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Published April 1, 2004

 

Rotel RA-02 Integrated Amplifier

Rotel is a 40-year-old company that specializes in affordable audio and home-theater components. Their mission, in their own words, is to show that "the best need not be the most costly." Rotel’s products are designed under what they call a Balanced Design Concept, in which the scientific approach to audio design is tempered by the subjective listening experience. Throughout the BDC process, trained critical listeners test Rotel components and report back to the design team. This back-and-forth between designers and listeners continues until the component has the right sonic signature.

Rotel’s newest product line, the Euro, consists of three models: the RA-02 integrated amplifier, the RT-02 AM/FM tuner, and the RCD-02 CD player. Together, the three make an attractive system that can be had for not much money: the amplifier and CD player retail at $499 USD each, the tuner at $299. Each piece can also stand on its own with any other audio components you might prefer to use. All three components share the same good looks: silver-and-gray enclosures with bright blue LEDs.

The RA-02 integrated has a stunning range of features for its price and can serve two communities extremely well. First, it’s an excellent amplifier for the audiophile who dreams of having a megabuck system but whose wallet won’t allow it. The upgrade paths the RA-02 provides will allow such a person to perfect a system over time (more on this later). Second, it’s a great little amplifier for those who want a musically satisfying system but don’t want to bother with such audiophile vices as compulsive upgrading.

Features and setup

The RA-02 measures 17.125"W x 2.875"H x 13.5"D. These dimensions, combined with the brushed-silver finish and blue LEDs (one above the power button, one on the volume knob, a third around the function knob), give the RA-02 a slim, sleek, modern look. The amplifier delivers a rated 40Wpc into an 8-ohm load. This may seem underpowered compared to receivers and amplifiers boasting hundreds of watts, but the Rotel’s 40Wpc will be more than enough in most real-world applications.

Dead center on the front panel is the large Volume control, with a blue light to indicate the volume level. Far to the left of the Volume knob are the Power button, a headphone jack, a speaker-selector knob, and three tone controls. The speaker selector can be used to choose among having all speakers off, one set of speakers on (the RA-02 comes with two sets of binding posts for speakers), or both pairs of speakers on. This is useful if you want to use the headphone jack (the speakers don’t immediately switch off when headphones are plugged in), if you want to set up a second set of speakers in another room, or if you want to use both sets of speaker terminals to biwire your speakers. Of the three tone controls, one turns the tone controls on and off, and the other two increase or decrease the treble and bass. The tone controls worked fine, but I’m a purist at heart -- I kept them turned off.

To the right of the Volume control are the Balance, Monitor, and Function knobs. Monitor lets you change the signal you hear between that chosen by the Function knob and that delivered by any recorder connected to the RA-02’s Tape inputs. Function lets you choose among various sources: Phono, CD, Tuner, Aux 1, and Aux 2. A blue light and a small indent on the knob indicate which source is selected.

The RA-02’s rear panel has all the connections you’d expect and some you might not. Along with the standard line-level inputs are: a phono preamp for moving-magnet cartridges; connectors for adding the input and output of a recording device, such as a tape deck or MiniDisc player; two sets of five-way speaker binding posts; and preamp-out connectors so that you can add a separate power amplifier to your system if your needs increase. Conveniently, there are both ins and outs for 12V triggers, which allow you to connect other stereo equipment to the RA-02 and turn them all on or off together. Finally, there’s a socket for the power cord.

The RA-02’s slim little remote packs a lot of features, including the ability to control other Rotel components, such as the RCD-02 and the RT-02. It’s not one of those clunky system controllers that take up a lot of space on the coffee table, but seems able to do everything those clunkier models do.

Trial

I paired the RA-02 with two sets of speakers: the Axiom M3tis and Quad 21Ls (review coming soon). The Rotel handled both admirably. The Rotel-Axiom combination did a great job of producing music on a very tight budget. The fact that the RA-02 could drive the costlier Quads points out the staying power that this amp can have in a growing system. The rest of the review system included the Sony SCE-775 SACD player and a Pro-Ject 1.2 turntable equipped with an Oyster cartridge. A Rotel RCD-1070 CD player rounded things out.

