Rotel RB-960BX power amplifier Page 2

I should put this into perspective, though. If you're more accustomed to the higher-end gear in Stereophile's "Recommended Components," you'll be far more sensitive to what both the Adcom and Rotel amps "do" to the sound of a hi-fi rig than most entry-level audiophiles. But you also probably won't be shoppin' for no $350 amplifier, neither!

On the other hand, if you're movin' on up from a cheap mid-fi Japanese receiver, you'll probably find that either of these amps sounds vastly better than what you've been listening to music with. Of course, then you'll be off'n'running down that long, strange High End Trail, but there are plenty of worse ways to spend your time while waiting to die. (Such as writing angry letters to Stereophile's editor demanding to know why a bunch of repressed, middle-aged white guys don't review Public Enemy and Ice Cube.)

The Rotel's mellower balance really gave it the edge when it was inserted into the Real World system. The budget-king CD players—even the cool-man JVC—have at least a trace of hardness and grit to their sounds, and the 960BX was of great help in smoothing out this tizz. Standing in the Safety Zone sounded much smoother and more natural via the Rotel, and while the individual voices weren't as clearly focused as with the Adcom, the overall sound was much more enjoyable and musical. I found that I could, and did, spend long listening sessions with the Rotel, in either the Real World system or the He-Man rig, without the urge to switch back to a "real" amplifier. I usually got that urge when spending time with the Adcom GFA-535 II.

The Rotel had a faster, more rhythmically involving bass range. It wasn't a serious threat to the Aragon and Muse brutes, but the Rotel's low end was really deep and grooving for such a cheap amp. Whether driving the Spicas or even the big NHT 3.3s, the Rotel was consistently more comfortable with groove-heavy music than the Adcom. Neither amp would probably make Martin Colloms shake-it-till-he-break-it, but in the context of a budget system, the Rotel was more than up to the hardest-rocking music I could throw at it.

The Rotel also did a fine job of throwing up a good-sized soundstage with more than a hint of real depth. I hate myself for listening to it each time I grab it off the rack, but Roger Waters's Amused to Death does have the widest, most vividly detailed soundstage of any CD in my collection—it's got QSound processing splashed all over it with about as much subtlety as I displayed when splashing on the Old Spice at age 15. With the Rotel, the razor-sharp imaging I'm used to hearing from this disc was dulled a bit, blurring the image outlines together to make for a less distinct sense of soundscape. But in terms of sheer size, the Rotel had a much bigger sound than the Adcom GFA-535 II, which tended to flatten image depth. Neither amp could really do justice to real spacemeisters like the Ry Cooder/Vishwa Bhatt A Meeting by the River CD, but the Rotel did enable the Real World system to approximate the sheer size of the soundscape that I hear from my He-Man rig, if not the image focus.

The Rotel's ability to render the somewhat black'n'blue sound of my budget system into a listenable, enjoyable rig was far and away its most important achievement. I repeat: This was hardly the most accurate amplifier I've ever heard, but the RB-960BX had a rather soft-focused sound that, while not really reminiscent of classic tube gear, was laid-back and relaxed. The Rotel's tendency toward softness could really spell the difference between a low-budget system you gotta force yourself to like and one whose musicality surprises you every time you sit down to listen.

Incidentally, using the McCormack Line Drive improved the sound vastly more than two entry-level solid-state preamps Rotel sent me to try, the RP-960BX and RP-980BX. I highly un-recommend that you go the route of assembling a Real World system around the inexpensive Rotel preamps, which pretty much obscured component differences when used in my Real World system. I'll be the first to tell you about a sub–$500 preamp that doesn't muck up the sound, but, so far, it ain't got here.

Because the Rotel allows for bridging operation into a 180W mono amp, I tried two of them in bridged mode to drive the NHT 3.3s.

Forget it. Yes, the power went up and the amps played louder, but the sound pretty much fell apart, especially in the bass. Overall, the sound got more congested, with an added bit of wiriness on top that isn't there in standard stereo operation. I wasn't nearly as impressed with the Rotel in bridged mode as in its normal stereo configuration—if you need more power than the 960BX's 60W, I strongly recommend that you go ahead and buy Rotel's 100W RB-980BX (footnote 1) instead of using two 960s in bridged mode. I got a much more coherent and convincing sound from the 980 than with the bridged 960s, and the single 980 is even a little cheaper to boot.

Overall Conclusions
The Rotel, however, sounds wisely rolled-off on the top, and as a result doesn't get into as much trouble with less-than-perfect ancillary gear.

The Rotel is not the amp to buy if you're trying to go for a really analytical, high-rez budget system. It did not resolve the last snippet of detail from my records and CDs when compared with good mid-priced amplifiers like the $1200 Muse Model One Hundred or the $995 Acurus DIA-100 integrated amp. No, the Rotel is for the budget-minded music lover who wants a good, solid little amplifier that's not going to make listening to music a trying experience. And for $370, that's a pretty fair trick.



Footnote 1: Favorably reviewed by Thomas J. Norton in Vol.15 No.11, p.171. I second his emotion that the Rotel 980 is a really good amp for $600.
COMPANY INFO
Rotel of America
P.O. Box 8, 54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864-0008
(800) 370-3741
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