In 1981, long-time British rockers The Kinks released an album titled Give The People What They Want, a set of songs that gave them their first bona fide hit in several years, “Destroyer.” Call it timing or prescience, the music resonated and perhaps was what the people did want after all. Predicting such events in the music industry is nearly impossible, but the LP's title is good advice for anyone looking to attract an audience – and ultimately buyers – of his/her wares. Its advice Rogue Audio took to heart when designing the Ares, the company's first vacuum tube phono preamplifier. Rogue president and chief engineer Mark O'Brien related, “It was a real labor of love for me. I had a lot of feedback from vinyl lovers. Ultimately, we wanted to build an all-tube phono stage that had adjustable output, but without noise – something that's amazingly quiet.” Did O'Brien and Rogue succeed? Read on...
Design & Setup
We'll get to what's “under the hood” of the Ares momentarily. The first thing that struck me as I unpacked the Ares is its size: the phono stage measures 17 inches wide, 9 inches deep and stands 5.5 inches high. Unlike my Parasound Zphono preamplifier, the Ares looks like more like a power amp than a phono amp (the Ares' comes with its own outboard power supply that itself is larger than many phono stages). Its four tubes are protected by a metal “cage” consisting of a foundation square coupled to four arches that gracefully cover the tubes. To the right of the tubes and protective cage is a removable steel plate, held in place by a pair of screws. Removing the plate gives access to a series of switches that enable precise gain and loading adjustment according to one's choice of phono cartridge. The Ares' front panel has no controls or switches; all the connections are on the rear panel. The preamp sports a pair apiece of rugged gold-plated RCA outputs and RCA inputs and a grounding lug, along with two inputs for the power supply cables, a fuse and power switch. The power supply hosts two “umbilical” cables (A & B) that connect to the Ares just like XLR cables, snapping and locking into place. Each has a unique female receptacle that works only with its respective male counterpart, so there's no way to err while connecting. The power supply has its own detachable IEC cord that connects to the end opposite the twin cables. Plug that into an outlet or power strip and you're about ready to roll. A small blue LED, centered on the bottom panel, confirms power to the Ares.
If you've ever struggled with feedback and buzz from an analog system set up too close to amplification or speakers you know how annoying it can be, and sometimes nearly impossible to eliminate all the conflicting noise. Not so with the Ares: Certainly the dedicated outboard power supply with its own toroidal transformer serves to prevent distortion from the amp itself, but that alone is no guarantee of quiet operation. So Rogue built in other safeguards including a delayed start sequence to curtail any “thumps” when turning on the unit, three adjustable gain settings to work with low, medium and high output cartridges, and five unique resistive cartridge load settings. Not only is the Ares flexible regarding cartridges, users can also replace the two stock 12AU7 tubes with 12AT7 or 12AX7 tubes and run four of the respective tubes in quartet. This can be particularly handy if you run a rig with a low output moving coil or moving iron cartridge. My main turntable – the Pro-Ject RPM 5.1 – is fitted with a Sumiko Blue Point No. 2 moving coil cartridge. It's a high output design that doesn't ask a lot from a phono stage, and though O'Brien admitted the Blue Point is a solid performer he joked, saying he wished I had a more difficult cartridge to drive. Because the Ares is built to handle such a range of cartridges, I can't say that I threw up a mighty challenge but the results were still very good.
The Ares isn't difficult to setup, but if you're used to just flipping a switch to select for moving coil or moving magnet cartridges there's a bit more to the Rogue. Beneath the aforementioned steel plate (access panel) is a network of switches to accommodate high output moving magnet and moving coil cartridges (>1.0mV), medium output moving coils ((0.5mV to 1.0mV) and low output moving coils (less than 0.5mV). Each cartridge setup is clearly illustrated in the owner's manual, with a photo and arrows indicating exactly the position of every switch. Adjusting the parameters can seem a little daunting at first, but think of it just like an electrical breaker box at home. If you've ever had to reset a tripped breaker, then you can do this! And it's actually fun and empowering to have such control over the amp. One final point about using the Ares: It should be turned on before the preamp and turned off after the preamp has been turned off. And because of the delayed start sequence, the Ares won't output sound for approximately 30 seconds after being powered on.
The Ares was my first venture into tube phono preamps, and I wasn't sure what sonic footprint those tubes might impart, especially since my main amp is an integrated tube design. I asked if there was any concern about the Ares sounding too “tubey,” to which O'Brien asserted that wasn't a problem. The key is to simply remain faithful to the audio circuitry and let the tubes do their thing. Looking back at my notes during the first session with the Ares finds these comments, “Lots of presence and weight. Very substantial sound. Not noticeably 'tubey'. Sounds more like solid state. Totally quiet.” My first impressions of the Ares held as I spent several weeks with the unit and spun dozens of LPs front to back. Touching on O'Brien's quest for “quiet,” I can attest that the Ares is the quietest phono stage I've plugged into my system. Following the advice of the owner's manual, I plugged the Ares into the same power strip as my amplifier and never encountered any problems with hum or hiss – even at higher volumes. And this was with all the respective gear in very close proximity: the amp was less than 5 inches from the Ares; likewise, my turntable sat between the Ares and the phono amp's power supply, just 2 inches from either. Still, there was no hum – ever.