in ,

Rotel RA-1592MKII integrated amplifier review

  • Rotel has been manufacturing hifi products, first as an OEM and then under its own name, since 1961. That’s a few decades older than many of the musicians I listen to.

    While ageism runs rampant in the world of popular music, and to a lesser extent even in unpopular music, experience should be counted in the plus column of any hifi manufacturer. I’m not saying that experience guarantees a certain level of quality, mind you, but experience beats inexperience when it comes to manufacturing. And if there’s one thing all hifi components have in common, it’s the simple fact that they are products.

    The Rotel RA-1592MKII ($3199.99) is what I like to call a full-function integrated amplifier as it adds MM Phono and a number of digital audio inputs to the standard line-level analog inputs found on pretty much every integrated amplifier. The RA-1592MKII is, as its name suggests, an updated and upgraded version of the company’s RA-1592 Integrated Amplifier, and one key change is the move to a Texas Instruments DAC from the AKM DAC found in the original RA-1592. While the latter supported DSD, the TI chip trades DSD for MQA (over USB), or – another way to look at it – a file-based format for a streaming format. We’ve seen other manufacturers move away from AKM silicon because of the October 2020 fire at AKM’s Nobeoka, Japan plant that brought DAC chip production to a standstill.

    According to Rotel, the MKII model also includes “over 33 component changes in acoustic capacitors, filter capacitors and the power supply”. Rotel manufactures its own toroidal transformers: the RA-1592MKII’s features one such hulking transformer beast to make its 40lb weight feel front heavy when you lift it. The Class A/B amplifier section delivers 200 Watts of output power into 8 Ohms, 350 Watts into 4, and Rotel specifies Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) at <0.008%. Frequency Response and Signal to Noise Ratio vary depending on the input in use, with the phono input offering the least impressive set of numbers.

    The RA-1592MKII offers three line-level RCA inputs, a single pair of balanced XRL inputs, 6 S/PDIF inputs (3x Coax, 3x Toslink), USB Audio input, MM phono input, Bluetooth (AAC and aptX), Ethernet (for system updates and use with home automation systems), RS232 for integration with automation systems, 2x 12V Trigger connections, Rotel Link for controlling multiple Rotel products like the matching RCD-1572 CD Player with a single remote, an EXT REM IN Jack for use with hard-wired infrared receivers, and finally Preamp and Mono Subwoofer outputs. The RA-1592MKII is Roon Tested, but seeing as it does not offer a network audio connection, an external computer or streamer is required. The PC-USB input is the one to use if you want to stream and fully unfold MQA-encoded music from Tidal and playback PCM resolutions above the unit’s S/PDIF input limit of 24-bit/192kHz.

    There are two pairs of 5-way speaker binding posts for Speaker A and B, and a headphone amp whose 3.5mm jack can be found on the unit’s front panel. Fans of old-fashioned but useful functions will delight in the inclusion of bypass-able Tone (Bass and Treble) and Balance Controls, which are accessible from the front panel menu as well as from the included remote. The aluminum front panel houses a number of buttons for power, speaker selection, source selection, and menu commands, a USB-A input for playing back music from iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod), the aforementioned 3.5mm headphone jack, a volume knob, and display.

    Measuring 17″ wide by 5.7” high and 16” deep, the RA-1592MKII’s body is wrapped in a gray metal chassis, and the brushed aluminum faceplate is offset, nicely, on either side by curved shiny silver end caps. Overall, the Rotel is chunky, sturdy, and nicely built. The volume knob on the unit’s face is of an infinite variety, which I find to be very useful as it offers enough play to make even micro adjustments a breeze and eliminates the possibility of accidental volume overload. Another handy menu feature is the ability to have the RA-1592MKII shut itself down after inactivity (20 minutes or 1, 2, 5, or 12 hours).

    During its time in Barn, the Rotel was paired with a number of speakers including the DeVore Fidelity O/93, GoldenEar Triton Reference Towers, and the Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand Reference. On the analog front, a Rega P3 mounted with a Nagaoka MP-110 MM cartridge took care of spinning my records. I only used one set of speakers at a time.

