Rose RA180 Integrated Amplifier Review

Rose RA180 Integrated Amplifier.

Design and Features

From the outset, the Rose RA180 seemed intriguing. The industrial design is beautifully executed: though photographs suggest a highly complex visual appearance, in the room it demonstrates a more subtle and elegant application of form to function. Its visual aesthetic is very satisfying, and the hint of industrial Bauhaus would suit a Vitsoe or String shelving system as much as an oak cabinet or a conventional hi-fi rack. Its internal design is equally impressive, and Rose claim that their innovative use of materials has allowed them to surpass some of the previous limitations of Class D circuits. The use of Gallium Nitride FET technology allows the RA180 to perform like a pure analogue amplifier, achieving greater naturalism along with the higher output and efficiency that Class D affords.

Rose RA180 Integrated Amplifier Review Close Up

I would admit to harbouring some prejudices about Class D amplifiers. For years they failed to impress me, even after advances by designers such as Hypex had surpassed the reputation of switching power supplies for grainy or brightly etched sound. Then certain experiences began to chip away at my prejudices. I was surprised and even delighted by how modest ICE powered amps can produce a rich and satisfying mid-range tonality. But still, to my ears, a certain live sense of space seemed to elude them. Could the Rose RA180 provide this? Rose clearly believe that they have the answer to such questions, an answer which is subtly suggested by the concept of ‘Class AD’. When I hear this term I’m already asking a question: can the amp combine the realism and richness of Class A with the easy power of Class D, with hopefully less strain on our energy bills?

Rose RA180 Integrated Amplifier Back detail

I was particularly intrigued by the huge power on offer with the RA180, and the multiple options for utilising it. My Tannoy Eaton Legacy are a tough speaker to drive, and even my 150W Unison Research DM power amp can’t quite extract the last ounce of bass from their unusually stiff modern cone design, quite distinct from earlier Tannoy drivers. The RA180 provides two compelling alternatives on top of the 200W of its standard mode: for bi-wirable speakers, 4 separate 200W amplifier modules can be used with two runs of speaker cables: a really impressive innovation for an integrated amp. The other alternative is the BTL mode, or ‘Bridge Tied Loads’, which bridges the pairs of amplifiers to give a massive 400W. I used this mode with a single run of 2-4 bi-wire cables.

Inside the Rose RA180 Integrated Amplifier

I don’t want to give away my conclusions at the beginning, but I will answer one question from the outset. All of these aspects of the Rose’s design bring clear and impressive results. They are well thought out and implemented ways of gaining exceptional power and flexibility from an integrated amplifier. The only design features that might be seen as slightly excessive are the subtly steam-punk volume dial and the multiple RIAA options on the phono stage. But the former is rather attractive and the latter may delight those not-to-be neglected 78 collectors. This is just one of a number of features that are aimed to give the listener maximum flexibility: useful tone controls, and a more complex active crossover for tailoring and refining HF response. All of these are easily accessible from manual controls that are elegantly laid out on the fascia. A slim and elegant remote allows volume control, input switching and mute functions.

Listening Impressions

At first I wanted to get a sense of how the amplifier worked in standard mode, before accessing its more complex features. My listening experience with the Rose was a journey, so I’ll start from very first impressions. I’ve had the Cocteau Twins and Elizabeth Fraser’s voice on my mind often of late, but I’ve also been hungry for electronic music with power and depth. To satisfy both these urges, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (Apple Music streaming) was one of my first points of entry, an album that showcases the quite different and sometimes competing virtues of vocal purity, complex layering, and dynamic intensity. My first impression of ‘Teardrop’ was of dynamic weight and space, though Elizabeth Fraser’s voice lacked the glow I’m used to hearing with my hybrid mosfet/valve amps. This sense was confirmed listening to acoustic recordings by Gillian Welch and Kings of Convenience.

At this very early point I wondered if the Rose could satisfy my desire for tonal naturalism and richness, though I never doubted its dynamic capacities. Returning to Mezzanine, and the much darker ‘Inertia Creeps,’ the composure of the R180 allowed the sense of threat, appropriately, to slowly creep up on me. Whilst Robert del Naja growls and whispers ominously, he is increasingly surrounded by a whirling furore of percussive loops and squawks. I loved the darkness and intensity I was hearing, and I already had a sense of the Rose’s power in reserve. It also set a pattern. The scale and insight was infectious, so that once I started with an artist, I invariably wanted to rediscover their entire oeuvre and hear it afresh. I listened to the early Massive Attack albums with delight, revelling in both the finely realised detail and the convincing overall picture. On Protection, the huge sub bass of ‘Wondering’ provides a satisfying platform for cinematic strings, and even the most simple impressionistic trip-hop sketches such as ‘Weather Storm’ feel fresh: the plodding and hypnotic bass has body and texture and the piano has a lovely clarity.

