Rotel RSP-1098 Home Theater To Die For
By Jim Bray
Wow! Thats about all I can say about Rotels RSP-1098,
the award-winning preamplifier/surround sound processor that recently took up
residence in our reference home theater. Its not only a home theater tour
de force, its a reviewers and an audiophiles dream.
Weve been using Rotel as the standard equipment in our
reference home theaters for a while now and have been delighted and impressed
with its combination of quality and features for the price. So when it came
time to think about upgrading, it was natural to look again to Rotel,
especially since the RSP-1098 is such a beautiful and well-regarded beast that
Id been positively salivating for months over the prospect of trying
And now that Ive been using it for a few weeks I must return
to that opening sentence: Wow!
This is one serious piece of equipment.
The $2999US RSP-1098 is a state-of-the-art 7.1 channel surround
sound home theater processor, but its also an audiophile-grade
preamplifier thats capable of putting a smile on the face of the
snottiest audio freak. I kid you not. Matched with, as we have it, Rotels
magnificent RMB-1095 five channel amplifier, the
updated version of which Rotel also sent us to test, the result is such an
immersive and enjoyable aural experience that itll probably take a few
more weeks just for the silly grin to leave my face.
The first thing youll undoubtedly notice about the RSP-1098
is the LCD screen on its front panel. My first impression was that it screamed
GIMMICK! but I should have known better. In my experience, Rotel is
anything but gimmicky - and as it turns out this LCD screen is so practical and
useful that it should be picked up by every manufacturer.
The main reason is that, in todays age of complex
electronics with their many on screen menus, you need two components to operate
a preamp/processor/receiver properly: the preamp/processor/receiver itself (via
its remote, usually) and the TV monitor to show its menus.
Not now. Rotels TFT screen not only lets you bring up the
units menus right on its front panel, but you can also use it to see
DVD-Audio menus or TV broadcasts - though why youd want to watch TV on it
is beyond me. You can also use it to play Name that Tune with the
music being presented on the all-music channels our satellite provider sends
our way again, without having to fire up the big screen. Marvelous. You
could even hook in a video camera and monitor your front door for those times
when youre playing the music far too loud to hear the doorbell but still
want to know when the neighbors or the cops arrive to complain.
Out of the box, the screen didnt display component video
signals, so I couldnt run a progressive scan DVD or HDTV on it, and that
was just about the only shortcoming I could think of for this gorgeous
component. And wouldnt you know, Rotels website had posted a
software upgrade I could download and feed into the RSP via my PC that
supposedly corrects that oversight as well as updating a variety of other
That brings the RSP-1098 one step closer to absolute
You can tell the Rotel to output its display to the TFT LCD
screen, your video monitor, or both. I set it for both, but ended up rarely
using the TV for tweaking; though the text is pretty small on the LCD,
especially from my easy chair, most of the main adjustments are straightforward
enough that I had no trouble doing them from across the room and the more
arcane (read serious audiophile) tweaks are usually of the
set once and forget type and it doesnt kill me to get off my
bum and approach the TFT display for them.
The volume display is a tad small to see from the couch, given my
fiftysomething eyes, but it didnt take long to get used to it and I
eventually could read it well enough that the small size was never more than a
very minor irritation (and the bottom line was that if it sounded loud, it was
loud regardless of what the readout said
The screen does glow a little even when not in use, and depending
upon where you've placed it this can be a little bit annoying when you're
watching a movie in a darkened room. Fortuntely, Rotel was one step ahead on
this issue as well; you can shut down the LCD from the remote control. If you
crank the volume or switch sources, the display comes on long enough to
acknowledge what you're doing, then shuts itself off again.
Anyway, aside from the screen, the front panel of this handsome
unit is remarkably uncluttered for such a sophisticated device. Besides the
power button, there are six small buttons, the power button, and two rotary
knobs and thats it. The result is a clean and handsome unit that
looks particularly fetching in its silver-faced incarnation (And like an idiot
I requested, and received, the all-black one because it matches the rest of our
components. Duh!). The right hand knob is your garden variety volume control,
while the left hand knob is a cursor control/selection tool kind of like BMW
uses (I-Drive) in some of its models. I havent tried
BMWs version but from what Ive read its a disaster. Not so
with Rotels. It works beautifully: you rotate the knob to scroll through
menu choices, then press it to make your selection. Elegantly simple.
