I got to listen to the Rowland 201's again today, this time in a much more controlled situation. The system I heard used a Classe CDP-10, Rowland Synergy IIi preamp, and new Avalon Ascendant speakers. I A/B'ed the Rowland M201 monoblocks vs the Classe CAM-350 monoblocks.
I chose the Classe pieces because I own Classe amps and a Classe CDP, and I was trying to keep as much controlled as possible. I don't know the make of the power cords, interconnects, or speaker cable, although a good bet is that the interconnects are Cardas Golden Reference and the power cables are probably Shunyatas.
I sampled baroque trumpet by Bach and Haydn, some Puccinni opera, Scottish folk by North Sea Gas, and some Mary Chapin Carpenter.
The general perspective of the two amps is about the same. I wouldn't call either of them forward or laid-back; they're both pretty middle-of-the-road as far as I am concerned.
I found that the M201s were totally grain free, through the entire audio spectrum. At least, I never noticed any. The CAM-350's produced some, in places where Classe amps typically do; the only frequency range it was obvious was in the treble, down from the highest tones.
I found little to choose from in the midrange, where both of them got it pretty much exactly right. (Bear in mind that my reference is a Classe.)
In the bass, the M201s were tight and well controlled, perhaps a little bit tighter than the CAM-350s, but not much. The Classe amps definitely had more reserves, and showed it on orchestral crescendos, although the M201s were not straining. (Given the M201's rating at 250wpc and the CAM350's at 350wpc, this isn't too surprising.)
The main area that I thought that the M201s were clearly beaten by the CAM350s was in image width. The M201s did not, to my ear, produce a particularly wide image, although it wasn't bad. By comparison, the CAM350s produced a very wide soundstage, well beyond the boundaries of the speakers. This was true on all four discs, and it wasn't subtle.
Interestingly, the situation was exactly reversed when it came to depth of the sonic image. The front-to-back layering was considerably deeper and also slightly better defined with the Rowlands. Again, the differences were not at all subtle. The Rowlands were clearly superior in this area. At one spot in the opera, some of the chorus is heard from a truly distant perspective; it was heard from an even
deeper perspective than normal, which I think is as it should be for this particular recording.
In image height, I wasn't sure which I preferred. The Rowlands produced a much taller image, but in some cases the image was so large that it seemed implausible to me. The size of the vertical image varied much more between discs than width or depth, and I know that Avalons are pretty sensitive to these sorts of things. It may well be
that the differences are interactions between the amps and the speakers. To my ears and taste, the CAM-350's produced a more believable vertical image, and also one that is consistent with what I hear from my Martin Logan Odysseys.
Overall I was not quite as impressed as I was when I heard them previously, but that was with Piega C40 LTDs ($35K!) and a Shanling CDP. I am more than a little suspicious that the difference from then to today is the C40s. (I thought they were C10 LTDs, but I looked more carefully today.)
Overall the Rowland 201s are VERY, VERY good amps. Whether or not you prefer them to something else is probably a matter of taste, and interaction with other components (particularly speakers).