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For Rega Research, innovation is key, not just to ensure their top-end products are market leaders, but in order to transfer the benefits of their technological advances to lower-priced units. Much as fashion designers use the catwalks to showcase their new creations and then adapt elements of their clothes into diffusion ranges for retailers, Rega follows a similar policy. It means that even an entry level amplifier will contain some of the same technology as the most expensive equipment.
The Rega io is a beneficiary of the 2017 update the company gave to the Brio. The new Brio featured better circuit isolation and chassis design as well as a much-improved headphone amp. As an analog machine it has no digital inputs, while the front panel is almost elegant in its simplicity. Deservedly, the Rega Brio has won several awards for its sound quality.
One way of viewing the relationship between the two is to see the Rega io as a Brio with lower power. This doesn’t mean there is any compromise on performance, just that the io is suitable for listeners who can manage without the Brio’s elevated power level. The io offers 30 watts per channel but uses the same form of amplifier circuit as its big brother. It is rated A/B and employs two Sanken output transistors for each channel. It also features a top-of-the-range Alps volume potentiometer, which is extremely rare in entry level equipment.
In the io you’ll find two line-level inputs plus a MM phono input (the MM stands for moving magnet). Its phono stage, or preamp, has the same circuitry as the Brio, which gives you plenty of gain.
On the io the headphone amp is designed to switch to the internal power amplifier using a relay system, enabling you to use any model of headphones you like. As soon as you plug your headphone jack into the 3.5mm headphone socket, the speakers are automatically muted.
The body of the io is based on the new design for the Brio. It has a lightweight aluminium shell with a heavy metal base. This helps the heat sinks to disperse excess heat. The overall look is therefore very similar to the Brio, so although they don’t come with similar prices, the cheaper io looks a lot more expensive than it is.
Rega Research used to manufacture a high-end DAC which they named io. Their decision to apply the name to an integrated amplifier is both a recognition of that old product and an acknowledgement of the io’s many similarities to the Brio.
If price points are a concern for you, then at roughly half the price of the Brio, the io is a perfect entry level option. You can buy it as a separate unit or as part of the Rega System One, which, in addition to the io, includes a Planar 1 turntable and a pair of Rega Kyte speakers. However you choose to use it, we think you’ll be very impressed with the level of performance from such an attractively priced amp.
You could be forgiven for thinking, after we’ve spoken so warmly about the io, that there’s little reason to consider spending twice the money for the io’s big brother. Certainly, the io does a fine job, but if your budget will stretch and you crave the nearest thing to perfection that is currently available you should consider the merits of the Brio.
Not for nothing has the Brio won several awards, including an endorsement from the leading magazine for hi-fi connoisseurs, ‘What Hi-Fi?’ The original Brio appeared in 1991 and the new model is the sixth generation. In 2012 Rega launched its Brio-R (also an award winner) which set a new high for budget integrated amplifiers. When the new version of the Brio was released, it was like the return of an old friend, except that now it looks and sounds even better.
The Brio has been given a redesign with strong echoes of the retro style which characterized the earlier models and a similarly sleek front panel. This being a Rega product, it is of course analog-only but represents a marked advance on other brands at similar price points. With the inclusion of a 3.5mm headphone socket input for your headphone jack it finally covers all the bases, while the small remote control makes essential functions easy.
The sound quality is exceptional. It effortlessly delivers rhythmic detail with great dynamics and precise but never clinical definition. It has a great balance between the registers, where the Brio-R has a tendency to over-emphasize the treble. In the new Brio, the sound has been filled out which makes it easier to pair with a variety of speakers.
Where the io gives you 30 watts per channel, the Brio offers 50 watts per channel (into 8 ohms). You might think that even 50 watts is on the modest side, but listening is believing. Try out the live version of Neil Young’s ‘My My, Hey Hey’ from ‘Live Rust’ and you’ll be thrilled by the sheer force of Young’s guitar and the legendary Crazy Horse rhythm section.
However, if you’re getting the idea that this is all about muscle and volume, never fear, because it has a capacity for delicacy and nuance that is a world away from rock music. The early work of Joni Mitchell, where every vocal note, guitar string and piano key aches with emotion, is beautifully rendered by the Brio. Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No 1 has astonishing depth, resonance and tenderness, while Chopin’s Nocturne No 2 becomes a masterclass in intimacy. The same mesmeric quality radiates from your speakers when you listen to Peace Piece by the master of jazz improvisation, the pianist Bill Evans. Whatever you play will sound great.
While some integrated amps, and not just those used to power a CD player, have been developed with an almost scientific approach to music, the Rega Brio takes the unique qualities of analog and magnifies them in such a way as to preserve the intentions of the recording engineers. With its sophisticated MM phono input, the Brio gives you music that’s true to the atmosphere and character of all genres, rather than replicating it with the cold efficiency of the average CD player and digital amp. What’s more, it performs just as well through headphones. Even cheaper phones can sound great.
The Brio has a very even balance across all frequencies, with a sweet, sparkling top end and sonorous, rumbling bass textures. It is just as adept with voices as it is with instruments, dealing even-handedly with the breathy understatement of Kathryn Williams, the baritone swamp calls of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the haunting falsetto of Thom Yorke and the nightmarish rawness of late period Tom Waits.
Even at twice the cost of the io, the Brio is still an affordable purchase, sharing price points with amps like the Cambridge Audio CXA60 but delivering superior all-round performance. Its improvements to the circuits and power supply keep the signal path clear so there is very little to interfere with the sound quality. Yet, despite its formidable sonic presence, the Brio has returned to its half-width design, making it perfect if you have only limited space. Weighing in at 11 pounds, it is robust but compact.
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