During the audio boom period of the late 1960s and 70s it was quite common to see stereo receivers, not only as part of dorm-room systems but also in more sophisticated and costly setups. The audio shops of the day, often located outside the gates of local colleges, moved these audio equivalents of a Swiss army knife like hotcakes, and GIs were able to buy hulking receivers made in Japan for ridiculously low prices. While most of these flashy receivers suffered sonically compared to their separate counterparts, they made it very easy for many music enthusiasts to jump on the audio bandwagon. That’s how I got my start in this hobby. The market’s enthusiasm for receivers waned in the 1980s and early 90s, and with the advent of home-theater systems, sales of multichannel AVRs took off and the venerable stereo receiver practically disappeared from sight. When I was asked to review a couple of new receivers from Rotel and Outlaw specifically designed for two-channel applications, I thought, “Are these guys nuts?”
Both Rotel and Outlaw Audio may be crazy like foxes. Rotel recognizes that many audiophiles and music enthusiasts prefer stereo sound for their serious listening (and rightly so). For its part, Outlaw Audio suggests that although millions of AVRs have been sold, only a small percentage of households use more than two speakers. I can’t verify this claim, but with the explosive growth of two-channel digital sources like the iPod, a high-quality stereo receiver makes a lot of sense from both a practical and sonic standpoint. Indeed, what sets these two receivers apart from most AVRs is the quality of their sound, and that is the primary focus of this comparison.
Over the past several decades, Rotel has gained a solid reputation among audiophiles for goodsounding gear that’s reasonably priced, and the $899 RX-1052 definitely fits this mold. It is an interesting synthesis of the “tried and true” and the “new.” This stereo receiver employs proven techniques to produce better sound, like using good internal parts and external binding posts, and a beefy, custom toroidal transformer mated with highquality storage capacitors. Pick this unit up and you’ll realize you’re not dealing with a lightweight. Appealing to analog lovers, Rotel includes a decent moving-magnet phonostage, so there’s no need to add an external phonostage if you want to spin vinyl.
As for the new, the Rotel can distribute audio and composite video to four rooms or different locales in and around your house, but you’ll need to add amplifiers to power the other three pairs of loudspeakers. What’s very slick is that each “zone” has independent source selection and volume adjustment, so you can play jazz in one room from a CD while others listen to vinyl or the radio in different rooms, or switch to “Party Mode” and play the same source throughout the house. While I consider the basic video capability a bonus convenience feature in a stereo receiver that sounds this good, some videophiles will be disappointed that the Rotel is limited to composite-video switching.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Outlaw is its unique industrial design, reminiscent of a large art-deco table radio. It has a thick, multilayered front panel and its customized knobs and controls all have a solid feel. For its $599 price I would have expected the Outlaw to deliver around 60 watts per channel, but like the Rotel it’s rated at 100Wpc, which is sufficient to drive most loudspeakers you’re likely to throw at it. Both receivers have AM/FM tuners, independent source selection for listening and recording, balance controls, and headphone jacks.
Despite its retro looks, the Outlaw Audio RR2150 is a thoroughly modern design. While it lacks the whole-house audio-video functionality of the Rotel, the Outlaw outpoints its more expensive rival on a bunch of other features. It allows easy connections to an iPod or other MP3 player via its 3.5mm frontpanel AUX input, or streaming audio from a computer via a USB connector on the rear. The “RetroReceiver” almost begs you to hook up your iPod and computer to step up your sound quality. The Outlaw also has a separate subwoofer output along with analog bass management to help integrate satellite speakers with a sub. (I never expected to see this in a stereo receiver.) While both the Rotel and Outlaw have good moving-magnet phonostages, the Outlaw can also drive moderately-low-output moving- coils, like my Koetsu. In contrast to the Rotel, the Outlaw sports an external processor loop, a headphone jack with a level control, and preamplifier and amplifier stages that can easily be decoupled to allow use with other electronics.