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Rotel RCD 951 HDCD Player

Rotel's Quest
... lean and mean!

[Italian version]

Product: RCD-951 HDCD Player
Manufacturer: Rotel - Japan
Serial No.: 017-0491194
Price: app. $400/370 Euro
Reviewer: Dejan V. Veselinovic
Reviewed: May 2001

[rotel rcd-951]
The Rotel RCD 951

This year is Rotel's 40th anniversary. Over the years, they have turned from a me-too company to a respected brand name, one which does things its own way. But unusually enough, they seem to be held in high regard not for one type of product only, but for several, and in fact, practically all they make. Their amplifier fame is well known, but lately, they have been making headlines with their CD players as well. So here we have their smallest offering - ladies and gentlemen, Rotel's RCD-951.


Before opening the case, the first thing you'll notice is the above average weight of the unit; while not extraordinarily heavy, at 5.4 kilos (12 lbs) it is heavier than most. One of the reasons for this is a very solid power transformer, which is also shielded from the electronics by means of a semi-transparent plastic cover; a cheap solution, but an effective and most welcome one. As a matter of fact, the entire power supply is so shielded.

The drive mechanism is unmarked from the outside, but if I had to guess, I'd say it was from Sony; it looks awfully similar to the one I have in Harman/Kardon's HD730, and that one plainly says "Sony" on its label.

[inside the rotel rcd-951]
Inside the Rotel RCD 951

The main board carries all crucial electronics. On it, you'll find Burr-Brown's PCM69 D/A converter, supported by Pacific Microsonics PMD100 digital filter/decoder. This one is compatible with HDCD recordings, and Rotel never lets you forget it, but more of that later on. The output stage consists of two dual op amps, again by Burr- Brown, these being OPA 2604, featuring FET front ends. Since these are dual op amps, one is left to presume that one half plays the role of the low pass filter (LPF) and current to voltage (I/V) converter, while the second half is the line output amp proper.

The primary stages use 1% metal film resistors, while the line output stages use 2% resistors, presumably also metal film (but not guaranteed). There are quite a few Rotel's favorite Rubycon Black Gate capacitors in evidence (about 20 or so), as well as a few Nichicon Muse caps. DC is filtered by means of two Rubycon 4,700 uF/50V caps, and I counted a total of four voltage regulators, but there could be more, as there is some discrete technology around, and without the service schematics, I can only guess the purpose. A bit of a letdown are the 1N4003 diodes used for rectifiers, one would have thought better diodes could have been used without burdening the price too much. But then, what would the tweaker brigade do?

[the back of the rotel rcd-951]
The back of the Rotel RCD 951

On the back, you'll find a just three RCA plugs - analog out left and right, plus coaxial S/PDIF out. The mains lead is captive. I must note here, however, that while the RCA jacks are not gold plated, they are nevertheless of better than average quality and appear to be pretty sturdy.

Finally, the remote control is a very standard affair, with all the usual functions. While not badly laid out, it's nothing to write home about either. In contrast with it, the fascia of the CD player looks rather pleasing - the display, in a pleasant blue color, is very informative, very legible and is about the ideal, in my view. I rather like the control layout, button shape, quality and location, including the red HDCD LED indicator. While I usually don't comment on product appearance, I have to say this - this one looks neat and tidy, a very no-nonsense product by people who obviously knew exactly what they were doing.

Revving up

I received a brand new unit, so I had to work it in first. As with the Marantz CD6000 OSE, straight out of the box the RCD-951 sounds just plain terrible, very shrieky, and might suggest suicide, after laying out its asking price, because that kind of sound is standard on the cheapest of the cheap. However, after 4 days, or 96 hours of being under power and working merrily away, things change quite a bit, and for the better, again as with the Marantz CD6000 OSE.

Therefore, if you audition one, make sure it's not straight out of the box, or you will simply not hear what it's capable of.

Even after 4 days, and later on, the soundstage appeared to have potentials, but was somehow shifty, as if it were wobbling. Should this happen, you will need to open the case and additionally tighten the four screws holding the transport; they will not move much, but you will easily feel them move. This suggests somebody in the factory assembling them should review how they adjust their machinery, it seems to be a bit loose.

