This sonic star streams internet radio, and will enhance the sound of some disc-based systems, but its App interface leaves something to be desired, writes Ashley Kramer.
ROTEL’s RT-12 IS pitched as a “Digital Gateway” and from that description, you’d imagine a product that delivers on its promise. A modern music lover’s digital gateway should ideally work seamlessly with a wide range of digital music sources and interfaces. Think about it, that’s a pretty long list – there are music files stored on computers of all shapes and sizes, along with local storage systems ranging from NAS drives to portable hard drives to USB sticks. Then there’s internet radio, streaming music services, audio files saved on smartphones and media players to consider, not to mention connection options ranging from Bluetooth and Airplay to Wi-Fi and Ethernet.
In short, engineering the complete digital gateway is a complicated (and potentially expensive) exercise, which is why manufacturers tend to build devices that do some things well rather than trying to tick each and every box. Rotel’s RT-12 is no exception to this pattern – underneath the digital gateway tag, it’s actually a internet radio/DAB+/FM tuner with network access. The fact that it’s very closely based on the older model (the RT-09) indicates that it’s not likely to be a bleeding edge design, but in typically understated Rotel fashion, what it does, it does well.
Features & Construction
In addition to the RT-12’s tuner and network access capabilities, it’s also a high resolution-capable DAC with one coax and one Toslink input – USB is AWOL. The fact that the RT-12 can (theoretically) get high-res files from the network (vie wireless or Ethernet connections) means that a high-res USB input would be somewhat superfluous, but look at Rotel’s lovely little RA-11 integrated amp (reviewed here) as an example of how easy it is to add extra connectivity: the RA-11 offers digital Apple devices access and USB drive playback from its front mounted USB socket, along with a Bluetooth dongle to allow effortless connection of any Bluetooth-capable smartphone or device. Add that lot to the RT-12 and you’d have pushed it into new territory for many users.
One look at the RT-12 from across the room would be enough to tell you it’s from the Rotel design stable – there are little buttons aplenty along with the same small LCD screen seen on the RA-11, which is clear up close but way too small to read properly from any distance. Build quality is good at the price, with a metal clamshell chassis housing the components. The remote is also the standard Rotel type – not at all sexy but very functional, and allied to the front panel controls, it’s simple enough to access most of the functionality. Like many similar units however, the app is the best way to drive the RT-12. It’s a practical piece of software, but much like the one that came with Yamaha’s CD-N500 Network CD Player (reviewed here) it’s clearly been designed by an engineering team that hasn’t quite moved into the smartphone age. The app looks dated, a bit clumsy even, and is both slow and laggy, which is disappointing. Files stored on remote computers are displayed in something not unlike an old DOS based folder tree – not insurmountable to work with, but by no means state-of-the-art. Once I got the hang of the navigation, I found it relatively simple (albeit slow) to play what I wanted to hear from the computer drive.
The RT-12 is designed to be the digital hub of an all-Rotel system, connecting between a compatible amplifier (like the aforementioned RA-11) and one of Rotel’s CD players. The connections are made by 3.5mm to 3.5mm cables (supplied) and allow the RT-12’s app to control some of the functionality of the connected units.
It proved easy enough to set up, even with my hidden Wi-Fi network. I just entered the network details on the LCD screen using the jog wheel and had internet radio playing in no time at all. Getting the unit to see my Netbook was just as simple. Rotel claims that the RT-12 will support the following file formats: AAC, AIFF, AU, FLAC, MP3,WAV and WMA (except lossless) as well as M3U playlists and in practice, the unit pretty much played what I told it to from low bitrate MP3s to CD quality files.
Unfortunately, while Rotel has confirmed that the RT-12 is a 24/192 capable streamer, it firmly refused to play any of the high-res files that I tried to send it – files that worked just fine on the Yamaha CD-N500. This is likely a software issue on the PC that’d be resolved with some fiddling around, but I review units at this price from the perspective of a punter who expects them to work without too much fiddling – the punter can always engage their dealer to resolve this kind of thing. The Wi-Fi connection was rock solid with no dropouts even using a standard el-cheapo Telecom router, but the RT-12 was only a few meters from the router – with more distance between the two, users may well need to look at a high-quality wireless router.
After the excellent sonic performance of the affordable RA-11 amp, I expected a lot from the RT-12 , and it didn’t disappoint. It sounded really sweet on all the sources with a decent enough bitrate. Internet radio sounded much like internet radio always does at the lower bitrates, but the RT-12 matched the Yamaha CD-N500’s strong performance in this regards, which means it’s very capable indeed as a radio streamer. Rotel offers a browser-based internet radio management system allowing users to set up their favourite stations. FM and DAB reception was good with the supplied aerials and the sound quality was good (more so on FM), sounding just a little warmer and richer than the internet radio streams, which makes for a pleasant listening experience.
The RT-12 sounded particularly fine when fed with an optical signal into its digital input, closely matching the sound of the analogue outputs of my Marantz SA-CD player, which was acting as the transport. This aspect of the RT-12’s performance isn’t hugely surprising as it’s got the same WM8740 DAC chip found in the RA-11, and that unit was just as good when fed digitally from the Marantz (a WM8741 is used in Rotel’s RDD-06 DAC, and that’s a bit of a gem, so this series of DAC chips does the business for Rotel).
The RT-12’s overall sound is typically Rotel: some would say it’s a bit dry, I’d say that it’s matter-of-fact, without much in the way of additional warmth but with plenty of detail, loads of get up and go and excellent dynamics. With CD quality files streamed over Wi-Fi, there wasn’t a huge gulf between the same songs spun on disc from the SA-CD player. There was more detail to be found from the disc spinner and the bass depth and control was better, but there’s no way that you’d be disappointed with the audio quality on offer from this $1199 streamer. That seems to be the case with Rotel’s gear – it’s fundamentally well engineered so it tends to perform very well at the respective price point.
Sonically, the RT-12 more than delivers the goods considering the price. It’s a capable internet radio tuner, handles FM and DAB well too and is a very useful network streamer (albeit with a question mark on its high-res abilities), plus it’ll likely make an older CD player or even a DVD player sound better when fed through its digital inputs. On the other hand, the unit is let down by the aging app interface and to an extent, the missing Bluetooth functionality. With Bluetooth onboard, the RT-12 would have immediate access to the wealth of content that’s reached via smartphone but then again, Bluetooth receivers aren’t expensive options for users who simply must have phone connectivity.
I’d like to see the next version of the RT-12 be more like the Swiss Army knife of digital gateways – with Bluetooth, Apple device input via USB, support for USB drives and a high-res capable USB DAC to give users a mass of connectivity options. Assuming the sound quality stayed the same, that’d be a killer product.
As it stands, the RT-12 is a four star sonic experience at the asking price but is let down by the outdated interface, and in my mind, by the lack of Bluetooth, so that aspect of its performance is firmly in the three star camp. So all in all a three and a half star product. For those who want a tuner that also streams music from their computer, it’s worth a look, particularly in an all-Rotel system. ASHLEY KRAMER