07. September 2021 · Comments Off on Synthesis Roma 96DC+ Integrated Valve Amplifier · Categories: Amplifiers, D to A Converters, Hifi News, Hifi Reviews · Tags: , , , ,

SYNTHESIS ROMA 96DC+ INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER REVIEW

Synthesis is distributed in the UK by Henley Audio and here we have their £2649 Roma 96DC+ integrated valve amplifier that uses the EL34 tubes.

Synthesis Roma 96DC+ Front with cage

A compact but good looking amp using the EL34 valve.

Synthesis is an Italian brand that I’ve reviewed before here and here and so I’ll skim over the brand’s details other than to say they were founded in 1992 by Luigi Lorenzon who worked in his father’s transformer factory in his youth – the output transformer in the classic Vox AC30 guitar amp was made by this company, Fasel, as was the inductor in the Cry Baby wah-wah pedal. That’s quite some heritage, not to mention a lot to live up to!

However, what we have here is the 25 Watt per channel, pure Class-A, EL34 integrated that includes three line inputs, a MM/MC phonostage and an onboard DAC. It also has an RCA record output which is something you don’t see all the time on modern amps but which I believe is a useful addition.

I’ve always sort of seen the EL34 as a bit of a poor relation in the world of tubes and I’ve previously only owned valve amps with 300B, 2A3, or KT1XX valves. I think the only time I’ve actually owned amps with this valve was when I had an early set of Manley monoblocs – which I really enjoyed, which would suggest that my thinking on the EL34 is somewhat skewed from the off. I think my thought process was along the lines that the EL34 was a cheap valve more suited to the likes of guitar amplifiers. So let’s see if the Roma 96DC+ can quash these (mis)conceptions.

FEATURES AND BUILD

It’s a thing of beauty and with its wooden front panel (available in eight different finishes to suit your space) and is built like the proverbial brick outhouse. The ROMA 96 isn’t a full-width unit measuring just 26cm in width but it certainly weighs a good deal at 18kg. The obvious control on the front is a large volume knob that is motorised and controllable from the excellent aluminium remote control. Other brands could learn a thing or two from Synthesis here – the remote is, for many, the thing that you use and handle most, but for many it seems as it’s a bit of an afterthought or something generic to keep costs down. Personally, I’d much prefer to pay an extra few beer tokens for something that feels “proper” and the remote on the Roma certainly feels that. It’s a proper size, nicely finished in brushed black aluminium, does all you need it to, and it just feels right in your hand.

There is a removable cage to protect the valves, in this case, a pair of the EL34 power tubes and a 12AU7 driver tube per channel. These give a quoted output of 25 W per channel into 6 Ohms – Class A.

I first hooked the Roma up to the Diptyque dp77 speakers but found that the amp struggled with what is a demanding load given they are an isodynamic panel and found the amp a much better match for the Xavian Perlas – in fact this is an excellent partnership at around the two grand mark. 25 Watts doesn’t sound much but it’s plenty for these speakers and their 88dB sensitivity.

The back panel is well spaced out and has a plethora of inputs including the three RCA inputs, one of which is the moving magnet phono input, plus a record out. Digital inputs are USB, Coax and optical with 24/192 capability on the optical and coaxial inputs and 32/384 on the USB which also allows for DSD up to 5.6Mhz. The DAC doing the business is a Asahi Kasei AK4495S. Whether you choose USB or the other digital inputs, you are pretty well covered for all eventualities. Speaker connections are via a set of simple but good quality binding posts. The only other input is the IEC input, though there is not master on/off switch that you’d normally expect to find on an amplifier. On-off is dealt with solely by a button on the recessed front panel – press it and the amp goes through its warm up cycle. Your source inputs (plus the type of digital input) are switched via two buttons to the right of the large and motorised volume control. All the LEDs on the amp are blue but aren’t so blindingly bright as to get on your nerves, in fact, the amp is pretty inconspicuous once in place, though as I said, it does look pretty nice on the rack.

A useful addition here is a phonostage that is good for moving magnet cartridges, though the impedance input is set at 47Kohm. This may present a problem for those used to using Moving Coil cartridges who will need to buy a step-up transformer or purchase a separate phonostage that supports MC cartridges. Adding a separate phonostage would take up a line-level RCA input which would reduce the inputs to just one extra input – this may seem like a bit of a deal-breaker but given that the digital side of things are taken care of already, what further inputs is your average user going to need? If we accept that prospective users will need to use a moving magnet cartridge/SUT, then the two extra line-level inputs really should be enough to satisfy all but the most demanding music lover – or anyone wanting to attach their telly etc. However, and I must confess that I’m a very recent convert to this, is that I’d have loved to have seen a Bluetooth connection here for listening to the excellent BBC Sounds app, though my Radio 4 addiction was sated by being able to stream Radio 4 from the Roon app.

Synthesis Roma DC96+ No Cage

With the cage removed.

