November 27, 2018

Rotel: Upholding the Mythic in Audio 

Japanese audio-electronics have a prestige within this industry that borders on mythic. Rotel are no exception. As a family-owned Japanese audio manufacturer of 50 years, Rotel’s large range of audio components and amplifiers are based on their award-winning Balanced Design Concept: part selection, circuit topology, and critical evaluation. At its face it sounds like marketing jargon. But broken down, it’s a simple yet significant design ideology winning the hearts and minds of audio enthusiasts across the globe.

Rotel’s part selection process is rigorous. Engineers carefully select and test parts to ensure only the best components end up in a finished Rotel product. According to Rotel, this comes at a greater cost to their bottom line; however, the quality it ensures has become a trademark of the brand’s stature within the industry. Determined to reduce its reliance on third-party manufacturers, Rotel build each of their toroidal transformers – the heart of their class A/B amplification – in house. And, thanks to the recent purchase of a SMT machine in 2010, this also includes building their own circuit boards as well. Transformer winding is itself is highly labour intensive process, and like the circuit boards they power each are individually tested and re-tested before heading in to final assembly. This attention to detail is often reserved for more bespoke manufacturers and products. However, Rotel apply these rigours to each model within the Rotel line. When combined with the brand’s highly modest price points, it’s no surprise that Rotel have cemented their reputation as one of the leading value-for-money audio manufacturers on the market.

At a glance, circuit topology sounds like audiophile gobbledygook, little more than fancy terminology conflating individual ideas for the purpose of sounding impressive. But at its core, it’s a design principle founded on elegance and simplicity. Topology itself is the study of spatial relations. For example, if you were a town planner working within a set space, how best to design your road systems, stop lights and cross walks to ensure an even flow of traffic? Designing an amplifier is not so dissimilar. However, design symmetry has a greater bearing on audio performance, with identical signal paths preserving both image and sound stage. Therefore, intelligent spatial design ensures superior signal quality which means much better music. At first this might sound simple enough, but when your amplifier begins to deliver a wider variety of source inputs, like XLR, RCA, HDMI, Bluetooth, digital optical, etc., with larger transformers for greater power demands, spatial demands are further restricted and things become tricky. Intelligent spatial design ensures that no matter what source you’re playing, no matter what power requirements are necessary, signal integrity is preserved and so too is your sound quality.

But perhaps the most human element of Rotel’s manufacturing and design focus is its critical evaluation. These days, digital instrumentation for measurement and evaluation is invaluable to audio design. But no matter the data crunched listeners don’t hear in ones and zeros. At the end of the day this audio game we muck about in is an analogue experience, and it’s an incredibly subjective experience at that. No two ears are the same. I don’t hear the way my neighbour does and I certainly don’t hear the way Max Richter or George Massenburg do. However, I’d bargain against the quality of their audio selections over a computer model any day of the week. Now, don’t get me wrong. Instrumentation, measurement, data crunching and the like are integral to the process, but they’re far from the final word. And the fact that Rotel run listening sessions at each development stage, with a focus on participant feedback, is an important reminder of the art in audio. Music is about creativity, enjoyment and play. Listening should be no different. And Rotel’s critical evaluation design philosophy speaks to the very heart of these ideas. 

In ancient Greek philosophy there’s a concept called the golden mean. Much like Buddhism’s middle way, a perfect balance in life was considered an even path between two extremes: excess and deficiency. To the Greeks, this idea was attributed to beauty, and beauty was a combination of three properties: symmetry, proportion and harmony. Sound familiar? It’s no surprise then to learn that the roots of what we consider modern music can be traced back to ancient Greece. Rotel’s Balanced Design Concept is much like the golden mean. It’s one based on symmetry, proportion and harmony, which, when you really think about it, are themselves intrinsically musical. At first glance these theories present like clever marketing fluff. But it’s only after you experience Rotel in the flesh, hear it for yourself, that you fully appreciate the method to their madness. And so it is that Rotel and their Balanced Design Concept are, for all intents and purposes – outside the marketing speak, through the design studio and on to the factory floor – upholding the mythic in audio.

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