|The Vinyl Word
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Rotel RQ-970BX Phono Stage
by Ken Micallef
Like Ford, RCA and Mickey D's, Rotel is a household name. Well, it's a household name for those in the know in the world of audio gear. Do you know any audiophile who hasn't owned at least one of Rotel's black boxes along his or her road to sonic paradisio? Recalling my entry into this madhatter's hobby (What? This is no hobby; this is the very stuff of life, like pinot noir, Penelope Cruz and tube rolling), I can cite Rotel amps, CD players and an earlier version of the RQ-970BX in my system, all of which performed their duties without a hitch, blameless and pure. This is not to say that Rotel is some workingman's notion of high end. Their CD players have offered big bang for the buck for years, and their functional, always conservatively rated power and integrated amps are, for my money, better than similar gear from equally popular companies like Adcom and Parasound.
But what does it take to become a household audio name? Consistency, reliability, value and quality, of course, but it is also about meshing with the consumer's psyche and tapping that inner spirit that alludes to personal style and, of course, a unique sonic signature. Like many British companies, Rotel makes gear that just sounds right. They may not always achieve the absolute purity of sound and correctness of acoustic line that we might expect from some manufacturers, but like B&W, Musical Fidelity and Mission, Rotel typically offers sleek boxes with stylish sound that is full-bodied, realistic and often exciting. And you can't beat the prices.
Black ops, blaxploitation and you
As for black boxes and uniform consistency, the $199 USD Rotel RQ-970BX phono stage (or "external phono equalizer," as the Rotel literature states) has remained largely unchanged for many years. Rotel has only made minor revisions to their workhorse budget phono stage, so minor that a Rotel company representative was hard-pressed to tell me what those minor revisions were. "Just some tweaks and sonic twists of transition to accommodate the current turntable buyer's ever-changing needs," or some such PR speak. Anyway, like they say, if it ain't broken, why fix it?
My rig, at least for the past 24 hours: Oracle Alexandria Mk II turntable, Grado Platinum Reference cartridge, Kimber TAK phono cable to Camelot Lancelot Pro phono stage/Charm II power supply (Harmonic Technology Pro Silway II interconnects: phono to preamp). Electronics and speakers: Bel Canto DAC1, Theta Jade transport, Blue Circle BC21 preamplifier (with external-power-supply upgrade) and Audio Note M2 preamplifier, Atma-Sphere M60 Mk II monoblocks, Spendor SP2/3 monitors and Audio Physic Virgo speakers. Cabling: Cardas Golden Reference biwire speaker cables and interconnects, NBS Monitor IV interconnects, NBS Monitor IV and JPS Labs Superconductor digital cables. Power cords: JPS Labs Digital AC and Power AC, Shunyata PowerSnakes (King Cobra on the DAC, Black Mambas on the power amps, Sidewinders everywhere else). Power-line conditioners: Richard Gray's Power Company 400S on each amp, and a Multiwave-upgraded PS Audio P300 for front-end and preamp duties. Squishy feet, Seismic Sinks and different power pucks abound, all held aloft by Standesign, Studio Tech and Salamander racks and stands. RPG foam panels on ceiling (they work). My shirt is by Kmart, my jeans by Calvin, but only my new girlfriend knows if I'm a natural blonde.
Phono stage, not a sailboat
Unlike some phono stages, which are so small that a decent set of interconnects can lift them right off the rack (like my over-achieving Camelot), the Rotel RQ-970BX is a four-feet-to-the-ground, real-life piece of gear. But forget about adding a fat power cord for improved sonics and lower noise floor, because all you get here is a garden-variety attached lamp cord. Yeeccch. Strike one. I mean, how hard is it to just stick a female receptacle in the unit's butt, throw a Belden in the box and ship the thing? Granted, at this price point, we're not talking about a customer with Shunyata PowerSnake dollars, but doesn't the Audio Everyman deserve the chance, even the right, to the evah-lovin' upgrade? Maybe he will never see a dime from Dubya's three trillion dollar tax cut, but I got a couple of old TARA Labs cords I can let go cheap, and they'll boost the Rotel's performance up the sonic scale a tweak or two.
The RQ-970BX measures 17 3/8" x 2 7/8" x 7 3/4", weighs 7 pounds, and is about as simple in operation as possible. On the back side, one small button controls switching between moving-coil (210µV sensitivity/100-ohm impedance) and moving-magnet (2.5mV/47k ohms) cartridges. There is a ground screw, a single pair of gold-plated RCA inputs, a single pair of gold-plated RCA outputs. The manual is in about 20 languages and is probably more complicated than this little phono stage merits.
