After a few hours of failed starts, I must admit, I’m stumped by how to introduce this review. Most of the time reviewers treat the reader to a little anecdote about this or that, or how the reviewer came upon said amplifier or speakers, or whatever. Maybe even a luxurious and detailed creation story or snippet of wisdom that most of us won’t have the chance to put into use, but we like it anyways. Really, anything is fine if it gets the reader to continue reading. Are you still reading?
Well, I’m not going to do any of those things. I’d rather just get to the reason we are here. Just getting to the point does the Jeff Rowland 102 S justice, anyhow. It is, after all, a straight-to-the-point amplifier. It is small, quick to perform, and grabs your attention from the moment you press play. My goal for this review is to peak your interest in hearing this little amplifier. I think it is worth your ear and time. So let’s get on with it, shall we?
The 102 S, by Jeff Rowland Design Group, could be considered the baby in the family. Not only for its infant-like physical dimensions (2.7″(H) x 13.7″(W) x 7.5″(D)), but for the ear shattering volume it can produce as well. But more on sound characteristics later. Its bigger siblings are the 112 Stereo (150W) amplifier, the 201 (250Watts) and 501 (500Watts) mono block amplifiers, which are technically smaller as a single, but you need twins. The 300 Series amplifiers are the JRDG’s flag ships amplifier series and come in mono, stereo, or 4-channel. Jeff Rowland Design Group also offers a line up of pre-amplifiers and integrated amplifiers and home theater amplifiers as well. All have a very nice looking design to them without being over the top and gaudy.
The 102 S uses the patented ICEpower™ power conversion technology which allows for its infant-like size. It weight 7.4lbs and could be a poster child for the ‘small things’ movement. Sure there are smaller amplifiers, but ones with equal power and quality?
The amplifier has XLR balanced inputs and can come with optional XLR to RCA adapters for unbalanced input. Unbalanced XLR to RCA was the set up during the review period. Also the 102 S uses some pretty trick CE-Approved binding post. They won’t accept banana style terminations, spade and loose un-terminated speaker cable only. This is the condition of the speaker cable during this review.
Operating the 102 S is as easy as plugging in, turning on, waiting 2 seconds, and ta-da, instant gratification. No need to let it warm up. As well, over long periods of running time, the amplifier never got more than room temperature to the touch, if even that. But enough about the technology and physical characteristic of the 102 S. You can read more at their site if you’d like. Besides, does it really matter after you’ve closed your eyes and got lost in the music? So, let’s get to the good stuff. Why we are really here. How does it sound?
Well, actually, sorry to tease you, but there is something that comes before that. Let’s go over some brief qualifiers. Mainly, what is my review philosophy? Well, as stated above, you know I’d like to get you to listen to this amplifier. Besides that though there is some information you should know before we continue. I believe the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pushes the unique characteristics of components into two pointless extremes that sever no one. I may like or dislike something, but it certainly doesn’t mean you would feel the same way. And more to this point, with a quick switch of an associated component, opinions may radically shift. What I am after, and hope this review will leave you with, is a knowledge of the main characteristics of this amplifier. By applying it to a wide verity of musicals styles and as many different associated pieces of equipment as I can during the review period, I try to find its place among all these things, and then relate that to you. Finally, please, if you have questions or comments, send an email in and we’ll do our best to respond.
The equipment the 102 S was paired with varied from an AVA Omega III pre-amp, KingRex HQ-1 Headphone amp, Granite Audio #560 power cords, PSAudio AC3 & AC5 power cords, PSAudio Quintet power conditioner, Granite Audio #470 Interconnects, Blue Jean Cable BC-1 Interconnects, to standard power cables and Monoprice Interconnects. Sources came from a Toshiba DVD/SACD player feeding an Audio Note UK DAC1 for digital source, and Rega P3/24 with Sumiko Evo III cartridge and Moon LP3 phono amplifier as an analog source. Speakers are Monitor Audio RS6 Silvers. All this is about entry level, dang probably more so with the $850 power cords. Music ranged from Duke Ellington, Tracy Chapman to Skinny Puppy and Godspeed You Black Emperor. There really is too much music to mention; but let’s say it is mostly in the indie rock, blues, metal, industrial, big band jazz categories.
The sound of the 102 S can vary greatly depending on source, interconnect cables, and to a significant effect, the power cord. Let me explain my first week with the amplifier. When I got it home and set up in my system, I used the standard, out of the box power cord. The Dagogo editor and I figured that this would be the most likely set up of the amplifier by some one at the entry level budget of hi-fi audio. Don’t get me wrong, not trying to sell the amplifier short, but the purchasing of accessories like high-end power cords and interconnects is not something most people in the entry level of hi-fi want to do, or can afford, after purchasing the larger pieces of equipment. Heck, read the forums, some folks don’t even want to give specially made power cords a try with their-top-of-the-line hi-fi amplifiers. Which really is too bad. We all know the weakest link in the chain saying, and the same applies to audio. But I digress.
The first week I had the 102 S at home and had it plugged in with a standard power cable. It sounded thin in the lows and a bit too excited in the highs. It generally wasn’t all that enjoyable to listen too. With the turntable as source it was slightly better. I switched between sources, DAC, no DAC, interconnects, and pre-amplifiers to try to adjust the sound but to no major avail. I was quickly on the phone to the Dagogo editor asking for his insights, and hoping to hear a yes, to what I had secretly called about, power cables.
