Rega • Saturn-R CD Player/Digital-to-Analog Converter

by Vance Hiner | December 19, 2014


Legend has it that, back in the late 1920s, Duke Ellington’s trumpet player James "Bubber" Miley was known for reminding his colleagues during rehearsals that "It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!" Rather than resort to clumsy audiophile jargon like PRaT (for pace, rhythm, and timing), I’ll just say that when it comes to evaluating an audio component, its ability to pass Miley’s test has become far more important to me than any number of spec sheets, distortion readings, or sinewave results. As a younger audiophile, I would get lost in lengthy A/B/A/B obstacle courses in my efforts to be scientific, only to wind up buying gear that did one thing exceptionally well but turned out to be utterly incapable of keeping me engaged or inspired.

After months of listening to Rega Research’s Saturn-R CD player/DAC, as well as exchanging e-mails and phone calls with Rega founder Roy Gandy and his team in the UK, it became clear to me that this is a group of blokes who share my belief that conveying the soul of a performance should be the primary goal of anyone involved in the reproduction of music. For example, when I asked Gandy how much jitter the Saturn-R produces, he responded:

Rega prefer not to get involved with quoting jitter measurements (even though our equipment measures well) for the same reason that most ‘Hi-Fi’ measurements are misleading and not of any use for the consumer in evaluating the sound quality of products. Technical measurements such as wow, flutter, rumble, power ratings, distortion, frequency response, etc. are used as a guide during competent design but in no way tell the whole story of a product’s performance. They are simply parameters that CAN be measured because somebody produces a gizmo to do the measuring. Good designers are aware of the (often major) limitations of the measuring equipment and use their experience and understanding to produce innovations and designs that considerably exceed the limited scenario of the things that can be measured. Rega CD designer Terry Bateman used a ‘complete picture’ approach, focusing on circuit philosophy, design topology, component qualities, PCB layout, potential reliability, noise spectrum, types of distortion, spectral analysis, etc.

Gandy prefers to think of Rega as an "engineering and music" company that is decidedly not a part of what he calls "the Hi-Fi Fraternity." There’s no hint of trash talk when Gandy makes such a comment. He sounds more like a seasoned veteran who has little time for pettiness or anything else that might distract him from his mission, which is "enjoying music and trying to reproduce music in the best way possible." Achieving that, of course, is a great deal more difficult than it sounds. As Rega celebrates its 40th anniversary, Gandy speaks with a sense of perspective. He stresses that, because all media are flawed, his company’s goal is to "knock away" as many of those imperfections as possible. His comment reminded me of a story I once heard about Michelangelo’s statue of David. When the sculptor was asked how he achieved such a masterpiece, he replied, "It was simple; I just chipped away what didn’t belong." While Gandy would be quick to point out that he’s no Michelangelo, I find that he has a similar way of discussing complex technical challenges with philosophical clarity.

Even though Gandy is careful to emphasize his commitment to engineering innovation when describing his company’s mission, his pace quickens -- you can almost hear his heart race over the phone -- when he discusses musical performances he has witnessed. For example, during our conversation, he told me about a moment once at a Mike Oldfield concert when a single, solitary note played by the performer caused "the entire audience to gasp!" The capturing of such moments is Gandy’s holy grail, and the Saturn-R CD player/DAC is Rega’s latest effort to bring digital music closer to that magic.

Saturn returns

In the eight years since Rega introduced the first Saturn CD player, the prices of audio equipment have steadily plummeted . . . in a parallel universe far, far away. That’s why I was a bit startled when I noticed that the Saturn-R lists for $2995, just $400 more than its 2006 predecessor. If you factor in inflation, Rega has actually lowered the Saturn’s price. You’re probably wondering whether corners were cut to get this rabbit out of the hat. Not that I could tell by listening. In fact, the Saturn-R’s list of improvements and additional capabilities make its list price even more impressive.

The first thing that caught my attention was that the Saturn-R looked as if it might have been cooked up in the Batcave. The cover of the CD loading bay is even shaped like the silhouette of the masked man’s head. Better yet, it opens and closes like the doors of the Batmobile. When the polished, obsidian-like lid glides slowly shut, you can almost see the vapors escape as the Saturn-R readies itself for takeoff.

