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Rogue RH-5 Headphone Amplifier

  1. FLTWS
    “I like that old time sturm und drang,…”
    Written by FLTWS
    Published Nov 20, 2017
    Pros - Pros: Glorious sound with my headphones especially HD800, great flexibility with inputs/outputs, nice styling. Other features are just about perfect; I like the 185 steps volume control, readouts, dim-able panel, remote, the build quality and 3 year warranty.
    Cons - Cons: None that come to mind.
    My Impressions of the Rogue RH-5 by FLTWS 10/31/17

    “I like that old time sturm und drang,…”

    Pros: Glorious sound with my headphones especially HD800, great flexibility with inputs/outputs, nice styling. Other features are just about perfect; I like the 185 steps volume control, readouts, dim-able panel, remote, the build quality and 3 year warranty.

    Cons: None that come to mind.

    Price: Fair value from a sound and feature set standpoint for me.

    Build: I lifted the hood to take a look inside as I’ll be tube rolling at some point. The layout is clean and tidy. It uses a toroidal transformer but it’s wrapped in a clear plastic (moisture barrier?) of some sort and no fancy ($) metal housing. This seems to simplify construction, just one substantial bolt and nut through the base plate with a couple of appropriately sized washers separating the upper and lower sections of windings. The tube sockets look pretty substantial, can’t tell if their plastic or ceramic, but they grip the tubes in a death-lock. The whole assembly feels solid and heavy, and all metal work is first rate. The amp case stays relatively cool to the touch even after being on for 12 straight hours. (No prize for guessing I’m not an EE or production guy.)

    I won't regurgitate the companies spec sheet; it's all on Rogue's website along with a pdf of the manual.

    My Standard Disclaimer

    I’ve made peace with the fact that headphones do not duplicate the in-room speaker experience, and vice-versa. Each is its own unique way of presenting and enjoying recorded music. And neither comes close to the sound of live music in the concert hall and I seriously doubt they ever will, so I don’t stress over it. And, YMWV, because, no two people hear exactly the same things in the exactly the same way.


    Some of what follows is excerpted from PM comments I exchanged with Dave Hansen (Hansotek) of “Enjoy the Music”, as well as my listening session notes after I acquired my unit).

    A lot of the descriptive terms I’m going to use could lead one think I’m implying huge differences in what follows. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are only so many words that I know of to make distinctions clear.

    Before I get started here I want to point out that to me comparing amplifiers isn’t like comparing headphones. Headphones vary greatly in sound presentations with respect to frequency response, sound stage, imaging aspects etc. With amplifiers these differences become much smaller and harder to distinguish. Some amps may be more extended at the top and bottom, more forward or recessed in the midrange, faster on transients, etc. Throw tubes into the mix and things become more complex, but still headphones (like speakers) have more pronounced and more easily identified sonic signatures or personalities.

    And so,

    The dealer made me a trade-in offer I couldn't refuse.

    I took delivery of the Rogue RH-5 headphone - preamp (sans phono section) on Oct. 06, 2017. I run balanced in/out all the way from my DAC on, and use 4 Pin XLR connectors on all my headphone cables.

    I was familiar with the Rogue name but my interest in the RH-5 was sparked by Dave Hansen’s review of it in the September “Enjoy the Music”. I’ve corresponded with Dave several times since joining Head-Fi in May 2016. His listening takes and preferences on equipment have aligned with my own experiences enough times to peak my interest, again. Particularly as he found the RH-5 a very good match with the Sennheiser HD800, a phone that, even after many months of almost daily use with my Utopia, has a sirens song hold on me even in its stock form (but with DanaCable Lazuli HP cabling that really smooths and sweetens the highs and enriches the bass and mid-bass. I also use DanaCable Lazuli Ref. with my Utopia). The RH-5 circuitry is built around the 12AU7 instead of the 6DJ8 (as in my MJ2). To the extent to which different tube types sound different in varying circuit designs, the 12AU7 (along with the 12AX7) was a tube type used in much of the vintage gear I owned (some of it kit built) and loved the sound of back in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. And in the RH-5's design it has taken me back to a rich, seductive sound quality as I remember it. As similar as the sound profiles are between my Jot, MJ2 (with GE5670’s currently), and Ragnarok, the RH-5 struck me as different flavor when listening. Dave indicated in his review that this was "the" amp to partner with the HD800 and I have to agree. I've now got well over 200 hours on my RH-5, and it's sound quality with the HD800 is big, spacious, dynamic and refined, no straining to deliver crescendos as long as I don’t push the volume too high (which is typically at a lower level with the HD800 than what I can drive my Utopia to before any congestion sets in).

