Price: $800.00 (CAN)
Distributor: Equity International
54 Concord St.
North Reading MA
Ph. (978) 664 2870
Fx. (978) 664 4109
Reprinted from the Summer 1999 Issue
With an enticing new digital format now looming just over the horizon a lot of audiophiles are holding their collective breath in anticipation of picking up a DVD audio player once they become available, as evidenced by the plummeting sales of high end CD players. Combine the fear of impending obsolescence with the serious sonic competition provided by many second generation DVD players and selling a 44.1 Khz, 16 bit CD player for more than two grand becomes a lot like selling snow tires in April.
Despite what much of the hype has led us to believe digiphiles might be holding their breath for longer than they think. The latest word is that Sony/Phillips have no intention of caving into the DVD-Audio camp and instead plan to push their Super Audio CD (SACD) format as hard as possible. With any other company such a “push” might not amount to much more than an irritation, but with Sony, now so deeply ensconced in the music business in addition to their unmatched electronics clout, this could herald the start of the format war everyone so desperately wanted to avoid. Either the Beta debacle has been wiped from Sony’s corporate memory or the sting lingers and is spurring them on to win this time, no matter how misguided the campaign might be. Either way, the next couple of years could get messy. We’re not talking about the VCR here, the vast majority are perfectly satisfied with the CD, the potential market penetration of DVD audio or SACD infinitesimal by comparison. With consumer interest in higher resolution digital already limited to a very small minority of audiophiles such a battle is going to be protracted at best. At worst we could end up with another DCC or Elcassette.
Call me a defeatist but there’s not much I can do as an audiophile or even as a reviewer to sway the will of enormous multinational corporations, so I’ll just continue bitching and moaning from the sidelines while the situation works itself out; exactly the “wait and see” attitude which is killing high-end CD player sales right now.
I don’t know about you but I don’t intend to wait in silence. I’m gonna listen to records. Why wait for higher resolution audio when we’ve had it all along? It may be a dicey time to buy a high end CD player but it’s a great time to buy a turntable. In fact, before the digital goldrush hits, if it ever does, it might be an ideal opportunity to buy your last turntable (being an audiophile of course you’ll just tell yourself, and maybe your spouse, that it’s your last turntable and then replace it in six months). Used vinyl is still plentiful and so are tables, making a pretty decent argument for stockpiling records while it’s still cheap and easy. While the number of available choices may not be what it once was, if you combine the used market with a growing number of new designs becoming available there’s still something for everyone, at every price point.
Brand New Old Technology
Rotel’s RP-955 is one such new design. Like most Rotel products the RP-955 is aimed squarely at the market’s bulging midsection, where it competes with similar tables from Dual, NAD, Pro-Ject, and, especially, the wildly popular Rega Planar 3 (which just happens to sell for exactly the same price in Canada). Like most of its immediate competition the Rotel is an unsuspended, belt-drive table which comes packaged with a dedicated arm and cartridge.
Physically more substantial than the competition anywhere near the price the Rotel uses a meaty 1 3/4″ MDF plinth which houses an extremely solid and inert metal sub-chassis. This internal sub-chassis provides a solid foundation for the RP-955’s spindle and motor assembly and contributes to the table’s hefty 7.7kg (16.9 lbs) weight. Riding on that spindle is an aluminum die-cast platter which is nicely damped and weighted by the supplied rubber mat. The motor, a standard DC servo type, is tucked under the platter at the front left of the table. While not hard mounted the motor’s suspension is quite firm, giving very little sway to some gentle pushing and pulling. Using a flat rubber belt which looks like a high quality elastic band, the motor drives the platter via a large diameter ring which protrudes from its underside.
Not surprisingly controls are straightforward, consisting of a power switch and a speed selector switch, which, unlike the Rega for instance, allows you to switch to playing 45’s without having to re-thread the belt onto another pulley. A two speeder only, the Rotel will not play 78’s. The RP-955 also features a fine speed adjustment screws (one for 33 and another for 45 rpm) and a stroboscopic template is supplied to help you accurately set the speed. Those inclined to play with cables are out of luck, the RP-955 being hard wired with a fairly basic looking RCA pair with attached ground and a equally basic looking two prong power cable.
