Rotel A11 Tribute/CD11 Tribute

Generally speaking, the hi-fi industry doesn’t often go in for much in the way of big surprises: most new product announcements are more evolutionary than revolutionary, more often than not early samples are snuck out to selected outlets and– given that there seems to be little awareness of the ability of social media to ensure that even the biggest secrets leak like a sieve – it’s surprisingly rare that something truly comes from out of leftfield when you’re least expecting it.

Yet that’s precisely what Rotel managed to do with its Tribute models – tuned versions of its existing CD 11 CD player and A11 amplifier. They certainly weren’t what those of us logging into a Bowers & Wilkins online press conference were anticipating. The meat of the event was the announcement of the 600 Anniversary speaker series, and the most any of us may have been expecting was some clarification on the acquisition of the company by Sound United, now finalised but at that time still very much the subject of speculation and the odd ‘off-the-record’ whisper.

What we heard wasn’t quite a Steve Jobs-style “Oh, and one more thing” moment, but it was something of a jaw-dropper. No less than two new Rotel products, tuned by former Marantz Brand Ambassador Ken Ishiwata, who passed away late in 2019, and completed by a team involving his long-term friend and collaborator Kerl-Heinz Fink, hitherto best-known for his speaker designs. Not a word of the project had leaked anywhere, with the result that the appearance of the new products was almost as great a shock as the story behind them.

As Rotel Chief Technology Officer Darren Orth describes it: “I was in the same audiophile circles with Ken over the years, as were the Tachikawa family in Japan – founders and owners of Rotel. There was mutual respect of the talent and market position and a long desire to work together, but the opportunity never arose. [It] did finally arrive in the late summer of last year when the initial discussions began, with the project becoming a reality in September. All of the Rotel engineering team were delighted at finally having the opportunity to work with Ken.”

What we have here, then, are the CD11 Tribute, a £400 CD player, and the £500 A11 Tribute amplifier, commanding price premiums of £70 and £50 respectively over the respected entry-level models on which they were based, and bearing subtle ‘Tribute’ badging on their fascias. In fact, the two are actually less expensive than the prices at which the CD11/A11 were announced back in March 2019 when the suggested retail points were £430 for the player and £600 for the amp.

Not that there was anything wrong with the originals per se: both were well received, and the A11 went on to win the Best Buy Amplifier title in the 2019-20 EISA Awards, being described as: “an extremely attractive music-first integrated amplifier” and: “an absolute bargain”. With extra tuning, that suggests the two are going be an even better deal: both are products with which Ishiwata was familiar – hardly surprising as they were obvious competition for the Marantz 6000 series models – and also very similar in concept to those entry-level Marantz offerings in that they’re relatively frill-free and were designed with performance on a budget firmly in mind.

The CD11 is about as simple as CD players get, especially in an age when multiple digital inputs and even streaming capability are becoming commonplace: it draws on experience gained by Rotel as a maker of CD players of more than 30 years’ standing and uses a 24-bit/192kHz DAC from Texas Instruments to deliver audio to its analogue outputs, with a coaxial digital out also provided.

The changes for the Tribute version are both electronic and mechanical, starting with eight capacitor adjustments in the DAC stage – and one resistor swapped out – while the power supply section saw all nine of its capacitors upgraded. Custom damping material has been added to the top cover to eliminate vibrations and ringing – so the top of the casework now goes ‘thud’ when tapped, not ‘slightly clang’, and attention has also been paid to both the mechanical grounding of the player and its electrical ground paths.

The amplifier is mainly designed as an analogue model, with four line-ins and a decent moving-magnet phono stage, plus switchable outputs for two sets of speakers and pre-out sockets to supply an offboard power amp or even a subwoofer. However, with an eye to convenience it also has a Bluetooth receiver on the back panel, with aptX capability, feeding another 24-bit/192kHz Texas Instruments DAC.

Tone controls are offered in the menu system, which can also bypass them, and there are also Rotel Boost and Rotel Max facilities. Rotel says of the former that: “audio performance is ‘boosted’ and delivers a unique blend of tonal characteristics”, while the latter offers the usual low-frequency lift. They may appeal if you choose to use the amp at very low levels, but I find them overbearing and prefer to use the A11 with them switched off and tone controls bypassed.

