This review is proof that you can 'go home again'. This review of the Rotel A12 integrated amplifier with the Rotel CD14 CD is proof of that ($899 and $599 respectively). When asked to review the new line of Rotel products, the answer should always be yes. Not having had the opportunity to review any of their products in a long time, my thoughts drifted back to many years ago (a lifetime, really). My last review was of the Rotel RCD-971 CD player. That was 17 years ago. Seventeen! My life is so different now. Everything has changed...Everything, except Rotel. The Rotel brand is like a Volvo, and that's not such a bad thing. A few months ago, my friendly Fed Ex man dropped of the two, white, non-descript boxes:
Fed Ex Man: "New toys, huh"?
Fed Ex Man: "Anything cool"?
Me: "Always my friend... always."
My Fed Ex man was happy it wasn't a pair of 300 pound exotic floorstanding speakers (which I'm still waiting on Steven... my dear Creative Director and friend). Let's begin with the privilege of unwrapping and unboxing of the new Rotel A12 Integrated Amplifier and Rotel CD14 CD Player. For the purpose of this review, these two components were viewed as a matched system.
The Rotel A12 Integrated Amplifier and CD14 CD Player arrived in separate boxes. Upon opening both boxes, you will find a stiff cardboard cover sheet. Flip this over, and you will find a clearly written "Quick Installation Guide". This thin piece of cardboard will make you very happy. With many pieces of review gear; the anticipation has me (literally) twitching through the unboxing process. High-end doesn't have to mean high drama. Three minutes into the unboxing process (and a few glances at the "Quick Installation Guide") and you will already know 95% of everything you need to know, about hooking up these two components. This is a pleasing and welcoming change of pace.
Rotel CD14 CD Player
"The Rotel RCD-971 CD Player is a rather thin, sleek looking machine. It has the typical buttons and knobs, but with a nice, minimalist look, fit and finish. On the back, you will find the usual, single analog audio connectors and a single, coaxial S/PDF digital output. It is also as thin as a typical novel but deceptively heavy and well built. Rotel has been known for their sturdy (almost industrial) look, solid performance and reasonable prices."
Staring at the new Rotel CD 14, the description is virtually unchanged. While the review sample of Rotel's CD14 is black, the earlier RCD-971 was silver, but that's about the most obvious difference. Of course inside each unit is a completely different story, as technology has made a few improvements in the past seventeen years. Taking a glance at the front, you'll find the power button on the left, and the remaining selections of buttons on the right (play, pause, stop, eject and track forward and reverse). Flip to the rear, and you will find the analog RCA out, and a S/PDIF (Coax) digital output. Less used, but equally important, are the Rotel Link, RS-232, and 12V trigger. In the very far corner; the power plug.
Inside, the CD 14 boasts the premium high performance Wolfson DAC chip (24-bit/192kHz), usually found on much more expensive devices. Rounding out the inside, the standard plastic disc tray (remember the metal ones... [sigh]) and their proprietary voltage/current power supply. The player comes with a basic remote (the Rotel RRD-99). This is your standard remote, with nicely spaced buttons. The layout of buttons (separate on/off, eject, stop, Rev, FF, etc.), are right where you think they should be. Playing a CD was as simple a task as it should be. Your thumb will quickly and easily find the play button (among others). No drama.
The Rotel A12 Integrated Amplifier
The A12 integrated amplifier is flush with twelve (12) inputs (Phono, CD, Tuner, USB, Optical 1, Optical 2, Coax 1, Coax 2, BT, PC-USB, Aux 1, and finally Aux 2). That's packing a lot into such a small enclosure. Rounding out the back, you will find two coax (S/PDIF) inputs as well as two optical (TosLink) inputs, two sets of speaker terminals and a Bluetooth antenna (for APTX connections). Rotel Link (input and output for control of other Rotel devices), a USB-PC and a USB power only port as well. Hooking this to an automation system? You're covered with the RS-232 port.
It's hard to believe that this is some of Rotel's entry-level(!) offerings.
All inputs (as well as direct Tone Control, Bass, Treble, Balance and Bypass) are directly accessed through the full sized remote. In a nice change of pace; most functions are accessible from the front buttons as well. As with the CD14, there is nothing wrong with the remote. The Rotel A12 remote (the RRAX-1400), looks virtually identical to the CD14 remote. They appear to be cast from the same shell. Obviously, with twelve (12) inputs, the A12 remote is a bit more densely packed. Like most product remotes, after the initial setup, only the basic buttons are used going forward.