Bruce Wayne would appreciate the Saturn-R’s somewhat "under the radar" appearance. Because its case is only 2 1/2" tall, I was unprepared for its weight of nearly 22 pounds. The hefty build quality became even more apparent when I noticed how quietly the transport mechanism operates. Even with an ear right next to the transport bay, I couldn’t hear the disc spin, and could feel no vibration in the metal case when I touched it during operation. Perhaps this lack of transport noise was noticeable during listening sessions -- I and others remarked on the "black backgrounds" from which notes suddenly emerged.

When I asked about the transport’s design, Gandy said, "What sets the Rega CD player apart from others is not the mechanical mechanism of the transport but [a] processor and transport controller chip that is more advanced in the digital computer world and unique to Rega." He added that the Saturn-R’s transport mechanism is the same one used in the Isis ($9995), Rega’s flagship player. As for what other engineering decisions are responsible for the Saturn-R’s sonic signature, Gandy said, "The Saturn-R power supplies are (good old) belt and braces multiple supplies with an individual local supply for each (sonically important) stage. This draws on the work performed when developing the Isis. The separate power supplies eliminate noise and interaction between audio stages and digital circuitry, like micro-controllers." The decision to use Wolfson WM8742 chips in the Saturn-R was the result of CD designer Terry Bateman’s strong working relationship with Wolfson and his admiration of their focus on sound quality as well as specs.

In addition to its ultraquiet transport, the Saturn-R also houses a high-resolution DAC that handles feeds of 44.1 to 192kHz, with five filter settings, and sports an asynchronous USB port as well as multiple S/PDIF and optical inputs and outputs. The player is a single-ended-only design. As for all those digital filters, I must confess that even with my reference DAC, the soft knee-brickwall-apodizing merry-go-round makes my head spin. Switching between these modes reminds me of that stage of an optometrist’s exam when he/she keeps asking, "Better or worse?" I know there’s a difference, but I’ll be danged if I can tell which set of nuances is best. It depends on which recording I’m playing. So I always end up just sticking with Rega’s recommendations: the linear-phase half-band filter for 48kHz and below, and the linear-phase soft-knee filter for 96kHz and higher. That said, button fiddlers will be delighted by their range of choices.

When asked why Rega chose not to include DSD capability among the Saturn-R’s features, Gandy replied, "Rega prefers to be ‘last’ to new technology and not ‘jump on bandwagons.’ We prefer to use ‘tried and tested’ techniques that we have evaluated for sound quality. Small companies that try to follow every change and fashion do so at their peril. After all, Rega was the last significant Hi-Fi company to produce a CD player. The early bird catches the worm and the second mouse gets the cheese!"

Setting up the Saturn-R as a CD player was straightforward but not idiot proof. Out of the box, the player defaulted to DAC mode, which confused me a bit when I first tried to play a disc. I had to resort to the manual (yeah, I know . . . ) to learn that the Saturn-R unit does not automatically switch to CD mode when a disc is loaded in the transport bay and the Play button is pressed. One must manually select CD or DAC, which can be done only with the input button on the remote control.

This is important: If your proprietary Rega remote ever goes missing, there’s no way to switch operation modes or initiate any of the Saturn-R’s DAC functions. Only the Play, Stop, Forward, and Reverse commands are available on the player itself. (I’m sure that a touchscreen would have increased the Saturn-R’s cost.) I caution owners to be careful where they place their remotes; otherwise, with the remote eventually, inevitably lost in a stack of magazines or eaten by a voracious couch, they will be permanently stuck in CD or DAC mode and with whatever input they last selected.

One final surprise was the Saturn-R’s cheap, 18-AWG stock power cord. Off-brand computers come with cords of heavier gauge. While well-heeled audiophiles will undoubtedly use their chosen flavor of aftermarket cord, some won’t have the means, or are "power-cord skeptics," and these folks will never hear the Saturn-R’s full potential. My Shunyata Research Alpha Digital AC cord significantly opened up the soundstage, deepened the bass, and removed a considerable layer of hash. Pony up $100 or so and I’m sure that any decently designed cord you choose will get better sound out of the Saturn-R than will its own stock cord.

While I’m on the subject of audiophile religions: I also belong to the Church of the Sanctified Burn-in. The Saturn-R, like every other digital playback device I’ve heard, sounded somewhat thin, closed in, and constipated right out of the box. One week of continuous playback in a secondary system enabled the review sample to produce real music, as opposed to a digital facsimile of it. Several weeks of playback resulted in greater depths of soundstage, deeper bass, reduced sibilance, and decidedly more bloom around instruments.

