POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 29
Apollo CD player
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
Who's laughing now? That's what I'd be asking if I were Roy Gandy, managing director of Rega. Of course, he's probably too British to gloat in such an unseemly way about successfully defying conventional wisdom for three decades and counting. Then again, I've never met the guy, so who knows? Maybe he is having a well-deserved laugh at the twits who said, back in the 80s, "You must be daft, arsing about with tonearms when CD players are proper fanny magnets!" (Well, at least that's how I imagine they talk in Southend-on-Sea, but I rarely get out of Scranton.)
Likewise, here we are, on the cusp of the download revolution, when our man across the pond drops another budget-priced atom bomb rivaling the famed RB300 tonearm in sheer ambition. The Apollo, like the RB300 arm, comes to market just as the sun is setting on the format it's intended to play. And just as the RB300 brought high-end tonearm performance to the mid-fi marketplace, the Apollo makes world-class CD playback affordable for nearly everyone.
Like the Apollo itself, this review is also a little late in coming. Getting my hands on such a highly anticipated piece of equipment wasn't easy, but the guys at Rega's U.S. distributor, The Sound Organisation, were nice enough to send one my way for a few weeks and it was well worth the wait. This exceptionally well thought out player has been showered with accolades here and abroad. What can I say that hasn't already been said?
Well, for starters, the Apollo makes its predecessor, the Planet 2000, sound lackluster in comparison. Back in 1997, when the original Planet was introduced, it sounded better than many more expensive players, but it's real claim to fame was the unique ability to impart a somewhat analog-like character to CDs. The Planet 2000 went off in a more conventional direction, with less deliberate softening on top end and a lot more detail all around. Good as it was, it somehow failed to recapture the excitement of its predecessor.
The Apollo, however, is a different animal entirely. In typical Rega fashion, it looks entirely unassuming—no different, in fact, than the model it replaces. But under the skin, well …that's where things get interesting. Rega saw the writing on the wall when major suppliers like Sony and Phillips started focusing on DVD players. Reduced demand for mass-market CD players equals fewer transport mechanisms and that means fewer choices for companies like Rega, who still want to make dedicated CD spinners but don't have the wherewithal to design every last part themselves.
In response, Rega collaborated with a top-secret U.K. firm to develop their own proprietary control chipset and operating system. Initially, I was unimpressed until I did some research into what that actually entails. Blimey! If you're smarter than me, you already know that Rega pulled off a major achievement here. If you're not, suffice it to say that the reason why small firms buy this stuff ready-made from giant conglomerates is because no one else has the resources to do it.
Let's start with the controller, since it's a honker. It boasts 20MB of memory and 32 bits of processing muscle, for those that get excited about such things. For liberal arts dolts like me, what all those bits and bytes really mean is vastly improved error correction that, according to Rega, far surpasses anything that has come before. The control system also allows for another interesting feature: the ability to analyze a CD and optimize the laser's tracking position and focus spot size for optimum data recovery. (When you pop in a disc, the display reads 'INITIALISING' as the servo controller does its thing. There's also a slight lag after you press play, during which time the buffer fills itself with data from the CD. Both processes usually take only a few seconds—in fact, my Denon DVD changer takes longer to read a disc than the Apollo.)
Next up are Rega's improvements to their supremely reliable top-loading mechanism. I've always favored top loaders because there's nothing to break, and I like the way Rega's previous mechanisms glide up and down silkily. All that is still true of the Apollo, with a new wrinkle: a three-point, spring loaded gripping mechanism is used in place of the previous model's magnetic clamp, eliminating the clamp's additional mass while improving overall stability. The transport itself comes from Sanyo, while the DAC is a 24-bit, sigma-delta design from Wolfson. The fact that I'm mentioning those items last speaks volumes about this player's remarkable overall design.
