval-shape found on the fascia of the

company’s Tempest integrated amplifier) which I intuit (perhaps mistakenly so?) as handles by which to lift the 200 pound (!) behemoth, a task that undoubtedly requires lots and lots-and whole bunches-of muscles. Hello, dolly!

The dual mono design utilizes a total of twelve (six per channel) KT-88 or 6550 type output tubes, which sit exposed atop the amp but within the boundaries of the front/back plates. (Mark O’Brien of Rogue Audio informed me that the Zeus is available from the factory with either type of output tube and that a unit shipping for demonstration at the upcoming Stereophile Show in San Francisco would be outfitted with 6650’s; the sonic merits/differences between these two tubes is discussed ad infinitum here in the Asylum for further reference.) The unit I listened to was armed with Electro-Harmonic KT-88s as factory supplied. This battery of bottles is specified to provide 150 watts of triode or 225 watts of ultra-linear power, respectively. The addition of a top mounted external rocker switch offers “on the fly” mode selection and is a much-welcomed ergonomic and practical improvement compared to the internal switches of other Rogue amps. (A similar design change has been implemented for the company’s M-120 monoblocks; I don’t know if other Rogue amps will also receive this modification). Two other topside rocker switches control “Power On/Off”

and “Standby/Operation” selection (another new and appreciated feature), respectively.

Each tube can be individually checked and calibrated for proper bias via a series of tiny though readily accessible toggle switches and screw potentiometers. I find this extremely cool for both practical and intrinsically valuable reasons: while serving to verify tube life thereby maintaining optimum sound and performance of the amplifier, it fosters hands-on attachment and engagement with the equipment. (Hey, I like being able to tune-up [sic] my $6,000 used car, as well as adjusting the bias on my vintage Dynaco ST-70-which didn’t cost $6,000). A separate bias meter for each channel assists the user in this function. Rounding out the choice features are balanced and single ended input connections and top quality sets of both 4 and 8 ohm gold-plated binding posts. (For further specifications, please refer to the manufacturer’s website: (http://rogueaudio.com).

System & Set-up

It will be suffice to say that this was a professional showroom setting and that the equipment was entirely “warmed up”, having been powered on for 8-10 hours beforehand. I don’t think it’s out of line in presuming that all equipment in use had been otherwise formally and fully “burned/broken-in” as needed. Not having had my tape measure handy, I would estimate room size as 20’ long, 14’ wide, and 10’ high; definitely on the moderate/larger end of the scale. Room treatment: carpeted floor, painted dry-wall, some strategically placed large potted plants, some various “traps”, and what appeared to be a group of “welcome mat” sized, open cross-patterned burlap material (?) pieces hanging on the front wall (an innovative/cheap sound absorption tweak?).

Serving as the source component to the Zeus and Model 5’s was Musical Fidelity’s new model Tri-Vista CD/SACD player, while pre-amp duties were handled by an Audio Research Ref 2 MkII. Who was I to protest this ensemble? I suppose by virtue of the fact that these are all newly minted

top-tier components (save for the Vandy’s not being the ultimate Model 5A version), the whole system as such could have been the specific focus of a demonstration/evaluation/review. Indeed, this is a muscular group of equipment. However, being a multiple Rogue Audio/Vandersteen component

owner, my personal interest was primarily with the Zeus, and (secondly), its’ pairing with the Model 5’s. (For detailed information on the Model 5, please refer to Vandersteen’s website:

http://vandersteen.com/pages/M5lit.html).

My listening position was approximately 9-10’ from the speakers, which themselves were set a good 7-8’ apart and between 3-4’ away from both the back and side walls.

Listening was mostly done in triode mode (why not use it if ya got it like that!) and so all of my related impressions are of music heard as such. I did hear some selections in ultra-linear mode for the last 30 minutes or so, but at the risk of tipping my hand, I was ‘too far gone’ by then.

