Comparing the Rega io and Rega Brio AmplifiersThe audio specialist Rega is one of the most respected designers and manufacturers of hi-fi equipment in the world. Founded in the UK in 1973 by Roy Gandy, an enthusiast first and an entrepreneur second, it has pursued a policy of constant innovation in its quest for the perfect audio solution. It isn’t the only major audio company that the UK has produced, and alternatives to the io and Brio such as the Naim Nait are very good products, but Rega is still in a class of its own.
Rega Research produces everything from drive units to moving coil cartridges, but its main claims to fame are its award-winning turntables, amplifiers and tonearms. Its Rega Planar 3 record player is seen by many as the pinnacle of turntable technology and sets the benchmark that competitors must exceed.
Gandy himself is no hi-fi purist. An engineer by training, he built his own hi-fi system because he couldn’t afford to buy one. To do this, he cannibalized parts of used and discarded turntables, speakers and amplifiers. The result was barely adequate so he set about designing his own record player, which he named the Planet.
From these modest beginnings, Rega Research grew into a world-leading company and while it is best known for its ground-breaking turntables, it has also led the way in the development of the integrated amplifier. Here we look at two of its most successful models, the Rega io and the Rega Brio, examining their comparative strengths in performance, usability and value.
What is an Integrated Amp?First things first. An integrated amp is a combination of two components, the preamp and the power amplifier.
A preamp is a unit which switches between sources without the need for manual control. Many preamps include a phono preamp - or phono stage - and many have digital functions with in-built D/A converters. Switching is automatic and once the correct source has been selected, the appropriate signal is transmitted to the power amp via its volume control.
A power amp provides the power supply to your speakers. They don’t require their own switching facility but operate via a single connection to the preamp or phono stage.
Therefore, an integrated amp combines these two functions in one unit. In the UK, the name has been shortened for convenience and an integrated amp is simply referred to as an amplifier. For US consumers, the term amplifier generally describes a power amp. If you’re looking to buy Rega equipment, bear in mind that they don’t manufacture separate preamps and power amps. By amplifier, they mean integrated amp, so you’ll only need the one piece of equipment to do both jobs.
Comparing the Rega io and Rega Brio Amplifiers: What Do They Have in Common?
Both units incorporate toroidal power transformers. The advantages of this type of transformer are its greater efficiency, inherent electromagnetic interference (EMI) shielding, minimal signal distortion, reduced mechanical humming and lower heat generation. They perform better than basic transformers and are considerably quieter, but they are more expensive.
Another important shared feature is that all of Rega’s integrated amps are entirely analog. There is no digital technology of any kind. This is not surprising, given that Rega’s reputation is largely based on its success in reproducing sound from analog sources. Both the io and the Brio are fitted with good moving magnet phono preamps and a simple remote control for the essential functions.
They also share the same speaker connection. Both the io and the Brio have solid binding posts which means it is simple to change speakers. Another convenience in both models is the detachable power cord, which enables owners to upgrade the AC power supply cable.
This is where the fundamental similarities end. They are both fine Rega products, still manufactured in the company’s UK factory, but they have a few differences when it comes to use and performance.
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.
The ChoiceFrom everything we’ve seen and heard in comparing the Rega io and Rega Brio Amplifiers, we have to conclude that either amp would be a great option for getting the best analog sound currently achievable. It’s true that the io has less power than the Brio, but unless you’re using them side by side you won’t notice anything lacking in the cheaper model.
They don’t actually do anything that rivals like the Naim Nait can’t, but the way they do it is unique. By focusing on analog-only and doing without digital inputs, Rega can concentrate on its core function, to make vinyl sound as fantastic as we all know it can be. So if you’re looking at amps which retail at similar prices we believe there’s no contest. Fit your system with a pair of reasonably priced Rega Kyte speakers and you won’t regret purchasing either.