Rotel A14 Integrated Amplifier/DAC and CD14 CD Player

The Tradition Continues

Equipment report
Categories:
Integrated amplifiers,
Disc players,
Digital-to-analog converters
|
Products:
Rotel A14,
Rotel CD14
Rotel A14 Integrated Amplifier/DAC and CD14 CD Player

As Rotel has been manufacturing hi-fi gear for over 55 years, it’s surprising I’d never heard any of its components. The 14 Series gear reviewed here falls towards the entry level of the Rotel line. In today’s market, however, that doesn’t mean it’s stripped of extras. The A14 amplifier in particular is chock full of features—it has a moving-magnet phonostage, a very capable DAC that can play DSD and PCM music files, an aptX Bluetooth connection, a front-panel USB connection so you can play the music stored on your smartphone, and a headphone amplifier to listen to through your favorite cans. Rated at 80 Class AB watts per channel, the A14 sells for $1299. The $599 CD14 CD player follows the example of many recent CD players—it doesn’t try to be anything other than a CD player. Actually, I probably shouldn’t have said “many” CD players, since there aren’t “many” CD players on the market. I have no data to support this, but I’d venture a guess that there are far more turntables than CD players in current production. But if you need a DAC to use with a music player, there’s one in the A14. Since these two Rotel components are part of the same family and look alike, I’ll review them together. When connected together via Rotel’s proprietary Rotel Link, they can be controlled by an app on your iPhone. Each unit comes with its own remote control, as well. As parts of the 14 Series, they share the same styling—simple black or silver faceplates slightly beveled at the top and bottom with a small display window in the center.

Hard to believe, but we get a few letters and e-mails griping about the prices of high-end components, and it’s true—some are quite pricey. But you don’t have to pay a fortune to get acceptable sound; budget gear is better than ever. These units, especially the A14 amplifier, exemplify how good budget can be. And if the A14 is above your financial comfort zone, there’s also a the very similar A12 amplifier for $899 with a less advanced DAC and “only” 60Wpc—not much to give up for $400 savings.

It’s actually easier to list the features the A14 lacks than the ones it has. It has no moving-coil phono input (the phonostage’s gain is suitable for moving-magnet cartridges only), but I doubt that most people who buy an amplifier like the A14 will invest in expensive moving-coil cartridges, and even if they do, a step-up transformer or headamp can add support for moving coils. The A14’s power output should suffice to drive quite a few speakers, but if you need more power, there are preamp outputs on the rear of the amp that could be used with an amplifier like Rotel’s massive 350Wpc RB-1590. There are plenty of analog inputs and enough digital inputs for almost any digital source you’re likely to use. So you’re giving up very few options at the A14’s price. Of course, this assumes everything works fine, a subject that this review will explore.

I’ve heard several industry pundits proclaim that the CD is a dead or dying format, but that’s baloney; many new recordings are still released on CD, and there are tons of used CDs available—just check eBay, or your local used bookstore. Lots of audiophiles and music lovers already have large CD collections, so saying the CD is dead makes as much sense as saying the LP is dead.

The CD14 uses a highly regarded Wolfson DAC chip, which is capable of sampling rates up to 192kHz. Of course, as the sampling rate of CDs is 44.1kHz, the DAC’s capability is overkill. The CD14 will also play MP3 files, but you’d need to burn those onto CDs first (there’s no USB input that would allow you to play them off a USB flash drive). Analog output is on unbalanced RCA jacks—there’s no balanced XLR out. Front panel layout is pretty standard: a power on/off button on the left side, a slide-out CD drawer underneath a digital display window in the center, and standard operational buttons on the right. The remote control duplicates the button functions, and more. On the rear panel, the RCA output jacks are on the left side; the 12-volt trigger jacks and the Rotel Link jacks are in the center, along with a digital SPDIF output on an RCA jack. On the right side of the rear panel is the connector for the power cord, which uses no ground connector. (Though IEC-terminated power cords will fit the socket, the ground wire won’t be connected.) The SPDIF output lets you connect the CD14 to the A14’s SPDIF input or to any DAC with a SPDIF input, and bypass the CD14’s internal DAC. Would that sound better? We’ll find out.

The A14 amplifier’s internal DAC uses an AKM DAC chip to play PCM files up to 384/32 and DSD256 files. However, there’s no MQA capability, and with Tidal now streaming MQA files, that’s become more important.

