When I first started listening to the Continuum S2, I thought it sounded a little thin but this came as no surprise given that I had just set it up. This initial impression completely went away after the first couple of days and the true, well-balanced tonal nature of this integrated amp began to surface. The Sons of Anarchy TV series may be over but the “Songs of Anarchy” soundtracks keep me fantasizing of a new season (and about purchasing a motorcycle) every time I give them a listen. When I spun up “Son of a Preacher Man” the hairs on my arms immediately stood up thanks to the extraordinary sonic landscape presented by the Continuum S2. The air around the voices and instruments, as well as the sense of space between them, brought this recording alive with a vivid realness and sentiment. The size and near-perfect definition of the soundstage was simply remarkable. Katey Sagal’s voice sang soulfully and the Continuum S2 kept perfect timing with the changing pace of this song. The guitar-only cover of “Fortunate Son” sounded clean and played with incredible fluidity. The guitars in this track sounded full bodied and revealed the texture and nuances of real acoustic guitars. Very early during my review the Continuum S2 appeared to be as musical of an amplifier as I’ve heard from some of the best amplifiers in the business, regardless of amplifier class or price point.
Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill Acoustic album played with a great energy and excitement, allowing me to peer closer into the diva’s sweet, quirky vocals than ever before. The Continuum S2 demonstrated that it had absolutely no trouble sorting through all the musical layers, presenting each layer with its own sense of air, yet the sum of all parts was never disconnected. Its detail retrieval was striking, yet never made any recordings sound etched or harsh. Some high-end amplifiers over dissect the sonic layers which can result in somewhat of an analytical sound. But this was not the case at all here. While the Continuum S2 perfectly revealed each layer of sound, it allowed the composition to play together with lifelike coherency.
Just as big of a treat was listening to live MTV Unplugged albums from Alanis Morissette and Florence + the Machine. The Continuum S2 rendered these albums with the rawness and liveliness that you would expect from a live performance. Alanis Morissette’s album offered an intimate, small concert venue atmosphere. With the Florence + the Machine album, the Continuum S2 demonstrated its ability to lay out a large soundstage, with great width, depth and even height. It very effectively reproduced the atmosphere of the original recording. Again here, the air and space between voices and instruments was defined superbly. Florence + the Machine tracks “Drumming Song” and “No Light, No Light” played with an amazing sense of presence and sent chills through me.
I then switched paces and played a few tracks from “American IV: The Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash. The Continuum S2 reproduced Cash’s legendary deep bass-baritone voice with frightening realism, perfectly preserving its sometimes raspy and raw character captured by this recording. Meanwhile, June Carter on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” sang sweetly with amazing smoothness. The guitars sounded full bodied on all the tracks, playing with a metallic texture and richness.
As with the other recordings that I listened to, Rebecca Pidgeon’s “Spanish Harlem” offered a midrange with a palpable presence. The perspective was neither forward, nor laid-back, but rather exactly where it needed to be, as called on by the particular song. This translated into the artist singing just a few feet in front of me with certain tracks, while other times the voices and instruments were a few feet behind the plane of the speakers. On the same track, the bass line was presented with richness and organic articulation. Piano keys played with a woody richness and rang with natural sustain on all of the recordings that I listened to.
What about something classical and more dynamic like Herbert von Karajan’s One Hundred Best Classics compilation? When listening to some of the symphonies, the Continuum S2 painted a grand, vastly expansive soundstage that stretched well beyond the boundaries of my room. This amp showed no shortage of reserve power even during the most demanding orchestral crescendos and peaks, playing them with ease, energy and excitement. The dynamics of the Continuum S2 were simply superb. The various sections of the orchestra were accurately placed on the stage, each playing within its own distinct location. Once again, I noticed the vast amount of air and space surrounding the instruments. All of these sonic qualities combined to produce an outstanding rendition of every classical recording that I listened to – I spent many hours enjoying Herbert von Karajan’s six disc compilation. The Continuum S2 played with the same pace, rhythm and timing that I have heard from the very best amplifiers in the business, some far exceeding its price. I had a hard time refraining from tapping my hands and feet when listening to this amplifier, when I should have been making notes on this review instead.
The remote supplied with the Continuum S2 is very small, made of plastic and frankly leaves something to be desired. Forget about using it in a darkened environment because it’s not backlit and all the buttons are of the same size and shape so you’ll have a hard time locating the button you’re looking for. Given the exemplary design of the amplifier, the remote feels like a bit of a mismatch. My ModWright gear offers the same kind of remote that I’ve never been satisfied with.
In contrast to the remote, the volume dial on the amplifier offers the highest quality, most precise feel of any volume dial I’ve ever put my fingers on. If you twist it slowly, the volume goes up gradually. Turning it quickly rapidly changes the volume. The source selection buttons also offer a very high quality, tactile feel.
The optional on-board DAC, which my review sample was equipped with, accepts signals up to 24-bit and 192 kHz. It is a great solution for those who prefer to squeeze out a higher level of performance out of music, without having to add an external DAC to their system. In short, I found this Jeff Rowland DAC to add more detail and dimensionality to the sound, which brought the performances closer to life.
My first personal experience with a Jeff Rowland product was nothing short of exhilarating, seriously. Not once did I hear any hints whatsoever that my music was being played by a class D amplifier. In fact, what I was hearing was the complete opposite of what one might expect – this amplifier’s neutral, organic sound plays with delightful fluidity that is simply to die for. The Continuum S2 illustrated a sense of realism and palpability in every recording that I listened to. Its only fault may be that its revealing nature will expose the shortcomings of other components and cables in your system – if you consider that a fault. It certainly had no trouble pointing out the single lower quality cable in my system when I first hooked it up. Its musicality makes good quality recordings sound remarkably real, while it is also forgiving to poorly recoded material. At $12,600 it may not land within every music lover’s reach but if you have enough disposable income, you might be hard pressed to find another integrated amplifier that sounds this good. The Continuum S2 has found a very special place in my heart and reignited my excitement for music, and after more than a decade of writing about audio that’s no easy task. I give the Continuum S2 my highest level of recommendation and award it CANADA HiFi’s Editor’s Choice recognition.
Jeff Rowland Design Group
Distributed in Canada by Audiopathways Inc.
Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $12,600 CAD;
add $750 for built-in DAC
or $600 for built-in phono stage