Rotel’s latest tuner is much more than a way to listen to Radio 3, says Andrew Everard
Even before you unbox the latest hi-fi separate from Rotel, you get an idea what you’re letting yourself in for: the RDG model number prefix is a new one for the company, and the explanation is printed on the packaging.
This may look like a radio tuner, but in fact it’s a Rotel Digital Gateway, able to tune to internet radio stations as well as DAB and FM, stream music from a computer or storage device over a home network, and accept direct digital connections from a range of devices.
Yes, like many other consumer electronics companies, Rotel is making the move into home streaming.
It has an all-in one solution, the £1195 RCX-1500 streaming CD receiver, for those wanting to do no more than add a pair of speakers, sit back and listen, but it’s also accommodating those with an existing Rotel system with the arrival of the £795 RDG-1520 we have here, designed to match the rest of the 15 Series components. And if you have a system made up from the components of the company’s junior 06 Series, there’s the £650 RT-09 internet/DAB/FM tuner.
At its simplest, the RDG-1520 is a radio tuner, with separate antenna inputs for its FM RDS and DAB tuners, and 30 presets across the two bands. However, that’s just the start of what this unit can do: it also has a choice of wireless Wi-Fi or Ethernet wired network connection to home broadband, allowing it to access a choice of what’s now estimated as around 15,000 internet radio stations, plus a variety of premium streaming services.
Exactly which services can be used will vary from country to country, but the unit can be set up remotely via Rotel’s internet radio portal, www.rotelradio.com, where favourite internet radio stations can also be selected.
The RGD-1520 can handle internet radio streams in MP3, WMA, Org Vorbis, AAC and AAC+, the format being determined by the streaming service.
In addition, the Rotel has both optical and electrical digital input sockets, to which external source components can be connected, and a front panel USB socket for the connection of memory devices such as USB ‘sticks’, from which it will handle WMA and MP3 files.
This socket also allows the direct digital connection of iPods and iPhones, bypassing the Apple player’s onboard conversion and analogue stages and feeding the signal to the Rotel’s internal DACs, which are made by Wolfson and offer 24-bit/192kHz capability.
What is slightly unusual is the way the Rotel goes about handling network connections: rather than having an Ethernet socket on the rear panel and a simple screw-on connector for a stubby rubber Wi-Fi antenna, there’s just another USB socket on the rear panel, with Ethernet and IEEE802.11b/g Wi-Fi adapter ‘dongles’ supplied in the box.
These plug into the USB socket, and then either the Ethernet cable from the network is plugged in, or the wireless network is detected.
Yes, it feels a bit clunky compared to the connectivity offered on rival products such as the Marantz NA7004, even though of course the Rotel does offer Wi-Fi as standard, unlike the Marantz. And there is a caveat – I’ll come to that in a moment.
Once set up, the Rotel will stream from PCs or Macs with sharing enabled, with direct streaming from PCs running Windows Media Player 11 or above, or Macs with suitable UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) software, and of course will also work with network-attached storage (NAS) drives running suitable UPnP software.
Among the formats possible are WMA, MP3, WAV, AAC and FLAC, which should suit all but the Applecentric. Those wanting to stream Apple Lossless will need software able to transcode on the fly: for example, Elgato’s EyeConnect will do the trick for Mac-based content.
That capability, however, does depend on actually getting the Rotel onto the network in the first place. I had no problems whatsoever with the little USB/Ethernet dongle supplied: once the device was plugged in and the network detected, I was streaming music from both servers and internet within minutes.
The wireless dongle was a different matter: despite the system sitting just a few metres from my wireless router, the Rotel showed ‘low signal’, and though it could see internet radio stations it repeatedly dropped them.
Similarly, though it could see my various streaming devices, it showed ‘empty’ whenever I tried to access their music stores.
It would seem that this third-party device is rather letting the side down: Rotel needs to take another look at its choice, or users should budget for a better Ethernet-to-USB ‘bridge’. I tried the RDG-1520 with another device I had to hand, and it worked without problems.
It’s also worth pointing out that the unit has separate antenna inputs for DAB and FM, so either two aerials or a splitter will be needed, and that the socket marked ‘Computer I/O’ on the rear does allow a computer to be connected, but only to control the unit, not to feed audio from it.
There’s even a little fix to tone down the unit’s bright blue ring of light around the main power switch: it’s a little self-adhesive mask you can attach if the lamp’s too bright.
All of that doesn’t sound too impressive, but what the Rotel lacks in smooth set-up, it repays in performance.
As I’ve come to expect from the company’s current products, and in particular the upmarket 15 Series, the RDG-1520 sounds very good indeed across a range of material, from analogue and digital radio to a variety of online and streamed content.
Playing files stored at a decent bitrate from my iPhone showed the benefits of the high-quality digital input, with plenty of power, detail and ambience apparent even with 256kbps files, and things even better at 320kbps.
The same is true with internet radio: of course, the Rotel can’t make really low bitrate content sound anything but rather spare and clinical, but feed it the likes of my favourite Avro Klassiek stations from the Netherlands, and you have a sound to put Radio 3’s terrestrial DAB service to shame.
But this ‘tuner’ really shines with CD-quality rips streamed from the home network, where it’s able to show just how viable is the concept of storing all your music for instant access, even though – in common with several 'early' streaming implementations – gapless playback isn't supported. The sound is rich, well-balanced and packed with detail, not to mention having an open and involving treble that makes the most of recorded ambience.
The Rotel isn’t the only streaming tuner on the market, and before long it’s likely to find itself in an ever more crowded arena.
If you don’t want to put all your eggs in one streaming device basket, or you simply want to add a wide range of capabilities to an existing system – particularly if it’s a Rotel system – it’s well worth a serious look, and a lengthy audition.
Type FM/DAB/internet radio tuner/streaming client
Digital-to-analogue conversion 192kHz/24-bit
Inputs Optical/electrical digital, front panel USB for memory ‘sticks’ and iPod/iPhone, rear panel USB for Ethernet and Wi-Fi, FM and DAB antennae
Outputs Analogue audio on RCA phonos
Other connections Computer control interface, infrared remote input, 12V trigger
Accessories supplied Remote handset, Ethernet and IEEE802.11b/g wireless adapters, DAB and FM antennae
Dimensions (WxHxD) 43.1x9.9x31.2cm