Setton RS-440 Receiver review

Setton RS-440 Receiver

A Little Background:

I’ll be the second to admit it (my wife would be the first): I’m a cheapskate. There’s nothing I like better than getting a deal, a proclivity that has made me a lifetime connoisseur of thrift shops, flea markets, junk stores, stoop sales, and (since I moved to New York City) stuff left out on the curb on recycling day. So when, a few years ago, I felt the need to upgrade my 80’s craptastic stereo system, I was naturally drawn to secondhand gear.

It started with a pair of Boston Acoustics A60s, $25 on Craigslist with the woofer surrounds shot. Another $20 later for new surrounds and I was off. Next came a minty Sherwood 7100A for $10 at a stoop sale. The Sherwood, at 17 beefy watts per channel, blew the doors off my 80-wpc JVC surround receiver, bought new in 1989 for what seemed at the time an exorbitant $250. The She wood sounded great, but it had something else as well: it looked cool. It reminded me of all the shiny aluminum-cased stereo components my better-off friends had back in the 70s, when I was stuck spinning records on a plastic JC Penney suitcase record player and changing stations on our kitchen clock radio when Mom and Dad weren’t home. Well, I had turned 40 around this time, and I guess my midlife crisis coalesced around the search for the ghost of stereo systems past – what my wife refers to as my constant pursuit of the stereo I couldn’t afford when I was seventeen. Add to that my growing realization that, for a few bucks and a little legwork, I could own a stereo that would have cost thousands of dollars new, I was hooked – I had become a vintage stereo buff.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to try out a lot of fine components. I’ve scoped out the most promising thrift stores within a fifty mile radius; I check Craigslist religiously a couple of times a day; I subscribe to Freecycle; and I know the curbside recycling nights for every neighborhood within walking distance of my Brooklyn home, and many a short drive away. My collection is ever changing, and never too large; given that I live in New York, I don’t have room to store a lot of stuff. I have a small system in my home office, a main system in the living room, and a small setup in my office at work. The living-room system is where I put my best gear, the components that I want to listen to when I’m relaxing. The office systems tend to accommodate new finds, things I’m auditioning before I go to the trouble of rearranging the main system. When I get too much gear I put together systems for friends and family members, I sell it on Craigslist, or I donate it back to a charity thrift shop near my work. I keep a running tab of how I’m doing with my hobby, how much spent, how much earned through resale. So far I’ve managed to give away three vintage component systems, maintain three systems of my own, donate a number of pieces to charity, and I’m still running a slight profit, enough that if I see a really desirable piece somewhere I can think about buying it without setting off the dollar alarm that all us cheapskates have permanently embedded in our cerebral cortex. My current system isn’t going to make any of the hardcore collectors over at Audiokarma hang their heads in shame, but I like it; it contains more components that I have kept the longest since I started in this hobby. It goes as follows:

Ar-2ax speakers (free, from Craigslist, plus the cost of new foam, capacitors, and grille cloth) AR-4 speakers (street find, plus new caps) Akai CS-MO1A cassette deck (thrift shop, $4.99) Kenwood KD-3055 turntable with Stanton 680EE cartridge (Craigslist, $30; new stylus, $20) Harman-Kardon HD7300 CD Player (CL, $20) Setton RS-440 Receiver ($115, but really free since I used the profits from selling a Kenwood amp and tuner – at least that’s what I tell my wife)

It’s a good setup, and it achieves a plausible kind of synergy between the receiver, speakers, and other sources. The Kenwood turntable has a composite marble base (part of the same series that includes the KD-550 and KD-2055). This series of tables has its adherents and detractors, largely because of the unspectacular stock tonearms. I find mine more than adequate for now, if a bit unexciting. It looks pretty, and moreover with the heavy marble plinth it’s immune to vibration, which is a good thing since I have a seven-year-old kid and a psychotic Chihuahua. It never skips. Never.

