Rotel RCD-955AX and RCD-965BX CD players Page 2

To go into more depth with the 955 would be to step all over Señor Lipnick's toes, as he's already told you everything you need to know about the sound of the 855/955 in his July 1990 review. In short, the 955 is still a best buy in the sub–$500 CD player range, and one of the better values in all of audio period. The two years since the 855's release have dated the player's sound surprisingly little; only in comparison with the much-improved upper-echelon gear does the 955 show the rings around its trunk.

For instance, Lew Lipnick found the gap between the 855 and the original Theta DS Pro to be much smaller than he expected; almost two years later, I found Theta's DS Pro Basic II to be a huge improvement over the 955. The very small vestige of grain through the Rotel's mid to high end is totally absent from the Basic II, which throws up an ambient soundfield that embarrasses many of the kilobuck processors, much less the $450 Rotel. This difference in difference isn't the Rotel's fault; it just shows how much better the new Basic II is compared to the older generation that LL used to compare the 855/955 with back in '90.

And how does the 955 compare with the $400 Audio Alchemy DDE? Driven by the Rotel's coax output, the li'l DDE had a much brighter balance, but the overall character was a bit more "forced" than I like to have in my system. The 955 also handled dynamics much better than the Audio Alchemy, which tended to harden up on brash recordings. The Red Hot Chili Peppers' BloodSugarSexMagik (Warner Bros. 9-26681-2) came across as much more listenable over the Rotel than the DDE, which made an already gutsy recording a bit too hard to take. The Audio Alchemy did, however, have sharper image focus, as well as a markedly better-defined bottom end. I think the DDE sounds more "hi-fi," while the Rotel 955 sounds more listenable. If I had to choose one, I'd go for the Rotel. Actually, I'd probably go give blood every day for a month and spring the extra $400 for the delicious Sonographe SD-22, but I hate needles.

And what of the RCD-965BX, you query?
Well, let me draw a line across the middle of the room, okay? On one side of the line, all the people who: a) equate the word "latest" with "better"; b) equate the words "more expensive" with "better"; and c) mostly listen to Audiophile-Approved CDs, and usually only halfway into the tracks as well, cuz there's this other disc, see, that's got the most INCREDIBLE bass on it, you've GOTTA hear it NOW baby, it'll flap yer pantlegs just like RH-JA-CG-MIC-KEY-MOUSE sez; everyone who fits this description, stand there.

On the other side, the one closest to the fridge, let's have all the people who: a) dig music; b) dig gear that lets them dig music as easily as possible; and c) dig listening to albums all the way through, because that's the only way you get to dig all the music, hot diggity-doo.

The first group of people will prefer Rotel's 965. It's their latest player. It costs $100 more than the 965. And sound-quality wise, the 965 packs a pretty good wallop in the short term, which is just fine for people who only listen to certain tracks that show off bass, cymbal crashes, inner liquidity, etc. You know, the important stuff; the stuff your Audiophile Socialite friends want to hear when they drop by Sunday afternoon to play mindgames over whose system's sounding the best lately while the wife's upstairs watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme kickboxing movie on cable. The men in this category also like to pay complete strangers $300 so they can go off in the woods, get butt-nekkid, and beat on animal-skin drums instead of staying home and watching their wives fantasizing over the aforementioned CVD.

The second group, which I like to refer to as Sixty Minute Men (footnote 4) share a lot of common ground. We've all read Sun T'zu's The Art of War. We had strong, sensitive fathers, who taught by example that a man is comprised of both animus and anima, and that to shunt the feminine side to ground only results in lifelong frustration and a job with the postal service. And because we Sixty Minute Men are so in tune with our monkeybones, we all tend to be voracious lovers of music, that most sensuous of all art forms.

And what does the Sixty Minute Man look for in his Hi-Fi? He looks for gear that approaches life as he does: with supreme economy of extraneity, forward and linear motion, and paucity of uncontrolled aggression. The Sixty Minute Man wants a hi-fi rig that sounds mellow with Wes Montgomery, fiery with Hendrix, and righteous with Pops Staples. He doesn't want to hear the system at all, in fact; he wants to hear music.

The Pop-Guns, however, want WOW! AND HOW! RIGHT NOW! Highest highs! Lowest lows! More detail than a billion Waldo cartoons!

"See?! You can hear Ronnie Gilbert's kids playing patty-cake backstage on the Weavers disc MUCH better than with my old cartridge!! See?!!"

"Hear ye, hear ye! All Active Voting Commodores in favor of restoring Bill's Westfield Audiophile Master Race membership: don your fez and mewl like a marmoset..."

To these hi-fi nuts, the Rotel 965 will be a hot number. Because at first listen, it just leaps right out at you! The detail's right there, all of it, thrust right out like a fighting cock's talons. "I never heard that doubled vocal on Adrian Belew's '1967' sound so distinct before!" you marvel, awash in all the little micro-nuggets of sound shoved right in front of your puss. The 965 pins you right back into your seat with a forceful, upfront character; there's nothing subtle about this Rotel.

And that's the problem.

