We take a look at the Rotel A11 and CD11 Tribute, available in black and silver. This integrated amplifier and CD player are an impressive tribute to the legendary sound magician Ken Ishiwata.
Tribute: Impressive tribute
The Japanese audio brand Rotel is such a typical manufacturer that has been running for a long time (since 1961), whose brand name will immediately sound like music to the ears. One of the main reasons for this has certainly to do with the wonderfully spontaneous and enthusiastic way of playing. A presentation that not only has a lot in common with live music, but also knows how to connect the listener more strongly with the underlying message. To be able to experience this myself, I like to get out of my high-end comfort zone for this test. And not only that, because instead of kicking the habit, I really enjoy using these two particularly affordable but also remarkably good entry-level products. You can read in the following story what makes these models so different and desirable.
To put you on the wrong track first, I start this test with the name of sound magician Ken Ishiwata. You will probably recognize it and it belongs to…. Marantz right? On the one hand, that is certainly true because Ken has been at the cradle of many Marantz products due to his enormous talent to tune products sound-wise, and has contributed significantly to the incredibly solid musical image of this also Japanese brand. Unfortunately, on the other hand, after 41 years of employment, the business cake was over and he was faced with the next challenge. Fortunately, this world-famous ‘brand ambassador’ has always remained a freelancer in addition to his Marantz employment. As a result, he had also built up a particularly good and warm contact with the Rotel management during his career. One thing led to another and that is why, after mutual agreement, he decided to do his special work one more time. Namely, the special gift to give certain products a real musical soul by exchanging components. Having had the honor of meeting Ken personally during his lifetime, it deeply moves me to tell you that due to his death from a debilitating illness, he was ultimately unable to experience the definitive production copies of the CD11 Tribute. This made it necessary to have the finishing touches done by his good friend and business partner Karl-Heinz Fink. Together with the support and consent of Ken’s children Mike and Jun, this project eventually became what it is and should be. A tribute to their father and a person who regarded music as the highest art form. Ken Ishiwata turned 72 years old.
Rotel A11 Tribute (599 euros)
To avoid that we don’t go into sad mode now, Ken’s latest efforts turn out to be able to provide downright impressive musical fireworks. Clearly, no energy has been invested in a costly prestige (high-end) project, but very consciously in two modified entry-level models that could be accessible to everyone. An extra degree of difficulty was created because the adjustments were not allowed to increase the production price. Impossible? Not for Ken, who will later turn out to have managed to overcome this tricky hurdle with verve. However, it is clear from the actual construction that these are ‘normal’ entry-level products. Because instead of amplifiers that are so weighty that if you are not careful you will sustain a back injury, the A11 turns out with 6.85 kg (43 cm wide, 9.3 cm high and 34, 5 cm deep) to be almost a featherweight. Not surprising when it turns out that the sheet metal parts are quite thin. But if I consider the price and certainly my follow-up findings, the admiration quickly rises again. Because what a feast is the typically tidy Rotel front. It looks pleasantly ‘clean’ and clear and is a relief because you do not have to consult a thick manual first. Although the A11 is not equipped with extra DAC functions, it turns out there is one hidden in it! This concerns a bluetooth part where actually only the nicely concealed antenna shows that ‘something is going on here’. Everything appears to work with the Apt-X standard and is controlled under the skin by a nice 24-bit / 192 kHz DAC from Texas Instruments. In addition to a headphone connection, there is also room to use two pairs of loudspeakers with round push buttons simultaneously or separately. It used to be an option that was very common, but nowadays a lot rarer. Also useful and especially very pleasant is that things such as dimming the (white) display and blue LED indications are also possible independently of each other via the menu! Of a deeper meaning is the silent but impressive message that is processed on the beautifully subtly applied ‘Tribute shield’. Because the underlying Japanese symbol turns out to stand for the word ‘respect’ and that is what these affordable celebrities certainly evoke in me. When it comes to driving the speakers, the Rotel A11 Tribute is equipped with 2 x 50 Watts of power at 8 Ohm. But the cake is not over yet, because despite its low price, the amplifier is also able to deliver a substantial power at 4 and even 2 ohms. Very well! In terms of other connections, five devices, including a record player with MM cartridge, can find their own place on the well-arranged rear by means of RCA connectors. An unearthed Euro mains plug connection and ‘trigger’ option to switch devices on or off together, round off the weighed total picture in the end.