I tried my usual variety of cabling, including RG56/U coaxial with some solid gold plated plugs (self-made), MIT Terminator 4 and Van den Hul D102 Mk.3 with Neutrik plugs. As usual, the best balance was achieved with the VdH, and it was used for critical listening.

My final and unavoidable test were - that's right, you guessed it! - SoundCare feet. Fortunately, they are higher than Rotel's own, so there was no need to dismount anything. As I've come to expect almost by default, these produced beneficial results by improving imagery, letting more detail come through and clearing up the entire bandwidth - nothing startling, but in my view, well worth the asking price.


At low listening levels, using music matrial low in volume content by its nature, RCD-951 sort of surprised me. I expected a nice, orderly sound, and that's what I got, but over and above that, I also heard an abundance of detail. This detail was not hyped up, not shoved in my face, it was just there, very naturally. For example, it feels good to be able to make out each and every string as it is stroked on a classic guitar, or pick out the squeaking of the drum pedal on one recording. I don't usually have the opportunity to hear that, even if I know it's there.

With slower, more ambient music, the RCD-951 fared well, but I'm pleased to say, it did just as well with very fast, very complex music too, though some cracks did appear. Oddly enough, not in the usually suspect bass range, which was fine though not outstanding, but in the treble. Nothing specifically wrong, but I found the treble to lack a bit of life. It just sounded a little detached, as if not particularly caring to join the party, somehow undecided.


Turning up the Karan KA-i180, and using some powerful material from Hevia, Blue Man Group, Vangelis and Enigma produced some impressive sounds. The bass range was full, and although not quite as convincing as elsewhere, it still did much better than usual in this price class. The midrange was really very good, in fact about the best I have heard from this price class, and a bit over that too.

But the detached treble was still there. Somehow, it seems a little undecided, and this was very easy to notice with percussive instruments, as on the Blue Man Group Audio CD, for example. I'm sure you all know that when the beast with the drums comes unstuck, he's all but gentle with the instruments; now, for realism, I want to hear the violence of his striking the drums or whatever, but also those big brass pot covers. What I got was strenght on the drums, but not the brass, as if the drummer was afraid he might break the brass made of glass.

It's hard to explain - the treble is clean and clear, no nasties, but somehow hesitant, lacking decision, let alone incision. While this does not actually damage the musical content, it robs it of some emotion, of some hardness when required, and certainly takes out the bite occassionally required.


The Blue Man Group Audio CD is in fact a HDCD. I also have several other titles which are in this format. Obviously, I paid special attention to any changes I might hear in comparison with standard issues. Unfortunately, I could not discover any special benefit of this format.

Either there is none, or this Rotel was unable to bring out the best of it. I rule myself out because I can pick out rather fine differences in general, and feel sure I would hear the benefits had there been any, or had I been allowed to hear them.

While Rotel's literature claims over 1,500 titles from 175 labels in this format, I must say I feel let down, despite the HDCD indicator LED coming on without fail when the label said the disc was in HDCD format.


This is a very business orientated CD player. It approaches music very profesionally, as if it knows that's what it was made to do, but in this approach, some emotion seems lost. It holds together well, and you're not likely to confuse it with the most complex of material, including large symphonic orchestras doing elaborate pieces, yet it's just as much at home with simple, ambient music. It will excell with string quartets, for example, or chamber music in general. It does jazz to the credit of its designers, and I daresay the musicians as well, given its modest price.

But while very professional, it somehow lacks a little emotion in it. Unfortunately, it does so in its upper registers, where this can be a downside if one listens to much music with plenty of drum kits and percussion, especially using brass instruments.

To really drive the point home, and anticipate what I know I'll be asked, let me compare it with its two nearest competitors, Marantz CD6000 OSE and Yamaha CDX- 993.

Compared to the Marantz, RCD-951 is a smoother performer, offering more finesse and better overall balance. Having to choose between these two, I'd go for Rotel any day. CD6000 OSE doesn't have Rotel's guts. Then again, the Rotel is some 20% more expensive locally than the Marantz, a difference one cannot simply ignore.

