Greg Handy developed a passion for audio in his early teens when he worked as an installer of car audio systems. This experience taught him about passive and active crossovers, subwoofers, and challenged acoustics, as well as how to troubleshoot persistent bugbears like ground loops and noise.
From there, his interests grew to home audio and home theater systems. Once he bought his own home, he began installing sound systems and theater systems in different rooms, spending much time and money along the way. It wasn't long before he began doing the same for friends and family, then sharing his passion for AV with the HomeTheaterReview.com audience.
I just love integrated amplifiers. They are so convenient, and setup is a breeze, yet they can often rival the performance of separate components. So, when given the chance to review the Pharaoh, I jumped at it. Rogue Audio is an American audio company located in Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania, where their products are actually handmade. The $3,500 Pharaoh is the top-of-the-line integrated amplifier, and it's considered a hybrid because it combines a tube preamplifier along with a powerful solid-state amplifier. The fact that the amplifier is Class D, utilizing the highly regarded OEM Hypex modules, adds another level of interest.
Recently I reviewed the NAD M27, a seven-channel amplifier that licenses the Hypex Class D technology, with outstanding results. You can read the review here. Mark O'Brien, the president and lead designer of Rogue Audio, utilized the Hypex OEM Class D modules--not only because of their great performance, but also because it allowed him to use as much or as little of the module as he wanted. While Rogue is not the first audio company to combine a tube preamp with a solid-state amplifier, it is the only company that I'm aware of that uses a Hypex Class D design in the amplifier section. It is a technology that I am seeing implemented more frequently, in recent years, by high-end amplifier companies.
On the other side of the coin, it is a common opinion that tube gear provides a warmer, more lifelike rendition of a performance. The fact that, at some point during the recording process, tube gear is still used today is a testament that there is some truth to the tube reputation. Unfortunately, it's difficult to combine tube gear with speakers that are difficult to drive. Combining a tube front end with a solid-state back end could be considered the best of both worlds, and the inclusion of the Hypex Class D amplifiers could mean the ability to drive difficult speakers with the sonic qualities of tubes. Let's see how this integrated amplifier performs overall, with a variety of speakers.
The preamplifier is a pure tube mu-follower design, using two long-plate 12AU7 tubes. Oversized oil-filled coupling caps protect the analog signal prior to solid-state Class D amplification. The Pharaoh is rated at 175 watts per channel at eight ohms and 350 watts per channel at four ohms. According to the manufacturer, high-quality European parts are used throughout.
The Pharaoh's features list includes a discrete tube headphone amplifier with a tube-driven quarter-inch headphone jack, three sets of line-level RCA inputs, one set of adjustable moving-magnet or moving-coil phono inputs, one set of XLR balanced inputs, home theater bypass, a remote control that has volume and mute functions, subwoofer output via its variable analog output, and a detachable power cord. On the front, from left to right, you will find the infrared sensor, power switch, source selector, processor loop for home theater bypass, a larger volume control, gain unity on/off switch (home theater/processor bypass), balance control, headphone on/off switch, and lastly the headphone jack.
The Pharaoh is 18.25 inches wide, 18 inches deep, and 6.5 inches high, and it weighs 39 pounds. The main case is made of a heavy-gauge sheet metal, with a textured black finish. The front of the Pharaoh has a stunning thick-machined aluminum faceplate, with an almond-shaped recessed plate in the center. That recessed plate has the same finish as the main case. The main front faceplate is also available in black as opposed to the raw aluminum color. The Pharaoh has an industrial yet high-quality appearance with a matching solid-aluminum remote control.
I connected the Pharaoh to three different sets of speakers during my review process: the Vienna Acoustics Schoenbergs, the B&W CM10s, and the B&W 800Ds. For the first two speakers, I used an Oppo BDP-105D as my source, playing CD, and Cardas balanced interconnects to round out the setup. With the 800Ds, an Oppo BDP-95 was used as the source.
I let the Pharaoh warm up for a few days in standby mode. I then fully powered on the integrated amplifier and let it run for 30 minutes. Starting with the Vienna Acoustics, I played "Sunland" by Marc Antoine from The Very Best of Marc Antoine. Initially I noticed a pleasantly forward presentation, which created immediacy and involvement but never became uncomfortable. The stereo image hanging in front and in between the Schoenbergs had a natural quality. The soundstage projected nicely, creating a front-to-back image with focus. The guitar had a tenderness that made long listening sessions easy.
Next I played A Ti a Ti by the Gipsy Kings from their Tierra Gitana album. Once again, the acoustic guitar strings impressed me, as they had a silky character that lingered in the room if just for a microsecond before landing softly. Details in the upper frequencies were smooth with no smearing, and I heard a natural rendering of vocals.
Moving on to KT Tunstall's "Other Side of the World," I noticed upper-range frequencies, and in particular cymbals, that came to life. I also noticed a lifelike midrange that helped the vocals to breathe. The Rogue/Vienna combo was a great all-around package that would be hard to beat.
