This CD player and DAC is a classic example of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ thinking from Rega. With the exception of the front panel it is in all respects the same as its Saturn-R predecessor. This move means that it’s stylistically in keeping with the rest of Rega’s electronics which was probably necessary for commercial and production reasons, but thanks to Rega’s foresight changing the fundamental parts of the player was not necessary.
Most manufacturers in the digital audio world have now come to terms with the problems caused by a fire at the AKM chip factory nearly three years ago, a situation that hugely reduced the availability of key elements used in many DACs. Rega’s experience in the field meant that they purchased a lifetime’s supply of parts for the Saturn-R and Apollo-R when they were introduced in 2014. A rise in demand for CD players has eaten into this stock to the point where Rega have discontinued the Apollo entry level player so that there are sufficient parts for the Saturn, Isis and Isis Valve machines. Putting this another way, if you dream of owning a Rega CD player don’t leave it too long.
The Saturn Mk3 is classic Rega in its construction and styling, by which I mean that there are few fripperies, features that only enhance visual appeal, and the build is solid rather than fancy. It’s surprisingly heavy for a start and while weight does not confer high sound quality it suggests longevity and reliability. The weak link in any CD player is the disc drive and the drawer that usually comes with it, Rega have got around the potential issues of the latter by having a top loading drive with a manually operated lid. This is one of the nicest things about using the Saturn, even if it’s playing you can open the lid and the disc will stop spinning so that you can pluck it off the spring loaded hub and replace it with another. Closing the lid means that the disc will be initialised and the duration of the album shown on the red display.
The front panel controls are basic but the remote handset expands the options with a numerical keypad, display, shuffle and remote keys among quite a few others on the multifunction Solaris remote. One useful button is marked CD/DAC, this switches the Saturn between these two functions as it’s a fully equipped digital to analogue converter with multiple inputs including USB, and separate digital outputs for the DAC and the CD player. To my knowledge the latter is unique to this machine and you might wonder why both are necessary given that the DAC output must mirror that of the disc drive but the direct CD output presumably avoids a stage of processing.
I’m not much of a CD listener by habit, all my digital music is stored on a Melco server and streamed through various devices so it’s novel to come back to silver discs, and in the case of the Saturn Mk3 a very enjoyable experience. I reviewed the Saturn-R over eight years ago but it took only a couple of hours to realise that the facelifted version sounds exactly the same; totally engaging. Rega’s background in record player design and production gives them rare insight into what really matters in musical reproduction, they are not distracted by qualities that some digital engineers appear to be obsessed with, like imaging, dynamics or inky black backgrounds. They seek the message in the music, which sounds simple but is surprisingly rare in the digital world where this key quality doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.
For a start it does timing better than 90% of other disc spinners, this is a direct reflection of an engineer looking to emulate the best of vinyl sound, the area where analogue systems have a natural advantage. It’s the key to this player’s sense of rightness and what makes listening with it so compelling, you just don’t want to stop until at least the track if not the whole album has finished. There is a sense of coherence that makes everything clear, the music hangs together as it should. The Saturn Mk3 is good at delving into the details and delivers strong imaging and dynamics, but these qualities take their natural place behind the performance being reproduced. It’s a hard thing to explain but not to hear, essentially it’s a case of emphasis on what really matters, the thing that makes listening to music a rewarding experience.
I tried the USB input with an Auralic Aries streamer and the Melco N10 server, this delivered a smoother, more liquid sound that was very appealing but lacked the grip produced by the player alone. Then I noticed the filter setting indicated on the front panel, this it turns out allows selection from five different options whose function varies depending on whether it’s streaming standard CD resolution files (16-bit/44.1kHz) or higher res types up to the DAC’s 192kHz limit. After a bit of comparison I found that filter 2 worked better with standard res files than filter 3 that it was initially set on, 2 being the minimum phase soft-knee filter. With a high res file the linear phase brickwall filter sounded most coherent. The effect of the various filters varies with material being played but it wasn’t all that difficult choosing between them. In almost all cases the streamed music had better depth of image than the CD, which is a little harder and flatter by comparison.
The Saturn Mk3 is inevitably more expensive than its predecessor but its ability to bridge the musical divide that so few digital sources can match means that it is exceptional value. It is also well built and has Rega’s enviable track record for reliability and service back up behind it. If you want to hear the heart and soul of your CD collection and carry on enjoying it for many years this is a very hard act to beat.