On the other hand, the back panel of the RSP-1098 really means
business, and this is one of the reasons this is such a perfect component for
reviewers: if you need to hook something in even multiple somethings
this Rotel will take it and probably leave you room for even more
somethings. Within reason: theres no DVI or HDMI input, but I suspect
that wont bother too many people - it certainly didnt bother me
since our reference Sony big screen and Bell ExpressVu HD satellite receiver
dont offer such outputs right now anyway.
Besides, what you do get is far more important. First up, you get
four component video inputs, all of which offer sufficient bandwidth to handle
high definition television and/or progressive scan DVD. Four! Theres only
one component output, but I daresay thats all most people will need. You
also get five S-Video and 5 composite video inputs and three of each type of
output (four, if you count the specifically labeled monitor out
Then there are the audio inputs. You get five coaxial digital
audio inputs (3 outputs) and three optical digital inputs (2 outputs), as well
as five sets of stereo analog inputs and dedicated analog inputs for tape,
tuner and CD player. And, as an audio piece de resistance, you also get
discrete analog inputs for SACD/DVD Audio. There are also 5 analog outputs,
Zone 2 video outputs, four 12 volt trigger controllers, and a computer
interface for upgrading the RSP-1098s software. Youll probably run
out of components before you run out of places to connect them. I expect this
makes the RSP-1098 ideal for custom installers as well.
The back panel is laid out extremely logically, though differently
from many preamp/switcher/receivers. Instead of grouping inputs and outputs by
source theyre grouped by type. So rather than arranging (for example) a
DVD players audio and video inputs together, you connect the audio and
the video to nearly opposite ends of the Rotels rear panel. This may seem
weird, but when you go back to the front panel and start setting up the unit,
the approach makes perfect sense.
You see, you can assign all these inputs in a variety of ways, and
the flexibility is incredible. You can tell the Rotel to pair the audio from
any input with the video from any input, and you can even assign different
surround sound settings to different inputs or even to the same input
configured in different ways. And you can create your own on screen labels to
keep track of it all.
You can even program the speed at which the volume control
adjusts, in increments of 1, 2 or three dB. I found the middle setting pretty
well perfect. And you can tell the RSP-1098 to turn on at a particular volume
level that you set. I chose 50 dB, which was a reasonable compromise between
nothing and bleeding ears.
It all sounds rather complicated, and it probably is if
youre an electron being pushed around inside the unit, but the interface
is childs play, logically designed and executed and the whole shebang
works extremely well.
I love the flexibility.
I set up the RSP-1098 so that my DVD Audio player, which I also
use as a CD player, is actually configured as four different components. For
DVDs, I use a coaxial digital input coupled to the DVD label (the Rotel
automatically senses the movie surround type Dolby Digital,
dts and sets itself accordingly), while for audio CDs I use the
same coaxial digital input - but defaulting to two channel stereo and paired
with the CD label. I also have it configured to play in the same
coaxial input but defaulting to dts NEO:6 labeled as CD DTS (more
about that later) and I use the multi input for DVD-Audio.
Not only that, I configured the satellite receiver to Video One
defaulting to Dolby ProLogic II Cinema for TV programs (Dolby Digital
broadcasts are automatically sensed) and to Video 3 defaulting to 2 channel
stereo for the satellite music channels. Simple, and it means I dont have
to keep flipping through surround modes to find the one I want.
The Rotel is about as up to date as you could want a surround
sound processor to be. It comes out of the box offering Dolby Digital, Dolby
Digital EX, Dolby Pro-logic II (music and cinema), dts, dts ES, dts ES
Discrete, dts Neo 6, DTS 24/96, and HDCD. A software upgrade lets you add Dolby
Pro-Logic IIx, and Rotel has also built in a proprietary processing that takes
5.1 signals and remixes them into 7.1 if the units so configured. I only
run 5.1 so didnt check this out but Im sure it works as advertised.
