Rega valve Isis CD player
Archaic and modern technology have a way of working wonderfully well together.
HAS the moment for a no-holds-barred, high-end CD player passed? The late-to-the-party boys from Rega (“the last major high-end company to build a CD player”) obviously don’t think so, and have seized the moment to launch their high-ticket statement Isis CD player, released in valve and solid-state output variants.
Like its solid-state sister, which uses the same chassis, the Valve Isis is built like a tank (as in “war machine”, not “for keeping fish”) and beautifully finished in black and dark grey solid metal, with angled out corners giving the impression of being hewn from granite.
A familiar glow
Four top holes at the right of the transport lid allow the low-glowing pairs of 5814A (ECC82/ 12AU7) and ECC88 (6DJ8/6922) valves to peek through to the outside world. Rega emphatically states that it didn’t use tubes just “to make the Valve Isis sound warm”, but paid careful attention to implementing the output stage for optimal sound quality.
The rest of the player follows closely the mechanics of the current range of Rega CD players – the sprung ball-chuck disc-loading mechanism is a unique family trait, while the beautifully smooth-motion, manually-operated top lid is executed to a higher standard than the other models.
Rega apparently keeps dedicated spare disc mechanisms for each Isis, so (much) later down the line, should the transport or laser fail, owners don’t have to worry about their prized unit having to go on to a new life as a boat ballast.
The digital chipset used in the Valve Isis is the Wolfson WM8741 DAC, which is different from that used in the solid-state version. Around the back, balanced (XLR) and singleended (RCA) analogue outputs are provided, and there are TOSlink (optical) and S/PDIF (electrical) digital outputs. A USB digital input socket allows the player’s DAC section to be accessed to replay audio files from one’s computer. The player can handle compressed MP3, plus WMA and WAV files.
A switch at the back of the unit offers users a choice of three filter settings, each giving a different feel to proceedings rather than sounding overtly different; I ended up listening mostly to the middle, and sometimes bottom, position setting, depending on the system and disc employed.
It took no time to realise the Valve Isis is an excellent performer. At the price, nothing less would be expected, or indeed, tolerated. Coming in immediately after time with the excellent NAD M2 direct-digital amplifier, the more conventional set-up of the Valve Isis providing signals for a bi-amped Euphonic Research ATT600-Amp80 combo and an old Krell KAV300i driving Sonus faber Guarneri Homage speakers, was no less compelling, and indeed arguably more “human” in its music-making style.
The sound just seemed that bit less synthetic (not that the NAD sounded like this, indeed far from it), yet the amount of detail on offer and all sonic aspects were just as exquisite.
Really special was the Valve Isis’ ability to lend a sense of physical presence to vocals and instruments, with a level of palpability one associates more with good analogue replay than from 16-bit digital. In the treble, the crispness of hi-hats rang true, and other cymbals really shimmered effervescently, with a more convincing sense of metal struck by stick than I’d previously experienced from CD. Solo bowed string instruments sounded glorious with realistic texture of rosin on strings.
Rock tracks sounded taut and punchy, weightier than most players I’ve heard, and there was nothing slow or sluggish about the presentation. The last thing I want to (mis)convey is that the Valve Isis has an overtly characterful or stereotypical “tube-hyped” sound, or anything like that. How shall I put it? It sounded more, I suppose, “authentic” to me.
To get a better sense of where the Valve Isis stands, I took it round to a friend’s, whose excellent Esoteric X-05 player has been a reference point for me. Similar results in terms of Isis’ better weight and palpability, and indeed sense of tonal authenticity against the X-05 were obvious through his Balanced Audio Technology VK-300X Supertube Edition amp and PMC Fact 8 loudspeakers. To be fair, the Isis costs quite a bit more than the X-05, so at the very least, it makes a strong case that you are getting what you pay for.
And the prize (Is) is?
The Rega Valve Isis is one musically compelling piece of gear which convinces that CD can still deliver the musical goods.
I’d struggle to call any CD player at this price excellent value for money and may not be convinced results are superior to less-pricey vinyl spinners like a Rega P9 or VPI Classic, but all this is beside the point if one has invested substantially in CD as one’s primary music software.
If you can afford it (and I’m really sorry that I can’t), you must go hear it. It is special indeed.
REGA VALVE ISIS
Special, indeed: The Rega Valve Isis CD player, a must hear for those with substantial CD investments.
WHAT IT IS: CD player with USB input-accessible DAC section.
LUST FACTOR: Built like a bomb, to withstand the impact of a bomb. Organic, enjoyable performance. Rega Couple interconnect and high bling power cord included.
REALITY CHECK: Price, and not much else. PRICE: RM33,000 DISTRIBUTOR: ASIASOUNDEQUIPMENT(M) SDNBHD(%03-79552091/016-2733573)