All Together Now: Rotel CD14 CD Player
& A12 Integrated Amplifier
By looks alone, many people assume Rotel is a European product. They just look that way. It's akin to walking through an international airport. With any world experience, you can usually detect who is from where. Very stylish cloths, walking slowly... probably European. Dressed in yellow and green from head to toe? Greenbay Wisconsin. Mowing you over, then acting like it was your fault? Probably New York, yet it could be Enjoy the Music.com's Creative Editor Steven R. Rochlin running to his next flight. This may be a generalization, yet European components tend to look like they are from Europe. You don't often confuse a Ferrari F1 with a Toyota Corolla now do you? Rotel started as a Japanese OEM manufacturer in the 1950s, then eventually moved to China in the 1990s (where it remains today). Rotel is made in China. Please stop making that face, and move on.
Good Things Come To Those Who Wait
The Rotel A12 integrated amplifier has most of the components from the more expensive and slightly more powerful A14, but lacks the true streaming capabilities and higher resolution DSD support. This is due to the A12's 24-bit/192kHz Wolfson WM8740SEDS DAC versus the upper line A14 (more expensive) AKM 32-bit/768kHz DAC. The Rotel A14 ($1299) does support 32-bit /384kHz DSD resolution, if this is what you desire.
Connecting the Rotel A12 integrated amplifier and CD14 CD player together was very easy. Initial setup was made using the S/PDIF coax digital output from the CD14 player to the S/PDIF digital input of the A12. This setup allows the CD14 to act as a transport, therefore allowing the A12 DAC to do the conversions. Later, switching this setup to use the analog RCA outputs of the CD14 into the RCA CD input of the A12 will test the characteristics of the CD14's Wolfson chip. Since both units were brand new, burn-in was a must! Currently having on hand a pair of new Vermouth Audio's Little Lucas speakers for review, it was a great opportunity to burn everything in at the same time. Look for the upcoming review of the Vermouth Audio Little Lucas speakers next month or thereabouts.
Initial burn-in was about 120 hours. For burn-in sources I first used the typical test CD followed by a self-made disc comprised of over 50 rock, classical, folk and new wave tracks. The MP3 CD was loaded into the Rotel CD14 CD player and placed on repeat. After five days of this treatment it was time for some serious listening. Starting with the CD input, and quickly cycling through all the inputs, the A12 had virtually silent switching. As stated; all inputs (as well as direct Tone control, Bass, Treble, Balance and Bypass) can be directly accessed through the full sized remote, as well as directly from the front faceplate.
At First Listen...
Eagerly flipping from CD to CD, the hours and days progressed nicely. We have all read about the dying days of the CD. Remember, that was also said about the LP, and look what happened? Like the LP, listening to music on a CD has a bit of nostalgia feel. Days were spent reading (small) cover art, while listening to a CD in its entirety. Who does that anymore? Many have forgotten the feeling of listening to an artist work, from beginning to end. Long ago (in my studio days), we would agonize for days (sometimes weeks) over the albums track order. Now, we just play a track or two, from our list of files. Listening to track after track, without any framework or storyline; loses a bit of the artistry in making music. That's just this humble reviews opinion.
Throughout the CD source listening experience (WAV 16-bit/44.1kHz), the Rotel CD14 was steady and unflinching in its delivery. As a transport, the CD14 matched well with the A12. Although wanting to test the CD14 Players DAC, this was saved for last. Surrounded by stacks of CDs, it was a perfect time to be surrounded by stacks of albums. When you happen to have a Rotel A12 integrated amplifier (with a phono input), and Oracle Audio's newest Turntable (the Origine) on hand at the same time, you use them! (Look for my World Premiere review of the Oracle Audio Origine coming soon).
The Rotel A12 features a moving-magnet phono input, and eventually mated with the Origine turntable, after a bit of tweaking. Component matching is a critical step in designing a good sounding audio setup. Add a turntable to the mix, and you will need to do a little more homework. Obviously you need to know your turntable cartridge specs; be it a MM (moving magnet) or a MC (moving coil). The Oracle Audio's Origine shipped with the Ortofon Blue cartridge, which is a MM cartridge, so connecting the Origine to the A12 was very simple. The Ortofon Blue cartridge is known for its balance tone and overall full-range resolution. Having listened to several days of music with this cartridge; the Ortofon Blue's balanced characteristics would mate well with the A12. Since most of my record collection is from the 1980s, it's safe to assume they suffered through a lot of college misuse and abuse. Re-starting my analog journey with some new vinyl last Christmas (by purchasing a few new LP's from Acoustic Sounds); it was time to put them through the paces. Ordering Beth Hart's 37 Days (180 gram) for my wife plus Bruce Hornsby and The Range The Way It Is for myself [APRV 30118 and AEXH 44072 respectively], I thus started my analog listening session on a high quality high note. Since both LP's are new 180 gram pressings they should sound excellent.
