Rotel RCD-955AX and RCD-965BX CD players
But the only living thing in this pack of once-proud beasts was the young man sitting at the kitchen table, slowly pecking at the keys of a rundown Bondwell laptop and blowing soap bubbles out of the antique ivory pipe stuck in his frowning mug.
"...and, in conclusion, I think the Bitstream Rotel RCD-865BX is"
The reviewer stopped tapping on the laptop and answered his phone. An excited voice with a clipped British accent came on the other end.
"Whew! Mike Bartlett here, the new head of Rotel America. I was just informed you were reviewing our RCD-865BX, and I wanted to catch you before you'd finished; it's been discontinued, you see..."
The reviewer's grip tightened on the receiver.
"Bloody sorry I didn't call sooner, but I only found out about your review today...look, I know you've spent a long time listening to the 865, so tell you what; let me send you our new 965BX and 955AX, and you can spend another couple of months listening and writing, okay? Okay? Hello?" The line went dead in Bartlett's ear.
The reviewer shut off the laptop and walked downstairs to the basement. At the foot of the stairs, he could hear the six teenage runaways he had chained to the water pipes whimpering in the cold darkness. He flicked on the bare red bulb hanging from the ceiling and the startled youths suddenly sucked in their breaths with a start.
"P-p-please mister! Ya gotta let us go!" gasped a shivering longhaired boy in torn jeans and a black Struedleyouth T-shirt. The reviewer walked over to the liquor cabinet and poured a shot from a bottle of single-malt scotch, a Hanukkah present from a turntable manufacturer.
"Do you children KNOW who I just spoke with?" he asked no one in particular, staring beyond the bottom of his shotglass into the swirling maelstrom. There was no answer. "MIKE BARTLETT. That's who. Does anybody here know who MIKE BARTLETT is?"
A sniffling, haggard girl with peroxide-blonde hair cleared her throat. Tears cut clean paths down her dirty cheeks.
"M-mister...I know who that is...i-i-if you let me go, I can t-tell you..."
The reviewer didn't hear her.
"MIKE BARTLETT is a man who just told me I wasted a MONTH of my LIFE!! It's GONE!! I CAN'T GET IT BACK!!" the reviewer suddenly shrieked at a redheaded girl in an oversized man's coat. The girl closed her eyes tight and began sobbing, flinching at every syllable.
"No amount of money in the WORLD can get that month I spent listening, comparing, and writing about the Rotel RCD-865BX BACK!! II"
The bound runaways exchanged uneasy looks as the reviewer guzzled his scotch with a growl, smacking his lips as he slammed the shotglass down on the table. When his shuddering stopped, he walked over and set the needle down on an old Rosemary Clooney record.
Come on a' my house, a' my house, I'm a' gonna give-a you caaandy...
"MIKE BARTLETT," the reviewer laughed as he lifted a screwdriver off the hook on the pegboard, "is an Englishman!"
And all along the darkened street, not a sound was to be heard.
DAC in the saddle again
By now, it's no secret that one of audio's biggest values has been the hugely popular Rotel RCD-855 CD player; for only $400, it offered sound quality on a par with far more expensive gear, and provided countless tentative audiophiles with the perfect interim CD player during a period of almost daily digital breakthroughs. I don't know about you, but it seems to me like Bob Harley (in whose beard we trust) has been heralding a newest bestest digital processor in every issue of Stereophile for the past couple of years now! I'm not blaming my homeslice RH, though; the Mark Levinsons, Audio Researches, Thetas, Staxes, Wadias, and VTLs have been battling it out for the title of Supreme Digital Leader with more stubborn inbred fury than a hundred Hatfields and McCoys, churning out ever-better gear almost faster than the chipmakers can cut their dies. So when Lewis Lipnick called the $400 Rotel 855 "the steal of the century" in Vol.13 No.7, a loud chorus of HUZZAHS! arose from the foxholes; finally, there was a cheap CD player that could hold its own with the big boys. Pow-er To The Pee-pull!
The Rotel was the right player at the right time; basically a standard Philips 16-bit machine with better parts and a beefier power supply, the 855 found a home in thousands of happy systems the world over. And when digital's buzzword became "Bitstream," Rotel was there with the $500 RCD-865BX, the 855's single-bit kissin' cousin.
But all was not well.
For starters, the 865 didn't sound as good as the 855. I found the unit TJN sent me along with the batch o' midpriced CD players I tackled in the February issue to be quite mediocre, not nearly as good as the multi-bit 855. In particular, I found the 865's bottom end to be pretty wimpy, even in comparison with the underdog $299 NAD 5425. Add in an overly aggressive midrange and weak dynamics, and I was all ready to pan the poor 865 when "Lucky" Mike Bartlett called with the good news. Well shee-yit, I don't particularly dig writing negative reviews anyhow; if the Rotel had been included in the February batch, that would've made the count three and three, and JA would've sent me the new Leo Buscaglia book I'd Hug Hitler to review instead of the cool-man ProAc Response 2 loudspeakers.
There was another problem with the 865, and with the 855 as well: they looked like something I'd built, and that's no compliment! I mean, I'm hardly Mr. Blackwell, but even the el-cheapo Magnavoci and NADs have some styling panache; the flat black Rotels, with their white lettering and squared-off boxes, look decidedly dull next to most gear they're mated with.