The difference between Rotel A11 and CD11 Tribute
But now the key question, because what has ensured that this basic standard A11 amplifier deserves the Tribute logo? Let’s assume that the original Rotel A11 is of course already a great amplifier that would already be an excellent offer for many people. Yet the hearing difference with the Tribute performance is ultimately a lot bigger than I expected. A fact that has to do with the fact that ten capacitors in the power amplifier section and six in the preamplifier section have been removed and replaced by carefully chosen ‘audiophile’ ones. Damping material has also been applied at strategic locations, so that unwanted resonances could be eliminated as much as possible. But the largest and most visible adjustment is the more robust custom-made toroidal transformer. Although these types of measures seem to represent relatively little on paper, I know from my own experience that these types of measures can have a major impact on the final presentation. I will elaborate on this in the listening part.
Rotel CD11 Tribute (449 euros)
While an integrated amplifier without extensive DAC functionality may already seem controversial, a pure CD ‘only’ player without additional digital inputs is downright a shame! Because what good is this now in a time when many only stream? In the first instance, you certainly have a point here, were it not that this CD player knows how to get the best out of the Rotel A11 Tribute amplifier. Why? Because, especially in duo use, the intentions and skills of Ken Ishiwata regularly even come out touchingly beautiful. As mentioned, this CD11 Tribute is a purebred CD player that fortunately (!) Can actually only play CDs! The reason is actually quite simple because, especially when people still really dare to be open to it, it can easily be observed that even after so many years of streaming, the old compact disc still performs best in terms of sound! The how and why goes too far to explain here, but a simple listening session at your dealer says more than 1,000 words. It is also for this reason that Ken and many other top designers still enjoy designing and producing CD players even today. Back now to this brave and remarkably affordable device. Just like the amplifier, this wonderful basic design has a centrally placed white LCD display and only the basic functions are present. A nice large and clearly readable remote control then takes care of the rest. Directly below the display is a fairly smoothly running plastic disc tray and the drive responds more than enough quickly to operating commands. It is striking that the device with its 5, 8 kilos weight but hardly inferior to the amplifier. Not bad at all for such an affordable CD player. It is also nice that the CD11 Tribute, just like its brother, in terms of dimensions of 43 cm wide, 9.8 cm high and 31.4 cm deep, fits perfectly in just about any cupboard or piece of furniture. The back shows an image that I nowadays only know from a few expensive CD-only players. There is only one pair of analog RCA outputs and a coaxial digital out. That is really everything on the ‘trigger’ options and unearthed euro mains plug connection. As a result, the device is fully equipped for only one task, and that is reproducing CDs as well as possible. It is also nice that the CD11 Tribute, just like its brother, in terms of dimensions of 43 cm wide, 9.8 cm high and 31.4 cm deep, fits perfectly in just about any cupboard or piece of furniture. The back shows an image that I nowadays only know from a few expensive CD-only players. There is only one pair of analog RCA outputs and a coaxial digital out. That is really everything on the ‘trigger’ options and unearthed euro mains plug connection. As a result, the device is fully equipped for only one task, and that is reproducing CDs as well as possible. It is also nice that the CD11 Tribute, just like its brother, in terms of dimensions of 43 cm wide, 9.8 cm high and 31.4 cm deep, fits perfectly in just about any cupboard or piece of furniture. The back shows an image that I nowadays only know from a few expensive CD-only players. There is only one pair of analog RCA outputs and a coaxial digital out. That is really everything on the ‘trigger’ options and unearthed euro mains plug connection. As a result, the device is fully equipped for only one task, and that is reproducing CDs as well as possible. There is only one pair of analog RCA outputs and a coaxial digital out. That is really everything on the ‘trigger’ options and unearthed euro mains plug connection. As a result, the device is fully equipped for only one task, and that is reproducing CDs as well as possible. There is only one pair of analog RCA outputs and a coaxial digital out. That is really everything on the ‘trigger’ options and unearthed euro mains plug connection. As a result, the device is fully equipped for only one task, and that is reproducing CDs as well as possible.
The Tribute touch
Just like the amplifier, the CD player has been overhauled in the same way. Only with this device capacitors have been changed in the DAC part and at the power supply. Damping material has also been installed in strategic places. Not many measures in itself, but they appear to ensure that this CD player also scores breathtakingly well on the auditory naturalness ladder!
