South Korea’s HiFi Rose might be a relative newcomer in the world of high-end audio, but they’ve certainly made themselves well and truly known thanks to their introduction of some wildly category-blurring products into the market in recent times. HiFi Rose first burst out of the blocks with their series of network-streaming devices, most famously realised in the form of the HiFi Rose RS150b High-Performance Network Streamer - their flagship digital device - which combines high-resolution and digital-decoding duties (plus so, so much more) into one stunning box that’s topped off with a gloriously-huge high-definition touchscreen display on the front. And just when you thought that HiFi Rose was firmly a “digital” audio company, they went and unleashed the HiFi Rose RA180 Integrated Amplifier - a strictly all-analogue affair, but one which sticks its head above the parapet with its one-of-a-kind, old-meets-new craftsmanship and up to 400 watts-per-channel of “Class AD” amplification.
A future-ready, all-in-one music solution
The “future-fi”-looking RS150b and the neo-retro RA180 might be worlds apart in terms of both function and form, however when married up with one another they make for one of the more formidable and synergistic system pairings I’ve had the pleasure to spend time with - they really are made for one another, and can handle just about any conceivable digital or analogue source you can throw at them (as well as pretty much any speaker under the sun thanks to the RA180’s stupendous power output).
At the time I was reviewing the RA180, I did find myself thinking once or twice that it would be pretty cool to have a “one box” HiFi Rose solution that blended the talents of both the RA180 and RS150b. After all, the hifi market is firmly moving towards smarter integrated devices that seamlessly blend streaming smarts with speaker-driving power (as the success of products like the Naim Uniti Atom and Cambridge EVO 150 will attest), and having an enormous RA180 sitting alongside your RS150b streamer isn’t exactly a statement in minimalism if you’re looking to cut down on the number of devices and cables in your home.
And wouldn’t you just know it - only a couple of months after I’d packed up and shipped back the RA180 and RS150b review units came the news that HiFi Rose was releasing their most comprehensively-talented product to date: meet the new $7299 HiFi Rose RS520 Advanced All-in-One Network Streamer. “All-In-One” really is an apt description for this latest HiFi Rose entrant - in addition to being a network streamer, it also features a stonking 250 Watts-per-channel (into 8-ohms) of speaker-driving grunt plus the familiar over-sized touchscreen interface that HiFi Rose’s digital devices have become famous for.
While you’d be forgiven for assuming that a device that manages to combine (most) of the RS150b and RA180’s talents into a single box would make it a far more expensive proposition than either of those devices, the RS520 is (at the time of launch) more affordable than either by a comfortable margin. Sure, the RS520 misses out on all the analogue trickery of the RA180’s unique phono stage, multi-amp topology (great for the bi-ampers among you), plus that over-engineered volume system; and it also misses out on some of the RS150b’s features such as balanced outputs and more exotic connection options such as AES. But, as a more streamlined device, the new RS520 might just be what the doctor ordered if you’re after an all-in-one streaming amplifier solution that also represents excellent value as well.
HiFi Rose RS520 build and design
At a glance, the new RS520 is unmistakably a HiFi Rose design - its front panel is completely covered by an enormous 12.6-inch, 1920x515 LCD touchscreen, and is seemingly devoid of any traditional buttons or knobs whatsoever. Move around the RS520’s chassis, and you’ll note that here it takes similar design and build cues to the RA180, being made from a single piece of milled aluminium, complete with finned heat sinks along either side plus a series of large vents in the RS520’s lid for heat dissipation. Despite being a Class-D (ish, more on this later) design, the RS520 does tend to get a little warm when in operation.
The RS520 is one sturdy, well-built piece of kit, and the moment you lift all 8.1 kilogram’s worth of chassis out of the box you know you’re dealing with one well-engineered and well-constructed device. This review unit was finished in a sleek and purposeful-looking matte black finish on its aluminium chassis, but you can also opt for an RS520 in a silver finish if that might better suit your other gear or general aesthetic tastes. Despite being very much a full-sized piece of hifi gear, the RS520 is actually a little smaller in each axis compared to the RS150b, at 356mm(W) x 328mm(D) x 127mm(H), making it a relatively compact solution if you’re looking for one device to take care of “everything”.
