The 1980s was a glorious time for inexpensive integrated amplifiers. Sales (and resulting profits) were huge, leaving manufacturers fighting tooth and nail for a bigger piece of the pie. The good news for buyers was an escalation in sonic power that hasn’t been repeated since. The RA820BX we have here, kindly loaned to us by Rotel UK, is an excellent example of the kind of product that was made at the time.
However, our story does not begin at all with Rotel. It starts with a small then London based company called New Acoustic Dimension, better known as NAD. In the late 1970s, NAD launched the now legendary 3020 integrated amplifier. This was a modest thing with basic functions and a rather thin construction. The amp was unusual in most respects, aside from being affordable and sounding great. How affordable? Looking back through Which hi-fi?’s records we find it sold for a modest £71 in 1979.
Designed to drive real loudspeaker loads rather than just producing stellar numbers in lab tests, the 3020 managed to deliver a mix of warmth, boldness and musicality that impresses even today. It took the market by storm, but it wasn’t long before every rival manufacturer had its own contender.
Most did not meet NAD performance standards. Rotel’s original RA820 was one that didn’t. It mirrored NAD’s no-frills approach, but added more substantial build quality and a tighter, analytical sound. History shows that the RA820 succeeded brilliantly, and in the process made Rotel a major player in the market.
But this was a time when no manufacturer could stand still and cherish it, so within a few short years the original RA820 spawned the more purist RA820B and then the RA820BX we have here. With each step, the signal path was made a little cleaner, the features were rethought (tone controls and speaker switching went early on), and the quality of the components improved. The move to improved internal components was especially important in the jump from the RA820B to the BX model. There are numerous changes from better quality capacitors and upgraded output transistors to improved internal cabling. The removal of the rather coarse spring speaker terminals for true 4mm jacks was also welcome.
Rotel continued to develop the RA820 amplifier along purist lines for a few more years, until market demand shifted to more flexibility and features. The company duly committed while trying to maintain high levels of performance. Regular amp prices in the 1990s and 2000s show that this is the case.
How does the Rotel RA820BX perform by today’s standards? Surprisingly good, we think. This amp cost £130 (about $157 / AU$228) when it was introduced in 1984, which in today’s terms puts it somewhere between £390 (about $472 / AU$684) and £535 (about $647 / AU$ 938) (depending on which online inflation calculator we use). That price puts it firmly in Rega io territory, and the comparison is fascinating.
Surprisingly, given the passage of nearly four decades, there’s little difference in specification between the RA820BX and the five-star Rega io. Both are simple stereo amplifiers with relatively low output power; the Rotel is rated at 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms, while the Rega takes that to 30 watts per side – a marginal difference at best. Connectivity is simple with just two line-level inputs in both cases, a moving magnet phono stage and a headphone output. The io gets an extra point for remote control, but doesn’t have the balance control of the Rotel. In general, however, these features should be sufficient in the context of the systems these amplifiers are likely to encounter.
There is little in terms of build quality. Both are solid, although the extensive use of plastic makes the Rega feel cheaper. The Rotel also has an advantage in terms of control feel, with both the volume knob and front panel switches working more precisely than the io’s counterparts.
We’re trying both integrated amplifiers with a range of products, from our reference line-up of Naim ND555/555 PS DR music streamer, Technics SL-1000R turntable with Vertere Saber MM cartridge and ATC SCM 50 loudspeakers right through to a Rega Planar 3 turntable and Wharfedale Diamond 12.1 standmounters. It’s interesting to note that the Rotel could very well have partnered up with an early generation Planar 3 turntable and Diamond speakers when it was originally introduced.
How does the Rotel RA820BX sound today? It remains a fine amplifier. Once you’ve been given a few days to settle in, the presentation shifts from a bit opaque and dynamically constricted to something much more expressive. Even by today’s standards, this feels like a crisp and accurate performer. It’s fast and punchy, giving the sound a sense of openness that’s hugely appealing. We listen to all kinds of music, from Hans Zimmer Interstellar OST to Bob Marley’s Catch a fire set, and the Rotel does admirably. We’re impressed with the pleasing levels of resolution and ability to track a variety of instrumental parts without sounding jumbled. Or at least it does well to the point where you push it too hard, then there’s a bit of confusion and the dynamics get squashed a bit.
Tonally, the Rotel is impressively flat. It’s not about flavoring the sound to make it more exciting, preferring to take a more balanced and balanced approach to things. This is something of a family trait that continues to this day in the company’s products. We really like the mid-range clarity and the rather nice fluidity the amp exhibits in this region. The top is crunchy and relatively clean, but not really sweet.
We are pleased to report that the built-in phono stage is a good one. It’s fairly quiet and loses little to the line kicks when it comes to overall transparency and balance. Considering vinyl was still the main source of the day, this is what we hoped for. We enjoy listening to people like Nick Cave’s Skipper’s call and Four Tets There is love in you – the Rotel that glides between genres with ease.
The comparison with Rega’s io is interesting. Regardless of the input, the newer amp sounds significantly more muscular, despite a claimed power output that is only marginally higher. Bass notes are deeper and delivered with more authority, helping to give the overall presentation a richness and solidity that the Rotel just can’t match. The RA820BX sounds lean and lacks natural warmth in comparison. The io is also better at rendering instrumental textures and dynamic nuances; the qualities that are vital in conveying the emotion and energy in music.
However, that is not the end of the story. The little Rega doesn’t get everything his way, with the Rotel sounding more energetic and spacious. The leaner balance of the RA820BX gives it a sense of articulation and that makes the Rega seem a bit pedestrian in the way it handles things. However, you’ll need to take more care in matching speakers with the Rotel to get the most out of it.
Overall, the Rega io takes it, but not by the margin we expected. Given that we’ve seen used examples of the RA820BX available for just £60 (around $73 / AU$105), we’ve got to admit we’re tempted to buy one. It’s great value, provided you get a good one.
Read the full Rega io review
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