Publisher's comment: Due to the overwhelming requests for review product, Rogue Audio, for the time being, has declined any and all US review solicitations. Unaware of this policy, our UK reviewer had obtained Rogue Audio review kit from the British distributor. Upon completion of his assignment, and learning that he'd enjoyed his time with them enough to acquire the Model 88/99 combo for personal use, we obtained special permission from Mark O'Brien of Rogue Audio to publish this writeup despite the current policy.

A Rogues' Gallery

Setting: the Troubadour, a London dining pub with a live-gig basement bar, famous for being the scene of one of Bob Dylan's early performances - remember when he was still finding his way out of Arlo Guthrie? These days, it's also one of the better contemporary poetry venues. On a good night, the basement fills with about a hundred people hoarding 'round wooden tables with drinks in hand and knightly pursuits on their minds. Last night I went to hear Henry Shukman, a rapidly rising star in the bardic firmament. You think audio is ignored? Try poetry for a real take on how the great pleasures in life are being left to gather dust in a cupboard.

Now - Henry kicks off and within moments, he's got us hanging off every single word. He draws us into his world with an invisible while deft authority. We are doing something very unusual for a poetry reading: Empathizing with his characters. We're involved, caught inside their point of view. It's quite the spell, in this old land of Arthurian legends.

Poem reprinted with permission from the author. "Man Pissing" is selected from Shukman's award-winning volume In Doctor No's Garden - Cape 2002.

Henry's managed to conjure his two characters and the urinal right onto the stage, beside the audience. Like a master story teller, he subtly inflected certain words. We could hear the child's amazement behind "a mushroom nozzle emitting a twirled bore", with the last two words lightly underlined - just a touch of stupefaction. The audience burst into laughter. We all recognized the child's feelings, the sheer awe of spectating that massive stream of piss. His tone brought out the enthusiasm of "a fireman's jet" to further draw us into the scene from the boy's perspective. The way he read it, all the delicately hinted at subtext came pouring out: The son's hero worship, viewing his father as some incredible magician; the secret and mysterious ritual he gets to be part of because he is his father's boy; and underpinning it all the relationship between the two, immortalized so deftly in these portraits of two different kinds of love. I mean, who needs a novel?

Henry transformed a few simple words to make a mundane moment in ordinary life come actually present, here & now. Try it yourself. Read the poem aloud a couple of times. See if you can emphasize the words such as to release their underlying meaning. It's a most difficult thing to do, taking a lot of practice, experience and a very good ear. Get it right though and you come away feeling more alive. We certainly did. I know this poem well but certainly had never heard it like last night. Afterwards? The atmosphere in that pub was positively charged, electrified like after a thunderstorm, the audience veritably abuzz. It was a moment I don't think I'll ever forget - as if it had become part of my personal treasury of profound memories.

"Great" you say, "but what, for piss' sake, has this got to do with amplifiers?"

Let me ask you something: Why are us audiophiles so obsessed with our equipment? My answer is very simple: Because we hear how every system interprets the music. The traditional view has been that this interpretation should be as 'neutral' as possible. I've subscribed to this view myself. Increasingly, I'm looking for a higher standard though. It's not about measurements or neutrality. It's about what brings the music alive. ALIVE!

Here's a rule. All good music contains subtext that's inextricably interwoven within the structure as well as surface of the musical shapes. The job of an audio system is to correctly render the surface and accurately reveal the essence of that subtext. It's the difference between sounds we admire and music that moves us, making us into front-row participants with the musical event and the artist's inner vision.

And let's remember that the subtext is communicated not by the instruments, but how the musicians express themselves through their strings, skins, folded tubes and diaphragms. Take Dave Gilmour. His notes can trigger associations, memories, textures, colours through minute inflections of tonality, pitch and alterations of volume and pressure as sudden yet elegant as a swallow's flight. It's as though delicate membranes of his innermost emotional being were hard-wired through the instrument to the listener.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the subjects at hand. There already are lots of really happy Rogue owners out there. After a few weeks spent with the Sixty Six and Eighty Eight Magnum pre/power amplifiers, you can call me a Roguehead, too. To be honest, I'd never really given the Rogues the credit they deserve. These upstart Americans commit the cardinal sin of hiding their tubes! Plus, they can't decide whether they're triode or ultralinear. They're fixed bias, don't use output transformers hand-wound by a blind samurai, don't reek of exotica or overkill. But the real question remains. Do they sing? After all, there are plenty of valve amps sounding like stale sonic gruel, with the fanciest of ingredients. While the focus of today's review is the Eighty-Eight Magnum amplifier, it was strapped to its companion Sixty-Six magnumfied preamp for the majority of the review.

