Beautifully made (it is certainly the best-looking Class D amp of the lot, with a body carved from a billet of 6061 aluminum and a wavy faceplate straight out of Rowland’s Classic line), the 250Wpc Jeff Rowland Design Group 201 monoblock amplifier is the second-best Class D offering I’ve heard. Like all Rowland designs, the 201 is ever-so-slightly warm in tonal balance, rich and solid in tone color, and fairly lively from the upper midrange through the bass. Like several of the other amps in this survey, the 201 is built around the B&O ICEpower Class D module, with Rowland’s own proprietary modifications added on. The result is a Class D amp that sounds like a Rowland, albeit with a little less energy than a typical Class AB Rowland and a peculiarto- Class-D/T compression of the top treble (for which, see below).
You can clearly hear the Rowland’s strengths and drawbacks on a challenging piece like Alfred Schnittke’s Quasi una sonata [EMI ASD 3870]—a quirky violin/piano duo played to a fare-thee-well (which some of you may be tempted to bid before the finish) by violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Andej Gawrillow. (As its title suggests, the Schnittke duo is “almost a sonata,” only a sonata that can’t quite get started—never making it past its thunderous opening bars, turning the extreme dynamic/harmonic capabilities of the two instruments into the “themes” that are stated, developed, and recapitulated.)
The 201 sounded quite lovely and lively in the midrange and bass on the constant stream of well-recorded staccatos and pizzicatos that makes up Schnittke’s post-Modernist prank. To my ear, however, there seemed to be something missing from its treble. You could hear the problem on the piano’s sforzandos and little noodling runs in the top octaves, where the 201 seemed to squeeze much of the brilliance out of the instrument’s treble register. The highest-pitched notes just didn’t sound as big spatially, as fully articulated harmonically, or as powerful dynamically as those of the piano’s other registers, as if the Steinway had turned into a child’s piano in the top octaves. Ditto for Kremer’s violin. With the 201, his occasional, eerie, veryhigh- pitched glissandos on an open E string simply evaporated into silence well before they would have (or did) with my reference Class AB amps, the ARC Reference 210 and MBL 9008. The 201 didn’t just roll or soften the treble (as Rowlands often do by design); it cut it off, and with that, the articulation of very-low-level harmonics and dynamics and the full duration of high-pitched notes.
On the other hand, something like Classic’s superb reissue of the Everest LP of The Pines of Rome [Classic/Everest SDBR 3051] showed off the 201’s considerable virtues, among which is a plethora of inner detail in the midband reproduced with a clarity that is exceptional even by ARC and MBL standards. For instance, the hard-to-hear tapping of the snare drum buried deep in the orchestral hubbub of “The Pines of the Villa Borghese”—with its frenetic depiction of children playing soldiers—was as clear as, well, a drum. (So was everything else, for that matter.)
Unlike its topmost treble, the 201s midrange was also unusually open and bloomy, with superb reproduction of harmonics. For instance, the overtones of the pedaled low-to-mid-register notes of Andrej Gawrillow’s piano in the Schnittke piece hung in the air at least as clearly and as long as they did with the Ref 210 (a great tube amp, mind you) or the MBL 9008 (a solid-state paragon of resolution of decays).
The 201s’ exceptional midband is accompanied by good, solid, deep bass. Rowlands have always been outstanding in the bottom octaves—the original Rowland MC6 (not the current ICEpower model, which I haven’t auditioned) had, perhaps, the most powerful low end I’ve heard from any amp save for the MBL 9008s and 9011s.The 201 offers a good taste of Rowland clarity, color, speed, and authority in the bass, though it does not challenge the original MC6 (or the MBL 9008/9011).
Bottom line: Along with the Kharma MP150, I prefer the Rowland 201 to the other Class D amps I’ve heard—in so far as I prefer Class D amps at all. Like all Class D/T, it seems to me to have a highly problematical treble—which, I think, is either bandwidth- or PWM-related—but its sins are of omission (although this is a little like saying that leaving your baby in the car on a hot day is a “sin of omission”). Outside of its top treble, the 201 plays with considerable beauty, outstanding clarity, and fair-to-good power, and I could probably recommend it for systems that are a bit on the hot side, although that treble definitely needs listening to before contemplating a purchase.
Neil Gader comments on the Rowland Research Model 201
As it did with JV, the Rowland also placed second on my list, just below the Spectron Musician III. I’m in general agreement with his view that the Model 201 delivers unhyped, naturalistic virtues, and have little to add to Jonathan’s review. In fact, I was a little taken aback just how similar the amp sounded to my memory of the Rowland Concentra integrated amp that I reviewed some years ago. Like the Concentra, the Model 201 is earthy, slightly dark overall, with a sweet, almost butterscotch color to the sound. As JV expressed it, “lovely and lively in the midrange” pretty much sums it up. His reservations about the treble didn’t strike me quite as strongly, but my impression that the Rowland’s overall signature is darker and less open and airy in the highest registers is clearly leaning in the same direction. JV also posits that there is something going on with Class D treble reproduction that needs further analysis and ultimately further refinement. I agree. To my ears it’s almost as if we’re being reminded of the early artifacts of transistor-era treble. But rather than getting edge and grain, we’re getting less information. A different kind of distortion? Time will tell.