Vinyl record sales are at their highest since the eighties, the era when CD started to gain a foothold with its claims of perfect sound forever and the much vaunted but ultimately empty claim that they were immune to abuse. The irony is that the most mangled piece of vinyl can be played, it won’t sound great but it will sound a lot better than a skipping CD, which frequently won’t play at all. We now have far more robust, non physical media to store music on but these are being replaced by rented music on streaming services that lose your playlists if you go on holiday. No wonder the young are happy to embrace a format that takes a substantial and attractive physical form and sounds great to boot, or at least it does if you avoid playing it on one of the painfully bad cheap record players on the market, devices that are guaranteed to damage the grooves of today’s high ticket vinyl.
If you’re reading this you probably know that quality counts in audio hardware, when it comes to reliability, build and sound you can’t beat a decent turntable. But while some come with basic onboard phono stages the better ones need this critical piece of electronics to be in the amplifier or on its own. The Rega Aura is a pretty serious example of the standalone phono preamp or stage. It comes from a company that has been making very good turntables for nearly fifty years and started building electronics in the 90s. They also make pick up cartridges of both moving coil and moving magnet varieties and it’s the former that the Aura was created to make the most of.
Aura is Rega’s flagship phono preamp and replaces the Ios. Ostensibly similar in appearance Aura differs under the skin by virtue of changes made to the front end or input stage. Where Ios used step-up transformers to provide the extra gain required with moving coil cartridges Aura has an active gain stage. This has come about because when Ios was developed engineer Terry Bateman incorporated a symmetrical input circuit but at the time there were no symmetrical FETs available. Last year however Terry managed to find a new manufacturer of these devices and this sparked the idea of revising Ios. Other changes include a removal of the tunable filters provided for Rega’s original MC the Apheta, this cartridge’s successor the Apheta 2 doesn’t need any filtering which means that the circuit is that much simpler and thus more transparent. The gain stage and RIAA stage have also been updated with SMDs (surface mount devices) that allow for a shorter signal path. Aura has input loading options for both capacitance and impedance and includes both a mono switch and a gain switch that adds an extra 6dB for particularly low output MCs/quiet records. I didn’t find it necessary even with a passive preamplifier but it will certainly be useful with some albums.
Build quality is exemplary, this is a substantial piece of electronics, more so than most of its contemporaries, and while mass doesn’t equate to sound quality it goes some way to inspiring confidence in construction. Input is single ended but output is available on RCA and balanced XLR sockets where rated output doubles. Impedance settings range from 50 to 400 Ohms and capacitance goes from 1000 to 5700pF, gain is 63.5dB in the standard position. Some cartridges like a higher input load than 400 Ohms but they are in the minority, and the one I tried worked very well into that load. It’s worth mentioning that Rega include one of their fancy power cables in the box, not something you get with many products.
Listening commenced with a Rega Aphelion cartridge onboard an RP10 turntable, input load set at 100 Ohms/1000pF, this naturally worked a treat producing exceptional transparency to each and every slab of vinyl that was put on the platter. So Riley Walker’s Primrose Greenis clearly compressed and rarely escapes the space between the speakers but it’s full of inner detail and driven by solid, powerful grooves with some fabulous playing on ‘Same Minds’ for instance. The clatter of the steel strings is also very appealing on ‘Griffiths Bucks Blues’ as is the pace of the rhythm section on Rymden, Bugge Wesseltoft’s latest release. This has lots of low level detail with weird watery percussion sounds and lovely double bass, separation is exceptional with the Aura, it is always easy to pick out individual voices and instruments even when things get dense. Sarathay Korwar’s live album My East is your Westgets that way at times but is a great recording from the Gearbox label, it’s replete with tabla and percussion playing that is easy to pick out beneath the various lead instruments. The Aura let’s you hear how phenomenal this performance is, with tremendous atmosphere and speed of playing.
Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolutionis another example of good music that has been limited in an effort to make it commercially successful (a successful one at that), albeit not as much as her more recent releases. But the bass is full, rich and tuneful and the music highly engaging indeed, especially standouts like ‘Ebony and Ivy’. The Aura is not as relaxed as some phono preamps, if there are edges in the recording they appear through the speakers and with some records that can seem a little forward but in other respects I suspect that it’s more honest and even handed than most. This was most noticeable with a Dynavector DV17DX cartridge on a Well Tempered Amadeus 254, and this does seem to be a slightly gung ho cartridge. Tremendously fast but close to the edge, nonetheless it showed that the Aura has a tremendous ability to deliver complex rhythms without batting an eyelid, thanks no doubt to the remarkable ability it has to separate out the details in a coherent manner. Over time it also became apparent that the differences between recordings were revealed to be rather larger than usual, the better ones were incredibly open and deep with remarkable width of image. It’s this resolution of differences which sets the Aura apart and reveals just how transparent it is.
With a Van den Hul Condor XCM (which prefers a 1kOhm input load) the sound is richer and fuller than the preceding cartridges with a relaxed but revealing presentation that’s very easy to enjoy. The nuances of Bill Evans’ playing are absolutely delightful, as is the way that his rhythm section plays along with him on Waltz for Debby. It’s easily the best result I’ve had with this cartridge on a Rega turntable, a point made all the more clear by playing the second side of Astral Weeks. The energy, breadth of tone and again separation on this is off the scale, even on the relatively calm ‘Madam George’ Morrison’s voice is remarkably powerful and nearly all the instruments have clear reverb around them, by the time I got to ‘Ballerina’ I was lost, that track is a beauty beyond compare.
The Reg Aura is clearly a top notch phono preamplifier, its build quality, range of features and sheer transparency put it in the premier league. There’s no shortage of competition at and above this price point but you don’t often get the combination of qualities that the Aura offers, and as these results show this is not exclusive to Rega cartridges by any means. So if you are looking to go deep into your vinyl grooves and have a turntable, arm and cartridge that can dig out the details in a shining and beautiful manner then the Aura is definitely a contender for your budget.