Rotel is a well-respected home audio brand known for making excellent amplifiers and CD players. But with the RCX-1500, the 50-year-old company has built upon those core strengths and produced a stereo amplifier that not only handles CDs and terrestrial radio stations, but also plays digital music from just about any source — either from your mobile device (through a USB connection), or streaming wirelessly over your home network.
This isn’t a compact unit that does double-duty as an iPhone dock. Nor is it a multi-channel surround-sound head meant to serve as the central hub of your home theater. Rather, it’s a full-size, full-featured, somewhat expensive ($1,500 MSRP) amplifier that’s meant to be matched with a pair of passive speakers.
This may seem out of step from current home audio trends, which have provided a bounty of sub-$500 mobile-centric wireless speakers, multi-room streaming systems and phone dock/clock-radio hybrids. But Rotel is catering to a different audience here: those who crave sweet-sounding, 2-channel stereo music pumped through a set of finely tuned floor-standing speakers, and who are willing to pay a premium for it. You know, the kind of people who own every re-issue of Dark Side of the Moon, or those who argue over which recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is superior, the 1942 Furtwangler or the 1962 Karajan.
As a dedicated head, it excels. There’s a 100-watt-per-channel Class D amp inside that’s capable of powering any set of speakers down to 4 ohms. The integrated FM radio and slot-loading CD player eliminate the need for additional components (even if the CD player is maddeningly slow to load and start playing).
But as I mentioned earlier, the real selling point here is in the bevy of digital capabilities. The USB port on the front provides a digital connection to your iPhone or iPod, and the same port can be used to play MP3s stored on a USB stick or other USB drive. Plug the little wireless dongle into the back (or just connect an RJ-45 Ethernet cable) and the Rotel becomes a networked device. It has a standard internet radio tuner, plus built-in access to SiriusXM and Pandora streams. There’s also a UPnP option, so you can stream music to the head wirelessly from any device that can output audio using the protocol.
All of these digital sources are routed through the Wolfson 24-bit/192kHz DAC inside, which performs excellently. In my testing, I hooked up the Rotel to a pair of Bowers & Wilkins CM9 loudspeakers, as well as some vintage Advents, for some extended listening sessions. (Tough job, I know.) The lossless files stored on my iPhone sounded especially good — a huge boost in quality over the standard analog mini-jack cable, and comparable to the better external DAC boxes I’ve tried. The 256K MP3s on my phone sounded much better as well.
I streamed some FLACs over a UPnP connection using WinAmp on a Windows PC, easy as pie. Internet radio stations are tough to dial in using the run-of-the-mill remote, but there are 30 preset slots, so the pain of dialing up favorites is minimized. The presets are easy to program, and I doubt many people will max out that allocation.
Usability isn’t an issue, and in general, the head sounds great. A nitpick: I do wish the extreme highs and lows were a little cleaner. The treble range isn’t as crisp and clear as I’d like it to be, and the bass tended to sound a little thin when I threw some thumping electronic music (Actress, Shabazz Palaces, Tanlines) through it. But for classic rock, acoustic music, and jazz especially, the Rotel sounds lively and clear, with every nuance represented beautifully.
Downsides? The CD player is slow, and there’s no good excuse for this. Also, as a proper vinyl-loving audiophile, I view the lack of an integrated phono stage on a $1,500 amp as a personal affront.
And then there’s that price. Yes, it’s steep. Savvy shoppers might be able to assemble something similar — a nice DAC, a 100-watt Class D head, a CD player and a Wi-Fi box — for less money. But this is great-sounding gear from a trusted manufacturer, and it’s everything you need in one handsome case. Still, a grand and a half is a tough ask for all but the most dedicated customers.