"Metal Man" by Mark Fleichmann
He is more than just the designer of one of the world’s best amplifiers. Jeff Rowland is the personification of all that is good about high-end audio. Likewise, his amplifiers and preamps are not merely the products of a tiny company in Colorado – they embody the loftiest ideals, the grandest passions, and the sheer magic of the high end.
Before you meet the man, meet what he makes. The Jeff Rowland Design Group’s Model 9 power amplifier has a 3/4-inch-thick faceplate of solid aluminum, the kind used in aircraft. Its chassis, including the heat-dispersing fins, is machine-carved out of solid aluminum. The 90-pound amp sits atop a 135-pound replica of itself. That’s the power supply that feeds it. Since this flagship of Rowland’s amplifier line is mono, it takes two Model 9s, a total of four massive metal boxes, to feed a stereo system. The speakers in such a system might be about as tall as Jeff Rowland himself. He’s six-eight, beanpole-thin, a bit like the young James Stewart but less scrappy, more contemplative. "I’m getting more into sculpture," he says. "There’s something about a machined piece of metal, as opposed to a bent piece of metal, that has an intrinsic quality to it. That’s important to me because I feel I have to build art.
"I design basically for myself. I’m not concerned if something’s going to be accepted by the market or not. I know that if it thrills me inside, then it will thrill someone else."
Unrealistic? Hardly. Rowland has thrilled audiophiles all over the world by making amplifiers, preamplifiers, and nothing but. President and resident designer of the Jeff Rowland Design Group, he brings the focused attention of a tightrope walker and the zeal of a scholar to the art of amplifying a tiny stream of electricity into something that can fill a room.
Unlike some high-end designers, he’s less interested in pouring out new products or making something "affordable" than in meditating on the geometry of wire, the surfaces of connections, the aural properties of different solder formulations. This intense introspection does not get in the way of Rowland’s business strategy. It is his business strategy."I like to grant everybody the freedom to make their own decision," he says. "It’s a different marketing philosophy but it works. If I build a quality product, people will recognize that and buy into my dream."
Jeff Rowland’s dream started 44 years ago in Black Forest, Colorado. "As a kid, I was never satisfied with turning on a switch and a light comes on. I was always asking why. I used to go to the junkyard with my father and among the piles of pots and old refrigerators there was an area where they would sort out old TVs and radios. I could take home an old radio for 50 cents and try to resurrect it, take it apart, understand how it worked. My room was my laboratory. With no technical training, I was shockin’ myself a lot."
"I don’t want people to passively listen to music. Music demands involvement."
A solid two-year program at Dallas’ Devry Institute of Engineering Technology solved that problem, but the curiosity remained. "I always loved music, and after the mid-’70s I became fascinated by amplifiers. I built my own amps and preamps and listened and got involved in the music. I was interested in how I could make a change in the amplifier and it would change what I heard. I’ve had no formal musical education, so my experience of music has always been on the feeling level."
Among Rowland’s first high-tech jobs was a tour of duty at Ampex, maker of studio tape recorders. Dissatisfied with solid-state amplifiers, he left the corporate life and started his own company in Colorado Springs, designing one-of-a-kind amplifiers and accessories for studios.
"My thrill was going into an electronics surplus store with rows and rows of parts and thinking, ’I want to animate that part, put it with this other part and make it do something.’ So I would design an amplifier, usually custom-made to the customer’s specifications. For instance, I had a customer who wanted an amplifier with a big enough lid so his cat could lie on top of it. Cats like warm surfaces, especially in the winter. I had to get his amplifier back every year and clean cat hair out of it.
"I don’t like disposable products. I want to produce something that will endure the test of time. As long as I live, I intend to keep all those units out there operating."
"Word spread that I was doing this, and and after awhile musicians were bringing their amplifiers and mixing boards to me for repair. And I would not only repair them but see ways to improve them. I’d say, let me put in some better capacitors and resistors and change some feedback parameters. I would fix it in an hour, give it back to them sounding better than it did originally, and charge them $35. I always believe in giving more, and people feel good about that." He seems almost surprised. "My one-of-a-kind days also gave me a chance to see the mistakes in other designs. I decided to design my own equipment so it wouldn’t need all these modifications to give good long-term performance. That’s still my philosophy."