    After 7 straight 16 hour days of burn-in, with some casual listening intervals daily, I then settled in to start a more focused comparison of my amps with these two phones. In A/B'ing the RH-5 with Utopia and HD800 and going back and forth for several hours and during different listening sessions between the 2 phones on (just 2 of many examples) “Siegfried’s Funeral March” (Leinsdorf, LAP on Sheffield CD7/8 – 1977, a studio recording with a slightly dry acoustic) and then the first movement of “Scheherazade” (Ashkenazy, Philharmonia on London 417301- 1985, recorded in a slightly warm and reverberant acoustic hall space), I started to get a sense of why I found the pairing of amp and HD800 so right. While I can make a case for my enjoyment of both phones on the RH-5 I preferred the HD800 for its overall presentation with the Rogue. I tended to prefer my Utopia with my Ragnarok or MJ2, but that’s just my personal preference and not set in stone and likely tube brand dependent as well. Both phones tended to be brighter and more forward than I like with the Jotunheim – but then along comes Loki and changes that tune…but I didn’t really spend much time with that combo, mostly RH-5, MJ-2, and Ragnarok. With all that said the HD800 still sounds like an HD800 and the Utopia still sounds like a Utopia. And, the differences between the two phones are consistent over the amps I own. And, again, these differences (in the amps) are very small in some cases and are a preference rather than an absolute, and it’s more than a probability that some others will hear things differently than I do.

    The HD800 with Rogue is slightly more forgiving with a lot of my average recorded quality classical music. The Utopia or HD800 plus Schiit amps by comparison sometimes are more revealing of shortcomings in recording quality, particularly in the highs. As I’m performance oriented first, recorded quality second, the RH-5’s forgiveness allows me to enjoy a lot of my less than state of the art recordings. While EQ’ing can make a phone measure flat it can’t make it sound good let alone excellent with all recordings. And there is nothing you can do to the source recording. If an engineer decided to push up a spotlight mike on the opening solo horn triplets of Mahler’s 5th symphony to grab your attention out of the starting gate there’s not a dam thing you can do to correct it after the fact and bring it into balance with the rest of the orchestra. A trumpet shouldn’t sound as big as a tuba.

    My 3 Schiit's are very neutral (to my ears), clean, with transient attack and decay that is razor sharp and tightly controlled. The RH-5 is “maybe” not so fast sounding on transients and “maybe” not as neutral overall (and I haven’t rolled any tubes yet), but on my favored music, large orchestral, the RH-5 presents the orchestra with a nice sense of uniformity across the board I like, while the Schiit amps may define the outlines of individual instruments or groups of instruments with a bit more intensity. While some may say this is better transparency it doesn’t necessarily lead me to a better listening experience all the time with all the variations in recording quality among my collection of CD’s. To be sure these differences are very small, but to my ears and with my music, high accuracy doesn’t always translate to more enjoyment “if” it exacerbates shortcomings in the recordings.

    I could be wrong but the RH-5 fleshed out certain percussive sounds like bells, xylophones, tam-tam, etc. that I liked giving a bit more air around instruments. Midrange presence on the RH-5 is luscious (tube dependent as well most likely). This airiness extends to all instruments but was most noticeable to me with percussion. A great recording for listening to this effect is Rodion Shchedrin’s “Carmen Suite” on DG471136. It’s scored for a large string orchestra, tympani, and 4 groups of percussion, no horns or wind instruments.

    I prefer the sound stage on the HD800 to the Utopia. Utopia's is a bit smaller in all dimensions along with the size of the instruments themselves. It’s not a big deal to me and has been noted by many others. But the RH-5 opens up both phones sound stages to the full extent of their capabilities in this area. Detail retrieval struck me as on a par between the two phones with minor differences probably associated with frequency response variations between the two phones.

    The RH-5 plus HD800 is absolutely spectacular with many of my original instrument recordings. Listening to Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons on Archiv 400045-2 with the English Concert and Trevor Pinnock I was having a hard time convincing myself that I was listening to a recording and that I wasn’t actually there. I then listened to the same work on the Chesky label CD78 with Igor Kipnis and the Connecticut Early Music Festival Ensemble. The difference in the recording venue, layout, and mike placement was readily heard, but still, it sounded like I was there. The tonal flavors on both recordings are hypnotic.

