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."
Rotels 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.
Rotels 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, its an excellent
amplifier for the audiophile who dreams of having a megabuck system but whose wallet
wont 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, its a great little
amplifier for those who want a musically satisfying system but dont 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 Rotels 40Wpc will be more than enough in most real-world
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 dont
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 Im 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-02s 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
The RA-02s rear panel has all the connections
youd 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, theres a socket for the power cord.
The RA-02s 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. Its 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.
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 Ive heard, this humming
sounds more like random background noise; the Rotel was able to articulate it as
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 -- Braggs guitar and voice were so tinny that I couldnt
listen for long. Bass performance was well articulated, but lacked the last bit of truly
extended bass sound. Dave Hollands 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.
Im always skeptical of headphone jacks on integrated
amplifiers or receivers. The RA-02s jack, however, was a pleasant surprise. True, it
wasnt 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 Ive 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 Id been using before the Rotel arrived. While neither phono preamp was
outstanding, the Rotel offered better soundstaging. On Barry Altschuls You
Cant Name Your Own Tune [Muse MR 5124] the players seemed to take up more space,
and didnt 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, youll
then have to buy not only the phono stage but another pair of interconnects as well.
Considering that added cost, the RA-02s built-in stage is a welcome feature. But if
you have a moving-coil cartridge or plan to get one, youll still need a dedicated
phono stage -- the Rotel is designed for moving-magnet cartridges only.
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 "Whats 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.
The Rotel RA-02 combines several attractive features.
Its reasonably priced, boasts a five-year warranty, and allows for an upgrade path,
which ensures longevity in your system. From an audio enthusiasts standpoint,
its musically satisfying both as a stepping-stone in a growing system and as a
centerpiece for a budget-conscious listener.
If youre in the market for an integrated amplifier,
you should check out this little beauty by Rotel. Unless youre ready to spend a
mortgage payment on amplification, I think youll find the Rotel can handle the job.
...Eric D. Hetherington
Price of equipment reviewed