July 2024

A few weeks ago, my wife and I pulled into the parking lot of Rogue Audio, which is located in the Pocono Mountains region of Pennsylvania. We were camping at a nearby state park, and when I found out the park was only about a half hour from Rogue, I thought it would be a good idea to arrange a visit. I had purchased a Rogue Audio Sphinx v3 a few months earlier and wanted to see where my integrated amp was born.

Rogue is housed in a medium-sized building, just off a secondary highway. When we arrived, I stood in the parking lot for a moment and then wandered over to the front of the building. I couldn’t see a sign anywhere telling me that I was in the right place. Bill Magerman, who is Rogue’s sales manager, came out to the parking lot from a side door to meet me. He told me that having a sign outside the building had led to people frequently mistaking it for a place that repairs audio gear.

Rogue Audio

He led me into the building, most of which is taken up by an open space with a high ceiling. Shelves at different points in the room hold parts that will be used in assembling Rogue’s products, which include stereo amplifiers, monoblock amplifiers, preamps, integrated amplifiers, headphone amplifiers, and phono stages. Other areas are for assembling, testing, and packaging these products.

The company’s suppliers are close by, which helps keep supply-chain issues to a minimum. The chassis for its products, for example, are made nearby at metal-fabrication plants in New Jersey and Stroudsburg, PA. Transformers are made at facilities in New York and Connecticut.

Rogue Audio

Since Rogue assembles its products at the facility in Pennsylvania, their affordability is somewhat surprising. And I don’t mean affordable in the high-end-audio-mag sense, as in, “anything under $50K is budget.” Rogue’s all-tube Stereo 100 power amplifier costs $3995 (all prices USD). For an additional $1300, the Stereo 100 “Dark” includes various upgrades that will even further enhance performance. The all-tube, 250W Apollo “Dark” monoblock amplifiers run just under $15K for the pair, a legitimate bargain for amps of that kind.

Rogue’s other monoblocks, the DragoN ($5995/pair) and M-180 ($6995/pair), are very reasonably priced, given their performance and build quality. As with other models, a small price increase for upgrades yields even more impressive results. With so much high-end audio moving into the financial stratosphere, it’s reassuring to know there’s a brand that wants to make exceptional gear that the average person can afford.

Rogue’s cofounder, Mark O’Brien, was born in New Jersey, but has spent most of his life in Pennsylvania. He showed an early interest in audio. “Driven by music,” he told me. “I can remember when I was like 12 and connecting drivers and putting them on a chair and listening to them and going, ‘wow, that sounds better with a pillow behind it.’ You know, that kind of thing.” The young O’Brien also learned about audio by assembling Hafler amplifier kits.

He received his undergraduate degree in physics from California Polytechnic State University. “Physics is a great background for doing tube amplifiers,” he noted. O’Brien was accepted for the master’s program in physics at Drexel, but decided to take a job at Bell Labs, which had offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The impetus for designing his own audio equipment came in the early 1990s with the purchase of a preamp that fell short of O’Brien’s expectations. “I had paid $450, which at the time was an astronomical sum for a tube preamp,” he recalled. “And I brought it home and thought, Wow! This sounds incredible! because I kept hearing about how you had to have tube gear. And I listened further and I thought, Ah, but it’s not quite as clean as my PS Audio. It does have that warmth, and yet . . . actually, this doesn’t sound very good at all! Three days later I returned it. So, I decided I was going to try and design one myself.”

O’Brien could count on the brain trust at Bell Labs, where his co-workers had degrees in physics, as he did, or in electrical engineering. “I could go ask them questions and they were happy to help me out.” After several tries, “I got one that sounded pretty good, you know, one the world definitely had to see.” O’Brien convinced two of his colleagues at Bell to go into the audio business with him, and in 1996 they started Rogue Audio to market the Rogue Sixty Six preamp.

With Rogue established, Mark O’Brien got an MBA in order to better understand the business aspect of his new endeavor. One of the original founders, Phil Koch (pronounced “Cook”), is still a partner at Rogue, and the company’s product line now comprises 16 models. In a 2019 article about Rogue for SoundStage! Global, S. Andrea Sundaram pointed out that O’Brien has an impressive knowledge of tube circuit design, but is happy to use computer software to help design circuitry for new and updated products.

Rogue Audio

Rogue’s designs are impressive, but what also makes its products so appealing is the fact that they are assembled by hand with great care and attention to detail. Magerman walked me through the first step in putting together my Sphinx v3: making a populated circuit board. He grabbed a bare circuit board and placed it on a light box that allows the assembler of the board to examine it for imperfections. “It’s rare that we find problems,” he told me as he set the board down and switched on the light. “We’re just checking the traces to make sure there are no gaps or breaks, no extra blobs of copper that would create short circuits; 99 out of 100 boards are perfect.”

Rogue Audio

I asked O’Brien where the boards originate. “I personally do all of the board design,” he responded, “and then send the CAD data files to one of several board fabricators we use. They then send us the bare boards which we populate in-house. Every design has its own unique circuit board, and we use a combination of circuit boards and point-to-point wiring where it makes sense.”

The person who is building the board takes it to a workstation, where the resistors, capacitors, diodes, and other required devices are in clearly marked, neatly organized containers. There are instructions for each board, which newcomers follow. Experienced builders know the steps for each board and can complete them more quickly. “It’s kind of like the most complex game of Battleship you’ve ever seen,” Magerman explained.

Rogue Audio

When the board is populated with the correct parts soldered into place, the builder completes a route sheet, which stays with the board through the remaining steps of assembling each component. “The route sheet has the dates and names of everyone who worked on the product,” Magerman told me. “It includes quality-control lists, test points, final assembly, listening tests, and packing. So, everything is looked at many, many times. The board builder will take the board off the shelf with the route sheet, grab a chassis, and do chassis prep.”

