Rotel CD11 Tribute CD Player & A11 Tribute Integrated Amplifier Review
David Price tunes into a special CD player/integrated amp combination, voiced by late industry legend, Ken Ishiwata…
CD11 Tribute CD Player / A11 Tribute Integrated Amplifier
AUD $649/NZD $699 and AUD $1099/NZD $1199 respectively
“I sometimes think about the path my life has taken,” Ken Ishiwata told me five years ago, “and it is very difficult to imagine myself working for the first company I joined – Pioneer – now. Many people have quietly told me that they thought it was a big mistake to let me go. Nobody knows one way or the other I suppose, but I don't think I could have learned as much as I have with Marantz, nor been as successful. Who knows?”
Who knows indeed, because not long after Ken's Ruby anniversary at Marantz in 2018, he found himself out of the company – for reasons best known to the company's top brass. What we do know, however, is that he was sad to leave an organisation he loved, and the people he'd worked with for many decades. Those who speculated that he might retire didn't know him very well. Soon, he was involved in several ventures, while consolidating his close, long term friendship with Karl-Heinz Fink of Fink Audio. Although the latter is known to the industry as a speaker designer, he's nuts about classic analogue and many other pursuits too.
A decade or so ago I was fortunate enough to have Ken drive me down to KHF's headquarters in Essen, Germany – after we'd spent a couple of days at Marantz's European head office in Eindhoven, Holland. For a good part of that journey – which was German autobahns, mostly – he had his BMW 650 Coupe nailed to the 255km/h speed limiter, giving me the impression that the two cities were closer than they really were. When we got there, KHF hurried the two of us up to an attic room which turned out to be his den. Packed with EMT turntables, classic vinyl and all sorts of exotic moving coil cartridges, it was a memorable end to a special day.
Ken and Karl-Heinz were great mates, and after the former left Marantz, it was obvious that the two of them were going to collaborate. Yet as we all now know, Ken was tragically taken from us in November 2019, leaving many loose ends. I last spoke to him in October. He reflected on the hi-fi world in general, telling me that, “I am one of the lucky ones to experience everything in hi-fi, from mono LP, then stereo, the change from tubes to transistors, then CD and SACD to finally no packaged media! I experienced all that – not many people can say that!” Presciently, his parting shot was this: “One thing's for sure, you never know what will happen with your life tomorrow.”
Ken's collaboration with Rotel was kept quiet. Working from his home in Antwerp – doubtless to the dulcet tones of his beloved Marantz Tt-1000II turntable, complete with SME Series V tonearm and custom-made Ikeda moving coil cartridge – he began voicing two new Rotel products. Fascinatingly though, these weren't ultra high-end designs, but entry-level components. “My greatest high during my career at Marantz is without doubt the Ken Ishiwata Signature CD player series”, he once said. Ken had an enduring fascination for mainstream, affordable audio. He hinted to me that he'd got some very big offers from some of the most prestigious high-end names, yet still chose to work on these affordable designs.
Costing $649 and $1,099 in Australia respectively, the CD11 Tribute and A11 Tribute you see here are cheap, but not quite the cheapest. That means there was at least some budget for Ken to work his magic. As far back as the early nineteen nineties, I remember him visiting the London office of my first magazine – Hi-Fi World – and telling an assembled audience that there was a huge difference in sound between individual capacitor and resistor brands. It was the first time I'd met him, and I was intrigued. As a direct result of this, some of the younger and more adventurous staff at the magazine started modifying our own systems, fitting fancy high end Japanese electronic components from the likes of Nichicon and ELNA into our regular amplifiers, CD players and phono stages. His enthusiasm was infectious, and we'd caught the bug!
At the time, what Ken was saying sounded bonkers to most people – yet there was method to his madness. He explained that he had a notebook where he kept his findings, and apparently, he'd listened to pretty much every type and brand of electronic component you could buy from Akihabara. This is Tokyo's so-called “electric city” – it even says so on the railway signs, as you enter the station – and where you can buy pretty much every electronic component known to man. When I lived in Tokyo in the nineteen nineties, you couldn't drag me away from the place. After many years of auditioning, Ken knew the acoustic signatures or “sound flavours” of umpteen different types and brands of capacitor, resistor and diode – and importantly, how they interacted. It's this knowledge that he brought to the likes of Marantz's brilliant CD63 KI Signature, and now to the Rotel CD11 and A11 Tributes.
Ken left Marantz after the Munich High End Show in early summer 2019, and by the end of the season was having discussions with Rotel on a special project to take two of the company's budget hi-fi separates and rework them. “I was in the same audiophile circles as Ken over the years – as were the Tachikawa family in Japan, the founders and owners of Rotel”, says Daren Orth, Rotel's Chief Technology Officer. “There was mutual respect of the talent, and the project became a reality in September. All of the Rotel engineering team were delighted at finally having the opportunity to work with him.”
It was agreed to focus on the CD11 CD player and A11 integrated. “The team believed these were the perfect base to turn into something very special”, he adds. “Ken made his initial appraisal and agreed a new specification with the Rotel engineering team. Initial prototypes were then produced by Ken and his own long-term acoustic engineering contacts, with the final spec agreed with the team at Rotel.” Sadly though, Ken passed away in November 2019 and wasn't able to complete the project. However, some of Ken's friends and partners – including Karl-Heinz Fink – volunteered to continue his work with Rotel, to realise his original vision. Finished production units finally arrived this autumn.