The presentation with both speakers was clear and detailed. While listening to Glenn Gould play Bach on the new A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations collection [Sony Classical S3K 87703], I had no problem hearing Gould hum and sing along with his piano. On other systems I’ve heard, this humming sounds more like random background noise; the Rotel was able to articulate it as Gould’s voice.

The Rotel was a bit on the cool, analytical side: If the recording was poor, I knew it. Billy Bragg is a great songwriter, but his Back to Basics CD [Elektra 60726-2] is one of the worst-sounding discs I own, and the RA-02 did not hide this fact -- Bragg’s guitar and voice were so tinny that I couldn’t listen for long. Bass performance was well articulated, but lacked the last bit of truly extended bass sound. Dave Holland’s acoustic bass on his Extended Play: Live at Birdland CD [ECM 1864/65] lacked the resonance that it had when I used my Rogue Audio Tempest integrated amplifier, and the bass notes seemed to fade quicker with the Rotel.

I’m always skeptical of headphone jacks on integrated amplifiers or receivers. The RA-02’s jack, however, was a pleasant surprise. True, it wasn’t quite as good as my HeadRoom Little headphone amp with my AKG K 501 headphones, but it did a good job driving both my Grado SR60 and RS2 phones. The Little had more authority behind it and a touch more clarity and frequency extension, but, unlike the jacks on other units I’ve tried, the RA-02 provided enough juice for occasional headphone listening. Serious headphone listeners with easy-to-power phones, such as the Grados, might consider the Rotel sufficient.

The internal moving-magnet phono stage bested the Sumiko Phono Box I’d been using before the Rotel arrived. While neither phono preamp was outstanding, the Rotel offered better soundstaging. On Barry Altschul’s You Can’t Name Your Own Tune [Muse MR 5124] the players seemed to take up more space, and didn’t sound as if they were playing on top of one another. Remember: If you buy an amplifier without a built-in phono stage and later decide to try out vinyl, you’ll then have to buy not only the phono stage but another pair of interconnects as well. Considering that added cost, the RA-02’s built-in stage is a welcome feature. But if you have a moving-coil cartridge or plan to get one, you’ll still need a dedicated phono stage -- the Rotel is designed for moving-magnet cartridges only.

Comparison

The sound of the Rotel RA-02 bested that of the $499 Harman/Kardon AVR 100 receiver on all counts. In comparison with the H/K, the Rotel gave better definition in the midrange and had better extension and a more lifelike presentation of the highs. When I listened to the new SACD release of Getz/Gilberto [Verve 314 589 595-2], Gilberto's guitar sounded more like a real guitar; the Harman/Kardon made it sound flat, the transient sounds not decaying believably. The Rotel's superior presentation of the highs was evident when I listened to Miles Davis' trumpet on Sketches of Spain [Columbia CK 65142], which sounded less shrill and more organic. The bass performances of the H/K and Rotel were similar, but the Rotel had a slight edge in definition, which was easy to hear during "What’s Golden," from Jurassic 5's Power in Numbers [Interscope 0694934482] -- the bass sounded more refined, less bloated. All of these differences meant that the Rotel offered a more believable and enjoyable presentation of the music than the Harman/Kardon.

Conclusion

The Rotel RA-02 combines several attractive features. It’s reasonably priced, boasts a five-year warranty, and allows for an upgrade path, which ensures longevity in your system. From an audio enthusiast’s standpoint, it’s musically satisfying both as a stepping-stone in a growing system and as a centerpiece for a budget-conscious listener.

If you’re in the market for an integrated amplifier, you should check out this little beauty by Rotel. Unless you’re ready to spend a mortgage payment on amplification, I think you’ll find the Rotel can handle the job.

...Eric D. Hetherington

Price of equipment reviewed


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