HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



June
2006

Reviewed by
Anthony Di Marco

 


Rotel
RSP-1068
Surround-Sound Processor

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: RSP-1068

Price: $1699 USD
Dimensions: 17.125"W x 4.75"H x 13.125"D
Weight: 34 pounds

Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Features

  • Connections for up to eight sources (five video-based)
  • Five assignable digital inputs
  • Direct analog stereo mode bypasses all digital processing

Features (cont'd)
  • Video transcoding for five composite, five S-video, and three component-video inputs
  • Custom IDs can be programmed for each source input
  • Decodes Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Surround EX, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS 96/24, LPCM (up to 192kHz), HDCD, MP3
  • Adjustable subwoofer crossover for individual channels and decoding modes
  • Five- and seven-channel stereo modes
  • Software is upgradeable
  • 12V triggers
  • RS-232 interface
  • Full programmable/learning universal remote control

It’s tough finding a surround-sound processor that’s flexible, affordable, and sounds good. Fitting eight channels of complicated electronics into a small chassis and making it intuitive to use takes good design and planning. Delivering those electronics at a competitive price while retaining high build and sound quality requires equally well-managed manufacturing procedures.

Rotel has both ends covered. By balancing company-owned research-and-development facilities in the UK with state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities in China, Rotel has built a reputation for offering extremely well-designed, great-sounding products that are also affordable.

According to Rotel, their RSP-1068 ($1699 USD) surround-sound processor contains much of the same circuit topology and parts as the company’s flagship processor, the RSP-1098 ($2999).On paper at least, that would seem to make it one of the most inexpensive and feature-rich processors available.

A lot of buttons

The RSP-1068 is attractive and well designed. Its front panel has a central readout, three knobs, a Power button, and 16 small buttons for such controls as Mute, Bypass, and DSP mode, which can often be found only on a processor’s remote control. Also welcome are separate buttons for individual inputs rather than a single button to cycle through all sources. The build quality is tight, with judicious use of high-quality parts, while Rotel’s black-and-silver color scheme takes the chassis up several notches in terms of elegance of appearance.

I doubt anyone will find the RSP-1068’s complement of video and audio connections lacking. My setup requires that I make connections blindly or with the aid of a mirror, but once I’d established a point of reference, I found the RSP-1068’s well-laid-out rear panel extremely easy to navigate. The space between connections is ample enough to accommodate beefy cables, such as my locking Analysis Plus RCAs. However, having the preamp outputs above the inputs makes arranging cables tricky.

Accompanying the RSP-1068 is Rotel’s RR-1050 universal remote control. This extremely flexible device had no problem learning the codes for all of my ancillary components; what it lacks is consistent ergonomics and switchable illumination. My large hands didn’t care for the RR-1050’s hard, rectangular shape, and its similar-size buttons made it difficult to blindly find the right function. Fingers need a good point of reference; using larger buttons for such primary functions as Volume, Menu, and Navigation would be a good place to start.

Using those buttons

The RSP-1068’s comprehensive menu system is well thought out. Setup took about 15 minutes, and was intuitive enough that I didn’t feel I needed to refer to the manual. Some menus, however, could have been better arranged. For instance, I found the Delay (aka Distance) and subwoofer adjustments in the main menu instead of under Advanced Speaker Setup.

Each of the RSP-1068’s inputs can be assigned and given a unique name. At the touch of a button, digital and video inputs, as well as a 12V trigger and default DSP mode, can be associated with a specific input. In addition, lip sync (group delay) can be adjusted for each input to compensate for the slip between audio and video caused by external video processors or DVD players.

The RSP-1068 upconverts composite and S-video signals to component video; all you’ll need is a single run of component cables to a video monitor. The RSP-1068 does not, however, convert interlaced video to progressive or high-definition video signals. Nor can the video signals fed though component video output be mixed -- they can be only progressive or interlaced signals. The RSP-1068 does support high definition’s bandwidth requirements, however.

Other nice features included the abilities to disable the Rotel’s LCD panel (though holding the menu key down worked only intermittently) and to adjust individual speaker gain on the fly. Rotel also supplies an RS-232 connection for software updates made available as downloads from their website.

From fingers to ears

After I’d set it up, the RSP-1068’s overall completeness of design gave me little doubt that it would succeed as a surround-sound processor. Sure enough, it decoded Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks flawlessly and with excellent fidelity. The sound in chapter 27 of Batman Begins, for instance, was produced seamlessly through my very revealing Thiel loudspeakers (CS2.4 mains, MCS1 center, PowerPoint surrounds, SS2 subwoofer). The onslaught of numerous bats felt as tangible as it sounded, each set of tiny wings flapping in the reverberant stairwell of Arkham Asylum. The RSP-1068’s separation of individual sounds in this frenzied scene was excellent, and the seamlessness of its steering of Foley effects and ambient soundscapes from speaker to speaker was exhilarating. Lesser surround-sound processors I’ve heard mash together the details of this scene, reducing depth and context into unintelligible sonic chunks. The Rotel consistently delivered very clean, well-delineated sound.

This excellent separation extended to voices as well. Consonants and vowels kept their distance from each other so that, even in the busiest mixes, words were clear and intelligible. Exchanges between soldiers during the intense helicopter rescue in chapters 9 and 10 of Black Hawk Down and the beach invasion in Saving Private Ryan remained unambiguous throughout the fury of artillery.

