REGA DAC review

Category: Digital

I posted this in the digital forum, but I guess that was the wrong spot!

Those of you who are still on the fence with the wide-world of DACS, here's my experience with the Rega. Rich over at Signature Sound was kind enough to loan me his Rega DAC to see how it might improve my system. My system for this audition is as follows: Merlin TSM-MXr speakers on Skylan stands connected to a Manley Stingray II amp via Cardas SE9 wire. Interconnects are also Cardas. Sub is the MJ Acoustics 150 MKII. The Rega is connected to an Oppo DV981 and new Macbook Pro. Previous players I've had in the system: Rega Apollo, Audio Aero Prima, Cambridge 840c.
My initial interest was to compare the DAC to the Oppo player and this was quite interesting. Using Norah Jones Painter Song on "Come Away with Me" The DAC seemed to put vocals a bit further back, but I also heard a bit more high frequency detail. Percussion was better defined as was bass overall. It was anything but a startling revelation. I could easily make a case for the Oppo being more forgiving than the DAC, but in the end I did prefer the DAC as it simply seemed to add a more layered effect. I stayed with filter setting one for most of my listening.
Next up was the Groove Note demo CD and several tracks of classical music. Here was where the Rega pulled away from the Oppo in a big way. While I had always felt the Oppo was good for soundstage it now sounded flat and two dimensional compared to the Rega. The Rega created a deep soundstage that was far more realistic. Switching back to some earlier tracks I know heard this effect, even with the Norah Jones cuts.
Time for my lovely wife to have a listen and I simply switched between the Rega and CD player without telling her which was which. Her observation was that choice 1 (the Oppo) sounded flat and too forward. She much preferred the Rega, which she also found less bright. This observation made me wonder if her younger ears could detect more HF than I could.

As I had previously found the differences between the Audio Aero Prima and Oppo very small, I'm pleased that the Rega made a dynamic improvement to the sound, even with a inexpensive transport.

My friend is bringing over his Cambridge 840c this evening and I'm trying to get a W4S 2 to compare later this week as well. More to come.


Great review! I am also considering the Rega DAC and look forward to your comparison to the Cambridge 840 cd player as well as any other insight you can offer.....
The Cambridge 840c was borrowed before and tried in my system and I thought it had more bass and a bit more detail and deeper soundstage than my sub 200 dollar Oppo.
The 840c had a 175 dollar power-cord (don't remember brand). The Rega has it's stock cord. I'd also like to mention that the Rega is a demo unit and broken in, but I'm auditioning with it's new stock cord only.
With the Oppo connected to the Rega we listened to the same tracks I had tried previously, especially the Groove Note sampler. We were able to switch between the two units on the fly.
The Cambridge was detailed and more up front than the Rega. Bass was about the same, but the Rega had a small edge in lower end detail. Since I'm running a sub, we turned it off to be certain and the Rega retained the lead in bass with the Merlins playing on their own. My friend and I did not agree on the midrange. He felt that they sounded almost the same, but I thought the 840c's more forward presentation was better for vocals. At the higher frequencies the Rega sounded sweeter and less anylytical than the 840c. Very high frequency sounds had the same detail from both players, but they were "softer" from the Rega. I really couldn't say which was more accurate, but the Rega was easier to listen to.
Soundstage on the Rega was better, but once again it only seemed obvious on classical recordings. Here the Rega conveyed the scope of the recording venue better than the 840c. That 3D feeling is something I thought my previous systems could do well, but the Rega has taken it to another level. I'd like to point out that either setup sounded terrific and you'd have to be crazy to suggest that one or the other could impede anyone's enjoyment of music. The synergy of the Rega with the Manley Stingray tubes must also be considered as in other pairings the 840c may sound far different.
We did not have time to pair the Rega with the 840c, but as I will most probably be buying a Rega from Signature Sound I'll have the chance to try that at a later date.

Thanks for reading.