    With a product like the Rotel RA-1592MKII, we can get a bit overwhelmed with information. While we all want to buy a hifi component that does everything we want it to do feature-wise, and to do it well at a price we can afford, the most important aspect of any piece of hifi gear is how it sounds in our system, in our room. To make matters more difficult, no spec sheet or feature set can speak to performance, at least the kind of performance that matters.

    While it goes without saying, it’s worth pointing out that things like amplifiers and passive speakers have no sound of their own. They only come to life when paired with a partner, and this union is responsible for the music we hear, along with the effects of the room and the source(s) in play. To further complicate matters, the ultimate arbiter of sound quality is the listener, or better yet, the owner of a given piece of hifi gear. After all, opinions are free, and worth as much from people with no experience listening to a given piece of hifi gear who nonetheless offer verdicts on performance. With experts like these, who needs enemies?

    I first approached the RA-1592MKII as a basic integrated amplifier, using the totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer as a digital source.

    The tall and slender GoldenEar Triton Reference Towers ($9998/pair) is a lot of speaker, and a lot of speaker for the money, offering frequency response assisted by its built-in powered subwoofers that reaches way down to a reported 12Hz, and all the way up to 35kHz. We are talking about, by anyone’s definition, full range. Since the Triton take care of reproducing bass response on their own, the accompanying amplifier is given a somewhat easy load and the RA-1592MKII had no problem driving the Triton Towers to Barn-filling, large-scale sound. Big, boisterous music like Luigi Nono’s Como una ola de fuerza y luz (Like a wave of strength and light) as performed by Maurizio Pollini, Slavka Taskova, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado was very nearly earth-shaking in its agony and sorrow. This is difficult music, you can’t even waltz to it, and Pollini explores and exploits the piano for all its worth. Regardless of the level of sonically dense maelstrom, the Rotel was able to hang onto every nuance while conveying the seismic forces at play.

    Switching to the couldn’t-be-more-different DeVore Fidelity O/93 ($8400/pair) – an easy-to-drive two-way speaker employing a 10” paper cone mid-woofer with a ‘gently horn-loaded” 1” silk dome tweeter in a stout cabinet – brought out a different side of the RA-1592MKII. Here, the O/93s super strengths of immediacy, tone, and texture were somewhat foreshortened by the Rotel, as compared to other amplifiers I’ve heard the DeVore loudspeakers paired with. Sticking with just solid-state, for apples to apples sake, the Ayre EX-8 Integrated Hub ($7,850) offers a more lit-up sound, adding a level of presence and excitement to music’s voice. Laura Marling’s acoustic guitar and vocals-driven Songs For Our Daughter sounded perfectly lovely with the Rotel in charge of amplification yet compared to the Ayre, there was a slight letdown in terms of tone and texture, as if the music took on a grayer complexion. Ayre amplification, in my experience, excels in these sonic regards, so I am not at all surprised to find the much less costly Rotel unable to keep pace at this level.

    The Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand Reference speakers ($9498/pair) were my favorite partner for the RA-1592MKII. The Beethoven Baby Grand Reference is a three-way design, using a pair of 6” woofers, a 6” mid-range driver, and 1.1” hand-coated Vienna Acoustics silk dome tweeter in a modestly sized, slender tower. I would put the Baby Beethoven’s on the warm and rich side of the sonic scale, and this voicing played very nicely with the Rotel’s authoritative and robust sound. Where the DeVore / Rotel pairing delivered a tonally thinner presentation than I’m accustomed to, the Vienna Acoustics / Rotel combo was all rich and right. Roots Manuva’s Dub Come Save Me from 2002, combines dub-heavy versions of songs from Root’s Run Come Save Me with new material in a big blast of an album. Mad percussion, bass, and rhythm form the foundation for these excavations in sound, and the Rotel proved it can move with the best of ‘em, delivering an appropriately tight, tense, and rubbery dub.

    Culling a bird’s eye view of the Rotel’s sound from these speaker pairings using the totaldac as driver, I found the RA-1592MKII to be a solid and moving performer, yet one that sounded a bit midrange shy compared to the more costly Ayre EX-8, especially when paired with the DeVore O/93.