While in terms construction quality the Rotel table seems to have the edge on the competition it sacrifices a little bit when it comes to the tonearm. Not being a heavy in the turntable world I’m almost certain Rotel sources this arm from the orient rather than producing it “in-house”. A “static balanced straight pipe” cast alloy unit using “premium radial bearings” the tonearm is simple to set up and certainly works well with the table and supplied Audio Technica AT110E cartridge. In terms of design quality or functional elegance, however, it’s not the equal of Rega’s RB 300 which comes standard on the Planar 3. Whereas the RB 300 is a very cleanly designed one piece die cast unit the RP-955’s arm uses a removable headshell which bolts to the end of the pipe via a tiny allen screw and, overall, lacks the level of fit and finish found on the RB 300. While it does feature an anti-skate adjustment the VTA (vertical tracking angle) is not adjustable. As with the RB 300, and all the Rega arms for that matter, it thus becomes more difficult to use cartridges of different heights without altering VTA. It may be possible to use shims to raise the arm slightly for a taller cartridge (as is commonly done with Rega arms) but as for where to find such things and how to install them, you’re on your own.
Another functional concern was the oil damped cueing arm and lifter. This device worked beautifully at first, ever so gently dropping the arm precisely where you intended. Unfortunately, after about six weeks of use, the arm lifter refused rise and has not risen since, forcing me to drastically improve my unassisted cueing skills (fortunately no cartridges have yet fallen victim to my big, clumsy hands). A fairly minor annoyance this is a problem I’m sure any good dealer would be happy to solve, either by repair or replacement of the whole arm. Since, as usual, the table was on loan from the distributor, and, more importantly, since I didn’t want to be without it, I didn’t bother trying to have it fixed and went on dropping the needle myself.
Making up a little for the tonearm compromise was the supplied Audio Technica AT110E moving magnet cartridge, which turned out to be a really strong performer. While I couldn’t track down a price for it, based on the similar cartridges in Audio Technica’s line it would probably retail for somewhere between $100 and $150 on it’s own; a pretty decent value on an $800 table. A dual magnet design the 110E has a sensitivity of 3mV with frequency response from 15Hz to 20 Khz.
Life at 33 1/3 RPM.
Since the RP-955 comes as a ready to play package, and I suspect most buyers will probably use it as such, I’m going to focus mainly on how the table sounded in it’s stock configuration. In the interests of establishing context I’ll tell you that it sat atop an Ikea “Lack” end table (spiked into the floor with a target speaker spiking kit– a fabulous, and cheap alternative to a more traditional rack or shelf) and it’s output was handled by an Audio Alchemy Vac in the Box phono stage. Early on I also replaced the Rotel’s foam mat (meant to sit between the rubber mat and the record) with a Ringmat, which, as usual, opened up the sound considerably and brought the noise floor even lower. Fortunately, both for me and for the thoroughness of this review, I’ve had the RP-955 for around five months and counting, giving me plenty of time to completely break-in both table and cartridge and to carefully formulate my impressions.
Overall, those impressions are very positive, the RP-955 continuing to impress with it’s always musical and involving sound. Mercifully, this is not the kind of turntable that demands a lot of fiddling, sounding great as soon as the arm is balanced and the platter is spinning. If you’re the set it and forget it type than you’re likely to have few complaints about living with the Rotel in its stock form.
Benefiting from its beefy construction and big rubber feet the RP-955 is very well damped, effectively isolated, and, as a result, very quiet. Not only quiet, allowing you to hear well into the most delicate of acoustics, it is very dynamic, on both a macro and micro level. The Rotel’s knack for recovering low level information was well highlighted by records like the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions, where the soundstage is underpinned by a lot of low level, low frequency sound generated by the HVAC system and the foot tapping of the band members. It is this kind of low level, low frequency information that really puts you in the recording space, allowing you to “feel” the room breathing around you. When it came to convincingly evoking spaces big and small the Rotel was a star, putting you “in the room” every time by faithfully revealing the subtle ambient cues that bring acoustic spaces alive.
