Rotel RQ 970BX
Price: $300.00 (CAN)
Distributor: Equity International
54 Concord St.
North Reading MA, 01864-2699
Ph. (978) 664 2870
Anthem Pre 1P
Price: $1199.00 (CAN)
2790 Brighton Road,
Oakville, Ontario, Canada, L6H 5T4
(Reprinted from the Summer/Fall 00 Audio Ideas Guide)
Vastly different in both design and price these two phono preamps have also made major contributions to my blah busting system over the past several weeks. They both accept moving coil and moving magnet cartridges, but beyond that the similarities end.
Not surprisingly the Anthem Pre 1P is built much like the other products in the Anthem line. It’s solid, big at 11″ deep and 5.25″ high, heavy (for a phono stage anyway) at 17.5 lbs, and it looks elegant and more expensive than it actually is, with the expanse of its vast silver, brushed aluminum face broken only by an LED and a power switch. Inside is a large, but sparsely populated circuit board dominated by the four dual triode tubes (two 6922/E88CC and two 12AT7/ECC81) which make up the Pre 1P’s input and output stages. The rear panel reinforces
its aspirations to be “the ultimate entry level phono stage” featuring well spaced and very high quality RCA inputs and outputs, a grounding post, and a detachable power cord.
Suitable for cartridges with an output of 1mV or greater the Pre 1P will not react favorably to low output moving coils unless a separate MC step-up transformer is used. Input impedance comes factory set a 47K
ohms but can be adjusted by soldering the appropriate resistors to the Pre 1P’s solder pads (no dip switches are provided). There is no MC/MM switch either, the Anthem taking whatever you feed its input and applying 48 dB of gain.
While it might not be able to lay claim to the title of “ultimate entry level phono stage” the Rotel RQ-970 BX still represents a phenomenal value, offering a level of performance entirely disproportionate to its price. Simple and small the 970 is just under three inches high, only 7.75″ deep, and weighs a scant 6.8 lbs. It boasts a grand total of two
switches, one for power and another on the rear to select between MC or MM cartridge operation. Little information about its solid state circuit design is provided in the manual but it does tell us that the little Rotel has an input sensitivity of 210 micro volts in MC mode and 2.5 millivolts with moving magnet cartridges. Input impedances are 100 and 47 K ohms, respectively. In other words, the 970 will work with a wide range of cartridges, including finicky low output moving coils like my Audio Technica OC9; quite a coup for a $300 phono preamp. Judging by the manual and a peek inside, the Rotel does not seem to be configurable for custom cartridge loading.
Elated that I could once again use the OC9 (with my Rega Planar 3/RB 300 table), I listened to the Rotel first (it replaced my Audio Alchemy Vac in the Box, which was never quiet enough to run the Audio
Technica cartridge). While the 970 lacks the refinement of more expensive phono stages it has no right to sound as good as it does. A great deal of what I’d heard the OC9 deliver through the Linn Linto (Winter 98) was there. No, it didn’t have the jet black backgrounds, the silky smoothness, or the supple, delicate micro dynamics of the ultra-quiet Linn, but the sound was amazingly transparent and open, with great transient attack and excellent imaging. Very quiet in this configuration it had plenty of gain for the OC9, producing a big, dynamic, and airy sound which leaned just a touch on the bright side. Vocals and strings were rendered with convincing neutrality and body, bass was firm and profound, and the soundstage was plenty wide and extremely deep. I was impressed, and continue to be. I don’t think there’s another phono stage at or near this price point that will even run this cartridge, let alone sound this good with it.
Despite the fact that it lacked the necessary gain for the Audio Technica cartridge I gave the Anthem a whirl with it anyway. Yes, it was noisy, and sounded a little flat, but it nevertheless foreshadowed what was to come with a more suitable companion. Despite the mismatch the Anthem, like a high quality, low ASA film, produced a very fine grain structure, digging out more detail (especially ambient cues) and smoothing some of the edges that the Rotel had left unbuffed. Able to image well outside the speakers the Anthem was also very clear about exactly where instruments were located in space.
It was with the much higher output Shure V15 type MR however that the Pre 1P really came alive (special thanks to Rob at Applause Audio for mounting and aligning the Shure, which proved a tricky match with the RB 300 arm). Listening to Giant Sand’s Chore of Enchantment (Thrill Jockey 079) was certainly no chore through the Anthem. With the Pre 1P now deadly quiet and with gain to burn the sound was luscious, enveloping and highly musical. The quality of recording on this disc is truly outstanding, with the purity of vocal tracks being a particular highlight. The Anthem did them justice, producing spine tingling sound tinged by an eerie feeling of “you are there” reality. Highly three dimensional, the soundstage utterly evacuated the confines of my speakers, and took up residence in an enormous, amorphous pocket of space seemingly everywhere in front of me. Forget about the rear wall disappearing, the back half of my house was plainly missing. The phrase “wall to wall, and beyond!” appears in my listening notes somewhere around this time.
The Rotel sounded a little brighter by comparison, and, again there was a slight edginess to the sound that was absent with the Anthem. The Pre 1P was clearly the more musical preamp, but the gap was much smaller than the price difference would suggest The Rotel rendered the Giant Sand record with a compelling directness, taut, extended bass, and the killer transients I had heard with the OC9. The stunning vocals were still stunning, even slightly more neutral sans the Anthem’s extra smidge of warmth, but a little less present. Soundstaging was also impressive, and huge when called upon to be, but the Rotel couldn’t quite reach the fire alarm, and the sound did not evacuate the speakers in the same way it did with the Anthem. It’s saying something, however, when a component can hold its own with a competitor at four times the price, and the Rotel was by no means embarrassed. My little Vac in the Box would have run from the room crying if put head to head with the Anthem.
Moving on to a Reference Recordings LP of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (not my favorite performance but the sound…) was equally revelatory. Timbral bite and tonal colour are gorgeously captured on this LP and equally well rendered by the Pre 1P, as was the purity and ferocity of the piano. Not all the credit goes to the Anthem but my system had never conveyed the sound of a big orchestra like that before. Dynamics, big and small, freedom from any kind of compression, and a mesmerizing naturalness and openess were all in plain evidence. The volume went up and up and up, and Audio Rot faded into a distant memory. “Wow” I wrote in my notes.
Quibbles? Well, let’s remember that the Anthem is tube based so if you’re a solid state kind of guy its slight air of lushness and warmth, no to mention its big full bass, might turn you off. Otherwise, with a high output cartridge, the Pre 1P is a delight. A more expensive stage might buy you a little more refinement, resolution, and the ability to use low output MC cartridges (the Linto proves a good example at about $1k more) but expect to pay for it. As for the Rotel, it’s a no brainer for someone with a modest vinyl system who wants to keep it that way, financially speaking. Paired with my Planar 3/RB 300 and the OC9 it completes a vinyl playback system that will slaughter any CD player I’ve ever heard, all for about $1500, Canadian. In fact, I heartily endorse this combination (along with a Ringmat on the platter and Black Diamond cones under the table). Call it Audio Rot rebound if you like, but I bought the 970, the synergy just too good to deny (by the way Audio Advisor is blowing out OC9’s for US$199 so get one while you still can!).