Saturn rises

In keeping with the Saturn-R’s tasteful yet understated design, the sound that emanated from it was verry, verry British. Not Sherlock Holmes British, but "Bond, James Bond" British. At first blush, this player’s sound was all politeness and upper-crust restraint. Then, out of the blue, when the occasion required, the tuxedo tie was off and it was a souped-up Aston Martin taking hairpin curves, and then the straightaway at 150km/hour, winding up sideways at your listening seat, the driver cocking his head and peeking over sunglasses, nary a hair out of place -- shaken, not stirred. The Saturn-R delivered lightning-fast transients and performed with an impressively well-integrated sense of rhythm and timing.

For example, in "The Letter," from Erin Bode’s Photograph CD [Canyon 13506], the staccato attack of the marimba and the quick but subtle drum work were quicker and more musically propulsive than I’ve heard them through the CEC TL5100Z CD player, or the Meitner Museatex BiDat DAC fed by the CEC. In those cases, those notes are just enough sluggish and veiled that this song comes across as boring and lackluster. But with every disc I threw at it, the Saturn-R delivered the kind of speed and stop-on-a-dime changes that make live performances so entertaining. "Eight Days a Week," from the 2009 remastering of Beatles for Sale [EMI 0946 82414 2 3], had my head bobbing and my feet tapping -- the Saturn-R’s delivery of the tight harmonies and the percussive interplay were right on the money. The player’s superb timing helped convey the electricity and excitement of this track, in which a seriously road-tested band finally brings a burst of energy to what is otherwise a well-recorded but somewhat paint-by-numbers collection of tunes.

Another of the Saturn-R’s strengths was its ability -- with superb jazz recordings such as "Fever," from Beegie Adair’s I Love Being Here With You: A Jazz Piano Tribute to Peggy Lee [Greenhill GHD5764] -- to cast a believable soundstage and reproduce the bloom surrounding instruments. The purity of Adair’s piano tone was immediately evident, and the Saturn-R’s highly nuanced timing highlighted the effortless rhythm and tightness of her longtime trio.

In my many listening sessions with the Saturn-R, I was struck by its very musical presentation of the midrange and lower-level detail; playing well-produced jazz recordings, the Rega was lush and seductive. Through the Saturn-R, the pure tones of piano and bass notes and the air surrounding them were reminiscent of the romance vacuum tubes can produce. A good example of this was provided by Jeanie Bryson’s Some Cats Know [Telarc CD-833391]. This CD, another tribute to Peggy Lee, is underrated because Bryson’s singing doesn’t quite match Lee’s original magic. Nonetheless, the sessions feature a very tight ensemble that includes the great Paquito D’Rivera on clarinet. Listening to "I Don’t know Enough About You" was a perfect way to hear the charm of the Saturn-R’s midrange: its signature was sweet and smooth -- downright addictive if that’s your cup o’ joe. I actually preferred listening to the Ray Brown Trio’s Soular Energy [Concord CCD 42682] through the Saturn-R over my reference player, the PS Audio PerfectWave combo -- the Rega’s combination of midrange warmth and transient speed were perfectly suited to bring out this session’s very best. What can I say? The Saturn-R swung!

Every digital playback machine I’ve heard that’s priced at or near $3000 has some flaws worth mentioning, and the Saturn-R was no exception. With highly processed pop recordings such as "The Sound" and "What World," from Human Highway’s Moody Motorcycle [Suicide Squeeze 80076], sibilants were somewhat emphasized and a bit "fizzy" in the upper registers. I also heard this emphasis of attack and upper-register definition in "Team," from Lorde’s Pure Heroine [Virgin/EMI 33751900]. The digital drum thwack that occurs throughout this track became a bit grating to me because it was all attack, which effectively blurred the drum effect’s airiness and trailing decay. Another example of this can be heard in the title track of Lucinda Williams’s Essence [Lost Highway 1701972]. The leading edge of Williams’s raspy voice and the ever-building chorus was bright enough that I had to listen at a lower volume than I’m accustomed to; as a result, I felt that I’d lost some of the drum and bass slam. This doesn’t happen when I listen to my digital reference, which costs nearly three times the Saturn-R’s price -- and underscores just how expensive that last 10% of sound quality can be.

