Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
I should probably state right from the giddy-up that there’s going to be a lot of overlap between my review of Rotel’s new A12MKII integrated amplifier-DAC ($1099.99, all prices USD) and that of the company’s A11 Tribute ($799.99) from around this time last year. There are, after all, a lot of similarities in terms of aesthetics, ergonomics, design, and of course sound. But don’t get lulled into a trance by the repetition; there are some significant differences between the A11 Tribute and A12MKII that may or may not be relevant given your needs, preferences, and the rest of your stereo setup.
To start with the common ground, there are mere fractions of an inch of difference in the overall dimensions of the two amps, with the A12MKII measuring 3.6″H × 17″W × 13.5″D (that’s 93 × 430 × 345mm for those of you not located in the US, Liberia, or Myanmar). Tipping the scales at 19.31 pounds, though, the A12MKII weighs quite a bit more than the 15-pound A11 Tribute, and best I can tell from shining a torch into the vent holes atop the chassis, almost all of that extra heft comes from the significantly larger heatsink and beefier power supply.
As a result, the A12MKII is rated to deliver 60Wpc into 8 ohms, <0.018% THD, instead of the A11 Tribute’s 50Wpc. But that specification alone doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to each amp’s performance, which is something we’ll dig into more in a bit.
Although the MKII upgrade to the A12 didn’t involve collaboration with longtime Marantz engineer and brand ambassador Ken Ishiwata, as the A11 Tribute did—he sadly passed away in late 2019—it does benefit from many similar tweaks, including modifications to the power supply, upgraded capacitors, and some enhanced isolation and damping, along with a new 32-bit TI DAC chip.
While the A11 Tribute is an almost entirely analog amp—its DAC is used only for the Bluetooth connection—the A12MKII adds a nice array of digital connectivity, including a USB-DAC input (Type B), along with two optical (TosLink) and two coaxial (RCA) S/PDIF digital inputs. It also carries over the MM phono input, as well as CD, Tuner, Aux 1, and Aux 2 stereo line-level RCA inputs, and a stereo RCA preamp output. Its Bluetooth input supports the aptX codec, but as best I can tell, no aptX LL or aptX HD (I don’t have any devices that output either, so I couldn’t confirm this). It lacks AAC support via Bluetooth, but iOS users can plug a Lightning cable straight into the front-panel USB port for a high-quality connection. The A12MKII is also certified Roon Tested, but not by me.
Setting up and dialing in the Rotel A12MKII
The A12MKII benefits from the pretty standard Rotel feature set in terms of setup, meaning you have pretty easy access to balance and tone controls (the latter assuming you turn off Tone Bypass, which is on by default). Navigating the reasonably straightforward menu system, you can also tweak the off timer and signal sensing, set a power-on max volume, and change some of the analog inputs and all of the digital inputs from variable to fixed volume, should you so choose. It might take you a minute or so to adjust to Rotel’s navigational quirks—e.g., pressing the Menu button instead of the right arrow to advance through the menu options—but once you get the hang of it, it’s like falling off a bike. It’s been over a year since my review of the A11 Tribute, which uses the same navigation style, and I picked it right back up immediately and intuitively.
For the most part, I doubt you’ll spend too much time in the setup menus, but the one setting that nearly everyone should change is the USB Class toggle. The A12MKII ships in USB Class 1.0 mode to ensure broader compatibility. You have to dig deep into the menus to change it to Class 2.0, which supports sample rates up to 192kHz. Depending on your computer and operating system, you may also need to download a USB driver from Rotel to make this work, but I found the driver installation to be simple and straightforward.
The A12MKII lacks a dedicated subwoofer output and has no bass-management capabilities, so if you want to add some low-frequency reinforcement—either via the pre-outs or the speaker-level connections—you’ll need to make sure your sub is appropriately equipped. Something like RSL’s Speedwoofer 10S would be a great match for the Rotel for all of the above reasons.
I didn’t add a sub for this review, though, relying instead on my Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers throughout. Speaker-level connections were handled via pre-terminated Elac Sensible speaker cables. In lieu of the included USB cable, I opted to plug in my Monoprice Monolith #33464 USB Type-A-to-Type-B cable because, you know, it meant not having to climb behind my Maingear Vybe media and gaming PC, which served as my primary source device.
How does the Rotel A12MKII sound?
OK, one last reference to my A11 Tribute review, and then I’ll drop that business and focus purely on the product at hand. Pinky swear. In that evaluation, the one minor criticism I had of the amp’s performance was that it wasn’t exactly the last word in terms of bass authority. Given the beefier power supply of the A12MKII, I had a sneaking suspicion it might struggle less with the pretty nasty impedance dip of my Paradigm Studio 100 v5s between 150-ish and 250-ish Hz.
Cueing up an old AIFF rip of “Stoned, Pt. I” from Lewis Taylor’s album of the same name (Slow Reality SRCD01), I was immediately staggered by not only the tightness of the bottom end but also the sheer force of it all. The A12MKII drove my Paradigm towers like it stole them, cranking out the stanky bassline with such verisimilitude that I honestly thought for half a second that I had connected a sub and forgotten about it. We’ll have to wait for Diego Estan’s bench tests to confirm this, of course, but just based on what I heard, it sounded like the A12MKII is stable down to 3 ohms (or less?), at least for brief durations and with limited bandwidth.
