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Amplifiers

Bonkers. That’s the only way to describe the way the HiFi Rose RA180 amplifier looks: You’ll never have seen anything like it unless you know an electronics DIYer with a garage full of jam-jars stocked with bits from long-forgotten electrical appliances, and tastes halfway between the gothic and the sets for low-budget 1960s sci-fi TV shows. There’s just about every shape and size of control on the front of this amp’s high-quality aluminium casework, from a slider for balance to dials to that ‘what’s going on there then?’ volume adjustment with its gears driving gears, and you even get a pair of little VU meters thrown in to add to the oddity – as if any more strangeness were needed.

Well, it certainly stands out from the herd, this first amplifier from the South Korean company until now known for its high quality network audio products. Buy one, and you’ll never smuggle it into your system – visiting friends standing open-mouthed and saying, ‘What the actual…?’ will see to that. There is some method to the apparent madness, though: the intention of the front panel design is said to be to show the flow of signal from input to output.

But more to the point is that behind the wacky styling is it’s even more unusual, making it a real outlier in an integrated amplifier sector where you can usually be confident you know what you’re getting. Just for openers, this is a four-channel amplifier, not a two-channel one, with separate power amps to drive each set of its speaker terminals, and separate volume controls for the left and right channels – which is what those gears behind the skeletal volume control and its rack and cog-driven display are all about. Then there’s a semi-active mode, in which you can filter the frequencies going to the two sets of terminals when biamplifying suitable speakers, removing the bass element from the feed to the treble driver in your speakers. And, if you wish, you can bridge the amplifiers for each channel – left and right – to deliver even more power: the standard output here is an already healthy 200W per channel into 4 or 8ohms; engaging th eBridge mode doubles that to 400W a side, which should be more than enough for anyone.

This is an all-analogue amplifier, having three unbalanced line inputs (one of which can be set to a direct injection into the power amp using a hook-shaped front-panel ‘Pure Direct’ switch – careful with that if you’re in Bridge!) and one set of balanced XLRs, plus a switchable moving coil/moving magnet phono stage, with its own set of equalisation controls, for a turntable. There are no digital inputs, yet it has built-in network connectivity via Wi-Fi, purely to allow it to be controlled from your smartphone using the company’s RoseAMPConnect app. Just press and hold the power button on the amp to reboot it, and the app will find it, and open up to drive volume, input selection and other settings. Or you could just use the sleek remote handset, supplied along with a wired infrared sensor should you wish to hide the amp away in a cabinet. As if…

And things are just as unusual inside, the amp using what the designers call their ‘New Concept Class AD amplifier’, which is designed to give the energy and thermal efficiency, plus reduced noise, of Class D designs while enhancing sound quality. The secret, they say, is in replacing the silicon usually found in the power transistors with Gallium Nitride – more commonly found in LEDs and lasers – which is here said to produce a linearity beyond Class D limits, and a smooth, natural sound more akin to analogue amplifiers. What’s more, the RA 180 claims extended frequency range all the way up to 90kHz: way outside human hearing range, but said to play its part in the harmonics of sounds we sense rather than actually hearing. Your pets may not thank you!

Sound quality

So, nothing looks quite like the RA 180, and it turns out that nothing in its class sounds much like it, either. From the fine phono stage to the line inputs this is an amplifier combining a beautifully spacious and gutsy sound with a feeling of complete control over the speakers with which it’s used, be they small or large, or single- or biwired. Bring together all four of the power stages in the RA 180 to biamplify suitable speakers and there’s an almost uncanny sense of precision about the sound, with crisp, tight bass lines and not shortage of air and ambience, really bringing to life atmospheric live recordings or those made simple in a well-defined studio acoustics. It’s the kind of sound you might expect from bigger, much pricier amplifiers – that the RA 180 manages it from a relatively compact device, of standard hi-fi width and standing just 11cm tall, is exceptionally impressive. But then this is a very powerful amplifier, capable of driving just about any speaker you could throw at it without breaking a sweat, and with bags of dynamic headroom in hand to deliver all the scale and pace of the music. And when you deploy that bridged amplifier mode, doubling the power – cable it carefully, and check the connections several times before you fire the amp up again – then the impression of massive scale and utter control is understandably enhanced, making whatever you choose to play even more dramatic and involving. 

Conclusion

After the style of its network players, with their mass of facilities and attention-grabbing full-width touchscreen displays, you might have expected HiFiRose to do something different with its first amplifier, and the company hasn’t disappointed: ignore all the madcap styling – if you can – and it’s hard not to conclude that this is a very special amp. It has all the facilities most will ever need (and then some), plus speed, weight and clarity allied to a massive dollop of power. Add in the user-convenience of that ‘hidden’ app control, and this is the high-end integrated amplifier totally rethought on every level.

Living with the RA 180

With its highly adjustable phono stage, this is an obvious choice for the vinyl enthusiast, but it’s also a fine partner for HiFi Rose’s range of network audio players. The RS 250 couldn’t look more different, with its huge display, but you can catch hints of the same thinking at work in the combination of do-it-all flexibility and fine sound quality. And speakers? Take your pick: the RA 180’s heavyweight power amp stages will drive just about anything you choose.

Listening notes

Robert Fripp Washington Square Church

Decades before he was making mad Sunday Lunch YouTubes in the kitchen with his missus, the King Crimson guitarist wound down from the band’s 1981 comeback tour with these solo concerts in a New York Church. The RA 180 digs deep into the extraordinary soundscapes Fripp creates with his instrument, bringing out all the artistry and creativity of his playing.

Wolgang Haffner Rememberance

The closing track from German drummer Haffner’s Kind of Cool set sums up the gorgeous vibe of the whole album, which takes in standards played with the ease of seasoned jazzers, from Miles Davis’s So What to a languid reading of My Funny Valentine. The detailed yet rich HiFi Rose sound is heard to good effect on this track, with 83-year-old Dusko Goykovich leading it on trumpet. Cool indeed…

Beyoncé Cuff It

Anything with the inestimable Nile Rodgers on rhythm guitar can’t go far wrong and this driving track from Beyoncé’s latest album, Renaissance, is no exception. But then the whole album – for all its controversies – is strong, with superb production and deep, growling bass below the powerful vocals, and all the grip and speed of the RA 180 can be heard in action.

What the press say

Why you should buy it

While the obvious reason for buying this amp might seem to be to stand out from the crowd – relatively unknown name, mad styling – there’s a lot more to the RA 180 than meets the eye. This is a fine integrated amplifier with high-end aspirations it more than achieves, and provided you want a purely analogue amplifier built to perform on a par with much bulkier pre/power combinations, you won’t go far wrong here.

Video review

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