Do you have a long-term plan for listening to compact discs? Are you considering burning your discs to a music server and selling off your enormous collection? (That’s me.) Are you considering keeping your collection and buying one last killer CD player to last you until the end of time? (That’s me, too.) Let me tell you why the Rotel CD14MKII compact disc player is a compelling third option.
The new Rotel CD14MKII runs just $899. As a well-heeled, tech-savvy audiophile into the latest digital technologies, you might think that’s an odd price point—too affordable to offer great performance, too expensive for something that might only be used once in a great while. But this is a Rotel CD player, and most of us can remember back in the ‘90s when Rotel released a couple of basic players, the $399 RCD-855 and the $449 RCD-955, and that might be the very first time I heard the term “giant killer” used in high-end audio.
I remember those players well. I had one, a friend had the other, and once or twice we swapped or even A/B’d them. If I remember correctly, the ‘855 was 16-bit and the ‘955 was single-bit. They sounded different from one another—in my opinion, the ‘855 was more musical while the ‘955 had richer, blacker silences. For me, the Rotel CD players were a solid recommendation for my audio buddies who wanted the best sounding CD player for their budgets, which were usually typical for non-audiophiles. You want a kick-ass CD player for a few hundred? Just get one of these. Done.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been quite nostalgic about Rotel—especially since they’re making a comeback on US shores thanks to the McIntosh Group. I started off reviewing the A14 integrated amplifier, which offers a ton of digital features for just $1495. Then I moved to the big and beefy Rotel Michi X5 integrated, which is currently the biggest and heaviest integrated amplifier I have reviewed. The Michi, by the way, featured a pretty decent inboard DAC, so the Rotel of the 21st century is keeping abreast of the latest digital technologies and connectivity options in their contemporary products.
I asked to hear the Rotel CD14MKII for precisely that reason. Does it recapture that incredible sense of value that the older machines possessed, or is it something new and modern and competitive and yet not quite as distinctive as before? Is it truly a third option?
Inside the Rotel CD14MKII
The old Rotel RCDs were, of course, simple CD players with no modern digital features. The Rotel CD14MKII, however, has all the flexibility and connectivity that music lovers need in 2022. Can you imagine if Rotel had just re-introduced a basic retro player with perhaps a modern DAC? Would anyone buy that anymore? I might—the idea is to continue to enjoy my CD collection for a reasonable amount of money.
But, as I said, the CD14 can do all the latest digital dances. First, the 32-bit, 384 kHz DAC is from Texas Instruments, a company I don’t normally associate with high-end audio. Rotel explains:
“Critical Digital to Analog conversion in the CD14MKII is managed by a premium Texas Instruments 32-bit DAC with custom tuned external analog output filters. The DAC digital and analog circuits are fed by independent voltage and current power supplies eliminating unwanted distortion and isolating motor controls from sensitive audio circuits further reducing noise and distortion.”
You can break out the DAC and use the CD14 as a transport—a nifty choice due to the new “smooth tray loading CD mechanism.” I can still remember the noises spurred by the RCD mechanisms, and well as most other affordable players thirty year ago. Outputs are either unbalanced RCAs, just like the RCDs, but you can also hook the CD14 up via coax, which I did. (See next section.) Flexibility comes in the form of RS232 and 12-volt trigger connections that allow you to integrate the Rotel into most integrated home theater systems.
If you’re familiar with the first Rotel CD14 you already know that stuff. This Mk. II revision has a familiar set of improvements—I’m finding that so much digital is being improved through mechanical solutions for isolating noise and vibrations, especially when it comes to printed circuit boards. The Rotel CD14MKII also features a better power supply than its immediate predecessor, another common approach in digital—especially with products that contain a DAC.
Also, the Rotel CD14MKII comes in either silver or black. I remember those RCDs were all black, so I kept purist and went with the latter finish.
I had a system all picked out for the Rotel CD14MKII well in advance. The Audio by Van Alstine DVA digital preamplifier was in the house, and I knew that the connectivity options on the Rotel would allow me to play around with different types of digital connections—something I haven’t really done yet. The DVA has five inputs—two coax, two optical and one USB. No XLR or RCA.
