Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Rotel today has a good name in providing no-frills HiFi components, featuring what has come to be termed ‘British sound’. In this context, I was surprised to learn that Rotel is a family-owned Japanese manufacturer of audio and video equipment established in 1961. Perhaps the image of Rotel as a British manufacturer has rubbed off from the company’s 40-year strategic alliance with Bowers & Wilkins, based in Worthing, UK. But perhaps it is also due to the rather English or at least germanophone sounding company name. In the company fact files, we can read that Rotel was formed by Tomoki Tachikawa, is currently run by the nephew, Peter Kao and has had a major influence on the direction of Bowers & Wilkins, by setting up the global sales network for the loudspeaker manufacturer.
Although Rotel is primarily known for its range of High End HiFi components, including amplifiers and preamplifiers, they have always maintained a line of affordable, entry-level gear that boasted the Rotel design features and carried some of the myth of the ‘British sound’ to a new generation of audio enthusiasts. The Rotel RC-960BX is such a case in point. Paired with one or two of the RB-960BX dual-mono amplifiers, the combination of pre and amp could easily beat many of the contemporary receivers at the same price point in terms of tonal balance and punch. The wise lack of controls and the ability to bypass those that remained, paired with the separation of channels and tasks, brought something solid to the table that many other devices were lacking. Coming from a mid-priced Denon Amplifier, the Rotel combo sure was a revelation.
Although the Rotel sound can be described as sophisticated, the entry level gear shown here maintains tonal balance at the cost of providing that highly engaging musicality we have come to love from Hafler, Restek, and DB-Systems preamplifiers. The build quality shows some obvious sacrifices to careful budgeting: a plastic floor plate that broke during transportation and has since been replaced by a more solid version, plastic absorber feet that were an integral part of the broken floor plate and have also been replaced, a cheap but quite common folded sheet metal casing without copper plating, a single circuit board construction with the humming transformer placed directly on it, a balance control that is part of the volume knob and generally feels a bit iffy when trying to get the balance right. While the performance is commendable at the given price range, piano sounds do not extend into the room as well as on the other devices, separation of instruments is present but not great. The stage feels more confined than on the other devices, although there is a great center image and the mids are nice and full, features that are at once endearing.
I found the Rotel to work well with soft dome tweeters and generally speakers that would blend over occasional blunders. The RC-960BX is not a bad choice, if you are getting started in High End and need to purchase lots of gear at the same time. It usually holds its price when purchased used. Just make sure the floor plate does not get broken during transportation, because that really is a hassle to fix.