Rotel RSP-1069 Processor and RMB-1085 Amplifier

Separates Are What Keep Us Apart

Back in the days when CRT front projectors roamed the earth, any serious home theater required a separate surround processor and amplifier. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to find a Tri-Amplisauri from Parasound, Proceed, and others covering those three all-important front channels. Of course, technology has advanced significantly in the past decade. These days, unless you have some very special needs, you can’t go wrong with today’s powerful and reasonably priced one-piece receivers. Many have more amplified channels than Hillary Clinton has pant suits. Rotel makes a number of A/V receivers. I even reviewed one for a few years ago. But the separates I reviewed here are not simply a case of cutting the baby in half. This here is a new species.

The RSP-1069 processor ($2,199) features Rotel’s recent signature look: an attractive brushed-aluminum face panel between black end caps. The company also offers a solid-black option for these components. The front-panel bass and treble controls, marked LF and HF (for low frequency and high frequency) are truly retro in function. Their small diameter is more reminiscent of car stereo than home theater. Two rows of small buttons to the right of the central volume knob control source selection and surround processing modes. The large front-panel LED’s big cyan letters are bright enough to be informative but soft enough so they won’t distract you in a dark room.

The rear panel contains sufficient inputs and outputs for nearly any home theater. The four HDMI (1.1) inputs can handle two high-definition players and a high-definition DVR and leave a spare input for the future. But there’s only a single HDMI output. If you have both a flat panel and a front projector, you’ll have to do the cable shuffle or use an outboard HDMI splitter. There are also component inputs and a component output. You might not need the latter since the RSP-1069 can transcode component to HDMI, so you can run a single cable to your TV. And in case you’re wondering, it can cross-convert HDMI (as high as 1080i) to component as well.

Rotel included four optical and three coaxial digital audio inputs for non-HDMI sources and an eight-channel analog input bank for SACD and DVD-Audio players. While Rotel touts the RSP-1069 as a 7.1-channel processor, it actually contains outputs for stereo subs and two center channels. This brings the number of single-ended RCA preamp output jacks on the processor’s rear panel to ten.

The Rotel offers a broad range of cross-conversion and upconversion for digital and analog sources, with Faroudja DCDi processing. It can scale component sources from 480i/576i, 480p/576p, 720p, to 1080i and output at any of those resolutions via component. And it scales all of those resolutions plus 1080p via HDMI. The Rotel can pass any 1080p HDMI signal through to a 1080p display with no processing.

The RSP-1069 is definitely trigger-happy. With the onscreen setup menus, you can order any combination of the Rotel’s six 12-volt triggers to engage when you select a specific input. Since the processor can trigger the RMB-1085 amplifier, you can assign one output trigger to all of the inputs to turn on the amplifier. You can then use other triggers to lower your screen or dim the lights when you engage your Blu-ray or DVD player.

You can also use the RSP-1069 to control up to three zones outside the main room. Each zone has an input for a remote IR receiver, as well as a single composite video and two-channel analog audio outputs. The manual also mentions a nice feature called Party mode. If you press the front-panel Zone button for three seconds, the Rotel will send the source playing in the main room to all the zones. Instant party!

The RSP-1069 automatically decodes properly flagged digital soundtracks, such as Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS, along with Dolby EX and DTS ES if you’re using more than 5.1 channels. The manual completely skirts the issues of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio because the Rotel processor cannot decode them internally. But fear not—as long as your player can decode those formats to linear, uncompressed PCM, the Rotel’s HDMI 1.1 input accepts and processes them. Onboard decoding of high-definition audio formats isn’t critical or less desirable than in-player decoding, so Rotel’s approach is just fine in my book.

What else do you give up with the Rotel’s HDMI 1.1 inputs? Practically speaking, you won’t be giving up much. Rotel even insists that the more mature 1.1 standard is more stable and works better for consumers. Rotel backs this up with a position paper on its Website. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but ever since 1.0, HDMI has supported 1080p video and uncompressed PCM. Version 1.1 adds support for DVD-Audio’s lossless encoding, but it doesn’t include SACD, which requires version 1.2. Deep Color, or the ability to reproduce 2.9 billion colors versus the pitiful 17 million currently in vogue, didn’t come along until 1.3. However, there isn’t any currently available high-definition material that’s encoded using this increased bit depth.

When it comes to decoding matrixed, non-discrete audio soundtracks, the Rotel offers Dolby Pro Logic II and IIx (the latter for 6.1 and 7.1 setups). It also provides DTS’s competing Neo:6 processing. In addition, there are four proprietary DSP modes that add processing to simulate larger venues. Rotel also includes a surround option called xSurround (or XS), which derives one or two back channels for a 6.1 or 7.1 system when the source material might only be flagged as a 5.1 signal.

