POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 35
Saturn CD player
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
Perfectionism has never been cheap or easy. Case in point: the 2007 Porsche 911. It costs $72,000 and goes 177 mph—more than enough for most people. But what if you're not most people? Then grab your wallet and hold onto your ankles because if you want the fastest Porsche 911, the GT3, you'll need to pony up an additional $50,800 for 193 mph. That's a whopping 70% premium to go 9% faster. Those last few miles per hour are the most expensive, what with physics and all. If you're into both cars and hi-fi, you already know what I'm getting at.
Rega's new Saturn CD player is the no-compromise version of their outstanding $1195 Apollo. At $2595, it costs 140% more. Unsurprisingly, it is not 140% better. As with sports cars, the law of diminishing returns kicks in early. Yet for those who don't mind paying a premium, the Saturn is Rega's best CD player ever. It may even set a new benchmark for performance at this particular price point.
Rega's original Planet made a huge splash back in the late 1990s as the CD player for people who don't like CDs. Its successor, the Planet 2000, somehow failed to capture the same magic as the original, probably because it sounded more like good digital rather than digital doing its best analog impersonation. The company also released various transport/DAC combos over the years, but they carried significant price premiums over single-box players and were more cumbersome. Part of a Rega disc player's appeal is its simple design and I think many customers simply didn't want two boxes.
The Saturn solves those problems by packing the performance of the company's previous-generation separates into a single chassis. Of course, Rega being Rega, there's plenty of clever engineering at work here. Instead of using an off-the-shelf operating system, the company took the unprecedented step of developing their own (in collaboration with another, top secret, UK firm) that is shared by both the Saturn and the Apollo. The resulting system analyzes each disc and optimizes the laser's tracking position and focus spot size for optimum data recovery. After spending nearly six months with the Apollo and Saturn combined (as well as my old Planet 2000), I can attest to the fact that this is no mere gimmick. Plus, the new control chipset also offers more memory—a whopping 20MB—for seriously excellent error correction.
So, how does the Saturn justify its 140% price premium over the Apollo? By improving on the Apollo through what I'd call "sensible overkill." Rega's engineers have thrown in the same stuff you'll find in far more expensive players, but only where it would yield the most significant improvements. For instance, the Saturn occupies a more substantial chassis which contains large visible heat sinks (which never even get hot) and a much larger transformer with separate windings for audio, digital and display circuits. Two parallel-connected Wolfson VM8740 DAC chips crunch the numbers, backed up by a low-jitter master clock and Class A analog output stage. High-quality parts from Nichinon and Evox are used throughout.
In typical Rega fashion, all of these improvements are elegantly applied; you can't see most of them but you'll hear all of them in the Saturn's stunningly detailed yet cohesive sound. This is not one of those players that makes you say, "Wow…listen to all of the detail!" Instead, I was simply aware of hearing more of the performance. At first listen, the Saturn was more immersive, more effortlessly musical than any player I've heard in this price range.
The Saturn will make your toes tap—it is British, after all—but it doesn't rely on superb timing to get by. It paints a complete musical picture missing only that nth degree of crystal-clear transparency which you only seem to get from megabuck, costs-more-than-a-car players. Paired with the new PrimaLuna DiaLogue One integrated amplifier ($2295; review forthcoming) and Triangle Celius 202 loudspeakers ($1995 when last offered), it did everything I expect from a top-notch digital source.
Frequency response was extended in both directions. The treble was clean, smooth, and detailed, but also so natural that the experience of listening quickly becomes soothing. The same was true of low bass—layers of information were present rather than a mere suggestion. Vocals had the breath of life. None of this would be worth mentioning if we were talking about a $10,000 disc player but the fact that a $2595 machine gets all of this so right is something special.
On the Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris collaboration, All The Roadrunning (Warner Bros. 444154), it was wonderful to hear such rich, timbrally accurate vocals with air and space to spare. Classical music was presented with delicacy and authority, together with impressive spatial accuracy, on discs like Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performing Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (Complete Suites from the Ballet) (Telarc Hybrid SACD 60597). In fact, the CD layer played back on the Saturn sounded more dynamic and involving than the SACD layer through a Pioneer DV-79AVi (reviewed here), though I didn't make a perfectly level-matched comparison.
Most remarkable, however, was the sense of ease this player exhibits. The way it untangles complex musical lines—even combinations that are tipped toward the treble—is pretty impressive. I rarely got the sense that music was being played back so much as it was happening. The mechanical and electronic elements of music reproduction often simply seemed to be missing, as if the signal was getting to the amp from some celestial source and not a machine with motors and power supplies and transistors and computer chips. This level of performance used to cost a lot more—so much more that until now, I'd heard it only in the homes of rich friends or very high-end audio salons.
Ten years ago, Rega made a new name for itself with analog-sounding digital. Today, they're making CD players that sound like music, format be damned. It appears that Rega have finally "found themselves" in the digital age. That's great news for music lovers. The Rega Saturn may not be cheap, but neither is it prohibitively expensive. It's a righteous CD player and demands an audition. Ed Kobesky
Saturn CD Player
The Sound Organisation