While the RP-955 really shone in the quieter passages it was even better when the music got lively. A remix compilation a friend brought back from Japan really cooked on the Rotel table, the punchy mid-bass and authoritative deep bass giving the remix of the Pizzicato Five’s Trailer Music the omph it deserved. Midrange too was impressive, having the bold presence and timbral bite (when called for) I’ve come to expect from good vinyl playback. A little on the warm side with the AT 110E cartridge vocals were still very convincing and immediate. Jazz was never disappointing either, the faster and louder the better. Duke’s Big Four, a spectacular Pablo (2310703), simply cooked, and the Louis Bellson drum solo on The Hawk Talks was sure to inspire attempted listening chair imitation every time. Punchy, fast, and possessed of an impeccable sense of rhythm, the RP-955 really delivered on drums, and was always an eager partner on lively music of any kind, the more boisterous the better. Jazz and pop/rock fans take note, this table will cook whenever you want to.
Unfortunately the Rotel’s lively and energetic nature comes at a price. A little like a teenager the AT110 E has tons of energy and loves to party, but, as a guidance councilor might complain, lacks refinement and maturity and probably isn’t your best companion for a night of baroque chamber music. As much as I liked it the cartridge is the table’s weakest link; backhanded perhaps, but a compliment to the RP-955 nonetheless. Although excellent value for the money the stock Audio Technica 110E is not the equal of the Shure V15 type MR, and certainly not of the Audio Technica OC9 moving coil, both of which I had on hand for comparison.
Although still involving and musical as heck, the AT 110E couldn’t compete with the superior smoothness and openness of the more expensive Shure and OC9. While any long term attempts to use the OC9 were thwarted by it’s incompatibility with my Audio Alchemy Vac in the Box phono stage (unfortunately the VITB is just not up to handling a low output MC cartridge without becoming excessively noisy), it certainly offered a tantalizing glimpse of what the Rotel is capable of with a better cartridge. Despite the noise of the phono stage intruding on quiet passages this combination was wonderfully open and airy, with the macro-dynamics, stout bass, and strong rhythmic drive of the stock setup intact. Although it lacked the OC9’s transparency the Shure was also an improvement, mellowing things somewhat compared to the stock AT 110E but conjuring up a significantly sweeter, more detailed, more civilized sound that really shone on orchestral and chamber music. Most improved were the highs, which took on a silkier texture which the AT 110E lacked. Combined with its high output and excellent tracking ability the Shure turned out to be a very nice match for the system and would make an ideal upgrade choice for this particular table.
Waiting in Vain?
If you’re thinking about filling the gap preceding the next digital revolution or are a mild vinyl enthusiast looking for that “last turntable,” than the RP-955 would make an excellent base upon which to build a vinyl system ranging anywhere from really good to outstanding (depending on your cartridge and phono stage choices — with a good moving coil cartridge and an equivalent phono stage it could be quite spectacular). Yes, the failure of the lifter mechanism was unfortunate, but, as I mentioned above, it was not a major inconvenience and would no doubt be fixed by dealer or Rotel themselves. Not only does the RP-955 sound great right out of the box, the quality of the plinth, platter, and motor assembly allows lots of room for upgrades to the cartridge and arm before the table itself becomes the weakest link in the system.
Judging by it’s sound, both stock and with upgraded cartridges, it’s not likely to be the weakest link in your system. Preoccupied again with context (within the system as a whole this time) I compared some LPs, played on the RP-955 in stock form (with the exception of the Ringmat), with some CDs I had in duplicate. The comparisons were made against the Panasonic DVD A-310, a sleeper CD player which sounds much more expensive than it actually is, retailing for about a hundred dollars more than the RP-955. In contests which ranged from “surprisingly close, but I’ll take the vinyl” (usually with recent, particularly good sounding CDs — ie. Beck’s Mutations) to the merciless pounding of the CD (usually older stuff, and especially Jazz) the Rotel only lost in cases where the LP in question was either dirty or damaged. In short, spending $800 on vinyl playback still buys you an awful lot more than the equivalent amount spent on digital, even more so when you consider the wealth of cheap, used vinyl still available out there. Believe me, spend a few months listening to this table and you’ll be a lot more concerned with enlarging your record collection, not to mention listening to it, than with keeping tabs on the latest battles in the high resolution digital format war.