April 2005CR Developments Romulus Integrated Amplifier
by David Millman
Although all of these benefits are true, and the integrated-amp category boasts many great examples, separate components are still held in higher regard. That's a shame. Simplicity is a professed bedrock tenet of the audiophile manifesto, but I'm not sure most of us can accept it in practice. Maybe, in an avocation that places such value on small details (cable lifters, anyone?) as a crucial part of the enjoyment, removing some of that detail is tantamount to removing some of the fun.
So what to make of the CR Developments Romulus integrated amp, a hefty, gleaming, 35Wpc piece of British engineering? What if it's very greatest contribution isn't brute force or forward compatibility but soul? Is that enough to warrant its consideration in the place of separates?
The CR Developments story
CR Developments is a collaboration between Chris Latham and Richard Lord, two British music lovers with long engineering histories. Latham worked in his family's industrial-power-supply business for over 20 years, specializing in very intricate, technical work. Lord's background in professional audio was the perfect foil. It was Lord's work designing a tubed guitar amp that prompted the fledgling company to get serious about audio design.
After attending a hi-fi show in 1989, Latham and Lord thought there might be a market for a well-engineered tubed integrated amplifier, one they could manufacture as an OEM product for an audio company with supposedly more marketing savvy. By 1991 they had registered their company, and in 1993 presented their first product, the prototype of the original Romulus integrated amp, at the Bristol Hi-Fi Show. They failed to launch CR Developments as an OEM company, but they did manage to write 200 orders, a large number. Since then, they have created numerous amplifier designs, all classic push-pull, that have proven to be durable and reliable.
For the US market, CR Developments has limited its launch to six products, including the most updated version of the Romulus, of which Chris Latham remains particularly fond. It is the company's only integrated amp intended for the US, and at $2995 USD, it tends towards the lower end of the CR Developments price sheet.
Lifting the Romulus out of its box is a pleasure -- this is a robust integrated with surprising heft. It measures 17"W x 6"H x 14"D and weighs 34 pounds. The velvet bag in which it is shipped is a nice touch, lending a slightly regal feel to the proceedings. Once the Romulus is out in the open, its gloss-black-and-polished-stainless-steel finish with large gold knobs offers a nice contrast to the usual industrial/minimalist design. I'm reminded of some of the EAR gear from Tim de Paravicini, which also mixes chrome and gold-tone finishes to achieve a wonderful, artisanal British look.
The front panel is basic, with three large knobs, one each for input selection, volume, and power. Around back, the five sets of high-quality RCA line-level inputs are cleverly marked upside down, for easy reading if you're in front of the amp looking down at the back panel. There is an IEC inlet for the power cord; the instructions insist that the original power cord be used, but that's for CE compliance. If you play around with power cords, you're on your own. I tried PS Audio and Acoustic Zen cords with no problems, but with no obvious benefits either. The Romulus also has pre-out RCAs, sets of five-way speaker binding posts, and finally a small switch that isn't noted in the instruction manual. As it turns out, this switch allows one to lift the unit's ground and thereby cancel ground hum if present, which I found useful. Remote control is a $250 option.
The self-biasing tube complement features three 12AX7s, two 12AU7s and, for output, four 6L6GCs run in push-pull configuration. The tubes are neatly arranged across the top of the unit, operating in classic push-pull format. All of the tubes were chosen both for sound quality and ready availability, and printed circuit boards are used to ensure manufacturing uniformity. Chris Lanham is precise but not precious when it comes to parts selection, and he tries to eliminate future frustration from ownership, a noble goal.
Associated equipment for evaluating the Romulus included a Pioneer DVD-434 DVD player (ModWright modified) as a CD transport, Perpetual Technologies P-3A DAC (with Level II ModWright mods) fed by Jena Labs Digi-Link digital cable, a prototype ModWright tube preamp, a PS Audio HCA-2 amplifier (with ModWright mods), and Vandersteen 1C speakers. Interconnects were Jena Labs Trios, with Mapleshade Clearview speaker cables also used. A Shunyata Research Hydra Model-6 feeds all electronics; it reaches the wall via a Shunyata Copperhead power cord.
