Finally, a preamp that ticks nearly every box for Ashley Kramer in his never-ending quest for the best.
THIS REVIEW IS part of my ongoing search for a new preamplifier. I’ve been looking for the perfect preamp to match my Viganoni and Viganoni Sachem monoblocks (see here for a recent update), and Rogue Audio’s Metis Magnum valve preamp was first off the starting blocks.
My first thought when I was offered the Metis Magnum to review was to wonder what the heck a Metis was, if in fact it was anything at all. Logic told me that the name would refer to something from Greek mythology, given the names of some of Rogue’s other gear. As it turns out, Metis was a Titan, and she presided over wisdom and knowledge; Zeus seduced her, and she gave birth to Athena. Old Zeus was worried about a prophecy that indicated that her second child would overthrow him, so he ate her (as one did in those days I guess).
The made-in-the-USA Metis is Rogue’s entry-level preamp, so what’s the difference between a Metis and a Metis Magnum? [It’s got an ice-cream on the side? – Sweet Tooth Ed]. The Magnum designation indicates that it’s been blessed with upgraded parts in certain areas, including:
– A larger power supply
– Power supply modifications
– Larger coupling capacitors
– Cardas output wiring
– Polypropylene bypass capacitors
– Precision Dale-Vishay resistors in critical spots
– HexFred diodes
– Gold tube sockets
That’s an impressive list of modifications, which should make for a major improvement in the sound quality, especially if the standard Metis is a well thought-out design to start with.
Features and Construction
There’s more to the Metis Magnum than meets the eye, and it offers more features than the StereoKnight passive preamp I’ve been using for a while (reviewed here). In addition to the aforementioned upgraded components, it offers three line level inputs, a solid-state MM phono stage, a solid-state headphone stage and a choice of fixed or variable outputs (for recording purposes of course – you wouldn’t want to hook a power amp up to the wrong input). There’s also a balance control, slow start-up to protect the valves, and a sturdy metal IR remote control, which is really just a remote volume control, because that’s all it does. The valve complement is a pair of Chinese-made 6SN7GT’s.
The Metis Magnum sports a slim chassis, a folded metal top plate (which is painted in a black textured finish), and a decently thick metal faceplate finished in brushed silver. There are a couple of holes in the lid for the valves, some knobs and holes and a switch round front. Oh, and a bunch of sockets round the back. It’s definitely not a modern looking unit and while it possesses a certain rugged charm, it doesn’t come close to the visual impact of the StereoKnight or the restrained elegance of the Densen B-200 (reviewed here).
The build quality and finish are decent enough but nothing to write home about compared to components like Cambridge Audio’s Azur 851 series kit that I had in for review at the same time as the Metis Magnum. For example, the Metis Magnum’s top panel is quite resonant; the source selector knob is as wobbly as a wheel on an ox wagon and the valve cage just pops into some holes in the top plate – so it rings like a bell and is the most disconcerting aspect of the design. You could of course just leave the cage off if you don’t have to worry about kids or pets. But given how often I fiddle with my system, I’d prefer to have some metal protecting those valves from the swipe of an errant elbow.
Lest we forget, this is a piece of audio equipment, not a collector’s item that gets fawned over, so while the finish and features are important, the sound quality is what actually makes most of us part with our hard earned cash.
One of the old hi-fi clichés goes something like this: “Valve amplification sounds wonderfully warm and rich, especially through the midrange but is loose at the bottom – that is, devoid of tight bass. It’s also soft at the top – that is, missing treble extension and accuracy.” This may well have been true a long, long time ago but as a rule, modern valve amplification has evolved well beyond those outdated concepts and the virtues of a properly implemented valve far outweigh its vices.
There are many hybrid amplifiers out there, where the manufacturers have utilised valves in the preamp stage where they’re relatively unstressed and easy to implement, and solid state power amplifier stages, which are again easy to implement considering they don’t need the big, heavy and expensive output transistors of valve-based power amp stages. The goal is to combine the best of the valve sound (naturalness and a killer midrange) with the best of solid state (power, speed and bass grip). Basically, that’s what I’m trying to do here – combining the Metis Magnum’s (presumed) valve magic with a set of the most nimble power amps I’ve ever heard.
The speakers used during the review were my Theophany M5 Series 2 floor standers and Monitor Audio’s little Gold GX50 mini-monitor on Monitor Audio’s dedicated stands. Sources were my Marantz SA8260 SACD player and Cambridge Audio’s Azur 851C CD player/DAC. Cabling was a mix, but most of my listening was done with Slinkylinks cryo-treated silver RCA interconnects, Monster M-Series speaker cable for the Theophany speakers and Slinkylinks silver for the Monitor Audio’s. I used Nordost power cables for the CD players and the power amps, but the Metis Magnum got a plain old power cord for most of the review.
