Rogue Audio Pharaoh II Integrated
Rogue Audio has once again upped the ante with their Pharaoh II hybrid integrated amp. I'm always a bit wary of the 'New & Improved' versions of any products that come to market. I seem to gravitate to original models (brands) of most premium products. Why do you ask? Well, because Herculean engineering efforts usually go into the development and production of a groundbreaking design. The Pharaoh I was launched in 2013, nearly ten years ago! It has been my reference amp for years. I have seen the evolution of many Rogue Audio products over time and had asked Mark O'Brien, designer and owner of Rogue Audio, periodically if there was going to be a revamp of the now classic Pharaoh. His answer was always, not at this time.
The Pharaoh II is a hybrid design utilizing the famous Bruno Putzi Class D Hypex Ncore amplifier module with a tube front end. One of the first integrated amps to feature this pairing. Class D back in 2013 was still a novelty piece of gear. The Pharaoh was a breakthrough design that rivaled many pure vacuum tube or solid-state amps in sonic performance. A powerful beast of an amp along with possessing the musicality of a single-ended amplifier. I own the first version of the hybrid Rogue Audio Sphinx, which is powering my vintage Martin Logan SL3 speakers upstairs in our living room. Try that with a single-ended amp! A smaller version of the Pharaoh.
The DNA of the Rogue Audio hybrid designs has flourished, capturing the "Best of both worlds" of tube and SS with true intent and purpose of delivering those superb sonic qualities in spades! I reviewed the Sphinx 3 a while back and was very impressed with the improvements over the previous series 1 and 2 with retrieving detail and offering more resolution from recordings. Knew that was going to filter down to the Pharaoh at some point. Well, here it is folks.
Let There Be Light
This was a 3D experience of listening to sound emanating from all directions. It made surround sound without any other array of speakers in the room. Total immersion along with spotlighting every instrument in the mix. You could reach out and touch the performance actors. I listened to the entire album. It is a wonderful spiritual instrumental recording.
Next was to listen to some vocal recordings to see how Pharaoh II portrayed the human voice. I also listen to recorded sounds of nature to calibrate my ears to the real world. Yes, animals have ears too. They listen to us, so turnabout is fair play.
With a lot of electronic gear, one has to identify, Oh, there is more detail, or Oh, there is more soundstage, or Oh, there is more there-there? The Rogue Audio Pharaoh II comes right out of the gate to say, "Let there be Light" to witness. I played several vocal tracks that illuminated the vocalists separated in the mix allowing the listener to witness the shape and presence of a person in recordings. You could tell how tall they were! It was as if the sound coming from singers was squeezed out of their bodies. No, not in the literal sense, more of a release of energy from the vocalist's body. Not like the soul being released from the body, as in the Movie Ghost, however, freedom from a hollow heavy mix in recordings.
The sound is integrated with musicians and vocalists in the performance. LIGHT! Some amps are too heavy sounding with the upper mid-bass tilted up. Guess you could say, Open sounding and airy without the sacrifice of weight. A full-bodied sound, but is not thick. Like a chorus line dancer, who is light on their feet, and able to pound the floorboards with a heavy thump when needed. Radio City Rockets come to mind.
Some Q&A With Designer / Owner Mark O'Brien
We use the new OEM version of the N-Core module because it is more transparent and sounds better than the UCD module we used in the original Pharaoh. The N-Core modules are more powerful and require a higher operating voltage than the old modules, so we need to use a larger toroid to provide the higher B+ voltage.
Has the topology of the circuitry changed from Pharaoh I?
Yes, the new Pharaoh is quite different from the original version and the circuit has been redesigned to achieve a higher level of performance. We use high-quality components in all of our equipment, but we did upgrade some of the critical capacitors and resistors in the Pharaoh II. In general, we believe the quality of the circuit is of fundamental importance, but better parts can improve an already good circuit.
Has the front end (tube) circuitry been improved?