Starting with the CD11 Tribute CD player, and this is a pretty prosaic looking budget device. It appears well built for the money and is commendably fuss-free in its ergonomics – but superficially at least, it doesn't set the pulse racing. It measures 430×98×314mm and weighs 5.8kg, heavier than you'd expect at this price. That's partly because of the high-quality toroidal transformer fitted, and also down to a “special modification” – as Ken liked to say – to the case.
Inside, it gets eight key capacitor changes and one resistor change in the DAC stage – the CD11 uses a Texas Instruments 24-bit/192kHz chip, by the way – and all nine power supply caps are improved, with some tweaks made to the analogue output section. Much effort has gone into mechanical damping, with custom vibration absorbing material fitted to the top cover to eliminate vibration and ringing, and changes were made to the mechanical and electrical grounding of the CD player. Round the back, you get RCA phono and coaxial digital outputs.
Measuring 430x93x345 mm, the A11 Tribute integrated amplifier has similar dimensions to its matching CD spinner but weighs a bit more at 6.85kg. It packs a claimed 2x50W RMS per channel into 8 ohms of Class AB power, and sports four RCA line inputs, a moving magnet phono stage and apt-X Bluetooth. Under the hood, an oversized toroidal power transformer is fitted, and there's a Texas Instruments 24-bit, 192kHz DAC to offer digital functionality. A-B speaker switching is offered via the 5-way speaker binding posts at the back.
Once again, specially selected components are fitted into the amplifier's signal path, including all ten capacitors and two resistors in the output stage. The preamplifier section gets six new capacitor upgrades, said to be over half the components in the signal path. Custom damping materials were added to the chassis to reduce ringing, as per the CD11 Tribute silver disc spinner. Remote controls are supplied with both products, naturally.
The result of all this is two relatively cheap hi-fi separates that are nice to look at and to use, but appear nothing special on the outside. Yet there is obviously strength in depth, and there's something rather pleasing about having smart but bland-looking products that you know have been 'breathed on' to sound better than they have a right to. For the purposes of this review, I tried a range of loudspeakers from the excellent but affordable Cambridge Audio Aeromax 60 floorstanders right up to my Yamaha NS-1000M monitors. Even though the latter are hardly typical of the sort of speakers that will be used with these Rotels, Ken was a big fan, so I'm sure he'd approve!
It's with boring predictability that I have to report that these two products sound superb for the money, but I wasn't completely surprised if I'm honest. The best thing you can say about them is that you can put them on the end of a seriously capable pair of speakers and they'll just relax and make great music. There's absolutely no sense of you listening to something that's built down to a price. Unlike so many budget products – for which you immediately have to start making excuses – the Rotel CD11 Tribute and A11 Tribute just go in and get the job done, without drawing attention to their failings. That's because at this price at least, they don't have any.
Kicking off with Curved Air's Back Street Luv for example, and I was struck by the scale and energy of the A11 Tribute; it has an immediate, positive and engaging manner that's totally at odds with what you would expect at this price. The close-miked vocals really pushed through the mix, setting up a wide and strong central image in my listening room. At the same time, there was lots of power to the sound considering the price; the musicians' playing came over with oodles of energy – more so than you'd expect from classic English prog! The Rotel didn't seem out of its depth or intimidated by this vintage recording, quite the reverse.
The confidence and articulation of the sound seemed to be a declaration of intent, so I pressed on with some heavier programme material. The Chameleons' Don't Fall is a dense, heavily modulated slice of eighties goth rock, and great at testing the mettle of any hi-fi system. The Rotel combo made a fine fist of it, showing a good deal of midband detail that really pulled the listener into the mix. The multi-layered, effects-laden guitars had solidity and bite, while the drum kit punched through the fray with a characteristically tight eighties snare sound. Hi-hat cymbals sounded sweeter and smoother than expected, and the bass guitar was tuneful and strong. The overall effect was of an engaging, revealing and entertaining source/amp combination that never alerted you as to its humble beginnings.
This combo has real subtlety too; it's insightful enough to get into the groove even when the music isn't being machine-gunned out at you. Moving to some classic modern jazz and Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage was a pleasure; the Rotel combo served up a lovely saxophone sound and a pleasingly dulcet piano. Behind this, the double bass did its stuff in a fluent and tuneful way, syncopating nicely with the drum kit work and that lovely on/off beat hi-hat hitting. Just seconds into the song, I found myself completely forgetting I was listening to budget hi-fi – something that's normally impossible to do. The groove really got going, and the Rotel Tributes showed they could time surprisingly well – so much so that the music came over as really quite enchanting.
Of course, these two bits of kit aren't miracle workers. They have limitations and failings like anything else, but their sins are those of omission; they don't introduce grain or hardness, and nor do they sit on dynamics particularly, or squash timing information. Instead, these Rotels simply add euphonic haze to the proceedings – imbuing the midland with a gentle fluffiness – as well as softening the bass and subtly constraining front-to-back depth perspective. These sins are exceedingly easy to live with.
The CD11 Tribute and A11 Tribute set a high bar for Rotel products from now on, especially in value terms – they'll be a hard act to follow. They also sound slightly sweeter and more euphonic than you'd expect from this marque, clearly showing the Ishiwata influence.
The result is an exceptionally able, affordable CD player/integrated amplifier combo that offers spectacular value for money, and has a charm of its very own. Impoverished audiophiles, get your chequebooks at the ready.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.