I am a self-professed integrated acolyte. An all-in-one box, such as the Rotel A12MKII, really sits on my astral plane for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which it is (virtually) guaranteed to work spotlessly right out of the box. And, as somewhat of a design minimalist, integrateds fit well into my fifties mid-century one-story ranch house. Just an off-the-cuff count puts four various integrated amplifiers in my house as of this writing, and they all get daily use.
Words and Photos by Matthew Partrick
Fear not, I am intimately familiar with the downsides of integrated amplifiers, namely that of hardware and software obsolescence that would have potentially been mitigated by separate components. For my part, playing Keeping Up With The Jones from a technological standpoint is fraught with financial peril while at the same targeting a rapidly shrinking rate of return on investment.
I was ready to get off that train and found quite a few fantastic new offerings from today’s premier hardware manufacturers. Today’s offering is the new Rotel A12MKII.
Inside the Rotel A12MKII
The original A12, while being a classic among Rotel-ophytes, is significantly upgraded in the Rotel A12MKII. The overall layout is very similar, a toroidal transformer delivering 60 watts AB RMS x2 at 8 ohms. The test model came in an attractive brushed aluminum, with a familiar and easily readable blue LED screen, with just the perfect amount of function/source select buttons at the front, not too sparse, not too jumbled. The dimensions are very close to the original A12. This nice little amp weighs in at 19.7 lbs., perfect for a desktop, a dorm room, or your main system. The product retails for $1,099.
There are quite a few upgrades from gen one. First and foremost, doing digital duty is now a premium Texas Instruments 32-bit/384kHz DAC. Let’s face it, you’re going to have to do some real digging to find a ton of PCM files with that kind of fidelity, but it’s part of the street cred nowadays, and it’s there if you need it.
The Rotel A12MKII sports five digital inputs, 2 SPDIF, 2 optical, and one USB. In addition, this device is tested as Roon Ready; more on that later. Analog signals have not been ignored, either. The MkII sports a moving magnet phonostage as well as four other RCA analog inputs. Lastly, there is a USB-A input on the front façade of the Rotel, perfect for iPhones or portable DAPs.
A litany of other capabilities adorns this amp. There is built-in Bluetooth featuring aptX. The frequency responses are listed at 10-100,000 Hz for the line input, and 20-20,000 Hz for the phono stage. Signal to noise ratios are listed at 100 dB (line), 90 dB (phono), 103 dB (digital.)
Rotel A12MKII Set Up
How’s it work!?!?! What’s it sound like!?!?!?
I confess I did not utilize the phono stage input on this amp because I couldn’t find a moving magnet cartridge in a timely manner (my little town is an analog wasteland.). Plus, I’m a big-time Roon convert, having used it for at least six years, maybe longer. Rotel lists this device as “Roon Ready.” One has to learn some of the corporate-speak of Roon to know what that exactly means, but basically it means that the company has had serious hands-on time with the product and certified it to work to its exacting specifications.
Roon, as you may or may not know, has a core, a remote, and an endpoint (streamer or DAC, etc.). Nowadays, it seems that quite a few manufacturers are housing the aforementioned under one hardware case. There are pros and cons of this, and streamers are getting cheaper and cheaper (I’m looking at you Raspberry Pi and Chromecast.). The Rotel A12MKII lets you choose your own streamer, from bargain basement to Bentley should you wish.
In my first configuration, I used the amp in a desktop setup powering a pair of Harbeth P3ESRs with Cardas Audio cables and isoAcoustics stands. In this manner I was using my iMac as the streaming endpoint, sending a USB signal to the USB-type B input on the back of the amp. This was obviously an easy enough hookup, but there remains one more little thing one must do. The computer, be it Mac or PC, needs the downloadable Roon driver so that my iMac can speak Linux. That process took conservatively sixty seconds.
Up and running with the Rotel showing up as a Roon endpoint, I began to see what the desktop jam would like. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia has been in heavy rotation in the Partrick household; it does not irritate my wife, the kids seem to like it, and for me it comes closest to a Quincy Jones-produced record from the mid-80s, while still having that fun modern feeling.