Rotel limited the onscreen displays to the menu and the information screen that pops up when you turn on the unit. There are no onscreen graphics when you change surround modes or adjust the volume. You’ll have to rely on the front-panel display most of the time to see the effects as you operate the remote. The remote looks identical to the one that came with the RSX-1057 A/V receiver I reviewed a few years ago. It has the same flip-down panel and backlighting. And the too-small buttons still beep incessantly when you press them. On the positive side, Rotel corrected the receiver’s hard-to-adjust volume with this model. (It used to have two speeds—slow as molasses and “overshoot.”) The current model still has the same small volume steps that make fine level adjustment easy. As a universal model, the remote can control other components in your system as well. It uses a short-hold/long-hold method for selecting a source (short button press) and controlling the source (long button press).

Since the RSP-1069 is a surround processor, it forgoes many of the features you would find in a receiver. It doesn’t include tuners for analog and digital broadcasts or the incredible Internet radio options that some manufacturers’ flagship models include. You won’t find a phono input, either. But I understand I’m in the minority on this these days, so I won’t belabor the point. The minimalism continues throughout the model. The RSP-1069 also lacks a supplied microphone, automated measurement programs for room equalization, and even automated speaker level setting. Since I generally turn off room EQ anyway, the Rotel’s built-in test-tone generator is enough for me and my trusty RadioShack SPL meter to make a go of things.

Then Came the ICE Age
For the RSX-1057 receiver I reviewed for, Rotel bragged about its oversized toroidal transformer (and who wouldn’t). I’d wager that coil of copper and iron from the receiver weighed more than the whole five-channel RMB-1085 ($1,199) amplifier under review here. Instead of the RSX-1057 receiver’s more conventional approach, the RMB-1085 employs ICEpower technology from Bang & Olufsen. It puts out 100 watts per channel, and it comfortably drove the suck-the-life-outta-girly-amps MartinLogan electrostatic speakers that I used (just because I can).

ICEpower is a Class-D amplification method. Class-D is energy efficient, cool running, and compact. However, with a few notable exceptions, manufacturers have mainly used it in subwoofers—where its ability to make loud noises supersedes its propensity to sound like crap with fuller-range material. However, ICEpower is a radical improvement. Even super-high-end audiophile companies like Jeff Rowland and Bel Canto are using it in amplifiers that cost factors more than Rotel charges for this little honey.

The amplifier matches the pre/pro aesthetically, but it’s only about half its height and weight. The back panel offers single-ended RCA-style inputs and speaker terminals that work best when you use them with banana plugs or bare wire. They can handle spade ends as well. A trigger input lets the processor turn the amp on and off in unison. Like the RSP-1069, the RMB-1085 comes with a detachable power cord.

What You See Isn’t What You Get
Setup is easy in this day of HDMI sources (version be damned). The RMB-1085 includes one cable for video and audio. Only the interconnects between the processor and the amp tend to clutter things up. The onscreen menu has blocky text, which is how I like it. You can select the crossover points for each of your speakers in the Advanced menu, but it’s all very easy to figure out. It took me just a few minutes to balance my speaker levels with the built-in test tone. On the video front, you can choose to let HDMI bypass video processing or convert analog video to HDMI at any of the standard resolutions from 480p through 1080p. However, I prefer to let my display devices do the deed.

I ran into a problem with my first sample of the RMB-1085 amp. When I worked in my bare feet on a ceramic tile floor, I got some mild shocks during setup. It wasn’t as severe as those I would encounter in modern therapy, though. This usually means that the product incurred damage during shipping. I fired the amp up anyway (what, me worry?), and the volume level was drastically muted and unpleasant. A second sample worked fine.

All of my HDMI sources worked well with my plasma. However, if I plugged in the projector, only my DIRECTV DVR worked. Neither the Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD player nor my Sony PlayStation 3 (both configured to output 1080i) produced an image over HDMI to my JVC DLA-HD1 projector. I tried a few things with Rotel’s help, but I couldn’t get it to work. I thought the problem might be my projector, although my high-def players never had a problem running through my reference receiver to the JVC. Still, I’m a tenacious chap, and—may the gods strike me dead if I’m lying—I was ready, willing, and able to purchase another 1080p projector to see if that solved the problem.

Fred 1, Thor 0
The lightning bolt that struck during one of those summer storms we experience here in Bilskirnir Castle (look it up) didn’t directly hit us. But it hit close enough to take out my Comcast data modem, a Belkin N1 Vision wireless router, both of the B-band converters that hang off the back of my DIRECTV DVR (sending me spiraling headlong into a week of low-def TV), and my receipt-missing-otherwise-still-under-warranty PS3. It also did a number on the RSP-1069. But a second unit from Rotel arrived in no time, and I managed to finish this review (before it finished me!).

(978) 664-3820