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The Rega Apollo proves taking on the big boys at CD isn’t an act of lunar-cy. SmartHouse investigates this superior sounding cD player.


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As Britain’s leading manufacturer of turntables and tonearms, Rega didn’t exactly rush into producing its own CD players, to partner the electronics and loudspeakers that it made. As a committed vinyl protagonist, it was one of the last to take the digital plunge, and still regards vinyl as the format of choice.

But the Planet, and its more elaborate Jupiter sibling, have both been well received by the marketplace, and went through two generations, starting with the distinctive ribbed cast alloy casework, and later with the tryptich-fascia styled units that are now current throughout the electronics range.

Rega tends to keep its models running over many years. The transition from the Planet to the Apollo player was not made voluntarily, or even willingly, though Rega is very happy with the end results. In fact, the company is struggling to meet demand for the new CD player. Apollo is pitched at the same $1,500 price as its Planet predecessor, and Rega is preparing a beefed-up Saturn, to replace the $3,000 Jupiter with Apollo technology.

From across the room, you’d be hard pushed to spot a difference between Planet and Apollo. Both share the same stylish casework, featuring a centrally placed top-loading mechanism with clever double-hinged lid. The only visible difference lies in the centre of the loading bay lid: whereas the Planet’s lid incorporated a rotating disc clamp, the Apollo has no need of such a device – a clue that the crucial change here is a new disc drive mechanism.

Specialist hi-fi brands don’t generally have the resources to create custom integrated circuits and the like, so the CD players they make are built up from components bought in from original equipment manufacturer suppliers. Rega used to source its disc drive mechanisms and their attendant control chips from Sony Europe, but Sony pulled out of this business about three years ago, so Rega has been busy making alternative arrangements.

Rega recently found a British software company that was just finalising a brand new chip-set specifically dedicated to CD drive. This is rather unusual, as all the traditional suppliers have spent the last decade focusing on DVD rather than CD replay. However, because this drive is a new development, it benefits from the latest innovations in chip design, and therefore incorporates much more memory than earlier designs. This ensures full ‘Red Book’ compliance, and allows the demands of both signal processing and error correction to be satisfied without compromise.

These control chips are used with a Sanyo-sourced laser and drive mechanism, which features a neat ball-chuck arrangement (three spring-loaded ball bearings) to grip the disc. This is a technique that offers the lowest possible inertia (making life easier for the servo) and obviates the need for a clamp.

Beyond the new disc drive, the Apollo uses the latest 24-bit dual-differential Wolfson digital-to-analogue converter, and also has a new analogue output circuit – a Class A ‘bootstrapped cascode pair’. This needs a good 15 minutes of warm-up from cold before reaching optimum playback temperature.

The alloy casework is available in either silver or black, and a modest red LED display sits centrally on the fascia, underneath the loading bay. Four intelligently shaped fascia buttons supply ‘play’, ‘stop’ and ‘skip’, leaving most of the control work to a brand new handset. Very similar to its predecessor and a slim light affair that’s easy to operate one-handed, the handset covers all the usual basics. However, it also includes the necessary functionality to support the replay of discs recorded in compressed MP3 format, which the Apollo can play in addition to regular CDs.

SOUND QUALITY

Though only mildly inconvenient, the Apollo took longer to get going than older players. On the plus side, it’s still quicker than many universal disc players and it proved unusually capable at tracking damaged discs that caused problems on other machines.

First chance to hear the Apollo provided an opportunity to compare it to the earlier but more upmarket Jupiter, a CD player that this reviewer has always held in high regard. And the surprise was how easily and comprehensively superior the new player sounded, especially through the top half of the audio band, despite only costing half as much.

The Apollo’s top end sounds simply wonderful, with a subtlety and sheer musicality that can rival players costing four times as much. The way it enables the voice of a favourite singer, such as the estimable Alison Krauss, to raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck is almost unprecedented. While the top is little short of magical, the bottom end is dry, lightweight and lacking a little authority in comparison. It just doesn’t grab the attention in the way the upper registers do, yet at the price the overall effect is thoroughly convincing. It is, in short, a brilliant communicator, especially so when reproducing delicate and well recorded acoustic material. But it also makes compact discs of all kinds uncommonly interesting, and unusually easy on the ears.

Even the Chemical Brothers’ unpleasantly compressed and edgy Push the Button managed to sound remarkably listenable – still fierce, but no longer uncomfortably aggressive, while the essence of the music came through clearly. This is rare at any price.

The Apollo seemed equally adept at the most delicate detail. The very subtle percussion work on the title track of Laurie Anderson’s Life on a String seemed to fit perfectly into the whole, with a very superior coherence that helps the whole performance and composition make good sense. Highly recommended.

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Rega Apollo| $1499 | | www.synergy-audio.com
For: Outstanding sound quality;. makes difficult CDs accessible; excellent communicator.
Against: Bottom end is lightweight; top-loader needs top shelf placement.
Verdict: An outstanding sub-$1500 CD player, with overall musicality that belie its relatively modest price.

 

 

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