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.