The new Pharaoh II circuitry was designed using a newer and much more sophisticated CAD system than the original version; this alone results in enhanced performance. Beyond that, the circuit grounding, as well as the tube design parameters, have all been improved upon.
Has any of the major specifications changed with the new revision?
The biggest specification difference is the higher output power of the new Pharaoh II. It went from 185 Wpc to a 250 Wpc (conservative) rating. More importantly, the specs don't indicate how much better the new version is. For example, the new version has a larger and higher quality power supply, which doesn't affect the specs but improves the sonics.
Is there anything new in the headphone and Phono sections?
The headphone has been completely redesigned and is effectively a single-ended version of our dedicated headphone amp (the RH-5). It features MOSFET buffers and higher output power. The phono design is similar to the original but uses better components for a lower noise floor and better sound.
Does the unit have to be on (Blue Light) for the Pharaoh to be used as a preamp? Tubes engaged?
The unit does need to be turned on to use it as a preamp and it does incorporate the tubes when used in this manner.
Any similarity to the RP series of Phono Preamps?
The preamp in the Pharaoh is its design. While it does have some similarities to the RP series, when you design a preamp for an integrated amp, you can optimize it for the power amp section.
What is your favorite Saturday Night album to listen to? And Sunday Morning?
My favorite Saturday night album might be "Coleman Hawkins Confreres" or The Kinks "Sleepwalker" depending on what mood I'm in. Sunday mornings are always Renaissance polyphony and most often Palestrina Missa Papae Marcelli.
Comparisons To The Pharaoh I
Then plugged in the Pharaoh II. Coltrane's sax exploded out of the left speaker in full view for all to see and hear. Squeezed out of the mix in 3D! This amp just shocks you with little episodes of realism in recordings. Went back to the Pharaoh I to make sure I was not hallucinating. Yes, the sax was well rendered and proper on all accounts with Coltrane's sax on series 1. Later in the evening, it was wine and libation with enjoying the synergy of the Pharaoh II and the Falcons.
A note here about the Falcons and Magnepan speakers and amps. I have always paired the LS3/5A's with tube amps to get the best sound out of them. The Pharaoh with Class D output and tube front end dispel any of that folklore for me. Also, regarding solid state amps and the LRS, Wendell at Magnepan is adamant about only recommending a powerful Class AB amp and does not care for the sound of the Class D amps in general with Magnepan speakers. Not so with Rogue Audio's hybrid designs. They respond with grace, finesse, and ample power to make Magnepan's speakers sing.
My comparisons of the Pharaoh integrated amps were based on using only stock tubes for evaluation. I did substitute in a couple of rare vintage NOS Mullard 12AU7 tubes in the Pharaoh I. It got me closer to Pharaoh II, but not all the way. The tubes cost $300! The people at Rogue Audio have great ears and they choose tubes to go in the production models very carefully. JJ tubes are very good! I don't feel compelled to tube roll with Pharaoh II. I'm a person who buys premium products off-the-rack, like my old Fender stock Telecaster guitar. Stock golf clubs and clothing too, There is no sense in messing with tried, true and proven designs if you have talent or a suitable appearance.
Both versions of the Pharaoh play extremely BIG. Vertical image height exceeds the boundaries of the ceiling, and the bass control is one of the best in the business. The damping factor is around 1000. Bass monster with a grin. Listening to an acoustic bass instrument and how the amp handles the fundamental tones is amazing. The Pharaoh II is even more powerful, which allows it to be paired up virtually with any type of loudspeaker.
Even the Zu Omen MKIIs and their new Union speakers, look out for those! Efficiency be damned! The Rogue Audio Pharaoh is an excellent partner with Zu Audio loudspeakers. The Zu's ironically loved power even though they are high in efficiency they benefit from the control in the bass department. Overall Pharaoh II does an excellent job of portraying a huge soundstage with remarkable front-to-back depth. Many audiophiles are looking for that elusive sparkle in their systems presentation.
