Symphonic Line RG9 MK3


Author: Karsten Hein

Category: Gear & Review

Tag(s): Integrated Amplifiers

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Introduction to High End

I would like to begin this journey of discovery with a simple question: “What is High End?” In recent years, the term has become quite inflationary in the context of audio equipment, with private sellers and shops offering ‘High End’ products both at the budget and at the luxury end of the audio market. Perhaps such claims are valid, and perhaps they are not. But who is to decide this if we are still unsure of the definition? Perhaps one way of answering the initial question is to look at the origin of the term in HiFi and at what it meant to the people who coined it and first used it for their products.

In America, it was the Audio Research Corporation (ARC) who especially referred to their large tube power amplifiers as High End products. And in Germany, the term was taken up by Rolf Gemein’s Symphonic Line, Ulrich Rahe of the famous RABox, and Dieter Burmester who runs the now internationally renowned audio company by that same name. Together, they founded the ‘Deutsche High End Society’ and were among the initiators of the High End trade fair in Munich, which is the largest High End audio fair in the world today. Both Gemein and Burmester set out to create audio devices that were originally not geared for the mass market (a competitive environment in which their products would be scrutinised in terms of shipping and production costs for the sake of profitability) but instead focused on creating the highest quality circuits and combining the best possible components to reach the maximum in terms of sound.

When you pair long development times with exceptional engineering skills and high quality components, this inevitably becomes costly. And most manufacturers are worried that they will not be able to generate enough demand for their products in this high price range. In consequence, most products are designed to perform at their best within a given price bracket. I was once part of a discussion in which the engineering team of a TV manufacturer had just finished designing the audio section of a new television model. The internal purchase price for the components was quoted at 35 EUR. Upon this, the team was informed that they had a budget of 7.50 EUR and was asked to rework the design and talk to their suppliers. Such choices are in fact very real, and, in the described scenario, the acoustic components were to be designed for a television set in the higher-priced premium segment and not some cheap entry-level product.

While most successful companies see their development and production departments as part of their costs and are trying hard to keep these as small as possible, both Rolf Gemein and Dieter Burmester gave their product philosophy priority over all other considerations, thus creating a utopia in which the forces of the market—forces that apply to everyone else—appeared to have no effect. In this sense, High End means true devotion to the cause from the side of the manufacturer, until the product is completed. And finally, primarily due to their higher price tag, High End products can only exist where enthusiasts recognise the extra effort and are willing to pay the higher price.

Having said that, not everything that has a high price tag can also be considered High End. This makes it difficult for customers to determine where exactly High End starts (and is actually worth the investment) and where it is just a term used to pedal HiFi gear for the sake of higher profit margins. Therefore, when a friend (and invaluable supporter during the building phase of our listening room) suggested that I contact Heinz-Peter Völkel and ask him to send me some Symphonic Line products for testing, I was unsure of what to expect. After all, I had set up my HiFi systems with great care using selected industry classics. I had just finished construction on our listening room and had installed new acoustic absorbers. I was indeed very happy with the resulting sound. What more could I possibly say about Symphonic Line products other than simply reiterating the fact that they, too, sounded great?

Seeing that I was not yet convinced, Heinz-Peter suggested that we should meet at the Norddeutsche HiFi Tage trade fair in Hamburg where Symphonic Line had booked an unpretentiously small room on the third floor. As I walked in, I found Heinz-Peter and Rolf Gemein taking turns at presenting the Symphonic Line products with various music. Having spent some hours at the fair listening to different HiFi setups, I found the choice of music at their booth refreshing and the Symphonic Line setup sober and sophisticated. This was more than many of the other booths had been able to deliver, and, for the first time, I had the very real sensation that this company’s products could indeed be worth exploring. Later that week, Heinz-Peter and I talked about where to best start our journey of exploration. We soon agreed that it could be educational for the blog to get to know the products from the start. And thus, we begin or story with an RG9 MK3 from around 1994.

