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Rega Brio Integrated Amplifier HiFi Review
In its 50-year history, the British hi-fi company Rega Research has grown from modest beginnings as a specialist in turntables and tonearms to become one of the world’s most trusted and innovative hi-fi brands. It was founded in 1973 by Roy Gandy in partnership with Tony Relph, taking its name from the first two letters of their surnames.
Roy was the visionary behind the enterprise, having been obsessed with small scale electrical engineering throughout his childhood. He built his first pair of loudspeakers in sealed cabinets when he was just 18, but soon realized that the turntable he was using simply didn’t do justice to the quality of his homemade speakers. As a result of this discovery, when he founded Rega, his focus was on developing record players that could reproduce music that was faithful to the intention of the musicians and engineers who recorded it.
As Gandy himself has said of his business: ‘we are a manufacturing company with engineering ability that we use to try and preserve as much as possible the musical communication contained in the recording.’ His pursuit of perfection in turntables and speakers has driven the Rega project for five decades.
However, the other vital components of hi-fi systems are stereo amplifiers and it is the Rega Brio integrated amplifier which has been the biggest game changer for the company as well as a major influence on consumer expectations and industry standards. The first incarnation of the Brio in 1991 was modelled on the Leak ST20 tube amplifier. It realized an aspiration Gandy had cherished for many years, which only became possible with the development of miniaturisation in transistor technology. The Brio Integrated was a breakthrough, which Gandy describes as ‘our best-selling electronic product ever, part of the resurrection of Rega really, part of our huge growth’.
The amplifier has been through several upgrades and redesigns over the 30 years since its introduction and the new 6th generation Brio, the successor to the award-winning Brio-R, does not disappoint. Rega have made several improvements to the look and the performance, of which the most instantly noticeable one is the way they’ve adjusted the treble function to give a much richer, fuller sound than the Brio-R. Let’s take a detailed look at all aspects of the latest iteration of this high quality amplifier.
The Rega Brio Integrated Amplifier has changed its appearance over the decades and in some ways, the new version has come full circle while incorporating a number of functional improvements. Its swooped front panel is an aesthetically pleasing reference to the early 90s look, while the new display is elegant and minimalist. All it features are the volume control, red LEDs and two buttons. Press the power button and you hear a satisfying, confirmatory click and the numbered input indicators illuminate to verify your selection. Below these numbers in the center of the front panel is the reassuring Rega logo.
While the power button is fairly small, the new volume control dial is large, but because it has been designed with a metal ring edging the black, it is dominant without being over-powering. It is a very responsive dial with an extremely smooth action that puts you in full control. It’s also very easy to select your input, either with the buttons or the remote control.
To the rear of the amplifier, there are four line-level inputs, the phono-stage inputs, two recording outputs and a pair of gold-plated speaker terminals. There are no digital inputs, which is a reflection of Rega’s continuing emphasis on analog technology.
The body of the Brio has been redesigned with a two-part aluminum construction that enhances its heat-sinking capacity and overall reliability. The casing is made as usual in Switzerland and instead of the traditional screw-fixed construction, the two halves of the Brio chassis are connected internally by four case-length steel rods. Rega have also elected to resurrect the smart half-width design which makes it convenient for anyone with limited space to accommodate a device that has at least as much power and functionality as bigger stereo amplifiers.
There is one significant new feature, which is a 6.3mm headphone socket. It draws its signal from the output in the same way as speakers but there is no interference with the speaker signal thanks to a separate relay switch which keeps headphones and speakers apart. We were very pleased to discover that compatibility isn’t an issue and it’s possible to use a wide variety of headphones with different impedance levels. Rega are explicit about this. They have tested a range of headphones from 24 to 300 ohms and have not reported any problems.
There are several internal changes as well. Circuits and power supply have been adjusted to improve isolation and preserve the clarity of the main signal path. In fact, there is not just one power supply but two: one for the phono output stage and pre-amp and the other for the power amplifier itself.
The PCB layout has been refashioned to handle the higher demands of the critical elements and Rega have incorporated higher specification MUSES operational amplifiers into the line and phono output stage.