As the majority of the LP had been recorded live in the studio, Beth Hart's "37 Days" LP can bellowing through the Jamo Concert 8 speakers once the Phono input on the A12 was selected. Live recordings are difficult to do (at best) and can be very revealing. Beth Hart's strong, raspy vocals came through clearly on the Jamo Concert 8 speakers, as well as all headphones (my preferred choice, being the intimacy of the Noble Audio K10 CIEMs). The Bruce Hornsby and The Range LP The Way It Is produced no unexpected surprises; just clear, but slightly muted sound. The studio recording's sound performance was equally enjoyable as the live recording from Beth Hart. Spinning several LP's from my 1980s collection produced the same pleasant results. The overall sound quality and dynamic punch was diminished, probably due to the 1980s pressing and abuse, yet still enjoyable. Over the next few days, listened to over 18 LPs from classical to punk rock, was a welcome departure from (sometimes) sterile laptop playback mechanism. Part of the ritual of playing an LP, is the cleaning of the LP. My Record Doctor made short work of this necessary task; but it also forces one to slow down a bit. Like with the CD's, the enjoyment of reading all of those liner notes, will not soon be forgotten.
Wanting to compare the sound quality of the built-in A12's phono stage, with a stand-alone preamplifier; the phono interconnects to the A12 were disconnected, and re-connected to the Parasound Phono Preamplifier. My signal path was simple. Out of the Oracle Audio's Origine Turntable via Audioquest Tier 4 Big Sur RCA cables, then into the Parasound Zphono Phono Preamplifier, and lastly out to the AUX1 input of the A12 integrated amplifier. As expected, the Parasound Zphono Phono Preamplifier produced a wider, richer soundstage; but it would have been a bit disappointed if it hadn't. The point of having a built-in phono input, is to avoid having to purchase a separate Phono Preamplifier. Unless you are a hardcore vinyl spinner, the A12 phono inputs will work just fine for you. One could also point out the (possible) electronic sonic mismatch, of connecting a (low) four figure turntable to an integrated amplifier's built-in phono input (costing about a quarter as much), but we all have our crosses to bare.
Reluctantly, putting away the analog gear, it was time to turn my attention back to the digital world. It was time for Bluetooth and USB connectivity. The A12 does allow for aptX connections for streaming (think Red Book quality). Not being a huge fan of Bluetooth streaming a review of the actually had to review the connection instructions was needed to get everything working properly. The manual states that the A12 is capable of 384kHz/32-bit, but really only supports 24-bit192kHz. (Note: The A14 model does support the higher resolutions). The Rotel App was mentioned in the manual, but requires a network connection (not available on the A12). The app would work well with the A14 since that model has an Ethernet port. The A12 allows a Bluetooth connection with aptX support. Alas, the Apple iPhone doesn't support aptX, so standard (SBC) Bluetooth connectivity was used. Bluetooth aptX connection promises CD-quality sound. My standard Bluetooth connection sounded a bit more compressed, like MP3 sound quality (at its best). No real lows or mid-lows, no highs to speak of. This sound quality would be fine for background noise. On Rotel's A12, you can choose fixed or variable volume levels, so the BT (Bluetooth) input would take full advantage of this option. The connection was strong, and stayed connected throughout my Bluetooth audition time.
My Review Test List has a lot of DSD files, but it was easy to make a modified version of the 'List' by omitting or converting the DSD and other unsupported files. My Review Demo collection currently includes over forty songs (which will be repeated, over and over again) so it took me a while to down convert a lot of them to 24-bit/192kHz. My setup was now the Apple MacBook Pro (2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD) running OS 10.11.5, with AudirvanaPlus Software, pulling files from a Synology 16TB NAS Server. The connection was an Audioquest Carbon USB cable, into the Rotel A12 USB-PC port. Following standard process, the revised demo list was auditioned in order. Starting with Michael Jackson's Thriller (all files converted to 24-bit/192kHz), on to Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, Billy Joel's The Stranger and then, Leclair's Sonata for 2 Violins in G Major. A new demo list, let's call it "Demo of Destruction", consists of beam splitting bass tracks (try "Don't Let Me Down" [featuring Daya re-mix] and "Never Forget You" [MNEK Re-Mix]). While this demo list was assembled to demoralize weak speakers (and show off my new SVS Ultra 13 subwoofer), the A12 handled the tracks quite well, considering it outputs just 60 Watts per channel stereo.
