More than most audio components there seem to be a myriad graduations of quality with phono stages (preamps). A budget example will give you a good idea of what vinyl is capable of and one at twice the price will clearly improve on that. And this seems to carry on ad infinitum, eg a £10,000 example will give the impression of delivering twice the resolution of a £5,000 one, which can’t be the case yet the nature of the signal provided by a moving coil cartridge in particular makes it seem that way.
The main problem is that the signal strength is so low, a typical example of MC output is only 0.00035 volts (MMs are more than 10x higher), contrast that with the circa 2V coming from a typical audio source such as a DAC and you get some idea of the scale of the problem. It means that amplifying such a signal without amplifying any noise picked up in the cable or amplifier is extremely challenging and frankly it’s remarkable that it works at all. And if that were not enough you also have to filter the signal according to the RIAA equalisation curve in order to deliver the correct tonal balance. That doesn’t appear to be so difficult but it’s another factor.
Just as with digital, noise is the enemy of sound quality in analogue too, the lower the noise the more of the signal you can hear and the higher the fidelity of the result. Which is why power supplies get a bit extreme in more expensive phono stages, and why some manufacturers offer different levels of power supply quality for their products. Rega prefers to make the vinyl enthusiast’s life a bit easier and puts the power supply in the same case as the phono stage in its higher level products. The Aria is Rega’s penultimate phono stage and recently gained a new case which brought mk3 status, internally it’s the same as its predecessor but the box matches other components in the current Rega range such as the power supply for a P10 or the integrated Io amplifier. I can see this case being appearing throughout the catalogue before too long.
In terms of features it offers separate inputs for MM and MC cartridges, with loading settings for the latter in the form of four impedance options and two levels of gain. MM users looking to tweak capacitance can use the same switches to choose from four different settings. The front panel is pretty self-explanatory and the casework is nicely executed if a little short on glamour, the overall finish is however a lot slicker than the previous Aria, and most of the competition at this price for that matter.
I started off using this stage with my Rega P10 turntable and Aphelion 2 cartridge and it took the place of a far more pricey Tom Evans Groove SRX phono stage. The result while less transparent to detail produced excellent depth of image and good tonal depth from a range of instruments and voices. The balance is very even handed indeed with no apparent emphasis on any part of the tonal spectrum which means that no particular instrument or voice is highlighted unless the recording was made that way, which is often the case of course with vocals usually being given the spotlight. On Matthew Hallsall’s excellent When the World was Onealbum of soul jazz treats the flute sounded lovely with excellent scale that expanded beyond the speakers to captivating effect. It almost feels as if you could walk into the soundstage thanks to the depth produced. On Ryley Walker’s Halfwit in Me there is a lot going on but it’s presented in coherent, timely fashion, especially when the tempo changes after the intro and the soundstage collapses under the weight of the compression. It ain’t audiophile stuff but rolls along beautifully nonetheless. With another track on the same album, Funny Thing She Said, it’s unusually easy to understand the less than clearly pronounced lyrics, and to appreciate the fact that there are two cellos almost duelling behind the voice. The Aria’s ability to keep everything as clear and open as possible and to deliver it with perfect timing is what makes all types of music engaging and enjoyable, you really can’t pick the needle from the groove on an album as good as Golden Sings that have been Sung.
Accepting that the Aria wasn’t really designed for Rega’s top MC I switched turntables to a Rega P8 with Apheta 3, which is exactly the sort of record player it was made for. Here the result was similar albeit with less information coming through, so once again depth of tone was strong and loads of recording character could be heard. Early Funkadelic tends to sound a bit grungy on the best of systems and that was clear from the off, but what is more important is that the Rega makes it very easy to enjoy what’s great about the performance. Not all the music we love is produced for maximum sound quality, more often it is made to sound a certain way because that’s what the artist/engineer/record company wants. The key is to find audio electronics that don’t let the shortcomings get in the way of the music. So the raw psychedelic guitar and sheer unadulterated funk are what you hear with Funkadelic, and that’s what makes the band so fabulous.
I was reviewing a high end Japanese network server and played a track (John Mclaughlin) from Bitches Brewwith it connected to a very fine digital to analogue converter, and as I have a vinyl copy I gave that a spin too. The result had so much more life and vitality to it that there was no danger of going back to the music file, especially when Bennie Maupin’s bass sax was added to the bubbling gumpot of electric jazz. This isn’t Miles’ most accessible album but at its best it’s one of the most powerful. Seeking more variety I found Bowie’s Station to Station, not an album that gets much rotation round these parts but that has changed now. The first half of the title track is an absolute scorcher with a long instrumental intro that builds and builds with angular guitar, percussive piano and a thick chunky bass line that’s too die for. I really need to explore the collection more often.
I managed to contrast the Aria with another slightly more pricey MM/MC phono stage and discovered that it sounded warmer and delivered greater depth to soundstages as well as more 3D solidity. It’s tonal balance is well chosen for the Apheta 2 and 3 which can sound brighter than is strictly neutral with some stages but that doesn’t mean it won’t work well with other cartridges of both MC and MM varieties. I once tried a Goldring 1042 with the pre-facelift Aria Mk2 and got remarkable results, the higher output of MM cartridges mean they have advantages in many areas, the only real exception being high frequency extension and clarity.
When I came to crop the photos for this review I made a discovery that meant I had to do rather more listening. I realised that the Aria has two levels of gain and I had not selected the highest one for the moving coil cartridges used. There are both 63.5dB and 69.5dB options, the former being a common figure for MC stages, the latter considerably higher. So I switched to that setting and connected the P10/Aphelion 2 once more, the change was not night and day but did enhance results significantly enough to warrant further listening. The extra gain pulled more detail out of the cartridge which made for clearly improved imaging with some recordings producing a distinct sound field behind and in front of the speakers, not something that often happens with any format. The extra definition brought greater realism to the Grateful Dead’s Reckoning, the atmosphere of the event and its scale reinforced to no small degree by the audience which seemed way behind the speakers and defined the boundaries of what must have been a large space. The bass was also glorious on this, deep, round and subtly shaded it was a well rendered as the rest of the tonal range. A less spectacular recording in Joni Mitchell’s Miles of Aisles didn’t deliver so much space but the audience were equally excited and enthusiastic and the band (the LA Express) played as well as the Dead but their sound engineer lacked the expertise found on the later recording. The Aria is clearly very adept at letting you hear what the cartridge gathers from the groove and its highest gain setting makes this even clearer, it had moved a few more notches up the phono stage scale.
The new Aria is a most excellent phono stage, it has plenty of gain for low output MCs and a good range of load adjustability. Some competing products offer a bit more in this respect but rarely in such a well executed single box solution that sounds this good. For Rega users and beyond the new Aria is a phono stage that fights above its pay grade and let’s you hear just why vinyl will always be the king of formats.