In terms of large- and small-scale dynamics the Rotel is excellent provided you stay within its power envelope, though there is no getting around the fact that the RSX-1550 is—despite its conservative ratings—simply less powerful than many other AVRs in its price class (many competing receivers serve up 120-to-140 Wpc in contrast the Rotel’s 75 Wpc). In practice, this means the RSX-1550 works very well with speakers that offer moderate (or better) sensitivity, but less well with those that are power hungry. During my listening tests, I tried the Rotel with two speaker systems: the Acoustic Energy Radiance system (whose speakers offer fairly high sensitivity) and with an oldie-but-goodie Von Schweikert Audio System 12 (whose speakers are somewhat harder to drive). Not surprisingly, the RSX-1550 sounded wonderfully expressive with the Acoustic Energy system in play, but struggled at times with the Von Schweikert rig, exhibiting faint signs of compression and/or sonic “hardness” when large-scale sound effects or musical passages came along.
The RSX-1550 does not provide any automated speaker set-up/room EQ functions—features some customers might not miss at all, but that others would definitely appreciate both on sonic grounds and as a matter of practical convenience. Frankly, some audio purists feel that the digital signal processing technologies used in “auto EQ” systems undermine sonic transparency, so the Rotel should appeal to them. On the other hand, my personal experiences with today’s best auto EQ systems have been quite positive. Either way, automated room EQ features are pretty much de rigueur for $2000 AVRs, so that I wish Rotel had included them in the RSX-1550 (even if purists might opt not to use them).
Because of its midrange clarity, the RSX-1550 can do a fine jobof presenting even quite complicated and convoluted soundtracks. A good example would be the soundtrack of the “Hostage Situation” chapter from Spike Lee’s Inside Man. Police are responding to a bank robbery where hostages have been taken and activity at the crime scene is becoming increasingly chaotic. To reflect that fact, the sound designer builds in more and more layers of soundtrack information as the scene unfolds—the sirens of arriving police cars, the piercing horns and deep-throated diesel roar of emergency vehicles, the garbled back-and-forth conversations of law officers on police radios, and snippets of frantic conversations from onlookers. With some receivers this scene could potentially turn into a cacophonous mess, but through the Rotel each individual sonic thread remains clear and well delineated, with every element maintaining its distinct flavor even as new elements are added. Interestingly, each sounds occupies its own tightly focused position within the larger sound field, so that as the sound track becomes more and more complex, listeners can track specific sounds not only by timbre but by their locations. But just when it seems the soundtrack can’t get much more elaborate, director Spike Lee cuts away to nearly silent interior of the bank. The contrast is delicious.
But later on, Inside Man also gives the Rotel a chance to flex its dynamic muscles. Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) has deduced that the bank robber, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has a hidden agenda and that the robbery is not what it appears to be. But before Frazier can act on his insight Russell decides to change the game in a violent way by shooting one of the hostages. Spike Lee captures the horror of the moment by showing that the events leading up to the shooting are unfolding more rapidly than Frazier can follow. One moment Frazier feels he has handle on the situation, and the next we hear the hard, sharp, vicious report of a gunshot as we see a police video of a hostage being shot in the head and then slowly falling to the floor. The Rotel did a very good job of capturing the abrupt transient “bark” of the gunshot, and then the ensuing whirlwind of sounds from within the police van as the officers struggle to comprehend the murder they have just witnessed.
A record that’s been in frequent rotation on my various A/V test systems of late is jazz vocalist Norma Winstone’s Distances [ECM]. A favorite (and very revealing) track from the album is “Mermaids,” which is chockfull of sonic riches from end to end. The track opens with a variegated mix of percussive sounds—deep piano strings that sound as if they have been plucked or struck, hand slaps, and the like—all of which seem to float in space as their notes slowly echo and then fade in the confines of what is plainly a reverberant recording space. The Rotel made a delightfully vivid sonic potpourri of those opening percussion notes, and then got even better when Winstone’s voice, accompanied by Glauco Venier’s haunting piano, enters the song. Winstone’s voice is creamy smooth, yet by no means saccharine sweet, and full of subtle and evocative twists and inflections—characteristics that play right into the Rotel’s greatest sonic strengths. But for me, perhaps the greatest treat of all was hearing how the Rotel handled the dark, reedy sound of Klaus Gesing’s bass clarinet. As it happens, the instrument’s range falls right in the sweet spot between the bass and midrange—a frequency region that the Rotel handles particularly well. That bass clarinet sounded so vibrant and so right that almost felt like I could reach out and touch it.