    I’m confident different associated equipment could give better or worse results or no difference results, but I can’t afford to buy it all and don’t have the access as I’m not a retailer or affiliated with any reviewing operation. I’m retired and do this for my own enjoyment.

    Bottom line for me; the RH-5 reminds me of how music sounded in Philadelphia’s old Academy of Music (originally built for Opera) with a rich, glowing, powerful way of delivering sound into the hall. Sonic nostalgia for my ears. The Schiit amps remind me of the sound in the new Kimmel Center; ever so slightly dry, revealing clean inner detail and clarity and with tighter deep bass quality. Conversely I guess one could call the bass in the Academy over-bloomed. But again these impressions are very small differences between my amps.

    I do like having different sound options at hand depending on my whimsy of the moment. I like comparing recordings of the same work for both differences of interpretation and also recording quality variations in conjunction with my different amp and phone combinations. By way of example regarding recording differences; the previously mentioned Sheffield (a movie sound stage recording) benefits from some of the richness the RH-5 can impart. Many of my Chandos recordings generally have a much more reverberant sound field attached to them and the Schiit amps are a nice match. These are not rules; they are spontaneous impulses, as in “let’s try this” sort of thing.

    I'm confident that choice of tubes can change the sound from rich, airy, more tube-like to clean and tight, more solid state like.

    The Rogue doesn’t replace any of my Schiit, it complements it and gives me a good variety of listening options to satisfy my tastes of the moment.

    I’m a believer in synergies between various parts of the electronic chain to get to where it sounds best to me with the widest variety of my recordings and that’s how I choose my equipment. Above all I’m out to enjoy what I hear and I don’t get involved with chasing zeros or trying to draw conclusions based exclusively on what I read.

    This audio reproduction hobby has never struck me as a best of “one” pursuit, more of a best “compromise” pursuit. Sometimes that entails having more than just “one” of this or that.

    I’m still running with the stock tubes provided in the Rogue. As an inveterate tube roller I've got 2 pair of NOS 12AU7's lined up to buy and try (in house at 11/13), because, I can’t help myself, LOL. But I like my shakedown listening sessions of new gear to be with the manufacturer supplied options. I’ll also most likely be trying a dual 3 pin HD800 Dana Cable at some point as well with the RH-5. I don’t expect any cosmic revelations with any of this add-on bling but part of the enjoyment of this hobby for me is the fun of trying new things (at a price level I’m comfortable with) and making my own mind up about what differences, if any, they make and how much it matters to me.

    If you’re shopping for a new HP amp, or one to pull double duty in 2 channels with the option “to phono or not to phono”, (and especially if the HD800 is you phone of choice), I recommend a listen to the Rogue. The RH-5 also sounds superb with the Utopia and I have no issues with how my HD600 and Oppo PM-1 sounds with the Rogue. But the RH-5 synergizes so beautifully with my HD800. Between the Rogue and my Schiit I can listen with great enjoyment to both phones and to almost all CD’s. (Some recordings just can’t be helped; the old lipstick on a pig scenario).

    I plan to revisit the Abyss (now Phi’d). It’s been a year since my last audition and I do want to hear it with my RH-5, and Schiit amps (again).

    For me, this Rogue’s a keeper and now a member of the clan of my metal boxes.

    Bonus Coverage

    10/31/17: Today I picked up a demo Abyss Phi that I’ll have at home with me for 2 weeks. I evaluated its predecessor November of last year but spent too much of my time fussing and fidgeting with the fit, and I never got comfortable with it’s very different wearing characteristics as well as thinking it was too dark sounding for my tastes. But once more, into the breach… And just after I’ve finished up with my formal break-in listening sessions with the RH-5, life is good.

    11/13/17: I returned the Abyss Phi today. As I hang my head and contemplate my navel I tell myself “Two TOTL phones is as far as I dare tread, nothing good can come from my going any further”…

    But, I ordered one anyway!

    Just when I thought I was out...

    Associated Owned Gear Used to Evaluate:

    Balanced FTW: ERC-3 (AES/EBU or Coax) to YGG to RAG or JOT or MJ2 (tubes) or Rogue RH-5 > HD800 with DanaCable Lazuli / Utopia with DanaCable Lazuli Ref. > Sapphire Reference Balanced and SE IC's. > DHLabs AES/EBU and Coax > Monster AVS 2000 & 5100MKII. (I’m CD only & 90% Classical listening.)

    A complete listing of the classical, jazz and rock recordings I used to do my impressions from can be found at the end of my post on my Abyss Phi impressions over on the Abyss thread here: