AAD M Series Speaker System and Rotel RSX-1057 A/V Receiver

We could be heroes.

What would your life be like if you'd married the first person you ever dated? If you want a great home theater system, sometimes it pays to dig deeper. OK, American Acoustic Development (AAD) stands in the shadow of larger and more prestigious brands, so this may be the first time AAD's M Series speakers have come to your attention. And you're not likely to find the Rotel RSX-1057 receiver in the big chain stores that fill cavernous spaces with little worth hearing. But these two brands have more to offer than many of their market-leading, deep-pocketed rivals.

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The man behind American Acoustic Development is a transplanted Englishman named Phil Jones. He is the man responsible for such products as the Acoustic Energy AE-1, the Boston Acoustics Lynnfield Series, and the Platinum Audio Solo. He is also both a bass guitarist and a string bassist whose products have attracted a following among musicians and recording engineers. With AAD, his latest vehicle, he struts his stuff across six product lines. One is the 7001 near-field monitor with a ribbon tweeter—I'll get back to that someday. Another is the M Series, his first value-priced surround system.

Rotel has been around since 1961 and is run by Bob Tachikawa, the son of the company's founder. Rotel is one of the relatively unsung heroes of the audio industry, occupying a niche I like to call the low end of the high end. Think of it as entry-level high end, or, in other words, high-end performance at real-world prices. Speaker manufacturers are generally relieved to hear about my Rotel RSX-1065 reference receiver because they know it will make the strongest possible case for their speakers. Its successor, the RSX-1067, is updated with seven channels. Under review here is the RSX-1057, the first Rotel receiver with HDMI video switching.

A Tower for Smaller Rooms
The AAD M Series includes the M-5T tower, M-5C center, M-5X mini monitor, and M-10S subwoofer, all of which are represented here. But other, smaller configurations are possible. You might use three M-5Cs as L/C/Rs across the front with the M-5X in the surround channels. Or you might use four of the mini monitors with one center, or perhaps five matched mini monitors. The center and mini monitor include pre-attached keyhole wall mounts for further flexibility.

Some towers of the same general size as the M-5T festoon their baffles with lots of woofers and midrange drivers. As a result, you have to sit pretty far back for them to blend. That's not so with the M Series tower. The distance between woofers, from center to center, is just 8.5 inches, making this speaker suitable for close-in listening. And these speakers, unlike many, sound decent when you place them close to the wall. The towers stand on stubby feet that rest on rubber rings. You can also screw in spikes to anchor the speaker to the floor.

Although its enclosure is smaller, the center uses exactly the same driver array as the tower, with the same spacing. You can place it horizontally, but you'll get the most seamless soundstage if you place it vertically, as I did. The use of unmatched center speakers is one of my perpetual gripes against speaker makers. This system is a happy exception.

At first glance, the speakers look conventional. But AAD has carefully and selectively tuned the internal bracing beneath those staid enclosures to eliminate cabinet resonance. According to AAD's Eric Sharp, "The enclosures are carefully braced using anechoic and accelerometer measurements to find the exact resonance points of the enclosure. We then brace and dampen them where they actually resonate instead of just overfilling the enclosures with oak trees and lead girders like some loudspeakers." He also mentioned that there's a "bump in the tower's bass-port tuning to compensate for the low-frequency suck-out of budget receivers."

The speakers aesthetically brighten up a bit with the grilles off, thanks largely to the shiny metal-composite ring that surrounds the tweeter. AAD designs and builds their own drivers—no off-the-shelf parts here. The "ring diffraction transducer" tweeter goes out to 40 kilohertz, the manufacturer says, claiming this extends the range of high frequencies you can't hear to shore up the foundation of those you can.

The woofer cone is a lightweight blend of pulp fiber and a resin formulated by AAD to provide low mass and rigidity, which is helpful with the always-laudable goal of pistonlike behavior.

The subwoofer is a 10-inch, front-firing design. It has the usual controls, plus a limiting circuit that Jones derived from his line of bass-guitar amps. The sub needed 55 percent of its level control's possible rotation to work with my usual surround-processor setting, versus the normal 33 percent. That's because AAD has deliberately arranged their input sensitivity to provide more volume-control swing at lower output levels.

Five Channels Are Plenty
The look of the new RSX-1057 is distinctively Rotel, with a matte-silver aluminum faceplate at the center of a black chassis. Ventilation holes cover nearly all of the top surface. The volume knob is located right in the middle of the front panel, and two rows of buttons flank it. Oddly, all of the left-hand ones relate to the radio tuner. The right-hand ones include source-select controls at top and (mostly) surround-mode controls at bottom.

The LCD-adorned universal remote control is not the hefty wedge-shaped unit that Rotel supplies with the RSX-1067 and RSX-1065, although it does have a similar layout. Volume keys move one increment at a time with a short press and in larger jumps with a longer press. Source keys accept a short press for remote functions and a long one for source select.

The rated power is 75 watts times five. Slaves of 7.1 might call this a limitation; I call it common sense. Unless your home theater is huge or shaped like a shoe box, two surround channels do a fine job of covering an average room. The unit does have 7.1-channel preamp output (with two rear surrounds, two front centers, and two subs), and it decodes Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, and DTS ES. The extra sub-out is something every receiver should have. Adding a second sub is a great way to even out bass coverage.

Unlike many other receiver manufacturers, Rotel specifies power without using the marketing tool known as lying. The RSX-1057 is rated at 75 watts with all five channels driven at a full range of frequencies. Lab measurements tend to reveal Rotel power specs as conservative. See the measurements box to learn what we found.