Rogue’s production manager, Nick Fitzsimmons, gave me some details of how Rogue assembled and tested my Sphinx v3. “For a product like the Sphinx,” he began, “there are two separate circuit boards: the motherboard and a rear board that houses the RCA jacks and input-selector switch. Once the boards are completed and have gone through the QC checklist, they get handed off to the final assembly stage, where they will go through another round of QC from a different person.

“The first stage in assembling any of our products is the chassis prep,” he continued. “This involves the installation of the feet, binding posts, IEC receptacle, rocker switch, and phono ground post to the chassis. After that comes wire prep and installation. All of our products use multiple jigs for prepping the internal power wiring and signal-wiring harnesses. Once the wiring is prepped, some of it is installed in the chassis while some of it attaches to the two circuit boards. After that the circuit boards are ready to be installed and wired up, followed by the installation of the power transformer and output modules.”

Rogue Audio

“Once the wiring is completed and the transformer is wired to the PCB,” Fitzsimmons concluded, “the final step before testing is the installation of the faceplate and knobs. Before any units get tested, there are multiple QC checklists to go over, and then the tubes are installed and they go through an electrical test.”

Rogue Audio

Fitzsimmons then walked me through Rogue’s testing and other final steps: “The electrical test includes checking various DC test points to ensure the unit is working properly, as well as checking the output power and the functionality of all the switches and controls. After the electrical testing, every unit goes through a 24-hour burn-in period with an audio signal flowing through it. After the burn-in procedure, every unit goes through a final listening test where we listen to every input, check all functionality such as remote control and headphone output et cetera, check the noise floor, and then they are off to the packing station.”

Rogue Audio

Rogue packages its products carefully, double-boxing them and securing them with Styrofoam inserts on the sides and top of the outer box. It’s always a good idea to keep the packaging from any audio gear you buy, but it’s an especially good practice with Rogue, since you might want to return one of their products for an upgrade. If you made the mistake of throwing out the original packaging, Rogue will send a replacement for $60. “We aren’t making a penny on that,” Magerman told me. “Custom foam inserts are expensive.” He also noted that last year, no Rogue products were damaged in shipping.

I noticed that Rogue was using Klipsch bookshelf speakers for listening tests. “We use Klipsch speakers because they are very high efficiency and it makes it very easy to check for hiss and hum,” Fitzsimmons explained. “Also, many of our customers use high-efficiency speakers from Klipsch and Zu Audio, so it is helpful for us to evaluate the noise floor on similarly high-efficiency speakers.”

Rogue Audio

Magerman pointed out that the faceplates for Rogue’s pieces arrive from the fabricator without anything printed on them. The names for the switches and controls—for example, Power, Volume, Balance, and source names on the Sphinx—are printed in-house. “We screen them ourselves in our print room,” he said, leading me into an uncluttered, medium-sized room.

Rogue AudioPrinting of Rogue’s logo and the labeling of the power switch and other items on the faceplate takes place here.

I started researching Rogue’s products after hearing their integrated amps at Now Listen Here, a dealer in central Pennsylvania. I had been using a Scott 299 all-tube integrated amp, made in the late 1950s, for almost 20 years. It was my second vintage Scott, and I’d had some modifications done that would, for example, allow me to use heavier-gauge speaker wire.

I had been thinking about replacing the Scott because every two or three years I had to get the power tubes biased, which meant scheduling an appointment, unhooking the amp, taking it to a shop, and being without it for at least a week. Plus, it cost about $200, and if any tubes needed to be replaced, the cost was higher.

The cost didn’t really bother me. Replacing a stylus runs about the same. Unhooking it and transporting it to the shop was a bit of a hassle, though. I gave some serious consideration to Rogue’s Cronus integrated tube amp because it is designed so the user can bias the power tubes. While I was visiting Rogue, I asked Bill Magerman to show me how to bias a Cronus using a meter at the top of the chassis and a tool provided with the amp. It took him less than five minutes.

Rogue Audio

As much as I liked the Cronus when I heard it, further research led me to decide on the Rogue Audio Sphinx v3 in my listening room because it would fit my needs best. The tube preamp stage gives me the warmth and musicality of the tube experience and the 100Wpc power rating was a good fit for my listening room. Rogue’s other integrated amps, the Pharoah II ($3995) and the Cronus Magnum III ($3495, or $4495 for the “Dark” version), had more power than I needed.

I was very fond of the Scott, and I went back and forth between it and the Sphinx the first day I got the new amp, just to ensure I was making the right decision. I realized quickly that the Sphinx v3 was a much better integrated amp than my Scott. The soundstage was deeper, bass was fuller but still well defined, and the phono stage was markedly better. I still think the Scott was a good example of all-tube high-fidelity music reproduction. But over the last few months, I’ve found myself hearing new things on recordings I’ve played many times. I am, to put it mildly, very happy with my decision.

Rogue AudioLeft to right: production manager Nick Fitzsimmons, president and general manager Mark O’Brien, and sales manager Bill Magerman

When Hans Wetzel reviewed an earlier version of the Sphinx in 2013, he concluded by saying, “Value never sounded so damn good.” I was pleased to be able to buy an integrated amp made in the US in a plant so close to my home in Central PA. Seeing up close how much care Rogue Audio takes in designing, assembling, and testing its products affirmed for me that the great sounds I was hearing from my Rogue Audio Sphinx v3 resulted from a commitment to quality. The fact that Rogue can bring such a high level of craftsmanship to affordable audio gear is both impressive and reassuring. You don’t have to be wealthy to hear music reproduced well.

. . . Joseph Taylor