Phono stages are tricky things. They’re critical in the amplification of the very low signal output of cartridges. Better design and better parts equal better sound. You can buy phono stages, at least of the moving magnet cartridge variety for less than a hundred dollars at corner electronic stores. Hell, you can even get a quality NAD Electronics PP 2e Phono on Amazon for about $150. But, when it comes to the subtlety and transparency of moving coil cartridges and the ability to load the cartridges to your specific musical needs, then a full figured gal like the Rega Aria is what is needed.
The Aria is typical of Rega’s electronic black boxes. Nothing much to see here. Perched at the perfect price point for relevant turntables, the Aria is a solid state, dead quiet phono stage that will match any Rega ‘table perfectly.
I’ve had some experience with some pretty heavy phono stages over the past couple of years. The Manley Steelhead is a 7K stunner and the last word in tubed phono stages. All you’ll ever need in your analogue journey. The Zesto Audio Andros at 2K less than the Steelhead is very fine, but misses that last ounce of effortless headroom that the Manley provides. When things got busy in the triple fff orchestral department, especially thorny orchestration such as Varese’s Arcana (LA Phil/Mehta), the Zesto lost a little interest in ultimate resolution. And finally, an odd source, I thought. Italy’s Audia Flight. I reviewed their full featured preamp and amazing power amplifier, but the Phono FL coming in at a price between the Zesto and the Manley was my favourite. Effortless and incredibly quiet. So, if you have 5K or more to spend, any of these three amazing phono stages will work.
You don’t have a spare 5K lying around? At $1500, the Rega Aria will give you more than 75% of the quality and you’ll have enough money left to buy a quality turntable or knockout cartridge (my philosophy is to always max out the arm and 'table with the very best cartridge you can afford). For the general consumer and less well heeled audiophile who wants quality analogue in everyday situations, the Aria is perfect.
Enclosed within the half width case are two separate phono stages, one moving magnet and one adjustable moving coil unit. The case is aluminum and is completely analogue within -- no digital control circuitry. The front cover has on on/off switch and a button each for 33 rpm and 45 rpm. To separate the mm/mc sections even further, each has its own power supply.
Rega describes the inputs' features as:
'The MC input uses parallel connected, low noise FET's (Field Effect Transistor's) configured as a compound pair. The use of FET transistors ensures there is no bias current flowing in the cartridge coil so as not to upset the delicate magnetic geometry of the cartridge. The MC input has the provision for selecting resistive input loading of 70ohms to 400ohms and capacitive loading of 1000pF to 4200pF. The input sensitivity can be changed by 6dB via the back panel.
The MM input uses low noise, bipolar input transistors also configured as a compound pair. There are two separate power supplies for each channel and further sub-power supplies for each of the low noise input circuits. Nichicon FG electrolytic capacitors have been used in critical positions throughout the power supplies. Polypropylene capacitors have been used in the signal path and equalization networks. Discrete circuitry is used throughout the signal path ensuring full control of the circuit design.'
The Aria I used for the audition was completely broken in. It uses little power so I left it on 24/7. The unit does not get overly hot. A nice warm, comforting feeling to the touch. The review was completed using the moving coil section only.
The unit can handle any cartridge you throw at it, from low output moving coils to bog standard moving magnets. Any cartridge you use should come with its documented optimum load settings -- the best switch positions for the output, or lack thereof, of your cartridge. As I was using the Rega Apheta MC, I set the DIP switches to the manual's suggestion of:
Left and Right MC Loading Resistance - 1 only on = 100 Ω
Left and Right MC Loading Capacitance - 3 and 4 off = 1000pF
Left and Right MC Gain - 1 on and 2 off high gain = 69.3dB
A little reading, research and messing about will provide you with a very positive listening experience. Cartridge loading counts. Via the Aria's MC input, the listener may select resistive input loading of 70 to 400Ω and capacitive loading of 1000 to 4200pF. The input sensitivity can also be changed by 6dB. Noting 'left' and 'right' in the above loading schematic, each channel must be adjusted individually.
The Aria matched both the Apheta cartridge and the RP8 turntable with an ease and comfort like happy children playing together. Sharing and caring. Nothing stuck out like a superstar, it was good old fashioned teamwork of hard working kit.
The sound was helped by the Aria with its dead silent background and very low noise floor. I had my ear close to the speakers with no source but cranked on the volume control of the preamp and nothing, nada. The benefits of solid state.
Where the combination lacked in comparison with the much higher priced setups I discussed was timbral accuracy, the ambiance of the recorded space, and separation of instruments. The Aria could play plenty loud without imploding the soundstage but a voice like Sinatra’s improves with better resolution. With the Aria, Sinatra's seminal album Only the Lonely was already streets ahead of the very good CD, but heard on a Bergmann Audio Signe Turntable and that Audia Flight Phono I mentioned, Sinatra’s voice takes on a depth and a soul that the Aria cannot match. That $4500 difference between phono stages gives you an extra glimpse into an artist’s real soul. Is it worth it, when the Aria gives so much for relatively little? Your choice. And with the separation and ambience, the Aria and its friends killed just about any CD player I’ve heard, but is short on both compared to the expensive others.
Jeez Louise, I'm depressing myself. No more comparisons. Let's talk turkey. What you do get with the Aria is a superbly built, finely tuned phono stage that has engineering found in much more expensive models. The adjustments make cartridge choice a doddle, and with such a low noise floor, dynamics are dialed in to exactly what the recording/musician is offering. When Tchaikovsky stupidly asks for a fffff in his Manfred Symphony (the flutes are playing a low B, which means we are not getting anywhere near even ff!), and you have an orchestra that can manage it, you'll get that effect (Muti/Philharmonia/EMI is a stunner).
Even on mediocre vinyl like DGG reissues, the Aria can unravel and put some lipstick on. Karajan's Schumann's Symphonies on the original vinyl sounded both vague and bloated at times, the reissue worse. Yet, I heard the loveliest sounds emanating from the speakers. The Aria dug deep and made the musical experience whole. The symphonies sounded coherent and balanced.
On new vinyl like the latest 45 rpm Supercut from Linn Records, the Aria shone. Sparkling woodwind, glorious acoustic (Usher Hall, Edinburgh) and silky strings, violins especially.
As I listened, I forgot about the Aria and the excellent job it was doing in the analogue chain. It's a set it and forget it device. If you want to tinker (go ahead, be brave), there's enough circuitry on board for you to dare to compare. And if you want to sit back and relax and enjoy your vinyl anew, with lots more heard than ever before and in the most musical light, then the Rega Aria would be a wonderful choice. Highly recommended.
Further information: Rega