The RS520 actually has four physical, tactile buttons subtly integrated on the top of the device, to look after muting, volume up/down, and power on/off - all very handy if you want to get hands-up with these key features quickly. Spinning it around to the back reveals a plethora of input and output options of both the digital and analogue varieties. If you’re planning on connecting “legacy” digital sources, you have the option of coaxial, optical, and USB connections, plus an HDMI-arc input for connecting the RS520 to a smart TV or projector. Coaxial and optical outputs are also provided should you wish to use the RS520 as a (very capable) standalone streamer, and hand off your 1’s and 0’s to a downstream DAC. Analogue-wise, the RS520 sports a single pair of RCA line inputs to connect other sources - such as a turntable - to your integrated amplifier, and a pair of RCA pre-outs give you the flexibility of adding a subwoofer or using the RS520 as a preamplifier with an external power amplifier of powered speakers.
Additionally, the RS520 features 3.5mm trigger inputs and outputs to help power itself or other connected devices “on” in sequence, an HDMI output to transmit its 4K video and audio abilities to an external screen, a grounding terminal, a pair of USB 3.0 connections for hooking up an external storage or CD-drive, an ethernet connection, plus a pair of left/right five-way binding posts for connection to your passive speakers. Two features that are perplexingly included as external “appendages” are the RS520’s infrared remote receiver and wifi/Bluetooth antenna. The IR receiver is a small red plastic “nubbin”, identical to that used in the RA180, which is connected via a 3.5mm input on the rear of the RS520 and needs to be placed nearby within visual range of your usual seated position.
The wireless antenna is a rather large black plastic “fin” that attaches to the rear of the RS520 via a USB connection, but can (thankfully) be rotated sideways so that it stays out of view behind the unit. You might expect a device as digitally-advanced as the RS520 to have these features integrated within the unit itself, but once both are set up and in your preferred listening position, they aren’t really that obtrusive. The RS520 has an onboard power supply and needs only a standard IEC cable (which is supplied) rather than a bulky external switching power supply.
HiFi Rose RS520 touchscreen display
I’ll speak more to the RS520’s touchscreen functionality and Android-based operating system later, but I will say that the combination of the incredibly-vivid high-res screen and the minimally-sleek aluminium chassis makes the RS520 one of the best-looking hifi products out there on the market, period. It screams “high-tech”, while also looking suitably modern and minimalist (whereas one might not be able to say the same thing about the RA180). The fact that the RS520’s screen can display all kinds of amazing video and graphic displays, in addition to its basic settings and album cover art, makes it quite the chameleon in terms of how you want it to fit in with your vibes. If you’re a fan of vintage amps with VU meters, then you’ll definitely want to keep one of the (many) VU display functions on while listening to music. And if you feel more like using the RS520’s handsome screen real estate while you’re not listening to it, it has a great clock and live weather feature which looks a treat.
More than simply a pretty display, the RS520 can be controlled entirely via the front display touchscreen, accessing settings and playback control via an intuitive series of “presses” and “swipes”. It has a fairly complex and in-depth amount of features and menus, but it only takes a few minutes’-worth of acclimatisation to get oneself familiar with how to operate it. If you can work a smartphone, you’ll get the hang of the RS520 in no time. The onscreen UI feels responsive and snappy, and thanks to its Quad-Core CPU with 4GB of RAM it feels markedly better than HiFi Rose’s “entry-level” streaming devices.
The RS520’s input and output selection is managed via a very handy on-screen schematic that makes switching between different sources a breeze, and also allows you to disable various functions, for example, like turning off the pre-outs if you don’t want to use your subwoofer.
With its 1920x515 on screen pixel count, the RS520 can also happily play 4K video, if you feel like watching something on its gorgeous LCD front panel. The wide aspect ratio might not be the best way to watch content that’s better suited for larger screens, but it’s great to be able to watch HD music videos via Rose’s licensed “Rose Tube” app, which allows you to browse through a selection of music videos for the kind of audio/visual combo that no other manufacturer can hope to offer (as yet).
And if you don’t want to get up-close-and-personal with the RS520’s touchscreen, a nice aluminium remote is also provided. The remote lets you control volume, basic music playback functions, switching between sources, and can also surf through the RS520’s on-screen menus and functionality - if you prefer to use a more “old-school” physical remote to interact with your hifi, you’ll be well-served here.