Alright, enough pretending to know more about engineering than I actually do – how does the Apollo sound? Pretty damn amazing, actually. Rega suggests warming up the player's output stage for 15 minutes, so I did. My review sample arrived well broken-in, having made the usual rounds before its trip to Positive Feedback's prestigious Scranton branch. (Could that greasy fingerprint be Sam Tellig's? Maybe he likes french fries as much as French hi-fi.)
It only took a few minutes to convince me that this was the best CD playback I'd ever heard in my system—better than the previous generation Planet by a long shot and better than anything I've heard from other entry-level industry players. Do not get me wrong: I have heard better, just not for under $1000. I quickly got the feeling this was all the CD player a guy like me would ever need, and I still feel that way now.
In my review of the Planet 2000 (click here to read it), I was impressed by its ability extract a certain something that other players lack. "Comparing the Rega to other players in its price range is like comparing 35mm film to high-definition video," I wrote. "They're both quite detailed, but film just has something special that makes it more organic, and consequently, more watchable." The Apollo retains that character, but now, it also offers notably more precise reproduction of both the upper and lower ends of the frequency spectrum, which were ever-so-slightly rolled off in the Planet. In some ways, it totally outclasses my system, leading me to believe that you could confidently pair the Apollo with electronics and speakers at many times its price.
I tired the Apollo in two very different systems. The first featured the PrimaLuna ProLogue tube integrated amp and PSB Alpha T floor standing speakers—a lush, rich-sounding combo. The second was comprised of the Rega Brio 3 integrated amp with Rega R1 monitors—fast, detailed and revealing from the upper midbass on up. Cheekily, the Apollo swung both ways.
In the warmer system, the Rega had just enough crispness and high-end detail so as not to sound dull. Yet in the brighter system, it was never overbearing. In fact, the sound was so refined and cohesive I'd be hard pressed to identify a single trait that stood out in a bad way. To be certain, I swapped a few other speakers in and out of both systems. I got the same great results with B&W neat 'n tidy DM302 (discontinued; $300 when last offered) and Polk's big-sounding RTi38 monitor (also discontinued; $450 when new). Here, finally, is a CD player that you can plug into virtually any sensibly-priced system without hesitation.
Operationally, the Apollo can be a teeny bit quirky. When advancing tracks manually, the volume level faded up for the first second of each new selection. Occasionally, when skipping around a disc, it would get hung up and briefly stop responding to commands. Neither issue overshadowed the Apollo's many virtues. Interestingly, the Apollo showed extreme caution when asked to play one of Sony's infamous "content protected" discs for those who like a little malware with their music. (Did you get your settlement check from Sony? I made damn sure I got mine.) "Initialisation" of David Gray's Life In Slow Motion took nearly three minutes, making me wonder if the Apollo's clever operating system smelled a rat.
I enjoyed the Apollo so much, I began wondering whether it could replace my analog front end altogether. I fired up my ancient Rega Planar 3 and did some back-to-back comparisons between the LP and CD versions of some favorite recordings. Many times, I could have gone either way. The Planar 3 had the edge I terms of overall listenability, but the Apollo's tight low-bass extension, organic, well-extended highs and general purity of tone were beyond reproach. Hmmm …maybe these CD thingies aren't so bad after all…
Just as the Apollo was departing, Pioneer's new Elite DV-79AVi universal player arrived. At $1000, it's priced nearly identically, but it also reads DVD audio and video as well as SACD. The Pioneer is an excellent player—clean, detailed, and a solid value at $1000—but it's forward sounding by comparison and, like all DVD players, fiddly to use in the context of a two-channel system. Though the performance gap between CD and DVD players may be closing, the Apollo will probably stand tall for at least a few more years.
Bottom line: the Rega Apollo makes CD playback an event. It's as far as you can get from loading up a mass market DVD changer and zoning out. From the way it "initialises" itself (which is like a live orchestra tuning up) to the way it plays music (which is more convincing than anything I can imagine at this price point), the Apollo is a virtuoso performer. It recaptures the glory of the original Planet and then some. Ed Kobesky
Apollo CD player
The Sound Organisation