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Rotel RSP-1098Rotel RSP-1098 – Home Theater To Die For

By Jim Bray

Wow! That’s about all I can say about Rotel’s RSP-1098, the award-winning preamplifier/surround sound processor that recently took up residence in our reference home theater. It’s not only a home theater tour de force, it’s a reviewer’s and an audiophile’s dream.

We’ve 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 I’d been positively salivating for months over the prospect of trying it.

And now that I’ve 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 it’s also an audiophile-grade preamplifier that’s capable of putting a smile on the face of the snottiest audio freak. I kid you not. Matched with, as we have it, Rotel’s 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 it’ll probably take a few more weeks just for the silly grin to leave my face.

The first thing you’ll 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 today’s 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. Rotel’s TFT screen not only lets you bring up the unit’s menus right on its front panel, but you can also use it to see DVD-Audio menus or TV broadcasts - though why you’d 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 you’re 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 didn’t display component video signals, so I couldn’t 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 wouldn’t you know, Rotel’s 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 things.

That brings the RSP-1098 one step closer to absolute perfection.

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 doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 that’s 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 haven’t tried BMW’s version but from what I’ve read it’s a disaster. Not so with Rotel’s. 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: there’s no DVI or HDMI input, but I suspect that won’t bother too many people - it certainly didn’t bother me since our reference Sony big screen and Bell ExpressVu HD satellite receiver don’t 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! There’s only one component output, but I daresay that’s 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” plugs).

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-1098’s software. You’ll 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 they’re grouped by type. So rather than arranging (for example) a DVD player’s audio and video inputs together, you connect the audio and the video to nearly opposite ends of the Rotel’s 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 you’re an electron being pushed around inside the unit, but the interface is child’s 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 DVD’s, 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 CD’s 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 don’t 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 unit’s so configured. I only run 5.1 so didn’t check this out but I’m sure it works as advertised. There is also an assortment of “fudged” surround settings for 2 channel sources.

The RSP-1098’s flexibility doesn’t end here. There’s a dizzying array of configuration options available through the unit’s 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 – there’s 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 aren’t 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 I’ve ever seen and even though it uses basically the same onscreen interface Rotel has used for years they’ve 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 that’s equally comfortable in the video age.

In my experience, Rotel equipment always sounds great but as may be expected with its highest end showpiece, they’ve 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 CD’s, ones that always sounded thin and/or muddy, came across better than I’d 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 you’re 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, that’s exactly what happens. There’s 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. I’m 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 CD’s.

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 CD’s have lacked that; some have sounded okay, but there’s 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 I’ve never been happy. But this Rotel, especially using dts NEO:6 setting, brings to its massively overdubbed muddiness a clarity I’ve yet to hear elsewhere.

The RSP-1098’s stunning sound quality should come as no surprise, and since the unit has been the heart of our reference home theater I’ve found myself playing more and more music, seeking out favorite discs again and again and playing stuff I haven’t 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 I’d be happy if this were “merely” an audio component; the fact that it’s also a formidable video/home theater performer is a most wonderful bonus.

Bottom line? Rotel’s $2995US RSP-1098 is a comparative bargain.

Okay, three US grand isn’t 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 it’s overpriced. And compared with other Rotel preamp/processors I’ve 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 Rotel’s site. You’ll find manufacturer’s specifications as well as other reviews of the RSP-1098 (some of which get into far more technical detail than you may be comfortable with).

 

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