The Sixty Six Magnum Preamplifier

The Sixty Six's footprint is considerably smaller than the Eighty Eight, 35 by 28cm with 3cm height. Aesthetically we're into clean and simple territory. We get a brushed aluminium face plate (also available in black), with the traditional Rogue semi-circular indent housing volume, the large source select, balance, power and mute. I'd prefer to see the balance go as it adds circuitry and is not the way to balance the sound of a system. Aft you get six inputs, two outputs and a phono ground. All are good-quality gold RCAs, but nothing by way of balanced connections. You choose either a remote option or an on-board phono stage. Mine arrived with the remote option but I'd love to hear the phono-stage version.
The preamp's hefty separate power supply comes with a captive lead from supply to the amp, negating the ability to choose at least that part of the mains loom. Internally we get good quality Noble volume and balance controls, and a valve complement of two Electro-Harmonix 12AU7s. My major gripe is with the casing design for both the pre and power. True, I lust after the aesthetics of exposed tubes, but it's also a practical consideration. Having to unscrew the lids' ten screws to change tubes is a bore for those wanting to experiment. The upside? I suppose that might attract buyers who are weary of tubes in the first place. Not to mention that the bore of removing the case might actually be a benefit - less risk of getting addicted to tube swapping. You also get an auto-mute function at start up and a slow start facility.

The Eighty Eight Magnum Power Amplifier

While the 66 is a pretty diminutive creature, the Eighty Eight is a large and hefty beast that weighs in at 55 pounds. In fact, it's packaged with a chipboard base to prevent the chassis from being twisted in transit. Externally, the power amp sports the same brushed aluminium faceplate, with a nicely tapered circular recess for the power button. Around back we have a set of input RCAs, a power mains input and two fuse sockets. Plain, simple and elegant. Again, to reach the innards we must unscrew the top plate to find a neatly laid-out circuit board with switches for triode to ultralinear operation, and the ability to switch between 4- and 8-ohm taps by unscrewing the rear of the speaker outputs. The tube complement squares up at four KT88/6550, four 12AU7s and two 12AX7 in fixed bias mode. The output transformers remain unlabeled.

Tom Selleck as Magnum The "where's my chopper" Magnum modifications can be retrofitted (chopper and tan excluded) to both units to add a considerable quantity of goodies to already impressive packages.

On the 66 we get a larger, heavily modified power supply, better coupling and output caps, braided Harmonic Technology silver wiring, gold tube sockets, and an extra peppering of Dale-Vishay resistors as well as the upgraded Electro-Harmonix tubes.

The 88 upgrade improves and beefs up the output transformers while the power supply too benefits from a boost in size. Add top-quality coupling caps and more Vishays. Did I mention the gold tube sockets? The Harmonic Tech silver wiring? To cap it off, consider the excellent gold-plated binding posts with handily large hex nuts for people like me who prefer non-terminated nude speaker cables. All in all, a carefully fitted package of improvements designed not as an audiophile checklist but to deliver on sonics where it matters.

Set Up

The casing on both pre and power amp isn't of the highest quality, aluminium facias excluded. Hence both units proved particularly susceptible to tweaking. I ultimately ended up placing them directly over the air-suspension support I usually use for CDP and turntable, ignoring the small rubber feet in favour of RDC cones and cups. I also plugged the preamp into the Audio Magic Minis Stealth power purifier to remove a layer of hash and improve separation. This combination considerably opened up the sound up, in particular widening the soundstage and providing a more resolved, spatially better separated take on the proceedings. The greater clarity also offered a better insight into cabling, with the combo preferring a full run of Clearlight Audio NFT to a couple of other interconnects I tried.

While the Living Voice OBX-Rs can easily live with the 30-watt triode mode of the 88, I found the greater back bone and top-to-bottom cohesion of the ultralinear mode more satisfying. Digital sources were the Audiomeca Mephisto II and an Audion prototype CDP with Mullard-valved output stage and a Teac VRDS transport. Vinyl was my usual Scheu Premiere, mainly with the Allaerts/Schroder 2 combo.