SOUND

Using the Raspberry Pi running Roon I connected to the Roma via USB. This was as simple as plugging in and selecting the Synthesis Roma in the Roon app and then playing tunes – no fannying around with drivers and that kind of nonsense, and so true plug and play. I think some folk are scared of using digital sources given the need in the past to download drivers and it seeming like everything in the digital domain was conspiring against you to make life as difficult as possible, but the Roma makes it as easy as Pi.

First up on Roon (via Qobuz) was fabric Presents Danilo Plessow (Motor City Drum Ensemble), a nicely chilled yet pretty complex techy/housey record that I listened to at a low volume (about 9 o’clock on the volume control). Lots of musical information can get lost with some amps at low volume and given that not everyone can listen at concert level volume it’s pretty useful if an amp can deliver at these lower listening levels – and I’m happy to report the Roma performs really well here. The track Can’t Take It (Herbert’s Some Dumb Dub) off this record has a bassline that could be easily lost at this kind of volume, but I found it to be all there and still well audible amongst everything else that was going on. What I did find was that the depth (front to back) of the soundstage was also really well represented and (essential for me) the image was stable, with sounds and instruments staying where they should be in the mix. Sounds that came and went in the mix were well done, as were the effects on this track with good detail to the fading reverbs and other effects.

Spoken voice on BBC Radio 4 was natural sounding and detailed enough to be able to hear differences in the rooms presenters and guests were speaking from. The digital effect added to guests voices speaking via computers was easily audible too. There was no exaggeration of sibilance or plosives which added to the natural feeling I got whilst listening to the radio. The DAC in the Roma with voices is pure and doesn’t seem to add a great deal of its own character to the sound – in itself, it’s a very organic sounding converter without sounding “digital”. It’s also absolutely silent when there is nothing playing and this allows presenters to be heard without any added hash or digital artefacts. This is good.

I’ve added a turntable to our upstairs setup but put a relatively budget moving coil cartridge onto the Origin Live turntable and whilst I do have a moving magnet cartridge somewhere, the fixed headshell on the OL arm makes quick changeover of cartridges bothersome and so I used the Rondo Red with a Graham Slee step up. However, I do wish Synthesis would add a moving coil option to the amp as it would widen the market appeal to this amplifier, though it must be said that Synthesis aren’t on their own in this omission and I have whined about this on other amps in the past!

Synthesis DC96+ ROMA

The back panel of the DC96+ is packed but neat.

The first record I picked off the rack was the excellent Rebolledo “Mondo Alterado”  on the Hippy Dance label. It’s a sparse but wonderfully detailed record that is as much about what is left out from music as to what is included. Bass was good and tight, with movement across the stage of drum effects being clear and accurate. There is a slight warmth of tone here in the mid-bass sounds giving an added impression that you are listening to an analogue source, though, of course, the cartridge is a little on the warm side – to my lugs anyway. Dynamics-wise the phonostage really delivers and the music has a pleasing heft to it, with an ever so slight rounding off of lower notes leading to that slightly warmer feeling. However, you are still treated to the crispy percussion noises and they do still cut through the mix properly. This record is dubby in the effects it uses and the amp really doesn’t disappoint in presenting the dynamics and subtleties of the recording across the frequency spectrum. The kick drum used has great weight and authority which is expressed well by the amp. Soundstage is deep front to back but not hugely wide and certainly within the boundaries set by the loudspeakers. Noise from the phonostage is nigh on aurally invisible and I’d say it’s as quiet a stage as I’ve heard on an integrated. Given the price of this amp, I’d suggest that the included phonostage punches well above what I would expect and in honesty, I’d be well happy enough to live with it (it is very, very good)– with the caveat that I had to add a SUT to accommodate the lowish output MC cartridge! Use a DL110 or other high output MC or a good MM and Robert’s your mother’s brother, though I will be deducting points for the lack of low output MC provision as I’ve done with other integrated amps I’ve reviewed.  Looking back I found that I’d actually listened to a lot of vinyl on this amp and that’s surely a good sign – I’m the kind of person that walks away from something that doesn’t click with my own personal taste and so it’s clear the Synthesis is doing something right.

Clicking the remote to the USB input and choosing another Rebolledo track (Windsurf, Sunburn and Dollar) it was immediately clear that there was an increase in the overall dynamism, even at the same volume. That slight lower-end bloom was gone, as was the character of the cartridge  – obviously. What I was left with was a more incisive and, dare I say, accurate portrayal of the track. There was still that excellent front-to-back projection of the stage, but I now found there was a wider and more expansive left to right projection – and a tad more height to the image too. This increase in space was echoed with the positioning of instruments with them sitting more in their own space in the mix. Background noise was again conspicuous by its absence

Still using the USB input I picked out Bad Brains’ Sacred Love and the system sprang to life. The amp loses its composure only when it is pushed to volumes that were frankly beyond what would be comfortable for anything but the shortest of blasts – about 3 o’clock on the dial with these speakers. Whilst this is busy music, everything was easy enough to pull out of the mix and the filter on the main vocal well evident. Snare hits were properly crisp and started and stopped in a pin. When comparing this amp on the same material to our Krell amp allied to our LAB12 pre I’d say it doesn’t quite have the overall speed and attack in the bass, but I’d be splitting hairs and would say that what I’m hearing is that ever so slight bloom in the bass. If I compare to our Merrill Thor amps I actually think I preferred the presentation of the Roma in some ways, finding it to be harder hitting and more dynamic, though the downside is it’s not quite got the transparency of the Thors – I’d describe this as the Roma adding a level of drive that may sound a tad overblown to some, whilst others will love this extra oomph to the presentation.