What I wound up with was quite special, and surprisingly so. I connected the CD14 to the DVA with an AudioQuest Carbon digital coax cable. We’re talking about a fairly affordable digital rig—the DVA is just $2500 including DAC—but the sound was so immediately appealing in a big, open and clear manner. Remember, I’m the one who needs a little warmth and, well, color in order to fall in love. But when paired with the AVA M225 monoblocks (our 2021 Best Value Award winner), and played through either Fern & Roby Raven III or Nola Champ3 loudspeakers, the Rotel CD14MKII suddenly sounded like a serious digital playback machine, loaded with all sorts of crazy resolution and detail without sacrificing musicality.
I also used the Rotel CD14MKII in a more conventional way, replacing the Unison Research CDE. But the sound of the CD14 was easier to assess with this stunning AVA set-up.
Rotel CD14MKII Sound
It’s almost difficult to talk about the Rotel CD14MKII in universal terms—those two system configurations were so different in sound, which suggests that the Rotel offers a clear clean window into what’s happening downstream. In the convention configuration, the CD14 was capable, confident and didn’t seem to draw attention to itself. It wasn’t doing anything wrong. It sounded great, but perhaps its ability to go three-dimensional so easily came in second to the Unison Research CDE. The CDE has 12AX7s in the output stage, so a lot of those added textures are due to the glass.
Once I mated the Rotel CD14MKII with the AVA amplification, however, the sound went in a totally different but equally exciting direction. Instead of warmth and a digital sound that could emulate the feel of analog, which has always been my goal with compact disc players, the Rotel/AVA rig was astonishing in its ability to create lots of detail energy and excitement. This is not the same excitement we felt with earlier compact disc players, which meant the dreaded brightness that drove us back to our turntables in the 21st century. I mean hi-rez digital in the best sense, both detailed and musical, extended and easy, the sound that will eventually prompt die-hard analog guys to admit they’re finally enjoying the latest generation of digital products.
On Carlos Barbosa-Lima and Johannes Tonio Kreusch’s stunning new guitar album from Zoho Music, Manisero, the CD14 preserved the beauty of this Latin American folk music while capturing those amazing human moments where you hear flesh and nail as much as you hear the note. We’re talking about two acoustic guitars (and an occasional piano from Cornelius Claudio Kreusch) playing all the classics from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina—even “Cielito Lindo” is covered—and the physical presence of these performances are undeniable. You can feel the humans moving, shifting and making joyful music, just as in real life.
Will you only hear these excellent results with the AVA gear? No, that would be a dumb thing to say. But the excellent performance I experienced with the CD14 and the DVA preamplifier tells me that the Rotel will pull its weight in the middle of the most sophisticated digital set-ups as a transport and a disc player. It’s an RCD for now, with similar value for the money but more in tune with the latest technology.
A lot of you probably need the Rotel CD14MKII CD player and you don’t even know it.
Rotel CD14MKII Conclusions
I mentioned at the beginning that the Rotel CD14MKII compact disc player could represent a third option for audiophiles. Here’s how that option plays out, in a nutshell.
I’ve been using that Unison Research CDE CD player since 2011. It’s a great player, and it can stick around and fulfill the role of my last CD player if it wants to. That brings up a concern—CD players, as a rule, often die. My first three or four players died after a year or two. It was always the entire laser assembly failing. The option was usually to buy a new player since it was almost as expensive to replace the laser. That’s not the actual manufacturer’s fault, since they don’t make the laser assemblies.
I think about it all the time, about what I would do if the laser inside the Unison eventually decided to retire so it could live on a big farm and play in the meadows with all the other compact disc laser assemblies. Up until the Rotel CD14MKII arrived, I assumed I would go ahead with the music server plan. I really enjoyed both the Merason Frerot DAC and Innuos Zen Mini combo, both with optional power supplies, that I reviewed last year.
Now, I wonder if buying the Rotel CD14MKII isn’t the smarter move. I had the CD14MKII playing in all sorts of rigs through autumn and it was both utilitarian and musically satisfying. That match up with the Audio by Van Alstine DVA Digital Preamplifier was so memorable—I had so many instant options for system configurations, and the level of detail I heard through the duo was extraordinary. I could live with this sound for a very long time.
The Rotel CD14MKII is an exciting third option for quite a few audiophiles who want to keep listening to their collections well into the future, well past the era of physical music formats. If you think that’s hyperbole, you should know that my old buddy’s Rotel RCD-865 is still in service. A good, affordable CD player can still be essential to a modern digital system, and the Rotel is absolute proof of this.