Nice recap Rob. I think your point about the pairing of a specific DAC in a given system is most important for all that read and are in the same boat realize. In addition there are taste issues as well, do you like a more immediate or laid back presentation? I personally have a difficult time recommending one good DAC over without describing differences in a given system whereby the reader can get a sense of what might be expected in his system "better than" often does not apply. In any case I'm glad you found the DAC that works for you from one Merlin owner to another:)

Happy listening!

Will, one thing I'll add is this: The differences from good digital gear are quite small. I can't stress this enough after listening to many CD players and DACs in other systems. A/B comparisons gave clear differences but to say they were anything but small would be silly. As much as I like the Rega and Cambridge I'm shocked at how close a slightly modded Oppo (under 300 dollars) was to the more expensive gear. The fellow who brought the 840c over relies mainly on his Rega TT, but the DAC he uses is the Audio Research DAC8. He finds the 840c VERY close to his Mac mini/Dac8 combo.
We both agreed that a better DAC eases that digital flatness adding depth and weight to recordings. Unlike speakers or preamps/amps, the tonal aspect is level and detail is VERY close. The major differences appear to be in the overall soundstage/image factor, which is a moving target with so many different recordings. When improved the recording's weight is more lifelike. Honestly, I know that the terms I'm using are probably confusing, but it's a pretty hard thing to define. Listening to Eric Clapton live this morning I switched from the Oppo to the Oppo/Rega. The important change was that I could now hear the space and reverb as if it were in front of me. The speakers vanished even more than before. BUT...again, this overall upgrade is more like going from good to better cables. Is it worth it? I'd say yes.


My friend brought over his W4S DAC 2 to compare to the Rega DAC I'm auditioning from Signature Sound. Once again the system was the Merlin TSM-MXr monitors and the Manley Stingray II tube amp.

Both units are well burned in. The Rega has continued to get my attention over the last few days and I eventually stopped comparing it to the Oppo DVD player and just sat back and enjoyed what it was doing. Deeper soundstage and space around instruments is it's strengths. Hooking up the W4S we let it settled in for an hour and then did some listening.

Rega wins at...
Soundstage! I really expected this is where the W4S would be better, especially given the reviews. But the Rega created a true room effect on some recordings where the W4S floated a centered image nicely, but not with the same realism.

W4S DAC 2 wins at....
Detail! If you have the wrong system you could find the W4S a bit bright. The owner found it very bright when used with B&W speakers and just about perfect with Vandersteens. Synergy is the key as always, no matter how high end you go. The W4S did seem to get the essence of fingers on strings and while we felt the Rega's midrange was a hair better, the higher frequencies were the W4S's domain.

We liked....
Both! I could easily live with either and the owner of the W4S called it a tie, except he pointed out that his DAC was more versatile in it's connections. Still, there's something a bit less digital about the Rega to me, but it could be all in my head. My friend wondered how the Rega would fair in the bass department on full range speakers. After I order one and break it in we'll take it to his place and find out!



How did the Rega fair in the bass department?
This has to be one of the most analog sounding DACs that I have heard. One reviewer commented how much the DAC was voiced to sound like Rega TT or in other words how vinyl-like. I totally agree! Liquid, smooth, organic are words that come immediately to mind. In fact, I cannot believe my ears are listening to a digital source!

I have tried the various filters but playing 44.1/48 through Rega's USB, I preferred #1. The other filters caused a bass hump or thump which I found very fatiguing. In fact, I had the Rega DAC On #4 for some time, only to discover that the bass hump was due to the filter. It gave the bass a hollow sound. In the manual, Rega recommends #1 as the default.

This DAC is highly recommended! Build quality is beyond reproach.
I have managed squeeze everything from REGA DAC USB input

1) Polytec audio custom made USB driver (It works with Rega)
2) ASIO 64bit output for winamp (its sounds better than foobar ASIO output or ASIO4all)
3) Custom bult USB cable
4) power cable from Ölflex Classic 110 2.5m2x3

all improvements give quite a difference