Soldering together parts in his garage and basement was only a part-time occupation for Rowland. It paid the rent, but more of his attention was focused on investigating the history of amplifier design and "getting a clearer idea of the relationship between electronics and listening."
Not until 1984 did the Jeff Rowland Design Group unveil its first amplifier, the mono Model 7. It’s no longer in stock, having given way to the massive four-piece Model 9 ($24,500 altogether). Rowland’s design goal was, and is, to create an amp that could drive "nearly any speaker yet maintain the subtlety present in smaller amplifiers."
His next product was a one-piece stereo amp, the Model 5, since succeeded by the Model 8 ($9,800). The same pattern – build it big, then scale it down – held true with the smaller Model 3 mono amps, since replaced by the Model 6 ($10,800/pair), and the Model 1 stereo amp, since replaced by the Model 2 ($5,800).
Review samples of the old Model 1 amp and Consonance preamp have found their way into my listening room again and again. Finally, after literally years of agonizing, I broke down and bought the amplifier. The day I loaded it into my rack, gazed at it lovingly, and realized that I finally own it was one of the happiest days of my life.
The handsome round-cornered Model 1 is relatively compact by high-end standards, but so heavy it must be shipped in a wooden crate. Nominally rated at 60 watts per channel into 8 ohms, 120 into 4 ohms, and 215 into 2 ohms, it has dynamic power reserves that transcend the usual specs, as well as an intangible "musicality" normally associated with vacuum-tube amps. "Quality of power," says Rowland, "is more important than quantity of power."
Having spent time with Models 9, 8, and 2 as well as my treasured Model 1, I can attest that Rowland amps have a consistent signature. What’s immediately noticeable is the total lack of noise. Human voices, steel-stringed acoustic guitars, violins, and other high-pitched instruments sound clean and natural, not hardened by subliminal distortion. This lack of glare invites an intimacy that comes only with the best high-end amplifiers, pulling the listener into the music. Whether it’s Nirvana or Brahms, the effect is the same. You like what you hear. You want to hear more of it. You turn it up. You turn it up again.
"I don’t want people to passively listen to music," Rowland says. "Music demands involvement. My goal is not to lose that subtle essence of music that draws in the listener. To touch that essence even for a moment can be enough to change your life. It’s not uncommon for us to sit in front of the stereo and just cry.
"So your stereo system shouldn’t be just a commodity that makes a sound. I don’t like disposable products. I want to produce something that will endure the test of time. As long as I live, I intend to keep all those units out there operating," cat hair or no cat hair. "I design things so that parts can be replaced economically and easily. The landfills are too full of equipment that fell out of fashion."
Ironically, Rowland product is quite popular in the Far East in general and Japan in particular. But a Rowland amplifier is not the kind of hollow sheet-metal-and-plastic gizmo sold in electronics discount houses or department stores. Even the average high-end audio salon may be too distracting a venue. In the New York area, for instance, Rowland amps and preamps are sold exclusively by Hobson Ultimate Sound, an apartment-based showroom that resembles a home.
Michael Hobson – also a prime mover in the LP-reissuing label Classic Records – displays several Rowland amps, linked by Cardas cables to massive, geometrically complex Avalon speakers. There is a symbiotic relationship between Rowland, Avalon and Cardas. They’re practically a family: Rowland and Avalon products contain Cardas wiring, and all three manufacturers use one another as reference standards.
Also in the Hobson Ultimate system are a Rockport turntable and, if you insist, Micromega digital components. Customers come in, bringing LPs and CDs. Hobson plants them on a sofa in front of the Avalons, gives a brief lecture, then plays DJ, letting them listen and form their own conclusions.
"I like small businesses," says Rowland. "I’m careful about expansion that’s too fast or popularity that’s too great. I prefer the elephant walk of growth instead of hopping around like a rabbit."
Though the Rowland workforce has increased from the original four employees to 12, not counting subcontractors’ help, the Design Group’s output has jumped from the first year’s 50 Model 7s to only about 2,000 units. Like everything else, that’s by design.
"We are producing industrial art and it will never become mass-produced," Rowland declares. "There always has to be that human element. If the company gets too big and you hire too many engineers to do different functions, that quality of human attention doesn’t come through in the final product. That’s what makes mass-produced products different from hand-crafted products. That sets the direction and limits the size.
"I don’t have any desire to sell the business and move on. This is my one contribution to society: to be an expert in the amplification of analog."
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1st of May, 2014