Although the new RSX-1057 is the first Rotel receiver to sport HDMI—two in, one out—be warned that it's version 1.1, video passthrough only. So, it would still be a good idea to route Dolby Digital and DTS through the coaxial or optical inputs. If you're an early adopter of Blu-ray or HD DVD, the best course is to use the player's built-in decoder and the analog multichannel interface.

On the video side, the RSX-1057 transcodes composite and S-video sources to component video (but not to HDMI). It does not provide deinterlacing or upscaling.

The user interface includes several improvements over previous models. One thing that always annoyed me about Rotel receivers was that the front-panel power button had only two settings—on and total power-down—so I had to find the remote to switch between on and standby. The button now switches between on and standby, and the hard power switch is now on the back.

One surviving peculiarity is that the menu button does not bring up the main menu. Instead, a system-status screen offers information on the selected surround mode, input status, and active channels. Press enter to continue to the main menu.

Cool new stuff: The sub crossover is configurable for each surround mode and every speaker group (front, center, etc.). The high- and low-frequency contour controls also govern speaker groups, mitigating the bad karma you so richly deserve when you buy mismatched speakers. Having trouble catching dialogue? A high-frequency boost might improve the center channel better than a volume boost. Has your display's pokey video processor left faces and voices out of whack? Rotel has added a lip-sync adjustment.

Like a considerate host, Rotel is careful not to startle you. You can specify a default turn-on volume, as well as a maximum volume. But there's more. To deal with dynamically unpredictable action-movie soundtracks, the receiver has a dynamic-range control specifically for Dolby Digital. (If there is one in your DVD player, it probably handles all the audio outputs.) Cinema EQ, which serves as a balm for abrasive soundtracks, is carried over from older models.

Gershwin: A Special Occasion
I had been saving Telarc's SACD release of Rhapsody in Blue for a special occasion. The opening solo clarinet rose and took wing, followed by the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, led by Ernest Martinez Izquierdo. Then piano soloist Michel Camilo entered to deliver Gershwin's flights of fancy. Telarc's string sound—in this and many other recordings—tends toward the dark, distantly miked side, but the AADs lit up the string sound and located it precisely within a fixed space. The tone color and percussive dynamics of Camilo's piano were also well served. What the Rotel contributed was an extra degree of transparency. Clean amplification was a boon: The more I turned it up, the better I liked it.

807AAd.8.jpgIn addition to making naturalistic recordings sound natural, the system also made artificial recordings sound artificial. There was no mistaking the mixer's intention on the DTS mix of Hell Freezes Over by the Eagles. The acoustic guitar solo in "Hotel California" was in the front right speaker, period. The opening synth riff of "New York Minute" was in the left surround channel, period. Most other elements were conservatively arranged—it was tight in the front, ambient in the rear. It's actually a pretty good mix, but the overall balance is more than a little bright, and this system didn't conceal it. So much for the myth of Rotel's "polite" top end. It's not polite or reticent, just natural. That's how I like it.

Having heard the Fall's song "Blindness" dozens of times in the ad for the Mitsubishi Outlander, I went instead for the live version from The Fall: The Complete Peel Sessions 1978–2004. The BBC live-in-studio recording was more clinical than the studio version from Fall Heads Roll, and the system did nothing to dramatize it or gussy it up. But it also brought Mark E. Smith's declamatory sneer into finer focus.

A Soundfield as Big as the Sky
Audiophiles often say you can hear better if you dim the lights. A Scanner Darkly movie proves it. When characters donned those perpetually shifting camouflage suits, the drain on my brainpower was so intense that it gave me a headache. Closing my eyes relieved the strain, and, every time I did it, my perception of action in the soundfield suddenly intensified, as though someone had flipped a switch. The system did well with effects and music.

One Night with the King offered a few naturalistic effects, including desert wind, rain, and thunder. Voices had a "right-thereness"—I didn't need to take advantage of Rotel's advanced settings to make the center channel do its work. The speakers loved the massed trombones that rang out during an opulent procession as much as the sub grooved on a thundering tympani. The orchestral soundtrack played crisply, but tastier treats were in store with the next title.

Flyboys is a World War I aviation epic with all the dramatic elements you'd expect. What wowed me immediately was the orchestral music, which conjured a soundfield as big as the sky. Besides sounding impressive, the music also neatly drew a generous frame around the fight scenes, with their modulation and panning of motor noise.

AAD's sub behaved well through nearly all of its volume range, and that is a good thing. It certainly played more than loud enough in my room and cleanly enough to deliver the macho drama of warring internal-combustion engines. The AAD/Rotel system was ideal for my room. It's certainly better to fill a midsized room well than to fill a large one badly.

All-Star Team
The M Series' lively top end and tight bass together suggest that there's wisdom in buying speakers designed by a musician. Rotel, I have always felt, is worth a pilgrimage in itself—if you're in the market for a moderately priced surround receiver, make it a point to find an A/V specialty dealer and listen to the RSX-1057. Together, they're an all-star team.

Highlights
Rotel RSX-1057 A/V Receiver:
• Lower-end brother of the reviewer's beloved reference receiver
• Performance is prioritized over features
• Fills a midsized room with smooth sound

Highlights
AAD M Series Speaker System:
• Crisp midrange, detailed highs, and tight bass
• Staid looks and lively sound
• Strong price/performance ratio

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