With a reputation built on excellent-sounding electronics that provide extremely good value, Rogue Audio has recently launched more ambitious products like the 200-pound, $7495 USD Zeus power amplifier, which aims to take on some of the industrys heaviest (figuratively and literally) hitters. However, much of the hi-fi market today is moving downscale, this trend being spurred on by the flood of Chinese-made products. Many Chinese firms make components that perform very well at quite attractive prices, and some make equipment that is also drop-dead gorgeous. The entry of Chinese components into the less-than-robust American market contributes to the current slump in Americas two-channel hi-fi industry. Is the American hi-fi industry doomed to extinction, especially at the low end of the price spectrum?
Not if Rogue Audio has anything to say about it. The company's $995 Metis preamp includes an amazing number of features in a very attractive package and offers way more value than anything Ive seen from China. The Metis is a tubed line stage with a moving-magnet phono stage and headphone jack. The 16-pound Metis looks more like a $1000 preamp from 1980 than 2006. Up front is a thick brushed-aluminum faceplate.
An extra $100 buys remote control. The optional remote itself is not an el cheapo plastic unit, but the same heavy number included with Rogues more expensive preamps. The remote only lets you adjust the volume; there is no source selection or muting.
At the rear of the slender chassis there are four inputs: Phono (with a grounding post), CD, AUX 1 and AUX 2. Two sets of outputs are provided: line out and tape out. Id prefer two sets of line outs, so the preamp could be used in a biamp configuration or drive a powered subwoofer along with the power amp, but thats a personal preference. All connectors are gold-plated RCAs. An IEC connector lets you plug in either the rather nondescript stock power cord or substitute a different cord of your choice.
The Metis uses two Chinese 6SN7GT tubes for its line functions. The phono section is solid state and suitable for moving-magnet or high-output moving-coil cartridges. Its 47k-ohm load resistance is in parallel with 150pF of capacitance.
Because the Metis is so squat, its 6SN7 tubes protrude through holes in the top of the case. This means the tubes are easy to insert and replace. Rogue encourages owners to try other 6SN7s. A silver/gray wire cage fits into small holes on top of the chassis to protect the tubes from casual bumps and little fingers. I thought the tube cage looked out of place compared to the first-rate finish elsewhere; its silver paint reminded me of zinc plating on galvanized steel. Of course, you can leave the tube cage off.
The solid-state headphone amp is based on the National Semiconductor LM386 amplifier chip. When I left headphones plugged into the headphone jack while turning on the power amp, a loud noise was produced through the speakers. You probably wouldnt use headphones and speakers at the same time, but you might, as I did, turn the power amp on before unplugging the headphones.
For you Jeopardy fans, the name Metis comes from the Greek Titaness and mistress of Zeus who presided over all wisdom and knowledge. In fact, Rogue Audio chose the name Titan for the product line to which the Metis belongs, as a way of conveying "a big sound regardless of the price."
I ran the Metis for about 300 hours before doing any critical listening, and later broke in the headphone section for around 200 hours before assessing its performance. The phono stage was run for around 200 hours with a KAB break-in box, which added additional break-in time to the line stage as well. Remember, everything benefits from thorough break-in.
When I hooked up the Metis to my Art Audio amp and ReTHM speakers, it was a bit noisy, producing easily heard hiss and low-level hum. The combination of a fairly sensitive amp input (0.7V) and very sensitive speakers (102dB) makes a very good noise detector. My standard noise remedy is to insert Rothwell inline attenuators between the preamp and amp, which reduces the signal to the amp by 10dB. The signal that is reduced contains the noise, so when the preamp volume control is turned to the desired setting, youre getting more signal and less noise. The Metis has oodles of gain, so the Rothwell attenuators worked well. There was still a very slight buzzing from the Metis, audible only near the speakers. Yes, I tried floating the ground, but that just added some hum. Other preamps in my collection (deHavilland Mercury 2, Audio Note M2 Phono, and Audio Research SP9 Mk III -- all more expensive units) dont exhibit a similar noise problem.
