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ROTEL RB-1092 Amplifier Reviewed

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One hesitates to apply the word 'revolutionary' to a piece of hi-fi equipment because it implies that the product is the first/best/biggest/cheapest/whatever of its type. In the case of Rotel's RB-1092 stereo amplifier, it may or may not be the smallest 500W/ch amplifier available. My uncertainty? It's only that I recall a tiny amp from the late 1970s claiming vast power outputs, that in practice would barely drive a pair of headphones. The Rotel, on the other hand, really does deliver the goods. In fact, Rotel is being conservative: Paul Miller measured 635W/ch.

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So why am I even toying with calling it 'revolutionary'? Simple: this beauty occupies a space of only 432x92x407mm (WHD), it weighs only 10kg AND it retails for a mere £1600. Thus, it behaves like a regulation, garden-variety high-end monstrosity but with less than half the volume, a third of the weight and at a tenth of the price. Think about the trouble this amp could cause if consumers and retailers stopped worrying about brand names. The words 'cat', 'pigeons' and 'among' spring to mind.

Even if we factor out the lack of snob appeal, the Rotel clearly has much with which to seduce you, massive amounts of power being the most obvious. It actually sounds great, with a more-ish, silky character that allows you to sit there for hours without fatigue. Add to that seemingly limitless headroom and an inability to be driven into clipping (unless you're an insane, partially-deaf Ecstasy habitué with a penchant for club music, heard via insensitive speakers) and you have a wonderful party trick: buy the Rotel, cover it up and play it for knowledgeable friends through some ravenously hungry speakers. Then ask 'em to guess which amp you're using.

As Paul's sidebar shows, the secret to the compactness is the successful application of B&O's outrageous ICEpower modules, by now familiar to many of us as they've appeared in numerous models from a variety of manufacturers. I've heard them in assorted subwoofers, in-car products, B&O's own systems, home theatre packages, ad infinitum, and this is the best usage I've heard so far. Moreover, you don't have to be a bourbon-drinking private eye to discern the causal link between Rotel and B&O: Rotel is part of the extended B&W mishpocheh, and B&W uses the ICEpower modules in its hyper-cool, spherical subwoofer. Which also leads us to the home cinema aspect.

Please - don't turn the page, even if you're of the militantly anti-movie persuasion. The RB-1092 is, after all, a two-channel amplifier, categorically aimed at music lovers. But equally, it is related to the seven-channel RMB-1077 reviewed by Paul in December 2005, though those were rated at 100W per. The RB-1092 was obviously created for those who need more power. Take two or three of these plus an RB-1091 mono amp (same chassis as the RB-1092, but 1x500W) and you have the basis for a truly scary 5.1 or 7.1 multi-channel installation.

'Installation' is the key word. Whether for pure music or for home cinema or for both, there's major growth in the custom installation field that seems to have gone wantonly unnoticed by audiophiles. Listen, gang: just because people are hiding their wires and enclosing the amps in a suitable cabinet, it doesn't mean that they're the spawn of Satan. They just don't want their homes to look like the mad professor's lair in Back To the Future. Given the size of the Rotel RB-1092, lots of installer-types are gonna love it because it reduces the space normally allocated for amps rated at 2x500W by a serious margin. It also features a 15V trigger, for remote power on/off.

Slotted into my regular review system, the Rotel felt right at home. It wears multi-way binding posts suitable for bi-wiring from the amp rather than requiring a splitter, and it also features Neutrik Speakon sockets for those single-plug connectors beloved of the professional sector. I settled on the Acrolink and Yter speaker cables, both fitted with bananas, and I suggest further experimentation in this area for potential users, because the Rotel does respond to fine-tuning.

It was the sheer surfeit of power that struck me at first; I normally use amps in the 100-150W/ch region. It was an immediately obvious change, a sense of unbridled energy that I hadn't experienced since using the over-the-top kW amps from Musical Fidelity. Even with the Sonus faber Guarneri, known for loving a bit of power, the Rotel simple tootled along, purring merrily regardless of the crescendos it was asked to reproduce. I had to stop looking at the amp itself; the diminutive size was that disconcerting.

Whatever spell such power casts over us - do we automatically turn hooligan at the wheel of a car faster than the one we normally drive? - the Rotel led me first to a larger, louder work than I would use as my opener. Ordinarily, it's straight to a quiet vocalist. But the Rotel pushed the right button: my current fetish for Mendelssohn's Die Hebriden was accessed. The overture taxed nothing in the system, the Wilson WATT Puppy system delivering all of its majesty and the Rotel never denying it so much as a single decibel. But I soon learned that the Rotel, like every product, has its 'envelope' of superlative behaviour.

It has been mooted by more than one reviewer that every piece of music has its optimum level. The logic behind this applies especially to live music: if you were sitting in a particular row in a particular hall at a particular concert, the real event would, indeed, yield a specific level at that point in space. The sensation has been likened to an image snapping into focus, either via the lens of a camera, binoculars, a projector. And it's apt: the Rotel, for whatever reasons, emphasised this repeatedly. I found myself listening to favourite selections at markedly different levels than I would have via the PrimaLuna or McIntosh amps, for example.

So I performed a loose experiment, with ATI's SLM-100 sound pressure level meter. Using my usual selection of CDs, I found that I played Candido & Graciela's Inolvidable 2-3db louder, Kenny Ellis' Hanukkah Swings! 4-6db louder and Ray Davies' Thanksgiving Day 3-5db softer. Was there a pattern? No. Is this scientific? No. But it was a phenomenon I noted more with the Rotel than any other amp I've tried in recent memory. In practical terms, it means only ONE thing: keep your hand one the remote control when you audition the RB-1092 in the store.


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