If I've learned anything about Mark Levinson*, it's that his stuff usually does things which it shouldn't. I mean that in the positive sense: early 'ML' series amplifiers from the 1970s, for example, seemed to me to produce subjectively more power than they should. The later Cello electronics, though festooned with controls, exhibited incredible transparency in the face of a minimalist onslaught from everyone else. Now there's Red Rose: Levinson doing it all over again.
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Only this time it's not the electronics that appear to defy their spec; if anything, there's an apparent mismatch here which I can't ignore. But the speakers? Wow! Dinky little boxes which act like big dipoles, and yet they're armed with only the tiniest of ribbons and woofers of a mere 4in diameter. No, I couldn't believe it, either.
To understand the Red Rose Model 5 integrated amplifier and R3 Baby Reference two-way loudspeakers, you have to approach them as a system. While they can be purchased separately, there were designed as if in a vacuum, the sheer chutzpah of Mark Levinson all but obviating even the remote possibility that anyone would mix'n'match his equipment. (There's no source component yet, but Levinson has come down firmly on the side of SACD.)
Levinson, having been around the block at least three times, is determined to have his customers avoid hassles and mismatches - innate in only two consumer commodities: hi-fi/video and computers.the only ones which you can make operable with the option of mixing elements from different manufacturers. Not unsurprisingly, they're among the most troublesome purchases we'll ever make. Red Rose supplies the stands and cables, and I'd be surprised if any potential owners failed to see/hear the wisdom in this approach.Yet I remain firmly committed to mix'n'match because, well, I'm an audiophile, and therefore a masochist...right?
And the pricing is wholly conducive to a system purchase since there's a vast discount buying all at once which more than pays for stands, some CDs, a case of vino or whatever floats your boat. The breakdown is £8000 for the Model 5 45W/ch all-tube integrated amplifier and £3500 for the speakers, stands are £499 while the 1934 RCA-terminated interconnects start at £260 for a 3ft pair and the 336 Bi-Wire speaker wire with an 8ft pair at £560. Buy the amp and speakers together and the Music Design Company will only ask for £9995 AND they'll throw in the cables. See? A cool £1505 plus the cost of cables in your pocket.
Red Rose's amplifiers started life as AudioPrisms, designed by Victor Tiscareno. AudioPrism is now part of Red Rose (the AudioPrism name is still used on the extensive line of mains accessories), and the amp has been through a fine-tuning process. I seem to recall that it was champagne coloured in earlier guise; as a Red Rose, the finish is the natural metal (reminiscent of, er, Cello) of its all-aluminium chassis, two-layered for resonance damping. The unit is line-level, dual-mono and all-valve, the latter still hard to grasp given Levinson's previous allegiance to transistors.
Red Rose is obsessed with the role of the power supply, so the Model 5 has separate regulation for the main power supply and gain stages. The transformers are custom-made, and Red Rose has them 'mechanically shock-mounted'. The amplifier is a push-pull design, the designer addressing the criticism which inevitably comes from the single-ended camp by separately regulating not just the power supply but everything else - every valve, every gain stage - to eliminate any ills attributed to the fundamental push-pull topology. And as Levinson virtually created the concept of 'auteur' hi-fi and the worship of 'designer' components, the Model 5 amp is packed with name-brand goodies: Holco and Roederstein resistors, Rel-Cap solder-mask-over-bare-copper polystyrene circuit boards, Cardas binding posts for 4, 6 and 8 ohm loads and Hubbell power connectors.
At the front of the 17x14x8in unit are only three rotary controls, a coy attempt at implying simplicity for clients of an invertebrate mien. The left-hand selector chooses between five line inputs (one is marked phono, however), while dead-centre is a volume control with heavy detents for a Leica feel. Above it an LED glows orange in warm-up mode, red in standby, and green in full-on mode; the right-hand knob selects off/standby/on.
On the upper surface are two pairs of 12AT7 tubes of unknown origin flanking a rotary used to bias the output tubes. It operates with a handsome oval meter in the centre of the top plate and set screws next to the Russian-made Electro-Harmonix EL34 output tubes, which I'd heard of but had never used. After my brief period with the Model 5, I'm hooked: they're so damned close to the Mullards in my old Radfords that anorakish obsessions with new-old-stock tubes are becoming tiresome. Also fitted for further protection are tiny clear plastic user-accessible fuses near the EL34s.
Behind the EL34s and beneath a lavish aluminium lid are the shared mains transformer and separate output transformers. The lid is removable so you can replace it with a full mesh cage available for those who anticipate visits from the Euro-oppressors. All in all, the look of the Model 5 is yet further evidence of Levinson's (and Tiscareno's) skill at blending a quasi-lab look with the kind of non-hobbyist Bauhaus elegance demanded by Manhattan's chic passing trade.
More surprises lurk at the back. In addition to four binding posts per channel to accommodate the three aforementioned impedances, phonos for the line sources and tape-out, and an IEC three-pin mains input, Red Rose has added two functions which tweakers will adore. Despite Red Rose's argument that the system has been designed for simplicity and ease of use, the company isn't contradicting itself: these controls HAVE been relegated to the back. Out of sight, out of mind, eh?
In the centre are three tiny toggles which will so beguile hobbyists that I can almost hear the arguments in the pub. The outer pair change the earth from common to floating to ground, and should be set for the lowest hum or for requirements unique to the installation. The one in the middle, though, enables you to choose between ultralinear and triode operation, just like on vintage Marantzes, to perform real-world comparisons at home. For the review, and with the approval of Musical Design Company's Dave Wiley, I stuck with ultralinear; it offered more grunt, which you'll see is necessary, and seemed tighter. The Triode sound was a tad warmer, but this is no clinical system whatever way you use it, so I wasn't tempted to pander to the SET mob.
Lastly, a pair of rotary switches lets you dial in the feedback according to the speaker load, independent of the terminals you've chosen. With the Red Rose speakers, both the 4 ohm terminals and the 4 ohm feedback setting were used, but this switch allows further fine-tuning should you other makes of speaker with odd behaviour.
Why you'd want to I don't know: the R3 is a sublime speaker, a ribbon-hybrid which brought a tear to my eye. (With visions of the final Apogees playing in my head...) And it's small, the box containing the 4in Dynaudio woofer measuring a mere 12 15/16x9 1/2in x7 13/16in (HDW). But the ribbon section - made up of two thin strips, each measuring 1 7/8x1/2in - is fitted to a part of the baffle which stands 4in
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