If the McIntosh MA6900 shows just how butch an integrated amp can be, then the Red Rose Rosette 1 shows how cute one can be. This adorable little jewel measures a mere 4.5x8.2x10.6in (WHD) and it just begs to be sited next to your computer monitor, on a bookcase in your office, or on the nightstand next to your bed. But those uses, while intelligent and practical, would underestimate its worth just because of its external dimensions. It is an amplifier which calls to mind all of those audiophiles who, upon hearing an LS3/5A for the first time, couldn't believe their ears.
Its size is symbolic because the Rosette 1 isn't just the (physically) smallest amplifier Red Rose boss Mark Levinson has made, it's also the least expensive. Here we have, for the first time ever, a product approaching entry level pricing from the man who single-handedly created stratospheric price tags. And although he probably doesn't approve of the use of the 'C' word, yes - it did make me think of Cello.
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Beautifully fashioned from what look like aluminium extrusions for the sides, the Rosette 1 is shaped in the currently popular 'vertical' mode, as used by EAR for the M100A, by Holcro, and by Mark's erstwhile, eponymous company for its top models. Only here we're talking about 1/4th scale dimensions. (Its layout reminded me of an aged Sony integrated from the 1970s, with matching tuner famed for its round dial - the TA-88, I think.) So nicely made is the Rosette 1 that you can't help twiddling the machined volume control, pressing the buttons with their smooth action. But that's about all you'll do, because this amp is the most minimalist product yet in our survey of high-end integrateds.
Not only is it the smallest and least expensive, it's also the only one so far without remote control, and it bears no controls beyond on/off, volume and source select. The amplifier accepts four line level sources, while the set of phonos at the back also includes an output for tape. And there's not much more beyond the single pair of multi-way binding posts. Even the mains lead is captive to prevent you from experimenting with AC cables. To save on LEDs, power-on indication is shared with the source in use, lighting up in blue over indications marked S1 through S4.
A 50W/ch amp 'that is heavily biased towards Class A', it emulates big Class A amps in that it takes some time to run in, while day to day use also requires a long warm-up period of about 6 hours from stone cold. Although there's a few seconds of silence from switch-on, the mute preventing thumps, there is no stand-by mode - unforgivable in an amp which so clearly needs to be warmed up to sound of its best. It does not, by the way, run hot, thanks to the sides being chimney-like heat sinks. The Musical Design Company's Dave Wiley told me, 'I keep it powered up at all times and select an unused input as a mute.'
He also mentioned that the unit is particular about cables, so I started with the most expensive I could muster, working my way down. I found it ludicrous to use wires which cost as much as the amplifier itself, but he was right, and budget cables clouded the sound. Thus I stuck with 1.5in thick Kimber Select, cables so heavy that they tugged at the Rosette 1's mere 13lb weight!
Forcing myself not to relate its size to the ancillaries, I fed the Rosette 1 with the Audio Research CD3 and Musical Fidelity 3D CD players, and used it to drive LS3/5As, Wharfedale Diamond 8.1s, Quad ESLs and Wilson WATT Puppy System 6. To my delight-cum-horror, the little bugger drove the System 6 so loud and so easily that I couldn't crank it past the 12 o'clock mark in my 12x18ft room. Red Rose may have rated this as a 50-watter, but their watts must come from Texas.
But size matters did keep creeping in, because the Rosette sounds like a big amp only in its volume capabilities and bass extension. The soundstage it produces is neither wide nor deep, merely acceptable. Let's be perfectly clear about this: you certainly know you're listening to stereo discs, but the image stayed within the borders created by the outer edges of the speakers - consistently from LS3/5A to System 6 - and stage depth was nearly myopic. Within those confines, though, were superb image placement and a great sense of space around each performer. You would, however, need to look elsewhere if you like your musical arena cavernous. Groups of gospel singers were bunched together, the Glory soundtrack lost a touch of its majesty, Gladiator left the Colosseum for a bingo hall in Scunthorpe.
That, however, is the full extent of my whining, because the Rosette's behaviour in other areas was valve-like for the handling of vocals, true to its silicon base for treble speed and overall attack, and positively fluid from top to bottom, with no shocking transitions from the midband in either direction. But every amp has its party trick, and the Rosette's is more than its size: there is a genuine ace up this amplifier's sleeve. (Note to pedants: an ace up the sleeve is a trick, therefore, the metaphor's aren't mixed.)
As is well-known, Mark Levinson is a very serious, esoteric bass player of note. It stands to reason, then, that the sound of bass instruments are as important to him when he tunes his products as the sound of a clarinet is to Antony Michaelson. It's only because I knew this about Levinson beforehand that I wasn't blown out of my chair when the Rosette delivered low-end energy, extension and control more akin to that of the Krell KAV300iL or the McIntosh MA6900.
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Maybe it's there to please Mark. Maybe it's there to compensate for the unit's size, to create a sense of perceived value. If I'm honest about it, the sheer weight of the sound created by the Rosette goes a long way toward compensating for the small soundstage dimensions. With Kodo drumming, some Rob Wasserman self-indulgence, with Sly Stone and Funkadelic and Motown - didn't matter what the source discs, the Rosette 1 loves bass. Which leads me to Barry White.