The Rotel A12MKII, with its 60 wpc AB power, had absolutely no trouble breathing life into the littlest Harbeths. Vocals were particularly accurate, which is in line with which the Harbeths were designed.
Cranking up to “irritate the family pet” volumes, the Rotel continued to deliver clean, clear power to the speakers while transmitting an unmolested signal chain.
Playing to the Harbeth’s strength in a desktop setting, next in the queue was Jamie Collum’s The Song Society Playlist with its vaguely quirky covers of recent pop hits and some older standards. Mike Posner’s “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” comes across as a very intimate ditty, just Collum’s voice and his piano converting an EDM anthem into a somewhat melancholy Sheeran-esque stroll through the downers of fame. The Rotel A12MKII delivered unfettered signal and power to the speakers. I suppose it goes without saying that the TI 32/394 PCM DAC chip is virtually transparent and performs with aplomb. The “integrated” aspects of this integrated amplifier perform in a virtually seamless fashion.
Next up in the mad-scientist-experiment was to see what this relatively svelte amp would do with an absolutely over-the-top comparison by hooking it up to my main listening room speakers, a pair of Volti Rivals. These are circa 100 dB sensitive horns, which are only supposed to love flea-watt SET amps. Seems like the perfect time to blow the lid off convention, as well as flirt with a Hot Fuzz noise violation.
Using a Raspberry Pi IV running Volumio as the Roon endpoint/streamer, I fed the Rotel and horns a steady diet of good ol’ fashioned rock and roll. “Moving in Stereo” off The Car’s debut is a great track to test side-to-side fade, and it has the added coolness of showcasing Elliot Easton’s guitar mastery. Especially at atrocious volumes.
Wanting to showcase the low end of the speakers and to see how the Rotel A12MKII handled them, I fell to an oldie but a goodie—Dr. Dre’s “Nothin but a G Thang” off The Chronic. True to the recording, we were noddin’ heads and tappin’ feet within seconds. I miss those days in high school when the twin 15” subs in the trunk of my car were able to deliver ULF frequency strong enough to nauseate everyone within a ten-foot radius, much less sicken an entire embassy in an as-as-yet-unnamed Caribbean country. Now, I cannot promise similar results in your system, and for the record would discourage aiming big-ass speakers at the Feds. Just sayin’.
During the eval of this product, I used both the RPi’s SPDIF and the optical inputs on the Rotel, and could not tell an appreciable difference between them. I seem to have an unreasonable bias towards SPDIF, probably because I can coil the wires more easily (Seriously.) Some people want to pay 1k on interconnects; these are Amazon-ordered Audioquest Cinnamons all the way baby, “no regrets.”
All kidding aside, I had a hard time evaluating the USB inputs; I appreciated minuscule jitter that wasn’t really improved by a re-clocker. I suppose that is a mark of a well-made product. The tactile controls and remote control feel high-quality in the hand and are very intuitive. Good thing there is no printed instruction manual (USB stick included) because this wonderful piece of kit practically sets itself up.
Rotel A12MKII Conclusions
I only had only one very small qualm with the Rotel A12MKII, which could be chalked up to personal preference. If Rotel works so closely with Roon to have their products Roon Ready, it stands to reason it would be a much more seamless product if the streamer/endpoint software was inside the integrated amp, and one could access Roon’s signal through an ethernet port. Having taken a gander at the next most expensive in their product line, the A14MkII, and seeing an ethernet port on its hiney, I suspect this is a feature that hopefully will bleed down to the Rotel A12MKII soon.
Overall, I was extremely happy to have the Rotel in my life for a few months. It gelled seamlessly with my desktop setup and acquitted itself quite well with my big floorstanders. I cannot think of another reputable integrated amplifier with the same constellation of features at this price point.
[Matthew Partrick, a physician who lives in Key West, Florida, is the newest member of the Part-Time Audiophile team. In the past he has written for both HomeTheaterReview and AudiophileReview. Welcome to the team, Dr. Partrick!]