The Akai tape deck does everything well enough given that I rarely listen to cassettes. It isn’t as buggy as the Nakamichi LX-3 I found on the curb, or as crystal clear as the Toshiba PCX-10M I gave my sister, but it sounds good. It features a terrific implementation of Dolby A as well as a proprietary filter that sometimes helps with old or poorly recorded cassettes.

The HK CD player continues to be a pleasant surprise. It has outlived newer CD players from Teac (ugh) Onkyo (disappointing) and a couple of flavor-of-the-month DVD players (you know which ones I mean). The sound is smooth, liquid, and very musical. I can only assume it has something to do with the HK’s rock-solid transport and highquality analog circuitry, since I’m sure the digital path is terrifically outdated. I keep dragging home “new” used CD players, but so far nothing has given it any competition.

But what I’m writing about today is the rarest dog on the porch, the Setton RS-440. I found the Setton through Craigslist and an encounter with an audio hoarder who lived in a house packed to the ceiling with audio gear of all kinds, old and new, good and bad (for an account of that day’s adventure, see the Audiokarma thread here.)

Setton RS-440 receiver review


When people talk about Setton components, what usually gets mentioned first is the appearance, and with good reason. The RS-440 is nothing if not ostensibly “designed” (apparently by Pierre Cardin). It certainly is pretty to look at. The faceplate is simply laid out, the aluminum knobs have a weighty quality feel, the monochromatic color scheme (all shiny aluminum, white surfaces, and pale amber lights) gives it a kind of timeless elegance. I sometimes like to compare vintage receivers to 70s-era cars, another product of the time where form was as important (sometimes more so) than function. If the Technics SA-500 I used to own, for instance, was a 72 Dodge Barracuda with rear spoiler and aftermarket air scoop, and my Sherwood 7100A was a ’69 Impala, the Setton is more like a ’71 Porsche 911 – elegant, clean, luxurious in its details but without the muscle car flourishes of so many Japanese receivers of the same era.

What often gets overlooked is the Setton’s sound, and here it excels. The specs (from the original user’s manual) are as follows:

2 x 69 watts RMS, .085% THD Dual gate MOSFET in FM front end, 4 gang variable capacitor IF section with three 2-element ceramic filters Phase-locked loop IC

The receiver features terminals for three sets of speakers, triple tone controls (bass, mid and treble) and 2-position turnover frequency controls. It also features a unique “Security Panel” with three indicator lights: Heat (for overheating of the heat sink), Clipping, and Protection. There is one phono input, two each of auxiliary and tape, a headphone output and stereo mic input with a separate level control.

In its daily paces, the Setton performs beautifully. It has easily the best FM section I’ve ever heard. I listen to a lot of classical and jazz radio, and in New York City interference is always an issue. Add to that the fact that my living room is in what they call an “English Basement” around here (a basement only half-below ground level, with small windows) and reception gets very tricky. Equipped with only a basic dipole antenna, the Setton picks up my favorite bottom-of-the-dial stations with ease. Somehow the Setton is able to make FM stereo sound less compressed, more like a source recording, than any other receiver I’ve owned.

My listening room is far from ideal. My system is set up in the combined livingroom/dining/kitchen in the “English basement” of a duplex apartment. The room is roughly 30’ x 15’, with hardwood floors, a seven and a half-foot ceiling, and lots of odd angles. Because of furniture placement most of my listening is done “off-axis”, with sound reflected through the space. The AR’s I use have pretty good diffusion; a more focused speaker just wouldn’t work for me in my current situation. As a result, your mileage may vary.