Unfortunately, the variable of power conditioning is unknown to me, other than to say that I saw some ubiquitous snake-sized aftermarket powercords/speaker cables in place. It is known to me

that the ‘demonstrator’ is partial to Audioquest cabling, though I don’t know which specific models were actually being used. Why do I not know? Because my mind was focused on the music and what I was experiencing and not on the cables during the demonstration, and for now, I’ll leave it at that. My apologies to those overly concerned with this variable.

With the exception of one track from SACD, all other source material was red book CD playback via the Tri-Vista. Believe me, in retrospect, I’m surprised by this, too. With this system as I heard it though, I just didn’t concern myself much with needing or even wanting to hear SACD. Indeed the notion of such “hi-rez” formats (and I’m a ‘believer’ and owner of SACD hard/soft-ware) took a leave of absence. See ya. Even more surprising to this self-proclaimed vinyl aficionado is that this system might’ve even made a serious case for contemplating a set-up sans analogue! (And then again, I just might’ve been left in a completely catatonic state if there was something like the new VPI HR-X and a 200g, 45rpm pressing of “Kind of Blue” available.) Just for the record, I don’t

have any plans to give up my table and grooves.

There’s Nothing Like It…

Given the opportunity to begin the demo with my choice from among the dozens and dozens of available discs around the room, I happened to notice “Dick’s Pick’s: Volume 15” (Englishtown, NJ, 9/3/77) from the on-going series of Grateful Dead concert releases culled from their archives. I immediately opted to hear “Estimated Prophet”. Though I am just a bit too young to have missed seeing shows from that time, I did attended approximately 65 shows between 1983- 1995, and own and/or have listened to hundreds of live performances, (bootlegs, official releases, etc.), including a majority of the Dick’s Pick’s releases. In short, I have heard the best and worst of the Dead, both live in-person and recorded, and consider myself a student of the band both musically and historically. Musical preferences aside, the band and their live sound personnel have long been renowned for their dedication to the continuing development of their own hi-fi concert sound system, as well as for some resultant innovations in the realm of concert/pro audio technology (though

admittedly not all of their archived tapes [or actual performances to be sure] and subsequent releases would be regarded as “audiophile” quality). Listening to the 9/3/77 show, I’d say that both musically and technically, everybody concerned “got it right”. And so did the Zeus /Model 5’s in relating that to me just the other night.

What I heard conveyed through the Zeus and out of the Model 5’s represented the most accurate and faithful reproduction of the band’s performance that I’ve heard from any electronic/mechanical apparatus (i.e., audio system). Instruments and performers were properly laid out on a soundstage that was true in all regards and aspects: height, width, and expanse of both the performers and the stage itself were indeed lifelike. Knowing the on-stage placement of the individual performers and their instruments from my intimate studies of the band (and how that differed over the decades), I can confidently state that nothing presented was at all out of place: left to right, front to back, both aspects were spot-on. Bob Weir’s vocals were front and center, Garcia’s guitar was stage right (as it was back in that era), and just beyond that, Keith Godchaux’s grand piano. Phil Lesh’s bass-though seemingly mixed and mastered so to sonically anchor everything down–could still nonetheless be correctly marked as originating on stage left. More so, I thought that the clean, tight, and full-bodied bass that I heard also served as equal testament to the low-frequency slam capabilities from both the 400 watt integrated subwoofers of the Model 5’s, and the Zeus’ own amplification, respectively. As for Donna (Godchaux-the Dead’s tertiary vocalist during the 1970’s), though her harmonizing with the band was oftentimes problematic, this was obviously one of her better nights, and her vocal was fluently and clearly rendered-just as all other respective vocals were

revealed. It is important to me to hear vocal harmonies not only as a tonally cohesive entity, but to also hear within the vocal composition the individual timbre of the participating vocalists; this was accomplished in spades. As for the dual drummers of Messrs. Hart and Kreutzmann-and this feat was perhaps most astonishing of all to me-I could easily visualize them in the proper dimension behind the other performers and on their respective sides of the stage. What’s more, each drum on their kits was proportionally distinguishable and timbreally identifiable from one another. On just this one selection, the system achieved “it” for me. Emotionally, it was completely ingratiating. Aurally, it was holographic: a soundstaging, tonal, and timbre-al (?) delineation and presentation that was nothing short of tour de force caliber.

