December 2005Rogue Audio Tempest II Integrated Amplifier
by Eric Hetherington
I first became acquainted with Rogue Audio's product line a few years ago when I was shopping for an integrated amplifier. I had set my sights and budget lower, but my dealer wanted me to listen to much more expensive integrated amplifiers so that I would be able to compare what I was going to purchase with what was possible. I was appreciative of the time that he took to enable this, and I noted that I liked the Rogue Audio Tempest and a model from BAT very much. Still, I stuck to my budget and went home with a great-for-the-money integrated amp.
Not more than a year later my wife surprised me with a gift of the Rogue Audio Tempest. My dealer suggested that this might be proof of my having the best wife in the world. I was very happy with the Tempest as it really did a much better job than what I had previously settled for, and it was a tube integrated, something that I had wanted earlier but had passed over for price considerations. After living with the Tempest for a couple of months, I promised myself that this would be it for amplification purchases for several years to come.
A little more than a year after that, I ran into Mark OBrien, one of the founders of Rogue Audio, at an audio show. He was showing off his new Titan series of products, but I asked him about the recent redesign of the Tempest into the Tempest II. I was particularly interested to find out what had been changed and whether the new design was just tweaking the old model or an extensive redesign. And, if it was a redesign of the product, what prompted it? Shouldnt you leave well enough alone?
Mark was happy to answer my questions, and he suggested that I review the new model and see for myself if the changes were worthwhile. I couldnt resist. A few months later, a new Tempest II arrived at my door.
The $2695 USD Tempest II is 18" wide, nearly 16" deep, and 7" high, and it weighs a hefty 60 pounds. The original Tempest had a tube complement of four 12AU7s, two 12AX7s and four KT88s, while the Tempest II uses two 6SN7s, two 12AX7s, and continues to rely on four KT88s for power. The new design is an attempt not only to perfect the sound of the amplifier section, but also to increase the life span of the tubes. The original Tempest was rated at 60Wpc, and the Tempest II at 90Wpc -- a significant increase in power.
Before listening, you have to bias the tubes, which you accomplish by removing the units cover to reveal a bias meter and a switch that allows you to cycle through each tube. A tool is included for this activity, and the directions in the owners manual are easy to follow even if you dont know what "set the bias" means.
While you have the cover off, you can admire the handiwork of the Rogue Audio staff. Everything is neatly laid out, and it appears a great deal of work has gone into not only the sound of the amplifier but the layout of the design as well. Besides setting the bias and changing tubes, youll also need to remove the cover to change the speaker-output taps between 8 and 4 ohms. Because none of these three activities needs to be done too often, it isnt a big deal to have to remove and replace the cover. The fact that the tubes are under the hood does mean you wont get to look at their glowing majesty while you listen. This is great if you have kids or pets that like to touch pretty glowing things, but it does take away some of the romance of owning tube gear.
The cover is perforated on the top and sides to allow for adequate ventilation of the tubes. During long periods of use, you can feel the heat if you put your hand a couple of inches from the top of the unit, but it was always safe to touch the amplifier. In revising the original design, Rogue Audio got rid of the fan that had been used to help with ventilation in favor of a wider area of perforation. The fan was dead quiet, so there wasnt a problem with noise, but Im in favor of the simpler no-fan design. If nothing else, omitting the fan means there is one less moving part to worry about.
The back of the unit is well laid out and offers a healthy set of features. Starting on the far left, there is a screw-on connector that can be used to ground the users phono interconnect (as there is no phono stage in the Tempest II, this might not be used often). Next up is a pair of five-way binding posts for the right speaker output. A toggle switch allows you to choose between running the amplifier section in ultralinear or triode mode. Triode gives you the least amount of distortion, but at the expense of power; ultralinear will give you the most power. The addition of this switch is a big improvement over the previous Tempest design that required you to remove the cover to switch between the different modes. This added complexity meant that I hardly ever played around with that feature; now it is an easy adjustment.
After the toggle switch comes a column of five sets of connections for your sources. Next to these connections is a second column that contains three pairs of RCA connections. On top is one labeled Preamp, which allows you to connect a separate preamplifier to the Tempest II, which then becomes a power amp. The middle one is labeled Passive Out and the bottom one is an Active Out. The Passive Out is not affected by the volume control and allows you to send a signal to a recording device; on other units this might be labeled Tape Out. The volume control does adjust the level of the Active Out, which can be used with a subwoofer. You also use the Active Out if want to use the Tempest II as your preamp or to biamp your speakers.