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I quickly adjusted to the Rose’s presentation of vocal and instrumental texture. Unlike some amplifiers that major on detail and become tiring after a few days, the RA180 grew on me, seducing me with its power and complexity.

One of its great qualities is its ability to show the dynamic layering of a piece of music, and it proved to be masterful with complex pop music. Talking Heads epitomise these qualities; their multi-layered and finely crafted songs propelled by a focused rhythmic drive. The Rose revealed all of their complexity at the same time as it brought their grooves to life. I fell in love again with the live album Stop Making Sense, first watching the film, then listening to the original 1984 LP and excellent 1999 CD. The unique form of this concert provided me with an illumination into the special qualities of the RA180. As the band is built up piece by piece, it strikes me that the minimalist or deconstructive method that Talking Heads used for this performance is representative of what I’m hearing from the Rose. The concert famously begins with David Byrne and a ghetto blaster, followed by the appearance of Tina Weymouth on bass for a rhapsodic performance of ‘Heaven’, then subsequently the other two band members, before an increasing cast of musicians provide layers of texture. This is precisely what the Rose does with complex music: it gives me great insight into how each layer is built up, but it reveals this in a way that serves the whole picture. The synergy between the RA-180 and Talking Heads also helped me to hear how Tina Weymouth is the rhythmic core of the band, and how the addition of Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt bring a rhapsodic soulfulness to the live event.

My Talking Heads revelation led to a full-scale 80s revival. I gravitated in particular to the most densely layered of Japan’s songs, repeatedly playing the excellent new Abbey Road pressing of their beautifully sequenced compilation LP, Exorcising Ghosts. But rhythmic layering wasn’t the Rose’s only virtue. It was equally adept in conveying an ominous sense of space. I appreciated this in particular listening to Garlands (UK First Pressing and Apple Music streaming), the first Cocteau Twins album and a Gothic masterpiece before Goth had achieved subcultural definition. At this point I was using the Rose in bi-amping mode, which gave me a clear and visceral sense of Will Heggie’s bass as the muscular heart of the music. I had a similar experience with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (UK First Pressing), again with the bass at its heart alongside a deliberately alienated machinic rhythm.

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For the majority of this listening I was using my Longdog Audio MCJ3, a hybrid mosfet/valve phono stage that I consider both supremely balanced in its qualities and keenly priced. I also tried the internal MC stage of the RA-180. This is a welcome addition, and the quality was significantly higher than I expected. With my AT33SA the sound had clarity and scale, and the MC setting at 100 Ohms will suit a wide variety of cartridges. Whilst it is perfect on paper for Audio-Technica cartridges, with my AT33SA I heard a slight emphasis on the lower mid-range. Listening to the Tone Poet Stereo pressing of John Coltrane’s Blue Train, the lower octave of Coltrane’s tenor was subtly warmed up, by no means an unpleasant colouration, though the presentation of Lee Morgan’s trumpet and Curtis Fuller’s trombone was slightly hooded. If these are limits, they are only in comparison to my over-achieving separate stage; overall, this is a very creditable phono stage, especially for an integrated amp.

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Returning to my Longdog stage, I also returned to the early 80s with The Cure’s Seventeen Second (UK First Pressing)an insistently un-funky sound, and the polar opposite of the Tina Weymouth and Mick Karn grooves I’ve mentioned. I was now listening in the standard amplification mode again, and found that I was missing a little weight and intensity. Simon Gallop’s bass on this recording is at times deliberately flat and affectless, and the album had a lighter balance than I remember, as if one of the infectious layers of gloom had been removed. Then I switched back to BTL mode! Suddenly the bass was deeper, tighter, and more defined, and the kick drum was far more present. Once again I was drawn into what rock critics in the 80s might have described as a ‘sonic cathedral’, a grandiose but suggestive term that was affectionately derided by John Peel at the time.

I was repeatedly impressed by the extra weight and density that the BTL mode brought. I had tried it on my first couple of days with the Rose but the results had been odd. There is a small button on the back to switch between modes and, in retrospect, I must have had this set incorrectly by accident. With all the settings checked and correct, the BTL mode provided an even denser and weightier sound than bi-amping. I suspect with care and attention given to the crossover settings, bi-amping would bring the greatest gains in clarity and refinement. It’s great to have the choice. At least with challenging speakers, it seems to me that these options are the RA180’s trump cards, and this was proven decisively when I started to listen to orchestral music with real scale and drama. But there was a greater surprise here, since the BTL mode not only brought a considerable increase in dynamic scale, it also provided richer instrumental tone.

