Rega IO Integrated Amplifier HiFi Review
Inevitably, technological advances change the way we listen to music. Decades ago the simple record player underwent various transformations like the radiogram, a huge piece of furniture the size of a sideboard with built in speakers and tuner. Later we witnessed the invention of the music center, which added a cassette player to the turntable and radio in designs which could be placed on a tabletop or a purpose-built stand.
This was then superseded by the stack system, a giant cube with one or two cassette decks, a tuner and a turntable on top. In the 1980s, the CD player was added. As vinyl fell from favour, stack systems removed the turntable, got much smaller and were renamed tower systems. The Sony Walkman made music portable and MP3 players enabled you to carry your entire music collection with you wherever you wanted. Smart speakers arrived and allowed you to access streaming services purely with voice commands.
Many audiophiles have remained committed to the long-established hi-fi principles of using separate pieces, but the increasing diversity of options has fuelled debate about the relevance of some of the older types of sound system. As the quality - as well as the convenience - of smart speakers, soundbars and streaming services has improved, a lot of people question whether there is still a legitimate argument in favor of entry level hi-fi separates. The demise of the two-channel integrated amplifier has long been predicted, but so far it has not come to pass.
The British company Rega Research has never lost sight of the unique virtues of two-channel equipment and while other manufacturers of audio equipment have poured resources into meeting the contemporary appetite for digital and streaming, Rega has continued to focus on pursuing perfection in the development of separates. It is best known for the Rega Planar series of turntables but demand for all of its products is on the increase. The success of its System One, which incorporates a turntable, power amplifier and speakers, demonstrates the enduring popularity of budget separate systems. At the center of this system is the new Rega IO integrated amplifier, which is also available separately for audiophiles who are looking for a powerful, small amplifier that far exceeds the expectations of an entry level device.
The Rega IO integrated amplifier is closely related to the more powerful and more expensive Brio. It incorporates almost identical internal technology but retails for about half the price. The differences in size and external design are largely cosmetic but they do serve as a visual reminder of their differing performance levels. Where the Brio provides 50 watts per channel, the IO offers just 30 watts. However, when you listen to music using the IO, you will be pleasantly surprised at what 30 watts can deliver in a well-designed and engineered small amplifier.
To get the most out of the IO you need to pick speakers that will complement its strengths. In the System One, it is paired with a Rega Planar 1 turntable and Rega Kyte speakers and but you could also use the Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2, the FYNE 500 or the Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2. The IO also performs extremely well as a headphone amplifier with a standard 3.5mm headphone output which will take virtually any make of phones. Budget models from makers such as Bowers 7 Wilkins, Grado and Audeze are ideal matches and we struggle to think of another headphone amplifier with onboard phono stage in this price range that delivers comparable sound quality. If you want to use the earphones from a smartphone or MP3 player, then it’s easy to get hold of a simple 3.5mm headphone jack adaptor which will convert them for use with the standard headphone output.
The Rega IO runs on a linear power supply unit and uses good quality Sanken output transistors. Like all Rega’s amps
, the IO amplifier has analog-only connections. The company has always believed in creating equipment that does one job exceptionally well. For them, mixing analog and digital inputs is a non-starter. In any case, at this end of the market, analog-only is very common.
The IO has two line-level inputs, compared to the Brio’s four, plus a moving magnet phono output. This means in addition to a turntable, you can add other components like a DAC/streamer, a CD player, a tuner or a cassette deck. A fourth input is the headphone jack socket, which is easily accessible on the front panel next to the volume control and the button which allows you to cycle through each of the inputs.
The aluminium chassis is lightweight but well-built and its compact, half-width dimensions are deceptive, giving little suggestion of the power it packs. The plastic front panel looks fairly basic but this simply reminds you that the cost-savings have been made in the IO’s aesthetics rather than its technology. Equally, the remote control is modest and simple, but that doesn’t compromise its effectiveness.
Although the IO amplifier has only a moving magnet phono, its quality is outstanding and if you compare it with any other phono stage at this price point, you’ll soon hear how comprehensively it out-performs its competitors.
Aesthetic considerations are understandably low on the list of priorities when a manufacturer is trying to satisfy the entry level or budget market. Even operational conveniences like sensitive volume control, well-configured inputs and remote control are secondary to what matters: the sound. Various features of the Rega IO have been designed to give the purest audio output possible, such as its linear power supply, which delivers DC by distributing the main AC voltage through a transformer then filtering it to remove the AC noise and interference.
