Why in the world would I want to review the Rotel A14 (website), an integrated amplifier with DAC and phono stage and headphone amplifier all sorts of features for just $1500? What is this, 1985? Am I still in college looking for an optimal amplification match for my Snell Type Js?
Look over there, on the racks and around the listening room. I’ve got $10K worth of Rowland over here, and $25K worth of prime Pureaudio amplification over there. I should be set, ready to go, ready to review turntables or speaker cables or something else other than amplification. But when I got the chance to review the Rotel A14, I jumped at the chance.
Because I love doing reviews on gear from companies I know well, the brands that convinced me to fall head over heels with this hobby so many years ago. If you haven’t noticed, I love telling those stories. I love talking about my hi-fi history. Some guy in an elevator in 1992 who turns out to be Jeff Joseph and 28 years later I finally get to review his speakers. Meeting Colleen Cardas for the first time at CES—I remember meeting her, and she doesn’t remember meeting me. Reading Part-Time Audiophile so many years ago and thinking to myself, “This Scot Hull guy is onto something good.”
What does this have to do with the Rotel A14 integrated amplifier? I’ll sheepishly admit that I’ve only owned one Rotel product and it wound up being the last cassette deck I ever owned. (My penultimate deck, by the way, was a Nakamichi.) But I’ve recommended Rotel to many—including a brother who bought both a 60wpc integrated and one of those awesomely cheap CD players they made in the ‘90s. I then bought my parents a 30wpc integrated for their home system, and that ran flawlessly for 25 years until it didn’t. But it was loved and appreciated before it coughed, fell over and died in the dusty hills of Central Texas.
If you were looking for something good, but you didn’t want spend “Marc” money, you were immediately schooled on Rotel.
That makes me a fan of Rotel, but that’s a strange thing to say now, in 2020. Where has Rotel been? Are they still around? Did they just go into home automation or home theater or security alarms or car stereos or what? I’ve heard many stories over the years. Over the last few months, however, this “60-year old family-owned audio business made some strategic distribution changes,” and all of the sudden we started hearing rumblings about a return to former glory and now a whole new energy is emerging from this brand.
Originally, I was very interested in the new MICHI line of luxury amps and sources from Rotel. That’s in my wheelhouse, I proclaimed. I put my name on the waiting list. But would I like to review the Rotel A14 integrated amplifier, the type of product that was in my wheelhouse back in, oh, 1985? But with all the new connectivity options, including a USB input so I could stream Qobuz through the Vimberg Ameas, the Volti Audio Razz and the Marten Oscar Duos?
Once I pulled all that history out, I couldn’t say no.
You Mentioned Lots of Features…
That’s absolutely right. By the numbers, the Rotel A14 integrated amplifier has 80 watts per channel, class AB, which makes it quite suitable for either the 87 dB, 5-ohm Vimberg Ameas, or even the 97 dB efficient Razzes. It includes an AKM 32-bit/768kHz DAC, and an MM phono stage matched for carts with a 3.4mV output—which is okay since I’m currently testing out a Soundsmith The Voice high-output moving iron cartridge mounted on the LSA T-3 turntable and arm. You also get integrated Bluetooth aptX plus digital and line level inputs. There’s a lot more, features I might not need but appreciate having the option, or features I don’t need until something else bops into me and I say hey, I think I know what I can do with you, my new friend. Glad I have that Rotel in the stable.
What’s even crazier is that the Rotel is only 18 pounds. Maybe it’s just me, and all those heavy integrated amps I’ve lugged around the last year. You can talk about the size of the transformers of course, which Rotel manufactures for themselves, but it’s still amazing to lift this amplifier up and feel there’s almost nothing to it except all this tech.
Usually that’s a sign of what audiophiles often call “mid-fi,” but those same audiophiles made the same mistake about Rotel back in the ‘90s and ignored all those great little integrated amps and CD players. I hooked the Rotel A14 integrated amplifier up in a system where nearly everything, from the individual cables to even the Furutech NCF Boosters holding up the cables, cost more than the engine driving this awesome music machine.
As I mentioned, the Rotel A14 integrated amplifier got to play with the big boys when it came to speakers. I didn’t have a nice pair of $2500 monitors to play with, a product that might be part of a very attractive and affordable system placed around the Rotel. So the $15,000/pair Vimberg Ameas were used to really tell me what the Rotel was doing, and the $8000 Marten Oscar Duos were part of a small, compact system that might bring great sound to a smaller space.
But my favorite match-up with the Rotel A14 integrated amplifier was with the big, bold Volti Audio Razzes. The Razzes were made for big streaming fun, rampaging through Qobuz in a cold-brewed fever of pure DJ mind expansion, man. Invite the neighbors over; that way they can’t call the cops.
