Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

Rotel’s A11 Tribute integrated amplifier is a bit of an oddity. That’s not a value judgment, mind you—merely an observation. What makes it a bit weird is that while most integrated amps in its price class ($799, all prices USD) feature built-in digital-to-analog conversion, if not full-blown streaming ecosystems, the A11 Tribute sports nary a coaxial or optical input, nor a USB port of any sort, and there simply isn’t a way to connect it to the Internet. Technically, it features a Texas Instruments DAC chip, but its only digital input is a Bluetooth antenna (with support for AAC and aptX codecs). But that really only adds to the enigma.

Rotel

Perhaps the weirdest thing about the A11 Tribute, though, is the involvement of Ken Ishiwata, a name almost indelibly tied to Marantz, where he worked for four decades as an audio engineer and brand ambassador before leaving shortly after completing work on the PM-KI Ruby integrated amp and SA-KI Ruby SACD player/DAC. Between then and his passing in November 2019, Ishiwata collaborated with Rotel to tweak the design of the still-new A11 and its companion CD player, the CD11.

At the recommendation of Ishiwata and fellow audio engineer Karl-Heinz Fink, Rotel upgraded a number of capacitors and resistors in the amplifier, preamplifier, and volume stages of the A11, and added additional damping in the chassis.

Rotel

Otherwise, the specs of the A11 Tribute are largely the same as the original. It’s a class-AB design rated to deliver 50Wpc with both channels driven into 8 ohms, with <0.03% total harmonic distortion. It features four line-level inputs, one MM phono input, and two sets of speaker-level connections for A and B setups. If only one set of speakers is to be used at a time, the amp is reportedly stable with loads down to 4 ohms, but if at any time you plan on using all four speakers in a dual-stereo configuration, all loads should be nominally 8 ohms. Add in preamp outputs (handy if you’d like to connect a subwoofer to your stereo system) and the aforementioned Bluetooth connectivity, and Bob’s your uncle. There really isn’t much more to cover in terms of the A11 Tribute’s core functionality.

Rotel

Rotel A11 Tribute setup and configuration options

For an integrated amplifier with such simplicity in terms of connectivity, though, the A11 Tribute features a wealth of different setup options and tweaky enhancements. The most noteworthy are its custom tone profiles, “Tone Rotel Boost” and “Tone Rotel Max.” Both introduce a bit of a smiley-faced curve, with the latter leaning heavily on bass emphasis, and although I found neither to my liking, you might feel differently depending on your musical tastes. The default is a complete Tone Bypass, and this is where I left it for all of my critical listening.

There are also the expected balance controls, as well as display and LED dimming. But you’ll find a few unexpected settings for an integrated amp in this class, too. One particularly nice feature is the Off Timer, which puts the unit in standby if unused for a specified amount of time, with your choice of 20 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, 5 hours, or 12 hours. The menus also give you access to Power On Volume adjustments and the ability to switch the Aux 1, Aux 2, and Bluetooth inputs from variable to fixed gain. Given the relative simplicity of the menu system, it isn’t entirely intuitive how to switch back to variable gain if you switch to fixed mode and set a level. The trick here is to turn the set level back down. Once you pass 01, the input switches back to variable gain mode.

Rotel

The A11 Tribute comes with a fairly utilitarian brick of a remote that gives you access to all of the setup and control functionality you’ll ever need. It’s reasonably well laid out, although I’m not a big fan of the fact that the input selection buttons are all the way at the bottom of the remote while the volume control is more toward the middle. That’s a minor issue, though. A more pressing concern is the fact that plugging headphones into the 3.5mm jack on the front of the unit doesn’t mute the speaker outputs. You instead have to use the A and/or B buttons on the remote or front panel to turn off the speakers when you’re ready for some private listening. You’ll probably also need to adjust the volume before plugging in if you’re using very sensitive headphones or earphones.

I set up the A11 Tribute in my stereo listening space/home office, and I connected a pair of Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers with banana-terminated ELAC Sensible speaker cables, though the binding posts of the amp should work just as well with bare wire or spades.

Rotel

For sources, I used my Oppo BDP-95 universal disc player (mostly to function as a USB DAC), as well as Rotel’s companion CD player, the CD11 Tribute (which we’ll be reviewing soon and separately). I also spent a decent amount of time putting the A11 Tribute’s Bluetooth connectivity through its paces.

