It is fair to say that the looks/aesthetics of this amplifier has caused some controversy. It has a mixture of looks with a dash of Nagra and a soupcon steampunk and a pinch of modernity. The controversy over the volume control certainly got it comments, but all this attention missed some of the other important characteristics of the amplifier, including sound quality.
The Hifi Rose RA 180 integrated amplifier uses four amplifier modules with the latest switching devices, GaN transistors. Yes, a Class D amplifier.
I was really interested in hearing about the new GaN Class D amplifiers and hearing if this development was an advance on MOSFET Class D or just another chimaera. The problem with hearing this integrated amplifier was it was not easy to get hold of one and Danny who recently reviewed the Rose 250 streamer, with which it would be true to say he was impressed, commented in the Rose 250 thread on the Wam that we could not get hold of the RA 180.
Well out of the blue Carl of Studio Incar said he had one and would be happy to lend it to me and he was less than an hour’s drive away. I could not refuse.
So off I want to Studio Incar, guess what his main business is? But not any old car audio but a whole range of car audio up to knee-trembling equipment at 5-figure prices. Whilst there I had a look at a BMW being fitted out with a top-quality system. There was great work going on with a lot of handmade car furniture being made to integrate the audio into the car.
Carl said he had some customers who wanted the same quality of sound at home and he had set up a listening area on the top floor of the fitting area with a cornucopia of great audio equipment.
Dynaudio speakers (including the big beasties), Hegel amplifiers and of course Rose streamers/amplifiers and I noticed a Peachtree GaN amplifier. Anyway, it was time to focus on the Rose 180 GaN. Carl took the box down to the car and I was off to George47 towers with my booty.
As this was stock from a dealer, I only had a few weeks of listening and not the usual longer time. I normally do not comment on the box but this was a well-packaged amplifier and other companies can learn a lot from their packaging. The RA180 is not a featherweight but has a well-made aluminium box that weighs 17 Kg. The volume control that caused all the comments is actually well designed and I initially just rotated the volume control to see the cogs go round. Backlit as well.
I would advise reading the manual as this a well-featured amplifier. It has four GaN amplifier modules that can be operated singly or strapped. I used them mainly in strapped mode (2 modules/channel) with a healthy 400w at 8 ohms. In single module mode, you get 4x 200w. The single module mode provides 4 amplifiers to bi-amp your speakers. And a rare item, there is an active cross-over included. With this cross-over, you can alter the bass cut-off frequency and the slopes of the cut-off fed to the bass and treble speakers. So, with this active cross-over, you have a fancy bi-amplifier or you can feed an active speaker system. Impressive. There are also the expected bass, treble and balance controls which can be defeated. It is possible to have the amplifier in A/V mode which defeats the preamplifier and allows integration to an A/V system. There is a good software and hardware lock to stop that from happening accidentally, as it is not good for your speakers or your health if you make a mistake.
This flexibility means that there are 16 speaker outlets on the back of the amplifier as well as the usual XLR and RCA inputs. Hence my advice to read the manual.
The amplifier can be controlled at the amplifier where you can see the volume control in all its glory, or via a neat remote control or via an APP. A thoroughly modern Millie.
I fed it with my digital front end of a Jays CD Transport, Gaia, Denafrips T+, the amp and into my Avalon PM1s.
But what does it sound like and did all the bells and whistles distract from getting good sound quality? In a word, no. I let the amplifier finish its burn-in and then started listening seriously. Initially, I spent my time listening for Class D weaknesses, bass was tight and dynamic but also had some of that natural flow that top players get out of their instruments. The bass guitar had real texture and string tone, especially on acoustic stand-up bass. OK, weakness 1….not there. The mid-range was slightly warm and human without a thin or flat sound. In fact, the emotion in the singer’s voices was well presented with a real 3D head and body with a voice. Weakness 2 …..not there. The high frequencies were not dry and threadbare without top-end sparkle. The high frequencies had sparkle and realism and were not a congealed block of frequencies. Weakness 3….not there.
At this point I gave up trying to listen for faults and just played my favourite tracks and not super test tracks. This allowed me to hear a broader range of music with variable sound quality and the amplifier did not draw attention to the poorer sound quality recordings. Yes, you could hear there was tons of compression or a pushed forward mid-range to make the music sound good on the radio, but your attention was not drawn to it. It was there but soon forgotten. With streaming being more popular the need for all this super compression is fading away. The quicker the better.
And to really test the amplifier, I changed my front end to an Audionote 4.1x DAC and a super DAC (secret for the time being). The amplifier never sounded like it was out of its depth or holding the system back. It gave a great account of itself. Of course, the world’s axis was not shaken and an ARC 75SE/IconPro4 and a top Luxman amplifier (900s) were better. But so they should be. They gave a bigger soundstage with a clearer, more dynamic sound but let’s be fair the Luxmans are £24,000 and the ARC £15K. I, therefore, tried something nearer the mark, a Hypex nCore Class D amplifier. And the gap was closer but the GaN amplifier was better without any of the issues I mentioned previously even if the Hypex was only slightly guilty. It was easily better and a more natural sounding. I am not dissing the Hypex as it was the turning point for Class D amplifiers.
I would normally at this stage live with the amplifier and let it get under my skin and really hear what it can do…but….it had to go back.
This is an intriguing amplifier with a great sound that is one of the best if not the best Class D amplifier I have heard. The amplifier is extraordinarily flexible and with an APP modern, with a Nagrasque/steampunk aesthetic. I must thank Carl at Studio Incar for the loan of this amplifier and I must get it back here. If you have £6K to spend you would be foolish not to have it on your list of must-hears.
And for me, the good news, Henley Audio have agreed to lend me a Rose 180 amplifier and a Rose 150B streamer, considered by some to be a great combination. Danny was really impressed with the Rose 250 so it promises to be an interesting combination.
I’ll be back.
Looks like I was not the only happy bunny.