To say that it was a shock to discover that Rega had created a high end CD player and amplifier is an understatement. After all, Rega is a bastion of affordable, no nonsense hi-fi. It took the company a good twenty years to bring out a turntable that was out of the budget bracket – and that despite dominating the sector for most of the 1980s and 1990s.
But what I really want to know is why it took the company so long to make the Isis CD player, as all you have to do is spin a few familiar discs to realise that this is the most musical machine of its type. And I’m not usually a pace, rhythm and timing junkie – I enjoy the finer qualities of high fidelity and am often untroubled by the demands of PRaT – but once I’d heard this I was in trouble, all those incredibly resolute players that the high-end produces are in trouble too. The entertainment potential of the format’s bar has been raised.
Inevitably not everyone will agree with my findings and its price point could count against it when it comes to those looking for the very best. In other words it might get discounted for not being mega bucks: we don’t just buy with our ears after all. We look at price tags and we look at casework and while these two Regas are very solidly built and well put together, they are not exactly beauties. Rega will have to hope that potential customers get to hear before they see. Which is a little strange considering how nice the P3 turntable is especially in its shiny coloured paint finish. As a listener first, I can forgive the Isis for this shortcoming and I can just about cope with the manual nature of disc changing. There is no eject button you have to lift the lid and prize the disc out of the transport’s jaws, but at least there’s no puck to forget and the lid does shut rather nicely.
In terms of features the Isis is slightly better equipped than average by virtue of a USB B input on its backside In other respects, its pretty normal with balanced and single ended outputs alongside electrical and optical digital outs on the usual sockets. For reasons best known to the Rega styling department the analogue outs are set into the back panel, which makes it less easy to remove and attach the bigger varieties of phono plug – like as the Neutrik ones found on the Rega Couple interconnect. The socketry on the Osiris amplifier is of a higher quality than you see on most Rega components.
The Osiris integrated amp is a hefty lump that’s specified as delivering 160 watts per channel and comes in a similarly styled clamshell case that sports one of the most distinctive volume controls in the business. It has one pair of balanced inputs to match the outputs on the Isis as well as four single ended inputs, a record input and a direct one. This latter bypasses the preamp section and routes straight to the power amp and is designed to make integrating the amp into a multichannel system straightforward. In theory, you could also use it to bi-amp with but the Osiris doesn’t have a pre-out so that’s not so easy. The preamplifier section is passive and controls a symmetrical power amplifier that has eight Sanken output transistors and a cascoded differential input amplifier. Inside the box a galvanically isolated power supply is built around two 400VA toroidal transformers mounted to minimise the amount of resonance that strays into the chassis. Getting power from the wall to the amp is aided by good quality mains lead that comes in the wooden case that is part of this lavish package. A sense of quality that’s heightened by the substantial alloy remote handsets supplied for both amp and player. Thanks to Rega’s appreciation of colour these are rather nicer looking than the hardware proper and use the popular RC-5 code system so might operate other components in your system. I found that both a Moon CD player and Naim components responded to its supplications.
As to why the Isis is such a compelling player, Rega suggests that its decision to take the current output from the DAC chip with no internal amplification plays an important part. This allows the company to use its own discrete amps which can be tuned to its own requirements, apparently these class A op-amps are closely related to those developed for the IOS MC phono stage which also has to amplify small signals without adding noise.
Isis has two Burr Brown PCM1794 DACs running in dual-mono and these produce a balanced signal that is carried through to the outputs. The output stage is an enhanced version of that developed for the Saturn CD player which as the previous range topper for Rega inevitably provided much of the groundwork for Isis. The digital section is made up of Saturn elements that have been improved for this relatively cost-no-object player (a Saturn costs £1,298). Attention has naturally been paid to the power supply regulation with 10 separate supplies used in the digital circuit alongside PSUs for the display, interface and motor. Rega has also paid attention to the USB input, an element that is likely to be increasingly under the spotlight now that so many of us are using hard drives to store our music. Here it is galvanically isolated, double clocked and given its own power supply in an effort to keep noise and THD levels down to those achieved with the internal player.
One unique feature to this player is matched laser archiving, this means that for every Isis that Rega produces it stores a pair of matched laser units for that specific machine. Ensuring that a long as the company is in business it can replace this critical element. Given that the world is slowly weaning itself off optical drives the long term supply of specific examples is far from predictable so this seems a fine idea.