The left speaker connectors follow and we end on the far right side with the IEC power-cord connector. All of the connectors used on the Tempest II are heavy-duty gold-plated ones. In the case of the speaker connectors, this is a step up from the plastic-capped ones that were on the original Tempest.
The Tempest II ships with either a thick black or silver faceplate. A nice, stylized upgrade from the former faceplate, the new one has rounded corners and a large "Rogue Audio" carved into the bottom right corner. I find the silver much more attractive; it gives elegance to the design that complements the more industrial nature of the unit. Front-panel features of note are the balance control, which some preamps and integrateds omit, and the remote sensor. The Tempest II's remote is an all-metal design that features only two buttons: volume up and volume down. If you have ADD and have to switch from source to source all of the time, this may be a disappointment. If, like me, you listen to whole albums at a time, the inability to switch inputs from your listening chair wont matter much. Adding more features to the remote would mean adding more electronics to the design, which would go against Rogue Audios minimal-is-best philosophy.
One of the things I like about integrated amps is that they dont take up nearly the space that separates do and they keep me from having to buy at least one more interconnect. Because of this, my system remains neat and tidy. The Tempest II became the heart of my system, which also contained a Rotel RCD-1070 CD player and Quad 21L loudspeakers. The cabling was from Analysis Plus: Silver Oval-In interconnects and Big Silver Oval speaker cables. Both integrated amp and CD player used their original power cords and sat on a homemade two-shelf rack.
I used the Tempest II in ultralinear for most of the review period. When I did play around with the mode switch, I noticed subtle shifts in the sound, but which mode sounded better seemed to be determined more by the recording than anything else. At least it's now easy to experiment.
I started my evaluation with the RVG-series remaster of Art Blakeys classic album, Moanin [Blue Note 7243 4 95324 2 7]. "RVG" stands for Rudy Van Gelder, the original recording engineer of the albums in the series, who has taken charge of remastering the tapes for digital release. The CD begins with studio chatter between Rudy Van Gelder and the great trumpet player Lee Morgan. I always love that 30 seconds, and Morgans voice sounded more like a real voice through the Tempest II than it had in previous systems. This didnt prepare me for the great improvements I found as soon as the title tracks infectious groove started. The piano had a rich texture that through less-articulate components sounds two-dimensional and lifeless. Blakeys drums had real physical presence in my listening room, too. On the title track, after Benny Golsons solo, the percussive snap had a clear location in the room and sounded like it had real weight.
This improvement in the percussion impressed me because I would have thought that such realism was a function of the speaker more than the electronics. Lets hear it for synergy: get the right integrated amp with the right speakers and you get not only better sound but more physicality. This was also the case with "Drum Thunder Suite," during which my dog kept lifting her head and looking for what was causing the sound. Im not an animal psychologist, so I dont know the facts, but over the past few months I have noticed that Drusilla, my golden retriever, reacts to the music in accordance with the quality of the equipment. Maybe part of your test equipment should include a canine companion.
After swingin with the Jazz Messengers, I wanted to hear how the Tempest II fared with vocals, so I put on Johnny Cashs American Recordings [American CK 69402]. I have lots of things in common with Rick Rubin, the albums producer, including living in the same dorm at university (but with close to a decade separating us). However, getting to work with artists like Johnny Cash isnt one of our commonalities. The separation between the Man in Blacks guitar and his deep voice was noteworthy, as they didnt seem to overlap one another. The guitars timbre was also spot-on, and missing any of the etch of lesser components. I performed the non-scientific test of playing along on my guitar during "Delias Gone." I was hard-pressed to hear a difference between the recording and my playing; there was no contest when it came to artistry, though. Cashs deep voice had great resonance, and the stability of the image was impressive. The instruments and voice sounded planted in real space.
George Antheils "Ballet Mecanique" is a large-scale early-20th-century piece that can be found on the aptly titled Ballet Mecanique [Naxos 8.559060] performed by the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra conducted by David Spalding. The piece includes some non-traditional percussion, and I find it a great test for soundstage depth, which is something I crave on orchestral works. While I thought the soundstage width seemed narrower than it had in my system before putting the Tempest II in, the depth of the image was increased. At 4:40 or so, a snare drum recedes and the Tempest II performed admirably, not only in terms of the placement of the drum in the soundstage but also in its ability to retrieve the low-level detail as the drum recedes.