An Elusive Beast

It seems chrome-plated Aranja (or grape fruit) was among the most fashionable colours on High End products back in the day, and the RG9 boasts this shiny surface on a chassis made of a bent brass alloy that is 2mm thick and has a 10mm face plate. In other words, this amplifier feels very solid and is quite heavy. In the household environment, its surface will act as a tinted mirror, giving the RG9 a chameleon-like presence that makes it more visible from some angles and less visible from others. In the studio, however, I attempted to minimise all reflections in order to better show its exact features and dimensions. In doing so, I also revealed some of the stains and wounds that it had collected over its 30-year lifetime. During daily operation, these would hardly be noticeable because you would hardly ever see past the mirror effect. Except for these photos, the body of the RG9 in Aranja is hard to catch.

The Symphonic Line logo, the RG9 MKIII model name, and the labels of the controls are all engraved on the face plate. As a first-time user, I sometimes found these labels difficult to read, especially when operating the unit in low-light conditions. I also noticed that the position of the rotary knobs is not easy to determine. With three rotary knobs of equal size, colour, and design, it was probably best to memorise the functions of each control until one could use them intuitively. Moving from left to right, the first knob is actually a rotary switch that turns the RG9 on and off without any audible switching noise on the speakers. The next button to the right is the input selector that changes between sources, again without audible noise. The third knob switches between the Tape Monitor and the Line signal.

The volume control is the fourth and final knob in this row and sets itself apart due to its superior size. Upon first turning it, I was a little disappointed that this was not a stepped attenuator and that it was instead smooth and easy to move. I have since read that it is a double-mono design and of high quality, however, I personally prefer stepped attenuators, because they help me remember listening volumes in increments. For instance, I usually turn the volume down by two steps when changing from Phono to CD on my Restek V1 preamplifier. Such helpful points of reference are missing on the RG9 dial. On the positive side, the rear panel of the RG9 is far easier to access than on the Restek. All Chinch/RCA sockets are easy to reach and have sufficient space between them to accommodate most HiFi and High End cables.

There are two pairs of Chinch/RCA sockets available for phono, of which one pair can be used to increase the input capacitance by means of adaptor plugs. There is also a switch on the back panel to accommodate for MM and MC cartridges. This switch had me worried for a moment, as, upon first trying, it did not want to activate the setting for MM. It seems the RG9 had been used exclusively with MC cartridges for many years and the circuit had become stuck in this position. This is a common issue with relays that are left unused over longer periods of time, no matter how well they are built. However, I was not about to give up easily. After some further attempts of toggling the switch, the internal relay audibly clicked into position with MM engaged.

The rotary clamp to connect the ground wire is sufficiently large and near the phono input. That is indeed practical when pairing the RG9 with vintage turntables that have a fixed phono cable and ground wire. There is one stereo set of WBT terminals available for connecting the amplifier with the loudspeakers. They take banana plugs as well as bare wire or spades. All inputs and outputs, including the rotary clamp for the ground wire, are 24K gold-plated. As on our Restek, the back wall of the RG9 bends inward ever so slightly in combination with very tight-sitting plugs. I do not really like this impression on either occasion and would have preferred the otherwise sturdy rear panel to find some support on the amplifier’s top lid.

Although it might not look as monumental when perched on a HiFi rack, moving the amplifier around is a reminder of the high quality materials that went into its production. At a round 18kg, the task of simply setting it down on a table or in a rack proves to be a small challenge. As can be seen on the photos, the original feet are not very tall. This makes it difficult to squeeze the fingers underneath the amplifier for lifting and again a challenge when setting it back down. I would have wished for the feet to be at least high enough in order not to get my fingers pinched while rearranging the system. I have sometimes heard it said that High End audio products and the concept of convenience tend to be mutually exclusive, and I think I have by now gathered sufficient evidence in this report to prove that this is not an unfounded observation. But then sports cars are not really convenient either, but very, very sexy.

Down to Earth Listening

For the start of my listening explorations, I had four HiFi setups to choose from. I weighed the pros and cons of each of them and ultimately decided to get to know the RG9 on the least complex system of them all. On this, the music sources were a Philips GA 212 turntable fitted with an entry level AT VM95 E cartridge, as well as a Pioneer PD-S604 CD player that recently had been upgraded with an anti-resonant coating on the inside of its enclosure as to further stabilise the already quite remarkable drive unit. Both devices were rather musical for their class but they were by no means High End. They were connected to the RG9 by means of Silver Solid-Core chinch/RCA interconnects of the HBS4-Type shown in this forum.