Yes, it's there without being bright sounding. The amp has jump along with gentle mellow sound quality when a recording is worthy. If pinned down, I would say the amp is musical with a good gear ratio of listening at low or high volumes with the remarkable rendering of frequency extremes. The Pharaoh is never strident or irritated by its nature. There is a saw tooth filter on the Hypex amplifier module at 20K Hz. Doubt if anyone can hear above that threshold. I was able to hear terrific frequency extension with Pharaoh II.
Features And Aesthetics
The remote control functions are simply volume up and down with a mute button. Heavy metal casing with a brushed aluminum finish. Fits in the hand well and can be used as a weapon if needed. The volume control on the front panel is sized just right for the hand to make gain adjustments. The source selector knobs have a good feel with solid clicks. Ahh, a balance control, which allows for soundstage adjustments. Yes, soundstage! The late Dave Wilson always said, "It is a necessary feature that allows compensation for an unbalanced sound in the room."
I agree with his observation about the use the balance control when needed. Some recordings benefit from its use. Many of my elder audiophile friends have an ear that is a little soft on either the right or left channel. When they come over to listen, a little adjustment to compensate is welcomed by them!
The back panel is populated by nice gold plated input/output RCA jacks and a pair of balanced input connectors. The Pharaoh II can be used as a preamplifier, in which the tubes are in the circuit. The preamp section is excellent sounding and is convenient when using another power amp. The sonic flavor remains when in use with another amp. There are variable outputs to accommodate usage as a preamp and can be used with the variable outputs to run a subwoofer. I use the REL T Zero's hooked up in that configuration on occasion.
If you are wanting to use the Pharaoh II in a Home Theater set-up, there is a set of bypass input and output jacks to hook up a processor. You have to be careful not to push the unity gain button on the front of the unit if you want to listen in stereo. If you do, the gain is all out full volume! Bamm! Be mindful of that scenario.
Of course, there is a set of Phono input jacks and a ground post. The Phono MC / MM adjustments are located inside of the unit. It comes from the factory set-up for a MM cartridge.
The top of the unit has a mesh grated space to allow for convection cooling from the two 12AU7 tubes. Pharaoh II runs very cool to the touch. Highly efficient Class D operation means it's pretty environmentally friendly.
There's a 1/4" headphone input jack on the front panel. Many users will appreciate the newly designed headphone section on the Pharaoh II. See the above description from Mark O'Brien in the Q&A section of this review.
Nice quality rubber feet are on the bottom of the unit. No massive heat sinks on Pharaoh II. Not needed because of the Class D operation. Cuts down on the manufacturing cost and allows for more technological goodies to go into making a good sound!
There are two colors (blue and yellow) LED lights on the front panel to tell you the amp is in the warm-up stage and then a solid blue color appears to indicate full operation is engaged. Also, there is a standby switch on the back plate that puts the unit in ready-to-go mode. Saves energy too.
More On The Sound
There is more transparency and detail with this new unit. Explosive dynamics, when called for Fortissimo and pianissimo, allows Pharaoh II to conduct the music from its podium. The tube section gives the amp the depth and quickness like a pure good tube component. This hybrid amp has essentially closed the gap between vacuum tubes and solid-state. There is quite a bit more power with Pharaoh II compared to its predecessor. There is that Rogue Audio signature of sound sporting quickness and musicality. Transparent with detail and neutrality. Bending towards warmth. I interpret warmth to be described as more of a natural sound.
As a finale, I listened to Bach's Cantata No. 63 Christen Ätzet Diesen Tag from the Dorian Volume 2 sampler CD. Full bore orchestration with Chorus. The Pharaoh II delivered all there was to be had with this amp and recording. I have played this piece numerous times it is somewhat of a benchmark recording for my evaluation of an amplifier's ability to get through it in one piece. The Pharaoh handled it and thrived! Glad I kept the ticket stub.
The End Game?