Rogue Audio Ares Vacuum Tube Phono Preamplifier Review 
Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Monday, 13 December 2010

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.

ear Panel ares 1

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.

Rear Right side

In Use

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.

On Journey's mega power ballad, “Faithfully,” vocalist Steve Perry sang about coming home from the road and reconnecting with the one he loves, “I get the joy of rediscovering you...” On a less teary note, that's what happens with every new review I undertake – I rediscover some album that I've long neglected. This time around it was Starcastle's 1977 release, Fountains Of Light. Starcastle was one of many prog-rock acts of the 1970s that couldn't quite shake comparisons to past masters. The band had a definite Yes influence in the melodies and vocals, but there's still plenty here to enjoy. Starcastle frontman, and original REO Speedwagon vocalist, Terry Luttrell has a clear – almost “friendly”- style that echoes Yes' Jon Anderson, while keyboardist Herb Schildt provides a shimmering array of tone colors that don't dazzle with their virtuosity, but rather engage with their luminance. While getting to know the music again, I felt like I was hearing much of it for the first time as the Ares pumped new blood into this recording. On the track “Portraits,” the imaging was particularly good. Guitars electric and acoustic swirl through the arrangement, couched by Schildt's shimmering keys. There's a lot going on and I sensed the Ares picking up all the pieces and bringing them together to present the complete musical picture.

Staying in the middle of the 1970s, one platter that kept me coming back for more was Deep Purple's Come Taste The Band. The record represents something of a one-off; the only studio effort with guitarist Tommy Bolin on board. It's an often overlooked entry in the Purple catalog but one that gets better with each listen. I particularly Side 2 and the last three songs that close the platter. Whether it's Glenn Hughes meteoric vocals on “This Time Around,” Bolin's soaring guitar lines on the instrumental “Owed To G” or David Coverdale's blues-y pleas on “You Keep Moving,” the Taste has never been sweeter than through the Ares. One of the differences between a mediocre vinyl rig and a very good one is how the music can bloom with the latter. Vinyl can retain all its ballyhooed “warmth” yet sound oddly flat when the information in the grooves rushes to the surface all at once, with no degree of depth or separation of instruments and vocals. Where the Ares succeeds beyond its inherently powerful presentation is in its ability to present an arrangement with the components in proportion; subtleties are not lost nor are passages loud and heavy. The music loses no power yet sounds more relaxed because the presentation is delivered without strain. It's sort of like an Olympic weightlifter who trains for years and can dead-lift several hundred pains without screaming or straining, while the weekend warrior may do the same but at the expense of subtlety and all art. And again I was taken by the realism of the bass guitar; particularly the final notes from Roger Glover's Rickenbacker as the notes tumbled forth and disappeared at the conclusion of “You Keep Moving.”

Power supply

Rhino Records 180-gram vinyl reissue of Ornette Coleman's landmark 1959 recording, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, really sang with the Ares. The sharp harmonies, dizzying runs and accents from Coleman's saxophone and Don Cherry's cornet rang with energy and sheer exuberance. As these two brilliant horn players unfurl cascades of notes, drummer Billy Higgins plays it so cool that it's easy to take his bedrock rhythms for granted. He swings, he glides, he lays back, all while keeping time in these challenging compositions. But the revelation here was hearing Charlie Haden's remarkable bass playing, which at times sounded like the plucked strings were vibrating around my body as I listened. It's one thing to “hear” an acoustic bass, quite another to “feel” it. That's something for live gigs in intimate jazz clubs, but now the weighty notes were reverberating with an eerie but delightful presence.  It was one of the most electrifying vinyl moments I can recall.

Final Thoughts

“Let the tubes do their thing,” that phrase stayed in my mind as I rolled with the Ares this autumn and heard it do nothing but that and renew my love of analog. Compared to my budget-priced Zphono, the Ares brought out more of everything in the music – more air, more detail, more presence, more weight, yet it never sounded “boomy.” The Ares is not for the casual analog kid – its $1,995 price tag ensures that – but if you're looking for a phono preamplifier that can bring out the best in your current system with the flexibility to grow and change with your needs, the Ares is easy to recommend. It's built to last in many more ways than one.

System Setup

  • Rogue Audio Ares vacuum tube phono preamplifier
  • Pro-Ject RPM 5.1 turntable
  • Sumiko Blue Point No. 2 moving coil phono cartridge
  • Grant Fidelity A-348 integrated tube amplifier
  • Parasound Zphono Preamplifier
  • RS Audio Cables Kevlar Starchord Power Cable 
  • RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Interconnects 
  • RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Loudspeaker Cables 
  • PENAUDIO Rebel 3 loudspeakers
  • Snell Acoustics Type K loudspeakers

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