Published On: January 10, 2009

Red Rose Music Model 5 Integrated Amp and Baby System Reviewed

Published On: January 10, 2009

Red Rose Music Model 5 Integrated Amp and Baby System Reviewed

Post-Cello Mark Levinson electronics for your review-reading pleasure here. Ken Kessler takes a look at this imported tube integrated as well as Levinson's Baby music system which was oddly borrowed from his entry level Cello rig.

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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.

Additional Resources
• Read audiophile power amp reviews from the likes of Krell, Mark Levinson, Audio Research, Linn, Naim, VAC, VTL, NuForce, Pass Labs and many others here.
• Read about tubes on the Audiophile blog, AudiophileReview.com.
• Want to read audiophile stereo preamp reviews? We have dozens from brands like ARC, Krell, Classé and many more.
• In the market for audiophile loudspeakers? Here are over 100 reviews from brands like Wilson Audio, THIEL, MartinLogan, Bowers & Wilkins, PSB, Vandersten, Magnepan and many more.

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 the top of the box, thus create a 'mini-panel'. At the back is the port and two pairs of terminals for bi-wiring.

Read more on Page 2

RedRose-Model5-reviewed.gifI had been cautioned about the alleged fragility of the Bo Bengtsson-designed, custom-made ribbons. Apparently, one hapless soul merely rested a speaker against his stomach while moving it and the change in air pressure wrecked the ribbon. And they look tacky, sagging without showing any visible means of tension, as if they're not fitted correctly. Still, there are no known cases of the speakers being over-driven, they go loud enough to eliminate hopes of conversation and they survived the Kodo Drummers, Eddy Louiss and more. Seeing the ribbon the entire time does not increase confidence but, alas, the grille does affect transparency and openness, so the preferred listening method is sans grille.

There's absolutely no indication during listening, though, that the unit is anything other than robust. While I didn't hammer the speakers, for reason which I'll explain, I wasn't listening at whisper levels. And I loved the party trick of playing the system to visitors who thought they were auditioning the bigger speakers at the back. Sources included the Krell KPS25sc CD player, Revox G36 open-reel and SME 10/SME V/Lyra Lydian LP package via EAR834P phono stage. And set-up? They aren't lying: the R3 is the least fussy speaker I've EVER used, seemingly oblivious to toe-in, distance from the walls etc. As Wiley said, just plunk 'em anywhere and they'll sound great. And they did.

No getting away from it: the system sounds bigger than it has any right to, with the creation of a wide and deep soundstage supported by solid bass. Oh, and dazzling image height which begs for that Chesky demo CD with the overhead track. It's so impressive, in fact, that it actually distracts you from the system's limitations. It's one amazing illusion, and it seduces music lovers with ten grand in the manner that mass-market manufacturers have used teensy speakers to sucker in the BWFH. R3 provides much of the glory of silly-sized speakers but from an enclosure which won't have Raoul the Decorator calling for his smelling salts and shrink.

When it comes to spatial reproduction, the R3/Model 5 system leaves nothing to be desired. Bass is beautifully extended and you only miss the bottom octave-plus when you do a direct comparison with some massive floorstander. The middle? This system so adores voice - you must audition this with Eva Cassidy or Dianne Reeves - that you'll have a hard time reconciling its sound with the fact that its main proponent is a bassist. But this is within the bounds of what we might refer to as sane playback levels.

Although I simply cannot fault the sonic/tonal synergy between Model 5 and R3, I feel that the speakers demand a more powerful amplifier; I suspect that the easiest 'sell' Red Rose has is moving the R3 customer up to the 140W monoblocks. All I had to do to confirm my suspicions was to hook up the R3 to the Musical Fidelity M3 integrated. No contest: the extra power was appreciated It isn't about volume; I could live with the Model 5's volume control chronically cranked up to 1 o'clock. Or could I? Was it just the curve established by the volume control? Had they merely supplied it with an extra-long arc from 'silence' to middle gain for greater precision when setting playback levels? No: the Musical Fidelity, and for that matter, the 2xKT66-equipped Quad II-forty both sounded like they were having an easier time of it.

Maybe it's wrong for me to be swayed psychologically - troubled merely by what could be nothing more than the location of the volume control's pointer when the SPLs reach my preferred level - but if so then we're all in trouble: this entire experience is that of a system which cleverly deceives in the wholly acceptable manner of the LS3/5A, or 8W SETs driving speakers with 100dB-plus sensitivity. It's a package that makes you want to sit and listen for hours, just as it should. I absolutely adored it, wallowed in it and could live with it without complaint if I was told that it was to replace everything I own. But I must admit, despite my non-headbanging demeanour, that a part of me would always be asking 'what if?' And the 'what if' would be: what if I had another hundred watts per side?

Additional Resources
• Read audiophile power amp reviews from the likes of Krell, Mark Levinson, Audio Research, Linn, Naim, VAC, VTL, NuForce, Pass Labs and many others here.
• Read about tubes on the Audiophile blog, AudiophileReview.com.
• Want to read audiophile stereo preamp reviews? We have dozens from brands like ARC, Krell, Classé and many more.
• In the market for audiophile loudspeakers? Here are over 100 reviews from brands like Wilson Audio, THIEL, MartinLogan, Bowers & Wilkins, PSB, Vandersten, Magnepan and many more.

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