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September
2008

Reviewed by
Jeff Van Dyne
REVIEWERS' CHOICE


Rotel
RB-1085
Multichannel
Amplifier

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: RB-1085

Price: $1199 USD
Dimensions: 17.1"W x 2.75"H x 15.1"D
Weight: 11.9 pounds

Warranty: Five years parts and labor


Features
  • 100Wx5 into 8 ohms (manufacturer rated)
  • Controlled oscillation modulation
  • Enhanced cascade control
  • 12V trigger input
  • class-D operation
  • Metal binding posts

Rotel has long had a reputation for building high-quality electronics for reasonable prices. Until recently, I owned a Rotel RB-976 multichannel, multizone amplifier that I used for several years in a variety of functions in my home audio systems. (I sold it only a few months ago, before moving halfway across the country.) The RB-976 sounded great and was reliable, well constructed, and relatively inexpensive. I’d always thought it was underrated, and suspect that most people who own one would agree -- you almost never see a used RB-976 for sale. I thought of all this when I got word that I’d be receiving review samples of Rotel’s new RB-1085 amplifier and RSP-1069 surround processor. My expectations were high.

Description

The Rotel RB-1085 ($1199) looks anything but impressive. Though attractive enough, it’s not pretty, like the more expensive Parasound amp I unpacked a few days later. It’s also small and light -- 17.1"W x 2.75"H x 15.1"D and weighing only 11.9 pounds -- which normally would make me shake my head in wonder. But the RB-1085 is a class-D switching amp; after having reviewed last year a set of NuForce Reference 8.5 monoblocks ($995 each), I had some idea what to expect. Switching amps are so efficient at producing power that they don’t need large, heavy power supplies, or big cabinets full of heatsinks to dissipate all that excess electricity wasted as heat. I was pleased that the RB-1085 and the RSP-1069 surround processor would fit easily into the spaces in my rack that I’ve found to be too cramped and poorly ventilated for large A/V receivers. I’ve often had to place such a component off to the side of the rack when I realized that its top plate was hot enough to grill a steak on. There would be no such problems with the Rotel combo.

On the RB-1085’s case are no fewer than three clearly visible warnings not to open it, so don’t try the following at home, kids. However, as my incredibly understanding wife will tell you, I’ve never been very good at following instructions. Lifting off the case of the RB-1085 revealed an interior very different from the inner workings of conventional power amplifiers. Here were no big toroidal transformers, no banks of large capacitors, and not a single heatsink. What I saw were two large, identical circuit boards for the main left and right channels, three somewhat smaller boards for the remaining channels, and various components along the inside of the rear panel for handling the inputs, outputs, and AC power. The design is simple and uncluttered, but the class-D switching technology is still over my head.

When it comes to features and setup, there’s not much to talk about. There are five gold-plated RCA input jacks and five sets of nice metal binding posts with clear plastic jackets. There’s a standard IEC power receptacle, and a 12V trigger input and output.

Listening

The DVD edition of Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away is a phenomenal surround-sound demo. I expected great things from the Blu-ray version, and I wasn’t disappointed: the movie looks and sounds incredible via the high-definition format. The sounds of thunder and of waves crashing were completely enveloping through the Rotel, and the sounds of coconuts dropping from trees at night was delivered with pinpoint accuracy. The level of detail was almost astonishing. The RB-1085’s strength was not huge, crushing power, though it will certainly hold its own under tough circumstances; instead, it was at its very best when subtle nuances, such as the sounds of plants rustling in the wind, were the order of the day. In my opinion, this is what’s always separated the great surround-sound equipment from the merely good.

I didn’t expect much from the two National Treasure films, but was pleasantly surprised to find them both highly entertaining. If you worry that a small, lightweight, class-D amplifier might not have enough juice to run a home theater at full throttle, you needn’t be concerned. The RB-1085 was able to pump out deafening, call-the-cops levels of sound without a hint of distortion while enjoying National Treasure at high volumes.

I suspected that the RB-1085 might be able to hold its own as a home-theater amp, but I wasn’t so sure about music. It’s only been very recently that class-D amplifiers have begun to show promise in the full-range reproduction of music, but listening last year to the NuForce Reference 8.5s convinced me that class-D is where power-amp technology is headed. The Rotel RB-1085 has given me further proof of what class-D amps are capable of, but now at a far more affordable price. There are more powerful amps on the market, but the little Rotel was more than up to the task of handling any dynamically challenging material I threw at it. I knew that if I pushed it any harder, the aural theatrics would be clearly audible to my new neighbors, and rightly elicit from them calls of complaint.