As usual, I started off with some familiar mellow acoustic music. Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’ (from the Deconstructed collection CD but originally off So Tonight That I Might See) sounded warmer than I’m used to on this system, and almost creamy smooth, but there was no mistaking the inherent resolution of the presentation because it was so easy to distinguish individual instruments and then to interpret what each instrument was actually doing. The sound of the guitar, including the fingers on the strings, was as clear as day even under the weight of the bass, while the tambourine was highlighted in the left channel, all on its own but by no means dissociated from the flowing nature of the track. This was a very cohesive and natural sound, one that was quite a long way removed from the leanness I’m used to with the StereoKnight passive pre in the loop.
The extra presence of the bottom end was very apparent on this track, to a degree that got me thinking that the StereoKnight had been holding back in this regard. This isn’t the case, it’s just that the Metis Magnum really does reach down low. As I worked through the course of the review, it became obvious that the bass octaves had opened up and deepened, and there was a fair amount more heft in the room. The sensation was that everything from the lowest notes the Theophany’s could sustain to the upper bass had benefited; indeed, the overall sound had far more gravitas. Music sounded richer, more solid – more natural. The system also seemed able to convey an even bigger sense of scale and power, not that it was ever a slouch in this regard. The overall speed and tightness of the bottom end wasn’t adversely affected at all.
The Cowboy Junkies’ ‘Sweet Jane’ from the same Deconstructed collection displayed similar sonic characteristics – a notable smoothness, especially through the vocals, but with absolutely no suppression of detail or texture. The depth of the Metis Magnum’s detail retrieval is obvious from the very first note of the lightly struck drums and cymbals because there’s no homogeneity to these notes, and any variance in the way they’re played is obvious. I really enjoyed listening to the slight audible differences in that long sequence of light cymbal taps starting at 2:52 – they may sound the same but they’re not. I’ve always liked the treble quality on the Theophany speakers, feeling that it’s been a real strength of the range through the years. The tweeter on my Series 2 M5’s has been superseded a number of times but the top end has seldom sounded as good as it did with the Metis Magnum in place.
I was quite blown away by the way Dylan’s ‘Shooting Star’ sounded with the Metis Magnum in the driving seat. The dual guitars that start off the track were nicely defined; then the vocal kicked in as big as life at the back of the room (no midget soundstages here thanks to the big Theophany speakers and their upward firing mid/bass drivers) and I was lifting my mental rating from “impressive” to “wow”.
Despite the mention of “warmth” earlier in the review, it’s interesting to note just how neutral the Metis Magnum/Sachem combination actually is. It’s unfailingly smooth, but that’s more a result of the lack of edginess and glare. The Sachems are particularly good in this regard for solid-state amps, being phenomenally clean in their output all the way to the very top. They’ve also proven to be broadly compatible with all manner of preamps, but the Rogue Audio’s tubes smooth out the sonics a touch, filling out the sound, adding some bloom and richness and moving everything more into the blessed analogue region. I’m not saying that the Metis Magnum magically transformed my system into a faux-turntable – both the Marantz and the Cambridge Audio players have that distinctive digital sound, but the last vestiges of edginess were erased, seemingly without the loss of any of the system’s virtues.
When it comes to a natural portrayal of vocals and acoustic instruments, the Metis Magnum, does a better job via the Sachems than any preamp I’ve had in here before. Listening to Eddie Vedder’s splendid soundtrack for Into The Wild was an object lesson in the power of tubes to breathe life and realism into music. Vedder has never had a problem conveying emotion with his voice, and hearing it suspended in the air between the speakers with so much of the rawness exposed and a huge amount of atmosphere made the songs sound so damn good. The quality of the midrange with the Metis Magnum in the loop is very different to the way it is with the StereoKnight – smooth liquidity vs. ultra transparency, but the Rogue effortlessly conveys intimacy and spaciousness to the recording.
Rock and other heavy tracks also worked very well with the Metis Magnum in the system, with all the characteristics that stood the preamp in good stead with acoustic music translating into the right stuff for electric music. Speed is one of the greatest traits of the Sachems and the Metis Magnum actually enhanced this because transients were as quick as I’ve heard them in this system, and the attack on the leading edge of instruments was a real pleasure to hear, which is a good thing considering how much I value this particular quality in my playback systems.
I found it hard to tune out heavy music because the Metis Magnum provided an impressive low-end foundation to the system – big bass notes rolling through the room, with plenty of punch and energy. Scale is the word that came to mind – the music sounded huge. With music ranging from Clapton to Young to Zevon and extending all the way to Massive Attack and Awolnation, the system was an absolute blast to listen to. A particularly neighbour challenging session with Neil Young’s Le Noise CD was enough to convince me for all time that valves and solid state make for brilliant partners – the bass on this album is something special when driven hard with the Theophany’s at the end of the chain.
The Metis Magnum initially produced zero extraneous hum or noise through the speakers. Perhaps this might be an issue with dramatically more sensitive speakers, but it wasn’t in this system. In fact the noise floor was remarkably low, giving the music the opportunity to rise from the proverbial inky-black background. After a fair amount of running, one of the valves started developing a bit of valve rush, but it was inaudible from the listening position. If this became an issue, then a simple valve swap would solve it.