The remote volume control seemed to have two settings: too loud or too soft. I sometimes had to resort to the front-panel volume control to get the exact volume setting I wanted. Also, I missed a mute function on the remote, which is convenient if the telephone rings while youre engrossed in the music.
The Metis immediately created two impressions. First, its a rhythm king, grabbing the musical beat with both hands and pushing it inexorably forward. Its surprising how much more sense some music makes that way. On "Inspirations of Variation XXI" from the Kálmán Oláh Trios Contrasts and Parallels [M·A Recordings M065A], the Metiss terrific forward momentum and drive made the piece seem like a real musical event, instead of isolated contributions from the percussion, piano, and bass.
The Metis also has serious bass. Combined with its rhythmic drive, the bass makes the Metis a terrific preamp for rock music. For that matter, its good for any type of music, although string quartets wont benefit from its character as much as heavy metal. When I played Jennifer Warnes "Way Down Deep" from her CD The Hunter [Private Music 01005-82089-2], I thought someone had snuck in a subwoofer; bass had never gone so low with my speakers. But on "The Panther," from the CD layer of Warnes SACD The Well [Cisco SCD 2034], the highest frequencies were attenuated a barely perceptible amount. Thus, in comparison to the bass, the high frequencies sound very slightly subdued, a byproduct of those driving low frequencies. This character could be a terrific match with an inexpensive solid-state amplifier that sounds a bit bleached.
Music lives in the midrange, and the Metis was good in that area. Instrumental timbres were realistic, and detail retrieval was quite good. With "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez" from Jordi Savall and associates CD La Folia 1490-1701 [AliaVox AV9805], I could distinguish between the opening blows on the cascabel, which differ in loudness but often dont sound that way. Jordi Savalls viola da gamba was quite prominent and easy to follow, but, as often happens, it was somewhat difficult to tell the difference between the harp and the guitar. The Metis threw a very spacious soundstage, spread seamlessly from speaker to speaker. It was easy to locate performers in the mix, both laterally and front to back.
Dynamics were one of the Metiss greatest strengths, responsible for its terrific drive and rhythmic momentum. Both large and small shifts in volume were spectacular. With "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez," the Metis effortlessly tracked the constant changes in loudness as the musicians phrased the music, a feat that stumps many preamps.
On several recordings, however, I noted a slight emphasis in the lower treble, so that tape hiss on Liszt's Sonata in B minor played by Alan Gampel on Chopin and Liszt Sonatas [Mapleshade 07382] was quite prominent. Jennifer Warnes voice on "Way Down Deep" had a slightly raspy edge to it that I dont usually hear. This was not a major flaw, and could be welcome in a laid-back system.
Before beginning this review, I wondered if the Metiss phono stage would turn out to be just an afterthought, added to increase the preamps feature set. Its not. Used with a Clearaudio Aurum Beta S moving-magnet cartridge, it produced a dynamic, tuneful portrayal of music and sounded much better than I expected. But then I remembered that Rogue Audio makes a separate solid-state phono stage, the Stealth, and probably drew from their design experience with it in designing the Metis. When I played Eva Cassidys "Fields of Gold" from Songbird LP [S&P Records S&P-501], her voice was smooth and a little breathy. The electric guitar was detailed and sounded fairly realistic. On Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphonys performance of "Carmen Suite," from Carmen · Peer Gynt [Telarc CD-10048], the famed Telarc bass drum was appropriately deep and powerful. Instrumental tonal colors were respectable, and the trumpet tone was fairly realistic. Listening to LPs was very enjoyable with the Metis, and if you later decided to move up to a moving-coil cartridge, a step-up transformer would add the extra gain youd need.
Regarding headphone use, my AKG K501s are a difficult load, but the Metiss headphone amp drove them easily. The volume control had to be turned to a higher setting than for listening with my speakers, but there was still plenty of gain left. The Metis delivers its excellent dynamics to headphones and not just speakers, although the sound was slightly glassy through headphones. Still, the Metiss headphone amp can be considered a useful feature.
