The Rega Apollo CD Player
|The Rega Apollo CD Player|
|Breakthrough Musical Performance from CD|
Rega has been one of my favorite audio companies for more than 25 years. I deeply respect their unwavering commitment to music as the ultimate priority in the design of their audio products. Unlike most High End companies that have lost the musical plot in their pursuit of sonic chimera, Rega sees sonics as the servant of music. Sophisticated sonics alone will not guarantee musical communication: it is more a question of how well the sonic aspects are organized, defined, and formed into musically coherent patterns that determines the musical validity of an audio product. A truly successful audio product has to correctly lay out the fundamental aspects of music readily to perception: rhythm, tempo and the timing of instruments have to be correct or the entire edifice of music collapses. Why bother listening to Rock or Jazz if the bass and drums are wrong? Coherent dynamic tracking, correct punctuation of musical phrases, and replication of the sense of musicians playing together in service of a larger musical purpose are fundamental to all music. Rega has been faithful to the demands of music since its inception.
I’ve often thought that if the average turntable in the US had been a Rega Planar instead of the criminally inept Japanese direct-drives that dominated the era of the launch of the CD, the CD format would have deservedly flopped. While criticism of the CD has largely focused on its sonic shortcomings – harsh and grating high frequencies, falsification of the attack and decay of notes, and a fatal distortion of the timbre of acoustic instruments – the CD’smusical flaws were, and are, even worse. A recent audition of two highly regarded “audiophile” CD players (one at $3500 and the other at $7500) showed that they couldn’t even swing a simple 4/4 beat correctly. Given the CD’s a-musical problems, its not surprising that Rega was the last major hi-fi company to launch a CD player, waiting until the technology matured enough so that they could produce a player worthy of Rega’s musical ideals. That player, the $995 Planet, had an unusually long product run, in keeping with Rega’s philosophy of changing products only when a significant musical improvement is realized.
The new Rega Apollo replaces the Planet while maintaining its $995 price. Boasting the most current Wolfson D/A chip technology and a pure Class A output stage, the new Apollo also incorporates what Rega feels is a breakthrough in CD operating system software and transport control, an area stagnant for years due to the supplying multi-national companies’ preoccupation with DVD drives and controlling systems. Given Rega’s long turntable experience, it is not inappropriate to see Rega’s work on the CD drive as analogous to perfecting tonearm and cartridge tracking on a turntable, albeit in the electronic realm. Snap a CD onto the 3-fingered prong of Rega’s top-loading transport, close the lid and Rega’s system reads the disc and automatically sets parameters to optimize tracking and laser-focus for that disc. The front panel shows “Initialising” during the few seconds it takes the process to work. Rega adds a new servo control and large memory capacity buffer to the Apollo’s disc control electronics, all of which result in an overall operation of the CD drive, laser focus and tracking, error-correction, and bump-resistance that are optimized to a degree that Rega claims fully exploits the CD standard. Rega warns that the Apollo sounds unlike other CD players.
Listening to the Apollo is certainly different than any other player I’ve been able to formally audition. For the first time with the CD format, I have not yearned for the superior rhythmic thrust, bounce-in-the-step, and timing superiority of a turntable. The Apollo’s delineation of rhythm and timing – the underpinning of all music – is excellent by any standard. Listening to the Cream Reunion Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall revealed that what I had thought were performance flubs when the band changed time signatures were actually the fault of the CD players they were played on. The Apollo unraveled them flawlessly, particularly the changes in time as the Cream emerged from the improvisatory sections back to the main themes on NSU and Sweet Wine. Jack Bruce’s bass playing on “Sleepy Time Time” was revealed as insinuating and positively filthy in a way that eluded 6 other CD players that I had heard the song on. It was obvious that the other players not only distorted Bruce’s playing, but also changed the overall meaning of the song.
Like the bass qualities of Rega’s R7 loudspeaker, the Apollo sets new standards in bass-playing. It revealed all the virtuosity of Bruce’s electric bass, from rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint to Ginger Baker’s drumming and Eric Clapton’s electric guitar, to playing complex tunes and laying down fundamental bass lines. The complex rhythmic patterns of Baker’s drumming were equally excellent, the differences between the kick drum and floor toms not only sonically differentiated, but also rhythmically clarified. The Apollo had no problem separating Bruce’s bass from the similar-sounding frequency range of the kick drum and floor toms. Clapton’s playing, his most inspired since Cream’s demise 38 years ago, was revelatory – the structure, timing, phrasing, and emotional expressiveness of his solos were immediately obvious, as were the solos’ interrelationship with the thrust of Baker’s drumming and Bruce’s bass lines. Call and response, building and release of tension, repetition and variation – in fact, all musical devices were handled so well that one was immersed in the music, oblivious to the format used to play it. Coupled with Apollo’s fine depiction of the stage positioning of the 3 players and the sense of the ambience of The Royal Albert Hall, I could not rue that I had not attended the concerts in person. Even more significantly, given my horrible musical experiences with CD since its inception, the availability of a 3-LP set of the Concerts did not produce the immediate need to acquire the LP’s to hear what the music was really like.
