Rega Brio integrated amplifier Page 2

"It's very much like a valve amplifier: The distortion starts quite early, but it's totally second-harmonic and it happens in a smooth and very controllable manner. Once we discovered that, we worked on the design and managed to make it sound quite a bit better by taking a backwards step in technology: In theory, we should have used a nice little regulated power supply at one stage of the circuit, but we found a simpler diode produced much better sound."

With Spirit
I was expecting the Brio to sound good—I'd already heard it many times at Robert's house, after all—and it never disappointed. It's a lively, well-balanced amplifier that rendered up realistic, musically engaging sound at all times. I lost track of all the times it made me dance around my listening room, tap my toes, or accompany the band on air guitar or bass. Rega has named the amp well.

It's a 30W amp, however and you must choose your speakers accordingly. During the course of my auditioning I used the B&W DM 302s, KEF RDM-2s, Polk RT-5s, Paradigm Studio/20s, and my current references, the B&W John Bower Silver Signatures. They all worked well. There were definite loudness limitations with the Silver Signatures and the Paradigms—I couldn't play heavily orchestrated works such as Mahler or Bruckner symphonies as loudly as is my custom without taxing the amp. But, as Sam Tellig likes to observe of his microwatt single-ended amps, maybe I don't need to play them that loud. Or perhaps the true lesson is to choose speakers that work better with the amplifier. The DM-302s, RT-5s, and RDM-2s all went plenty loud with the Brio—Mahler and Bruckner were well served.

Like the Creek 4330R I reviewed in August (Vol.21 No.8, p.94), the Brio did a superb job of presenting the pace and snap of music. But it's not punchy-sounding like the Creek; while not reserved, it's a touch more polite than the 4330R. This surprised me at first—I would have assumed that "punchier" meant "more rhythmic"—but as I listened to the Brio, I came to see (as I should have intuited all along) that rhythm is far more than just the emphasis of certain beats. The ability to show shadings in emPHAsis and dynamics plays a tremendous role in establishing a rhythmic groove, and this is an area where the Brio excelled.

It therefore did not come as a surprise that this is precisely an area that fascinates Roy Gandy. "When you get into the dynamics of music and you look at the contradiction between steady-state measurement and the fact that music is changing constantly in time, it becomes obvious that the change in power in a piece of music within a millisecond can alter the distortion structure at that time. It becomes a mathematical [differential}—a rate of change—but there's actually no way of measuring it.

"You can hear this quite clearly in a musician playing an electrical guitar—he has to use an amplifier's distortion to make music. And the amplifier's distortion actually forces him to play a certain way—change his amplifier and he will play a different way. In music technology, you're dealing with perhaps 100–200% distortion; in hi-fi, you're dealing with 0.01% or 0.1%, at most. But there are definitely things that happen with the way an amplifier works dynamically that produce changes to music. They're audible; they're just unmeasurable."

I was quite aware—at times—that the Brio adds a slight texture to music. This was not terribly obtrusive, but it was noticeable. On Dawn Upshaw's remarkable reading of Ravel's Trois poèms de Stéphane Mallarmé (The Girl with Orange Lips, Nonesuch 79262-2), this manifested itself in the form of a slight grittiness in both Upshaw's voice and the instrumental backing. This was a very subtle effect, however, and did not subtract from my enjoyment of these delicate morsels—except when I directly contrasted the Brio with the Creek 4330R, or my reference system.

On live recordings, such as Taj Mahal's An Evening of Acoustic Music (Ruf 1009 CD), the Brio may even have added a touch of verisimilitude. Taj has a bit of a rasp in his voice to begin with, and his National Steel exhibited a realistic amount of bite through the Rega that even the Creek didn't quite manage. And Taj's tricky forced lines on "Satisfied 'n' Tickled Too" were unraveled by the Rega with such panache that they seemed far easier to follow.

Let me not forget to give the Brio's phono section its due. I listened to several cartridges I thought likely to be used with a $600 amplifier: the Sumiko Blue Point Special and the Rega Bias, both mounted on a Rega Planar 2. Both cartridges really sat up and sang through the Brio.

There's a long thread on one of the internet newsgroups as I write this about how dead and unlistenable analog is, what with all the noise and distortion. Well, it sure sounds like a lively corpse to me—even with such a modest system. You don't have to be an analog fanatic to want to listen to the records you've already invested in, and the Rega makes a strong case for the format's tunefulness and vigor. I listened to new records and old for hours, without a hint of fatigue.

With Fire
The Rega Brio is reliable and fun, and never failed to impress me with its tunefulness. If it were animate, I'd say it was good-natured, for it seems almost eager to please. Its modest 30Wpc output necessitates careful speaker matching, but this is also true of amplifiers costing far more.

The Brio faces stiff competition in the Creek 4330R at precisely the same price, but for the money you get a choice: the Creek has remote control of volume and muting, while the Rega has a dedicated phono section. (Of course, you could buy the Creek without remote and with an add-on phono card for $30 less.) But it comes down to personal preference: The Creek has superior dynamic power and an emphatic nature; the Rega seems more polite while adding a faint overlay of texture. Both offer performance far beyond their price point.

Robert Baird, by the way, wanted to get the Rega back in his living room for keeps—he sent them a check before I finished this review. I can't wait to see what he plays for us at this year's burning of Zozobra. I already know it will sound good.

US distributor: The Sound Organisation
1009 Oakmead Dr.
Arlington, TX 76011
(972) 234-0182