There is also an assortment of fudged surround settings for 2
The RSP-1098s flexibility doesnt end here.
Theres a dizzying array of configuration options available through the
units menus and it goes far beyond the large/small/subwoofer
type of thing. You can set the bass crossover point in 20 Hz increments from
200 Hz down to 40 for any or all speakers theres bass
management and something called contour, as well as delay settings
to compensate for not having all your speakers equidistant from your listening
position. I gloss over these and other adjustments because they probably
arent as important to the average user - as well as to prevent this
review from turning into a book.
But you get the point: this is by far the most flexible preamp
Ive ever seen and even though it uses basically the same onscreen
interface Rotel has used for years theyve managed to make it work
beautifully here. Everything is straightforward, from hookup to setup and right
through to the easy to use, illuminated learning remote.
So how does it sound?
Well, duh! This is audiophile equipment thats equally
comfortable in the video age.
In my experience, Rotel equipment always sounds great but as may
be expected with its highest end showpiece, theyve outdone themselves
with the RSP-1098. I grew to love the sound very quickly, especially with DVD
Audio discs and movies, but even some crummy old CDs, ones that always
sounded thin and/or muddy, came across better than Id heard them before.
It doesn't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, but it's amazing just how much
music the Rotel pulls from substandard discs.
Naturally, the better the source the better the result, and
DVD-Audio discs such as the Les Brown and Strauss titles reviewed
here sounded about as live and as dynamic as you
could want, as if youre in the audience. And movies can be spectacular.
The various channels are incredibly well differentiated and if the producers
deem that your room rumble or shriek or just rock and/or roll, thats
exactly what happens. Theres no fuss, no fighting between channels, no
nothing. You hear everything, clearly and cleanly and realistically.
One feature I found particularly intriguing was the dts Neo:6
surround setting, which is a fake surround generated from stereo sources.
Im not a big fan of such toys (to each his own, and if you
like such features Rotel includes enough to make you happy), but I found that,
at least when exhibited by the RSP-1098, dts Neo:6 can do a fine job of
restoring that vinyl sound to some older CDs.
What do I mean? Well, for example, back in the days of records the
Moody Blues used to fill the room with a wall of sound that was a
real treat to experience. But their CDs have lacked that; some have
sounded okay, but theres something missing a liveness
or a presence - and dts NEO:6 can restore that. It works better on some discs
than others (hence my having a separate setting for it while leaving 2 channel
stereo an option as well), but it really can add enjoyment to older tunes.
Another example is the remastered Pink Floyd Animals, a CD with
whose quality Ive never been happy. But this Rotel, especially using dts
NEO:6 setting, brings to its massively overdubbed muddiness a clarity Ive
yet to hear elsewhere.
The RSP-1098s stunning sound quality should come as no
surprise, and since the unit has been the heart of our reference home theater
Ive found myself playing more and more music, seeking out favorite discs
again and again and playing stuff I havent heard for years
including discs I tend to avoid because of their less than pleasing sound
quality. I keep throwing "torture test discs" at the Rotel and it eats them up
and asks for more. So lovely is the listening experience that Id be happy
if this were merely an audio component; the fact that its
also a formidable video/home theater performer is a most wonderful bonus.
Bottom line? Rotels $2995US RSP-1098 is a comparative
Okay, three US grand isnt chicken feed, and for that price
you can get a fine A/V receiver, lesser separates - or a whole system including
the TV and DVD player. But considering all that the RSP-1098 is its
incredible flexibility, wide range of features, ease of use, quality of
construction and beautiful sonic performance I cannot think that
its overpriced. And compared with other Rotel preamp/processors Ive
used, which have been uniformly excellent, the RSP-1098 raises the bar another
couple of notches.
As I said at the beginning: Wow!
For more information, click
here to visit Rotels site. Youll find
manufacturers specifications as well as other reviews of the RSP-1098
(some of which get into far more technical detail than you may be comfortable
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think