The loudspeakers were American built Epicure EPI 500 with 10-inch woofers and two 12-inch passive radiators per speaker. They, too, were rather musical despite showing a measurable dip between the woofer and the passive diaphragms. Ground potential between the devices had been harmonised and the speakers had been positioned in the large studio as to present the most possible linear performance. As usual, I used the acoustic calculation sheets handed to me by Peter Englisch to determine their basic positions and then proceeded to set up the remaining centimetres by hand, or rather, by ear. Finally, the exact matching of the stereo channels had been conducted using a laser distance gauge. No signal wires or power cables were crossing or even touching behind the rack. The electric mains was fed from the fuse box straight to the system for extra low interference.

Based on my standard components, a small Rotel preamp with improved Faraday cage (not a difficult upgrade, if you take into account that the original floor plate was made of plastic) and Becker MOSFET amp, I already had spot-on centre stage imaging, seamless panning from left to right, tonal accuracy and believability. In short, there was little on my original setup that troubled my ears, stuck out to me or was obviously missing. The Becker amp’s strengths were its enormous capacitors of 64,000 mF each and its four Hitachi MOSFET J49 output transistors. Its weaknesses were pretty much everywhere else, from its flimsy transformer to its haphazard wiring, and it sometimes amazed me that I could find such deep affection for this little hand-made amplifier at all.

Switching over to the RG9 MK3, I kept our Audioplan PowerCord S and the Belden 9497 speaker wires in place. I knew the PowerCord S to be a well-engineered cord of symmetrical anti-resonant design, and the Belden cables had repeatedly proven themselves to be an excellent match for vintage speakers. My reason for doing so was not to introduce more than one new component at the time. I powered up the system, put on a CD and left the room for the next 30 minutes. When I walked back in later, I was greeted by a calm and sophisticated sound. I sat down in my armchair to listen and was deeply impressed with this system’s tonally warm storytelling. I especially enjoyed the breadth and width of tonal colours that are capable of connecting music with memories.

Gone were the few ramaining traces of static flicker, sibilance, and haze of the Rotel Becker combo. In their place, there was ample room for the nuances of piano, strings, and wind instruments. In addition to a more distinct separation of tonal events, the RG9’s superior power per channel held a tighter grip on the EPI 500’s bass lines. In this combo, there were simply more bass nuances and more texture. The presentation was brought forth with great assurance. Like an artist painting with a big brush, it was at once insightful and bold. This is not to say that the RG9 would show its audiophile qualities on every single record. Where the recordings had their limits, the system still showed this quite clearly. In this sense, the music did not seem ‘sounded’ in any way. Instead, each music event was presented with good measure and in a down-to-earth manner.

Real-World Impressions

Till Brönner’s song “A distant Episode” highlighted the impressively precise 3D imaging of the Pioneer CD player’s platter drive mechanism in combination with Legato Link. Patrick Kelly’s live concert performance of “A Litte Faith” revealed formidable lower bass extension and quick rise times of the amplifier. The same cannot be said of his song “Land of Bliss” that did not undergo the same positive transformation. Peggy Lee’s “Fever” showed splendid attack and decay paired with a formidable differentiation between drum materials, tensions, techniques, and dynamics. Cristin Claas’s song “In the Shadow Of Your Words” served to reveal the multiple tonal colours of vocals, nylon and steel strings, and of the synthesiser. Although the music events often coincided, the RG9 managed to keep them separate and in good order and proportion throughout the performance.

Sean Heel’s album “A Dry Scary Blue” can be superbly insightful with occasional moments of unpleasant clipping. However, on the RG9, it sounded a bit more compact and less airy than I was used to. Then again, Jörg Hegemann’s much praised album “High End Boogie Woogie” sounded full and engaging. On Jörg’s album, Paul G. Ulrich’s double bass was rendered razor sharp and wonderfully separate from the piano. Gurgling low bass notes maintained more refinement than usual with a discernible metallic ringing and rasping to them. I had never before experienced the Steinway grandpiano’s nuances so separately, for instance on the song “When you and I were young, Maggie”. And I do remember it well from standing next to it during parts of the recording.