But wait, there’s more. By pressing the Menu button, you can access bass and treble controls, a balance control, and a dimmer control for the display window. Analog inputs for the mm phono section, CD, tuner, and aux are so labeled on the back of the amplifier, and also on the selector buttons on the front panel. Then there are the digital inputs: two sets of SPDIF inputs (both coaxial), two more on optical (TosLink), a USB Type B, and a Bluetooth. There’s also a front-panel USB Type A connector where you can plug in your iOS Apple smartphone or tablet. You can select each analog and digital input by pressing buttons on the front panel and on the remote—much nicer than having to scroll through the entire list of inputs as you have to do on some preamplifiers. Direct access to inputs is also available on the remote control. There are two sets of speaker output terminals, which you could use to biwire a speaker or drive speakers in two zones.

Setting Up and Using the CD14 and A14
The first things you’ll notice when you unpack the shipping boxes are huge “Getting Started” instruction sheets, almost as large as the boxes themselves. It’s pretty hard to ignore or lose such instructions, which have good illustrated directions for installing the equipment. Inside the box is something you don’t often see: a complete assortment of cables needed to operate the units—power cords, RCA cables, SPDIF cable, USB cable, Rotel Link cable, and 12-volt trigger cables. These are not audiophile-grade wires but are still plenty good enough to get started. There’s also a CD with each unit, which has the Windows driver for the A14, and the full manuals for both devices in PDF format. The CD14 comes with a remote, as does the A14.

Since it’s doubtful lots of users would immediately run out and buy new power cords and RCA interconnects for units priced like the A14 and CD14, I used the supplied cables.

A photo on the Rotel website shows a CD14 stacked on top of an A14. That looks good, and the big, soft feet used on both units should protect whatever they sit on, but I’m not keen on stacking anything on top of an amplifier, which needs ventilation space—the A14 manual says four inches on all sides. Stacking the units would put the CD14’s CD drive right above the A14’s heat sink, which radiates heat. To make matters worse, there’s a section of the CD14 that hangs down below the rest of the enclosure. Located in the center, beneath the drawer, it provides space for the laser assembly that reads CDs. As you definitely don’t want to heat that section up, don’t put the CD14 atop the A14—or any other amplifier.

After you install the batteries in the remote and cable up the CD14, you’re ready to listen. When you pop in a CD, you’ll see its status in the front window displayed with black letters on a white background. However, the display is rather small, so you may need a magnifying glass to read the smallest text. The large black plastic CD14 remote is well designed and easy to use, with a numeric keypad that enables you to jump directly to any track on a CD rather than having to scroll through them one at a time. Some of the lettering on the remote appears in grey, which is a bit hard to read on the black background. Most functions on the CD14 remote are repeated on the A14 remote, so you can use the A14 remote to control both machines. (If your coffee table suffers from remote control overload, that’s a valuable feature.) The CD drawer can be operated either from the remote or the front panel. The only quibble I had with the CD14’s operation was with taking CDs from the drawer; it was hard to remove them since the usual indentations were not cut out on the sides of the tray. I had to either reach underneath the drawer and poke the disc upward from below, or stick my little finger into the center hole from above to lift the disc that way—both methods were annoying.

The Rotel Link cable that connects the A14 to the CD14 is the one with the stereo mini-plug and white connectors. That’s spelled out in the A14 manual but not the CD14 manual. If you use the Rotel Link, don’t use the 12V trigger connection (the cable with the mono mini-plug and black connectors).

The A14 should be broken in from “two to four weeks of listening enjoyment” per Rotel’s Tech Support. I wasn’t sure what “weeks of listening enjoyment” meant, so I gave it three weeks of 24/7 break-in. Incidentally, Rotel Tech Support’s Tim Wyatt was very prompt and helpful in responding to my questions, which should be the norm but isn’t always.

I connected my KEF LS50 speakers using Wireworld Helicon OCC speaker cables. The KEFs are small stand-mounted speakers with a low 85dB sensitivity and limited bass response. Above the bass region, their response is fairly flat, certainly not peaky by any stretch of the imagination. I normally augment them with a subwoofer, but of course using subwoofers or other forms of powered woofers when testing an amplifier is verboten, since you’re listening to the subwoofer amplifier in the bass, not the amplifier you’re reviewing. This is not a quibble so much as an observation. The volume level for the A14 had to be set at what appeared to be a very high numeric level (between 60 and 70, with 96 being the maximum) to achieve my normal listening volume, and I’m no head-banger. There was still plenty of headroom left, so it’s just a matter of convention what level is shown on the front panel. At least the numeric volume level is displayed in a large font, easy to see from my listening chair.

I wanted to get the best sound from the digital inputs of the A14, so in addition to the CD14, I connected my SOtM network music player as an external source. That way, I could explore the A14’s ability to play high-resolution PCM and DSD files. Hint: When you’re using a source that has a USB output, select the PC-USB input on the A14, not the USB input. The USB input refers to the USB connector on the front panel, where you can plug in your smartphone.