Béla Fleck’s Ten from Little Worlds (CD, Columbia 90539) sounded incredibly detailed. The percussion at the beginning of the disc swirled across the front of the soundstage in a way that’s rarely been matched by the conventional amplifiers I’ve had in the house. My primary worry has always been that a class-D amplifier would sound thin and synthetic, but that couldn’t have been further from the sound of the Rotel RB-1085; the horns and strings on this track sounded as warm and natural as anything I’ve had in-house, save, possibly, the tube amp in my analog system. But that’s an entirely different listening experience.

When I first heard Cyndi Lauper’s At Last (Epic 90760), I was astonished. I’d never been a big fan of the singer, whom I remembered from the heyday of MTV videos. While Lauper’s voice isn’t always as clear as it once was, it’s now lovelier than ever, and she’s matured into a fine singer who phrases lyrics with nuances of meaning that escaped her in her youth. A perfect example is her hauntingly stirring rendition of Burt Bacharach’s "Walk On By" -- the RB-1085 provided every byte of detail, while retaining the warmth and tone that are crucial to imparting all the meaning Lauper obviously feels when singing this song.

Switching to something a bit more lighthearted, I took out for a spin Doug MacLeod and John "Juke" Logan’s ‘Live’ As It Gets (Mocombo 55003). Outside of actually hearing blues live in a club, there’s nothing like a blues album recorded in front of a live audience to raise your spirits. (This one was recorded at B.B. King’s, at Universal CityWalk in L.A.) If you can keep from smiling and tapping your feet while listening to "Hey Bartender," seek help. The key to a live performance is the audience and the ambience, and the Rotel did everything it could to place me right there. The soundstage had unbelievable depth and width, while maintaining definition and pinpoint placement of voices and instruments. I swear I could almost feel the audience moving to the music around me.

Comparison

My main home theater was occupied with another review component when the RB-1085 arrived, so I set up the Rotel amp and the company’s RSP-1069 surround processor in my smaller theater, replacing an Onkyo TX-SR805 A/V receiver ($1099). Many of you will say that the Rotel combo completely outclasses the much less expensive Onkyo, and you’d be right. But remember that with the TX-SR805, Onkyo hit one out of the park in terms of price and performance. The Onkyo meets the THX Ultra specification, with seven channels of amplification at 140W each. If you read only the specs, the Onkyo beats the snot out of the Rotel.

But specs never tell the whole story, and that was the case here. The Onkyo and the Rotel were both able to rattle my windows, with enough headroom to satisfy any sane person that cares about maintaining their hearing into old age. What spending the extra money on the Rotel gets you is refinement. The Onkyo is a great receiver for the money, but the Rotel RB-1085 took things to the next level, excelling at fine detail and the precision placement of voices and instruments within the soundstage. Where the Onkyo does a respectable job of layering the voices of a group of singers, the Rotel presented a set of clearly defined individual voices. This is the sort of thing that takes the listening experience to the next level.

Conclusion

The Rotel RB-1085 has been out for a while now, and I don’t know why there hasn’t been more buzz about it. I suspect that its unimpressive size works against it. It won’t impress your friends with vast girth or huge power supplies, but if you don’t show it to them, I bet they’ll be thrilled with its sound. The fact that it uses a fraction of the electricity and doesn’t heat up my house (which is not air-conditioned), as would a large conventional amplifier, is icing on the cake.

The bottom line is that there’s little else for under $2000 -- and nothing I know of for $1199 -- that comes close to the RB-1085’s levels of detail and refinement. If you’re in the market for an amplifier in this price range, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Review System
Speakers - Paradigm Reference Studio 100 v.2 (mains), Paradigm Reference Studio CC-470 v.2 (center), Infinity Primus 150 (surrounds)
Amplifier - Anthem PVA 7
Processor - Anthem AVM 20
Sources - Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-ray player, DirecTV HR20-700 HD DVR, Slim Devices Squeezebox Classic
A/V receiver - Onkyo TX-SR805
Cables - Analysis Plus, Monster Cable
Display device - Panasonic TH-50PZ77U 50" plasma HDTV
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Rotel of America
54 Concord St.
North Reading, MA 01864-2699
Phone: (978) 664-3820
Fax: (978) 664-4109

Website: www.rotel.com


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