Another nit I have to pick with the Saturn-R concerns how its CD player sometimes struggled to flesh out the finest microdetails in complex music. The brasses in "It Had to Be You," from Steve Tyrell’s Standard Time [Sony Music Distribution 86006], were perfectly in sync, and the soundstage was just right. However, when playing in unison, the horns sounded a tad shut in, and not as much like horns as they do through my reference. Through the Saturn-R, it was almost as if a certain frequency was restricted -- the "brass" of each instrument was difficult to hear. However, when a single trumpet plays on this track, its color and tone were quite natural and realistic.

On the other hand, the Saturn-R fully captured pianist Joe Samples’s soft breathing during his particularly muscular introduction to "Ain’t Misbehavin’." Lesser digital devices leave this emotional detail buried. This was something I noticed repeatedly while listening to the Saturn-R as a CD player: Some details came through effortlessly, while others were relegated to a foggy distance, perceptible only if I "squinted" my ears. Well-recorded jazz and folk sounded seductively sweet and musical, while more densely layered pop recordings occasionally sounded a bit strained by comparison. For example, when listening to heavily processed recordings by, say, the Weepies or Lorde, the sound through the Saturn-R was pleasant enough at moderate volumes -- but when I increased the volume from 84dB on the SPL meter to 87 or 88dB, a small but noticeable amount of grain appeared. This doesn’t happen when I increase the volume with my reference DAC and transport -- then, the music just gets louder, with virtually no strain or grain.

After all, another $5000 should buy you some sonic advantages, and the Saturn-R's sound was really more about the forest than the trees anyway.

Houston, do you copy? Houston?

Having given the Saturn-R’s CD-player stage a thorough workout, it was time to put its high-resolution DAC and ASIO USB interface through their paces. First, I converted to computer files the very same CDs I’d just listened to, and delivered those data directly to the Rega’s DAC stage from my 2011 MacBook Pro, via a Rega-recommended Chord Signature Tuned Array USB cable ($675).

Before I could evaluate the Saturn-R DAC’s USB performance, I had to answer a question: How many audiophiles does it take to properly set up the Saturn-R’s USB input? In my case, three. First, my audiophile buddy Blackmore, who seriously knows his way around Macs and Channel D’s Pure Music software, helped me find all the sound settings that needed to be properly configured so that various resolutions could be played back smoothly and efficiently through my Mac’s USB output. It would have taken me the better part of an afternoon to figure all of that out on my own. I long for the day when high-end computer audio is less complicated.

After 30 minutes of looking at a "No data found" message on the Saturn-R’s display, I picked up the phone and called Conor Poull, a very nice and patient fellow at The Sound Organisation, Rega’s US distributor. After about 15 minutes, he, too, was perplexed about why we couldn’t successfully send data to the Rega from my Mac. The Saturn-R’s manual is succinct to the point of vagueness. We’d done precisely what was prescribed in the section covering USB connectivity. We’d swapped out USB cords, reset settings, and rebooted everything. "No data found." I was ready to call it a day.

"Patience," said Blackmore, Jedi Master that he is. He focused his mind on the Saturn-R’s 45-button remote control. We had the Rega’s Source button properly set to the DAC stage. However, nestled between some buttons labeled only with mysterious dots was a toggle panel with arrows, labeled Input. Blackmore pressed the button up and down but no data moved. He pressed it again, and then again. On the fourth go, "96k" glowed from the display. After a collective sigh of relief, we all felt a bit thick, as the Brits say.

I think it’s fair to suggest that the Saturn-R’s manual might be written a bit more clearly. For example, the USB option is one of four input selections. Exactly which one of those inputs actually is the USB option must be discovered by trial and error, or by referring to input labels visible only on the Saturn-R’s rear panel and listed in the manual. No such words as "USB" or "Optical" ever appear on the Rega’s display, although an input number does. And no reminder of what or how an input needs to be selected is mentioned on the manual’s page devoted to USB connectivity.

We have liftoff

Once we got the Saturn-R playing files sent from my MacBook Pro, all was well. I compared a number of CDs ripped to WAV files to those same discs played through the Saturn-R’s CD transport. Whether it was Lucinda Williams’s Essence or Allen Toussaint’s Bright Mississippi [Nonesuch 7559799287], the results were the same: The USB’s performance when delivering 44.1kHz recordings was very engaging, but not quite as detailed and dynamic as the CD stage. These differences were less distinct as I ascended the resolution ladder. The incredible 192kHz download of Mel Tormé’s Swings Shubert Alley [Verve/PolyGram] sounded more real and live than any Red Book recording on the CD player. In fact, the Tormé sessions sounded nearly as dynamic and natural as they do through my reference. Only the soundstage width was somewhat diminished.