The original idea for the Brio was inspired by a circuit design that was featured in a 1969 edition of Wireless World magazine. The engineer John Linsley-Hood, who had worked at GEC and in the Royal Air Force to help develop wartime radar systems, conceived the Simple Class A Amplifier, but he was ahead of the technology of the time. When Rega’s chief engineer Terry Bateman came across the article, he decided to turn this blueprint into a reality. He installed metal-film resistors in the feedback circuit and chose high-quality film capacitors instead of electrolytic ones. These apparently small details gave the Brio’s signal path the sonic lift it needed to replicate class-A operation in a class-AB unit.
SpecificationsThe Brio requires a power supply of 50 watts, weighs 5kg and measures 3 by 8.6 by 14 inches. Its phono input capacity is provided by 4 line level inputs and MM phone. It also has a 6.3mm headphone output socket, a record output and comes with a remote control.
The new Brio is an analog-only amplifier, which will satisfy the vast majority of hi-fi enthusiasts and with sound quality like this, you really won’t mind having a phono input without the facility to use a CD player. While other contemporary manufacturers fit their integrated amplifiers with DACs, VU meters, video processing, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and multiple digital inputs, Rega Research firmly holds to the adage that less is more. As Terry Bateman has said: ‘The Brio is the amplifier equivalent of a Planar 3 turntable, which is no-frills. Digital would get in the way. It's like the old amplifiers of 40 years ago: the Creek CAS4040, Arcam A60, or the Sugden A21—a basic amplifier. Instead of spending the money on digital gadgets, we spent it on the phono amplifier and film capacitors. Get a pair of older KEF speakers, a decent turntable, and some AC/DC! It rocks.’ While AC/DC might not be to everyone’s taste, the point is well made.
It has lost none of the qualities we loved in the Brio-R like its impressive sense of rhythm and its powerful dynamics. In fact, it seems to have refined them so that it delivers a clearer, more muscular and detailed sound.
At 50 watts per channel, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a little under-powered, but the proof is in the listening. We tried out some of our favorite big noises from across the decades and the Brio knocked us out with the force of the guitars, the depth of the bass and the power of the drums. The two-pronged guitar attack of the opening to The Clash’s ‘Complete Control’ over Topper Headon’s thunderous bass drum has never sounded better. The 7-minute guitar fest of ‘Country Home’ by Neil Young & Crazy Horse threatens to blow the roof off, while the steadily building psychedelic grunge of The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s ‘Straight up and Down’ is more immersive than we’ve ever heard it. For something contemporary, the thrashy, punky pop of Wet Leg’s ‘Wet Dream’ reaches a whole new level of bright, crisp exuberance.
However, before you get the impression that this is just a big beast with stadium sound, we have to say that it performs equally with music that demands delicacy and space. For example, Nigel Kennedy’s lead violin on Vaughan Williams’s ‘Lark Ascending’ sounds like the closest thing to a visualisation of the bird’s flight imaginable, the soaring notes reproduced with an aching clarity that will stay with you long afterwards. Even the simplest of acoustic acts, like The Lost Brothers, are given an extra intensity, with the twin guitars and close harmony vocals sounding clear, resonant and mesmerising.
The improvements under the hood deliver an even balance across all frequencies. The bass register has a deep, rumbling definition and the top end has all the sparkle you’d expect from the treble with none of the thinness that too often relegates the upper frequencies to a subordinate role.
With such exceptional sound quality coming from your speakers, you might regard the headphone socket with a degree of trepidation. We can assure you there’s no need, because you’ll find the same high quality in the same balance and with the same power. The Rega Brio bears comparison to headphone amps with considerably higher price tags.
The common thread in all of this is fidelity. Whatever the genre, the Brio doesn’t reshape music into its own form or redesign the emphasis of the mix, it simply takes what exists in the recording and plays it with absolute accuracy and authenticity. This was always Roy Gandy’s objective and it’s one that the new Rega Brio integrated amplifier achieves superbly.