Sizing up the performance of the A11 Tribute

In fact, I used the amp’s Bluetooth connection to begin my evaluation, loading up an ALAC rip of the Grateful Dead’s Dave’s Picks Volume 8: Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA, 11/30/80 (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, Rhino Records) via my iPhone 8 Plus and letting it play. The A11 Tribute does have a distinctive quirk, in that it auto-mutes the Bluetooth input when no music is playing. This means you lose the first second or so of music when you start a track, which isn’t the end of the world with live Dead albums, since you’re only missing a snippet of crowd noise. Thankfully, the amp doesn’t mute between gapless tracks. Each auto-mute and unmute, though, is accompanied by a pronounced clicking noise from the A11 Tribute itself, which is frankly the only reason I didn’t use the amp’s Bluetooth connection more.

In terms of sonic performance, the BT input is shockingly good. One of the reasons I gravitated toward Dave’s Picks Volume 8 out of the gigabytes’ worth of live Grateful Dead recordings in my possession is that it was the first official release from the band to feature a matrix mix—a digitally time-aligned marriage of the official soundboard tapes with an audience recording. The result is a best-of-both-worlds blend of the clarity and fidelity of the former with the ambience and energy of the latter.

Rotel

And even via Bluetooth, the A11 Tribute conveyed that mix beautifully. On the rollicking rendition of “Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain,” it delivered the rhythmic punch of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann’s drumming with utter precision, and it really captured the subtle low-end reinforcement of Phil Lesh’s bass playing with appreciable richness. Imaging and soundstaging were both equally spot on, but most importantly, the amp wonderfully delivered the inimitable tone and timbre of Jerry’s lead guitar playing.

As with nearly any piece of gear that Ken Ishiwata tweaked or tuned, there’s a warmth and liveliness to the A11 Tribute that drew me right in and held my attention. I cannot compare it to the original A11, as I’ve never auditioned that piece. But my overall description of the A11 Tribute’s sound tracks very much with how I described the sonic character of the Marantz PM-KI Ruby: “It’s as if you took neutrality as a starting point and, rather than sculpting, did a bit of wet-sanding and polishing.” Not that the two pieces sound identical, mind you, but their shared pedigree is unmistakable.

Rotel

Eager to size up the A11 Tribute with a higher-fidelity source, I turned to my Oppo BDP-95 and loaded up Pearl Jam’s Ten (24/88.2 FLAC, Epic Legacy/Qobuz). With “Oceans” (the original album mix, not the dry-as-unbuttered-white-toast Brendan O’Brien redux), right from the first note the amp delivered the sparse spaciousness of the recording with spot-on precision and oodles of lush warmth. The first few measures of the first verse offer little more than Stone Gossard’s sporadic rhythm guitar, Jeff Ament’s loping fretless bass, and Eddie Vedder’s breathy vocals to work with, and yet the amp wove a seemingly tangible tapestry of sound in front of me. As the intensity of the music ramped up, starting at around the 25-second mark, the A11 Tribute’s excellent transient response came more to the forefront of my attention. The attack and decay of the more aggressive rhythm guitar and percussion were simply above reproach.

With the album’s next track, “Porch,” the A11 Tribute proved itself equally adept at rocking my face off, delivering a muscular, punchy rendition of the track that lacked nothing in terms of detail. I noticed with this cut, played at nearly uncomfortable loudness levels, that the amp isn’t exactly the last word in terms of bass authority (which may be the impetus behind those Tone Rotel Boost and Tone Rotel Max modes mentioned above), but to expect an $800 integrated amp to be the absolute last word in anything is a bit of a stretch.

Rotel

The flip side of that observation is that “Porch” has a tendency to sound harsh or grating via lesser gear, which is the main reason I pushed the volume knob as far as I did to the right. My ears were tuned in specifically on the guitars and vocals, as these are the first elements of the mix to get a bit rough when poorly amplified (or decoded, for that matter, but since I was using the DAC in the Oppo, whose performance I know well, that wasn’t really a consideration here). While lacking nothing in terms of intensity or energy, the A11 Tribute delivered the song without a hint of off-putting edginess. Big kudos there. It points to an integrated amp that should be a good fit for anyone’s musical tastes.