As I review that last paragraph, it appears that I was “sold” on this system with only one selection. Don’t we all have our own particular “reference” tracks for spot-checking if not full-blown audio

equipment evaluation: if said equipment reproduces these personal reference tracks “right”, then we confirm (to ourselves) that it’s “good”? And indeed through the Zeus and Model 5s the reproduction was way beyond merely good and right; it was literally sensational and I was “floored” in every sense of the word. In less than 30 seconds I was silenced and immobilized, only capable of just sitting and listening, stripped of all pretenses and expectations. I was so fully disarmed that I didn’t bother to ask for the specific titles of the remaining dozen or so other selections (from a variety of artists and discs) that I heard. Indeed, everything I heard and experienced during this demo was completely gratifying and contributed to a sense of utter satiation of my own (but not terminally unique) audiophile desires. Remember your most gratifying physically intimate encounter? (Wait, I just remembered my audience-just kidding!) It is really necessary to give graphic examples of everything that was touched and how so, and is it even possible to put into words for another to fully comprehend and understand?

Nonetheless, I can and will offer a bit more. How about a solo piece featuring a Grand Piano depicted with such a sense of accuracy and body that it seemed as though the piano was in the room with me? It wasn’t a “you are there” experience; it was “it was there” alchemy. A seemingly infinite amount of decay followed each note/chord as well as paradoxically being initially portrayed with such intensity that I could tangibly feel those notes and chords with appropriate resonance off the sounding board. Quite suddenly I sensed the presence of the sounding board right there in front of me, propped up between the speakers. Sure I could hear the hammers and strings-I suppose that’s commonplace with superior gear. What I felt was the gestalt of how the piano as an instrument produced the sounds emanating forth from it, and then sensed those sounds suspended in a cradle of air such that I could possibly reach out and grasp them. In the intensity of being so emotionally arrested, I laughed a combination of defensiveness and incredulity. I thought to myself, “Are f-ing kidding me.” I can report that at another point during the demonstration, Yo-Yo Ma was also in the room with me. From what I believe was the lone SACD selection, a full-bodied cello appeared (again) in 3-dimensional space before me, with the delicacies and nuances of bowed and fingered strings served up in full detail. The musical “flow” of the performance swelled and receded with dynamic ease. I remained silent in the astonishment of what I found myself immersed in. Let me just say right now that if the sonic virtues of this particular selection were attributable to SACD, then so be it. Based on my experience with the format so far, I know SACD ameliorates a lot of digital offenses. But I do not believe that the musical message I was receiving was solely or even to any large extent due to the technology of the format. Certainly the Tri-Vista’s transport and processing capabilities must be factored in here. That being said, it is difficult for me to discount the drive and quality of 150 triode watts in combination with the finesse and accuracy of the Model 5: with such

accurate portrayal, and resolve, I simply forgot to care about CD vs. SACD vs. GEE-WHIZ-D. To me that speaks volumes about this system and its’ aural character, or more like its’ lack thereof.

Indeed, in my listening, everything was so freely yet cohesively dispensed that I could not detect any sonic “signature” at all. There was nothing “clogged” or “loose” about this sound, nothing seemed at all obscured or colored. And there was also nothing, either musically or emotionally, that I ever questioned, even in the slightest degree, as somehow being absent, as not being there. Likewise, if the hallmark of true ‘reference’ equipment is to get out of the way of the music-or at least what’s on the source recording-then the Zeus/Model 5’s combo (and rest of the system) was profound by its’ absence. The term “listener fatigue” was summarily rendered obsolete for me.