So Rotel took the 855 and 865 to that "prep room" in the Emerald City where the Tin Man got chromed, Toto got deloused, and Ray Bolger got that bad-boy coif, and they gave both players a good old-fashioned country sprucin'. Gone's the white lettering; now it's luxurious gold-tone! Gone's the smooth front panel; now it looks like expensive brushed black metal! Throw in a couple of racy ridged endpieces and slap on a daring red racing stripe under the disc tray, and the ugly ducklings become the Barbie twins. These players really needed a facelift, and Rotel's snazzed 'em up but good.
So why the changes in model numbers? In the case of the 965BX, it's actually a total redesign of the 865BX, with the newer Philips SAA-7323 Bitstream DAC replacing the 7321 used in the 865 (footnote 1), and a better power supply. And the 955AX? It wasn't broke, so Rotel has wisely chosen not to fix it; aside from the improved cosmetics, it's still the same lovable 855 on the inside, right down to the Ol' Faithful SAA7220/TDA1541A 16-bit Philips chipset. In a world where Bad People are free to go and change venerable staples of life like Campbell's Tomato Soup, Coca-Cola, and the famous Fisher-Price kiddie scooter (footnote 2), it's comforting to know that some classics are respectfully left alone.
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Speaking of whom, Mike Moffat just sent me Theta's new DS Pro Basic II, the successor to the much-loved original Pro Basic Bob Harley praised in Vol.13 No.8. As nice as the Basic is, the II takes it all up a good peg or two (a "Follow-Up" is on the way). The Basic II served as the Big Daddy reference for the two Rotels, while the $400 Audio Alchemy DDE v1.0 was used as a benchmark unit in the Rotels' general price range.
The rest of the system used to evaluate the Rotels was: VTL Deluxe 225 amps, Aunt Corey's You Know What, Well-Tempered Record Player fitted with the Sumiko Blue Point cartridge, and the Audio Research SP-14's phono stage. Cables were Straight Wire Maestro and AudioQuest Lapis, and Theta's killer digital cable connected the players to the processors. The speakers were ProAc Response 2s mated with the mighty Muse Model 18 subwoofer, which melts into the ProAcs just as seamlessly as it does with the Spica Angeli (footnote 3).
The ProAcs were bi-wired to the VTLs with Straight Wire Maestro, and all line-level gear was plugged into an Audio Express NoiseTrapper Plus AC power conditioner. And Laura Atkinson bought me a beautiful 1992 calendar of vintage Elvis photos, which hangs proudly in my living room with big red El-Marko'd "S'PHILE DEADLINE" messages on every twelfth day and "TRAFFIC COURT" reminders on all the rest.
Rotel it like it is
First off, let me allay your fears concerning the 955; it is indeed the same exact player as the good ol' 855, only with much better looks; so all you owners of worn-out 855s can come in off the ledge now. That's great news, too, because most of the envelope-pushing that's gone on in digital sound has been confined to the upper reaches of the high end; to my ears, cheap players don't sound any better than they did two years ago.
And in the case of the newest generation of Philips/Magnavox players (soon to sport the Marantz name here in the States), they took a few steps backward, sounding distinctly inferior to the older CD50/60/80 series, in my opinion. To be sure, there have been some comers; both the JVC XL-Z1050 and the Sonographe SD-22 I reviewed in February are miles ahead of the pack, and NAD's putting out some really cherry inexpensive CD players to boot. I understand the affordable new Creek player is a winner as well. But the cheap-to-midpriced CD arena is still mostly clogged with hazy, harsh, amusical dreck; as the high-end processors keep getting better in leaps and bounds, the average CD player is still pretty much where it was two years ago: Lamesville, daddy-o.
Enter the Rotel 955. With its "antiquated" Philips 16-bit chipset, it still wipes most of the sub-$1000 players out there, especially when married to high-quality interconnects. I found the 955 to get down equally well with the Maestro and the silver Lapis; the Straight Wire gave the Rotel an alive, detailed character, while the AudioQuest made for a much more laid-back presentation. These comments apply to switching the whole signal chain out with each type of cable; changing only the interconnect between the player and the preamp made for an audible but much smaller difference in sound. Overall, I preferred the sound with the system wired with all Maestro, as the Rotel seemed to open up more in terms of soundstaging.
Footnote 1: And the very same DAC used in the oh-so-lush Sonographe SD-22; further proof that better power supplies = more music. Or that I subliminally associate the SD-22 with Mad Dog 20-20, the perfect end to a perfect evening.
Footnote 2: Everyone, even the Kurds, had one of these; you know, that little white rig on wheels with the blue seat and handlebars so baby can get a taste for Harley's Heritage Soft-Tail Classic. When I had mine, it was made of wood, but we just got one for my niece Casey, and the whole damn thing's PLASTIC! What's next?! Is someone gonna tell me that Bert and Ernie weren't just roommates all these years?!
Footnote 3: My home life has kind of turned upside down lately; when I brought the ProAcs home, the Spicas packed their bags in a huff and went to stay with their sister in Waco. I'll tell you all about it in the review, but it wasn't pretty.