Switching to phono, the Helge Lien Trio’s album “Badgers and Other Beings” sounded spacious and open and at the same time intimate and warm. In addition to the usual panning from left to right, the stage felt more seamless and deeper. In my setup the phono section was of very low noise and tonally insightful. Instrument separation was maintained during fast, loud, and crowded passages. Having spent some time listening, I could sense that the only limiting factors were the speakers and the entry-level Audio-Technika cartridge. I was eager to find out how the RG9 would perform in combination more translucent gear that was positioned higher up in the food chain.

Higher Up the Food Chain

Our second test environment consisted of a Marantz CD-17 CD player, a Thorens TD 320 turntable paired with Audio-Technica VM95 ML cartridge, both connected via Silver-Solid Core to the RG9-MK3, and Martin Logan SL3 electrostatic speakers that were connected to the amplifier in the from of Y-wiring. On hybrid speakers, this way of wiring had the advantage that both the electrostatic panel and the dynamic bass driver of the SL3 could be addressed separately for improved back-current handling but found a uniform point of contact on the side of the amplifier to preserve homogeneity.

In this new position, the RG9 MK3 was to replace an RGR Model 4 preamplifier that was paired with a B&K ST140 solid state amplifier. This was a decent-sounding combo capable of delicate tunes and insightful presentations. With its still rather modest 105 Watts per channel, the ST140 was at times a little weak in the chest for the SL3 despite its high current-handling capabilities.

I began listening via the Marantz CD-17 and immediately noticed that the music sounded more seamless and the soundstage more consolidated. As electrostatic speakers radiate both towards the front and to the back, perfect timing is essential for the speakers to disappear in the room. In my usual RGR/B&K setup, stage imaging often did not feel quite right in the transition zone between the left speaker and the left section of the stage so that some instruments or notes would jump forward in an unnatural fashion. This effect reduced by a large portion, with the music wrapping around the speakers from the far left to the far right. Woofer integration was also improved and made faster music more fun to listen to.

Switching over to phono, I was pleasantly surprised not to experience the drop in dynamics that is all too often the case. In this system I was using the original Symphonic Line power chord and was impressed with its contribution to the performance, especially in comparison with our cheaper Lapp Ölflex that I had quickly replaced after just a few minutes of listening. The ability of a power cord to make or break a system still amazes me each time I hear it.

After listening to the Helge Lien Trio’s album “Guzuguzu” which portrayed lots of musical insights as well as dynamics, I changed over to Manu Katché’s album “Neighbourhood”. On his song Katché’s “Rose”, in particular, I was perplexed by the fact that I had never before been able to identify the two separate saxes performing the chorus side by side as distinctly as with the RG9.

The Pain of Parting

I am not sure if you remember moments from your early adulthood when the party at your house was over, and as you were watching your guests leave, it slowly dawned on you that the house would again be empty and that you were left to deal with the emotional and physical aftermath on your own? At such moments, it suddenly became painfully obvious that adjusting back to life as usual would require some time and effort. The head still buzzing from all-new impressions, I had to think of my HiFi friend Luigi’s words: “Once you have heard it, going back won’t feel the same.”

Changing back to our Rotel & Becker combo, much of the tonal width and fullness that I had since come to accept as normal was gone. The sound became lighter and sharper, displaying slightly compressed mids. What had not troubled me at all and initially seemed to be little more than an upgrade had since become an essential property of the music to me. In my impression, not enough has been said about the weight of tonal width in music. While most HiFi talk still fusses about dynamics, bass performance, or high resolution files, etc., the one element that addresses our emotions and has the power to lead us back in memory is correct tonality. And, according to my short experience, Rolf Gemein understands how to play that card well.


  • Type:  Integrated solid state stereo amplifier
  • Transformer:  430 VA, toroidal with mumetal enclosure
  • Output power (RMS, 8 Ohms):  2x 140 Watts
  • Output power (RMS, 4 Ohms):  2x 250 Watts
  • High current stability:  > 2 Ohms
  • Phono section:  MM/MC with adaptable capacitance
  • Number of line inputs:  3 + Tape loop
  • Country of Manufacture:  Germany
  • Dimensions:  (W) 450mm x (H) 100mm x (D) 380mm
  • Weight:  18kg
  • Year(s):  1994 - 1998
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