If I were pressed to identify and choose to delve more critically into any particular performance aspect, it would be rhythm and timing. Not that I even perceived whatsoever (or recall) anything in particular coming across in any way “fast” or “slow” mind you, it’s just what jumps to mind in what is now hindsight consideration of such matters and my own priorities. New and classic rock is a large part of my musical diet. As such, rhythm and timing is a very important criterion for me that must be decisively satisfied if I’m going to absolutely confirm “reference” status onto any

component or audio/music reproduction system.

Comparisons

I ambivalent about comparisons to begin with: on one hand they can be of tremendous value, but any potential value is conditional upon the motives for comparing equipment and also presents the proverbial ‘slippery slope’ given the subjective nature and interpretation of all things audio. Are my

motives and subjective aural nature the same as yours? Based solely on economics, my system (before the acquisition of the Magnum 120’s that I now own) totaled for less than that of either the Zeus or Tri-vista alone! If you take that as a caveat, then you take it on your volition. In that regard, it would be with more than just a bit of trepidation that I would “dare to compare” my own system. Maybe then, comparisons as such aren’t risky, but it is our interpretations-how we individually feel

about and ultimately use them-that can be unfair and inappropriate. Beyond all that and not in the least of significance, I feel the absence of the Tri-Vista and Reference 2 Mk. II pre-amp with my 120s/2CeS prohibits any sensible and realistic comparisons here.

I have had other fortunate opportunities to either personally own, audition, or otherwise participate in listening demonstrations of more than a handful of well-known (and well-priced) hi-end equipment.

Individually listing every set-up with the accompanying gear is beyond the scope of my intentions here. I will flatly state that no other assemblage of equipment-either that I’ve owned or have otherwise heard under any conditions-has ever offered me such a sense of “rightness” as I

experienced with this system; I was indeed breathing in the rarefied air of audiophile sound purity.

I do believe that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to offer at least one or two capsule thoughts of the Zeus/Model 5’s against my current set-up of Magnum 120’s/2Ce Signatures, given the fact that they are members of the same familial order, and particularly since the Magnum 120’s are Rogue’s

previous top amplifier offering, while the Zeus represents the company’s prevailing “statement” product. (Having also owned a Magnum 88 adds to this dynamic, as all three models represent Rogue Audio’s power amplifier hierarchy). I hope to offer such an explication on the triumvirate of

Rogue amps at some time here in the Asylum, and short of that, at least a full and individual review of the Magnum 120’s, once I have spent considerably more time with them.

Given their shared bloodlines, perhaps it’s not too surprising that I can initially report that it is far from intolerable or even terribly anti-climatic in listening to my newly acquired Magnum 120’s in tandem with my 2Ce Signatures after my exposure to the Zeus/Model 5’s. The retail combination of the Magnum 120’s and 2Ce Signatures (with stands) is $5,169, which is less than the Zeus alone, and less than half the price of a pair of Model 5s! Granted then, that the Model 5’s and Zeus should

be superior and the reality is that they do outperform their siblings and take audio reproduction to an ultimate level for me. While on the whole it is inarguably with much less magnitude than what I heard from the Zeus/ Model 5 combo, I’m confidently hearing an obviously kindred and analogous

synergistic aural portrayal from the Magnum 120/2Ce combo. Sometimes more is more and better is better. What I found appealing about the Magnum 88 (also paired with the 2Ce Sigs)-smooth, never strident, well defined, musical, and full-bodied sound, with capacious soundstaging-the 120s/2Ce

Sigs deliver even more of and in a “cleaner” way (a virtue I believe of having separate amps for each channel). In turn, the Zeus (with its’ dual mono design and additional wattage)/Model 5 combo delivers these goods with the greatest eminence and on the grandest of scales, with outrageous

realism and with utmost musical confidence. As a point, comparing amp to amp(s) and speaker to speaker, I tend to think that there is a larger discrepancy in overall performance when downsizing from the powered subwoofer endowed and overall superior driver compliment of the Model 5 to the 2Ce. Regardless, I’m grateful to at least have an identifiable aural conception of my audio utopia.