The recent self-titled release Niyaz [Six Degrees 657036 1110-2] is a collection of 15th- century Sufi poetry set to Middle Eastern-influenced electronica. Electronica is interesting music for reviewing components: because there is no guarantee that any acoustic instrument has been used, you cant be solely worried about the correct timbre or realism of the reproduced sound. So, while it may be no good for some tests, it is great for evaluating bass response. The power of the Tempest II brought about improved bass response in my system. On tracks like "Allahi Allah" and "Golzar," the droning bass went deep and remained distinct from all other sounds. Many of the tracks on this disc have a large variety of sounds -- acoustic instruments (stringed and percussive), synthesized sounds, and female vocals -- and the Tempest II kept them all focused.
Before the Tempest II review started, I had been playing around with low-power tube amps. They all sounded very nice -- if you didnt want to rock out or didnt care about impressive dynamic contrasts. The Tempest II, though, can both rock out and convey dynamic shifts very well. The recent Yo La Tengo retrospective, Prisoners of Love [Matador Ole 618-2], provides plenty of opportunities to rock. These recordings may not be cutting-edge, but the music was conveyed with perfect rhythm and timing. Songs like "From a Motel 6" and "Big Day Coming" kept my head and feet moving. Most important, I stopped taking notes and just listened, a sure sign I was pleased with the presentation. The Antheil piece and Niyaz disc provided good tests for dynamics. In each case, the Tempest II handled dynamic shifts with aplomb -- it was able to go from loud and complex to quiet and serene very well.
Ill admit I was nervous when the Tempest II arrived. I was worried that the performance would not be much better than that of the original Tempest ($2000 when still available), which I had been using for quite some time. Talking with Mark O'Brien made it clear that he thought the performance was markedly better, but I was still unconvinced.
As it turned out, I had no need for skepticism; there was a noticeable improvement in certain areas from the very beginning. What initially impressed me were the greater bass control, smoother sound, and more stable imaging. The original Tempest had good bass, but over the past year Ive had some integrated amps here that had better control over the low end. These were usually solid-state designs, and I continued to prefer the Tempest for some of its other virtues. The new Tempest sharpened the focus, and the bass played deeper with better control and musicality.
The improved imaging could be heard in a couple of ways during my audition. First, there appeared to be a much blacker background from which the music appeared than with the original Tempest. The idea of a blacker background is hard to describe, but I think it is easy to hear the difference. It isnt that the original suffered from some audible hum, but rather that the music didnt seem to jump out into the room as easily. The improved imaging could also be heard every time I played a familiar piece of music. The improvement reminded me of moving from a camera lens with coarse focusing to one that allowed you to get the focus just right. You can get a good picture with the first camera, but you cant deny the improvement -- even if it is subtle -- that true focus brings.
The Tempest IIs overall music-making was both smoother and more authoritative than that of the original. There were times with the original, usually when I played something loud and complex, that I found myself thinking that the integrateds performance at the extremes was beginning to diminish. This wasnt the case with the Tempest II (I played the Antheil and Niyaz selections very loud), which continued to have the same level of performance at any listening level.
Luckily, Rogue Audio allows current owners of the original Tempest to upgrade to the Tempest II for $1000. That makes good sense, particularly if youre an owner suffering from upgraditis. Rogue Audio products are all designed and built in Pennsylvania, and the couple of times I had a question about the original Tempest, I got to speak with Mark O'Brien right away. Lest you think I was flaunting my press credentials, I didnt have any at the time -- I started writing about audio months after I received the original Tempest.
The Tempest II has a lot going for it. Sonically, it performs well beyond the earlier design. In fact, Im surprised that Rogue Audio didnt give this integrated amp a new designation and just retire the Tempest name. Aesthetically, the updated faceplate gives the Tempest II a more refined appearance in your living room, and it frankly looks more like the expensive piece of gear that it is. Some tube lovers might have preferred a design that left the tubes in plain sight; if that's your primary concern, there are plenty of integrated amps available to you -- including some from Rogue Audio.
Price-wise, the Tempest II is not inexpensive, but it is truly a case where the quality and performance outweigh the cost. I assume someone prepared to spend nearly $3000 for an integrated amplifier is looking for something that can take center stage in his or her system for years to come. I think the Tempest II can pass that test. Of course, it is also at a price point where many people are considering separates instead of an integrated amp, but you should only do that if youre getting better performance for the same money. Id say listen to the Tempest II before making up your mind.
The bad thing about the Tempest II is it made me go back on my promise to myself that I was done with electronics upgrades for the foreseeable future. I've had my Tempest upgraded, and it continues to delight me. So Im going to promise myself again: no more upgrades. This time I might just mean it.
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