Listening test:

For this review I listened to the following pieces:

  • Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” -London Digital LP, Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
  • Jóhann Jóhannson’s “IBM 1401, a User’s Manual” – 4AD CD
  • Ry Cooder et al, “Buena Vista Social Club”, World Circuit CD

The Rodrigo is one of my favorite recordings for testing new components. It begins with a very light pizzicato in the high strings that terminates in a soft but pronounced “bump” in the bass section. Tempo and dynamics change frequently throughout the piece, and the recording (when well reproduced) has a marvelously open, airy sound. The Setton acquits itself very well here. Bass is well-integrated into the total sound mosaic, neither over-emphasized (as it was on a Harman/Kardon A401) nor lacking in authority (as it had been, for example, on my Technics SA-500). The Setton’s phono stage is among the best I’ve heard in my limited experience, with a very low noise floor and a smooth, airy presentation. Compared to some other components (the Technics and a couple of vintage Sony integrateds come to mind) the Setton’s sound is ever-so-slightly rolled off at the very high end of the scale, filtering out background noise without audibly affecting the music.

Jóhannson’s “IBM 1401” is a very cool piece of new music, combining tones generated and looped on the 60’s-era IBM of the title with readings from the original owners’ manual. Okay, it sounds a lot better than my description. The wellrecorded CD has a lush soundstage with very complex, dense passages of looped and repeated tones. Here too the Setton does a good job of separating layers of music that sounded like mush through my Realistic STA-2080 (itself a very good receiver in many ways). When the spoken voice appears in track two, the Setton’s warm, pronounced midrange helps pinpoint the narrator in the middle of a very wide soundstage, a separate but equal aspect of the music.

I like to run “Buena Vista Social Club” whenever I bring home a new component. It’s got to be one of the best-mastered CDs it’s been my pleasure to listen to. The soundstage is very wide and detailed, instruments are well-placed, and Cooder succeeds in capturing an analog sound with the (admitted) benefits of digital. Here again, the Setton provides an enjoyable listening experience. The singers are placed well forward of the band, and the Setton maintains a terrific sense of air around the various instruments. On track seven, “Veinte Años”, the Setton maintains a nice balance between the upright bass, steel guitar, mandolin and drums, while keeping the male and female singers distinct from one another in the center. It effectively conveys the delicacy of the song, something my H/K A401 (with the same speakers and CDP) was never able to do.

Setton RS-440 Receiver inside

Conclusion and a few codicils:

On the good side, the Setton offers a smooth, liquid and very musical presentation, with substantial controlled bass and velvety highs. The midrange is well-represented and the receiver does a betterthan-average job with vocal music and jazz. The underrated 69 watts per channel provides plenty of reserve power for a wide range of dynamics and it handles complicated musical passages with aplomb. It offers an excellent phono stage and to my ears a spectacular fm section. For some reason (and I don’t have the technical savvy to substantiate this) the Setton sounds better than most receivers I’ve heard at low volumes, a valuable asset if you live in an apartment, as I do, and like to listen to music late at night after the family ahs gone to bed. Difficult loads do not seem to be a problem; I’ve always found that the AR-2AX’s are a little power hungry, but the Setton makes them open up and sing. Controls are simple, ergonomic and smooth. And you can’t beat the looks.

The Setton’s sound won’t be to everybody’s taste, however. As I said above, highs are slightly rolled off, with some resultant diminishing of the soundstage compared to other brighter-sounding receivers. Stereo separation is good but never stunning. With more rolled-off speakers (my old Fisher XP-7B’s come to mind) the Setton sounds dull and lifeless. On the other hand (and I haven’t tested this out myself) it would probably make a nice match to more modern, brighter speakers. Because Setton gear is relatively rare it may be difficult to get serviced if it ever develops problems. The $115.00 I spent on mine seems to be in line with Ebay pricing, but be warned: if you develop a fixation for Setton gear you may have trouble moving beyond a receiver. Since acquiring the RS-440 I’ve also picked up a Setton AS-1100 integrated amp, which seems to have basically the same amp section as the RS-440. Other Setton components (a turntable, the lovely TUS-660 tuner) are extremely difficult to find.

from affordableaudio,  By Royston Coppenger