Near-Field Nirvana Quick Takes
Rogue Audio Sphinx V3 Hybrid Integrated Amp
Many improvements, Including MC/MM Phono Section
Rogue Audio Sphinx V3 Integrated Hybrid Amplifier $1595.00
I’ve known owner and designer Mark O’Brien of Rogue Audio since the 1990’s having been introduced to Mark, by the late audio reviewer and industry veteran Rich Rodgers. Mark was visiting Rich in SF then, and Rich had struck up a friendship with Mark beforehand at a tradeshow, I believe?
They both loved to PARTY and kick up some dust from time to time. Both country boys who bonded over the appreciation of tube amplifiers and their sound. Rich was working at Parasound as a bench technician and service coordinator at the time. I was invited to visit Rich’s apartment to meet up with Mark and himself. I was doing consulting to small high-end audio companies at the time and Rich thought we both could give Mark some advice about refining his tube products concerning aesthetics and material selection. The amps he had brought were all tubed mono-blocks, with KT 88’s. They sounded excellent, but looked too much like kit projects. Well one thing led to another and over the decades, we see a totally evolved successful company, with a wide product range of tube and hybrid designs.
Mark O’Brien had worked early on doing electronic designs for Bell Labs. Quite a smart cookie with a great ear. There are a couple of really good interviews with Mark. Google him. Now let’s explore a special amplifier, the Rogue Audio Sphinx V3.
What is Cool, is that it runs totally Cool!
The Sphinx V3 is a very efficient design that runs at 93% efficiency. Never runs hot to the touch. Your cat won’t like to lay on top of it, no class A electric blanket for kitty. American built too! Sustainable in the environmental sense of energy usage. There is more consciousness in manufacturing in America to produce products made in the USA, that keep workers employed, happy and healthy. Also, customers benefit by supporting domestic efforts to maintain a sustainable economy. We can look at Magnepan and a handful of American HiFi companies trying keep and fulfill that promise.
What is a hybrid amplifier? And what is a hybrid Hypex amplifier? I think we know about hybrid vehicles? Those that use internal combustion fossil fuel engines along with electric motors and batteries working together to produce power. Typically, a hybrid amplifier was one that either has a tube preamplifier and a solid state amplifier, or vice versa. In the case of the Sphinx, it’s a tube preamp with Hypex Class D amplifier modules with MOSFET output devices. High speed switching the output devices is the secret sauce. It is NOT a digital amplifier. You can learn more about it by going to the RogueAudio.com web site. The cost factor of manufacturing an amplifier without massive power supplies with storage capacitors and heat sinks is substantial. Hybrid cars and/or electric cars are extremely quick of the line! No need for behemoth and heavy engines to achieve high performance anymore! I think you get the picture?
I still own the original Sphinx, going on six years now. I have to thank Steve Guttenberg for writing about it in his column for CNET. When I saw tubes and 200WPC, for $1295.00, I had to have it. I have a pair of vintage Martin Logan SL3’s and was looking for an economical and ergonomic solution for that system. I called Mark O’Brien and he told me the Sphinx would be a perfect match with the ML’s. He said he display’s with Martin Logan at audio shows, because they like the Rogue gear so much. Also, Mark said he regretted selling his SL3’s. In today’s market an equivalent pair of ML’s would cost $15,000!
So, I had the ability to compare the V3 vs. the V1. My sound room is downstairs, and the ML’s are in the living room doing multipurpose work with all our media sources. I decided to test the V3 downstairs with ELAC Carina’s, just recently reviewed.
The V3 warmed up quickly and sounded right from the start. Airy open and tonally spot on. There is a standby two position AC switch at the rear of the unit. Leaving it on the on position keeps the unit in a ready to go mode. Not much power being used in that way, pushing the on button on the front panel turns on the two 12AU7 tubes in the preamp section, when listening to speaker outputs.
The unit can be used as a preamp or headphone amplifier; and the tubes are engaged for variable outputs. The bigger brother Rogue Audio Pharaoh integrated amp allows the tubes to be engaged as well. This is a major plus for those who might want to dabble using the V3 as a stand-alone preamplifier. The Pharaoh is Audiophile’s Audition reference amp. The sonic signature of the V3 compares well to the Pharaoh.
I noticed the pairing of the V3 with the ELAC Carina’s was a wonderful match, producing a natural and effortless presentation. The V3 has more air and breath than the V1. I put Mullard tubes in my V1, which improved front to back-stage with some sparkle. The V3 with stock tubes does this and better. Mark told me the amp is voiced perfectly and NOT to change tubes! Tube rolling can be a dicey business. Quality and good build of a tube can result in longer life expectancy of the device and operate to the manufactures’ specifications and sonic expectations.