HiFi Rose RS520 DAC
Not only is the RS520 a network streaming amplifier, but it’s also a state-of-the-art Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC), featuring ESS’s flagship ES9038PRO DAC chip. If you’re thinking that separate components might give you better performance, then you should think twice because the RS520’s on-board DAC performance and multiple digital inputs will have you well covered when it comes to decoding 1’s and 0’s. The ES9038PRO chip in the RS520 will decode PCM up to 32-bit/768kHz, and DSD512, and HiFi Rose has used high-quality op amps in the DAC circuit path to ensure a proper power supply with low noise and distortion.
The RS520 will happily tango with practically any known file format, including MQA. Given that a Tidal app is built into the RS520 from the get-go (along with Qobuz and Apple Music), if your primary source of music is streaming then this makes the RS520 a terrific choice for unlocking all the benefits of Tidal and other lossless streaming services.
HiFi Rose RS520 Class-AD amplifier
Gallium Nitride (or GaN)-based Class-D amplifiers are becoming more common-place these days in hifi. Class-D has grown in terms of popularity and acceptance in audiophile circles due to its high output, low power consumption and heat, and general compactness. HiFi Rose’s use of GaN-based FETs over the traditional silicone-based ones allows the RS520 to dramatically improve its “switching time”, making it more linear and therefore more accurate-sounding. HiFi Rose believe they have created the “perfect Class-D amplifier structure”, warranting an altogether new “Class-AD” nomenclature for their amplifier topology.
The RS520 might not have the Bridge Tied Load (BTL) mode of its all-analogue RA180 stablemate, able to crank out up to 400 WPC, but as single amplifier modules go, the RS520 is able to pip the RA180’s 200WPC output by 25%, for an extremely potent 250 Watts into each channel. That amount of power (on paper, anyway) ought to be enough to drive practically any speaker on the market, and given my positive experiences with the RA180 I went into my review of the RS520 with a sense of optimism around their Class-AD amplification technology’s capabilities.
The RS520’s operating system is a customised version of Android 7.1, and is optimised for both listening and watching music-related content via the RS520’s hardware and interface. A range of apps are preloaded onto the RS520 including:
- A “Music” app for playback of local or network-based files
- A “Video” app for playing up to 4K video via HDMI
- A CD-ripping/Player app for connecting to a CD-drive via USB
- “ROSE Radio”, which allows you to browse a number of worldwide internet radio stations
- “RoseTube” - a licensed version of Youtube that offers a range of music videos
- Tidal, Qobuz, Apple Music and Bugs music streaming services
In addition to the above, the RS520 is also a Spotify Connect-enabled device, which means you can cast a tune from your smart device directly to your network-connected RS520. The RS520 is also a fully “Roon Ready” device, giving you the option to manage playback via a Roon Core/Roon Remote when the RS520 is on the same network. Roon is far and away my favourite way to collate, collect, and enjoy digital music and so this was generally my preferred way to interact with the RS520. If you prefer to keep things a little simpler, it’s a cinch to simply connect a storage device containing your collected music files to the RS520 and manage playback directly through the device itself.
Or, if you want to keep things even cleaner, you can install an SSD hard drive inside the RS520 itself via the bottom panel using four provided screws. If you’re a little more adept with setting up a local network, you can also playback your local files via DLNA. And if you simply need to get music “happening” quickly, you can also connect to the RS520 via Bluetooth, although it is only Bluetooth 4.2 compatible - I don’t see this as a “negative” per se, as the RS520 is very much designed to be a lossless network streamer first and foremost.
ROSE Connect App
In addition to the RS520’s touch screen and remote, every facet of the device’s settings and playback functionality can be handled via the rather comprehensive and easy-to-use ROSE Connect app (available for both iOS and Android devices). The app is by far the easiest way to search for and explore music using streaming apps, which can be a little cumbersome using the RS520’s touchscreen.
The app can also function as a duplicate “remote” of sorts as well, handling all playback and input/output selection duties. The app also lets you browse between different VU meter styles which is a fun way to change up the RS520’s “vibe” from time to time. In short, between the RS520’s own touchscreen, the included physical remote, the physical buttons on top of the device, plus the ROSE Connect app, there are a ton of different ways to interact with this incredibly well-connected and thoughtfully-designed device, and it’s a pleasure to interact with it no matter which option you choose.