It was time to up the ante with the B&W CM10s. You can read the full review of this speaker, by Brian Kahn, on our website. The CM10 is a midsized floorstander; and, as Brian indicates, it needs some oomph to drive it properly--perhaps more power than its 90-dB sensitivity rating would indicate. I played an assortment of songs including the ones mentioned above, and it was clear to me that the Pharaoh had no issues driving these speakers. In listening to the song "Anticipation" by Carly Simon, another quality became apparent: this amplifier is dead silent. I should not be surprised, since I had the same experience with the NAD M27 seven-channel amplifier, which shares the same amplifier technology. Perhaps I have become used to such silence and now take it for granted.
Continuing with Carly Simon, her voice exhibited exceptional realism, with just the right amount of forward presentation. The midbass projected nicely, while percussions maintained detail. Since the CM10s have more bass capability than the Vienna Acoustics, it was clear that the Pharaoh was, in fact, taking advantage. I was thoroughly satisfied with what I heard.
To be thorough, I traveled down the street to a friend's home where I connected the Pharaoh to its final speaker, the B&W 800D, with the source being an Oppo BDP-95. I have seen the 800Ds give some highly regarded amplifiers a hard time. Normally, the 800Ds are connected to a Krell integrated amplifier, and I had the chance to audition several artists with this setup. After connecting the Pharaoh, I listened to several songs, including "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele on her second Album 21. This track has cymbals played in the background that sounded sensational with the Krell, and I heard similar transients and clarity with the Pharaoh. I could hear the lifelike breath from the midrange to the upper frequencies. With that said, this speaker is a monster, and the high-powered Krell integrated amplifier had a bit more punch in the lower frequencies. It's important to mention the Krell is also five to six times the cost of the Rogue. It was impressive to see the Pharaoh stand up to the 800D; while this speaker may not be the Pharaoh's soulmate, as with most marriages, you could make it work.
Lastly, I connected my Sennheiser HD700 headphones. While listening to a variety of music, I could tell the tubes were doing their job. The HD 700s never sounded better, with increased width and soundstage and an airy top end. I found myself looking around the room and removing the headphones to ensure my main speakers were off. When compared with the headphone output on the Oppo, it was clear that the Pharaoh was superior.
As with all components, there is always something to gripe about, but I am struggling to come up with something tangible in the performance realm. As with most equipment in this caliber, and similar to what I heard with other Hypex amplifiers, it will play what's there, whether you like it or not. So, choose your recordings carefully or hold your complaints.
In the feature set, I wish there was one more balanced input. The look of the Pharaoh is of high quality and somewhat industrial in nature: it's not a bad look; but, due to the sophisticated sound quality of the Pharaoh, I could not help but think it deserves a slightly more formal outfit.
Comparison and Competition
It was a challenge to find a truly competitive product with an exact feature set. Integrated amplifiers at this price point, with a tube preamp mated to a solid-state amplifier, are not that common. Adding in the Class D amplifier makes the search much more difficult. Having said that, here are some alternatives: the Vincent Audio SV-237 Hybrid Stereo Integrated Amp at $2,750 has similar power ratings and is in fact a tube front end with a solid-state amplifier; however, I have no experience with it. The T+A Power Plant Balanced at $3,300 may be a consideration due to its similar power rating and the use of a pulse width amplifier (Class D) developed by T+A; however, it's not a tube preamplifier. Additionally it lacks the headphone amplifier. The Krell Vanguard, a newer integrated amplifier that is rated at 200 watts per channel, is pure Class A. It is not a tube design, but its Class A amplifier could pose as an compelling alternative. It has a retail price of $6,000. Unfortunately, the Vanguard has no phono input, nor does it have a headphone amplifier. It supports digital music by offering the ability to add digital inputs via USB and HDMI if desired. The Hegel 160 has a retail price of $3,500 and has 150 watts per channel. This unit, like the Krell, is also a DAC with digital inputs but lacks the phono input; however, it does include a headphone amplifier.
I am very impressed with the Rogue Audio Pharaoh Integrated Tube Hybrid Amplifier. It has a host of functionality that will be of use to the analog-loving audiophile. For starters, it is a state-of-the-art design, offering Class D amplification with a tube front end. It has exceptional build quality throughout, utilizing parts sourced from some of the best manufacturers. The Pharaoh includes a tube headphone amplifier that works well and edged out my Oppo BDP-105D's headphone output. I like the variable analog output for use with a subwoofer, if needed. Home theater bypass functionality creates a path to integrate a high-end two-channel system within your surround sound system. An adjustable phono input that can be customized to support your cartridge type and output level will satisfy the vinyl collectors. Lastly, I demonstrated that it could drive difficult speakers if needed. At $3,500, the Rogue Audio Pharaoh is a unique product that hits on all the demands of an analog audiophile, at a price point that is significantly less than what you would expect to spend.
• Check out our Stereo, Mono, and Audiophile Amplifier category page for similar reviews.
• Visit Rogue Audio's website for more product information.