At What Cost Freedom?

The Zeus, as mentioned, lists for $5,995. The total system as demonstrated retails for thirty-three THOUSAND dollars (not including the unspecified system cabling). I not only give the total list price tag of the system as an objectively informative point, but to also acknowledge that from my

economic perspective, this gear is really expensive–all of these components are way beyond my means just for today and probably forever more. Truth is, it is only now in writing this that I have stopped to fully consider the cost of this stuff. I was so psyched at the chance to even see, never mind actually hear, the Zeus in the flesh, (and even more so because of my overwhelming experience during the demo session), that such practical considerations were (yet again) absent from my mind at

the time. In the same way that I didn’t concern myself about the cabling, asking for the name of every specific artist and selection that I heard, or whether or not I was listening to CD or SACD, the Zeus and its’ partnered equipment brought to me the music, and allowed me to experience it in a manner that made me forget about everything else. Is that not the ultimate fulfillment of what is supposed to happen?

So you might be thinking, “Well, for 33 LARGE (or even $5,995 for the Zeus alone), it oughtta be reference level!” I wholeheartedly agree. However, in the hi-end audio world where we see individual components that alone exceed the cost of this entire system, it is my unapologetic opinion that way more often than not, equipment is shamelessly overpriced regardless of what it actually accomplishes (another discussion beyond the scope of this posting). Point is, I would also be the first to say “Bulls—t! This

is crap. Sure, it may be a six (or seven, or twenty!) thousand dollar piece: it still doesn’t sound–or more invaluably feel-‘good’ or ‘right’ to me. The emperor has no clothes”. And lord knows that in pursuing our own audio holy grail, in the final analysis it is ultimately within ourselves that we alone must reconcile whatever chasm exists between value and worth (intrinsic and otherwise), performance, and monetary cost, and therefore determine what we will comfortably and willingly pay and accept as the price of what we will rightly refer to as our “reference” components/system.

Having said all that, I cannot suggest to others outside myself what is “the best” and even much less what is “worth it” in a universally applicable sense. Even if I presumed that I was in the least bit qualified and/or capable to do so, it is not my intention-nor do I otherwise desire-to offer a definitive answer to that question to anyone who may be reading this. Your answer will only come after you’ve heard the Zeus for yourself and reconciled your sensibilities as alluded to in the previous paragraph. I do think it’s testament to the Zeus that to my ears and sensibilities, it sounded entirely belonging-if not the downright guts and grace-of a system consisting of a $10,000 pre-amp and $11,000 speakers.

But what an experience it truly is for me, as an audiophile (whatever the hell that means!), to have unquestionably heard-no, by virtue it has to be and indeed it was more than that-to have experienced, and personally identified, an amplifier (and speaker combination) that I feel would

rightfully serve as truly reference caliber for me. This was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the “absolute best, ever” audio reproduction that I’ve ever heard, with the Zeus confidently at the heart of it. Rogue Audio claims that they will not offer a product that they wouldn’t buy with their own money. If I had the money, I’d buy the Zeus and be done with it: I’d have my ultimate reference amp-and the heart and soul of my reference system, thank you very much.


Product Weakness: None determined during audition. If you find any, please tell the rest of us! Size and weight.
Product Strengths: Clean, Powerful, Musical, and Accurate sound. Other than that...


Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: See review
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): See review
Sources (CDP/Turntable): See review
Speakers: See review
Cables/Interconnects: See review
Music Used (Genre/Selections): See review
Room Comments/Treatments: See review
Time Period/Length of Audition: See review
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): See review
Type of Audition/Review: Dealer Demo
Your System (if other than home audition): Listed in Inmates Systems.





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Topic - REVIEW: Rogue Audio Zeus Amplifier (Tube) - Chuckster 16:22:53 05/5/03 (4)


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