While the use of beautiful new audio components has always been a fun and entertaining activity, it immediately becomes much more exciting when it appears from the first moment that despite their low price they are also bizarrely good! Yet I am also a bit hesitant as the price difference that I normally deal with is really huge. When the A11 and CD11 Tribute ‘fresh’ out of the box let their first sounds flow into the listening room, I am more than pleasantly surprised. Because although you as a consumer are probably less familiar with the display of brand new products, I can tell you that this is often not exactly a pleasure. Usually there is a restrained sound that at the same time has a fixed and sometimes even mechanical character. How different is that with these Rotel’s. Because the first thing I perceive is a remarkably great calm and control, without electronic artifacts and with a remarkably balanced tonal balance. When I deepen this even further, it comes down to a very nice quality layer that runs deeply, is excellently defined and sounds sonorous. The middle area appears to have the same character and is perfectly neutral and natural. So neither warm nor cool but just right. It is almost impossible that the treble also has these desirable qualities and delicately pearls without sounding harsh or shrill for a moment. Wow, I didn’t see this coming. In the distant past I played for a number of years in my younger years with an equally beautiful Rotel 840 BX 3 amplifier from the same price range. But what the A11 Tribute manages to display in terms of musical richness and refinement is light years away from that already very good product at the time. Very nice and very valuable is that this edition of the A11 maintains its character regardless of the volume level. So whether you play whisper quietly or loudly, this amplifier stays true to its balance. This indicates a very thorough design in which an above-average high level of low-level information is also present. Playing seriously loud is certainly also possible, but don’t expect miracles from this either. 2 x 50 Watt (at 8 Ohm) is absolutely sufficient for many situations, but of course it is not infinite power either. If you really start looking for the limits, a slight degree of thickening may become noticeable. From volume level 75 (depending on the music) the musical happenings slowly become somewhat blurred and a certain degree of dynamic compression is created. But hey, we are talking about an amplifier with the ultra-competitive price of 599 euros! Seen in that light, it is almost unbelievable what is happening here.
The next surprise occurs when I switch the amplifier to BT from bluetooth and try to stream some nice content via this AptX encrypted connection from phone and tablet. Not only is the connection established quickly (just select the input first, otherwise it will not work), but the display is also considerably better than you would normally expect via this standard. No, it is really not as good than when you use a nice external digital source or especially the CD11 Tribute CD player. But it really goes that way and is absolutely enjoyable. It is even going so well that I really get excited how much fun you can have in this way with YouTube for example. But the next real star of this ‘show’ has to be the CD11 Tribute. This is really the ideal partner for the accompanying A11 Tribute amplifier and the synergy here is so high that I would always buy them both. Of course you still have to own your own CDs and the amplifier also sounds very good with other sources. But with the CD11 Tribute, everything really falls into place. The most distinctive quality of this duo is ultimately for me that they cleverly omit the hi-fi reproduction feeling and then let the music itself continue. In addition, the presentation is naturally neutral and natural, it is particularly suitable for long-term listening and above all the music always sounds relaxed, sonorous and above all remarkably spacious! Not spatial in the sense of being pulled apart and blown up, but much more with a remarkably good ambiance rendering and even more than an impetus to three-dimensional layering! So there is width, depth and even a height image and all these aspects together ensure that even a seasoned high-end listener can really amaze with a big smile about so much quality for so little money!
Conclusion Rotel A11 and CD11 Tribute
Available in black and silver, the Rotel A11 and CD11 Tribute are an impressive tribute to the legendary sound magician Ken Ishiwata. Basically, these are two products that are already perfectly fine in their standard version. But through a series of small-scale but very effective component changes, have managed to reach a new level of performance in this price range. Although both the amplifier and CD player can be used individually, in my opinion the best result is achieved when they are used together. Especially because then it is so beautifully audible how much attention and effort has been put into ‘forging’ such a beautifully balanced musical whole. If I had to describe the absolute highlight of this combination, I don’t have to think long. For me it is the characteristic that she brings the musical message of each artist into the limelight in a very honest way, almost without adding her own signature. Of course, everyone initially listens to how they perform soundly with new audio components. Nevertheless, you can get through this phase surprisingly quickly with this 11 series. Especially because it soon becomes clear that the music can flow through you with an almost magical hand, over, past and above all emotionally and can even really touch you. This is already special for considerably higher price ranges, but can almost be regarded as unique for this amount. In short, a deep bow to both the Rotel design team and of course Ken Ishiwata. A sound artist who, as far as he is concerned, is one last time for music lovers with these two devices.