Listening #7 Page 3

Good Music for a Friday
Then there's the comparable integrated amp from Rotel, that other maker of affordable electronics with a reputation for sounding expensive. A mere $499 gets you their RA-02, an amp with a little less power than the NAD (listen to me kvetching about power! Haw!) but some very nice extras: provisions for connecting and switching between two pairs of loudspeakers, and, ta-da, a phono section. Granted, the RA-02's phono section can't handle a low-output moving-coil cartridge; its sensitivity, not to mention its 47k ohm input impedance, wants to see either a moving-magnet cartridge or the output of your step-up transformer. But whaddaya want for your two bits? To live forever?

Like the NAD, the 40Wpc Rotel uses a chunky toroidal transformer, and its heatsinks are similarly impressive, although its preamp and phono section do use op-amps. The build quality is good—perhaps just a click below the level of the NAD C320BEE—but I think the Rotel, with its low profile, two-tone silver finish, and cool blue pilot lights, is the nicer-looking product.

The RA-02 has four pairs of line-level inputs and one tape loop. It doesn't have a set of preamp-out/amplifier-in jacks like the NAD, but it has something in their place that you might consider even more useful: a pair of preamp-out jacks (output impedance: 470 ohms) whose output signal is affected by the product's volume, balance, and tone controls—which is to say, it's just the ticket for subwoofer owners. I wish every preamp and integrated amp had this; seeing it on a $499 product only galvanizes my disdain for four- and five-figure products that lack it.

The RA-02's bass and treble controls can be switched in and out, and there's a balance knob, too—albeit one that dulls the sound audibly with any deviation from dead-center. As with the NAD amp, the balance can't be adjusted from the remote handset (included), but there is a Mute, and I had no trouble finding it. Both pairs of speaker output connectors are gold-plated and sturdy, and the input jacks are gold-plated too, although the rows for the two channels are a bit too close together for easy use with certain very manly interconnects. (The same is true of the NAD C320.)

Straight out of the box, the Rotel sounded crisp and forward, and while some of that crispness went away over the next day or so, the RA-02 never sounded quite as creamy as the NAD C320. The lingering crispness made itself especially evident in the RA-02's phono section, where surface noise from older LPs—such as my well-loved copy of Toscanini Conducts Wagner (RCA LM-6020)—intruded more than I like. That said, the Rotel had a colorful, dynamic presentation—if I hadn't known otherwise, I would've guessed that it was the more powerful of the two amps under review—and these qualities were sufficient to let me enjoy that disc's bubbling Siegfried Idyll in particular.

Likewise, the Rotel got across the tension and otherworldliness of Hans Knappertsbusch's not-terribly-well-played but magnificent-sounding (see paragraph 8, above) reading of Wagner's Parsifal prelude on (LP, Westminster/Speakers Corner WST-17032). But on the Magic Fire Music, from George Szell's well-known 1968 recordings of Wagner excerpts (LP)—admittedly not the mellowest puppy in Columbia's litter—the music was a bit mechanical and lacking in flow, and with a bit of aggressiveness in the textures of horns, strings, bells, and cymbals (which is to say, everything). By contrast, the NAD not only sounded smoother, it simply did a much better job of bringing to my attention subtle rhythmic variations and other interesting musical touches.

The Rotel's spatial performance was good, especially on CD (vinyl sounded a little flat by comparison, surprisingly or not). The digital version of Norman Blake's Live at McCabe's (Takoma 6509) came through with the intimacy of its setting well intact, and with good separation between the similarly hued cello and viola. And the woodwind and keyboard instruments scattered throughout songs such as "Easter Theatre" and "The Last Balloon," on XTC's brilliant Apple Venus Vol.1 (TVT 3250), were locked distinctly into place with believable presence, if not with all the depth in the world. The RA-02 also scored with bass performance that was consistently enjoyable: Electric bass lines sounded deep, clean, and tuneful, and timpani and orchestral bass drums were reproduced with little in the way of overhang or other nasties. Again, this amp at least sounded powerful—setting the stage, I suppose, for another round of "watts ain't watts" discussions.

The Rotel RA-02 is a decent-sounding and well-styled product; with such features as a built-in phono section, subwoofer outputs, and provisions for a second pair of speakers, it offers undeniably good value for the money. But the NAD C320BEE's music-making is more to my taste; I'd be willing to sacrifice any number of conveniences for its smoothness and surprisingly good level of involvement. Heck, if it had a mono switch, I'd buy one now and tuck it away until my daughter was ready for college.