But the real competitor is Yamaha's CDX-993. It is also some 6% cheaper locally than the Rotel, but please note this is not so elsewhere, so please check out your local dealers, you could well find that where you live, the Yamaha is substantially more expensive. Whatever, but 6% is low enough to be negligible.

The Rotel will deliver a bit more detail and a bit more coherence top to bottom, but the Yamaha will deliver better defined, gutsier bass lines and a much sweeter treble range, which will not lack decision and incision when required. In fact, if any, then Yamaha's only real fault could be that it's a bit too sweet for some tastes. I would be hard pushed to say either is better than the other, these are simply two approaches to the same thing, but using different paths. Choosing among them is really a matter of taste - mine runs towards the Yamaha.

A note here - I tweaked my Yamaha by dumping NJR op amps in the LPF section for AD826. This made the unit a little less warm, bringing it into the very comfortable class, but produced much more speed and definition. My experience tells me OPA2604 is a somewhat lazy sounding op amp, with a typical Burr-Brown light veil, also in evidence with the 134 (2134) series; therefore, I feel confident the Rotel would benefit from an op amp change. For comparison, I returned the original NJR op amps into the Yamaha, no big deal since I installed quality sockets for just such instances as this one.

So, all in all, Rotel's RCD-951 is a very competent unit, with most aspects going in its favor, and in my view, its only real failing is an undecisive treble range, for which I blame their choice of op amps. But this is highly subjective, and in addition it is most system dependent, so in your case, your conclusions could well be very different. No matter what, you will be making a serious mistake by omission if you failed to listen to this player - it is an uncommonly good one, well executed by obviously very competent designers, using a good deal of prime quality parts, and packaged in what I feel is an outstandingly pleasant, though very classic, package.

In summary, we have here a very fair price, much performance for the money, a very tasteful and solidly made package. While the sound is not exactly to my taste, I think many people will feel differently, and with good reason. This is a model you should not pass by, but in fact make it a point to take the time and trouble to audition - it's well worth it.

And I'm not being contradictory here - Mercedes-Benz makes cars I would not buy since I am a front wheel drive fanatic, but I readily agree Mercedes-Benz makes great cars. So it is with this Rotel as well - not to my taste, but an excellent product nevertheless.

For the techno people - Tweaking

My experience has taught me to steer clear of Burr-Brown linear op amps; I find them insubstantial and veiled. I could now recite a list of products using them which had the above said about them in one form or another from English speaking magazines, but that's not the point. If this Rotel were mine, I know I'd do two things just like that - I'd change those 1N4003 standard 1A diodes for some very fast ones, such as for example BY254 or 255. I would also carefully take out those OPA 2604 op amps, install quality gold plated sockets and try my two favorite chips, OP275 (PMI, Analog Devices) and AD826 (Analog Devices). The first because in some products, notably Marantz CD players, they simply sound better than anything else I have ever tried, and the second because they are in my view the best op amps for audio currently available at anything resembling a sane price. I would also install SoundCare spikes, as I have in fact done on, er, everything I have that did not come with them already installed.

Using some BluTac around the case would also not hurt.

Manufacturer's specifications:

Main System Used

  • Karan Acoustics i180 integrated amplifier

  • Harman/Kardon HK 680 integrated amplifier

  • Harman/Kardon 6550 integrated amplifier

  • Yamaha AX592 integrated amplifier

  • AR94 speakers, substantially rebuilt

  • JBL Ti600 floorstanding speakers

  • JBL CM62 Control Monitors with JBL Sub10 active subwoofer

  • Jamo OFC speaker cables (5.5 mm)

  • Van den Hul CS122 speaker cables (3.5 mm)

  • Van den Hul 352 Hybrid speaker cable (5.5 mm)

  • Philips CD721 CD player (tweaked)

  • Harman/Kardon HD730 CD player

  • Yamaha CDX-993 CD player (tweaked)

  • Sony TC-K 808 ES cassette player

  • Philips N4520 open reel tape deck

  • Marantz 4100 DVD player

  • SoundCare equipment/speaker spikes

  • Various LPs, CDs and DVDs

© Copyright 2001 Dejan Veselinovic - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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