Late in my listening, I elevated the Romulus off the floor, which turned out to make a huge difference. In this case, using just a simple wood cutting board helped control resonance, with the sonic effect of eliminating unwanted tonal overhang. Truthfully, I was staring at a huge bowl of soup until I placed the Romulus on top of the wood platform, which immediately stopped the excesses and allowed the music to come floating through. I can imagine that some of the finer isolation devices might allow tuning to even greater effect.
Music, music and more music
Start-up of the Romulus is easy: simply turn it on, and 15 seconds later you've got music. True to the instructions, I found that no other warm-up was necessary. I let the Romulus play over the course of several weeks before I got into serious listening -- or more accurately, before something popped up and made me take notice. Such is the experience of listening to music with the Romulus -- the music, not the equipment, is what draws attention.
That first "Eureka!" came via the Cure's compelling proto-Goth exercises, the 1980 album Seventeen Seconds [Fiction/Polydor 825 354-2] and its 1981 twin, Faith [Fiction/Polydor 827-687-2], which have always been favorites of mine. Coming well before Robert Smith & Co. had really learned to play their instruments, these albums rely on simple but carefully constructed sonic moods to propel the songs. In turn, a piece of gear such as the Romulus is critical to getting inside that mood, to the place where feeling surpasses musical limitations. In essence, you need soul to understand soul, and as I have said, the Romulus has soul.
It was late one night that I put on Faith and sat down to do some work. The cool, descending flanged bass figure that opens the first track, "The Holy Hour," had a plugged-in feeling that I hadn't noticed before, causing me to look up. Through lesser components, this can sound tinny and simplistic, but not here. The bass then gives way to Spartan drums, an ominous church bell that rings, moody synth, lazy rhythm guitar and, finally, Robert Smith's familiar vocal pleadings. Wow, this was different. Through the Romulus, all of the atmosphere properly coalesced into a complete and convincing soundscape (a term co-opted and destroyed by the commercial "new age" music category, but I digress). Faith, already a short disc at 35 minutes long, seemed to go by even more quickly. Seventeen Seconds, which is almost the same record, passed by just as quickly.
The Romulus sound is many things, and above all, a balance of those things. There was detail but not etch or exaggeration. Soundstaging was clearly articulated, with consistent placement in front of the speakers, but never in a way that detracted from the music, and instruments were always grand but realistic in size. Without sounding soft or flabby, there was a wonderful three-dimensional quality that one generally associates with tube gear, and instruments retained proper tonality. Latham and Lord don't claim to be designing the most neutral amp on the planet, but they'd be very happy if you thought it was one of the most musical.
During my time with the Romulus, I was on a dub kick. Once upon a time I listened to a lot of dub, one of the most blissful musical forms to come out of Jamaica. By turning songs into spacey instrumentals using the crude mixing technology available to them, King Tubby and other dub pioneers set a quake into motion that continues to be felt today through the work of Kruder & Dorfmeister, Thievery Corporation, and other current remix stars. One of my cornerstone albums is In Dub [Mango/Island 162-539 650-2] by British poet/activist Linton Kwesi Johnson. Released in 1980, In Dub is true to the dub heritage while moving in a cleaner, more linear, more pop-like style than some of its earlier Jamaican counterparts (i.e., the brilliant Augustus Pablo recordings of the time).
Via the Romulus, In Dub was a pleasure. I got an in-studio feeling, of being able to witness the mixing decisions as they were happening. As was true throughout all my listening, bass weight and treble extension were good, but it was always the midrange that delighted and impressed. Continuing the dub excursion, I put on Pole's second release, aptly titled 2 [Matador/OLE 359-2]. Pole is the work of producer Stefan Betke and represents an altogether modern take on the dub construct. By stripping the music to its essential emotional core, Pole contributes something new and vital. The problem was that in my previous listening, I couldn't get to that emotional core, but via the Romulus, I started hearing beyond the electronica and into the heart of the project, due to that burnished midrange. It was truly exciting to have a work like this suddenly make sense.
Turning to one of my trusted reviewing tools, British neo-folkie Kathryn Williams' acclaimed 2002 album Old Low Light [Caw/East West 0927-47552-2], I dug into the opening track, "Little Black Numbers" (coincidentally the name of Williams' preceding album). The double bass that opens the track is either glorious or not, depending on the gear; through the Romulus it's a large-scale, hard-plucked, woody delight. When Williams begins singing, her closely miked pensiveness drips from the speakers in a most personal way.