Variations on a theme
I replaced the Metiss stock tubes with current-production Electro Harmonix 6SN7EH tubes, which usually sell for around $12 each. Ive used these tubes in power amps and liked their sound. In the Metis, they had a flatter frequency balance than the stock tubes, with more extended high frequencies and less-powerful (though still very strong) bass. On some pieces, the Metiss lower-treble emphasis made the Electro Harmonix tubes sound a bit forward. I suspect that most listeners would prefer the stock tubes. I couldnt resist trying some slightly used old-stock Sylvania chrome-dome 6SN7GTs; they sounded very good, but they may be hard to find and will be relatively expensive. The salient point here is that tube rolling provides a way to tune the Metiss sound.
Furthermore, substituting a $485 Blue Marble Audio power cord for the stock cord firmed up the bass, improving low-end detail, though not extension. The midrange sounded more three-dimensional, while the high frequencies were more extended. These changes werent huge, but they were perceptible. Your favorite power cord may sound even better.
My $4495 reference deHavilland Mercury 2 preamp doesnt look as good as the Metis, and it wont drive headphones. However, its quieter, and its Type 85 tubes produce a very special sound: delicate and robust at the same time, with gobs of natural detail. The $1995 Audio Research PH5 phono stage I use, which drives MC cartridges as well as MM types, clearly outperforms the Metiss phono section. My Headsave Classic headphone amp, which sold for $250 when last produced, also uses ICs for amplification. Its tonal accuracy was superior to that of the Metis, lacking the Metiss slight glassiness. So my $6740 (plus the cost of interconnects) reference system sounds better than the $995 Rogue Audio Metis. Big yawn.
To try to compare the Metis to units closer to its price, I visited my personal audio mausoleum, where I keep a few backup items. First up was a solid-state Parasound PHP-850 preamp, which, when last produced, sold for $250. With a phono stage and headphone jack, it matched the Metiss feature set fairly closely, and produced a clear, clean sound, with a powerful, detailed low end. The midrange and highs showed a touch of solid-state glare, however. Its listenable, but lacks the Metiss drive and subterranean bass. And theres no remote control.
When it was last produced in 1996, the Audio Research SP9 Mk III preamp sold for $2495, not an exact price-point match for the Metis, but the best I could manage. The Metis and SP9 Mk III line stages each had their respective strengths. The Metis was dynamic and had greater rhythmic drive, while the SP9 had a better balance between highs and lows, more detail, and greater tonal accuracy. Although the SP9 Mk IIIs hybrid phono stage is only rated to drive MM cartridges, Ive used it successfully with low-output MC cartridges. On "Carmen Suite," the SP9 Mk III sounded cleaner than the Metis, and instruments had much more natural tonality. The trumpets tone was exceptionally accurate, soaring over the orchestra in several fanfare-like passages. Dynamics, though not as vivid as with the Metis, were still excellent,. Like all Audio Research equipment Ive heard, the SP9 Mk III is eerily quiet, especially its phono section.
At its $995 price, no one would expect the Rogue Audio Metis to rate as a state-of-the-art preamp. However, it is remarkably good and a tremendous value. Its noteworthy that any manufacturer, Chinese or otherwise, can pack this many useful features into a good-sounding, good-looking, sub-$1100 preamp. The Metiss open-sounding line stage has dynamite drive and momentum, along with killer bass. The phono stage is very smooth, with good timbral accuracy, while the headphone amp drives difficult loads with room to spare. The noise level could be lower, but if you select an amplifier with a moderate input sensitivity, like Rogue Audios Atlas (1V sensitivity) and avoid super-high-sensitivity speakers, noise should not be a problem.
Another important consideration: the Metis is built by an established, proven, US-based company that will be there to provide service if you need it. Because of its many strengths, the Metis is a titanic value -- and a Reviewers' Choice.
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