Rega Apollo CD player Page 2
From buck to cluck
From day one, the Apollo endeared itself to me—no other word for it—by cheaply doing well a great many things I consider crucial to music playback. Its rhythmic performance was strong—no surprise there, given that none of the Rega products I've heard have made music sound sluggish or unengaging—and its frequency range was well extended in both directions, with good balance between its strong bass registers and crisp, open-sounding trebles.
But it was the cleanness of the Apollo's sound that most impressed me that first day. In that sense, the Apollo was audibly, obviously different from most other players. After it had undergone a weeklong break-in period in my living-room system, I brought the Apollo into my dedicated listening room and installed it in my main system. The first song I played was Roy Wood's lovely "Whisper in the Night," from the first album by the much-abused Electric Light Orchestra, No Answer (Epic ZK 35524). After just the first few measures I was brought up short, and compelled to switch back to the Sony for comparison's sake: The Rega had an unambiguously lower noise floor. Through the Apollo, there was more emptiness between the notes—spaces had been filled with texture through the Sony, which I'd never noticed before. Consequently (or so it seemed), listening to the music was now easier: The tension that belonged in the music was still there, but the stress of listening to it was gone.
I heard much the same on "Lady Sweet," from Big Star's new album, In Space (Rykodisc RCD 10677). A mixture of gritty electric and clean acoustic guitars played more or less in unison—the thickness of the former, the percussive qualities of the latter—has always been a hallmark of the Big Star sound, but the qualities of the individual instruments are usually hard to pick out on a lesser system. The Apollo revealed them more cleanly than anything else in the house, stripping away a lot of electrical grunge from the spaces within the overall sonic tapestry (if you'll forgive a onetime use of that foppy cliché).
This effect wasn't limited to pop recordings. In fact, the Apollo's clean, open sound was even more pleasantly welcome with classical music. An obvious but good example came during the hushed opening measures of Strauss's Tod und Verklärung, with Lorin Maazel and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BMG 68221-2). With most players, good ones included, the susurration of the strings is hard enough to hear; with the Apollo, those sounds emerged from the darkness with all their musical meaning and sonic texture and color intact.
Hilary Hahn's exquisite recording of Elgar's Violin Concerto (SACD/CD, Deutsche Grammophon 00289 474 8732) is one of the most satisfying new classical releases in recent years (the CD booklet's good art direction doesn't hurt, either) sounded wonderful and emotionally satisfying through the Apollo. The player couldn't do anything about the curious lack of texture and warmth in the orchestral instruments—the sound, while not quite horrible, is a strange mix of dark and cold, although the solo violin fares better—but it played the melodies on the disc's "Red Book" layer with a DSD level of flow and momentum. Recent good SACD players, fed the DSD layer, did better with the performance's sense of drama and dynamic ease, though the Apollo was at least satisfying in that regard.
Spatial performance was fine, and certainly the equal of my Sony and the Naim CD5x. With very-well-recorded orchestral music—obvious choices such as Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony's various recordings in RCA's early Living Stereo series come to mind—ensembles sounded convincingly wide and deep, with last-row brass players sounding as if that was where they were coming from. Percussion sounds had great specificity, such as the snare drum and triangle in the first part of the 1955 recording of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé (JVC XR-0222-2).
From one disc to the next, regardless of the style of music, the Rega was clean, clear, and never boring. The only shortcoming I noted was a tendency for the trebles to sound a little too crisp on a few discs in my collection—such as David Grisman's Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza, on his own Acoustic Disc label (ACD-35). I love the version of the weird old fiddle tune "The Dusty Miller" on that album, with Ricky Skaggs and his father-in-law, Buck White—although the great mandolinist Frank Wakefield steals the show toward the end with an edgy solo that throws all caution to the wind as he bangs back and forth between major and minor voicings. But the sound got edgy, too, in a way that the more expensive Naim CD5x and Ayre AX-7e did not. No big deal—but I'd think twice before buying a Rega Apollo for a system with a relentless top end.
Because the new data-control chipset they're using contains an MP3 decoder, Rega decided to make the Apollo MP3-compatible as well. I tried it out by burning a bog-standard Fujifilm blank with some MP3 files from my iMac's music library, including Clarence and Roland White playing "Nine Pound Hammer," and another charmingly weird fiddle tune (this one with vocals), "Cluck Old Hen," by Fiddlin' Powers and Family. (The latter was transcribed from an Edison Diamond Disc—meaning we've more or less come full circle, I think.) They played without a hitch or a glitch.
A final performance note: The Rega Apollo seemed more or less blasé about the quality of the cable used to take its line-level signal to my preamp—I wound up relying on my second-hand, 2m-long Audio Note AN-Vx interconnect, if only because it was so delightfully perverse to connect a $995 CD player to my system with a cable that cost even more. But it did respond to the Ayre Myrtle Block isolation supports I've mentioned in issues past. The Blocks enhanced the Rega's performance in most ways, chief among which was the sense of musical ease and flow, although I did think the bass went slightly deeper without them. (The Apollo's own feet are standard-issue rubber things, not the fancy layer-cake jobs that Rega puts under their turntables.) Go figure.
Wrap it up
Rather like the Cyrus CD player I reviewed in the January 2006 Stereophile, the Rega Apollo seems a canny response to the challenge posed by format wars, potential obsolescence, and the declining dollar: When in doubt, spend as little as possible, striving all the while for the best quality imaginable. I mean that last bit literally: Until recently, I doubt anyone could have imagined "Red Book" CD playback this good from a sub-$1000 player.
While the Rega Apollo is free of obvious flaws, you'd be forgiven for wondering what the extra money for an Ayre CX-7e ($2950) or a Naim CD5x ($2900) might buy. For that matter, you could ask how much more could be had from Rega's own forthcoming upmarket players, which will be based on the same digital-control chipset. (The Rega Saturn, poised for release as I write this, comes immediately to mind.) I haven't heard the other new Rega machines, but as far as the others are concerned, more money can get you more texture and color, more drama, and, most important (to me, at least), more of a sense of humanness, of the human force behind every note that's sung or played. The Apollo is not lacking in any of those qualities—but it's as wrong to imply as it is naive to assume that you can't do better.
For the here and now, however—here being $1000 and now being $1000 as well—the Rega Apollo is satisfying in a way that no similarly priced player of my experience can boast: It wouldn't embarrass any system I know (save for the most irredeemably bright), and would only improve the core musical values of most. The Apollo is a surprising step forward in a field that I'd thought was empty of same, and a hell of a bargain. Very strongly recommended.
Footnote 1: Very unusually, after a CD has been initialized, when you select a track, its playing time is briefly displayed.—John Atkinson