High volume levels weren’t a requisite for emotional involvement in the music, because much like the Shindo pairing I reviewed earlier this year (review here), the Metis and Sachems retain their musicality and energy even at lower levels.
Soundstaging and imaging was also good, and while the imaging wasn’t as precise as with the dual-mono StereoKnight and the width of the soundstage wasn’t as broad, the air and space around the instruments combined with greater front-to-back depth to better convey the illusion of three dimensionality.
The Metis Magnum definitely benefited from a warm-up period each time it was fired up. It sounds really good from cold but after about 20 minutes, there’s an increase in the warmth and richness of the sound and after 40 minutes or so, it’s truly on it’s game – progressively the vocals sound sweeter, the soundstage moves back a foot or so and widens at the edges and the system really seems to be singing in harmony.
I wasn’t expecting too much from the headphone stage, but it actually drove my Sennheiser HD650’s with ease and sounded quite good doing it. The headphone stage’s sonic character is very different to what the Metis Magnum does for speakers, but that makes sense as there are no valves in the loop. So it’s not what you’d call warm; rather it’s quite matter of fact, without the air at the top and the richness through the mids. While it’s no replacement for a high-quality headamp, it’s a very useful feature for those who just want to plug in a set of ‘phones occasionally and enjoy their music in private.
With no turntable onsite, I never managed to test the built in MM phono stage, but if it’s anything like the headphone stage, it’ll do its job admirably well.
Actually, not much at all. The biggest bugbear was the remote control. You could spend 60 years training in the fabled Shaolin monastery in the hinterlands of China working on the speed and precision of your thumb, but you still wouldn’t be able to accurately control the volume of the Metis Magnum. A careful push that lasts a microsecond shoots the volume up more than desired as the motorised potentiometer swings round. It’s tough to get the levels right as you seesaw through too loud, too soft, too loud too soft… until finally getting up to adjust the level the old-fashioned way.
The headphone stage doesn’t quite mute the power amp outputs properly when a set of ‘phone is plugged in, but this wasn’t a big deal as I just turned off the power amps when I was listening to the ‘phones.
In some ways, the Rogue Audio preamp took my system back to the days when I was using a Yamaha A-S2000 integrated amp as a preamp. It may seem an unlikely combination with the Sachems but it worked and it worked well. One of the most obvious (and desirable) characteristics of the Yamaha was the way it did dynamics.
I loved this aspect of the system in those days, and while the StereoKnight totally killed the Yammy in terms of detail (another one of my audio must-haves), the passive preamp’s dynamics were a touch subdued; not dramatically so, but enough that sometimes I just wanted more energy. But I didn’t want to lose the StereoKnight’s marvelous neutrality, transparency, openness and resolution.
With the Metis Magnum, I got all of that, plus an increase in dynamics, a useful dose of extra bottom end weight, a lot more midrange richness and bloom, more air and a noticeable increase in the overall impact of the system. Critically, the Metis Magnum added a dose of emotion to the music, a naturalness and warmth that pulled the system away from being over- analytical and even a touch lean. It brought no negatives to the party, no nasty colouration, no cloying warmth and no slowing down of the speed and intensity of the power amps. The StereoKnight is a far better tool for listening into recordings and analysing audio gear, while the Metis Magnum is nicer to listen to. Once upon a time, I would have chosen the passive preamp; these days, the Rouge is more up my street.
The Metis Magnum’s prosaic looks might cause some potential owners to think twice, but the chassis is rugged and fit for purpose. What really matters is the quality of the components under the hood, the effectiveness of the circuit design, and the quality of the signal that’s pushed out of the output sockets. In this case, I can state without any doubt that Rogue Audio has spent the money and resources wisely, and this preamp more than delivers the goods. It’s an insightful part of the signal chain, capable of conveying a great deal of resolution and clarity without detracting from the involvement of the music. It’s relatively affordable too, especially considering the sound quality on offer, which by the way, completely shades the few minor annoyances into oblivion, hence the five star rating. It’s hard to worry about wobbly knobs and overenthusiastic remotes when you’re enjoying the sound so much.
If this is the upgraded entry-level preamp in Rogue Audio’s range, then I’d love to hear the next models up, purely for academic purposes, you understand. Sonically, it’s something of a wonder, delivering more audio goodness in my system than I’d hoped for, forming a beautiful synergy with my power amps and speakers. As always, system synergy is a fickle thing, but I’m confident that the Metis Magnum’s relatively neutral but smooth character will allow it to work well with many power amps, both valve and solid state. An audition of this preamp is highly recommended.
As it comes from the factory, the Metis Magnum is an extremely accomplished preamplifier but I’m an inveterate tweaker, so messing with the glass bottles sticking out of the holes in its lid is way too much of a temptation for me to resist. Rogue Audio encourages tube rolling, so I’ve rustled up some elderly alternatives to the new Chinese-made valves. With the kind assistance of Paul Burgess from Auckland’s Vintage Audio Valves, I’ve got matched pairs of Tung-Sol, GE and RCA 6SN7GT’s ready to try. I’m hoping to get a set of Brimars soon. Watch this space. ASHLEY KRAMER