Introduction - what are the CD11 and A11 Tribute?
The Rotel A11 and CD11 Tribute editions are a pair of affordable Hi-Fi components; an integrated amp and CD player respectively, the latter in particular not being a category we devote a huge amount of time to. They are not completely new products either; the A11 and CD11 continue on sale alongside them. Why then, are they 1) being reviewed here and 2) why are they being considered as a pair?
The answer lies in the word ‘Tribute.’ These are tweaked and enhanced versions of the basic 11 Series units and that they exist at all is one of the more welcome surprises of 2020. During one of the, now ubiquitous, online press conferences, this one for Bowers & Wilkins, the Tributes were announced and when the details started to come in, those of us watching paid a little more attention. This is because the person who had carried out the work was Ken Ishiwata.
Ishiwata needs little further introduction. His influence on the industry is a considerable one in both philosophical and engineering terms. Furthermore, this product duo had been a genuinely well kept secret until now. Having departed Marantz and shortly before his untimely death, Ishiwata had worked with Rotel to perform the same job he had first undertaken 24 years previously with the Marantz CD-63KI and PM-66KI; take a capable budget pairing and make them a little more special.
This then is a review but it’s also something a little more than that. All the normal bases will be covered off but it will also take the opportunity to consider a process that produced some of the most enduring affordable (and not so affordable) Hi-Fi going. The chance to have one last listen is too good to pass up so let’s crack on.
Specification and Design
The A11 and CD11 have been on sale for around two years now and represent the second rung of the Rotel product ladder above the 10 Series components. They are impressively timeless in their basic specification; something that may have contributed to being selected for this process in the first place.
The CD11 has one of the most straightforward specification entries I’ve ever written for AVForums. It plays CDs. This is done via a tray type mech and decoding is undertaken by a Texas Instruments DAC that is called upon to do nothing else. The CD11 has no digital inputs, no streaming module and no Bluetooth. Around the back you will find a pair of RCA outputs supported by a single coaxial and single toslink digital output.
The A11 is a little more complex… but only a little. It boasts 50 watts of output via a class A/B amplifier stage. It has four RCA line inputs and a moving magnet phono stage. This is supported by A and B speaker outputs and an RCA pre-out. The sole aspect of the specification that might be seen to be in any way 21st century is the presence of aptX Bluetooth which is decoded by another Texas instrument DAC. You also get a headphone amp on a 3.5mm socket.
The modification process to go from 11 Series to Tribute changes absolutely nothing in the headline specifications. They don’t do more, make more power or even, aside from a little ‘Tribute’ badge on both of them, look different. The changes are all under the lid and they are absolutely in keeping with the Ishiwata design philosophy. This recognised that across a signal path that featured multiple components, what represented an nigh on imperceptible change in performative terms between two examples of the same component, the cumulative effect of paying attention to all points of the signal path yielded discernible benefits.
In the CD player, eight capacitors in the D/A stage have been changed along with nine (which in this case is all of them) in the power supply. The casework has an extra damping section to reduce the overall resonance. The amplifier has upgraded components in the preamp, volume circuit and the capacitors in the output stage. It also gains additional damping on the chassis. The long and the short of it is that across both devices, about half the major signal components have been changed.
Now, at this point, it’s necessary to make some observations. The time between Ishiwata signing on to develop these products and his death was fairly short. Components were selected and first prototypes were created but the gap between this prototype stage the production phase required the intervention of another person. Thankfully, the person called upon to do this was Karl-Heinz Fink. As well as being a close friend of Ishiwata, he has a similar attention to detail. I’m reasonably confident that these devices are as intended originally.
It’s also important to stress that these intentions are not an exact replication of the Marantz process and I suspect deliberately so. At £400 for the CD player and £500 for the amp, they are £70 and £50 respectively more than the base 11 series components. This is a lower proportional increase than was the case on most KI devices of old and quite a bit of this is down to copper, or more accurately, the absence of it. Older KI designs were festooned with the stuff but the Tributes are pretty much unadorned.
This fits more closely to Rotel’s overall philosophy. They have never been a company that has been particularly interested in overtly showy design; even the newly released Michi components are relatively minimalist (although they have the density of a neutron star). It makes sense that the Tributes have little in the way of the showmanship of the Marantz KI products. This is not to say they aren’t well made though. Both units feel solid and carefully made and details like the CD mechanism are implemented in such a way as to inspire confidence.
They are a little idiosyncratic in use though. If it weren’t for the Bluetooth on the amp, nothing on the Tributes would have surprised 15 year old me looking over the original KI units. They both come with giant remotes (although the amp one can control both devices) and operationally, they feel a little old fashioned. I would also hesitate to describe them as attractive - I’m really not a fan of the displays in particular - but they sit well together as a pair.
Ultimately, what they share with other Ishiwata products is that they're unlikely to be purchased to garner the approval of the unknowing. There is and always was something more visually spectacular for the money. You bought them because you appreciated what was going on internally. So it is the case here and I can respect that. Equally, the lack of digital inputs and streaming option is going to be a bit of a limiter for many people so that needs to be taken into account too. You can be completely on board with the engineering and still have no need for a CD player.
Ultimately, what they share with other Ishiwata products is that I don’t think that the idea is that they’ll be purchased to garner the approval of the unknowing.
How were the Tributes tested?