The percussive guitar attacks that kick off this song are also a great test of whether or not you’re dealing with a competent DAC, and the Rotel passed that test with flying colors, rendering all the squiggly little intricacies with utter precision and fantastic detail. The soundstage was also exceptionally wide and deep, and all of the little textures that make this track so fun to return to time and again came through beautifully.
By the way, I rarely use my musical choices in reviews as a weird flex to advertise my refined tastes because, well, my tastes are far from refined. I listen to what I know and report what I hear. But I’m going to make an exception for this one. If you’re not hip to Lewis Taylor, get hip. This song in particular is one of the finest examples of white-boy soul recorded since Boz Scaggs’s “I’ll Be the One.” If you dig Joss Stone, especially her early stuff, you need some Lewis Taylor in your life. But for whatever reason, this album has a weird static pop at the end of each track on Spotify and Qobuz alike, so maybe hunt down a CD copy.
At any rate, I was so impressed by the Rotel’s delivery of the lowest octaves in “Stoned, Pt. I” that I figured I’d see just how hard the A12MKII could drive my Paradigms with something even more challenging: “Express Yourself” from N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Priority Records/Qobuz). I did have to bring the volume down just a weensy bit, I must admit, but only because my neighbor from across the street pounded on my door and kindly requested that I do so. But the amp didn’t flinch, cranking out deep, body-penetrating low frequencies with nary a complaint aside from some additional heat. The top panel got a little too toasty to touch.
And yeah, you could argue that “Express Yourself” isn’t exactly a high-fidelity recording, but I was still quite smitten with the amp’s imaging and soundstaging with this track, and the samples of Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s song of the same name sounded quite expansive and danceable from beginning to end.
Don’t start to assume that the A12MKII is just a one-trick bass-making pony. I’ve been spending a lot of time here lately with These 13, a recent collaboration between Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird. It’s a pretty nifty production, in that it was recorded live, straight to tape, with all the musicians playing together in the same space. But that style of production has consequences. It’s not the kind of music I enjoy listening to on my Amazon Echo Studio smart speakers. It’s far too dynamic. Far too raw. This album needs a proper stereo setup.
From the first song, ”Poor Lost Souls” (16/44.1 FLAC, Wegawam Music Co. & Southern Broadcast/Qobuz), I was blown away by the Rotel’s delivery. The song starts with the sort of in-your-face acoustic guitar plucking you don’t hear in music much these days, and the A12MKII rendered the attack and decay of each note with unimpeachable exactitude and wonderful warmth.
Neither the DAC nor the amp seemed to do a bit of editorializing, though—at least not as far as I could hear. And as a result, all of the tape hiss baked into the master was there. I wouldn’t have it any other way, mind you, but if you prefer your sound system to be more on the forgiving side, this probably isn’t the right integrated amp for you. There’s a purity of reproduction here that retains all the production warts that might afflict some of your favorite tunes.
What other integrated amps go toe-to-toe with the A12MKII?
As always, any comparison between integrated amps is completely contingent upon your needs. But broadly speaking, of the integrated amps I’ve heard in recent memory, I think the A12MKII is probably most on equal footing with Cambridge Audio’s CXA81, which sells for $199.01 more at $1299. The Cambridge Audio piece has a little more specified power at 80Wpc into 8 ohms, and although it loses a coaxial digital input as compared with the Rotel, it gains a balanced XLR stereo line-level input and a dedicated subwoofer output (although it also lacks bass management). Its USB Type-B input also supports DSD256.
If you already have a good subwoofer that you want to integrate into your stereo system, you might also consider Emotiva’s BasX TA1 stereo receiver, which sells for significantly less at $549. The BasX TA1 has a MM/MC phono input, but not nearly as many analog inputs overall, which is something to consider. It also has only one coaxial and one optical digital input. But its Bluetooth chipset supports AAC, AptX, and AptX HD, and there’s an FM tuner built in to boot. The caveat about the sub is critical, though, especially if you like to play dynamic, bass-heavy music very loudly. The BasX TA1 may sound incredible (and it does), but it just can’t muster up enough current to contend with big tower speakers with big impedance dips in the lower frequencies. As a result, it can struggle to deliver the deepest bass to the largest speakers at higher listening levels. That’s not a knock against the Emotiva, mind you, especially when you consider that the A12MKII sells for nearly twice as much.
TL;DR: Is the Rotel A12MKII worth the money?
Bottom line: getting an amp that punches this far above its weight class for just a skosh over a thousand bucks almost seems like cheating. You’d have to have a pretty roomy room and some seriously beefy speakers to push the A12MKII past its limits. It simply delivers a delightful mix of dynamics and detail, and its built-in DAC is top-notch.
There are nits to be picked, of course: the lack of AAC support on the Bluetooth input is unfortunate. What’s more, the back panel is a little cluttered for my tastes, given that the Bluetooth antenna housing overhangs the analog audio inputs and preamp outs, which means you’ll need to get right down at eye level with the amp to make those connections.
But all of those concerns take a backseat to the amp’s incredible performance.
. . . Dennis Burger
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Speakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v5.
- Speaker-level connections: ELAC Sensible speaker cables.
- Interconnects: Monoprice Monolith #33464 USB Type-A-to-Type-B cable.
- Sources: Maingear Vybe PC; iPhone 12 Pro Max.
- Power protection: SurgeX XR115 power conditioner.
Rotel A12MKII Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
6655 Wedgwood Road North, Suite 115
Maple Grove, Minnesota USA 55311
Phone: (510) 843-4500