Got a Jones on you
Anyway, that's it. All you get. Plug it in. Spin the record. I did. No warm up, right out of the box, I have to say the Rotel sounded pretty sad: no soundstage depth and instruments cluttered in a single line. The sound was closed-in and tight, like a sore throat in need of a whiskey shot. But hey, the bass was not bad. It was kind of shallow and slim, but still managed a decent representation of the electric bass guitar. No, that's unfair; bass whomp and roll sounded fine. And the unwarmed-up Rotel had decent rhythm and pace. Oh, by the way, Rickie Lee Jones' magnificent first album [Warner Bros. BSK 3296] was on the Oracle, an exceptional recording by anyone's standards. With sensitive drumming by Steve Gadd, and Jones' wonderful singing and tunes full of wanderlust and romance, you can't help but be drawn in.
And after the RQ-970BX warms up, it opens up and gets it mostly right, even if you might be longing for more than it can possibly give. But when Gadd kicks the big tom and bass-drum fill in "Last Chance Texaco," it is as powerful and goose-pimply as I have ever heard it. When you just listen, the music is all there, delivered with authority, realism and integrity. And we're talking 199 bucks here, so there's not a lot of competition.
From there I tried the newly reissued Classic vinyl of Crosby, Stills & Nash [Classic Records 8229], a pressing that I thought was pretty overrated at first. Even with my Camelot phono stage hooked up, the sound is somewhat awash in a tubby sea of bass. But then my older brother, who was around when the album was released, says it sounded that way to begin with. So, hey, "Wooden Ships" sounds good! The Rotel kicks hard and dynamically with liquid electric guitar and pulsating organ seamlessly delineated. It makes music, no doubt about it. It is not greatly detailed or vastly extended in any way, but the music is all there, and again, with good, solid punch. It's sort of like a '70s muscle car: You wanna hop in and just ride. Bass seems the little phono stages's forte, clearly laying out all the bass runs (played by Stills, I believe) with panache. Cymbals are overly dark and lack treble extension and edge, but they are reasonably smooth. But mostly, this rocks. And the music still takes you away, which is the idea, right?
The RQ-970BX's other outstanding trait is its up-front presentation. If you are not going to have extension and beneficial detail, the sound better be in your face, at least. And the Rotel hits the mark. On Graham Nash's still lovely "Lady Of the Island," chills ran up my spine with the song's simple message and romantic serenity. "Helplessly Hoping" is also pretty startling some 25 years later, all harrowing harmonies and gentle acoustic guitars. And the Rotel RQ-970BX does a good job of getting all this beauty across. You'll forget the price tag, open the wine, turn down the lights, and get lost in the '70s.
OK, OK, OK
Every serious vinyl owner must own Radiohead's masterful OK Computer [Parlophone 7243 8 5529 8]. Not only does it have exquisite cover art, this two-LP package has different mixes than the CD, mostly resulting in longer intros for each track and a better, clearer mix on the guitars. This little bonus helps each song on this epic album of woe and dislocation make greater sense. And it absolutely destroys the CD version.
With this newer digital recording, the RQ-970BX seemed to make better sense of the music. It has also warmed up a bit by now. "Paranoid Android"'s squall of guitars and cowbell fury rocks hard, if with little depth or warmth. But on "Karma Police" and "Exit Music (For A Film)," it is easy to ignore the compact soundstage and dynamics and just get caught up in the music. The Rotel does bass well and imbues a nice sense of flow on these more lush and melancholy songs. Thom Yorke's voice sounds a bit thin and reedy,
but the album's billowy sonics and epic sense of tragedy are delivered with full power and emotion.
It seems unfair to compare the inexpensive Rotel with the $995 Camelot Lancelot Pro phono stage, but as that is all I have on hand, I must do my duty. I did own the Lehmann Black Cube for a period of time and feel that the Camelot is in some ways a very refined version of the Lehmann sound. The Camelot finesses vocals, strings, jazz and classical much better than the Lehmann, while the Lehmann has an overall higher slam and wallop factor. The Rotel also excels at slam and wallop, albeit not in quite the same league as the Lehmann. But the Rotel is in no discernible way especially grainy or unmusical; it just doesn't deliver the overall same level of performance. The differences are not subtle, but for the much less expensive price tag of the Rotel, it delivers great musicality. The Camelot's highs are just as smooth and more extended in comparison to those of the Rotel, the soundstage is more three-dimensional, the bass is as low and meaty but has more detail and shape. There are other low-priced phono stages on the market, but the Rotel is a contender in the sub-$500 range.
The hour of decision
Again, when you just sit back and listen, with your concerns about dollar value and high-quality parts left at the door, you can enjoy this little budget phono stage. It does everything pretty well, makes music and lets you keep a big chunk of your change for more vinyl, or maybe a record cleaning machine. The Rotel RQ-970BX excels at bass power and overall smoothness, but it is not the last word in other areas of the sonic spectrum. But for $199, the Rotel RQ-970BX phono stage offers mighty big bang for the enterprising audiophile's buck. And in a weird economy, it may just be the analog device that the budding young audionut can call his phono friend.
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