To test that hunch, I turned to Andrew Bird’s My Finest Work Yet (24/96 FLAC, Loma Vista Recordings/Qobuz), a recording that’s as different from Pearl Jam as the sounds of a tropical rainforest are from a recording of windshield wiper blades in a hurricane. The album was recorded live in the studio, with all of the musicians playing together in the same open space. No edits, no overdubs, no funky processing or equalization. The second track in particular, “Bloodless,” is one I return to time and again to gauge the resolution and detail of a sound system, since it’s rife with distinct textures, especially toward the end, as Bird alternates between bowing and picking his violin’s strings.

Rotel

The A11 Tribute got the textures and timbres of this old-school recording exactly right. But more so than that, I loved the way it rendered the sound of the room in which the album was recorded. There was just a wonderful recreation of space that I couldn’t get enough of. The amp also did a fantastic job of keeping up with the delightfully dynamic punch of the percussion, as well as the reverberation and decay of every snare and kick.

How does the Rotel A11 Tribute’s performance compare to its competitors?

No reviewer in his or her right mind would dare pit the $800 Rotel A11 Tribute against the $4000 Marantz PM-KI Ruby. So, of course, that’s exactly what I did—mostly out of convenience, since one was entering my two-channel system just as the other was leaving. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some contrarianism involved.

Frankly, the biggest difference between the two is that the Rotel lacks the Marantz’s pitch-black background. There are minor distinctions to be made in terms of dynamics and muscularity. The A11 Tribute also isn’t every ounce as dynamic as the PM-KI Ruby. But it’s really the relative differences in noise floor that define the biggest sonic distinction between the two. The Rotel piece is quiet. The Marantz is eerily silent.

The PM-KI Ruby also supports MC cartridges via its phono input, and thanks largely to its beefier amp stage, I think, it boasts more in the way of bass authority at louder listening levels. But I was honestly a bit shocked by how well the A11 Tribute held its own overall against an integrated amp selling for five times as much.

Rotel

A much fairer comparison would be against Yamaha’s A-S701 ($799.95). I’ll admit that I haven’t spent time with this integrated amp at home, but I have heard demos, and I’m a smitten kitten. It delivers a generous 100Wpc into 8-ohm loads, and although it lacks a USB input, it does bring some digital connectivity to the party by way of optical and coaxial inputs. In terms of analog connectivity, it features seven line-level inputs and one MM phono input. It does lack any sort of Internet connectivity, though, and you’ll need to add a wireless adapter if you want Bluetooth. Its looks are also, well, unfortunate, and it doesn’t feature a front-panel display.

At or near this price, I also really like the NAD D 3045 ($749). This one is a radically different beast, likely to appeal to a very different sort of music lover, since it’s a bit light on analog connectivity. It features two sets of stereo RCA inputs, one of them an MM phono input, along with a 3.5mm mini-jack audio input. But it’s a lot more robust on the digital side of the equation, with two optical inputs, one coax, one USB Type-B port, and even an HDMI ARC connection for use with your TV. It will decode PCM at up to 24-bit/384kHz and DSD via its USB port, and it supports MQA. Its Bluetooth input also supports aptX HD but unfortunately not AAC. And its output is rated at 60Wpc into 8 ohms.

TL;DR: Should you buy the Rotel A11 Tribute?

If you’re looking for a mostly analog integrated amplifier that won’t break the bank, the Rotel definitely earns its $800 price tag. It has some operational quirks, especially with regard to its enigmatic Bluetooth input, but it delivers where it counts: in pure sound quality. Its 50Wpc of amplification should be more than enough to drive any speaker you’re likely to connect to an integrated amp at this price, and the preamp output means you can add a sub if you want or need to. It may not be perfect, but it has a hell of a lot of personality, and I think it’s exactly the right integrated amp for someone out there.

. . . Dennis Burger
dennisb@soundstagenetwork.com

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v5
  • Speaker-level connections: ELAC Sensible speaker cables
  • Line-level connections: Straight Wire Encore II analog interconnects
  • Sources: Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player, Rotel CD11 Tribute CD player
  • Power protection: SurgeX XR115 power conditioner

Rotel A11 Tribute Integrated Amplifier
Price: $799.99 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Rotel America
6655 Wedgwood Road North, Suite 115
Maple Grove, Minnesota USA 55311
Phone: (510) 843-4500

Website: www.rotel.com