Despite our inarguable desire as a species for ‘hands-off’ control and increasingly minimalist design, tactility still plays a big part in our appreciation of hi-fi. This is, after all, an industry that often indulges in all manner of dials, knobs, switches and luxury materials that demand to be fondled – particularly in the high-end space.
And lest we forget that the physical act of pulling a record from a sleeve, placing it on a spindle and carefully lowering a needle onto it has undoubtedly contributed to the vinyl revival as we crave tactility in this digital-dominating, button-pressing age.
To simply look at, the HiFi Rose RS201E has nothing obvious about it that screams “touch me”, and yet during our time with it we’ve been more ‘hands-on’ with it than any other product we’ve tested this year, bar phones and tablets.
That’s because this just-add-speakers streaming system has been designed to be physically interacted with. Whereas on-unit control of such products is usually a last resort if we’ve misplaced our app-toting phone down the sofa and the batteries in the remote have died, the HiFi Rose is lovely to physically use – providing it’s within comfortable reach of where you’re seated. That’s down to the fact that nearly its whole fascia is a wide-view 8.8-inch touchscreen that is a gateway to navigating music playback and more.
The ‘and more’ is important, too. The RS201E may, in purely a music context, be comparable to the likes of the Naim Uniti Atom and Cambridge Audio Evo streaming amps, but unlike the competition, it is unique in several ways. All told, it’s more of a media player.
This is probably a good time to talk about HiFi Rose. The relative new kid on the hi-fi block is a division of Citech, a Korean IT software company that manufactures and markets, among other things, interactive retail kiosks. Now, the notion of the interactive touchscreen USP in the RS201E (and other audio products from the Seoul-based firm) makes more sense. Indeed, the identity of HiFi Rose is, it says, 'audio with screen'.
The significant screen real estate doesn’t only encourage on-unit control but also facilitates video playback. The operating system (based on Android 7.0 Nougat) serves as access not only to the likes of Tidal, Qobuz and networked and stored music (DSD256, 32-bit/384kHz and MQA files are all supported) but also applications such as ‘RoseTube’. This is a YouTube spin-off developed by HiFi Rose, using Google’s Youtube programming interface, that provides recommended content for audio enthusiasts in addition to the usual search function. Similarly, you’ll also find RoseFM (which offers around 800 channels from several countries) and Rose Podcast (whose channels are provided by iTunes).
OS Android 7.0 (Nougat)
Display Wide view 8.8-inch multi touch screen
Power 100W per channel
Network Ethernet, wi-fi
Streaming Airplay / DLNA Service
Supported audio formats MQA, WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, APE, DFF, DSF, AAC, CDA, AMR, APE, EC3, E-EC3, MID, MPL, MP2, MPC, MPGA, M4A; PCM: 8kHz-384kHz (8/16/24/32bit); Native DSD: DSD64 (2.8MHz) / DSD128 (5.6MHz) / DSD256 (11.2MHz)
Dimensions (hwd) 278 x 202 x 76mm
These HiFi Rose-developed sources all have their own icons on the homescreen that can be scrolled with a breezy swipe of a finger across the screen. Further sources with homescreen icons span physical connectivity, which includes RCA, optical, HDMI, USB-A and USB-C inputs, plus a MicroSD slot for cards up to 512GB, as well as CD playback and ripping, facilitated by the optional HiFi Rose RSA780 CD drive and the RS201E’s SSD storage capacity slot. Those interested in the unit’s CD opportunities should know that the external CD drive works perfectly well for both CD playback and, in conjunction with the SSD storage our sample was atypically fitted with, CD burning.
Familiar icons for Bluetooth (4.0; sadly not aptX) and AirPlay can be tapped on the screen’s top right-hand corner to initiate them, too, and this is also where a HiFi Rose logo can be tapped to take you back to the homescreen at any point. The interface is reminiscent of that of an Android phone, although really anyone who is comfortable using modern-day phones or TVs should get on with its easy-to-use operation just fine.
