It's been a while between drinks for Rotel, which has waited three years to follow up its RSX-1057 receiver. But it seems the wait has been worth it as the new model is up to the minute with features, including HD audio decoding and 1080p upscaling. Is this Rotel's best receiver yet?
When you're on a good thing, stick to it. Rotel's receiver designs have remained relatively unchanged for the last 10 years. You still get a large, rather attractive "slab" fascia with a single volume dial in the middle. We applaud Rotel for keeping direct source selection buttons on the front when its competitors have gone for annoying dials or confusing up/down systems. They don't have the best "feel" though — a little plastic-y, and the volume knob too.
While we like the sparseness and rigidity of the build, we were less than enthusiastic about the remote. It's actually a little bit of a nightmare. It has lots of little buttons, and not all are logically arranged. In fact, it looks like a 70's scientific calculator. But at least it comes with a blue backlight.
The Rotel RSX-1550 is a 5x 100W receiver featuring all of the latest audio standards. You get the newest codecs — barring the two-month-old Pro Logic IIz — including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Interestingly, Rotel has dropped support for one of the audio standards it championed, but never took off: HDCD. But otherwise you'll find support for other formats including DTS 96/24 and DVD-As.
Unlike the newer breed of receivers, the RSX-1550 still features an old-school black and white menu. But accessing it isn't the easiest thing in the world. Pressing the menu button doesn't give you a menu — just a description of the input you're switched to, and no instructions as to what to do next. After consulting one of the four manuals in the box we found that you have to press Enter to get to the menu — this is a shame as the "input" page could have told you that. Once accessed though, the menu is quite straightforward, and if you're familiar with most amp set-ups you'll find it easy to navigate.
The provision of inputs is reasonable, with four version 1.3 ports available, but this is still short of the Sony STRDA5400ES's six. You'll also find three component inputs, three composite and three S-Video ports. Audio is also well served with a 7.1 analog input in addition to four optical and three coaxial digital inputs. Interestingly the receiver will only output at 1080p via HDMI — and is limited to 1080i for component. While we can't see too many people with 1080p screens still using component connections, this is still a little disappointing.
As with all of its amplifiers, the RSX-1550 features Rotel's Balanced Design Concept which, according to the company, combines attention to the circuit board layout and parts evaluation, and extensive listening tests. Though this is only a 5.1 channel receiver, if you're looking to upgrade to 7.1, Rotel offers an additional 2x 100W amplifier, the RB-1562, for AU$1199.
Like Marantz, Rotel is a company that prides itself on its music reproduction. It came as a surprise, then, that this is a very capable movies machine. Even without calibration the Rotel's surround steering was excellent when playing the Spider-Man 3 Blu-ray. However, as expected, it was even better after waving a decibel meter around: some of the woollier bass effects of the rooftop chase sequence were tightly controlled and dialogue was clean and sparkling.
The receiver's talents continued to DVD, and the Dolby EX mix of the Fellowship of the Rings greeted us with integrated bass and smooth surround effects. We were surprised when it managed to do a better job than the on-board decoding of the AU$2200 Sony BDPS5000ES Blu-ray player. The LFE channel wasn't as integrated when we chose to let the BD player decode — much better when we let the receiver handle the job.
The Rotel's video capabilities appeared sound, while it uses a no-name scaler versus competitors' Faroudja DCDi chipset we didn't notice any artefacting when sending our reference screen an upscaled 1080p image from Foxtel or a DVD.
Other reviews on the RSX-1550 have said that the receiver is too laid back but we didn't see this at all. In fact, we found it to be quite accurate, if not as detailed as some competitors. We pitted the Rotel directly with two receivers of a similar price, the Marantz SR6003 and the Sony STRDA5400ES and found it couldn't compete on the one thing Rotel is renowned for: music reproduction. While it was perfectly respectable in its own right, the on-board DAC wasn't even up to the standard of the Yamaha CD-S700's we used as a test unit. Over a series of tests we found we preferred the sound of the Yamaha — it had a tighter and warmer sound than Rotel's own DAC.
But it is an acceptable music spinner, and there was a tremendous sense of space in Red Right Hand. On some systems the bass and vocals can compete, but not on the well-integrated Rotel. Yet, while we liked this receiver a whole lot, we think the Sony was better for CDs, with a deadlocked stereo image and a more detailed and "exciting" sound — perfect for rock and intimate vocals alike.