First impressions of the Isis were not that different to those made by the Rega Apollo when it appeared a long while back, nice timing but not up to par on the detail front. There is a heck of a lot more detail here but in the context of like priced players it’s not likely to be a USP, imaging likewise is pretty good but lacks the scale that the best can deliver. Dynamics are similar – not what they can be by the standards of best in class. That was the analytical response, then I plugged it into a passive TVC from Audio Zone and thence to the mighty ATC SCM150ASL active speakers. This was where it made its mark, I was totally swept off my feet by its ability to extract so much music from an oft amusical format.
In the more objective confines of the reviewing facility and using both units together it once again became apparent that while there is lack of expansiveness on things like "Nude" by Radiohead, there it was, laid bare or even nude, the emotional core of the song. No longer was listening a process of analysis, rather it returned to whence it came: a conduit for the appreciation of artistic expression of the highest form. No other art form can get as close when it comes to communicating that which cannot be written than music and these components make this much abundantly clear.
From here on it was going to be difficult to remain objective about the Rega components, a situation I was ‘saved from’ by the need for someone else to hear the Isis for two weeks. It’s a painful pastime this reviewing malarkey, you get a brief glimpse of nirvana then it’s snatched away leaving a void which reference components can’t hope to fill. I did have a very impressive player in the form of the Moon 750D at the same time and this does virtually everything that the Isis doesn’t. It images in full three dimensional room filling effect, it reveals every last nuance of every note and does so in a calm but never dull fashion. Perhaps as a result it can’t do what the Rega can, the discs it spins don’t get under your skin in the same addictive way.
But it is very good and I used it with the Osiris and both B&W 802D and PMC’s rather beguiling FACT 8 speakers to quite persuasive effect. This pairing allowed the amp to reveal that while it’s capable of delivering the finer high fidelity points its strength also lies in that elusive department of musical insight that seems intrinsically linked to timing. This being the area where it easily outshone what competition I could muster, a dearer Classé CP-700/CA-2200 pre/power combo had little difficulty in raising the imaging stakes but did not provide a result that came close in terms of engagement. Leema’s more affordable Tucana II integrated delivers more energy but lacks a little refinement and temporal talent next to the Rega.
Taken on its own the Osiris does not strike you as being weak in any particular area, in fact it delivers a lot of low level detail and produces remarkably solid three dimensionality with many discs. With the FACT 8 in particular the sound escapes the cabinets with remarkable ease, forming a cohesive and dynamic soundscape that is nearly enough to distract you from the music – depending on what that music is. It would be handy, to say the least, if these components could turn unappealing music into something you love but there are limits to what can be achieved with audio hardware, even if it’s this musically capable.
I decided to see what the output of a MacBook laptop playing WAV files of material ripped from CD would sound like. The Moon 750D delivered a clean and delicate result that contrasted strongly with the earthy and forward sounding Rega. In neither case was the sound on a par with a spinning disc, but it had plenty of dynamic range and lots of fine detail.
Using the Classé amplification and putting these two players up against one another with Kraftwerk’s remastered Tour de France, both players made this intense music sound very palpable but the Rega stripped away the decorative elements to reveal the core energy and its three dimensional structure. The heartbeat sound at the beginning of "Elektro Kardiogram" is more realistic on the Moon but the track overall is more engaging on the Rega.
Isis and Osiris are highly entertaining if fed with a diet of appropriately essential music, the balance is on the forward side of neutral which discouraged me from playing it at full bore, but again this keeps the focus on the music. With the PMC Fact 8 this can be balanced by turning the feed to the tweeter to its minus position and you are then able to turn up the wick for as long as the neighbours can take it. The Isis is the more remarkable of the pair and is perhaps easier to slot into a range of systems but the Osiris is both revealing and musically engaging. Build quality is up there with the best in the business and the ability to deliver the musical message is in the case of Isis right at the forefront of the game. I want one, but there is an Isis with a valve output stage coming and that needs to be heard first.
SPECS & PRICING
Osiris Integrated Amplifier
Power output: 162 Watts into 8 ohms/250 Watts per channel into 4 ohms
Balanced line inputs: 1
Single ended line inputs: 4 plus record
Dimensions H x W x D: 12.2 x 43.4 x 35cm
Osiris Philips RC5 system remote
Isis CD Player/DAC
Analogue outputs: SE phono 2.2v, balanced XLR 4.4v
S/PDIF digital outputs: coaxial electrical, Toslink optical
USB input up to 16-bit/48kHz
Dimensions H xW x D: 43.4 x 35 x 11.2cm
Required space for operation: 20cm height
Rega Research Limited
6 Coopers Way
Temple Farm Industrial Estate
Southend on Sea
Tel: +44(0)1702 333071