Recently, a friend gave me Scar [Mammoth 65507-2], Joe Henry's superb 2001 album. The list of musicians is stellar, including Ornette Coleman, Brad Mehldau, David Pilch, Me'shell Ndegecello, Brian Blade, Abe Laboriel, Jr., Marc Ribot and Bobby Malach. The other star attractions are Henry's penetrating songwriting and the production by Henry and cohort Craig Street. When it all comes together, as it surely does via the Romulus, Scar conveys pain and truth that can be felt. The opening track, "Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation," is a gorgeous dirge, with Henry's vocals exhibiting a deep, Tom Waits bent (but without veering off that cliff). The music is laid out in carefully constructed pockets, somewhat like a Daniel Lanois production but without Lanois' easily identified honey glaze. The next song, "Stop," is all Texas-Latin shuffle, quite unlike the much more famous version by Henry's sister-in-law, Madonna. Despite the denseness of "Stop" (and most of the songs on Scar), the Romulus presented everything with clarity and swing, a tribute to this integrated's ability to get inside and properly digest material.
So what's not to like? Well, not much, though, to be fair, the Romulus isn't perfect. Like many a very fine amp, it has limits, and to its credit, it doesn't bury them deeply. You know what you're getting because the simple truth is that the design does so much so well within its target priority zone. I wouldn't expect a 35Wpc amp to blow down the roof of my house with massive SPLs, and this one doesn't, even though my 91dB-sensitive Vandersteen speakers were driven to listening levels that were more than sufficient. I recognize that there were upper limits, break points where congestion would set in, so if you need horsepower, this may not be the integrated amp for you, especially if you have more modestly sensitive speakers. Also, bass freaks aren't going to find their nirvana, but that's not much of a surprise, either.
By comparison, my ModWright tube preamp and PS Audio HCA-2 amplifier (roughly $3300 together) presented In Dub and 2 with more authority, attributable in part to the firmer bass grip. My electronics also did an excellent job of sorting out the instruments and keeping them from tripping each other up. Each note was distinct, thoughtful, well played, and separate. The Romulus did a good job, though not with the same degree of clarity and speed. In contrast, the Romulus dug deeper into the heart of the music, and in some ways presented a more natural look at the interaction between musicians. For my money, those audiophiles who want to hold live music as the reference standard are asking to accept a sonic picture that is rarely as precise as what happens in a well-engineered studio environment. So, by that truth, the Romulus probably does the better job of re-creating the feeling of a live event, with both the joy of live dynamics and the occasional thickness that comes with live mixes.
It's also worth comparing the Romulus to two Musical Fidelity integrateds that I know well, the X-A2 ($700) and A3 ($1000). Both are solid-state designs and both are obviously less expensive than the Romulus. The X-A2 and A3 both embody Musical Fidelity's signature purity, but neither has the roundness and dimension that the Romulus offers. Where both Musical Fidelity integrateds deliver notes with a thrilling exactness (the proverbial "veils lifted" analogy), the Romulus puts those notes into a more cohesive, engaging whole, bringing body and depth that the X-A2 and A3 simply don't have. It's the difference between getting a picture of the sax that's playing, or also getting an image of the size and shape of the musician who's playing the sax. If I only listened to solo acoustic guitar or small chamber orchestras, I might choose either of the Musical Fidelity pieces because their clarity can be jaw-dropping. But with a range of music, including larger-scale outfits, the Romulus was certainly more satisfying. As one steps up the audio ladder one wants to know that each rung is a move upwards. There is no doubt here.
Conclusion -- and still more music
Toward the end of my time with the Romulus, I got on a Count Basie roll, particularly the delightful 1962 title, Count Basie and the Kansas City 7 [Impulse 202]. Light and swinging, this is a record for Sunday mornings at home, when the light is pouring in and you've got a good book in hand. Song after song floated with such a sure touch that I couldn't help hitting repeat on the CD player. Joy is an important part of music to me, and this listening experience was pure joy.
Since shipping the Romulus off, I've noticed how much I miss this integrated amp, which is a great testament to the sound quality on offer here. At $3000, music lovers have a lot of choices, both in terms of integrateds and high-quality separates. The CR Developments Romulus deserves serious consideration for its serious engineering and serious soul.
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