I started thinking about the amazing simplicity of this system. The Rotel A14 is $1500, and the Razzes are $5000/pair. Add a decent pair of speaker cables (I was using the excellent $995/pair Defiant Diamond cables from Underwood Hi-Fi, although you could spend far less and still be reasonably happy), a good USB cable (I used the AudioQuest Cinnamon, extra long and with lots of icing), and my laptop paired with a subscription to Qobuz and Tidal and Roon and whatever else. You’re still hovering around $7500 or so.
This is a hell of a system for someone who just wants to stream. So I did just that. And that gave me one more reason why I would want to review the Rotel A14 integrated amplifier, or even own one.
DAC It Up, I’ll Take It
Back at Part-Time Audiophile HQ, I’ve been whining about the paucity of DACs in my life. While writers such as Dave McNair and Grover Neville get lost in deep, deep discussions about the latest converter technologies and circuits, and I’m over here like Deadpool asking his true love Vanessa, “So, you live in a house?”
I don’t need a lot from a DAC. I just want it to work. My favorite DACs in the past all had one thing in common—they practically set themselves up in terms of driver downloads and synching up with Qobuz and Roon and all that. Ideally, I would probably choose an integrated amp or preamp that has a built-in DAC, or at least a modular one like with the Vinnie Rossi L2i so I can upgrade down the line. If the DAC isn’t up and running on the first try, I get grumpy—even if it’s my own fault.
Fortunately, the DAC on the Rotel A14 worked without a hitch. There’s only one thing to know before downloading drivers—at normal sampling rates the DAC should automatically start playing music after initializing, but at higher sampling rates you will need to download drivers off the Rotel website. (This is, of course, if you’re running a PC. Apple loads it all automatically.)
Inside the high-end audio industry, it’s considered poor form to talk about break-in. I’m only mentioning it with the Rotel A14 because the first couple of days were rough. Really rough. As in, did this thing have an accident on the way to me kind of rough. But don’t give up! The Rotel A14 was quite stuffy out of the box and had a seriously reticent midrange. Soon, the midrange started to reappear. The tremendous bass energy put out by the Razzes started feeling earthly and reasonable, and the highs didn’t seem like they were floating three feet above everything else.
By the time everything became focused, my respect for the Rotel A14 increased substantially. I was starting to dig the match with the Razzes. As Volti Audio’s Greg Robert likes to say, I WAS HAVING FUN.
The Rotel A14 isn’t going to convince you that it sounds as good as a premium integrated that cost five to ten times as much, like that Rowland that was sitting right next to it on the Fern & Roby equipment rack during the entire review period. From an absolute standpoint, the A14 didn’t offer the same level of inner detail and that sublime and rarified feel of air and space between the instruments. Deep bass, which was amply supplied by the Razzes, was just a little woolier than it was with the more costly amplification. And the slight residue of that reticent midrange never seemed to walk completely out the front door and down the road. It hung around outside, peeking through the windows, quietly inquiring about the next house party.
Those observations, of course, were made holding the Reviewer’s Checklist clipboard in my lap while I listened. After some time, I stopped caring about what I missed, and started digging what I was getting. With high-rez new releases on Qobuz, the Rotel A14 rubbed its hands together furiously and got to work, providing a very confident and clear account of itself.
In a period of just a few days, several of my favorite performers—Thurston Moore, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens and even Public Enemy–released new, great-sounding albums. Moore’s By the Fire really stands out for its excellence, especially if you were surprised by the sheer rock simplicity and unexpected genius of Rock and Roll Consciousness a few years ago. By the Fire is even better, believe it or not. If you think that real rock and roll drowned in a sea of confusing subgenres thirty or forty years ago, it crawled back out of the churning waves and now stands proudly on the shore. What Moore and his bandmates accomplish with drums, bass and a couple of electric guitars continues to be invigorating and new.
This is where I saw the true value of the Rotel A14 integrated in my life. Everything is at your fingertips. You want to hear differences between different types of digital inputs? Or sampling rates? Or do you suddenly want to listen on headphones? Do you want to switch to vinyl? The remote control handles just about everything short of cueing the LP for you.
The Rotel A14 integrated amplifier is an incredible tool for not only exploring music, but getting into music streaming for the first time.
As with the Naim Mu-so 2nd Generation and the Andover Audio Model One, I started wondering how I would integrate such a novel, tech-laden product into my audiophile life. With those two products, it was always something separate from the so-called main system, something to put in an office or a bedroom or a vacation house. With the Rotel A14 integrated amplifier, you can just keep listening as you always do. You can drop it into a fairly lofty system, as I did, and still be entertained by whiz-bang rush of all the new digital technologies.
Will you suddenly feel like you no longer need your 125 lb. monoblocks to enjoy the sheer thrust and weight of unbridled power? Probably not. But will you be amazed at just how much fun you can have in high-end audio for a mere $1500? I did.
You’re back in the saddle, Rotel. Bring on the MICHI!