The RSP-1068 did a nice job of steering effects to the appropriate loudspeakers without sounding unnatural. Atmospheric cues, such as those in chapter 17 of Se7en, moved smoothly from location to location as detectives Somerset and Mills enter the apartment of Sloth. And complex effects, such as the buzz of a million bees in the "Bee Dome Sequence" (chapter 11 of The X Files), sounded smooth, tonally accurate, and free of edginess. The scene’s abundant high frequencies did exhibit some slight rolloff, however.

Bass was produced with punch and control. Gunfire and Foley effects, such as those in chapter 1 of National Treasure, exhibited good impact and definition. Although bass frequencies weren’t as well defined or harmonically rich as I’ve heard, the RSP-1068 delivered movie soundtracks with excitement and control.

During the auditioning for my review of Rotel’s RMB-1077 ICEpower multichannel power amplifier, the RSP-1068’s two-channel performance proved to be its weakest suit. However, this doesn’t mean the RSP-1068 didn’t do a good job with two-channel audio. All of my two-channel listening was done with Bypass engaged, which keeps the signal as pure as possible. The deep bass and brass in "Intersection Scene," from John Williams’ exciting soundtrack recording for War of the Worlds [Decca 00456802], was reproduced with excellent definition but slightly confined dynamics and "bite."

Audio designers have a few choices when balancing fidelity with cost: the least-traveled path is to reproduce frequencies honestly with absolutely no editorializing -- something you have to pay large sums of money to get, in my experience. Augmenting particular harmonics that give the illusion of extended high and low frequencies but actually add distortion is common in products I’ve used, even though gently rolling off the frequency extremes would be the better approach. But the latter takes real design skill.

Rotel seems to have chosen that latter option, which also has the benefit of taming hotly mastered soundtracks. The downside is that it subtracts some of the bite that contributes to an emotionally charged presentation. As a result, bombastic music, such as Tony Banks’ Seven [Naxos 8.557.466], sounded a bit dry and withdrawn through the RSP-1068. Pop-music aficionados will, however, appreciate the way the RSP-1068 handles less-than-reference-quality studio recordings, such as New Order’s Substance [Qwest 2-25621].

Comparison

I’ve been an advocate of multichannel preamplifiers since they first became available. My favorite is McCormack Audio’s extremely well-built MAP-1 ($2495). As long as you have a DVD player that can decode Dolby Digital and DTS bitstreams -- say, an Integra DPS-10.5 or Esoteric DV-50S -- a multichannel preamplifier is a great choice.

However, there’s a catch. Although many inexpensive DVD players have multichannel outputs, the cheap analog output stages in these machines can’t deliver high-quality sound over two channels, much less six. By handling audio decoding, processors such as the Rotel RSP-1068 can transform a cheap player’s weak output into something special.

During my time with the RSP-1068 I used several DVD players: Integra’s DSP-10.5 universal player ($2500), a Toshiba SD-3990 ($69), and Oppo Digital’s excellent OPDV971H upconverting DVD player ($199). The Rotel made the differences among these players’ analog outputs readily apparent. The Integra’s muscular analog output stage decimated the Toshiba’s and bettered the slightly thin Oppo’s. When I played films, these differences disappeared when I hooked each player to the Rotel’s coaxial digital input.

Comparing the Rotel with the Oppo via a digital connection to the McCormack and the Integra via analog cables revealed some differences with two-channel music. The less expensive Oppo-Rotel combination sounded laid-back, with a flatter soundstage and thinner middle frequencies, while the Integra-McCormack combo delivered a meatier sound throughout the mids and midbass. Frequency extremes and dynamics were better with the Integra-McCormack: High frequencies had more bite and sparkle, while crescendos were more dramatic. The McCormack-Integra pairing was more enjoyable for music, albeit at more than twice the price. These differences were mainly apparent in direct comparisons; when price was taken into consideration, it was obvious that the Rotel-Oppo duo was a great value.

Conclusion

The internal complexities inherent in surround-sound processors make them especially susceptible to noise and distortion. Adding the right shielding and better parts usually aren’t in the budget of an under-$2000 processor, and you can never assume that the bean-counters haven’t chosen superficial features over high-quality parts when a profit margin is at stake. To cover up the noise and distortion, some products are designed to add coloration in the form of boosted frequencies and nonlinear response.

In designing the RSP-1068, the Rotel engineers chose honesty over artificial drama. You won’t hear sizzling highs or bloated bass, but a natural sound that conveys a film’s inherent qualities. The RSP-1068 will not expose the slightest shortcomings of recordings or reveal their subtlest shadings, but it will deliver a very enjoyable home-theater experience while handling the music with respect -- all for a fair price.

Review System
Speakers - Thiel CS2.4 (mains), MCS1 (center), PowerPoint (surrounds), SS2 (subwoofer)
Amplifiers - Linar Model 10, Rotel RMB-1077
Preamplifier-Processor - McCormack MAP-1
Sources - Integra DPS-10.5 universal audio/video player, Oppo Digital OPDV971H upconverting DVD player, Toshiba SD-3990 DVD player
Cables - Analysis Plus, Stereovox
Monitors - Mitsubishi WT-46809 rear-projection widescreen monitor (with Duvetyne modification and full ISF calibration), Mitsubishi WD-52528 rear-projection LCD television
Power Conditioner - Balanced Power Technologies BP-10.5 Signature Plus
 

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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