Stop me if I’m being presumptuous but I suspect that most of the readers of this august journal can remember a time when the only way to listen to music without paying for it was on the radio. And, if you were listening in the UK, that was a very confined experience where the few broadcasters on FM were only interested in a mainstream audience. There were some stations that broke through the top 40 playlist barriers, like Radio Caroline and Radio Luxembourg on AM, and those prepared to stay up late enough could enjoy a genuinely eclectic mix on the John Peel show on BBC Radio One. But if you missed it that was it, there was no ‘listen again’, no music on demand, and definitely no Spotify, YouTube, or Tidal. All of which meant that the radio held rather higher status in the hierarchy of audio sources than it does today – an age when FM tuner sales were in free-fall, even before the threat to turn off analogue broadcasting came up again.
Radio still has its place for me. I frequently listen to specific shows in the hope of hearing something new and interesting (I have a Tidal account but that’s of little use unless you know what to look for or are a hip hop enthusiast). Rotel is hoping I’m not alone in thinking that, and there’s an audience for an all-singing, all-dancing multi-source ‘wireless’; a single device that can receive the majority of broadcasts and internet streams on the major platforms and more. The Rotel T14 is an FM and DAB receiver and a network streamer with access to internet radio and various streaming services, I don’t think there are many source components that provide the range of options than the T14 does. The back panel says it all, with a coaxial socket for an FM aerial, threaded coax for DAB, and twin Wi-Fi antenna for network streaming. It’s a little odd that there’s no RJ45 for a direct Ethernet connection to a network, but wires are clearly out of fashion these days. Of course, you still need wires to go to the supplied DAB and FM aerials, however the latter is redundant unless you’re living in the right place. I wasn’t initially able to get a clear signal from the T-shaped indoor antenna supplied and resorted to the DAB feed instead.
The DAB antenna has a magnetic base and when placed on a suitably ferrous bit of casework gets a stronger signal than otherwise, again this will be location specific and best results will be achieved with an external antenna, but who has one of those these days? I was able to pick up a good if not comprehensive range of DAB stations using the ‘national scan’ option, it found all the BBC stations but not Classic Rock (now on the Absolute roster). It’s fairly easy to stick your preferred stations into the preset buttons on the fascia or remote for ease of access and the nature of the input suggests you can have more than 10.
When you start to look at the internet radio options, it makes the array of DAB broadcasters seem very limited, I guess that it didn’t cost a lot more to include the terrestrial radio options on the T14 and there will always be times when the broadband is on the blink, but otherwise the net is hard to beat. For a start you can search for stations by name, albeit not always with success; for example, it found BBC Radio 3, but not Fluid, which in its ambient genre listing. You can search by location and city, which is fine if you know which city your station is coming from, but most net radios have station lists for countries. There are also podcasts listed by genre; this has Marc Maron’s WTF but not Adam Buxton’s popular show, popular in my household at least.
The network streaming side of the T14 is controlled by the DTS Play-Fi app, but can only be used once you have managed to get the unit onto your network, a process that proved slightly more tricky than usual, but at least didn’t involve inputting a password via the buttons on the fascia. The App is a little mystifying at times; getting back from the one of the streaming platforms or internet radio to the main menu confounded me for a while, but did prove possible. There is a stack of music services available, more than any other streamer I’ve tried, including favourites like Tidal, Qobuz, and Spotify Connect alongside Deezer, Amazon Music, Napster, and Pandora. Some of these are region specific of course and there’s more than a clue to the T14’s target market in that list.
Quite a lot of operations can be done with the front panel buttons, but hard as I looked I couldn’t find a seek button for FM stations. The manual suggests two methods for doing this, both of which proved reviewer-proof. However, I did note that reception had improved for Radio 3 on this occasion; it wasn’t noise free but gave the impression that a slightly better or better placed aerial would deliver decent results. Sound quality with the same station on DAB is reasonably open with some stereo solidity; it seemed a little lacking in fine detail, but given the compression used by broadcasters, even of BBC R3’s calibre, that’s hardly surprising. More importantly it made some Schoenberg sound remarkably musical and listenable – some very teenage, easy-listening Schoenberg that is; the Second Viennese School isn’t exactly on heavy rotation chez-Kennedy. Switching to the same station’s net stream produced a small reduction in quality, the DAB option being slightly cleaner and more open, but it’s a close call and switching to Play-Fi sources is not terribly quick.
That said, when you are streaming, those buttons on the right-hand side of the display can be useful. Rarely have I seen so many interwebular control options in metal; usually you have to resort to a remote or control app to skip tracks, shuffle, or repeat. Using the T14 as a network streamer with an Innuos Zenith SE server results in a somewhat vague sound by the standards of a good (wired) streamer. Whether this is due to the wireless connection or the streamer and DAC in the Rotel is hard to say, but the fact that it is also a tuner may be a factor – RF noise being the enemy of digital audio. It’s not an offensive sound but neither does it make you want to pay attention, which is a pity when there’s a server of the Zenith’s class feeding it. With Tidal the result is a little weaker than a wired streamer but the difference isn’t as marked, presumably because the signal has already travelled a fair way, and I had a lot of fun listening to a variety of different songs.
Going back to the server feed I tried a number of pieces starting with Beethoven’s ‘smash hit’ the 5th Symphony [Barenboim, Beethoven For All, 24/96, Decca], this had plenty of scale and a good helping of the drama that makes it so diverting, but the sound lacked clarity and imaging was rather vague. None of which stops you enjoying it of course but a good streamer is capable of showing the timing and dynamic subtleties that fail to come through clearly on the T14. Simpler material such as Radiohead’s ‘Decks Dark’ [A Moon Shaped Pool, XL] fares much better; its clearly defined, percussive nature comes through well even if the finer aspects of the imagery are left to the imagination. I think the Rotel’s main problem, however, is timing; the bass line on Patricia Barber’s ‘Touch of Trash’ [Modern Cool, Premonition] sounds slow, limiting the extent to which the music can connect with the listener. Removing the DAB and FM aerials did seem to help a little, but that undermines the point of the product.
There is a digital output on the T14 too, so I gave that a whirl with a rather OTT (under the circumstances) DAC in the form of a Chord DAVE, and this clearly helped. It brought refinement and clarity that made Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark[Asylum] a joy once more, with decent definition across the board and improved if not quite kick ass timing.
The Rotel T14 is a useful piece of kit if you want to kill two birds with one stone without going down the AV receiver route. Whether it makes sense to incorporate a tuner into a product that can find the same programme, and a lot more, online is another question. It’s a niche product no doubt, but one for which there could well be a market if enough of us radio lovers still want a decent source.
Type: DAB/DAB+, FM tuner and network streamer
Control connections: Home automation via RS232, 12V trigger in- and outputs (via 3.5mm jacks)
Antenna inputs: DAB – 75 Ohm F connector, FM – 75 Ohm coaxial connector
Network connection: 802.11b/g/a/n Dual Band.
DAC Resolution: 384kHz/32 bit
Music services/Wi-Fi inputs: Spotify Connect, Tidal, Qobuz, Pandora, Napster, Amazon Music etc.
Analogue Outputs: One pair single ended (via RCA jacks)
Digital Outputs: One coaxial S/PDIF (via RCA jack)
Frequency Response: Not specified
Supported Radio Formats: FM, DAB, DAB+, Internet radio, Internet streaming
Distortion (THD + Noise): Not specified
User Interface: LCD display (on main unit), DTS Play-Fi application software for iOS, Android
Dimensions (H×W×D): 93 ×430 ×334mm
UK Distributor: Rotel Europe
Tel: +44 (0) 1903 221 710
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