Rega DAC D/A processor
"We like to make things," Roy Gandy, Rega's founder and owner, once told me. "It's what we do." Or maybe it was Rega's chairman and chief engineering honcho, Terry Bateman. Rega products are designed and manufactured in the south of England. So far as I know, no one at the Rega facility, on the Temple Farm Industrial Estate, has committed suicide; the same cannot be said of workers at the factory in China where iPods are made. Al Gore is on the board of Apple. Al, what do you think?
Rega designs for simplicity and reliability. We do the fussing so that you don't have to, Terry Bateman told meor words to that effect. It's the reason you can't fiddle much with a Rega tonearm. It's also the reason Rega turntables never break.
Roy Gandy told me about one Rega turntable that did break. It seems a bloke had a fight with his wife: he grabbed one side of the turntable, she the other. The 'umble 'table landed on the floor, its glass platter shattered, its plinth cracked. What, if anything, could be salvaged? I find it very British that the gent seemed at least as concerned about saving his turntable as his marriage. I forget the outcomes.
Rega has gone upmarket with a number of products, including two CD players, both named Isis: $8995 solid-state, $9995 tubed. That's right: tubed. Terry Bateman has always been keen on valves: "Just give me a pair of 6BQ5/EL84 tubes any day and I'll go away a happy bunny," he wrote in an e-mail. The Isis players are anything but 'umble eye-fye. When I heard that some of their technology had trickled down into the Rega DAC ($995), I gave Rega's US distributor, Steve Daniels, at The Sound Organisation, a bell, as the British like to say. Or a tinkle. I do love to piss people off.
Though the Rega DAC measures only 8.4" (215mm) wide by 3.1" (80mm) high by 10.5" (270mm) deep, there's a lot packed inside, Bateman says. There are two coaxial and two optical (TosLink) inputsfour S/PDIF inputs in all. (S/PDIF stands for Sony/Philips Digital Interconnect Format, aka Sony/Philips Digital Interface.) There's also one USB input for direct USB link to your computer. One oddity of the Rega DAC is its small IEC C5 mains input, chosen to save space. If you want to use an aftermarket power cord, your Rega dealer can supply an adapter; I didn't ask for one.
Bateman doesn't see USB "as a high-tier audio interface. . . . I came to this decision whilst researching professional studio-based outboard audio equipment, and nearly all the digital audio interfaces are AES/EBU (close relative of the S/PDIF format) and not USB."
In an earlier e-mail, Bateman had said something about USB's convenience and utility. I think he's spot on about that. I tried listening to Internet radio and my favorite podcasts from my computer, via USB, to the Rega DAC. I used my Musical Fidelity X-CansV8 headphone amp to drive my AKG 701 headphones and my powered Advent speakers from yesteryear (the small ones, same as the powered ARs).
When you connect to your computer USB-to-USB, the signal goes to the Rega DAC's Burr-Brown PCM2707 USB receiverthe same chip found in Musical Fidelity's M1 DAC. This receiver chip is why you're limited to data rates of 48kHz and below and 16 bits via USB; but not so via the four S/PDIF inputs.
If you want to send higher data rates from your computer to your DAC, you need a USB-to-S/PDIF converter, such as Musical Fidelity's V-Link ($169) or Halide Design's The S/PDIF Bridge ($450). You engage the Rega's five digital inputs via buttons on the front panel; that's where you'll also find buttons for the 10 digital filters (more about these below). My head is already spinning. Like a CD.
The Rega DAC's sound was distinctive and superb. I was extremely happy with the sound I was able to, er, wrest from my "medium-rez" CDs. I took my favorite discsheh-hehfor a spin, using my Sony SCD-XA777ES SACD/CD player as a transport. For the most part, I listened with my LFD LE IV integrated amplifier driving my Triangle Comète Anniversaire speakers via LFD speaker cables. For direct comparisons, I connected the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC to the LFD integrated with the same ancient XLR interconnects.
The Rega DAC had a richness, a fullness of tone, an analog sense of ease, that I had not hitherto heard from digital, save for SACD. I heard a naturalness, an organic quality to the sound. The Rega DAC didn't sound at all busy with the bits. Superior resolution aside, the Rega DAC reminded me of my bedside Sony D25s Discman, from about 1989.
Older CD players can do that, sometimes: surprise me with their musicality, if not their ultimate resolution. Another such player from roughly the same era is my MicroMega Stage 6. Often, in hi-fi, we get technological progress but not sonic improvements. It's what drives Art Dudley, Ken Kessler, and others back to the past, and rightly so. Why did I sell my Spendor BC1 speakers?
There's never anything in heavy rotation chez nous, but I've been enjoying several CDs in particular. The Rega wrangled Rachmaninoff to the groundhis complete Preludes, performed by Alexis Weissenberg (CD, RCA 09026-60568-2-8). The weight of the notes from the left-hand side of the piano was remarkableand this from my Triangle Comète Anniversaire speakers, which can't do deep bass. The beefy Bulgarian was in our living room.
I enjoyed that richness of tone: body, weight, authority. I also enjoyed a newer recording, this one nominated for a Grammy: Nelson Freire's set of Chopin's Nocturnes (2 CDs, Decca 001405302). Compared to the M1 DAC, the Rega DAC gave me greater richness of tone, a more relaxed sound. The M1 DAC, when I reverted to it, displayed distinctive virtues of its own: a certain lightness and fleetness of foot, more apparent air and openness in the top end. There seemed to be more space between the notes.
In its own way, each DAC was thoroughly convincing; listening to one, I did not terribly miss the other. But I was trying to hear differences, so of course I did. Scientific researchers call this Positive Expectation. Or Negative Expectation, as the case may be. You get the results you want.
This puts me in a pickle. There were times when the Rega's weight and bass authority stunned me and the M1 seemed lean by comparison: austere is probably the right word. It happened again last night, when I played Haydn's Symphony 103, "Drum Roll," with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (3 CDs, Vienna Philharmonic 2009). The drum rolls practically rolled me out of my seatand this was with the somewhat bass-shy, stand-mounted Triangles.