The Tributes have largely run as a pair connected to an IsoTek Evo3 Aquarius Mains conditioner and stacked together on a Quadraspire QAVX rack. As well as the CD, the amp has been connected to an AVID Ingenium Twin with SME M2-9 and Nagaoka MP-200 cartridge. Some Bluetooth testing has taken place via an Oppo Find X2 Neo. Speakers used have been the Spendor A1 and Triangle Borea BR03. Material used has been CD, vinyl and some Qobuz over Bluetooth.
A brief interlude
Right then, I suppose at this point, it’s worth mentioning my own history with KI components as there’s a context to what I’m about to write. When the CD-63 and PM- 66 KI were launched, I owned the lower model Marantz CD-48 and a Cambridge Audio A3i. When I got my holiday job and birthday ’96 money together, I went and auditioned them… and chose the Arcam Alpha 7 CD and 7R amp instead. In a straight fight, I went with the Arcam. I did later pick up a pair of them that had been traded in. I didn’t hold onto the CD very long but I suspect the amp my still be in my parents’ loft.
These components weren’t and never have been unbeatable. They also weren’t all equal. If you are interested in owning the best rather than the originals, the CD6000KI and PM6010KI that came next were better than the CD-63 and PM-66 and if a PM14 or PM-17 KI came up for sale when I’d had just the right amount of beer… I guess, my point is that while I was delighted to find out these products existed, I was sanguine about what they might actually achieve relative to a sentimental benchmark.
What tied all these products together though was an intangible musicality. I am aware that, on a site where my colleagues product exacting colour charts to show by how many nths of a percent, a screen misses an established benchmark of performance, the phrase ‘intangible musicality’ might not be the sort of objective definition that many people here are looking for but that’s what it is. The question therefore isn’t whether the Tributes meet some sort of esoteric comparison to a disparate selection of older products but whether they have this quality.
Yes. Let’s waste no time here. The Tributes are different in many ways, almost entirely because they are made by a completely different company, but they do have this quality. Listening to Arcade Fire’s Funeral on the Tributes is to experience this in full effect. The gorgeous Une Annee Sans Lumiere doesn’t simply play, it flows. What they do with exceptional effectiveness is bypass the part of your cognition that pays attention to the decoding and the other processes at work to turn a digital stream into an amplified signal for speakers.
This means that they do the most important thing you can ask of any piece of audio equipment, regardless of price; they get out of the way of the music. This is not the same as absolute measurable transparency, although I suspect that neither unit would ever be classed as inaccurate. Indeed, their tonality and ability to create a believable stereo image is genuinely good and unphased by a wide spread of genres and styles. It’s the content of this soundstage where the Ishiwata influence makes itself felt. There’s a tangibility to voices and instruments that makes this an extremely engaging pairing to listen to for extended periods.
Nothing that has been done to the Tributes alters the basic pattern of what the Rotels can and cannot do. Listening via both the Spendors and the Triangles, never has them feel short of power but there are clear limits to the available headroom which I suspect would not take a truly demanding pair of speakers to show up. Likewise, the bass on offer here is tuneful and detailed but there are amps at this sort of price point that can deliver more low end shove. For what very little it is worth, it was the greater muscularity of the Arcam duo that had me choose them as a teenager so there is potentially a consistency to these products here too.
The more time you spend with them though, the more you become entirely at ease with their presentation. Switching to vinyl via the entirely matter of fact AVID and SME combination still keeps some of the sweetness and sheer engagement that the amp and CD have together. The phono stage is not part of the sections that saw any changes but there seems to be precious little wrong with it judged at the price and it gels beautifully with the overall presentation of the A11 Tribute as a whole. The Bluetooth connection also works well and Qobuz sent via this medium is extremely listenable.
I’m as surprised as anyone to type this but it’s the CD11 that leaves the most enduring impression of the two units. It is one of the most effortlessly ‘undigital’ devices I have tested at this price point and it works on its own merits too. Connecting it to the resident Chord CPM 2800MkII sees it keep this same effortless and consistently musical presentation as it does with the A11 Tribute. I’ve no need of a CD player any more - I have to give over quite enough of the house to another physical media - but, if you do, this would be a hell of a place to start looking.
I’m as surprised as anyone to type this but it’s the CD11 that leaves the most enduring impression of the two units
- Genuinely musical and engaging performance
- Sturdy build
- Competitive price
- Feature set will feel old fashioned
- Not terribly good looking
- Clunky remotes
Rotel Tribute Editions: A11 Amplifier and CD11 CD Player Review
It all began with an amp and CD player, so there is a pleasing symmetry that it ends with an amp and CD player too. Simply being given the chance to enjoy them fresh having had no inkling that they existed is a pleasure in itself. It’s like being given another Cassius album or Pratchett novel to enjoy after you convinced yourself you’d already heard or read them all. I’m not blind to the realities that for many people reading this, the combination of amp with next to no digital features and a CD player are not what they need in 2020 but we should be happy that they exist at all.
These are more than a pleasing epitaph though. As a pair, these affordable units deliver this intangible engagement that I spoke of earlier. They make listening an event and they do it without impinging on anything that makes them sturdy, reliable and capable examples of affordable Rotel products. The CD11 Tribute and A11 Tribute are magnificent examples of how good affordable Hi-Fi can be and what can be done by the careful refinement of even fairly prosaic equipment by someone who truly knew what they were doing. Ultimately, you will already likely know if you want them and, for reasons of both the head and the heart, they come Highly Recommended.
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