Rotel's Two-Channel Tour de Force a Slam Dunk for Stereophiles
By Jim Bray
Rotel's 15 Series of audio components continues the company's long history of making high quality equipment that offers great sound and good value.
I cut my teeth with Rotel equipment in the 1980's when a local audio outlet loaned me one of their stereo amplifiers to use as my reference power plant. It was my first experience with higher end audio and I was hooked. I had to give the stuff back eventually, though, and kind of forgot about the company until I reviewed some of their home theater components several years ago and was hooked all over again. I loved the sound quality and, though they're more costly than many consumers can justify, they're worth it if you have the disposable income and value great sound – and there are companies who charge a LOT more than Rotel's prices. Just like there can be a big difference in the cost of hiring the best Elmiron lawsuit lawyers, consumers know they will get what they pay for.
Since then, I've had Rotel components as my reference audio equipment in a variety of home theater configurations, including a big front projection system and a more "normal" LCD flat panel setup, using Rotel as the benchmark by which I review other brands. It has worked out very well; whatever the equipment I've tested, whether power amplifier, home theater preamplifiers, DVD player – and even power conditioners – the Rotel products have been uniformly gush-worthy.
Well, there was a DVD player that would have been even better if not for a couple of very minor quibbles and their first kick at the Blu-ray-compatible preamplifier/processor can featured only the HDMI 1.1 standard. Even those components were worth coveting, however, and as it turned out, I ended up purchasing the preamp-processor I just whined about – so how bad could it have been? The HDMI 1.1 issue was easy to get around with an external HDMI 1.3-spec switcher that routes the 24p video directly to my Epson projector and sends the Rotel only the raw audio, processed by the Blu-ray player and output as Linear PCM. It works just fine.
Anyway, back to Rotel's new 15 Series line, which indeed continues the company's trend of excellence. The first 15 Series equipment I reviewed, the RSP-1570 preamp/processor and RMB-1575 power amp, were as gush-worthy as the rest of the stuff I've played with, offering the wonderful punch and clarity of Class D amps along with all new circuitry and HDMI 1.3 compliance.
Then I notice that everything I've reviewed by Rotel since that original stereo amplifier so long ago has focused on home theater, with at least five channels of audio, sophisticated video switching and even video up conversion to 1080p. What about die-hard stereophiles? Don't they deserve to be serviced in this digital age?
Many audiophiles are more interested in music than in movies and, while they may appreciate the surround sound experience, they prefer to put their energies into just the front channels so they can revel in the glory of their stereo music discs. As you may have guessed, Rotel – which was doing stereo long before it was doing surround sound – has products for them, too.
Which brings us (finally, you say!) to the RB-1572 stereo power amplifier and matching RC-1580 stereo pre-amp. This is audiophile stuff that eschews home theater completely, for better or for worse.
To ensure I did the review justice, I enlisted my audiophile son’s help in putting the RB-1572 and RC-1580 through their paces, auditioning the equipment both in my own home theater listening environments and in his more “stereo friendly” setup. It was a wonderful opportunity to sit down and listen to some of my favorite music again – eyes closed and ears open – without worrying about picture quality, switching capabilities, signal decoding and the like. It was great, an "ear-opening" experience.
If the 15 series has a weakness it's in the new grille on the power amps, which look like they were inspired by a Jeep, though the brushed aluminum look is classy overall. I also find the bright blue light ringing the power button obtrusive; you can almost read by it in a darkened room! When push comes to shove, however, it's easy to overlook any such minor cosmetic complaints because these babies can surely sing!
Upon unpacking the RC-1580 pre-amp, the impression was reinforced that this equipment is definitely aimed at stereophiles who enjoy analog equipment: there are NO digital inputs at all! This might be a nice paen to the old days of audio but, to be honest, I was a little disappointed. It wouldn't have killed Rotel to include an optical or coaxial input for people who may use a PS3 or DVD player for playing CD's.
On the other hand, those may not be the true audiophiles at whom Rotel was aiming – and it gave me an excuse to bring my old CD player out of retirement. Now, after what was like a reunion with a long lost love, I can't remember now why I ever put it aside in the first place.
Probably something to do with needing shelf space for the DVD player…
Each component is about three inches tall, with the aforementioned brushed-aluminum styling that looks sharp. All the buttons on the pre-amp are small and round, including separate banks of selectors for listening and recording functions. There are knobs for bass and treble adjustment, with a toggle switch next to them that disables both for purists who prefer the sound neutral, which probably includes anyone likely to buy this unit.
There are also two mini-headphone jacks on the front, one for actual headphones (the plug for which really should be full-sized) and the other, in a nod to modern audio trends, being a "media player" port.
The remote control is basic, and that's good. It includes buttons for power, volume, source selection, a numeric keypad and playback controls. Basically, it's everything you need to control the preamp and a CD player and nothing more. The volume/tuning buttons glow in the dark, but the buttons below the keypad are small and round, with no means to differentiate the "play" button by feel other than by counting up rows from the bottom.
Still, it works well and is easy to figure out – and it's a welcome convenience.
Another nice touch is that, unlike the Rotel home theater preamps I've tried, the RC-1580 even has turntable inputs.
The RB-1572 power amp is rated at a very healthy 250 watts into 8 ohms, 500 into 4 ohms. This is excellent oomph and as usual I'm amazed by the power Rotel gets from the comparatively tiny boxes of its Class D amps.
The rear panel features a single set of stereo RCA inputs, two sets of speaker terminals (suitable for bi-amping), and a pair of 12V trigger jacks (in & out).
Before we ran the units through their paces in my home theater, we set them up in my son's stereo-only audio room, using the Rotels to replace a fine amp and pre-amp he's loved for years and which has impressed me as well.
The difference was like night and day, and noticeable immediately. The brand new Rotel equipment sounded better fresh out of the box than the (admittedly older) amp/preamp, even though they'd been broken in nicely and driven well for the better part of five years. It was amazing – and the Rotels' sound kept improving as they warmed up to their task.
The sound and imaging are full and crystal clear, with excellent channel separation and presence. And the bass! There's so much more fullness and "oomph" from the Rotel than from the older stuff that it took us a while to realize he didn't even have his subwoofer turned on!
Whether in his listening room or my home theater, I spent many hours as much time as I could reveling in the sound, listening to my favorite music CD's (from rock to classical, to test discs), discs I use regularly to test a system's mettle. Needless to say, I came away very impressed with the "old fashioned yet state-of-the-art" sound. Not that I was surprised; it's no coincidence that I'm a fan of Rotel products.
Once again, the RB-1572's Class D amplification satisfied my ears, and my son's, completely, offering big power in a small and cool-running package. No complaints whatsoever about this amp, which means I have yet to review one of Rotel's Class D amplifiers that hasn't blown me away, from the little 7x100 watt RMB1077 I reviewed a few years back to the mighty 500 watt per channel RB-1091 and RB-1092's I ended up purchasing for my big home theater because I couldn't bear to send them back.
By the way, the RB-1572's 250 watts per stereo channel means it would also be a fine addition to the five channel RMB-1575 for those who want a full, 7.1 channel home theater setup.
While I can't fault anything about the RB-1572 other than silly cosmetic quibbles, I can't judge the RC-1580 "classic stereo" preamp as perfect because it lacks the extra flexibility of at least one coaxial or optical digital input. I wonder if many in the intended market for this preamp are going to give a hoot about that, though, so maybe it's just me.
And really, that's a pretty minor concern with what is on the whole a lovely piece of audio equipment.
Copyright 2009 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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