See, the week prior to getting the 102 S my wonderful wife and I had been to a Bay Area Audiophile Society event at AudioVisionSF in San Francisco. I made sure we were in the power cable demonstration. I was every curious to hear the ultra expensive Nordost power cables at work. Not to go into details, but we walked out convinced that clean and full power to equipment can open up a whole new level of detail, depth, and soundstage. Not to mention reducing piercing highs in tweeters and give the in-the-room feeling to vocals and instruments. Good power cords can bring you from the back of the crowd to front row. Also it can add much bass extension, clarity and richness to the bottom-end. Granted, I pretty much knew this already, but my ploy to let the wife hear it, and understand why I wanted to spend so much on a power cable, worked perfectly.
So, later that week I had in my possession a Granite Audio #560 ($850) power cable and 102 S became a whole new amplifier. The full potential of the amp was suddenly before my ears and I had a grin on my face a mile wide. Instantly, the sharp highs were under control and processed a solidness to them. Not airy at all, but rightly solid and in the room. The bass went from somewhat underwhelming and a bit blurred, to deep, controlled, wonderfully fast, and detailed. Stereo separation was fantastic and the soundstage and dynamics had me switching CDs in and out all night long. The power out of the outlets in my apartment was obviously heavily altered by noise. Still, the Granite Audio #560 gave the 102 S an opportunity to really show what it was capable of.
So now with this issue fixed, I was able to focus on the sound of the amp. The sound could best be described as exciting and hard to ignore. In fact, one night my wife said, “I can’t read this, I am getting sucked into the music”. What we both liked most about the 102 S is the detail it offers and the micro dynamics it presents. Instruments were suddenly in the foreground with the vocals on certain Sufjan Stevens songs, almost taking over at times. Bass was full, clear, and the reverberation in drums could be heard to impressive detail and sustain. Guitars became exciting and reached out for attention and the width of the sound stage became engulfing, specifically in the bottom-end. On the 180G pressing of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra Ellington Indigos from Jazz Track Records, the only thing missing was me, being in the recording studio. All sounds and details where there to wonderful perfection at this price range. Why wasn’t I in the studio, because I had RS6 speakers, I suspect.
What strikes me most after a couple months of listening to the 102 S with the Granite Audio #560 power cord is absence of instrument thinning air in the highs and clarity of the bottom-end. Metal sounds, high notes on guitars, sharp snare strikes sound almost in the room. On the Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Yanqui U.X.O. album, the cello and bass guitar were clearly separated and audible and the tape samples actually sounded like recordings on recordings. But more impressively, as the music builds and the sound suddenly shifts from acoustical excitement to absolute electrical chaos, the typical compression heard was lifted a bit and the shift from being on the edge to falling off the cliff, was there. The ability of the amp to give clean instrument separation and micro dynamic volume shifts forces you to listen. In piano and guitar duo on Sufjan Steven’s Illinois album, track 4, you could hear the little shifts of the musicians battling for attention and the gradual shifts to a crescendo as they competed for your attention. The amplifier is fast and can offer a clean and punchy kick in complex and bass demanding industrial, electronic, and rock music. I really enjoyed listening to Skinny Puppy, Download, Nine Inch Nails, and similar style music that offered deep saw-wave style staccato, square-wave noises with violin and choral pads in the background. The guitar and electro duos on Ratatat’s LP3 played through the 102 S was worth time to show off to non-audiophile friends.
Giving it some vinyl sauce only made things better. Its ability to cleanly separate and give power to the bottom-end and give the top-end a good solid feel made for a great pairing with my turntable set up. The natural detail, mid range, and soundstage offered by vinyl was captivating from this amplifier.
Here is what the amp doesn’t do. It isn’t airy and it isn’t laid back. Instruments are brought forward and given a good solid feel. This isn’t to say you can’t hear the air or background noise on recordings. Just listen to The Unicorn’s first album and you’ll hear all the low-budget recording noise. Or the Duke Ellington albums mentioned above and you’ll hear the reed flicker with air, musicians move, and foots beat. Air and space is there, it just doesn’t thin out the music. Also, the mid range isn’t trumped up. It is there, but it isn’t given added emphasis.
Let’s get back to something that could easily be over looked since it only came up briefly but had a major impact on the sound of the 102 S. The Granite Audio #560, a $850 power cord. Is the amplifier unsatisfying without shelling out almost half the cost of it on a power cord? Well, frankly, it is quite possibly the case. Just as every listening room has its own acoustic issues, every power outlet in a room offers a different amount of noise pollution. Getting this problem solved is as important as getting the first reflection points in the room treated. Does this mean one has to shell out almost another grand to get the full potential out of the 102 S?
No. There are many power cords on the market and each will lend a certain sound to the amp. Near the end of the review period, I was able to test the PSAudio AC3 ($99) and AC5 ($199) power cord plugged directly into the wall like the Granite Audio #560 was. And they each had their own effect. For instance, the AC5 offered male vocals a bit more foreground and presence above the instruments, but dynamics and detail were a bit less. The AC3 smoothed out the highs and certainly improved upon just the standard power cord sound with a more extended bottom-end and a more dynamic sound. So there are a lot of options and ways to get just the sound you are looking for out of the 102 S. If you get your JRDG from a local deal, you should work with that dealer, make sure you are getting the greatest potential from the amp. Not doing so is just cheating yourself.
I almost feel like not writing a conclusion so those of you who just skipped down to this section have to actually read the review. But, for those of you lacking time to read the full review, or just don’t like my style of writing but still want to know about the amp, here is a brief summary. The 102 S is an exciting and hard to ignore amplifier. It gives the highs a great solid feel and a very clear and clean bottom-end. It was a great with vinyl. Making sure you have good power and clean power to the unit offers up the fullest potential possible. Mirco dynamics are fantastic. It is a great rocker amp in my opinion, fast, clean, and doesn’t over promote the mids. It is, if in your price range, absolutely worth a demo.
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