    I also have the Marantz Stereo 30 Integrated Amplifier ($2599) in for review. The Marantz is a Class D switching amp built on the Hypex NC500 OEM amplifier module, offering 100 Watts of output power into 8 Ohms, doubling that into 4 Ohms. While not as fully tricked out as the Rotel as the Marantz does not house a DAC, it does offer an MM/MC phono input.

    I paired the Marantz with the Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand Reference speakers for this comparison, using the same totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer as the source. The Marantz sounded comparatively more fit and fluid than the Rotel, with a wonderful sense of dynamic snap coupled with a more lit-up sound. Here, the Rotel was comparatively darker than the Marantz but along with this came a more full-bodied presentation, a positive in Marantz’s corner in my book of sonic virtues. Bass from the Model 30 also sounded tighter and better defined, but lacking in the physicality offered by the RA-1592MKII. From my way of hearing, I can’t really pick a winner here as both of these very fine integrated amplifiers have many more strengths than perceived weaknesses. Speaker pairing and personal preference will decide the ultimate winner, which is so often the case out in the real world.

    I spent some time using the Rotel’s internal DAC, sending it USB output from a Raspberry Pi 4, with an AudioQuest Jitterbug FMJ in between, as well as Coax out from a Denafrips IRIS II DDC. In terms of sound quality alone, I found the Denafrips / Coax combo offered a richer and more nuanced sound as compared to the Pi 4 / USB. Comparatively speaking, the RA-1592MKII’s USB input sounded thinner and a bit brittle, the Denafrips /Coax combo adding more color and texture, while neither digital input could match the totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer’s fuller, richer, and more engaging way with digital music.

    Because of my listening habits and the music I prefer, MQA and hi-res – especially anything over 96kHz – are of little concern. But for those listeners who value and enjoy streaming hi-res and MQA content from Tidal, USB is the only way to go, and the Rotel offers a fine-sounding all-in-one package. Adding a $8000+ DAC/Streamer like the totaldac is more of a reviewer’s exercise than a real-world comparison.

    On the vinyl front, I found the Rotel to be good to go, all things considered. The Rega P3/Nagaoka is a budget front end, but one I find to be enjoyable if not the last word in ultimate resolution. Together, the Rega and Rotel offered up a nice, fat, and rich sound from Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime LP, capturing a lovely sense of drive, fat tone, and enough texture to move me to move. Here, because of this front end’s sonic limitations, the Rotel’s nicely balanced presentation came to the fore, as it was still able to convey a healthy amount of the musical message.

    Inserting the 3.5mm jack of the AudioQuest NightOwl headphones does not, as you might expect, mute the Rotel’s speaker output, but a quick press of the “Speaker A’ button did the trick. The Love Joys lovely Reggae Vibes from 1981 was presented with a very nice sense of this music’s laid-back lover’s rock vibe. Here, with a more intimate and focused view of the music at hand, I became aware, once again, of the slight midrange leanness that was most obvious through the DeVore O/93 speakers. While not glaringly obvious or meaningfully distracting, I will say the RA-1592MKII can sound a bit reticent in the midrange depending on the speaker or headphone pairing.

    The Rotel RA-1592MKII proved itself a worthy partner for each of the speakers I had on hand during its stay, with some pairings working better than others. But regardless of the speaker in play, the Rotel offered a nicely controlled, even-handed, and solid sound that was able to convey music’s rich and varied voices with authority.

    Further information: Rotel

    Written by Michael Lavorgna

    Michael Lavorgna was born in Paterson, NJ into an audiophile’s home. He’s been listening to music on the hi-fi since the ‘60s and has been writing about this experience for some 15 years. Michael has contributed to 6moons and Stereophile and was the editor of (the recently-disappeared) AudioStream from its inception in 2010 until 2018. Michael's new home is TwitteringMachines.com.

    KIH #89 – Mind the gap

    A long film about the HEDD Type 07 MK2 & Bass 08