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Rotel Tribute Series Review
Company and Product Overview
Ever since 1961, Rotel has been building affordable, yet high-performance audio gear, specializing in two-channel stereo products. Audio Advice has been a Rotel dealer since 1981 when we first heard one of their integrated amplifiers. Their consistent sound and build quality over the years has been very impressive when you consider they are about to celebrate their 60th anniversary!
This overview is on two new products from Rotel that have a very interesting twist. We will be looking at the A11 and CD11 Tribute Series. This is an integrated amplifier and CD player that are quite affordable.
If you follow the craft food or beverage industry, you have probably noticed something pretty interesting happening over the past few years. We are starting to see collaborations between businesses you think might be competitors in an effort to produce something even better and more interesting for the customers who frequent those establishments. In our home state of North Carolina, we are seeing it all the time now between local breweries.
Interestingly enough, the Rotel Tribute series is the first audio collaboration we can remember in multiple decades.
The Tribute Story
Marantz was founded by Saul Marantz in the 1950's and, like Rotel, is highly regarded in the industry for making great sounding gear for the money. Ken Ishiwata worked for Marantz for 40 years. He was responsible for making sure their gear had that famous Marantz sound, and he became quite the legend for his demos at audio shows all over the world. He had a special knack for looking at a simple piece of gear and figuring out how to make it sound a lot better without raising the price much at all.
In his last years at Marantz, he became their international brand ambassador, but he was really more of an ambassador for great sound. He believed enjoying music was one of the best aspects life had to give and was passionate about spreading his love of music and great sound.
The Chief Technology Officer at Rotel, Daren Orth, and Ken had been friends for many years and both had great mutual respect for each other. In the summer of 2019, they started initial conversations on how they could finally work together, and the entire Rotel team was thrilled to see this collaboration come to fruition.
The Rotel team and Ken took a look at the current Rotel lineup and were very interested in modifying the A11 integrated amplifier; it had just been awarded “Best Buy Amplifier of 2019-20" by the Expert Imaging and Sound Association. The companion CD11 was chosen as the perfect CD player to mate up with the amp.
Ken then came up with the initial changes and had prototypes of the new designs produced. In the early fall of 2019, the Rotel team agreed with the new designs and it looked like things were going to move forward.
Tragically, Ken passed away in November of 2019 before final production began on these. Rotel contacted his son and daughter to see if they were interested in continuing with these as a tribute to their father’s contributions to the audio industry. They wholeheartedly agreed, and the Rotel Tribute models were put into production for a fall 2020 release.
Design and Build Quality
Our experience with Rotel for almost the last 4 decades is the fact, most pieces have an extremely long life span. It is not unusual for us to see old customers with integrated amps, preamps, or power amplifiers that are over 30 years old and still working great.
It is pretty impressive how Rotel is able to have such long term reliability with products that are very affordable.
The Rotel Tribute A11 and CD11 models come from the very heart of the Rotel value lineup with both of them being well below $1000 a unit. The Tribute models bear a badge on the front and are available in a black or silver finish. Fit and finish are quite nice for the price with the buttons and controls having a nice firm feel.
These units are quite simple in design and also easy to operate right from the front panel or with the included remote controls. Both have detachable power cords with good quality connections on the rear. These are your typical board mount connectors, but we have found these to be very solid on Rotel gear. The integrated amp has robust binding posts for your speaker connections.
With the front panel displays being of the same design, these two guys look great with the amp stacked right on top of the CD player. Their slim size means this stack will only take up just a little more than 7” of height.
Features and Technology
The A11 Tribute integrated amp has enough inputs for just about any type of two-channel audio system. You will get 4 analog inputs, a moving magnet phono input, Bluetooth apt-X, and even a set of preamp outputs you could use for a subwoofer or a separate power amp later.
You can connect two pairs of speakers and control them for A, A+B, or B. For most custom installation options the rear also has an RS232 connector, two triggers, and an external IR input connection.
The front panel gives you a mini headphone connector and a very easy to use button layout. The only caveat is that there are two AUX inputs but only one button which toggles between AUX 1 and AUX 2.
We found a few features in the menu we really love. First, you have full adjustments for bass, treble, and balance. You can set the dim level on the front panel as well.
Some of you may want to keep your two-channel system in the same room as your home theater and while it is not obvious the A11 Tribute has a home theater bypass, it does! A home theater bypass lets you connect your main right and left speakers to your great two-channel amp, then run the front preamp outs from your home theater receiver into the amp. Rotel lets you tell the unit if you want AUX 2 to be set up this way which is pretty cool.
