This section is dedicated to classic components, products that are not longer made but which warrant attention because they were excellent value in their time and are therefore a great second hand buy. The first example is Rega’s last entry level CD player the Apollo, its £475 price point was so modest that many enthusiasts wouldn’t give it a second look (or listen) but having lived with one for several years I can assure you that it’s musical ability is far greater than many ‘audiophile’ players costing significantly more. I only really discovered the Apollo as a result of living with the Rega Isis, the company’s heavyweight flagship which completely rewired my notions of how engaging a CD player could be. Like a lot of Rega products both these players seem a little short on detail and finesse when put up against like priced alternatives – they don’t emphasise ‘hi-fi’ qualities like imaging, bass slam or even the much vaunted inky black silences – instead they concentrate on musical coherence.
Now you would hope and think that communicating the message in the music was the main aim of any piece of audio equipment but this fundamental requirement can easily be taken for granted or pushed aside in the quest to improve the aesthetic appeal of the sound. And while sound and music are intrinsically intertwined too much emphasis on the former can leave the latter in a less than convincing state. The search for deeper lows, more sparkly highs and maximum transparency can all too easily undermine the way that the music hangs together. The Rega Apollo takes the opposite approach and focuses entirely on communication, as a result it seems to lack openness and its imaging is not pinpoint, it’s not shabby but put it up against a Marantz or a Cambridge Audio of similar vintage and you will find that the latter two have a more exciting and vibrant sound that gives them the edge in a direct comparison. In the longer term however players like these don’t necessarily have the qualities that sustain your interest in the music in the way that the Apollo does.
I use an Apollo for all my CD music reviews because it’s so good at revealing the quality of playing and composition that the artist(s) put down in the studio or on stage. It also tells me about the nature of the recording, this isn’t its speciality but it’s revealing enough to let you know how things were done if not precisely how many layers of sound there are or the make of the microphones. Mind you I don’t know one mic from another so that’s a bit academic. Things like the character of instruments are pretty clear, specific pianos are easy to spot in this respect as are other acoustic instruments, the limitation is one’s knowledge rather than a lack of resolution.
What’s more important is being able to appreciate a wide variety of musical styles. More exciting or refined disc players can often make this harder because they don’t have the timing ability that the Apollo does. This is a key quality in all the Rega products I have heard, time smear as it’s sometimes described has largely been eliminated and this means that this crucial musical quality can be easily appreciated and the message gets through. Any player can make a great recording of relatively simple music sound good, but it takes one with good timing to reveal the music in a dense mix of a complex composition. In my case that usually means jazz which can get pretty convoluted at times, even the greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis have made albums that are hard work for the newcomer and this is where the Apollo really shows its worth. Allowing you to approach what’s going on even if it’s not something that initially appeals. Often the best pieces of music are those that require some effort to appreciate, repeated exposure and familiarisation usually does the trick one way or the other but you have to be able to approach the stuff in the first place. I’m not saying that it can make music you don’t like more appealing but it does present it in an easy to access fashion, if you don’t enjoy something on the Apollo you are unlikely to do so on another machine. Unless of course you are after a particular sound, some dislike this player because it lacks colour and finesse, it’s not particularly smooth in truth and if you have a particularly transparent system you might find that a warmer sounding interconnect than usual is necessary to patch over its relatively dry presentation. I use an Apollo with Van den Hul The Second interconnect, a Border Patrol valve Control Unit and ATC SCM150 ASL active loudspeakers. I have heard a few disc spinners in this system that better the Rega in most respects but not many that are significantly better in terms of musical focus.
Its hard to see precisely why this player is as entertaining as it is from the spec, the lack of a drawer mechanism probably helps as does the high clock stability and Wolfson dual differential DAC. One would also imagine that the aluminium case is beneficial but none of these things are unique to Rega CDPs, what is different about them is that Rega is a turntable manufacturer and Terry Bateman designs the electronics. Terry is a valve man at heart, hence the glass powered version of the Isis, and he clearly knows how to tune a digitial circuit for maximum musicality. The Isis is among the very best in this regard and the Apollo has all the core virtues of that machine.