Sugg. Retail: $1800.00 (CAN)
Distributor: Equity International
54 Concord St.
North Reading MA
Ph. (978) 664 2870
Fx. (978) 664 4109
(Reprinted from the Summer/Fall 00 Audio Ideas Guide)
If you read the last installment of this column (winter/spring 2000) you may recall that I not only raved about Rotel’s RCD-951 CD player, but also speculated that since the 951 was so impressive for the money that their flagship model, the 991, might be equally outstanding at its much loftier price point. As luck would have it, the very product was already on its way to AIG for review, along with Rotel’s “statement” stereo power amplifier, the RB-1090. With the 951 still on hand the prospect of a comparison was very enticing indeed. Moving as fast as someone carrying an 85 pound power amplifier can, I hustled these babies into the car and sped home to begin breaking them in.
At exactly three times the price of the 951 you’d expect the 991 to be better built than its little brother. It is, and it’s also substantially bigger and heavier. At almost 5 inches high and 17 pounds the 991 cuts a chunkier figure than most CD players. A slightly more elegant faceplate and small, rounded buttons with translucent (but not illuminated) red surrounds also distinguish it from lesser Rotel CD players. The look is still unmistakably Rotel, but it’s refined enough to indicate to onlookers that this is no ordinary Japanese budget box.
Indeed, a look inside confirms that the 991 was built to run with the big boys. Like the 951 the 991 is HDCD compatible, using the PMD-100 digital filter/HDCD decoder from Pacific Microsonics. In this case the PMD-100 is custom configured for the 991’s PCM-63 dual Burr-Brown 20 bit DACs. Metal film resistors, polypropylene capacitors, high current op amps and what Rotel calls a “substantial, 5-segment power supply” featuring banks of British made Slit Foil capacitors round out what they call the “proprietary low-jitter circuitry”.
No surprises around back either, the 991 featuring all the amenities you’d expect on a serious CD spinner. Outputs are numerous, including coaxial and optical digital as well as balanced and single ended analog.
With a nod to minimalist circuit design the 991 also provides a back panel kill switch for its digital outputs, removing this circuitry from the signal path if not in use. Never using the 991 as a transport I left the digital outputs turned off throughout the review period and, not having a preamp with balanced ins, used the single ended analog outputs exclusively.
I did, however, experiment with power cables, the 991’s detachable IEC cable allowing me to add yet another variable to the sound of my system (as if I needed another!). Speaking of variables, compulsive fiddlers and system tweakers will either be delighted or driven to stark, drooling bouts of madness by the 991’s adjustable dither feature (The 991’s user manual defines dither as “a very small amount of digital noise added to a signal to improve a CD player’s overall sound quality [by improving] a digital-to-analog converter’s linearity, particularly during very soft (low-level) musical passages). Using a button on the front panel users can select the level of dither to be added to the signal, allowing you to match the player’s sound to your other equipment, your room, the shape of your ears, your mood, or the sound your fridge makes. In addition to a no dither setting there are seven settings which progressively add more ultrasonic (30-80Khz) weighted dither and, an eighth setting which adds low level broadband dither “not weighted towards the ultrasonic range” which is intended to correct quantization errors only. More on fiddling with power cables and dithering with dither below.
Initial impressions indicated that the family resemblance between the 991 and the 951 was strong, with the former being more musically inclined than its smaller sibling. With a head for detail the 991 came off sounding more refined, making the 951 sound a touch coarse by comparison. Both players sound quite laid back and very smooth, but direct,
level matched comparisons confirmed that the 991 had the edge in the velvet glove department, by virtue of having little discernable edge at all. This was something that was apparent in listening sessions both short and long, the 991’s superior liquidity making it less likely induce listener fatigue over the long term.
And listen long term I did, the 991 proving to be a very involving source, and a key player in the killer sounding system which killed my case of Audio Rot. Where the 951 sounded slightly veiled, the 991 was transparent, where the 951’s soundstage sounded a little flat, the 991 was three dimensional with impressive depth, where the 951 sounded closed in, the 991 was light and airy. Tonally, they sounded very similar but the 991 was able to coax more complex tonal colours, and more believable instrumental timbre out of 16 bit digital. Massed strings were one of the 991’s strong suits too, it’s smoothness, detail and spatial rendering making it that much easier for me to fool myself into thinking I was sitting in a concert hall instead of my living room.
With the 991 fully broken in and producing wonderful sound, it seemed, by audiophile logic anyway, high time to start fiddling with the thing. First off, that detachable power cord was just begging to be detached. I detached it alright. Detached it good, and put a chunky Wireworld Aurora power cable in its place. Now I’m not a real die-hard tweak, and I don’t fully understand how a simple power cable, even if it is blocking our all the RF, EMI and the rest of the crap in the line, can have such a pronounced effect, but I’ll be damned if that cable didn’t substantially improve the sound of this CD player. Like using a good power conditioner (which I was not at the time since AM had requisitioned my Inouye SPLC-1 for our conditioner tests in the Summer/Fall 00 Issue, the Wireworld AC cable firmed up the bass, improved image focus, and darkened the sonic background significantly, improving microdynamics and giving the sense that subtle sounds were springing eagerly out of inky blackness. The quieter the music got, the more real it sounded. Suddenly, I was in tingle territory, and I liked it.
Although less of a surprise to me, Black Diamond Racing cones paired with matching “Those Things” carbon fibre platforms were similarly successful additions, further expanding the gap between the 991 and 951. The carbon fibre kicked the soundstaging up a notch, the sound benefiting from increased depth, ambient detail, focus, and a sense of delicacy and poise which seems to follow Black Diamond products wherever they go.
And, as if all this coning and cabling wasn’t enough, there’s still the matter of that little dither button isn’t there. Sadly, you can’t change dither settings via the remote control, which means each change necessitates a trip out of the listening chair to the player. The differences were quite subtle, but adding dither increased the player’s ability to dig low level ambient cues out of the bitstream, the delicate decay of sounds into acoustic space best preserved at the highest dither setting. There was a tradeoff, however, a very slight drying out of the midrange with increased dither, most noticeable on female vocals. My preference was for the former so I stuck with the high dither setting thereafter and haven’t messed with it since.
Buying an expensive CD player these days is no easy decision. If you’ve already read AM’s review of the Assemblage upsampler elsewhere in this issue you might already be in a quandry about your existing digital system, let alone what to buy in the future. If you plan to sit out the SACD and DVD-A wars until things are more stable, and still want to hear excellent 16 bit digital, the Rotel RCD 991 is a great way to do it in style, without breaking the bank. If you’re considering the Arcam Alpha 9 (the current darling of the range it seems) or other players in the $2000 nieghbourhood, I highly recommend giving serious consideration to the Rotel too. Does it sound three times better than the 951? Well, I don’t think that it can be quantified quite so neatly, and the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty hard above $1k anyway, but I’d lean towards no. In other words, I don’t think it’s quite as screamingly good a deal as the 951, but with a little extra coin spent on a power cable and maybe some cones, it sounds superb and comes awfully close to matching the value offered by its little brother.