Navigating menus and browsing libraries is straightforward, and is helped immensely by the fact the screen is surprisingly reliable in its touch responsiveness. There are a few operational quirks – the search on the built-in Tidal app can be hit and miss, and YouTube videos don't always like being skipped drastically forward – but mostly we find this to be a surprisingly seamless hands-on experience. A product that sells itself on being used needs to be stable, and it is. Established brands in the streaming space could no doubt learn a thing or two from the HiFi Rose’s strong user experience and tactility. As you’d hope, there is also a supplied remote (a basic but equally responsive affair) and the perfectly usable Rose Connect app.
As the playback screen prioritises colourful album artwork and bold text, and can be changed to show playful displays such as different coloured VU meters (our favourite) and clock faces, it’s safe to say that, generally, what’s on screen is more interesting than what frames it. The HiFi Rose’s chassis is a humble affair – a solid aluminum box, with minimal detailing represented by a HiFi Rose logo to the left of the screen and a power button and 3.5mm headphone jack to the right. That sandwiches a volume dial flicker switch that’s nice to knock up with the ridge of your index finger, although after a fortnight sat in our test room on a rack, we were met with a little bit of resistance, as if a little grit had got inside the mechanism.
As build quality and finish go, the RS201E is fine and functional but not particularly striking. It certainly wouldn’t last many rounds in a beauty contest in the category, considering the elegance of the Naim Uniti Atom and Cambridge Audio Evo 75.
It would come third-best to those machines in a sound quality competition too, but that says as much about the calibre of those rivals and the high bar they set as it does about the HiFi Rose’s talent. The RS201E is tonally even and plenty clear through the frequencies as we play Lorde’s Helen Of Troy, the mellow guitar line and her honeyed vocal filling a soundstage that’s open and balanced – not thin or thick but ultimately easy to listen to.
It’s capable of higher volumes than most would ever need, too, and with 100 watts per channel of amplification at its disposal is able to drive our reference ATC SCM50 and favoured, more price-comparable KEF LS50 Meta with ease.
It only takes one song played through the rival Naim for us to suspect its sonic superiority over the HiFi Rose – the Naim better highlights Lorde's distinct vocal texture and the delivery’s dynamic variation – and as we go through our library, playing everything from hip-hop and indie to jazz and classical, that’s confirmed. The free-spirited instrumentation that opens the genre-spanning Chaos Space Marine by Black Country, New Road has tighter rhythmic coordination through the more musical, punchier Atom than it does the RS201E. It offers a step up in terms of detail resolution, too.
Of course, the HiFi Rose is a more multi-faceted machine in other ways. And as we remind ourselves of that, we dip into the system’s video capability by playing official music videos and recordings of live concerts from Tidal and RoseTube, and the HiFi Rose’s screen dutifully adds a welcome visual element to our listening as we position the unit just to the front-right of our listening position so we can enjoy it. The videos never take up the full width of the screen due to its unconventional aspect ratio; depending on a video’s format, it will only realistically take up half to two-thirds of it. Handily, you can choose to easily send the picture (up to and including 4K quality) to a TV or monitor screen that’s connected over HDMI with a simple tap of a logo in the top right-hand corner.
HiFi Rose is onto something here, offering a uniquely tactile experience that we imagine many will appreciate in today’s largely hands-off world. Even if video playback and on-unit control aren’t core features for a music streaming system and won’t be for everyone, such a responsive, interactive touchscreen and video capabilities are things we wish rival products had.
Purists looking for the most insightful and musical performance to deliver their streaming service’s streams or their networked audio should probably look elsewhere, but if you like the RS201E’s quirks and don’t mind sacrificing a little sonic transparency to get them, we very much doubt you’re alone in that.
- Sound 3
- Features 4
- Build 4
Read our Naim Uniti Atom review
Also consider the Cambridge Audio Evo 75
Upgrade to a wireless system: these are the best music streamers