Listening to the HiFi Rose RS520
Being able to accept a ton of different input options, there are a million different ways to enjoy listening via the new RS520. I had it hooked up to my Rega Planar 2 turntable and phono preamp via the analogue RCA inputs, connected my Macbook via USB, and even my good old CD transport via coaxial. The RS520 sounded equally excellent regardless of source, but being a “streaming-first” device, it’s definitely best enjoyed devoid of any input cables whatsoever - the convenience-factor of doing so simply can’t be overlooked. As I mentioned earlier, using the RS520 as a Roon endpoint was my preferred way of streaming music with it, but I also spent a ton of time browsing through streaming catalogues via the ROSE Connect app and getting lost in hours-long listening sessions.
The main speakers that I used during my review time with the RS520 were the excellent Dynaudio Evoke 10 Bookshelf Speakers. While quite compact, their 6-ohm/84dB design does require a little bit of prodding in the power department to eke out a spirited performance from them, but when adequately powered they punch far, far above what their diminutive size might suggest. Unsurprisingly, given my experiences with the RA180, the RS520 had no problem whatsoever in that department - setting the volume to around 50/100 (for most tracks) was more than ample to get the Evoke 10’s singing in my mid-sized listening room. Stretching the RS520’s legs a little into “party mode”, 65/100 was the loudest I could push the Dynaudio’s without getting a visit from the local constabulary.
Tonally, the RS520 is extremely reminiscent of its Class-AD RA180 stablemate and every bit as impressive in terms of its technical abilities. As Class-D amplifiers go, this is among the most impressive I’ve heard to-date in terms of dynamic abilities and conveying a sense of realism tonally. It’s definitely on the “livelier” side compared to an equivalent Class-AB amp - its logical competitor - the Naim Uniti Atom - does have a little more tonal mass and overall meat on the bones by comparison. However, where the RS520 most impresses is with its alacrity and ability to deftly deal with transients and complex passages like the impossibly-fast “Math Rock” of Polyphia’s Playing God. The album from which this track features at the #2 spot, Remember That You Will Die, is expertly produced and mastered and playing via a 16-bit/44.kHz Qobuz stream, the RS520 helped the Evoke 10’s produce a wonderfully-layered and dense soundstage with absolute pin-point imaging while simultaneously providing a rock-solid sense of timing and articulation in even the most intricate of staccato passages.
Mid-range and instrument timbre in Sault’s Hiding Moon was impressive, conveying a textured and lifelike character to the wonderful string arrangement. Double Bass is always one of the more difficult instruments to articulate convincingly, and the RS520 delivered here in spades. The RS520’s bass is nimble and taut, yet perhaps not the last word in terms of delivering the weighty thump that I’m used to hearing in Khruangbin’s Lady and Man. However, the RS520 had a firm grip of the Evoke 10’s low end at all times and never lost composure - even when pushed hard.
More pedestrian Class-D amps have left me feeling flat in the excitement and dynamics department in the past - so much so, that I was happy to let my custom-built NCore amp (with 400 WPC!) go in favour of the better-sounding Burson Funk, which has a “paltry” 35 WPC by comparison. The RS520 was happy to prove the Class-D stereotype firmly “incorrect”, with a raucously energetic rendition of The Mars Volta’s The Widow. The RS520 provides lashings of detail and micro-dynamics, while at the same time being capable of providing all the visceral slam of percussion plus the tasty crunch of guitar distortion. Neither does the RS520 impart any glare nor irk-inducing sense to the upper register - its treble presentation is even-handed and utterly refined.
HiFi Rose has done the seemingly impossible: they’ve taken the best attributes from their finest digital and analogue products, and packaged them together in one incredibly streamlined and attractive package that really can do it all. If you’re after a device that’ll help you explore music both old and new, the RS520 is a terrific partner in that regard - it simply lets you “jump in” and enjoy music in mere seconds - and thanks to its lightning-fast boot time (around 5 seconds), you can start streaming hi-res music whenever the mood strikes. I’ve always felt that the best kind of hifi device - irrespective of specs and price - is the one that lets you enjoy music more often, and the RS520 is perhaps the best example of this device that I’ve yet encountered.
If you’re a streaming-first listener and looking to consolidate your hifi system into one single, very attractive package with an unmatched user experience, the new RS520 should be high on your audition list.