Once upon a time, the audio forces of America, Britain, and Japan combined to create a company called Rotel. And it was good. Long before others, Rotel demonstrated that high-end sound need not come at a high-end price. First came a now-legendary CD player costing a mere $400 that outperformed units ten times its price. Following that, the company birthed electronics of all stripes: amplifiers both power-and pre-, as well as splendid DACs. Rarely did Rotel set a foot astray.
Then, quite suddenly, a change occurred. Rotel devotees noticed that new products were less often stereo and more often of an unfamiliar (and unwanted) breed called “home theater.” If that wasn’t disconcerting enough, the company’s lauded Class AB amps were mostly relegated to Class MIA, replaced by wan-sounding units aptly dubbed Class D. “Where,” the faithful cried, “is the Rotel d’antan?”
Well, the wait was long, but our old friend appears to be back. Just take a look at this shiny new stack—there isn’t a home-theater or Class D model in it. Ah, but does it live up to Rotel’s “giant killer” reputation from the days of yore? Let us see.
Rotel’s new stack consists of three components that— aesthetically and functionally—were obviously designed to be deployed in tandem. First in line is the Wolfson DAC-powered RCD-1570 CD player. This slot-loaded player has both single-ended and balanced analog outs, as well as a digital output. The latter feature somewhat future-proofs the player, as it can still be used as a CD transport in the event its owner buys a higher-end outboard DAC (maybe the RDD-1580). There are also RS-232C and Rotel Link connections for external control.
Next in line is the RC-1570 stereo preamplifier, a fully featured unit with four analog inputs, an additional balanced analog in, and even a moving-magnet phonostage. But that’s not all: The RC-1570 is equally adept with digital sources, for which there are two coax and two optical inputs, plus two USB inputs (one on the front panel and one on the back). For these, the preamp is graced with the same Wolfson DAC as the CD player, and supports resolutions up to 192/24. With all these inputs and the built-in DAC, the RC-1570 can serve neatly as a versatile control point for a modern audio system.
Finally, meet the RB-1552 Mk II 120Wpc Class AB stereo power amplifier. The amp boasts the sort of holistic design and careful parts selection that have distinguished Rotel’s best amps through the ages. Capacitors, for example, are of the slit-foil variety. Further, the unit is essentially a dual-monoblock design, with separate left and right rectification. The RB-1552 Mk II accepts both single-ended and balanced connections (the balanced sound way better). In keeping with the versatility theme, the amp has two sets of stereo amps for driving two sets of speakers. And for those whose speakers require a little more oomph, such as Maggie owners, Rotel makes a more powerful ($600 more expensive) 200Wpc version, the RB-1582 Mk II.
Stacked, these components look purposeful (especially in black), yet elegant (especially in silver) in the reassuring form-follows-function Rotel manner. Their looks will raise the pulse of any Rotel aficionado. Pricewise, too, this gear certainly promises a return to the Rotel of old. Each component is a mere $999. In today’s audio world, that’s a major bargain—assuming the Rotel stack truly delivers high-end sound.
The sonic question for components in this price range is not whether they can produce a fool-you facsimile of the real thing. Unfortunately, barring a technological revolution, they can’t. The more pertinent question, then, is whether they get enough sonic elements right—and whether those strengths are not overly compromised by the inevitable trade-offs—to convey music engagingly. “Engaging” is a word we high-enders use as shorthand for the cumulative effect of a multitude of sonic factors, but I believe that chief among these are the elements that most directly impact musical expressivity. Specifically, I look for good timing, tonality, and dynamics.