Analog vs. digital — audiophiles have been known to debate which is better, but why not simply settle for enjoying both? With that in mind, we wanted to do something different this month and take a look at an example of a manufacturer that caters to both crowds.
We asked U.K.-based Rega, whose products are available to U.S. dealers through distributor The Sound Organisation, for samples of its turntable and digital-to-analog converter (DAC) offerings, and got to spend time listening to the RP1 table and DAC-R products (the company also makes loudspeakers, amplifiers, CD players, tone-arms, cartridges and other audio wares).
The underlying theme was not necessarily to weigh analog vs. digital, but to get a sense of some of the setup and performance differentiations audio dealers (and customers) can expect. For starters, we inquired how one company handles creating products that address both analog and digital demands.
“Analog obviously is a more mechanical challenge where you are looking at bearing tolerances, etc., and trying to capture information that is in the order of a millionth of an inch. With digital, a whole other set of challenges presents itself like jitter and clocking,” says Steve Daniels, president/CEO, The Sound Organisation. “An enormous amount of time goes into the ‘voicing’ of every Rega product, be it analog or digital. But at the end of the day both formats are about information retrieval and musical reproduction.”
Features & Setup
One thing apparent with the RP1 and DAC-R is that in terms of features and setup Rega has made both highly installer- and user-friendly. So score one in the initial step toward an enjoyable experience.
Turntable setup can be intimidating, depending on things like whether the cartridge is already installed and adjustments such as anti-skating calibration, but Rega decided the RP1 should be about as plug-and-play as possible. The RP1 “Performance Pack” had the factory-fitted Bias 2 moving magnet cartridge and Rega RB101 tonearm. Rega’s instructions easily spelled out that proper tracking weight for the fitted stylus can be achieved by sliding the balance weight on the tonearm as close as possible to the preset stop point, and setting the bias slider to the same.
The drive belt hides underneath the platter; you have to lift the platter and move the belt manually from 33 to 45 rpm should you want to change speeds, something the company says eases on wear-and-tear and eliminates speed in-consistencies. I connected the RP1 via RCA cable to a Cambridge Audio phono preamp hooked into an Anthem D2v processor; from there I plugged in the RP1, flipped the power switch on the elegant white plinth and began spinning vinyl.
The DAC-R was not quite as plug-and-play simple, but pretty close. One thing I’ve found in multiple DACs now is the requirement to download a driver, as was the case here. After downloading it and installing it on my Sony PC, I went into the control panel to switch my audio output to “XMOS USB Audio 2.0,” which is the USB input stage of the DAC-R. Along with USB input (which I connected via a Straight Wire cable), the unit’s rear panel offers two digital optical and two digital coax inputs, plus an output for each as well as RCA analog out. I used the latter to connect to the Anthem. There’s no headphone jack, as has become trendy with smaller USB DACs, but this is a truly dedicated DAC product and Rega offers a separate headphone amplifier to support their use.
It’s easy to tell Rega’s high level of build quality. The DAC-R weighs nearly 9 pounds and internal highlights include a toroidal transformer for the power supply; an isolating transformer between the USB input stage and the digital optical and coax input stages it feeds; three selectable digital filters; and two “parallel-connected” Wolfson WM8742 DACs the company says are driven by a buffer stage. It’s all about preserving signal integrity and minimizing clock jitter. Externally, the DAC-R has an aluminum and steel case, beautiful gloss front plate and red LEDs.
Performance & Conclusion
So was the analog “warm” sounding? Did the DAC make digital more analog-like? Personally, I’ve never fully adhered to those common perceptions but over the years have found turntable playback to deliver greater instrumental definition, imaging and depth; digital to emphasize overall micro-detail. Those attributes came through in spades.
That definition and imaging of the RP1 was all over side 1 of Chicago’s V album, led by the driving opener “A Hit by Varese,” in which the group’s trademark horns trio soared through my Paradigm Studio 20 speakers; the back-and-forth vocals between Terry Kath and Peter Cetera on the side-closing “Dialogue (Parts 1 & 2)” showed the nice stereo imaging that also belies their respective guitar and bass in the mix. On the Allman Brothers’ Brothers and Sisters, the acoustic guitar twangs of the closing “Pony Boy” absolutely jumped out of the left speaker.
Speaking of hearing things differently than ever, the DAC-R was revelatory. Audiophiles may nitpick the lack of DSD playback, but it does up to 24-bit/192kHz which will be plenty HRA for most people. I used Media Monkey to play high-res and 16-bit FLAC files, and iTunes for MP3s, WAV and ALAC.
One of the most striking things I heard was the amount of airiness and fullness to Bob Dylan’s vocals in a 16-bit FLAC of “Tangled Up in Blue,” a song I’ve listened to hundreds of times but this time gave me extra shivers. Similarly, an HRA file of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” delivered layers of percussion detail that I’d not experienced; and in the various concert recordings from the Grateful Dead’s new 30 Trips Around the Sun (in 16-bit FLAC), Bob Weir’s rhythm guitar came across far more prominently than I’m used to hearing, adding another dimension to the music.
Perhaps even more impressive, the DAC-R took a 128kbps MP3 I’d made ripping Derek & the Dominos’ live recording “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad” from a USB turntable and when I compared it to the actual vinyl on the RP1 the difference was only slightly favored to the turntable. Analog vs. digital? The conclusion here is that in a very affordable way it’s a win-win proposition.
MSRPs: RP1 Performance Pack $640; DAC-R $1,095.
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