What did the USB playback lack with 44.1kHz recordings? Specifically, tracks played through the USB sounded a bit softer and, dare I say, slower. The Saturn-R’s CD-player stage was particularly responsive and confident in its handling of transients and dynamic shifts -- among the best I’ve heard in these respects. While the 44.1kHz tracks via USB don’t quite match that pace, if it were a horse race, I’d say the USB came in just a nose behind. With well-recorded, higher-resolution recordings, I found the differences more subtle -- not bad for an interface still in its relative infancy as an audio accessory. Based on my previous experiences with USB sound, I was pleasantly surprised by the Saturn-R’s performance.

My final listening sessions with the Saturn-R were spent comparing its performances as a CD player and a DAC when fed data via S/PDIF from my PS Audio PerfectWave transport. The results were interesting. When I played "Solar," from Eliane Elias’s Something for You: Eliane Elias Sings & Plays Bill Evans [Blue Note 5117952], first from the CD player, then from my transport to the Saturn-R’s DAC, the differences were not subtle. The presentation of the Saturn-R’s CD player was soft and cottony, while the DAC fed by the PerfectWave transport sounded more gutsy and muscular. Through the Saturn-R, Elias’s piano had a liquid quality that was quite seductive. Individual notes were bell-like as they rang and resonated, and the sense of air around each note lent the performance a contemplative quality. With the PerfectWave serving as the source, I could hear more of the piano’s wood, and Marc Courtney Johnson’s bass lines quite literally moved air in my room, so forceful and deep were their attack.

Which was better? I liked both sounds, and wished filter settings were this much fun to play with. It was a bit like hearing great performers playing the same number on a different night. When I played the 192kHz Mel Tormé session via a DVD from my transport, it was much more difficult to hear differences between my reference and the Saturn-R’s DAC stage. I prefer the PerfectWave’s S/PDIF -- it sounded a bit more natural and weighty. I suspect the PerfectWave’s separate power supply and superb handling of jitter have something to do with the relaxed feeling I had whenever I listened to it through the Saturn-R’s excellent DAC stage.

The rings of Saturn

Rega has considerably refined its approach to digital sound since it introduced the first Saturn. The company stands out in the digital universe because it has trickled down technology from its flagship CD player, the Isis, freshened up the Saturn’s design, and thrown in a very serious asynchronous USB high-resolution DAC, all for a price that, after factoring in inflation, is lower than the original’s. Those are more than enough reasons to consider the Saturn-R for an audition. Add to them an impressively musical and soulful presentation of performances and a level of resolution that comes within throwing, and sometimes spitting, distance of digital systems costing twice as much, and you’ll understand why I consider the Saturn-R an (inter)stellar achievement. It deserves the serious attention of anyone willing to pay as much as $5000 for a CD player.

Price: $2995.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Rega Research Limited
6 Coopers Way
Temple Farm Industrial Estate
Southend on Sea, Essex
England SS2 5TE

The Sound Organisation
159 Leslie Street
Dallas, TX 75207
(972) 234-0182

Associated Equipment

Digital: PS Audio PerfectWave Mk II DAC, PS Audio PerfectWave transport, Logitech Squeezebox Touch with Bolder Cable Company linear power supply, CEC TL5100Z CD player, Meitner Museatex BiDat DAC, MacBook Pro running Channel D Pure Music.

Preamplifiers: Convergent Audio Technology SL-1 Renaissance (Black Path Edition).

Power amplifier: Conrad-Johnson Premier 350SA.

Loudspeakers: Thiel CS3.7.

Interconnects: Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Anaconda.

Digital cables: Chord Signature Tuned Array USB, Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Anaconda AES/EBU, Moray James Digital coaxial.

Speaker cables: Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Anaconda.

Power conditioner: Shunyata Research Typhon/Triton stack and Shunyata Research Defender in associated wall outlet.

Power cords: Shunyata Research Alpha Digital, Alpha Analog, Alpha HC, and Venom 3 HC.

Equipment rack and platforms: Vantage Point Contour equipment rack, Salamander amplifier stand, Shunyata Research Dark Field Elevators, Stillpoints Ultra SS speaker risers.

Accessories: Acoustic Revive RD-3 disc demagnetizer, UltraBit Diamond-Plus Digital Systems Enhancer.