The next trick is something we wish everyone would do. It seems many products are adding Bluetooth these days, but the issue always with Bluetooth is you have two volume controls, your phone, and the unit. If the unit is set to a very low volume level no matter how much you turn up your phone, you cannot get the volume up. The A11 Tribute lets you set up the Bluetooth input for variable or fixed volume! You can even adjust the fixed level! So you would set it up to be about as loud as you ever played things, then have full control of the volume from your smartphone.
There is even a sleep time and auto-sensing you can engage to turn on and off the unit, which means if you have auto-sensing turned on, as soon as it sees a signal, the unit would turn itself on.
When we popped the cover on the A11 Tribute, we saw a large toroidal transformer off to one side, a good sign of a great amp. The Class AB amp section has the output devices mounted to a large heatsink. The Circuit board layout is also very clean.
Ken Ishiwata took this already award-winning layout and made quite a few changes. In the preamp section, 6 of the capacitors were upgraded. The power amp section had 10 capacitors and two resistors in the signal path were changed. Finally, custom damping materials were added to reduce mechanical noise in the chassis.
As far as CD players go, the CD11 Tribute is pretty similar to what you might expect from a feature standpoint although we have to say it is heavier than you would expect for a CD player in this price range.
The front panel has all of your transport functions with a center loading disc tray. Rear connections include left and right outs, plus a digital out. Like the A11 Tribute, there are custom installation oriented connections for control.
The Tribute version of the CD player received a lot of modifications from Ken Ishiwata. The DAC section had 8 capacitor upgrades and one resistor change. The power supply was almost completely redone with all of the capacitors upgraded to better components.
Since a CD player does vibrate from the spinning of the disc, Ken put a lot of attention into damping out internal vibrations. He also made changes to the electrical and mechanical grounding of the player.
We could not wait to plug these up and give them a spin.
Normally we will take an amplifier and connect it up to speakers far beyond its price range, but this time we wanted to see how good the Rotel Tribute series could make a good value pair of speakers sound. We picked the Paradigm Atom, which is a small bookshelf speaker that sounds fantastic for the money. Obviously, we used the CD11 CD player. We do have to point out, we wish Rotel would have put either volume on the CD remote or transport controls for the CD on the amp remote. We kept doing the two-handed shuffle during our testing which could have been avoided with a better thought out pair of remotes.
If you are lucky enough to become an owner of the A11 Tribute or both, the first time you turn things on, don’t worry if you have the volume level where you think would be fine and get no sound. Rotel chose to offer a super wide range of adjustments across the entire spectrum. With the level set at 35 we could barely hear anything, but what this means is unlike a lot of amplifiers, you can really fine-tune the volume for low-level listening.
From the first bar, if you would have been in the room, you would have heard “wow, that is sweet-sounding!” This combination has a natural sound that is very pure and sweet, almost old school tube-like, yet with all the details.
The first track we tried was indeed old school with She’s Leaving Home from Sgt. Pepper’s. The layers and layers we heard on this track was just incredible. Every note and voice hung out in space totally separated. But what really got us again was how smooth yet open the presentation was.
To give things a real test of imaging and layering we moved on to an early Chesky CD of Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin & Orchestra in D Major, Op61. This was originally recorded in 1967 and redone by Chesky Records. Here, the ability to pick out every instrument in the orchestra was pretty astounding. And, like with the first cut, the soundstage was wide with great separation.
For a test of dynamics along with rhythm and pacing, we dropped in Gunslinger, from John Fogerty’s Revival album. This is a fun album to listen to and in this cut, the ability to portray the rhythm of the cut really stood out. Dynamics and bass impact were also great, although the little Atoms did run out of gas in their deep bass ability here.
The bottom line for us with the Rotel Tribute series is, this $1400 stack of electronics is super sweet, very easy to listen to, and yet capable of portraying all the little tiny micro details from both a dynamic and tonal standpoint that really draws you into the music.
The price category these new Rotel Tribute products fall into is certainly very crowded with some stiff competition. However, none of them pay homage to one of the great people in the audio industry like the Tribute pieces do. Ken Ishiwata influenced many people over his 40+ years in the audio business and it's likely one of them designed a component you might be listening to now.
We think it’s great you can put a piece of history into your system that not only is full of great features but is just a barrel of fun to listen to. If you pair this stack up with a moderate to efficient pair of speakers, you will love its sweet, natural presentation.
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