Neil Young’s After the Goldrush presented the fragility of his voice wonderfully and very naturally. The words I’m looking for are unforced and effortless. It’s clear that this is a very accomplished amplifier – and not just for the money. It’s not perfect and there is a slight rounding off at the upper frequencies that may actually not be a bad thing on some digital renderings. The vocal is well forward in the mix but when the next track (Only Love Can Break Your Heart) comes on what grabs me is how unforced and organic sounding this amplifier is – I particularly like the detail to the bass guitar and the way that everything is easy to pick from the mix without it being so lineated/separated as to sound artificial. The horn on Till the Morning Comes is a highlight and has me reaching for Miles’ Kind Of Blue which is presented very well and with space, air and (again) a natural feeling  – unrushed, unhurried, and organically laid-back, but with detail enough to pull you into the performance.

Synthesis Roma DC96+

Compact and bijou but with a punch too.

CONCLUSION

This is a very good integrated amplifier that I’d be happy to live with. It has a feeling to the sound of naturalness that makes everything feel unforced and effortless unless pushed beyond its limits. Of course, the partnering speakers need to be thought about and the Roma did struggle with difficult loads, but then it was always going to. However, get this partnership right and you will be richly rewarded with a wonderfully beguiling sound that just draws you in and keeps you hooked – honestly, I listened for hours and just kept on wanting to listen to more and more music. And I suppose this is the crux of a good HiFi – something that just keeps you coming back for more music.

The Roma is good looking and well-featured enough for most, though I want an MC phonostage built-in. With that said the MM stage is going to be well good enough for most and it is very quiet and dynamic enough to satisfy.

The DAC is certainly well implemented and of high enough specification to cover all bases.

In the lower-end the amp can sound a little softer than the Krell I compared it with, but, by the same token, this adds to the listenability to the amp over longer listening sessions.

The remote is beautiful and a pleasure to use most of the time, though I did find it wouldn’t change inputs a couple of times – pointing it properly at the amp sorts this.

There is no headphone amp which would have been a useful addition.

The record out facility may well be useful to some and is a good addition, though I didn’t really feel it necessary to try it out for the purposes of this review and assume it works as well as everything else on offer.

 

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality:

Well put together

Good looking

Compact

Very decent onboard MM phonostage

Accomplished and well-specced DAC

Two further line-level inputs

Record out

Sound Quality:

A lovely amp that is natural-sounding and unforced at reasonable listening levels

Overall it lacks a little of the clout of the Krell we have to hand and perhaps a little of the overall transparency of our Merrill Thors

Ever so slightly muted at the frequency extremes but with drive and enthusiasm in the midband

Pushed too loud and beyond its capabilities, it gets a bit flustered, but we are talking unreasonable levels with these speakers and in this space – most will be well catered for

Value For Money:

It’s genuinely difficult to fault this amp given everything it has onboard for the not stupid asking price. I would have liked to have seen an MC phono, but perhaps I’m expecting too much from amps at this price, though I’ve levelled this criticism at others and so will continue here. Overall the Roma offers excellent value for money with enough features to satisfy most and with a lovely sound that is easy to get on with and for long periods.

We Loved:

Easy and fuss-free setup.

Nice and easy to get on with for extended listening sessions

Organic and natural tone that errs on the side of slight warmth in the lower end

Fabulous with less hectic music

Good looks

We Didn’t Love So Much:

Not enough grunt for demanding speakers

No MC phono provision

Can run out of steam when pushed too hard

Price: € 3100, £2649, $3795

Elevator Pitch Review:

What’s not to like from this good looking, compact (though heavy) and well-featured amp. The onboard DAC is very good and will satisfy most people, as will the moving magnet phonostage. Musically it’s a joy to listen to for extended periods and with all kinds of music, though I found it partnered best with jazz and music with lots of space  – with heavy rock and metal it can get a bit confused at high volumes. The remote is beautiful and worked well for the most part. For extended listening sessions, the Roma is relaxed and untaxing. A real joy! Well done Synthesis!

 

 

 

 

Stuart Smith

Supplied by Synthesis Art in Music

Review Equipment: Origin Live turntable and arm with Ortofon Rondo, Graham Slee SUT. Raspberry Pi running Roipee and with a dedicated Linear PSU. Mains cables by Atlas. Speaker cables by Chord. USB cable and interconnect by Tellurium Q. Speakers were Xavian Perla.

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