The Apollo’s exceptional ability to play music extended throughout my auditions. Though particularly obvious on Jazz, Rock and other bass-driven music, the Apollo’s musical communicativeness was equally involving on Classical music. Although an articulated bass line pretty much disappeared in Western Art Music after the Baroque Period, the need for correct timing, tempo and rhythm did not. The Apollo’s portrayal of Mozart’s Wind Concerti, Divertimenti, and Serenades was so spot-on in tempo, phrasing, and melodic flow that I could mentally insert a phantom rhythm section to the music. Similarly, the ability of sophisticated Jazz drummers to play around a rhythm without actually articulating it by beat strokes – creating a phantom rhythm – was revealed for the first time by a CD player. I never thought it would happen.
The Apollo sounded good right out of the box (Rega’s manual states that the Class A output section will require a half-hour after turn-on to optimize,) so good in fact that I was fooled into believing it needed no burn-in. A rough patch of upper midrange harshness that showed up on the third day disappeared after a week’s total play. Isolation devices changed the Apollo’s sonics, but did not improve its musical merits, so I played the Apollo “neat.” It was the same with AC power cords. Rega supplies an interconnect with the Apollo, that while not inspiring confidence among serpent-worshipping interconnect enthusiasts, outperformed the 6 interconnects I tried with the Apollo. Excellent! Buyers of the Rega will not have to double its price by buying isolation devices, interconnects, and power cords to get it to show its musical best. Rega does offer their optional “Couple” interconnect for “audiophiles.”
The Apollo does not aim for ultra-fi sonic special effects. It does not match the South Dakota-like spatial width of the almost three times as expensive state-of-the-art Cyrus CD8x, for example. Nor does it attempt to achieve hyper-detail. Rega instead opts for a balanced and organic coherency that subordinates individual aspects of sonic reproduction to a musically oriented and grounded whole. The Apollo builds its performance from the musical ground upwards, rather than hoping that recreating the length of the guitarist’s fingernails will somehow result in musical sense. The Apollo’s slight lack of ultimate stage width and detail resolution does not result in a dumbing-down of the signal. Hands slapping the leather heads of hand drums were clearly audible, as was the difference between mallets, brushes and wooden sticks on cymbal playing. Differences in recording quality and in digital transfer of analogue recordings were clearly differentiated. Three-dimensional stereo effects in near-field listening were superbly rendered and orchestral performances were laid out in coherent left-right and front-back perspective that smacked of the natural and accurate rather than the hyped up and falsely spectacular. Audience reaction and clapping on live recordings had a realistic aspect to them that revealed just why the audience was reacting. In short, the Apollo’s slight lack of ultimate sonic performance had no bearing on its musical performance whatsoever. To the contrary, the Apollo’s superior musical communication challenges the existential validity of audiophile CD players that score “0” on the classic old American Bandstand snot-nosed teenager critical criteria: “Uh, it’s got no beat and I can’t dance to it.”
Given the Apollo’s breakthrough musical performance from the CD format, it is hard not to hope that it has also vanquished all the telltale digital sonic artifacts. Getting satisfactory sonic performance from CD has been complicated for me by the presence of my primary listening partners – a pair of Sound Labs Dynastat speakers. Six feet tall and clad in all black, they hang around my listening room and have been unabashed and uncensored truth-tellers that the CD emperor has no clothes, pointing out in vivid detail all the clothes it doesn’t have.
“Oh, no! Not another CD player! Hey, pinhead: it’s Mozart’s anniversary! Why not play some Mozart records with that nice Mr. Gregory’s MusicMaker III cartridge? Quit wasting my time with all this digital crap!”
“But this is a Rega CD player. These guys don’t build anything unless it makes music.”
“A Rega, huh? Well OK then. Give it a spin. Hmm. Not bad. Hey wait a minute! This sounds remarkably like music! Listen to that groove The Meters are laying down. Listen to this Olatunji stuff. These guys are playing six different rhythms simultaneously! Check out this John Martyn collection. Listen how he changes singing ‘S’ into a ‘Z’ to smooth the sonic flow of the lyrics. Check out how he gives the acoustic guitar line another level of meaning by over-dubbing that echoing electric guitar drone! Remember that old Spooky Tooth lyric you could never quite suss out? Well, here’s what Mike Harrison’s singing. Dig this Clapton guy doing ‘call and response’ within his solos. Did you know that he grokked Mozart’s Rule of Three Repetitions way back in the 60’s? Hmm.. Are you sure this is a CD player?”
“You tell me.”
“Well, OK. The decay of notes isn’t as good as analogue. There’s a little digital zip here, and a little there. What kind of deaf idiots did this half-assed re-mastering job of this great old analogue recording anyway? Yeah, the timbre of orchestral instruments does not match analogue either, but it’s not hard recognizing them. And interior dynamic flow within musical lines doesn’t match analogue. But this Rega thing makes musical sense. Yeah, you can play it through us any time. Got any Mozart CD’s there, Slick?”
It is impossible to view the Rega Apollo as anything other than a genuine musical breakthrough in CD playback. Those, like me, who have long despaired of ever achieving musical satisfaction from the CD format, can finally rejoice. The Apollo’s reasonable $995 price, lack of tweak-iness, and deep aesthetic value make it the definition of a Most Wanted Component. The highest praise and congratulations to Rega for their achievement with the Apollo, and as a music lover, my deepest thanks.
Specifications: Single-play top-loading CD Player
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