After spending so many months with a brace of mid-priced CD players, I've come full circle in my tastes vis-à-vis digital on the cheap. Having lived with the Theta DS Pro Basic for so long, I've grown accustomed to its superior resolution, its outstandingly clear soundstage focus. The Basic extracts an amazing amount of detail from CDs, and once you get used to hearing all these little "cues" all the time on a subconscious level, going back to a cheap player is a real shock. So when I first heard the Audio Alchemy DDE, I dug the hell out of it; here, finally, was a cheap DAC that had the detail of the big boys! I'd hook the thing up and marvel at how close the li'l DDE came to the detail retrieval of the Theta.

Then I got a pair of the Grado headphones. Want to mess up your mind real bad? Get you a good headphone amp (footnote 5), Melos's SHA-1 for instance, and listen to the direct sound of the Rotel 955 and 965, the Audio Alchemy, and the Theta (or Wadia, Krell, VTL, etc.). Nowhere to run to, bay-bay, nowhere to hide! It's unnerving. Because under the Grado microscope, the differences between the various players and processors are magnified 10x.

So what did I hear? The best-sounding was the Theta Basic II, no question. Wasn't even close. Shouldn't be, at $2000 vs $400–600. But I've got to tell you, the next best thing was not the Audio Alchemy. Not the $550 965, either. No, the closest-sounding of the bunch was the $450 Rotel 955; the same ol' player that's been around for years! The 955 is laid-back, for sure, but that's how cheap gear SHOULD sound! Once you take away high-quality (read: expensive) power supplies, premium passive parts, and brute-force engineering, the game has changed; you're not playing "Let's get as close as we can to the innate sound of this amazingly musical circuit" anymore, you're playing "Should we spray this pit with Right Guard or Arrid Extra-Dry?"

The 965 falls behind the 955 in two major areas. For starters, it's very quick to harden midrange and treble textures during dynamic peaks; when the going gets rough, the 965 gets rougher. JA's Chopin piano recording on the Stereophile Test CD is a great example of this, and why I use this particular cut so often when evaluating gear. The piano's attack comes off as too hard with the Rotel 965 and the Audio Alchemy, while the Theta and the 955 give a much more realistic and clean rendering of the striking keys. With the 965, I winced every time Anna Maria bashed her Steinway; same with the Audio Alchemy. In fact, the 965 sounds very similar to the DDE to me; they're both cut from the same bold cloth.

The second complaint I had with the 965 was with its tonal balance; with its overly lean bottom end and forward midrange, the 965 is a strikingly different-sounding player from the 955. I actually found myself going over to turn the Muse's WOOF control up whenever doing extended listening with the 965. The Commitments soundtrack, played on the 965, became a much tamer piece of music, with much less sense of rhythmic pace than through Rotel's 955. Watch the measurements reveal a flat response to below 5Hz, but the 965 has a distinctly lacking bottom end, just like its daddy, the 865.

"Geez, CG, does the 965 suck?!" Hell no! It's actually got a few things going for it. There's that detail, for instance; that should turn on quite a few audiophiles. And the midrange, aside from the congestion during musical peaks, is quite clean and clear. Low-level detail is terrific for the bucks, too. But to be honest with you, I much preferred the overall sound of the 955 to its more expensive brother; it was just a lot more musical in the long term.

The two new players from Rotel offer very different sonic signatures, for sure. I much preferred the ease and musicality of the multi-bit 955. Rotel had a winner with the 855, and they've wisely kept it in the line as the better-looking 955. I don't know of any comparably priced CD player that offers as well-rounded a sound quality as the Rotel 955, so it stays in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" as my first choice in a sub–$500 high-end CD player.

The Bitstream 965 will definitely have its share of fans. Sure it's a hackneyed clich;ae by now, but go audition them both, in your system, for longer than just a few tracks on the three Audioweenie Demo Discs you schlepp to the hi-fi huts when you've got that Buyin' Fever. The 955 and 965 sound different enough that you'll probably love one and hate the other. Try to take my criticisms of the 965 in context with my praise for the 955; believe me, you could do a LOT worse for $550 than the 965!

And if I had $550 to spend? I'd buy the $450 Rotel RCD-955, throw a shine on my Justins, and take my girlfriend out to the best restaurant in town. And after dinner, we'd come home and I'd turn the lights down low while we listened to the Neville Brothers' Treacherous (Rhino R2 71494) on the 955, bathing in deep bayou funk. Then I'd give her the $90 worth of ooh-la-la underwear I bought her, because in Austin, TX, the best restaurant in town is Sam's BBQ, and they don't take American Express.

Footnote 4: "There'll be fifteen minutes of kissing / Honey please don't stop (don't stop!) / There'll be fifteen minutes of teasing, / Fifteen minutes of squeezing, / And fifteen minutes of blowing my top (top! top! top!) / If your old man ain't treatin' you right, / Come up and see ol' Dan, / I'll rock you and roll you all night long, / I'm a, Sixty Minute Man, uh-huh, / Siiiiii, Xteeeee, Miiiiii, Nuuuuut, Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!" (The Dominoes)

Footnote 5: I drove my Grados with my buffered preamp; for details on how to construct this click here.

Rotel of America
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864-2699
(978) 664-3820

Catch22's picture

Man, I hated to see him go. Couldn't you bring him back? Maybe put him on double secret probation and make him grow a beard as punishment?