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Whilst listening to multiple recordings of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto on Apple Music, I compared the different modes once more. As a standard 200W amp the Concerto was never any less than compelling, and in the Joseph Suk recording I heard wonderful colour and texture. In some cases though, such as the Bernstein and Isaac Stern performance, the recording technique was laid bare, and I was almost distracted by detail. With my old favourite, Solti and Kyung Wha Chung’s 1984 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the balance was good, but I wanted a little more body on the violin. In BTL mode I got it, and at the same time as the violin became richer, the orchestra expanded.

It’s notable here that the RA180 was showing virtues that we might conventionally associate with valve amplifiers – tonal richness, and an ability to convey the living space of an event – again defying my preconceptions about Class D. Yet it’s also important to note that there are limits to this emulation of valve qualities. When listening to my scratchy first pressing of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper through my valve or hybrid amplifiers, I can hear through the poor vinyl quality to a quality of space unique to the valve chain in the production. It’s subtle, and not easy to convey. This is one thing the Rose can’t quite achieve. It is most definitely a fine all rounder, but I still find myself leaning towards valves or hybrids for certain musical forms or recordings.

It’s worth pausing at this point to consider the different sonic choices I’m describing in more detail. In both journalism and forum discussions, two frequently articulated philosophies of audio reproduction are often seen as oppositional. On the one hand there is a deconstructive view that suggests that the recording is an artifice, fundamentally different to live music, and that the purpose of hi-fi is to faithfully reproduce the conditions of the recording. On the other hand we have an immersive view, suggesting that the purpose of hi-fi is to assist recordings in creating a successful illusion of presence, so that either the musicians are transported to our listening space, or we are transported to the imaginary space of an original performance. The immersive view tends to be held consciously as a subjective preference, whereas the deconstructive view is frequently cited as a matter of ‘objectivity’ or philosophical correctness, as if it is our duty to eschew satisfying illusions. Once held as an opinion it becomes dogma, of course, but this isn’t the place for aesthetic debates. The important point is that these are both common and equally valid aspirations. A good component should satisfy those of us that tend to either side of the divide, and hopefully show us that there isn’t quite the divide we imagined. I don’t think proponents of either position would be disappointed with the Rose RA180. But it’s important to discriminate subtle tendencies. So whilst my Unison Research amps err on the side of the immersive, they are also gloriously insightful. And whilst the Rose showcases an insightful capacity that could be classed as deconstructive, it also provides an immersive and tactile musical experience.

These tendencies do, nevertheless, unconsciously push us towards certain musical choices. Sure enough, when returning to my Unison Research amps in the middle of the review process, I started listening to more 60s jazz again, and had a wonderful morning listening to multiple Coltrane recordings. There’s an interesting lesson here. However neutral we feel a component may be, it is always likely to subtly direct our listening. My last decade has been dominated by jazz. So was this a product of middle age, or have hybrid mosfet/valve amps unconsciously determined my direction?

It’s important to stress that I’m only trying to focus subtle tendencies in order to more clearly ascertain the areas where the Rose is exceptional. Just as I’ve spent many hours listening to punk or techno through my Unison Research amps, I very much enjoyed Jazz recordings through the RA180. In fact one of my first impressions of its qualities was with a Sarah Vaughan recording that I listened to in the first few days of my time with the Rose. And this might serve as my conclusion.

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With Sarah Vaughan’s live album At Mr Kelly’s (Apple Music streaming), I was immediately struck by the richness and holographic quality of the voice. Of course if the divine Sarah doesn’t sound rich and velvety, then it’s not hi-fi, and something is wrong! But I was also fully conscious of the way that the close mic exaggerates and expands her voice. I love the way I’m given this clear window on to the conditions of the recording, but at the same time I can wallow in the richness of ‘Willow Weep for Me’. I found myself moving my chair back a little, turning the volume up, and allowing the room to become a virtual Mr Kelly’s. On this excellent recording the piano is realistically set back in the soundstage and there is a luminous sense of space around the top notes. I’m captivated by the overall illusion of being at an event, even more so when something slips on the stage, some audience members start laughing, then Sarah starts inventing the words she has ostensibly forgotten (an old Ella Fitzgerald trick to goad the audience further). The clarity and detail the Rose offers make these little events and sudden intrusions really startling, and Sarah herself seems more present and alive.

What really impresses me about the Rose is that it achieves this vivid sense of live music through its rigorous clarity, rather than undermining the illusion with a ruthless perspective that some would call ‘warts and all’. There’s no need to be hair shirted, after all; we are here for musical pleasure. The great thing with the RA180 is that we can have both a fine deconstructive attention to recording detail and a richly immersive experience of a musical event. This makes it highly recommended, particularly for listeners with demanding speakers that need some extra force to awaken their dynamic capabilities. What I learned in my time with this amplifier is that the sheer power offered by the latest refinements in Class D technology is not just offering brute force: it’s power and grip only serves to liberate the finer and richer qualities of musical reproduction.

https://www.henleyaudio.co.uk/

By Andrew Eastham.

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