Let's Get Serious
Throughout the USB-PC input listening sessions, the overall sound quality remained the same. As is my reviewing custom, tone control is tested, but not used. All detents are in the 12'oclock position. Balance is centered. Testing the tone controls produced the standard, slow gain, in both the treble and the bass. Listening for several days through the Apple MacBook / Audirvana Plus Software / Synology NAS setup; the Rotel combo had a consistently pleasing soundstage. The timbre and color of the sound stage was just shy of warm; ceding this (much sought after) destination to tube amps and players.
No matter the source (except for Bluetooth), the A12 exuded the sound qualities attribute to what we now call around my house the "Rotel" sound. To my ears, the "Rotel Sound" (and thus the A12/CD14) describes a clean, Mid-bass and midrange. Vocals are always clear and well defined. The Bass is a small bit soft punchy, with melodic tones and adequate decay. Sub-bass is present, but not upfront. Attacks were direct, but never harsh to the ears. This is especially true in the mid to high treble range. Being a former percussionist, attacks and decays are given special attention, and this can become a problem. Reviewing takes a lot of time. This means long hours of listening, without fatigue, is always a goal. Listening to music in long 4 to 12 hour sessions, fatigue is an always a possible obstacle. The Rotel combo was never an assault on my ears. It was a respite.
As promised, before wrapping up the review; connecting the RCA outputs of the CD14 player to the CD input of the A12 (via Audioquest Big Sir RCA cables) will allow the testing of the on-board DAC. Being a fan of CD players and high-quality CD player/Transports in general; the Holy Grail will always be a CD Player/Transport built like a tank, has a metal disc tray, and an upgradeable DAC. To my knowledge, this beast doesn't exist (Note: Readers, if you know of such a unit, contact me!). The Rotel CD14 is not such a beast, nor was it designed to be. The CD 14 plays your typical Red Book CDs and MP3 files only. No, it doesn't play SACD software. What the CD 14 does do well is play Compact Discs. They sound good. Really good! Generally, a good piece of electronic gear is the sum of all it's parts. That's why in this review you will not find a comparison of this brand DAC versus that brand DAC, this chip with that chip. Simply put, the goal is to review the combination of the Rotel A12 integrated amplifier with its CD14 stable mate. Since both are sporting the premium Wolfson 24-bit/192kHz DAC a huge difference wasn't expected. From earlier evaluation, tracking would not be an issue, either. The CD14 tracks very well for a player in this price range.
A Final Listen
Buddy Guy's gritty, live studio performance comes through dangerous and ominous as was intended. Played through vintage amplifiers and what one can imagine to be a beaten, well-worn classic guitars, this classic blues album was a late afternoon thrill. "Done Got Old" is a new, personal favorite. On this acoustic treat, Buddy Guys guttural growl creeps solidly in the mid-bass range, highlighted by the twang and pluck of the guitar strings. Only slightly more detail was heard, when playing this track on a much more expensive setup. You would have to quadruple your investment to hear it, though. Did the CD14's internal DAC sound as good as the A12's DAC? No. Did it sound different? Not really. Did it sound good? Yes. Yes it did. The preferred setup for this reviewer would be to use the CD14 as a transport. S/PDIF output into the A12. No technical reason given, as the DAC on the Rotel CD14 sounds as good as the DAC on the Rotel A12. It's just a personal taste. It may come from years of listening to poor quality CD DACs. You will be happy with either setup.
The Rotel combo was reliable, like a Toyota, and that's not such a bad thing.
Review Gear During This Review
Digital Processors: Wadia Di322 DAC/Pre, Audioquest DragonFly Red DAC, iFi DSD-Black USB
Pre-Amp: Audio Research LS27
Headphone Amplifier/Pre-Amp: None at this time
Phono Pre-Amp: Parasound Zphono
Power Amplifiers: Bryston 4B SST2, Bryston 3B ST.
AV Receivers: Denon AVR-X4300H, Integra DRX-5
Loudspeakers: Martin Logan Summit, Martin Logan Purity, Jamo Concert 8, Sonus Faber Chameleon B, M&K V1250THX Subwoofer, SVS Ultra-13 Subwoofer. Vermouth Audio, "Little Lucas" (under review)
Headphones: Oppo PM-1 (Balanced), Meze 99 Classics, Noble Audio K10 CIEM, Noble Audio 3 IEM.
Cables: USB: Audioquest Carbon, Audioquest Cinnamon. S/PDIF: Audioquest Optical Carbon, Audioquest Optical Cinnamon. Line level: Audioquest Red River, Audioquest Mackenzie (XLR), Audioquest Golden Gate, Audioquest Big Sir. Audioquest Irish Red, Audioquest Boxer.
Speaker cables: Audioquest Rocket 33, Audioquest Type 4.
Accessories: Dedicated 20A lines to dual Furman Elite ELITE-20 PF I surge protectors.
Rotel CD14 CD Player
Voice: (978) 664-3820