Rogue Audio draws most of its product names from Greek mythology, so when I received the Metis preamplifier I wondered what the connection between the component and its namesake might be. According to the mythology-oriented Web site theoi.com, Metis was the “goddess of good counsel, advice, planning, cunning, craftiness, and wisdom.” Once you understand the design goals Rogue set for this preamp, you might agree that all these factors played a role in its creation. With the Metis, Rogue offers audiophiles a hand-built-in-the-U.S. vacuumtube preamp that promises true highend sound yet sells for just $995. If that design brief weren’t already tough enough, the Metis also incorporates a high-quality solid-state phonostage and is designed to function as a headphone amplifier, to boot. And while it might be a stretch to call the Metis a “preamplifier of the gods,” Rogue has actually pulled the whole thing off without cutting any serious sonic corners.
The Metis focuses on sonic essentials, devoting almost zero attention to gongs and whistles. Accordingly, it provides just three line-level inputs and one phono input, one headphone jack, and two sets of single-ended outputs (one fixed, the other variable). Controls are minimalist—an on/off pushbutton, an input selector switch, a volume knob, a balance control, and an IR window for receiving signals from the optional Rogue remote. (The remote bumps the price by $100, but is worthwhile if you want to adjust volume levels from your listening chair.) Finally, the Metis provides a linestage driven by a pair of 6SN7 vacuum tubes—the same tubes Rogue uses, though in a different circuit topology, in its more costly preamplifiers. The Metis features a “slow start” circuit that is said to help extend tube life. Together these factors yield a costeffective, elegantly constructed preamplifier with a very sophisticated sound.
From the start I observed two things about the Metis. It offers surprisingly high levels of resolution, and its sound is remarkably consistent across the entire audio spectrum. Some tube preamps I’ve auditioned, including some more than twice the price of the Metis, exhibit terrific midrange lucidity, but with noticeable softening of focus at the frequency extremes. The Metis may offer a touch less midrange sweetness than the best $2–3K tube preamps, but it also delivers superior top-to-bottom continuity, meaning it always sounds whole and complete, never disjointed. You’ll appreciate this aspect of the Metis whenever you play music that presents layers of textures that energize multiple frequency bands at once. A good example would be the Ozawa/Boston recording of Respighi’s Pina di Roma [Deutsche Grammophon, LP], where you’ll encounter passages that combine high percussion, brass, and strings spanning the midrange, plus low brass, string basses, and low percussion. Some preamps would turn Pina di Roma into a congested mess, but the Metis sails through the piece cleanly, keeping its composure and effortlessly delineating the densely layered instrumental voices.
The Metis’ tonal balance is generally neutral, with articulate though perhaps slightly forward-sounding midrange, extended and beautifully defined highs, and pleasingly taut and potent bass (bass nearly as tight and well-defined as that of good solid-state preamps). Though the Metis never sounds aggressive—it’s much too smooth and polished for that term to apply—neither is it subdued or “polite”; instead, it has a refreshingly direct and forthright sound that shatters a lot of oldschool tube-preamp myths. In fact, listeners accustomed to preamps that fit the lucid-midrange/soft-treble/wooly-bass paradigm will find this preamp’s handling of the frequency extremes a revelation.
For example, on bassist Marcus Miller’s solo album M2 [Telarc], the Metis nails the shuddering low-bass pulse of Miller’s slapped low-string notes, the hard “pop” of his intricate pull-offs, the more delicate “ping” of his trilled hammer- on notes, and the richly modulated growl of midbass notes left to ring and sustain. Similarly, the Metis does justice to the delicate work of a master percussionist such as Roy Haynes as heard on Gary Burton’s Like Minds [Concord, SACD], where you can savor the way Haynes deftly works the surfaces of his cymbals, sometimes playing near the cymbal’s bell (which produces a sharp, chime-like ring), other times working the cymbal’s rim (which emphasizes high-frequency shimmer). The point is that the Metis works comfortably and effectively in high- and low-frequency territories where some tube preamps fear to tread. Does the Metis give you everything the best mid- or top-tier preamps would? No, because those units can take you several layers of resolution and focus closer to the heart of the music.
Finally, the Metis can, when matched with equipment and recordings that are up to the task, produce deep, wide soundstages with highly threedimensional renderings of individual instruments. I first discovered this when listening to some old but great CTI jazz LPs from the 1970s, such as Freddy Hubbard’s Red Clay and Jim Hall’s Concierto, but heard the same good result on modern Chesky SACDs such as Larry Coryell, Badi Assad, and John Abercrombie’s 3 Guitars. The Metis’ soundstaging and three-dimensionality are so natural, so almost-casual in their presentation that you might not at first notice how good they are until you switch to lesser electronics and find that those 3-D soundstages suddenly collapse. One caveat, though, is that the Metis is arguably more capable than many of the mid-priced amplifiers with which it is likely to be used. The good news is the Metis gives affordable systems plenty of growth potential, but the bad news is you’ll need to use very revealing amplifiers to hear the preamp at its best.
I compared the Metis’ moving-magnet phonostage against one of the finest low-to-mid-priced phono sections around, the $600 Musical Surrounding Phonomena, and found that, while the Metis was good, the Phonomena was better. The Metis softened sharp-edged transients just a bit and was a little less dynamically expressive than the Phonomena. But interestingly, the Metis phonostage held its own in terms of capturing timbral and textural nuance, conveying the subtleties and detail-rich flavor of very expensive phono cartridges such as the Clearaudio Discovery (because the Discovery is a low-output cartridge, I ran it through a Supex step-up transformer in order to try it with the Metis phonostage). While you can do better if you’re willing to spend more, it’s impressive that Rogue provides a phono section this good in what is already a bargainpriced preamp. My one wish is that Rogue would do as NAD has done in its C162 preamp, and configure the phonostage with switch selectable MM/MC gain settings to increase its versatility.
I have only a few nits to pick with the Metis. The volume control brings gain on with a bang, so that it is sometimes tricky to get a “just right” setting— especially if you enjoy listening at low-to-moderate levels. And source input isolation is not as good as one might wish. For example, if you have a CD player connected to one input and then select an alternate input that has no source connected, you might hear very faint signal “bleed through” from the CD player in the background with volume levels cranked up. In practice, though, the preamp proved admirably quiet.
Many manufacturers claim to build “high-end” components at budget prices, but Rogue’s Metis preamp is one of the very few with the sonic goods to back up that claim. In fact, the Metis is the best sub-$1000 preamp I’ve ever heard, and it not only sounds good but also is well made. (It may be relatively inexpensive, but in no way is it “cheap.”) Pair the Metis with today’s best affordable power amplifiers, and you’ll have system electronics that offer mind-blowing sonic refinement per dollar.