The Ishiwata touch here involved replacing all 10 capacitors, and two resistors, in the Class AB 50W per channel power amplifier section. Meanwhile, changing six capacitors in the preamp section meant that more than half the components in the signal path have been improved. All six capacitors in the volume control stage were also swapped out for better ones, and again damping material was added, this time to the chassis.

Ishiwata worked with the Rotel engineering team, agreeing the changes and creating the first prototypes, in the short period between the project’s start and his death. The claimed benefits sound very typical of his preferences: “an increase in resolution and detail while delivering a more musical presentation with improved rhythm and timing.”

Sound quality
Setting up the CD11 and A11 Tribute models with a pair of Focal’s really rather good little Chora 806 bookshelf speakers (HFC 465) – the likes of the Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 Anniversary Edition model is also a good choice – there is a degree of anticipation. Can these simple, slimline, lightweight components (the amp weighs 6.85kg and the player 5.8kg, with each standing less than 10cm tall) really deliver the kind of musical involvement that’s been the hallmark of Ishiwata-tuned products since the original Marantz CD-63 Mk2 KI-Signature, which caused a sensation back in 1996?

The answer is an entirely unequivocal yes: in fact, I have to hand an original KI-Signature player – one of the first 500 ‘scroll badge’ models – and comparing this with the CD11 Tribute, it isn’t hard to hear the same thinking at work. True, the older machine has its foibles after almost a quarter-century of use – its drawer shrieks open and closed, and just occasionally it fails to read a disc – but what’s clear is that both it and the new Rotel have that same direct communication of what’s being played, and that the A11 Tribute amplifier does an excellent job of delivering all of that to the speaker.

It doesn’t take much to hear what it can do: play Get Here from the 1990 Oleta Adams album Circle Of One and it’s easy to hear the shaping of the voice, the reverberation and the simple instrumentation, with the piano and the ‘it can only be Pino Palladino’ bass especially vibrant. But what’s even more impressive is that, for all this hi-fi goodness, what really gets to the listener is the performance, which is just as it should be.

In essence, what this very affordable little setup has is that very Ken Ishiwata thing: whatever you throw at it just sounds special, from full-orchestral music to driving rock – I have an absolute blast playing Rory Gallagher’s 1977 Check Shirt Wizard live recordings and the recent Queen/Adam Lambert Live Around The World set is full of appropriate pomp and swagger, especially the recreation of the Live Aid set from the Fire Fight benefit earlier this year. There’s weight, there’s warmth and there’s richness, but there’s also air and space, and a sense that the music’s being given room to breathe. That enables this combination to draw the listener into what’s being played as well as covering up any deficiencies it may have when compared with much bigger – and more expensive – setups.

Nor do you need to limit the listening to audiophile-approved recordings: Roadhouse Blues, from the recently remastered Morrison Hotel by The Doors rockets out of the speakers with a suitably rough, dirty edge, but with great character to the performances. And the duo isn’t fazed by the demands of big orchestral/choral works, as I discover playing the dramatic recent Alpha recording of Haydn’s The Creation, packed as it is with information. Even with the outburst of “Let there be light” at the opening, there is no sense that the system is hardening up or losing its focus in any way. Yes, some may suggest that ‘only’ 50W per channel isn’t really enough, but the ability of this combination to keep it clean even when pushing hard belies that view.

If you’re in the market for an affordable CD player and amplifier with more than a sniff of star quality, the Tribute pairing comes firmly recommended – it really is rather special and puts up very strong competition for the established favourites in this entry-level sector of the hi-fi separates arena. AE    

Product: Rotel A11 Tribute/CD11 Tribute
Type: Integrated amplifier/CD player

FEATURES A11 Tribute
●  4 line inputs plus MM phono stage
●  Bluetooth with aptX and AAC
●  2x speaker outs, plus pre outs

●  Texas Instruments 24-bit/192kHz DAC
●  Outputs: RCA analogue; coaxial digital

Read the full review in  Issue 469