As we’ve already made clear, we believe the Rega s IO performs at a level which belies its cost. There have been a number of very respectable low power solid state amps over the years but we’re happy to stick our necks out and give this Rega amplifier the crown. We tried it out on a wide variety of genres and were very happy to hear that it doesn’t favor any particular style. It’s capable of playing to the specific strengths of virtually anything we played. In fact, we probably tested it for longer than strictly necessary, because it really is a pleasure to listen to and it’s full of surprises.
First up was Radiohead’s ‘National Anthem’ from the ‘Kid A’ album, near the start of the band’s journey into multi-layered arrangements and production. It’s a very complex piece that demands both separation and unity. The IO provides equal balance to the acoustic and electronic instruments, the strange, mutant brass section and of course Thom Yorke’s powerful but decidedly eccentric vocals. Lesser amplifiers can turn this into an amorphous soup of sound but the IO makes perfect sense of its sonic collisions while preserving the essential tension between the different parts.
Analog is of course a very old format, so it makes sense to leap back a few decades to find out what the IO does with something like Wolfman Jack’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’. After Radiohead, the utterly conventional arrangement of this 1950s blues classic is stark and simple. Drums, barely a cymbal, bass, lead guitar, occasional harmonica and the Wolfman’s soulful scream are all given remarkable space, which makes this ancient, primitive recording sound startlingly contemporary.
To test out the bass register, we turned to some of our funk and reggae favorites. On ‘Give it What You Can’ by The Meters, the bass really drives the song, but the IO doesn’t let it overwhelm the rest of the rhythm section or the brass and vocal line. James Blood Ulmer’s ‘Jazz is the Teacher (Funk is the Preacher)’ is well-known for Ulmer’s pyrotechnic guitar stylings and although the bass is relatively low in the mix it sustains the shape and the rhythm of the song beautifully. The IO brings it out just enough to keep the sound controlled without undercutting the manic lead guitar and Ulmer’s distinctively aggressive vocal style.
The British punk band ‘Wire’ began in seedy clubs with rudimentary sound systems which were well-suited to their celebration of noise. Once they got into the studio with virtuoso producer Mike Thorne, they held onto the harsh edges of their sound but explored sonic depths that no other band of their generation were interested in. The centerpiece of ‘Chairs Missing’, their second album, is ‘Mercy’, an early precursor of grunge with an art school sensibility. Mesmeric bass and low-key vocals explode into slashing, distorted guitars while Colin Newman almost destroys his voice at the song’s climax. Play this through a sub-standard amp and you’ll hear very little nuance and the quiet-loud-quiet-loud contrasts will tend to pass you by. Play it through the IO and it becomes the disturbing but energising experience the band always intended.
We looked for something entirely different yet oddly similar from the classical canon and settled on Beethoven’s ‘Fantasia in C Major for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus’. The delicate piano opening gives no hint of the extended crescendo to come, but as the piece builds to not one but two climaxes, the IO maintains a truly impressive balance. We never had the slightest feeling that we were being short-changed and the definition remains crystal clear throughout.
An inferior amp at this price level often sounds perfectly acceptable because it accentuates the obvious in whatever you’re playing. This is a superficial way of approaching reproduction and is cheating you of a fuller listening experience. This Rega amplifier has a much more sophisticated and evenly balanced capability that respects every note, voice and instrument as well as the important spaces in between. The top register is full of detail, with smoothness, clarity and no sibilance to compromise the crispness of the treble. Brass sections have a natural rasp that is warm and full, while cymbals cut through with a sharp, understated precision. In the mid-register the IO’s versatility is immediately obvious from its insightful handling of lead and rhythm guitars. The extremes of Wilko Johnson’s or Andy Gill’s machine-gun style and George Harrison’s or Eric Clapton’s tender elegance are equally served. Vocals are a revelation, from the melodic purity of Joni Mitchell and K D Lang to the blue-collar operatics of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits’s howls from the end of the world.
The Rega IO integrated amplifier sounds a lot more expensive than it is. It retains a rare consistency across line level, phono and digital inputs. Based on the electronics of the updated 2017 Brio (itself an upgrade of the original Brio), the IO has been so successful that Rega’s UK production facility is taking on new staff simply to cope with the demand. This is a truly outstanding integrated amplifier.
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