The Sphinx V3 had excellent bass control over the Carina’s. The V3 has a high damping factor, which the Carina’s wanted and needed. I was joyfully thinking, sure nice to have the tube sound with kick-ass bass in a chassis that only weighs around 25 pounds! I did not feel the need to change amps with this system. I’m talking about a refined tube sound, quick, transparent, dynamic and tuneful.
Ok, the Carina’s had to be packed up and it was time to put the Sphinx to test with the Magnepan LRS’s. Recall the LRS are a 4 ohm load speaker that craves power and control. Very revealing speaker from top to bottom and will not act as an imposter, nor be a stand in, or a stooge for a reviewer’s muse. I had not used the LRS for a couple of months, because of other speaker and component reviews. The LRS’s were tight and bright, like when I first got them. I had to do a three day break-in again. Like tight blue jeans, you gotta wear and use them, or they will get stiff.
Now, that the speakers were back on-line, it was time to see what we got here. I had just recorded some favorite albums on Bluesound and started picking some music to play. How about a live performance by James Taylor with just him and a piano? 2007 live recording.
CD & DVD Live
I put on the CD and turned the lights out. I was immediately transported to the venue; you know the feeling? Where you don’t want to make any noise or cough, because it sounds so frigging real? I could hear every inch of the hall. Larry Goldings piano was in view in its entirety, with no fog or mist between me or the recording. I could hear the type of microphone that James was using and the piano that Larry was playing! The purity of his voice and guitar was stunning. I listened to the entire album and teared-up (crying) with the many songs I was experiencing. Oh yes, and the goose bumps too. Not listening, but experiencing! No HiFi, speakers, amps, no nothing except the performance. I must say, I have not been emotionally highjacked by an audiophile experience like that for years! I believe, back then, it was a pair of Magnepan’s powered by an Audio Research integrated amp.
Well we could stop right here and call it good? However, there is more to the story as they say. I played classical, jazz and some rock. The V3 took to all of them and brought out the best within them. The amp rocked with the Carina’s. The LRS could not Rock out like the Elac’s, but the Sphinx V3 was magical in every other department with the LRS.
Now, remember there is now a MM/MC phono section on board with the V3. I opened up the case and set the phono for MC. I played a few live jazz albums recorded in clubs. In those venues there is raucous behavior with silverware clanging, clinking glasses filled with booze and frivolous laughter with shout outs to the musicians from the crowd. I can tell how good a phono system is by how well it resolves those sound cues in the background. The Rogue V3 did well with resolving detail and nuances in vinyl recordings. Suggesting that the level of sophistication comes closer to the phono sections in Rogue’s higher end line of preamps.
It is hard to assess the quality of phono systems, because there are so many variables; turntable, cartridge, cables and power supplies. In the end, you have to experiment with getting the mix to your liking. The V3 is the test tube to allow for different flavors of ingredients to be added to your phono cocktail. Cheers!
For those who like to listen to headphones, improvements have been made with the addition of MOSFET devices in the circuit. I’ll take Rogue’s word that its better then past generations. I’m not a headphone listener, after having been under cans doing radio shows for years. Feels like being in an audio prison. Let there be air and breathing music emanating from the ether.
Rogue Audio Sphinx V3
Internal Board Layout Hypex-Modules
Summing it Up
As stated at the top of the review, MUSIC MACHINE!
The Rogue Audio Sphinx V3 is an integrated amplifier for the 21st Century. With its smart sonic engineering and eco-design, the Sphinx exceeds the price per performance value proposition in affordable high-end audio. At $1595.00 it’s in a category by itself.
With this amp you have the best of both worlds. The desirable attributes of tube flavor with a grain less, powerful, airy, detailed musical presentation. The only thing missing is a built in streamer. Who knows? The Sphinx V4?
Beyond highly recommended, I would have purchased the unit, except I own the V1 and Pharaoh.
Rogue Audio Pharaoh Integrated Amplifier
Rogue Audio Sphinx V1 Integrated Amplifier
Magnepan LRS Loudspeaker
ELAC Carina Loudspeakers
ELAC UB 5 & Debut 5 Loudspeakers
NAIM DAC V1
Rega Planar 3 Turntable with Ortofon, MC Quintet Cartridge
Sim Áudio 110 LP V1, Phono Preamplifier
Chord Company Speaker Cables
Monster Cable Sigma Interconnects
Nordost Digital Co-Ax
Kimber Kable Co-Ax
Black Ravioli E-Floss Energy Drains
Bluesound Vault, Node 2
Martin Logan SL 3 Loudspeakers
Oppo 105 CD/DVD Player